Last week, Vancouver Recital Society artistic director Leila Getz postponed an upcoming summer appearance by the 20-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, describing it as one of the hardest things she has had to do in a very long time. Since then, things have only gotten harder.
“The past week has been one of the most intense in our 42-year history,” Getz told The Globe and Mail, referring to hateful voice mails and nasty comments on social media directed at the VRS. “It has been painful for our organization and, no doubt, painful for Alexander.”
The pain for Malofeev continued when the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal relieved the Moscow-born phenom from his scheduled appearances on March 9, 10 and 13. He was to perform Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in a program led by American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Prokofiev, dead 70 years, was also banished, and the OSM concerts were reconfigured to feature works by Brahms, Grieg and Schubert.
The recent developments in Vancouver and Montreal are emblematic of a worldwide escalation in the backlash against Russian arts and culture since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on Feb. 24.
Initially, it was allies of President Vladimir Putin who were targeted with cancellations. Superstar conductor Valery Gergiev lost gigs and orchestral positions, while the operatic soprano Anna Netrebko pulled herself from performances indefinitely. The state-supported Bolshoi Ballet had a summer tour called off by London’s Royal Opera House.
But Malofeev is not considered a Putin loyalist. He has spoken out against the war.
“The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict,” he said in a Facebook statement. He later commented on the cancellation environment caused by the conflict. “I still believe Russian culture and music specifically should not be tarnished by the ongoing tragedy.”
“People cannot be judged by their nationality,” he wrote.
The cultural boycotting is indeed based on nationality, however. The Canada Council for the Arts, for example, has announced it would support Ukraine by cutting off funding to any Canadian projects involving the participation of Russian or Belarusian artists or arts organizations as long as Russia keeps its military forces in Ukraine. The Canadian institutions dissociating themselves from Russia for the time being base their decisions on a number of issues, including the matter of performance fees paid to Russian nationals.
“The notion that any of [Malofeev’s] fee would go back to the Russian government by way of taxes was absolutely one of those reasons,” said the Getz. She also said she feared for Malofeev’s safety if he appeared at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre in August, and that she worried about protesters outside and hecklers inside.
The removal of Malofeev from his appearances at Maison symphonique de Montréal was a “heartbreaking decision” that was “not taken lightly and is absolutely circumstantial,” said Pascale Ouimet, an OSM spokesperson, in an e-mail to The Globe. He said the pianist’s presence would “contribute to increasing tensions within our community.”
Some concerts in Canada are still on the books, however. The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is scheduled to perform with the OSM (April 20 and 21) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (April 25, 27 and 28).
Further, on April 28, the VRS is scheduled to present the Russian-born pianist Evgeny Kissin. He lives in Prague, has denounced the Russian war in Ukraine and holds British and Israeli passports.
“Our intention is to proceed with his concert,” said Getz. “We have no concerns about any of the proceeds from his performance fee going back to the Russian government.”
The use of soft-power sanctions has also extended to prestigious piano contests. On March 8, the Calgary-based Honens International Piano Competition revoked the invitations of its six Russian competitors for 2022. On its website, Honens condemned the Russian government’s “blatant acts of aggression and greed,” while expressing regret that the young pianists would “bear the brunt of a decision based on the brutal actions of the Russian government.”
Other major piano contests, however, are reacting differently. In a Facebook post, Italy’s Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition encouraged young pianists of any nationality, “but particularly those from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus,” to participate in its upcoming event.
Likewise, the Texas-based Cliburn International Piano Competition announced it will allow Russian-born pianists to audition for this summer’s edition (June 2-18). Cited was its mandate to support young artists – “the very core of our mission.”
The Cliburn is named in honour of Van Cliburn, the American pianist who achieved international attention when he won the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, during the Cold War. Tchaikovsky was himself drawn into the current cultural controversy when the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra stripped the Russian composer’s works from a concert scheduled for March 18.
In a since-deleted Facebook post, the orchestra explained that it felt the military-themed Marche Slave and 1812 Overture were “particularly inappropriate at this time.”
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