An Iranian conductor condemns sanctions on musicians

An Iranian conductor condemns sanctions on musicians


norman lebrecht

March 24, 2022

We have received this appeal from the conductor Alexander Rahbari:

Dear Norman,

I would like to put in a request for the whole international cultural societies to stop sanctioning musicians or sportsmen because they are, first and foremost, the victims of being good at what they do. To understand the situation one needs not go any further than my own case. It was in late 1979 that I was informed by Mr. Herbert von Karajan about the invitations I was frequently receiving to conduct various orchestras all across the united states following Mr. Seiji Ozawa’s recommendation as well as that of Mr. Wilford from the Columbia Artist.

However, all those programs were suddenly called off only because I was an Iranian and Iran was the center of turbulence after the American embassy hostage crisis. I was deprived of my basic rights as a musician and artist which alone, made me reluctant to go to the unites states afterward. There are popular musicians working and living everywhere be it Japan, Iran, Israel, the united states, Germany, or the united states. Definitely, they do not deserve to be sanctioned and outcast because of whatever might emerge out of the side of their politicians. I am an Austrian by citizenship and I do not know of any law here or anywhere else among the European country that forces their artists to take an affirmative stance on a political issue.

Thank you very much

Best regards
Alexander Rahbari


  • IP says:

    No comment. But if he wants to conduct in Mariupol or Odessa, I am willing to contribute to his ticket fare.

  • Drew Barnard says:

    He’s right, assuming the the musicians being sanctioned haven’t shown active political support for Putin or other leaders guilty of similar crimes against humanity.

  • music lover says:

    Living in a cloud cuckoo land.

  • christopher storey says:

    Funny, isn’t it, how no-one wishes to take any kind of responsibility for their own nation’s evil conduct, and think it should be business as usual . The lack of insight, imagining that an Iranian should have been welcome in the USA when it had been responsible for an atrocity , is breathtaking . A period of silence from this man would be most welcome

    • David B says:

      And how exactly have you taken responsibility for the atrocities your country has committed in the past and are still committing? Do tell in detail the sins of your country and your personal methods of atonement.

      • PianistW says:

        I always find very hypocritical any comments about atrocities when made by US citizens. The US, the only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons against another nation, the country that invaded Syria, Korea, Libya, Irak, Vietnam, Afghanistan etc., the country that has tortured thousands of people in secret prisons, the country that has been the greatest threat to world’s peace and freedom, a country that accepts none of the responsibility, and refuses to join the international courts… and still thinks can go around the world teaching about freedom, democracy, peace, and human rights.

        Putin is a Monster, Russia has been terrible for humanity, but so have been the USA and it’s leaders.

        • John Borstlap says:

          To compare these two types of government is entirely wrong. A basic thing to remember: such a comment can be ventilated in the US or in Europe without consequences, but in those rogue nations the author would disappear behind bars or worse.

          • anon says:

            Because nobody in the US or in ‘Europe’ has ever suffered any death threats (J.K. Rowling), lost a job (Maya Forstater), or found themselves unable to get freelance engagements (Graham Linehan) after criticising BLM or Stonewall or some other organ of woke orthodoxy, right?

            And nobody has ever been forced to go into hiding because the police are unable/unwilling to protect them after showing cartoons of an Islamic prophet (a certain school teacher formerly in Batley springs to mind).

          • anon says:

            And nobody has ever been jailed for whistleblowing (Assange) or on spurious charges of ‘jigsaw identification’ of persons with protected identity (Craig Murray) by a highly politicised judiciary in the UK. Right?

      • Thomas M. says:

        The very least you can do is distance yourself publicly from the leaders of your country. If you don’t, one must assume that you stand by them, in this case Putin. More appropriately you could join efforts to take an active stance AGAINST those leaders. There’s no such thing as “political neutrality” in any line of business and the arts.

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      Since Shah’s times, I would consider it as a long period of silence, don’t you?

