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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