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Opinion: Why I won't attend Gergiev's concerts | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Why I won't attend Gergiev's concerts

Opinion: Why I won't attend Gergiev's concerts

When a conductor unequivocally endorses a murderous state policy, it's time to draw the line

Putin presenting Gergiev with an award for the Mariinsky Theatre's achievements in

Last Thursday I was giving a talk before a concert in Birmingham, decently but not inspiringly conducted by the much-liked Vasily Sinaisky. Had I been in London I could have taken my pick between two greater interpreters, Valery Gergiev launching his Berlioz series with the London Symphony Orchestra and veteran Yury Temirkanov returning to one of his standard programmes with the Philharmonia.

Both appeared on the list of 549 "trustees" supporting Vladimir Putin’s 2012 re-election campaign. Temirkanov recently established chauvinist credentials which made the foolish remarks of young Vasily Petrenko about women conductors seem just playful. Alex Ross, one of the music world’s leading champions of gay and other human rights, pointed us towards them in a New Yorker article: there you find a link to a Russian-language interview which includes Temirkanov saying "the essence of a conductor's profession is strength. The essence of woman is weakness". Would that stop me going to his concerts? No; and the same applies to Petrenko, who may engage mouth before brain but remains a remarkably assured interpreter as his ongoing Shostakovich cycle with his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra continues to show. Reviewing the concerts and CDs of both conductors gives the writer a chance, where relevant, to draw attention to their unenlightened views.

Christopher Gable and Richard Chamberlain in Ken Russell's The Music LoversWhat set Gergiev beyond the pale for me was the comment reported by a reader of my last opinion article on the issue of artists and Russia’s new institutionalized homophobia. He or she quoted Gergiev when questioned by a Rotterdam reporter about the laws making it a criminal offence not so much to promote as even to mention as significant an issue, say, as Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality to a minor (Christopher Gable and Richard Chamberlain in Ken Russell's Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers pictured above). His reply? According to my commenter's translation from Volkskrant, "This law is not about homosexuality; it targets paedophilia".

And so the huge outrage anyone, gay or straight,  ought to feel at this supreme insult – humans’ instinct to love where they will, and must, becomes an urge to defile children – boils over, as it did when Cardinal Bertone made his stupid remarks a few years back. But the Catholic Church under the apparently genuine humility of a noble Pope seems to have moved on. Russia has moved backwards. It was only last week a well-versed friend reminded me that homosexuality was legalised there in 1917, only to be re-criminalised in the dark year of 1936.  The new, if chaotic country made it legal again in 1993. And now, in a vicious atmosphere which affects anyone who challenges the regime anywhere, one which it is not fanciful or hyperbolic to define as well on the way to emulating Stalin’s turn for the worse, law upon law is added to create a climate of fear for gay people, among many others - from the Arctic 30 to Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky - whom it is not this article's remit to discuss.

It is not the same as Section 28 in Thatcher’s Britain. It affects all Russian institutions. In Stephen Fry’s bold tour to meet brave people and stupid, malevolent lawmakers around the world for his BBC Two two-part documentary Out There, a St Petersburg lesbian told us how she was “correctively” raped and so badly beaten up that she spent a long time in hospital. When she tried to make her report to the police, they turned her away when they learned of her sexuality. The state laws are a licence for thugs to kill in every Russian town and city. The suicide rate among young gay people in Russia already stands officially at one in four; how much worse must that be in real terms.

No-one is saying that an artist has to stand up to his or her country’s government. The right to a dignified silence belongs to everyone. But when artists like Gergiev, Netrebko, Temirkanov and Gergiev's latest tubthumping court pianist Denis Matsuev actively lend their name to a criminal regime, they can expect strong reactions. The ones in New York and San Francisco were mostly peaceful protests outside the opera houses, good-natured affairs where many of the great and good on the way to the performances were happy to be photographed with the demonstrators.

I applaud Peter Tatchell’s characteristic response, to grandstand the Barbican audience before Gergiev’s first LSO concert, but that wouldn’t be my chosen way. I’ll join, if I can, Tatchell’s next, lower-key action outside the Barbican on Thursday evening (6pm to 7pm; bring sparklers and colourful, effective placards; smother Gergiev and Putin in rainbows).

Any personal animus here? Absolutely not; I don’t like breaking faith with a conductor who has always been all ease and curiosity in interviews, wherever and however late they took place – in a taxi to his flat on the Neva embankment in Leningrad, as it then still was, continuing over a hospitable meal with family interjections, in a hotel room of the Astoria Hotel at two in the morning, in intervals between a blockbuster three-part concert.

I even feel sorry for the Faustian pact Gergiev seems to have made in exchange for an ever-expanding Mariinsky empire (will it extend to the Bolshoi, as recently intimated?) If I’ve been disappointed by many of his recent concerts and operatic performances, in which a ponderousness seems to have muddied the canvases, that’s irrelevant to the present issue. I do wonder at the LSO letting him loose on Berlioz when the greatest interpreter of that composer, their beloved Colin Davis, is barely in his grave. That does, admittedly, make it easier to avoid the current Berliozfest.

A great creative artist’s prerogative is one thing; the public’s is anotherI’m not stopping colleagues, as you can see today. It would be foolish, and no better than the very lawgivers we criticize, to impose a blanket ban. So I circulated the information among theartsdesk’s five other regular London-based classical music contributors, taking the rather Soviet view of the Brezhnev era that I would not forbid, simply advise.

One withdrew his claim, two preferred not to voice a public opinion, two were against taking action on the grounds that much the same sort of thing is going on in the rest of the world – what about even moderate Muslims, Igor asked provocatively, but in any case does one wrong cancel out another? – and one went ahead, as you can see today. Sebastian wanted me to invoke Berlioz’s words: "What am I doing in Baden-Baden? I'm making music. Something completely forbidden to me in Paris, because of the lack of a good concert hall,  the lack of money to pay for rehearsals, the lack of time to do them well, the lack of audience, the lack of everything."

Well, a great creative artist’s prerogative is one thing; the public’s is another. The players have no choice; the audience does. That’s why you’ll find me not inside the Barbican Hall on the other dates for Gergiev’s Berlioz series, but outside on Thursday, waving sparklers, informing rather than heckling the concertgoers and hoping that if enough people join in, we can smother Gergiev and Putin in rainbows. Invitation to opinions can result in a deafening silence, but I’d welcome your comments on the subject.

Read Valery Gergiev's reply


How annoying all these articles about Gergiev and homosexual laws in Russia. You applaud Peter Tatchell’s response but there is NOTHING to applaud there. He simply spoiled an evening to many people in audience. A concert hall is definitely not a place for protest! I am not supporting Gergiev's political views but I do like him as an artist and conductor! Going to his concert tonight in Milton Court and will surely enjoy it a lot.

While I don't like the idea of disrupting a concert either, your reaction to Peter Tatchell and description of "annoying" about the various articles about Gergiev and Putin's legislation is rather shocking. For one, you don't seem to have noted the awful case of the lesbian rape victim that DN mentions. The "annoyance" factor of that horrific and appalling physical violation of another human being is infinitely more "annoying" than any newspaper or on-line op-ed. (So how was the concert?)

Hello David, I think you are right that the time has come to boycott Gergiev. However, I'm just wondering if you've been able to verify that quote. An anonymous translation on a blog post comment linking to a paywalled Dutch-language website does seem tenuous.

I see you've cited it on your blog, too, Gavin: was your source the same? It's true that the Volkskrant issue in question is currently behind a paywall but I have no reason to doubt the quotation comes from the article on Gergiev and the Rotterdam Festival of 10/09/13.

Will seek further verification, though lack of Dutch is an obstacle.

David, I'm delighted to read your words on this. I'd actually come to much the same conclusion myself earlier today. Everyone is free to make his or her own decision on this, and I should not dream of condemning someone for acting differently, but I sense a mounting sentiment amongst many people to whom I speak that enough is enough. It seems to me that Gergiev has had every opportunity to dissociate himself, however blandly, from official, institutional homophobia and indeed from the worst, or even the best, of Putin's 'managed democracy' more generally. Yet Gergiev, it seems, has said or done absolutely nothing, whilst continuing to make a huge, almost inconceivable, amount of money from his associations. If anyone were in a position to speak out, he would be. I wonder, incidentally, how he or anyone else can continue to conduct Tchaikovsky in St Petersburg; might it not even be illegal to do so? (But no, of course, the Russian Minister of Culture has helpfully informed us that there was in fact no evidence that Tchaikovsky was homosexual.) As for the naïveté or disingenuousness which leads some to continue to say that music and politics are somehow separate spheres - what on earth do these people think composers such as Wagner were engaged in? - one can only despair. 'Not wanting to get involved' leads to toleration of all manner of ills; it may be what we all do to a certain extent in some everyday situations, but it should hardly be our guiding principle. If people in Russia can show genuine bravery by standing up to the prevailing thuggery, then the least we can do is support from the distant, still comfortable sidelines. With best wishes, Mark

Thanks for your support, Mark. It seems to be even worse - that he has been reported as actually saying something which, as I write above, would make me uncomfortable even being in the same room as him. Earlier, he actively derided That Girl Band (profanity filter doesn't like their first name) when its members were already in prison, implying that it was a good thing - this too has been reported.

You're right that though to a certain extent Gergiev is caught in the web of his own close affiliation with the centre of Russian power, there were certain moves he could have made behind the scenes - to give the Met the go-ahead, for instance, to dedicate its opening night Onegin to LGBT people worldwide. The Met's own stance was to say that it had never done this, but in the end Peter Gelb wryly came out in support just the same.

In the meantime, I look forward to the Russian film about Tchaikovsky, lover of women - if indeed it gets the funding it needs. The denial has its funny side. Sadly the serious injuries and deaths of gay people in Russia are no laughing matter. Even today there was a report of a neo-Nazi group who shot a gay man in the eye, one of two victims - and the police again did nothing.

BTW, in the 2nd paragraph, the link to your past article doesn't work. It needs to be corrected to:

Done, Geo., many thanks.

When was the last time this reviewer actually paid any money to see Gergiev, anyway?

The Concert for Beslan at ENO. But what's your point?

His point was self-evident.

So is that of David Nice, I think. As a critic who writes with no personal animosity - indeed, as he mentions above, with some personal felt empathy from past encounters with Gergiev as an individual. As well as respect for a musician of really world talent. But a musician who has had the chance to choose the civil positions with which he associates himself. Civil positions which have proved so very lacking in the wider humanity that elsewhere he has shown, and goes on showing, in his musical interpretations.

David, I'd like to pick you up on one thing. I'd hope it's not just gay men and women who feel outrage at Gergiev's comments. As a straight man, I feel that the LSO's continuing support of a man who in turn supports the Putin regime is outrageous and fast becoming unsustainable. This is a problem that ought to be of concern to the whole community.

You're absolutely right of course, Philip, so I'll change that to "anyone" right now. I wanted to stress the 'beating human heart" Fry talked about and was much  struck by the formation of a group of heterosexual Russians fiercely protesting the laws within their country. I very much hope it will be a rainbow of people who gather before the concert on Thursday.

As the great (and straight) Desmond Tutu pointed out, in remarking that if heaven was homophobic he wouldn't go there, this is a human rights issue pure and simple, same as apartheid in South Africa and the persecution of the Jews, which it is coming so frighteningly to resemble.

Of course Gergiev's comments are unacceptable but I see no reason why you have singled him out. Do you listen to Wagner? How much do you respect Karajan? There are many examples of musicians with less than tolerant views. I do not understand why you will still support Petrenko and Temirkanov by going to their concerts, but draw the line at Gergiev. Seeing as sexism against women affects half the world, I would consider their comments to be at least on par with Gergiev's, even though they support no specific discriminatory policy. Just because discrimination against women is normal, does not mean it should not also engender 'huge outrage' when people make such comments. Secondly, Russia's policy on homosexuality is not 'murderous'. It may have indirectly led to murder, but it does not prescribe it. Sensationalising this situation is not helpful.

As I wrote, one crime does not cancel out another. Wagner and Karajan are dead. And of course I listen to Wagner since I and millions of others do not find a single unambiguous trace in the operas themselves of the virulent anti-semitism which plagued his writings. I don't listen to Karajan much because, like Gergiev, he became lumpier in his presidential grandeur as he got older.

I made it clear that the sexism issue is deplorable, and as such to be highlighted and written about where relevant. It is not killing people and it may be hindering but it is not stopping the advance of women in the profession. The man whom Gergiev supports IS wounding and killing people now, every day. Indirect endorsement for thuggery, and the inaction of the police, lead to these ugly results. This is a situation it would be hard to sensationalise.

Seems Mr Gergiev is not entitled to the celebrated free-speech for which this country is so famous. A nice example to demonstrate to our Russian friends how fragile is the left's commitment to basic human rights.

You're missing the point here of David Nice's op-ed. Gergiev is free to speak or not as he sees fit, whether other people agree with him or not. No one is denying him the right to express himself. In turn, others like DN are free to react accordingly, which is the point of DN's piece, that he will no longer support Gergiev by attending concerts. If anything, it's Putin who is denying gays their right to free speech, and Gergiev has done nothing to protest that. Even Anna Netrebko has taken the effort to post a statement on Facebook about Putin's anti-humanitarian legislation. That's more than Gergiev has done.

Dear David - I know it's somewhat off-topic but as I've added elsewhere I thought your readers might be interested to know the following. On December 8th 2013 there will be a concert performance at a conservatorium named after a gay composer (Tchaikovksy - the Moscow Conservatorium) of an opera by a gay composer (Benjamin Britten) which is a setting of a novella by a writer with heavy gay leanings (Thomas Mann) about a fictional elderly gay gentleman (Gustav Aschenbach) sickening of love for a beautiful adolescent boy (Tadzio). And all this to be performed by impressionable Russian young people. Such irony! Rozdestvensky conducting, b.t.w., not Gergiev.

Rozhdestvensky - now there's an independent mind (as far as I know), one who always dared. Good news that he's still conducting; we haven't seen him here for too long.

And thanks for the notification, Gibner - good to know such things are still happening in Moscow. I'd like the full story of what happened to Christopher Alden's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Bolshoy. Ironically, that might have confused the gay/paedophile mixup since the latter figures big time in the characterisation of Oberon. Apparently there was an outcry and calls of indecency.

Christopher Alden's production of Midsummer Night's Dream was NOT staged at the Bolshoi Theatre, you ignoramus. It was staged at the Stanislavsky-Muzykalny Theatre in Moscow. But what difference would FACTS make to a bigoted hate-monger like you, David Nice???

I use no words of hate-mongering, Mr McGowan. I don't think I'd call even Melanie McDonagh in her fabricated Spectator report about the protests an 'ignoramus', though come to think of it I did call the hate-peddling minister who so incensed Stephen Fry 'stupid': fact.

Anyway, I got the theatre wrong, and a mild correction is always welcome. Much more welcome, though, would be a report on what happened. Probably not from someone lacking any objectivity, though.

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