Just in: PEN condemns Lisitsa dismissal as ‘contrary to freedom of expression’

Just in: PEN condemns Lisitsa dismissal as ‘contrary to freedom of expression’


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2015

press release:

TORONTO, April 8, 2015  PEN Canada deeply regrets the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel the April 8–9 appearances of Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa due to a controversy over her political views on the conflict in the Ukraine.

“Ms. Lisitsa’s politics have nothing whatsoever to do with the TSO or her music,” said Philip Slayton, President of PEN. “It is a grave error of judgment, deeply contrary to freedom of expression, to cancel Ms. Lisitsa’s performances because her views may offend some.” Slayton called on the TSO to apologize to Lisitsa and reschedule her performances.

According to media reports, Ms. Lisitsa’s online statements have outraged members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, and her tweets about the current Ukrainian government have included comparisons with Nazi Germany. Ms. Lisitsa has said that the TSO offered to pay her entire fee for the cancelled shows but pressured her not to disclose the reason for their decision. “If they do it once, they will do it again and again, until the musicians, artists are intimidated into voluntary censorship,” she wrote.

PEN Canada is a nonpartisan organization of writers that works with others to defend freedom of expression as a basic human right at home and abroad. EN Canada promotes literature, fights censorship, helps free persecuted writers from prison, and assists writers living in exile in Canada. PEN Canada is the Canadian centre of PEN International, a community of writers that operates on five continents and in over 100 countries.

Yellow Lounge - Valentina 3


  • Novagerio says:

    London and Munich should then do the same with Valery. Or?…
    Let Valentina play in Toronto and if some ukrainian-canadians in the audience want to boo and hiss her out of the stage for her “political views” or her rights to express her opinion, rather than for her playing, then you can consider it….fair game! And that’s the world of today. Let’s reinstate a Take-no-prisoners action against all russian music stars who reside in Russia and force them to show their “party cards” and speak out about their sympathies and non-sympathies before being engaged in the West.
    ‘Just remember that the Renaissance was sponsored by the Medici’s, the Borgia’s and the Spanish Inquisition. Let’s impose a new inquisitorical Renaissance then. And who will be the judges?…

  • william osborne says:

    I read her tweets. Colorful and crass, passionate and opinionated, extroverted and barbed, patriotic and troubled. Of course, we shouldn’t allow artists to be like that……………. The cancellation seems so un-Canadian to me.

  • Delbert Grady says:

    “her tweets about the current Ukrainian government have included comparisons with Nazi Germany”

    Hey, if it walks like a duck…


  • burton says:

    The issue is not whether we should ‘allow artists to be like that’. It’s about minimizing injury to the reputation of an arts organization. VL can believe or say anything she likes. In this case VL cannot reasonably expect those with whom she affiliates to remain unaffected and unharmed by her actions. Some may even choose to respond by distancing themselves, as has been done here. Public figures are free to select their medium and their message. They also must assume responsibility for those choices. Seems elementary.

    • william osborne says:

      Ironically, the only thing to seriously damage the orchestra’s reputation is the cancellation. Letting her play would not have caused the orchestra much harm. The argument is a facade argued by partisans in the conflict.

      • burton says:

        What you say may prove correct regarding the orchestra’s reputation. Time will tell. We are of course free to speculate whether a different tact – eg, permitting the original performance to take place as scheduled – would have been best for all concerned. But to link this particular case to the broader defense of persecuted writers and artists worldwide strikes me as absurd. (PS Your assertions about ‘facades’ and ‘partisans’ gave me a chuckle. No offense taken.)

        • william osborne says:

          Judging by reactions around the world, I think the verdict is already in. In any case, I believe in a world where artists with all of their passion, impulsiveness, hyperbole, and commitment are a part of political and social discourse. The trend we are seeing of artists being silenced every time influential individuals or groups take offense needs to be reconsidered.

          • burton says:

            Artists being silenced? To borrow your phrase, I think the verdict is already in. VL is now enjoying greater visibility than ever. As for the value of artists participating in political and social discourse, I fully agree. One who plunges head first into the center of controversy should not expect a universally warm reception however.

          • Lillian says:

            Did you back Charlie Hebdo?

