Classical music should not be the art of compromise

My thanks go to Joyce DiDonato for contributing to the debate about musicians performing in countries where human rights are under threat. Having spent some time reflecting on her contribution, I am convinced of Ms DiDonato's commitment to humanitarian action. But I am not convinced by the defence of her decision to openly criticise the Russian regime and refuse to perform in Russia, while remaining resolutely silent on Oman and China and performing high profile concerts there. Her beautiful news that classical music in the right hands can change the world is no surprise to me, and. many posts here have expressed that very sentiment . However, the view that I expressed in my recent posts was that commercially driven compromises are undermining that precious ability of classical music to change the world. My concern is that by remaining silent and thereby tacitly supporting despotic regimes, classical music is earning the same reputation as the much-ridiculed Formula One, namely that it will go anywhere if the money is right.

I agree with Joyce DiDonato that boycotting totalitarian regimes is no longer an option, but for a different reason. My header photo was taken in the museum dedicated to Pau Casals in his adopted home town of Prades in the Pays Catalan region of France. The great cellist refused to perform in countries not respecting democratic principles; in protest against Franco's fascist regime he went into exile from his native Spain and for four years refused to perform in public. But the days when a great musician can be so principled are long past. Classical music's cash hungry business model now makes striking compromises with repressive regimes and ethically compromised corporations a sad inevitability.

The most obvious of these compromises is when a musician performing in a country suffering under a repressive regime remains silent about the all too obvious repression. It is this silence that troubles me most. In the absence of any other convincing explanation I must assume that an artist who is vocal in their criticism of Russia but remains silent about China does so because they know that a dissenting voice may be punished. This is a very real threat; as Elton John discovered when he dedicated a performance in Bejing to political dissident and artist Ai Weiwei. Ms DiDonato's argument that appearing in nondemocratic countries carries far more power than staying away and simply denouncing policy is appealing. But staying silent on humanitarian abuses for fear of reprisals is conforming with the world, not changing it. Or in other words, those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.

Another example of a troubling compromise is selective activism. For instance Ms DiDonato writes of her emotional decision not to sing in Russia, but she is less emotional in her choice of Warner Classics as record label. This is part of Warner Music, which in turn is part of Access Industries Inc, an American conglomerate privately owned by USSR-born American entrepreneur Leonard Blavatnik. Although he is an American citizen, Blavatnik retains close links with Russia. One recent example is a $130 million investment in Lamoda, one of Russia’s largest online fashion retailers. The New Yorker has detailed Blavatnik's extensive business dealings with fellow Russian oligarchs and he has been described as "pro-Putin". Yet another example of these inevitable but ambiguous compromises is that Leonard Blavatnik and Joyce DiDonato sit together on the board of trustees of the Carnegie Hall.

But it is unfair to single out Ms DiDonato, because there are numerous other examples of awkward compromises. Another instance of selective activism is fellow Askonas Holt artist Daniel Barenboim, who is an outspoken critic of Israel's anti-Palestinian policies. Yet, without demur, Barenboim took his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to China in 2011, a country with a notorious history of persecuting Muslims and a long-running policy of cultural and human genocide in the occupied territory of Tibet. Such compromises may well be necessary for classical music to achieve its ambition of becoming a mass market art form; but they do weaken the argument that classical music can change the world.

Ms DiDonato's belief in " the joy, beauty, and profound, healing qualities of music" is shared by me. Long-term readers will know that I have celebrated those qualities in many posts over the years. But where we differ is that I find the qualities of joy and healing lacking all too often in the work of celebrity musicians on the lucrative 'London today, Bejing tomorrow' tour circuit. I too receive gratifying messages of support and the surprisingly large readership over the last decade for An Overgrown Path suggests that many others share my dissenting views. What Joyce DiDonato considers to be harsh criticism and cynicism, I and others consider to be inconvenient truths. We must never forget that freedom of expression - or the lack thereof in Russia, China and elsewhere - is the vital human right at the heart of this debate. That is why I invited Ms DiDonato to respond to my criticisms, and why I totally endorse her view that it would be a travesty to stop people speaking out as they feel compelled. Let us also remember that we are both very fortunate to live in countries where we can express our differing views without fear of censure.

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Pliable said…
I see that Lebrecht has gleefully linked to the contribution by Joyce DiDonato. As freedom of expression is at the heart of the debate it would be nice to think that he will now link to my response. But I am not holding my breath.
Unknown said…
It is a difficult tight rope walk for artists, for everyone is this world, deciding what to boycott, when to speak out. Take time to examine anything, and you will find reasons not to support it, it can become paralyzing. I applaud Ms. DiDonato for her thoughtful response. I only ask that artists and all public figures be sensitive to their surroundings. It really makes my blood boil when I see tweets from Dubai or similar locations making general comments about what a "great" or "beautiful" place it is, without thought to the horrors going on inside the country.
Brooke Larimer said…
How, exactly, is one supposed to avoid hypocrisy in a modern world?

Is one a tacet supporter of the Chinese government by purchasing a cell phone? What about buying sandwiches from the bodega owned by the Russian immigrant who sends money back to his family in Russia?

Is it even remotely possible to extricate oneself from the interconnected world economy and maintain an important career as an artist (or as anything at all)? Short of homesteading, which is reclusive thereby precluding anyone with career ambition, how can one live up to your expectations for a humanitarian?
Laura Virella said…
Pablo Casals' chosen home was San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he married and lived most of his adult life alongside wife Marta. Together, they left a wonderful musical contribution and legacy in our society, which needed it. Puerto Rico, however, is at the top of the list of places suffering from social abuses by the United States. It is a territory denied the right of self-determination, strangled by federal regulations to control commerce and land, and with no voting representative in DC nor the right to vote for the president of the US, even though all residents are born US citizens. So I don't think Casals would the prime example of a musician who refused to lend his talents to an oppressive regime or "countries not respecting democratic principles."
Pliable said…
In response to Brooke Larimer's point, as I say in my post "boycotting totalitarian regimes is no longer an option". This thread is about consistency of position, not boycotts. Joyce DiDonato is by her own admission an outspoken supporter of human rights. Yet, to my knowledge, she has not spoken once publicly about China's deplorable human rights record. However she has chosen to perform there.

Turning to Laura Virella's point: Pau Casals married Marta Montañez y Martinez and moved to Puerto Rico in 1957 at the age of 80, and he died 16 years later. So it is completely wrong to say he "lived most of his adult life" there. Ms Virella's views as a citizen of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which is a territory of the United States, are valuable. However independent monitors report no evidence of human rights abuses there which rank in order of magnitude to those perpetrated by the Franco regime in Spain or the current regimes in China and Oman -

In order to prevent circular arguments the blogs long-standing policy of 'one strike and you are out' will be followed on this thread.
Whereas much has been said on the (actual or just argued) hypocrisy of certain musicians, and no little on their open endorsement of what (not necessarily only) from the point of view of western corporate media is usually considered EVIL, the most absolute silence reigns on their endorsement (whether by comission or omission) of what manufacturated consensus dictates as GOOD, be it Yoyo Ma performing a duet with Condoleeza Rice or Lisa Batiashvili praising such a, well, controversial figure as Sakashvili.

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