Russian musicians don’t deserve cancellation for Putin’s crimes

America is still buying Russian oil, thereby funding, in part, President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, unjustified and uncivilized invasion of Ukraine. Yet at the same time, American organizations are canceling Russian musicians who do not directly denounce Putin, the man who wields power over not just their livelihoods but their lives. 

It’s easy to make smug, self-congratulatory grand gestures. It’s harder to consider the complications of music-making in a time of war — and the danger of putting political prohibitions on art and artists. 

Conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko are arguably the two greatest Russian classical musicians of our time. New York cultural powerhouses showed both the door in recent days. 

First, Carnegie Hall announced the day before Gergiev was set to start a three-concert run with the Vienna Philharmonic that he’d be replaced with the ubiquitous Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Friday’s concert was an all-Rachmaninoff program, and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev was also out. 

The storied venue gave no explanation — and didn’t announce a replacement for the notoriously difficult Second Piano Concerto, Seong-Jin Cho, until the day of the show. 

Putin congratulates Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko after awarding her with the People's Artist of Russia honor in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Putin congratulates Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko after awarding her with the People’s Artist of Russia honor in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Dmitry Lovetsky

Cho, who flew in from Berlin that day, hadn’t performed the Rach Second in two-and-a-half years. Carnegie later wrote to attendees admitting “the audience experience this weekend did not meet the standards to which we aspire, including longer than usual lines.” 

Then Thursday came Netrebko’s turn. The dazzling diva has been a favorite of the Metropolitan Opera for years, headlining its 2019 New Year’s Eve gala. Now she won’t grace its stage as planned for her highly anticipated debut as Turnadot in April — indeed, she may never grace its stage again. 


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“Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine there was no way forward,” Met general manager Peter Gelb said. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which she will return to the Met.” 

Netrebko is no supporter of the Ukraine war. “I am opposed to this senseless war of aggression and I am calling on Russia to end this war right now, to save all of us. We need peace right now,” she said this week. But the Met gave her an ultimatum, insisting she go further and directly denounce Putin — putting paid to Gelb’s claim, “We’re not interviewing or interrogating any artists about their positions.” 

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was replaced by a conductor that is not Russian for a three-concert run at Carnegie Hall.
Kai Foersterling

It’s not quite like asking Shostakovich to denounce Stalin. But the same principle applies: Gergiev and Netrebko cannot have careers in their homeland and criticize its dictator. They must show a certain amount of support to survive. Putin’s regime is threatening to jail anyone who speaks against the invasion; imagine what the strongman would do to a high-profile figure censuring him personally. 

One who dumped Gergiev understands this. Agent Marcus Felsner called him “one of the greatest conductors of all time,” but canceled him as a client, even as he noted Gergiev holds “a government-supported office” and “cannot” end his backing for a dictator. And he pointed out Gergiev isn’t thinking only of himself: “The work of his life are the thousands of phenomenal musicians, dancers and other employees of the Mariinsky Theatre and their families, for whom he has always felt responsible, as family.” 

Classical music is something sacred in Russia. At the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg in 2012, I was at the Mariinsky every night for a week and a half, and I was struck by the audience: People of all ages from all walks of life were devoted to classical music. And no one has been a better ambassador of his country’s culture than Valery Gergiev. 

Russian opera soprano singer Anna Netrebko performs during the 27th annual Victoires de la musique classique ceremony in northeastern France.
Russian opera soprano singer Anna Netrebko performs during the 27th annual Victoires de la musique classique ceremony in northeastern France.
CHRISTOPH DE BARRY

Carnegie did welcome one Russian pianist this week — but Daniil Trifonov lives in New York and doesn’t have to kowtow to Putin. 

It was during intermission at the Carnegie Hall Rachmaninoff concert that I realized some blame all Russians for Putin’s provocations. Popping into the Russian Tea Room for a drink — Carnegie’s bars are still closed post-COVID — I chatted with a manager and learned the legendary restaurant has been getting threatening calls. 

Even innocent animals are being punished for Putin: The International Cat Federation has banned Russian felines from its competitions. Yet Beijing’s killer regime was allowed to profit off an international Olympic Games, and its reps travel freely through the West. 

Even at the Cold War’s height, Russia and America shared the common language of music. Texas-bred Van Cliburn did much for art and peace when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 — a shock to the Russians. Gergiev now chairs that competition. Art is always essential to human life, but cultural exchange becomes even more crucial at times of political tension.

Kelly Jane Torrance is The Post’s op-ed editor.

Twitter: @KJTorrance

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