Toronto Symphony plays half-empty after ‘terrible precedent’

Toronto Symphony plays half-empty after ‘terrible precedent’


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2015

There were demonstrators in Roy Thomson Hall and a severely depleted attendance as the Toronto Symphony played without Valentina Lisitsa last night after the pianist had been removed from the programme for her outspoken political opinions. ‘She shouldn’t be discriminated against for her political views,’ said Vlad Alexeyenko, a Ukrainian studying at the University of Toronto. ‘She should be allowed to play for her audience.’

Toronto’s leading newspaper the Globe and Mail published a strong op-ed, calling Lisitsa’s dismissal ‘a terrible precedent, warning that it exposed any artist playing in Toronto to risk of cancellation.

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? wrote Marcus Gee.

The TSO’s president Jeff Melanson has tried to defuse the issue in phone interviews with Musical Toronto and WQXR. He called Lisitsa a liar for claiming he had cancelled her contract at the demand of a Ukrainian benefactor. ‘That is complete fabrication, and she is basically distorting the truth and making this up. We did not cave to pressure by one lobby group over another, and we absolutely are not taking a position politically between Russia and the Ukraine. This is really about offensive tweets about people by Ms. Lisitsa.’

The case continues.

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  • Nick Si says:

    It wouldn’t be a big surprise, as stated in the blog, if TSO canceled the soloist because demanded by a rich Ukrainian donor. Money talks in orchestra business.

  • pianoman says:

    No matter whether the TSO is taking a position between Russia and Ukraine, it would perhaps be nice if their president would learn to stop calling it THE Ukraine…Oh, and that goes for N.L. as well, who recently wrote about Lisitsa that “spouts the Putin line on the Ukraine”.

  • pianoman says:

    I wonder what would have happened if VL’s tweets were targeting Russia and Putin, rather than Ukraine? If she would be comparing Putin to Hitler, which is almost the norm in the west these days? If she would say, as a former Ukrainian PM did, that Ukrainians must take up arms so that ‘not even a scorched field will be left of Russia’? ( ) Or have a leaked phone call saying “F*ck the EU”, as an American top diplomat did last year? Or say, as a formed Minister of Defense in Ukraine did, that there should be ‘filtration camps’ for people in the East of Ukraine to identify those that were affiliated with separatists? ( ) What about people who actually said that the pro-Russians that were burned/tortured to death in the Odessa clashes (where Valentina Lisitsas family comes from, I believe) in May last year ‘deserved it’?

    Tymoshenko and Victoria Nuland got away with apologies, and nobody raised an eyebrow by the statements of the Ukrainian MoD.

    Double standards, anybody?

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Just to be precise: whatever Timoshenko and Nuland said, has been said in private, never meant to be published, and if not illegally recorded, at least published against the will of the persons involved.

      Valentina Lissitsa published her declarations herself.

      So: no double standards, but completely different cases.

      • MacroV says:

        And neither Tymoshenko and Nuland are performers. So in what way are their remarks relevant here?

      • Anon says:

        You got it absurdly wrong. VS never made a secret about her opinions. Nuland on the other hand conspired secretly to overthrow the Ukrainian government and got exposed.
        My moral compass is clear which type of behavior is to be condemned and which one is to be tolerated.

  • Pianoman says:

    Yes, you are right – a wish to take up arms so that not even a scorched field would be left of Russia that is only said in private should not be taken seriously at all and does not in any way reflect viewpoints by many in Ukraine at the moment, for instance cheering on when pro-Russians were burned to death in Odessa. Some Ukrainian media also reported that the pro-Russians accidentally dropped molotov cocktails on the building they were encircled in – as in, they ‘burned themselves’ to death, no harm was done to them by anyone else.

    I follow a lot of different people and viewpoints on the situation in Ukraine, and am by now quite used to hearing people publicly write on Facebook things as ‘a pity they didn’t aim higher’ when separatist leader Zakharchenko survived a murder attempt, only getting shot in the foot. I’m used to hearing that separatists should be exterminated. As a musician, I also collaborate with musicians that may or may not hold strong political viewpoints, perhaps in this question, or else in other questions, but it usually does not make me feel a need to cancel collaborations. TSO have made their choice, and so did the audience – just recently, the two concerts were sold out, but the orchestra played for a half-empty hall yesterday.

    • Pianoman says:

      This was meant as a reply to the previous comment by Gonout Backson.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Maybe it “was meant as a reply” – unfortunately, it isn’t.

        Can’t you see the difference between things said in private, with a conviction that they will never be published (and therefore with a much lower level of responsibility and self-control, including things we don’t even really think), and things written/said and published by their author him/herself?

        Haven’t you ever said, in private, things you would be ashamed of and immediately “disown” if ever they were published? Then you must be an angel white and pure. Congrats.

        The only culprit here are those who recorded these things and published them. They knew what they were doing and why. Their intentions weren’t good. They meant to hurt, and they did – because they knew perfectly what kind of reaction their act will provoke.

        The one you’re having right now.

  • Pianoman says:

    “Haven’t you ever said, in private, things you would be ashamed of and immediately “disown” if ever they were published?”

    Oh certainly I have, but I can’t recall having said anything about extermination of an entire country. Listen, I hear what you are saying, and I agree there is an obvious difference between tweeting publicly and talking privately, but I wouldn’t go as far as whitewashing absolutely horrible things said just because the person assumed the conversation was private. What I tried to point out in my second paragraph was that similar sentiments are actually expressed publicly. Daily. All of this in modern-day Ukraine where a controversial figure as Stepan Bandera is now hailed as a national hero, where the ultra-nationalist group OUN, which worked with German intelligence during WW2 and is guilty of ethnic cleansing, was just defined as ‘independence fighters” –

    • Gonout Backson says:

      You haven’t – but I’m sure that (toutes proportions gardées) all the peoples invaded by a foreign power repeat this kind of stuff, and worse, many times a day.

      As for the rest of your arguments, I know them very well and have answered them many times.

      Apparently, Bandera himself wasn’t considered good enough by the anti-Ukrainian propagandists (could they by any chance, horribile dictu, be the same people who recorded and published these two private conversations?), since they have published on the internet a fake, with a portrait of Hitler photoshopped, replacing Bandera on the front wall of the Svoboda party (1,16% in the presidential elections, always useful to remind it).

      I bet there are many people still convinced it was real – and that’s the point.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      P. S. Please, no Russian sources in this subject. They’re not very credible to begin with, but from a country which actively collaborated with Hitler for the first two years of WW2 (e.g. delivering German communists of Jewish origin to him), and lies about it today, this is – how should I say it – a tad tasteless.

      • Anon says:

        Didn’t Ukrainians collaborate with Hitler big time as well? And helped Hitler with the Holocaust? [redacted: abuse]

        • Gonout Backson says:

          Be careful with your insults, they suggest it’s all you have.

          Ukrainians collaborated with Hitler under occupation, for very interesting reasons you should explore. Soviet Russia collaborated with him freely, by political choice. Difference.

          According to sources, there were about 5-7 million Ukrainians in the Red Army, not counting the pro-soviet partisans. The collaborating “armies” amounted to 15 000 to 100 000 people.

          The are books about it, you know.

          • Anon says:

            Oh I know more books and facts about it than you might imagine. Including diaries of German soldiers in my wider family, who describe vividly how the (west) Ukrainians were cheering them in the streets when they marched into their towns…
            Your attempts at painting a black and white child cartoon of Ukrainians as good guys and Russians as bad guys is laughable at best.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            I “attempt” nothing of the sort. I’m simply stating facts.

            Like this fact you seem to have missed in your books: if the Ukrainians were indeed welcoming the German army as saviours, it’s because they thought it would save them from the communist barbary, after a genocide of 2,5 to 7,5 million people (no one knows exactly how many).

            They quickly realized their mistake, and paid dearly for it (another 7 million people, 16% of the population).

            In fact, the extreme Western part of Western Ukraine (up to but not including the Zhitomir and Vinnitsa regions) had been spared the genocide. I was annexed by USSR six years after that, thanks to Hitler, after their common and gloriously celebrated victory over Poland.

            All the details are here:

            But I understand it’s easier to begin history at a convenient point.

          • Anon says:

            Your “reasoning” is astonishing. Were we to follow that, the Germans themselves were only victims of Hitler.
            What you are doing is called revisionism, and unworthy any intellectually honest debate.
            You just hate Russia and Russians, there is nothing more to it. Shame on you.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            “What you are doing is called revisionism, and unworthy any intellectually honest debate.”

            Happily, no one could accuse you of offering us one.

  • KeyboardCity says:

    Pianist Valentina Lisitsa languished in obscurity for many years. Her “big career” came about through her success on youtube and through social media — and that’s a very fickle crowd that at any time can drop you like a hot potato and move on to the next media sensation. Her career was never the result of top-level conductors who admired her work and promoted her to the connoisseur public — which is the public that can sustain the career of a great artist over many years. OK, she’s pretty and she can play — but if you’re seeking profundity, look elsewhere. Her career was built on a shallow, shaky premise — and as we now observe, youtube & social media are double-edged swords: They can make – or kill — a career. Let’s wish her well, but there’s a lesson here for all young hopefuls who pursue this path: Meteors eventually burn out — one way or the other.

    • Janis says:

      Oh, the hell with the “connoisseur” public. I have no strong opinions on her playing (and I don’t know enough about what’s going on in the Ukraine to be qualified to have a strong opinion on that either way), but if people like it, then people like it, and who cares what the hell the official gatekeepers think? Anyone who thinks the audience has no business deciding what they like on their own — and that they need to be told what to like in order to come across properly to the Right Sort — can screw themselves.

      Like I said, I have no strong opinions on her playing one way or another, but I’ve been listening to (and even playing some of) this shit for longer than many of today’s big-name conductors and performers have been alive, and I can make up my own damned mind as to what I want to spend my time and money hearing. If it means that I’m not coming across as sufficiently well-bred to a bunch of tone-deaf snobs, I can live with that.