Pity the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, caught between Canada's vocal Ukrainian community and one loopy pianist. The world – or at least the part of it that's on Twitter – is piling on the TSO because it recently cancelled concerts by Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian native of part-Russian parentage who is vocally hostile to the current Ukrainian government. Censorship, Lisitsa's supporters cry.
Is it? The TSO isn't stopping her from talking or tweeting; it's stopping her from playing two concerts – and it's still paying her.
In a brief statement, orchestra CEO Jeff Melanson pointed to her offensive language as the reason. Others have speculated her published opinions might violate Canadian laws on hate speech. In her most intemperate tweets, she has compared the government in Kiev to the Nazis and has suggested sarcastically that it might set up extermination camps for ethnic Russians. Euromaidan Press, a website for the pro-Kiev movement, links to several tweets from 2014 that appear to be hers. One shows an image of the corpses of Holocaust victims and then suggests Ukrainians are in need of "strong medicine." Another doubly offensive item juxtaposes a photo of contemporary Ukrainian teachers wearing traditional embroidered shirts with a photo of costumed Africans performing a dance, asking if tribal costume is European. So, apparently after the Ukrainian community pointed out this kind of stuff, the TSO decided it did not want to be associated with her.
Evaluating some of this material can be tricky because anyone who doesn't speak Ukrainian and Russian is often relying either on her translations or those of people who are deeply opposed to her. I think she has a right to say the most foul things she can think of, but I also think the TSO has the right to distance itself from a controversial figure. Her supporters suggest that the withdrawal of employment (even if the TSO has to pay her for the cancelled concerts anyway) is a form of censorship, but all of us face situations where we have to behave ourselves in our private lives to hold onto our jobs. I'm paid to express my opinions, but would at the very least be disciplined by my employer if I continually sent out tweets calling somebody a Nazi. And I'd expect to be fired if I used images of either Holocaust victims or African dancers in almost any satirical context.
Lisitsa is being asked to take responsibility for what she says. She has a large social-media following because of her fame as a pianist – her YouTube videos boast millions of views. She chooses to use that public position to express strong opinions in ways calculated to offend a lot of people. Is she really so surprised that this behaviour might have some implications for her career? Nobody is hiring her as a political analyst; they are hiring her as a concert pianist, a field where talent should count for everything but image counts, too. If a local university had just cancelled a talk by an anti-Kiev academic I might be outraged, but I am less offended to discover that an orchestra doesn't want anything to do with someone whose notoriety is likely to prove a distraction from the concerts.
That said, the Toronto Symphony could certainly have handled this better. Why not hold the concerts, make it clear you'll welcome any kind of peaceful demonstration for or against Lisitsa at the doors (protesters picketed a Pittsburgh concert last year) and offer refunds to any patrons who feel they would rather not be involved? Next time, you'll know not to book her in the first place. Instead, the TSO finds itself embroiled in somebody else's political fight and looks as though it bowed to pressure from the Ukrainian community. At the very least, the orchestra owes the larger community a full explanation of its thinking. I'm waiting with interest to hear more from Melanson.
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