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Music and politics, Part the Nth

0 Robert Levine

The Toronto Symphony finds itself in a kerfluffle, summarized neatly in an editorial in the Toronto Star:

Talk about striking the wrong note. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is way off base with its decision to cancel performances this week by the Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa because of her social media comments attacking the Ukrainian government.

Lisitsa was due to perform a piano concerto with the TSO on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Instead, the orchestra abruptly yanked her and brought in Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear to pinch hit. What happened isn’t entirely clear and the TSO isn’t saying much. But from all accounts the switch took place after pressure from people enraged by Lisitsa’s strong views on the conflict in Ukraine, including comparing some of the government’s actions to those of Nazi Germany.

In a particularly weak explanation of why the orchestra was dropping her, TSO president Jeff Melanson said Lisitsa was bounced over “ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets.” And, he added: “As one of Canada’s most important cultural institutions, our priority must remain on being a stage for the world’s great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive.”

This misses the point on at least two counts. First, Lisitsa was not invited to Toronto to discuss her provocative political views. She was scheduled to play the piano. And second, banning a musician for expressing “opinions that some believe to be offensive” shows an utter failure to grasp the concept of free speech.

This appears to be the consensus view. I think it misses the point, which is about Ms. Lisitsa’s behavior and not that of the Toronto Symphony.

First of all, I suspect that even those criticizing the TSO would pause before doing so had Ms. Lisitsa’s views been, say, pro-Hitler rather than anti- the government of Ukraine, or had Ms. Lisitsa, like the rocker Ted Nugent, said “Obama’s a piece of shit, and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” Some speech is, and should be, beyond the pale, even if legal.

More important, though, is the fact that Ms. Lisitsa, like too many artists, performances, sports figures, and others before her, has traded on her fame to make her views matter more than they should on issues about which she has no special expertise. She has the perfect right to do so, of course. But taking public positions, as a performer, on issues of public concern that are unrelated to performing means she is now a fair target for the kind of pressure that some Ukrainian-Canadian groups apparently put on the Toronto Symphony.

She, and her defenders, are trying to have it both ways. She wants to use her stature and fame as a performer to promote her political views, but apparently thinks that she should be immune from people reacting negatively to those views because that would somehow contravene her right to free speech. But the Toronto Symphony, by hiring her, is unavoidably associating themselves with her public persona, including her expressed political views. If that includes views that some actual or potential TSO supporters find offensive, they did the right thing by firing her. Their responsibility is not to a flawed view of free speech, but to the health of the institution. Institutions don’t thrive by pissing off the paying customers.

This is not the same as making soloists’ political views a criteria for engaging them. If a conductor chooses to donate a chunk of money to the Republican party, and that fact becomes known through the campaign contribution disclosure process, an orchestra management would be wrong to bow to pressure from liberal donors to un-hire that conductor. The crucial difference is that, in that hypothetical case, the conductor would be acting as a private citizen, not as a public figure.

If, on the other hand, the conductor turned around after conducting a set of Ted Nugent songs, and said to the audience what Ted Nugent had said, the management would be committing malpractice if they didn’t have a termination notice ready when he or she walked off stage.

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