          • David Feldman says:

            You do not know what the alternative path might have resembled. Before saying “the judgment is in” you should at least try to imagine the set of options the TSO faced in making the choice. Ultimately, they may have erred. But I’ll warrant that they felt trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

          • Gerhard says:

            I second.

          • burton says:

            The trend we are seeing of artists being silenced? Are you by chance referring to Ms Lisitsa? I must say on that score I think the verdict is already in (to borrow a phrase).

  • George S-W says:

    “Ms. Lisitsa’s politics have nothing whatsoever to do with the TSO or her music,” said Philip Slayton, President of PEN. “It is a grave error of judgment, deeply contrary to freedom of expression, to cancel Ms. Lisitsa’s performances because her views may offend some.”

    This paragraph is completely self-contradictory.

  • Blaner says:

    “PEN Canada is a nonpartisan organization…”


    Good one!

  • MacroV says:

    I’m generally a great admirer of PEN, but I think they’re off-base here, and out of their area. Ms. Lisitsa is not a writer or a composer who is creating work, and finding herself in danger for doing so. She’s just an artist with a big, undisciplined mouth who is facing potential commercial repercussions for her words. She’s not Salman Rushdie.

  • Christy says:

    What does PEN say about the Ukrainian journalists being jailed and beaten and killed in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine?

    It’s quite easy and safe to defend freedom of expression in Canada, where nobody worries about being killed. Maybe they should travel to Crimea and try to discuss the topic.

    How ironic that this woman supports the destruction of the free media in Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine.

  • Stv says:

    The most unfortunate truth in this story is that “offensiveness” of her comments have nothing to do with the reaction. If she were posting the same tweets about opposite side of the Ukrainian conflict – the Eastern population leaning toward Russia – Ukrainian lobby would be ecstatic and TSO management might have received a few extra donations after joining the choir. Management wouldn’t even bother to search for her posts.

    This is a pure case of hidden political agenda and hypocrisy.

  • Stv says:

    Ever been to Crimea? Can find it on the map? Ever heard about Russian journalists beaten up, killed in Ukraine?

    True, this probably happens on both sides and is terrible. But there is a civil war. Taking sides in it or posting only one side of the story is not the right thing to do.

  • Max Grimm says:

    I wonder how PEN would have responded (if at all), had an artist been asked not to perform in light of comments he/she made in a fashion similar to that of Mrs. Lisitsa about Israelis, Palestinians or about migrant and immigrant groups?
    The problem I see is that freedom of expression is generally never universally upheld or enforced.

  • esfir ross says:

    Svytoslav Richter never performed in Odessa after his German father was executed by soviets. Arthur Rubinstein had never performed inside Germany after WWII.
    This pianist wasn’t punished for political standing.
    What allowed to Jupiter not allowed to bull.

  • Novagerio says:

    Musicians through the centuries got used and should continue getting used to the fact that music and arts in general are for everyone; criminals, corrupt and “free of sin”. However, the free communication media (facebook, twitter etc) can easily be selfdestructing. Verbal debate is one thing. When written it’s easily misunderstood, and that’s when one should face the consequences…

  • burton says:

    The trend we are seeing of artists being silenced? Are you by chance referring to Ms Lisitsa? I must say on that score I think the verdict is already in (to borrow a phrase).

    • william osborne says:

      The backlash against the cancellation of Lisitsa’s performance has been a surprisingly significant blow to the US/EU/Nato propaganda machinery. They were caught off guard and are stilling working out a counter blow. Midgette’s hatchet job in the WP seems to be the first salvo. If Lisitsa doesn’t go silent on the conflict they will keep it up until she’s destroyed. Business as usual.

      I had to laugh when Midgette said she felt “soiled” reading the tweets — pretty ironic considering some of things she’s done…

  • V.Lind says:

    I’m beginning to lose the plot here. Lisitsa has not been silenced, or even chastened, more’s the pity. She has been paid — an organisation has exercised ITS right to dissasociate itself from her, without penalising her financially. Others have supported her and offered her alternatives, and Calgary (and many others) will continue to engage her. She can use her wild and intemperate speech as freely as she chooses, and decent people are entitled to avoid her.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Am I the only one who wishes perfoming artists would just keep their mouths shut and do what they do best?