    • Novagerio says:

      Chris Storey: “Funny, isn’t it, how no-one wishes to take any kind of responsibility for their own nation’s evil conduct” – cos it’s not their job. Their job is to perform.
      Or do you ask musicians for their political opinions before they go on stage?

  • Kenny says:

    Excellently stated.

  • Monsoon says:

    I’ll say what I said the other day:

    The point of sanctions is to economically punish the Russian people so to put pressure on Putin to stop killing the Ukrainian people.

    And that means boycotting Russian artists.

    If the Russian people aren’t impacted adversely by the war, then Putin has little reason to reverse course.

    Yes, this is collective punishment, and a lot of Russians with no connections to the regime are being punished. And again, that’s the point.

    If you’re Russian and you think that’s unfair, I’m sure the Ukraine people think it’s a bit more unfair that they’ve had to flee their country or spend the last month living in a basement to avoid being killed by Russian artillery and missiles.

    • SVM says:

      In that case, I trust that you will also be campaigning for the collective punishment of British, American, and Israeli musicians? After all, the governments of those three countries have broken international law persistently and committed plenty of war crimes. By your logic, such a regime of collective punishment would place pressure on Boris Johnson to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and stop allowing the RAF to train Saudi pilots to continue bombing Yemen to the stone age.

  • Federico Figueroa says:

    Unfortunately, musicians do get involved in politics and take a stance and voice their opinion about many issues other than their field, but when their pockets are affected, then all of a sudden they’re apolitical and they only magically care about music and arts. You can’t have it both ways. There are many cases of artists who have benefited from their ties to political regimes: right Dudamel?Gergiev?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. There is, for artists, a very strong necessity to steer clear of political involvement. And if they are politically involved nonetheless, they should be honest about it, like Gergiev, who now reluctantly shows himself to be a scoundrel.

  • Edward says:

    I think Maestro Rahbari misused the term sanction here. Yes, it is the musician’s freedom of speech if they choose a certain political stance, or refuse to choose a stance. This is legal, and no musician is punished by law in any country because of their political stance during this war. However, the orchestras and agencies also have the right to terminate the contract with the musicians if they do not speak out against Putin, especially if those organizations are private entities. This is legal as well.

  • Euphonium Al says:

    I certainly sympathize with Rahbari’s plight. Suspending relationships with pro-Putin ideologues makes sense, but chasing all Russian musicians out of the West is folly. Rahbari’s argument is a bit of a strawman, however, because the many Russian artists who have spoken out against this criminal war are retaining or indeed expanding their engagements. No doubt, Russian artists are caught in a difficult position, but in every person’s life, there are serious situations which are a time for choosing. If Rahbari wasn’t willing to speak out against the regime of the ayatollahs, that’s perfectly understandable, but that too was a choice that brought certain consequences with it.

  • soavemusica says:

    Freedom of the West/East: “Please, tell me, what the current thing is, so that I can support it, and get in.”

    I have too massive an amount of wrong opinions to be allowed to a liberal arena for liberal artists, and a liberal audience.

    So, selling tickets & asking for donations gets easier for the liberal institutions, just focus on the liberals.

    In Russia, I would expect a poisoned cup of tea.

    Oh, well. The asteroid, or any of the VEI 8 volcanoes, will sooner or later fix the climate change.

  • No comment says:

    Hope he doesn’t get ‘cancelled’ for speaking this simple truth.

  • STOP THE WAR says:

    All you do is talk about ME ME ME!.
    I was deprived of my rights, I was this, I was that…
    Well actually we don’t care about your so called “rights” because Ukrainians have first place in the “rights stakes”, the right to life, the right to a home, the right to security.
    This idea somehow that Musicians can be different from olympic athletes stinks…the same Russian olympic athletes that were found to have been subjects of mass doping so that they got thrown out of international competitions.
    If you wanted to show how elitist and irrelevant the classical music world has become, you succeeded wildly.
    Nobody really gives a about your old stories of Iran, and your grand standing about your career, but 1000 and 1000s of people are opening their homes all over Europe to women and children traumatised by *Hitler’s bombs, except this time it’s that little midget Stalin in Moscow.

