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Ukrainian-born piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa poses in Toronto on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. (Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)
Ukrainian-born piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa poses in Toronto on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. (Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Why the TSO set a terrible precedent by barring pianist Valentina Lisitsa Add to ...

Jeff Melanson of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has set a terrible precedent for arts organizations around the country by barring pianist Valentina Lisitsa from the stage.

Mr. Melanson cancelled her concerts this week after complaints over her views on the conflict in Ukraine. The decision throws the door wide open for other groups to campaign for a bar against artists they find objectionable.

Imagine if an Israeli violinist with strong Zionist views were invited to play Roy Thomson Hall. Imagine she had once said that the Palestinians were not a true nationality, that their leaders were terrorists and that Israel had the historic right to live in all of the Holy Land. Wouldn’t Palestinian-Canadians have the right to say she should be banned?

Or what about a Palestinian flutist who calls Israel a racist state and argues that armed resistance is sometimes justified even against Israeli citizens? Don’t Jewish groups now have the right to seek a ban on him?

The bar on Ms. Lisitsa puts the TSO in an impossible position. If other groups come knocking, Mr. Melanson must now, for the sake of fairness, consider each objection to each musician. If he rejects the objection, he must explain why. He will have to say, for example: We looked at what that Israeli pianist said and we didn’t think it was as bad as what Ms. Lisitsa said.

What qualifies him to make such a call? How on earth does an arts organization decide what is permissible speech? Does the TSO board have to set up a political-affairs committee to screen invited musicians? Or hire consultants to look into what might offend whom in which global conflict?

Ms. Lisitsa’s case shows how hard it can be to sort these things out. Her critics say her tweets about Ukrainian leaders were vulgar and offensive. She says they were misinterpreted, mistranslated or meant as satire. Deciding who is right is far beyond the competence of an orchestra administrator. It should not be up to the president of the TSO to decide whether Ms. Lisitsa meant to compare Ukrainians to dog feces or to compare their leaders to the backside of a pig.

There is a far better way to handle these disputes. Arts organizations can simply say that they take no position on the political views of the artists that they feature.

That is what Mr. Melanson should have done in the Lisitsa case. Instead of caving in to the lobby against her, he could simply have said: “We neither condemn nor condone Ms. Lisitsa’s views. We have invited her to perform solely because of her talents as a pianist. Those who think that offering her a stage somehow dignifies her views are free to boycott the concert or to organize a protest against it.”

An official for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra got it right when she told the Canadian Press that the orchestra would not be cancelling a June performance with the pianist. “Whether or not one agrees with Ms. Lisitsa’s political views, at this time at the CPO, our agreement with her is as a guest artist,” the official said.

By taking sides in the dispute between Ms. Lisitsa and her critics instead, Mr. Melanson has invited a world of trouble into his concert hall. The arts world is full of opinionated, often eccentric souls who express themselves in intemperate ways. Who is to judge which is to be banned and which allowed?

Not, certainly, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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