    • Anon says:

      Really? No civil society without discourse. Your wish is simply inhumane. We are humans, not trained monkeys.

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        Maybe, but that doesn’t mean your opinion is worth listening to. The ability to play notes in the correct order does not make us political, social or economic experts. Horses for courses.

        • Anon says:

          Who decides who’s opinion is worth listening to? Those with the most money as in this case? Plutocracy is not my kind of society… I prefer meritocracy.

          • Theodore McGuiver says:

            (Reply to Anon in case this text goes walkabout)

            So do I. But let’s not conflate one’s ability to make music with expertise on matters political, social and economic. A virtuosic command of ‘social’ media will give one’s maybe subjective opinion a certain impact but, simultaneously, does not an expert make. It just means more people get to see it. If prevalence were an indication of quality, McDonalds would be considered the finest cuisine in the world.

  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    I’m not sure I follow your analogy. For both Richter and Rubinstein (who decided not to play in Germany after World War I, not WWII), it was their own decision not to perform in those countries. As to Rubinstein (I don’t know the background about Richter), I’m sure that he was begged many times by agents in Germany to change his mind, but he never did. I never heard of anyone cancelling a Rubinstein concert because of some remarks he might have made in the press.

    While we are on the subject of Germany, this is one of many free and democratic countries (Switzerland is another) which have recognized that there are some limits to freedom of speech when it comes to racist and nationalistic remarks. The issue should be whether Ms. Lisitsa has crossed the boundary or not. And that is a matter that courts would have to decide in those countries.

    • william osborne says:

      The laws that many European countries have against speech that incites racial, ethnic, and religious hatred were not designed for the contexts of war. In such a conflict, just about everyone involved would end up in jail. Remember all that WWII talk about Krauts, Huns, Japs, Gooks, and so on? By singling out well-known artists, the law would be arbitrarily applied. If Lisitsa were prosecuted, they would, by the same standard, have to jail countless ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Canada as well.

      • Robert Hairgrove says:

        Hi Bill, long time no type to! 🙂

        The difference here is that during WWII, the slang you refer to was part of the vernacular of a country (the USA) which was involved in the war itself. Sure, all countries at war used their own propaganda for their own purposes back then.

        We are talking about Canada here. Last time I read, Canada wasn’t at war with anyone. I’m not sure what the Canadian laws are, but I assume they are similar to the ones in Germany and Switzerland? The TSO was quoted as not wanting to appear to support what would probably violate their anti-defamatory speech laws. Since they know better than I what that might be, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

        • william osborne says:

          True, Robert. Your view seems very reasonable to me. There is, of course, American vernacular that is still hate speech which only points to the difficulty in drawing lines, especially between people at war.

          The author of Classical Toronto received a seven page copy of Lisitsa’s tweets from the TSO. He writes that they were “heavily political, and decidedly crass” but that after “analyzing the document, it is our opinion (we are not lawyers) that they do not cross the threshold into hate-speech, and are indicative of the extraordinarily negative political situation surrounding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in which Ms. Lisitsa is involved.”

          One can see his article at the URL below which includes a link to the Tweets. On the other hand, Anne Midgette, in the Washington Post, spun them in the most negative light possible. One other consideration is that the courts in both North America and Europe tend to err on the side of free speech when evaluating these cases. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were deeply insulting and no doubt hurtful to some Moslems, but the French government’s efforts to stop them were unsuccessful. Rightly or wrongly, big issues like war (regardless of where it’s happening) create forms of public discourse where a wide range of free speech is accepted as part of larger public debate. Here’s the URL:


  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    My previous comment was supposed to be a reply to Esfir Ross; somehow it got misplaced.

  • Debbi Hoenig says:

    In Mariupol communist Andrei Sokolov is on trial. This winter, Andrei, a self-taught engineer, came to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) to help the country develop vital production. He stumbled upon a Ukrainian checkpoint and was taken prisoner. He is accused of “forming a terrorist organization” (art. 258-3 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code). In the Mariupol detention center, the inmates have almost no food, and soldiers torture the prisoners.