A couple of days ago, the news broke that her upcoming performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony was abruptly cancelled. The reason for this was that the TSO’s management decided they weren’t happy about some of her controversial tweets.
Controversy is nothing new for Lisitsa. According to a 2013 New York Times article, “Lisitsa, a self-described ‘contrarian,’ is argumentative and outspoken, tweeting about politics and berating concert promoters who have irked her.”
The orchestra responded by hastily replacing Lisitsa with local pianist Stewart Goodyear. However, today we learn that Goodyear has withdrawn from the concert, due to hostility directed towards him. “Words of bile and hatred were hurled in my direction from all sides,” he has stated. Now, the TSO has decided that there will be no piano concerto on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
You can find more reportage about the incident here, here or here.
My intention in commenting is certainly not to take sides in the Ukrainian conflict. From my comfy apartment in downtown Toronto, I have no way of sorting out the warring tribes of Europe. Rather, I’d like to raise a point that hasn’t been articulated in any of the articles above.
But first, for the benefit of any non-Canadians who might be reading these words, I’ll briefly try to explain how such a thing as the cancellation of a much-admired artist for her political views could happen in “the True North, strong and free.”
Unfortunately, in recent years, Canada has been gradually sliding into a kind of tyranny: the “Tyranny of Nice.” This regime purports to uphold such benevolent values as civility, courtesy and tolerance. And yet, like all tyrannies, if challenged, it can be harshly narrow-minded and censorious. Nowadays, strident and controversial opinions are all too readily labelled as “hurtful,” or even “hate-speech.”
In this Orwellian environment, an organization like the TSO – dependent as it is on charitable donations and government funding – will want to avoid like the plague any divisive political issues. (I say this to explain, not to exonerate, the TSO – which, in my opinion, has acted in a weak, fretful and ham-fisted way.)
Of course, the “Lisitsa Affair” is saturated with politics. However, it’s not just about national politics, as it might appear at first glance. Musical politics has also played a role in barring the pianist at the stage door.
Like any profession or industry, the classical music world has its own internal rules. And the rules about who gets to rise above the crowd to achieve fame, wealth and success are both intricate and well established. There’s an international network of competitions, in which each generation carefully polices the next. As well, there are power brokers, mutual back-scratching cliques and clandestine deals of every description. In classical music, you won’t get far unless someone who’s already in a position of power wants you to.
But Lisitsa is a remarkable exception. She didn’t rise to worldwide fame through competition prizes or influential champions. Frustrated with her lack of progress, in 2007 she started posting videos of her performances to YouTube. She found her following in cyberspace, as fans in the millions took a liking to her video clips. She became an “internet sensation,” neatly bypassing the gate-keepers of the classical music world.
And here’s the rub: despite her enormous popularity, Lisitsa is an outsider, unallied with any prominent faction. For this reason, she is dispensable, and the TSO can simply cancel her engagement without any adverse repercussions from within the music industry. Neither Valery Gergiev nor Anna Netrebko – both of whom are staunch pro-Putin supporters, but who belong to the musical power-club – need lose any sleep over what has happened here.
Speaking of repercussions, Lisitsa claims that she was threatened by the TSO if she didn’t keep the reason for her abrupt dismissal under wraps. Yet it’s interesting to note that the TSO has agreed to pay her full fee for the performances she now won’t give. That’s a pretty clear indication that the orchestra’s management figures it would be on thin ice in a court of law, if Lisitsa sued.
One last point: it was, I think, very unwise of the TSO to place Stewart Goodyear in the front lines of this conflict. They should have known better. I hope the orchestra has the decency to offer him a nice, juicy, controversy-free engagement in a future season.
© Colin Eatock 2015