    If YOU were stating you had opened your home to such a family we would believe you to be sincere, but in this case, how can I say, I wouldn’t weep for you but view your post cynical take with contempt.
    Iran doesn’t yet possess nuclear weapons.
    Russia does which permits it to get away with this genocide. Holodomor 2.

    I wonder what rubbish you will come out with when Iran has it, like North Korea and starts to commit the same atrocities against minorities or have a war with nearby Iraq which involved chemical weapons decades ago. Remember it?

  • Bonetti Micaela says:

    Mes respects, Monsieur Raphaël.

  • Bonetti Micaela says:

    (Sorry. Corrector.)

  • Amos says:

    Mr. Rahbari,

    As an Austrian citizen if Chancellor Nehammer unilaterally decreed that Austria shared a cultural alliance with Germany dating to the 1930’s and invaded to enforce it would it be a political or humanitarian act to denounce it? Furthermore, if you opted to fail to speak out would it be appropriate to “sanction” your professional activities outside Austria? Regrettably, for you, great privilege still comes with responsibilities.

  • Etan Masterfield says:

    Amazing! Kudos to the maestro. Two weeks ago he came to Zagreb in full grandeur and glory to an outstanding performance of his own composition, a real magnum opus, called Also Spoke Zarathustra Spitama. Splendid concert and indeed one of the greatest ones I have come across recently. Now he is standing for Gergiev speaking up his mind.

  • Thoughtful Reader says:

    1. “Victims of being good at what they do”…seriously, this is just a ridiculous sentence no matter how you parse it. 2. “Deprived of my basic rights as a musician and artist”. What in god’s name are you talking about? On what golden tablets were these rights inscribed? 3. It is NOT YOUR RIGHT to get a gig as a conductor. It is NOT YOUR RIGHT to have fame and money. 4.”….there are popular musicians living everywhere…” Again, this sentence is statement that has no actual meaning, except to say people live everywhere (and that includes popular musicians). So? Every country has people who were born in other countries. 5. “No European country forces their artists to take an affirmative stance on a political issue”. However, when you become a citizen of a country you do take an affirmative OATH to be a good citizen of that country…so one would quibble with that statement on that. NO, you will not be negatively harmed in a non-autocracy if you differ from the prevailing stance of the current government. 6. If you, as a human being, condone the bombing of women, children, hospitals, places of worship, and cultural institutions then, by golly, I’m going to not only find you an utter revolting human being, I’m certainly not going to go to a concert you are conducting. You are merely a cog in the wheel of music…you “conduct” the great work of art…YOU ARE NOT ART ITSELF. 7. If I think you “the artist” are such a horrible representative of a human I would boycott the concert you conducted and make sure that I did not have to be in the orchestra you conducted. IT IS NOT EVEN YOUR RIGHT TO BE LISTENED TO AND APPRECIATED.

  • Etan Masterfield says:

    He is absolutely right. My point is that if were to sanction the artists for the way their countries behave or misbehave, we should start with Leonard Bernstein and keep going on with John Williams and hundreds of American actors and artists because of the American bombardment of Korea, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If suspending the rights of artists was customary, we should have done the same with Ivo Pogorelich due to the war that was broken out between Croatia and Bosnian. The same could have been applied to many British artists for the UK invaded Iraq in 2003 and so forth and so on.

    • Thomas M. says:

      You’re simply confusing PAST and PRESENT! Society has changed, political ethics have changed, awareness of war crimes has changed. Why not ban American artists for the slaughter of Native Americans in the 19th century?

  • Thomas M. says:

    In the case of Maestro Rahbari’s own experience of being banned to perform in the West, it was indeed a great injustice to him, because he’s always been a vocal opponent of the regime in Iran. But all that the Western cultural institutions are calling for now is for Russian musicians to CONDEMN Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. If you can’t do that you’re simply an accomplice of the proto-Nazi regime in Moscow and deserve to be banned.