Gergiev at Sochi: A controversial conductor in the long shadow of history

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
February 6, 2014

The XXII Olympic Winter Games will proceed with all the typical drama and pageantry. They'll also, however, be among the most politically charged Olympics in recent memory — and classical musicians, as part of the opening ceremony, will be right in the middle of the controversy.

The cause of the turmoil over this edition of the Games is the strong-armed regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Over the course of his 14 years in power, Putin has been increasingly criticized for centralizing control; recently he's angered many, in the musical community and beyond, for the imprisonment of protest rock band Pussy Riot and for his approval of a new law making it effectively illegal to speak in defense of gay rights.

Conductor Valery Gergiev, violist Yuri Bashmet, and pianist Denis Matsuev will be among the musicians opening the Sochi games on February 7. (Reportedly, they'll be joined by a thousand-strong children's choir.) Gergiev, one of the most visible classical musicians in the world today, has been in the thick of the Putin controversy, supporting the administration so enthusiastically that the conductor's American appearances have been met with public protests by advocates of gay rights.

Writing about Gergiev last year in The New Yorker, Alex Ross described the "psychological unease — a kind of critical despair" that he felt when listening to Gergiev's acclaimed interpretation of Shostakovich's eighth symphony. "We have read many accounts of Shostakovich's life under Stalin, his terror-stricken accommodations with the Soviet state. How should we react when this composer's music is led by a conductor who has entered his own pact with authority, who has even spoken approvingly of the politics of fear?"

Shostakovich was only one among many composers who struggled with the Soviet state.

Stravinsky — regarded as suspiciously friendly with the West — found his property confiscated, his royalties embargoed, and his work suppressed; he left for America, ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen.

Prokofiev left and returned ("I've got to hear the Russian language echoing in my ears; I've got to talk to people who are of my own flesh and blood"), only to be branded as "decadent" and forced to publicly apologize for his own "inaccessible indulgences" in atonality.

Khachaturian went so far as to pen an entire symphony (his third) intended to celebrate communism, but even so was named among the unacceptably "formalist" composers censured by the Zhdanov decree of 1948. "I was crushed," he remembered, "destroyed."

Poignantly, Tchaikovsky — the most beloved Russian composer of all time — is generally believed to have been a gay man with reason to fear consequences ranging from disapproval to banishment if his sexual orientation were to have been known publicly in Imperial Russia. This aspect of the composer's life was to have been portrayed in a forthcoming Russian film about Tchaikovsky, but the screenwriter of the partially government-financed film has now backpedaled and deleted from the script implications that the composer's homosexuality was anything other than an unwelcome rumor.

Music has become entangled, often tragically, with repressive governmental actions in many nations — from Nazi Germany, which suppressed music by Jewish composers while non-Jewish musicians made still-controversial accommodations with the authorities; to the United States, where composers including Copland and Bernstein were blacklisted in the McCarthy era for having allegedly communist sympathies.

In this long shadow of history, many will find it impossible (or inexcusable) to separate the music from its socio-political context when Gergiev takes the podium in Sochi — especially if the program includes Tchaikovsky.

Friday on Performance Today (1:00-3:00 p.m. on Classical MPR), hear Valery Gergiev conduct Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev) and talk about his role in the Olympic ceremonies.

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