Valentina Lisitsa, whose appearances were cancelled this week by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra because of tweets she posted about the Ukrainian crisis, says the TSO told her agent a donor threatened to withhold funds if she performed as scheduled.
In an interview in Toronto on Tuesday, the Ukrainian pianist also said orchestra CEO Jeff Melanson repeatedly refused to discuss the matter directly with her, and that orchestra management was swayed by "malicious translations" of some of her tweets in Ukrainian.
Ms. Lisitsa swept into a downtown hotel late in the afternoon saying she was determined to play in recital somewhere in Toronto on the nights she was to have played Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. "Maybe I'll play it without them, just the solo part," she said. "I've done it before."
Ms. Lisitsa's account of her dismissal conflicts at several points with the account given on Tuesday by Mr. Melanson. But they agreed that she would not retract the offending tweets.
Mr. Melanson said in a phone interview there was "absolutely no donor pressure." Ms. Lisitsa showed The Globe and Mail an e-mail from her agent, Tanya Dorn at IMG Artists, dated Feb. 27, in which Ms. Dorn said she had spoken with Loie Fallis, TSO vice-president of artistic planning, who told her (in Ms. Dorn's words) a "Ukrainian donor wants to pull his sponsorship."
Mr. Melanson said the TSO received complaints from "a wide swath of Torontonians, I would say in the hundreds" about Ms. Lisitsa's engagement because of her social media posts. He pointed to four tweets, one of which was translated as: "Dear conscious Ukrainians: I will never get tired of reminding you that you are dog feces. Thank you kindly for your attention." Another shows the behinds of three hogs, with a text translated as: "Here are the faces of the leaders."
Ms. Lisitsa said the translations were wrong, that "leaders" should have been "bureaucrats," and that the first comment, translated without the quotation marks of the original, was an ironic quote from a literary work. Other tweets have been taken out of context or misinterpreted, she said.
"We did give her many opportunities to clarify or retract her tweets, and it was our sincere hope that she would do so," Mr. Melanson said. The tweets he had been shown were "very offensive to Torontonians," he said. "They were beyond political opinion, they were strong texts that were very intolerant in the way she frames her criticism of people."
On March 13, Ms. Lisitsa said, the TSO forwarded to Ms. Dorn an e-mail from Toronto lawyer Michael C. Smith that cited section 319 of the Criminal Code concerning "wilful promotion of hatred," and said "there is a possibility that Ms. Lisitsa could be stopped at the border … and deemed 'unacceptable' to Canada." An attached note from Mr. Melanson, who is not a lawyer, went further, stating that Ms Lisitsa's social media posts "would likely breach or come close to breaching the Criminal Code of Canada." Ms. Lisitsa replied with her lawyer's opinion rejecting that of Mr. Smith.
"The TSO said they were concerned," she said, "and I offered to talk, but they never would. Jeff would never talk to me in person. They would say, 'Jeff is going to talk to the Ukrainian community and he'll get back to you.' And I said, 'Why won't he talk to me?' There was always a wall."
Mr. Melanson gave a somewhat different account. "I think there was one offer to speak with us," he said, but added that Ms. Lisitsa eventually insisted all communications go through lawyers. On Sunday, Ms. Lisitsa sent Ms. Fallis an e-mail, which she shared with The Globe, in which she said: "I am more than happy, if you wish, to meet tomorrow and talk how to best handle things that will arise from my appearance with TSO… I am not coming to give political speeches."
That day, Ms. Lisitsa said, the orchestra told her manager her appearances were cancelled, and proposed a "very neutral" public statement that she was unable to perform. Ms. Lisitsa said that had she acquiesced, those in the local Ukrainian community who objected to her engagement would claim victory, "and wave it like a flag. I thought, it's going to come out anyway, and not on my terms."
She went public on Monday in a text linked to her Facebook and Twitter accounts. "I was hoping that under pressure, the TSO would relent. I never mix politics and music. I always keep them separate. I would not come out and preach."
Mr. Melanson said he was disappointed with the outcome. "It would have been ideal us for us to agree to disagree on this, for her to forego the performances and move on to the rest of her concerts without drawing this level of attention to our decision and the rationale behind it," he said.
Ms Lisitsa said she will spend her fees for the cancelled concerts performing "in places where no musicians go. I'm trying to take this in a positive way." Her efforts to find a venue for a recital in Toronto, she said, are being assisted by "lots of Ukrainians here."
The TSO, meanwhile, decided late Tuesday to drop the Rachmaninoff concerto from its program in spite of having announced a replacement pianist – Canadian Stewart Goodyear – on Monday.
The orchestra is also offering each member of the audience for Wednesday's and Thursday's concerts a free ticket to a forthcoming show, and full refunds on demand.