Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The National Arts Centre in Ottawa wrapped its glass tower in blue and golden yellow in solidarity with Ukrainians facing the Russian invasion.Handout

For a decade, Arthur Arnold had been living a double life – musically, at least. In 2012, Arnold became music director of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. That same year, he co-founded an international music academy in Powell River, a mill town on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. The Pacific Region International Summer Music Association (PRISMA) draws in students and guest artists from around the world.

But this week, as for many in the international arts scene, his professional life abruptly changed. As of Tuesday, Arnold’s involvement with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is no more – a minor, if still wrenching, casualty of war.

After days of anguish, watching the news and consulting with trusted friends and colleagues, Arnold pressed send on an e-mail, announcing his resignation from the MSO “with the greatest conviction and with an immense sadness.”

The next morning, early Wednesday, he was emotional as he talked about the decision – made because of the Kremlin, not the orchestra – from his home in Powell River.

“I have to do it; I cannot consciously not take a standpoint against this war,” he said, wiping a tear away. His inbox has been overflowing with responses. “I’m sure there will be mixed reactions,” he said. “You have to understand that the propaganda machine [in Russia] is so oiled.”

The MSO is not state-supported; it was founded, in fact, by two dissident sisters who had fled Russia for the United States in the 1970s. They returned and established the orchestra in 1989. Arnold explains it has never received funding from the state.

“But that doesn’t make it justifiable for me to not take a stand against this war,” he said, stopping at times, overwhelmed by emotion. “That makes it so heart-wrenching. And they are my friends. They became my personal, very dear friends, those sisters, and so many of the orchestra members. Of course they don’t want this war.

“And here you see on a very small scale the division that war creates.”

Arnold first conducted the MSO in 2001, then became its principal guest conductor and was named music director in 2012.

“So it’s been part of my entire conducting career. And I’ve been thinking: is this necessary? I kept asking this question for the whole week,” says Arnold, who was born in The Netherlands and divides his time between Amsterdam and Powell River. I could not not take a stand,” he said. “That’s more important than your own personal gain or the conflict that might arise. I have to be true to myself in the end.”

Arnold is not alone. Around the world, musicians and performing arts organizations have been showing support for Ukraine by cancelling shows planned for Russia and pulling some Russian performances from schedules.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for example, has distanced itself from “any artists who are supporting Putin or who Putin supports,” general manager Peter Gelb announced.

Gelb didn’t mention names, but Russia’s star conductor Valery Gergiev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has turned pariah on the international stage.

Open this photo in gallery:

In a photo provided by Chris Lee shows, Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, after Valery Gergiev was dropped as conductor because of his ties with Russia. Nézet-Séguin picked up the baton after a conductor with ties to Vladimir Putin was dropped amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.CHRIS LEE/The New York Times News Service

When Gergiev refused to denounce Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the 68-year-old Russian was removed from his post as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. Gergiev will also no longer be at the podium in Milan for the opera The Queen of Spades, currently at La Scala.

At New York’s Carnegie Hall, an appearance last week by Gergiev and fellow Putin loyalist pianist Denis Matsuev was scrapped. Facing scrutiny for her support of Putin, star soprano Anna Netrebko announced on Tuesday that she would not be performing “until further notice.”

Occupying a different rung on the cultural ladder, the European Broadcasting Union has banned Russia from participating in this year’s campy Eurovision Song Contest.

In Canada, leading performing arts centres and companies have joined together in support of Ukraine, but there have been no major Russian boycotts or programming cancellations.

In Ottawa, where national cultural and heritage institutions have been showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people, the National Arts Centre wrapped its glass tower in blue and golden yellow, the Ukrainian colours.

At the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra last weekend, music director Otto Tausk began concerts by dedicating them to the victims of the violent conflict in Ukraine.

“We are an arts organization and at the same time we cannot look away from what is going on,” Tausk said in an interview from the Netherlands, where he is from. “So we are really recognizing the tragedy and we are condemning in every possible way but at the same time we keep on playing music because that’s what we do.”

Political blacklisting in the arts has a long and chequered history – think McCarthyism – and the censorship of unpopular opinions can be controversial.

The current cultural uproar recalls an incident involving the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and the outspoken pianist Valentina Lisitsa in 2015. Lisitsa, an ethnic Russian born in Ukraine who lived in the United States, had her TSO appearance cancelled because of what the organization described as “deeply offensive language.” In a Facebook post, Lisitsa responded by saying she had been speaking out against the “atrocities” of the civil war in Ukraine, particularly those committed against the Russian minority there.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association protested TSO’s blackballing of Lisitsa. Other Canadian appearances by the pianist went ahead as planned. The debacle revealed the nuance involved when attempting to silence musicians and other artists.

“I don’t believe in artistic boycotts per se, in a blanket way,” Mervon Mehta, the executive director of performing arts at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, told The Globe and Mail this week. “It’s important to note that the people who are being cancelled now are not being cancelled because they are Russian. They’re cancelled because they’ve been vocal supporters of Mr. Putin or campaigned for him or they’re paid by him or their careers are dependent on friendships with him.”

Though the controversial Lisitsa later played Koerner Hall, Mehta says he wouldn’t likely book her today. Instead, he’s bringing in Galilee Chamber Orchestra, a 35-musician orchestra from Israel comprised of Jewish and Palestinian members. The group’s first Canadian appearance, on March 22, will be preceded by a discussion titled Music and Art in Conflict Zones.

“We want to bring in artists who bring people together,” Mehta said, “not to divide them.”

In Powell River, Arnold is preparing for an in-person return to PRISMA this June.

“Students are going to come together from all over the world, to make music together, peacefully,” he said. “So may that be an example.”

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe