Diva backs away from dictator


Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano whose public ambivalence over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine left her international career in limbo, has gingerly joined the resistance.

“I am not a member of any political party nor am I allied with any leader of Russia,” Netrebko said in a social-media post. “I expressly condemn the war on Ukraine and my thoughts are with the victims of this war and their families.”

The singer “did not explicitly criticize Mr. Putin, and did not directly address her previous record of support for him,” The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández reports, recalling that Netrebko “once endorsed Mr. Putin’s re-election and has over the years offered support for his leadership. In 2014, she was photographed holding a flag used by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine.”

New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which has frequently engaged Netrebko, deems her latest disclaimer insufficient. The company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said in a statement: “If Anna demonstrates that she has truly and completely disassociated herself from Putin over the long term, I would be willing to have a conversation.”

Netrebko, who in previous comments has characterized herself as a patriotic Russian, notes in her latest posting that she is a “tax resident in Austria.” She said that she plans to resume work in Europe in May, Hernández reports:

UPDATE (April 1): Norman Lebrecht, on his Slipped Disc blog, reports that the State Opera and Ballet Theatre in Novosibirsk, Siberia, has canceled a concert by Netrebko scheduled for June, citing her “statement condemning the actions of our state. Living in Europe and the opportunity to perform at European venues turned out to be more important for her than the fate of the Motherland.

“Today is not the time to sacrifice principles for more comfortable living conditions. Now is the time to make a choice.”

Lebrecht cautions: “[T]his announcement may not be what it seems. It could be that friends in Russia are seeking to revive Netrebko’s career abroad by pretending she is non grata at home. It could also be a warning to her from powerful friends to tone down her public statements.”

Just in: Anna Netrebko is cancelled in Russia

Russophobia: Symptoms and treatment


A few weeks ago, I wrote that taking a break from Russian music while Vladimir Putin makes war on Ukraine wouldn’t leave me feeling culturally malnourished. I might have added that there aren’t too many living Russian performers whose temporary absence from the stage would leave too gaping a void in classical music.

I was of two minds on the question then. I’m down now to about one and an eighth.

Since Putin launched his onslaught, orchestras in Wales and Japan have dropped Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” from concert programs; several presenters in Canada canceled dates with a young Russian pianist; a Polish opera house scrapped a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov;” several Russian conductors have quit or been ousted from orchestras and opera companies, both in the West and at home.

Everybody’s wearing lapel ribbons in blue and yellow, the Ukrainian national colors, and every ensemble in the civilized world that can find the score and learn the words is performing the country’s national anthem.

All gestures, most no doubt heartfelt. Some are appropriate: This is a really bad time to play Tchaikovsky’s paean to Russian military triumph. Some other gestures – treating a 20-year-old pianist as if he’s a surrogate for a genocidal tyrant – are not just silly but gratuitously self-righteous.

Over the weekend, the Berlin Philharmonic staged a concert “for peace and freedom.” The program included works by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (currently a refugee in Berlin), along with music by Chopin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany did not attend, protesting that the concert’s featured soloists were “only Russians. No Ukrainians. An affront. . . . [W]e Ukrainians don’t fancy ‘great Russian culture’ while Russian bombs are falling on cities and thousands of civilians are being murdered . . . ”

An understandable sentiment; but the ambassador overlooked the fact that Russian artists were performing in support of Ukraine. And he lent credence to Putin’s bogus assertion that the West is “canceling” Russian culture.

Cultural Russophobia stumbles over history. Putin is grossly opportunistic but not entirely wrong to claim that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wouldn’t say that; but he could, just as credibly. The two nations are family – cousins, not siblings – and were kin long before either began to resemble a modern state.

Since Ukraine was absorbed by tsarist, and then Soviet, Russia, its people have been scattered all over Eurasia. Ukrainians moved to Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities for education, employment, favor and advancement under the ruling regime. In the 1930s, after killing millions of Ukrainians in an engineered famine, Josef Stalin exiled hundreds of thousands of the survivors to Central Asia and Siberia.

Millions of Ukrainians and Russians are blood relatives, and have been for generations. Ethnically “pure” Russians and Ukrainians are as scarce as purely Anglo-Saxon Americans.

Can kindred people form separate nations? Ask the French and Germans, descendants of Frankish cousins in the early Middle Ages. (While you’re at it, ask them about the consequences of invasion and rewards of peaceful coexistence.)

As to Russian music, take a cursory look at the greats commonly identified as Russian: Tchaikovsky was of partly Ukrainian ancestry. Prokofiev was born in the Donetsk oblast, one of the eastern Ukrainian regions seized by Putin in 2014 and now used as a pretext for this war. Violinists David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein, pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, came from Odessa, Ukraine’s Black Sea port city. The list could go on and on.

And it probably will grow. Right now, I’ll bet, a lot of Russian artists hoping for future work in the West are scouring family trees to find ancestors in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, Kazakhstan – wherever – hoping to shield themselves from the stench of Putin’s Russia.

Music can do many things to the human soul and psyche. It can summon us to battle. It can salve our wounds. It can comfort or enrapture or horrify. It’s complicated.

Russian music is especially complicated: How we hear it depends on what we’re listening for, on how closely we listen, and – remembering this land’s tumultuous history – on the circumstances under which the music was composed.

We should judge this music – and the musicians who perform it – without haste, preferably with some discernment.

We can easily discard the likes of Valery Gergiev, the conductor and high-profile Putin crony. (Keep a horselaugh in reserve in case he tries to resuscitate his career in the West by claiming to be Ossetian.)

Like Cold-War Kremlinologists, we can observe what’s said or not, who’s seen or not, when we consider Russian artists in Russia, remembering that they could face imprisonment or worse if they speak out against Putin and his war. The same for Russians in the West who aren’t ready to become émigrés, potential targets of Putin’s thugs.

We can dispense with overtly aggressive or ideologically driven Russian music. Most of it is trash.

Some of it, however, is unexpectedly untrashy. The Richmond Symphony audience was reminded of that a few days after Putin started his war, when the orchestra played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Interpretations of this work by many Soviet-era musicians gave it a branding of Stalinist triumphalism; but the music itself, beneath its bombastic episodes, is dark and somber, at times achingly tragic. It’s Russian music that deserves to be heard, even now – especially now.

Identifiably Russian classical music (other than Orthodox liturgical music) was born in the early 19th century. Some of that century’s best Russian composers were schooled sketchily, at best, in the forms and affects of European classical style. The European music of their time was romantic, more about feeling than form. Not surprisingly, we hear more heart and gut than brain in a lot of 19th-century Russian music.

Over the past century, Russian music has become more brainy and abstract (the Stalinists called it “formalist”); but much of it still comes from the heart and gut.

A great deal of it is deeply introspective, some of it otherworldly, the work of artists trying to find a safe, or at least less fraught, space in an oppressive real world. (That also may explain why so many Russian pianists excel in Bach.)

Like many other composers from Northern Europe, Russians have delighted in the warmth, color, exoticism and energy of warmer climes – the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia. Much of the best Russian music, from Glinka’s “Jota Aragonesa” and Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances,” evokes places far from home.

Then there are the Russian composers who left the country and settled in the West. They russified the sound and style of music in Western Europe and America; in time, their music also was influenced by those Western cultures. Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances are works by composers born in Russia; but they were, lingering old-country accents notwithstanding, products of mid-20th century America.

There’s Russian music that speaks explicitly of Russia, affectionately or not. There’s music by Russians abroad who are audibly homesick. There’s music by widely traveled Russians who embraced and enriched other cultures. And there’s music by Russians who don’t believe that music should be hemmed in by national origin.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Some of the most potent musical repudiations of Putin, and the corruption, repression and violence that he embodies, are the work of Russians.

Another Shostakovich symphony, his Tenth, is as powerful an indictment of this war criminal as any words that may be spoken at a tribunal. And estranged Russians, at home and abroad, may turn out be the most eloquent musical advocates for the resurrection of Ukraine and redemption of Russia.

Don’t ban Russian music or righteous Russian musicians. Turn them on the enemy.

UPDATE (April 4): The news, with ghastly images, of murders committed by Russian troops in towns they occupied near Kyiv tempts me to conclude that Russian “culture” should be confined to a tightly lidded Petri dish. In my parents’ time, people wondered how Germany could produce Bach and Goethe, and then elevate Hitler. Today, civilized people wonder: How can Russia, homeland of Tolstoy and Shostakovich, tolerate – even celebrate – Putin? The bloodstain is spreading; washing it out will take generations.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Magdalena Kuźma, soprano
March 26, Ryan Recital Hall, St. Christopher’s School

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major is the shortest and smallest of his nine symphonies. Short and small are relative terms: The piece lasts nearly an hour and is scored for a more or less standard (i.e., pretty large) orchestra of the late-romantic period.

There are, however, versions of the Mahler Fourth that are truly small. There’s a somewhat convoluted back-story to their existence.

A century ago, Vienna was the European cultural center most resistant to new trends in music. It was also home to a group of composers, led by Arnold Schoenberg, who produced some of the most radically new music of the time. Getting no love from the city’s musical establishment, they organized the Society for Private Musical Performances, which presented programs of contemporary works (their own and others’), including many chamber arrangements of orchestral pieces.

Among the most ambitious of these reductions was a Mahler Fourth, prepared by Erwin Stein in 1920, for string quintet, woodwinds, piano, harmonium and percussion, along with the soprano who sings “Das himmlische Leben” (“Heavenly Life”) from Mahler’s song collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”) in the final movement. Stein’s arrangement survives only in sketch form, from which several “reconstructions” have been crafted.

A version by the German pianist and conductor Klaus Simon, introduced in 2007, is being played this weekend by a chamber contingent of the Richmond Symphony.

The first of two performances was staged in St. Christopher’s School’s new Ryan Recital Hall, a 450-seat venue that’s physically suited to music-making on this scale. (The repeat will be in a larger space, Blackwell Auditorium of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.)

Like many small-ish music rooms built recently, Ryan Hall has a bright, transparent acoustic that gives each instrument or voice its own sonic space. Every note (right or wrong) carries clearly, high pitches tend to stand out, and ensembles have to put extra effort into producing warm collective tone.

A 16-member symphony ensemble, led by Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, had mixed success in coping with the hall’s acoustical character.

The string quintet, undergirded by an electronic version of a harmonium, consistently realized Mahler’s bucolic lyricism, the low strings playing with especially glowing warmth. The winds were more vividly colorful and atmospheric than they generally sound in the full orchestration; but they were also far more prominent, at times flat-out loud. Piano and percussion were gratifyingly subtle.

The soprano’s song in the symphony’s finale is meant to convey a child’s vision of heaven. This is a challenge, as few sopranos past teen-age sound child-like. (Some conductors – Leonard Bernstein, famously/notoriously – have tried giving the part to a boy soprano.) Magdalena Kuźma, the soprano in these concerts, sang like a woman who remembers being a girl with a wistful imagination, an agreeable reconciliation of character and tone.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 27 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., Ashland. Tickets: $22. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

Putin punches the ‘cancel’ button

Vladimir Putin has taken time off from genocidal war-making to complain that the West is “canceling” Russian culture, and to tap his most high-profile cultural apparatchik, conductor Valery Gergiev, to take over a “common directorate” to operate the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev quit his post as musical director of the Bolshoi earlier this month, and the theater’s director general, Vladimir Urin, crossed the dictator when he signed a public letter opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Gergiev has run the Mariinsky since 1988.

In a video conference with artists and cultural administrators, Putin said that “proverbial ‘cancel culture’ has become the cancellation of culture. . . . The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are being removed from playbills. Russian writers and their books are being banned.”

In fact, most bans in the West have targeted artists such as Gergiev who have supported Putin or tried to rationalize refusals to denounce the invasion. Several ensembles called off performances of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” as inappropriate during a Russian-instigated war; and tour engagements of Russian orchestras and ballet troupes have been canceled, in line with other moves by democracies to economically isolate the country.

Evidence of bans of Russian music, literature and other art forms is sketchy to non-existent. The New York Times’ Anton Troianovski and Javier C. Hernández report that currently New York’s Metropolitan Opera is staging Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” while a number of US orchestras are presenting Russian programs and festivals. The 2022-23 seasons that have been announced to date show no significant reduction, let alone a boycott, of Russian repertory.

Individual acts of estrangement from things Russian can’t be quantified: We’ll never know how many liters of vodka have been poured down drains, or how many listeners decided today to listen to Debussy instead of Scriabin.

For Putin, “[w]hat’s most important right now is to indoctrinate his supporters,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “Our cultural life is not ending, and we don’t need anything from the West.”

Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
March 19-20, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted March 23)

In the Richmond Symphony’s latest Masterworks program, “From Scotland’s Highlands,” all that was missing were . . . Scots.

So it usually goes. Most of the familiar classical works on Scottish themes have been composed by outsiders – in this case, two Germans, Felix Mendelssohn and Max Bruch, and the English-born Peter Maxwell Davies. (Davies was an adopted Scot, living on the Orkney Island of Sanday for the last 45 years of his life.)

Daisuke Yamamoto, the symphony’s concertmaster, was the soloist in Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” a showpiece for violin virtuosos (written for Pablo de Sarasate) built on well-known folk tunes, most prominently “Through the Woods, Laddie,” its recurring theme, and “Scots Wha Hae” in the fantasy’s finale.

Yamamoto gave the work’s sonically brilliant fiddle figurations and Scottish rhythmic “snap” their due, but more constructively concentrated on Bruch’s free phrasing and coloristic shading of melodies. The violinist’s sound was bronze as often as silver; the moods he conveyed were more often contemplative or nostalgic than declarative.

Valentina Peleggi, the symphony’s music director, set a complementary tone in the orchestra’s accompaniment, managing along the way to bring some continuity to a piece that can sound like an episodic succession of orchestral pronouncements followed by violin elaborations.

Continuity more or less takes care of itself in Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony (No. 3 in A minor), one of the most perfectly constructed, no-notes-wasted, no-theme-undeveloped works in the orchestral literature. The only interpretive interventions it really needs are balancing of instrumental voicings and properly contrasting animation and songfulness in treatments of its tunes.

On those interpretive scores, Peleggi opted for high contrasts in voicings – solo and ensemble winds sounded more prominently than strings, at least in the audio stream of the performance – and generally fleet tempos.

That seems to be the current fashion in performances of early 19th-century works whose styles straddle the classical and the romantic. A classical approach can enhance some of this music (Franz Schubert’s early symphonies, for example); but in pieces like the Mendelssohn “Scottish” that are driven by evocative melodies and outdoorsy atmospherics, too brisk a pace effectively underplays the music. That’s what happened in this reading.

“An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise,” the most popular of Davies’ many Scottish-themed compositions, could be characterized as Scottish with generous shots of Scotch. The composer, a onetime “bad boy” of British musical modernism, liberally garnishes the piece with massed instrumental collisions – drunken brawls – alongside representations of folksy nuptials and the early morning after.

The work’s highlight comes at the end, when a bagpiper plays while pacing from the back of the hall to the stage. Robert Mitchell, the piper in this performance, brought both flair and gravitas to his cameo appearance.

The stream of the program remains accessible through June 30. Single-concert access: $30. Full Masterworks season access: $180. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

Virginia Opera 2022-23

In its 2022-23 season, Virginia Opera will bracket a contemporary opera, “Fellow Travelers” by Gregory Spears, with “The Valkyrie” (“Die Walküre”), the second installment of its ongoing Wagner “Ring” cycle, and two audience favorites, Verdi’s “La Traviata” and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Spears, a Virginia Beach native, introduced “Fellow Travelers” in 2016. Based on Thomas Mallow’s 2007 novel and set to a libretto by Greg Pierce, the opera relates the love story of two gay men working in Washington during the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, when homosexuals were purged from federal employment.

“The Valkyrie,” to be staged in an arrangement by Jonathan Dove, follows an adaptation of “Das Rheingold,” first of the “Ring” cycle of four music dramas, which launched the current season. Virginia Opera plans to continue with “Siegfried” in the 2023-24 season and the final installment of the cycle, “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), in 2024-25, the company’s 50th-anniversary season.

All four 2022-23 offerings will be conducted by Adam Turner, Virginia Opera’s artistic director, with members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in the first three productions and the Richmond Symphony in “La Traviata.” Casts and stage directors will be announced later.

Subscribers and donors will have access to a special concert by Will Liverman, the Virginia-born baritone who serves as Virginia Opera’s creative partner and advisor, with Turner as piano accompanist. The date of the concert will be announced later.

Subscription packages for performances at Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House are priced from $95.48 to $560; for performances at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center in Richmond, $85.80 to $492.52. Subscription prices will be announced later for performances at the Center for the Arts of George Mason University in Fairfax.

For details, call Virginia Opera’s box office at (866) 673-7282 or visit http://vaopera.org

Performance dates for the coming season:

– Wagner: “The Valkyrie” – Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and 2 in Norfolk; Oct. 8 and 9 in Fairfax; Oct. 14 and 16 in Richmond.

– Gilbert & Sullivan: “The Pirates of Penzance” – Nov. 4, 5 and 6 in Norfolk; Nov. 12 and 13 in Fairfax; Nov. 18 and 20 in Richmond.

– Spears: “Fellow Travelers” – Jan. 27, 28 and 29 in Norfolk; Feb. 4 and 5 in Fairfax; Feb. 10 and 12 in Richmond.

– Verdi: “La Traviata” – March 3, 4 and 5 in Norfolk; March 11 and 12 in Fairfax; March 17 and 19 in Richmond.

Kennedy Center renames Russian Lounge

The Russian Lounge at Washington’s Kennedy Center, a space for high-end donors and meetings, has been re-branded, apparently in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The space, located near the Kennedy Center Opera House, was renovated in 2011 with a $5 million gift from Vladimir Potanin, a Russian billionaire and international arts patron who has been linked to Putin. Potanin also was a trustee of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York until his resignation earlier this month.

Reporting for Politico, Tara Palmeri quotes Kennedy Center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews: “The naming period for the Lounge has now ended. Due to the tragedy in Ukraine, the Kennedy Center and the [Potanin] Foundation have mutually agreed to no longer use the name Russian Lounge.” The space has been renamed the Opera House Circles Lounge:


Russian pianist digs hole, keeps digging

The Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky has been dropped by his talent manager following an appearance on a state-television talk show, during which he charged the West with provoking Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and suggested that Russian forces cut off electricity to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

The management firm, which had represented Berezovsky for nearly 20 years, issued a statement condemning those remarks by the pianist, whom it called a “gifted artist and paradoxical individual.”

Berezovsky has made several attempts to extricate himself. In the latest, he wrote to the English music journalist Norman Lebrecht, citing, among others, John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political scientist who has advocated a “realist” geopolitical strategy on Russia and opposed NATO membership for former Soviet states. Isaac Chotiner, writing in The New Yorker, quoted Mearsheimer as saying, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.”

The pianist’s note to Lebrecht:

Boris Berezovsky quotes US crackpot theorists

“ ‘When the guns are booming, the muses remain silent.’ I should have followed this wise adage,” Berezovsky writes. Three weeks ago, that might have been a plausible, self-protective response. Today, fairly or not, silence is widely interpreted as acquiescence. And now that Putin is calling Russians who oppose his war “scum and traitors,” silence may not be an option for much longer.

Symphony eases safety restrictions

With Covid-19 infections falling in this area, the Richmond Symphony has eased safety measures for its concerts at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center.

Vaccine checks will no longer be required for admission; but patrons are asked not to attend if they have tested positive for the virus, have been exposed to someone testing positive in the past two weeks, or do not feel well.

Subscribers and single-ticket holders who are ill or have been exposed are eligible for free exchanges of tickets for future concerts.

Patrons over 3 years old are asked to continue wearing masks in the hall.

Carpenter Theatre concessions will reopen and refreshments may be consumed in the hall.

Open seating will resume during pre-concert talks, and the Dominion Energy Center Donor Lounge will reopen, beginning on April 9.

Normal seating will resume for LolliPops and Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra concerts.

For more information, call the symphony’s patron services desk at (804) 788-1212, Ext. 2, or e-mail patronservices@richmondsymphony.com

Wachner fired over misconduct allegation

Julian Wachner, one of leading US choral directors, has been fired by New York’s Trinity Episcopal Church for as-yet unverified charges of sexual misconduct.

A female singer has accused Wachner of making unwelcome advances, which he has denied. “Depriving Mr. Wachner of the benefit of the full narrative is the antithesis of due process and allows distortions to triumph over the truth,” his lawyer, Andrew T. Miltenberg, wrote in an e-mail to The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández.

Trinity’s statement on Wachner’s dismissal reads in part: “[W]e have concluded based on recent information that Julian has otherwise conducted himself in a manner that is inconsistent with our expectations of anyone who occupies a leadership position.”

Since 2011, Wachner has been church’s director of music and arts, leading the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and NOVUS NY, and, since 2018, artistic director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival in Michigan. He was director of The Washington Chorus from 2008 to 2017. He has led ensembles at Spoleto, Tanglewood and other music festivals, and has held several academic posts.

Wachner has been touted as a candidate for director of the Oregon Bach Festival, Hernández reports: