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Toronto's hosting of pro-Putin conductor Gergiev and his sexual politics is problematic

Valery Gergiev is one of the world's leading conductors, but the music director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Orchestra has been getting mixed reviews lately.

Some music critics wonder if he spreads his talents too thin with his many international engagements; other people just denounce his politics.

In Western capitals, his appearances are often met with protests: Gergiev is cozy with the Putin regime and, in 2013, he defended its anti-gay legislation, telling a Dutch newspaper that the law that prohibits giving minors information about homosexuality was intended to protect children against pedophilia.

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As tickets for a concert by Gergiev and the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall went on sale this week, Egale, a Canadian group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, released an open letter calling for a cancellation. Egale argues Gergiev's association with Putin's oppression of the gay community makes him an unacceptable performer to invite into a publicly subsidized venue.

Apparently taken by surprise, Roy Thomson Hall issued a statement saying: "The upcoming presentation of the Mariinsky Orchestra is a celebration of music and intended to bring people together with one of the world's most esteemed musical ensembles. We acknowledge and respect the concerns raised by Egale and have reached out to them to discuss."

The Mariinsky has yet to respond to The Globe's e-mail asking if Gergiev would like to clarify his position or comment on Egale's protest, but in a statement he posted on his Facebook page in 2013 after a protest in London, he denied supporting anti-gay legislation.

He said he had "… worked with tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries from all walks of life and many of them are indeed my friends. I collaborate with and support all my colleagues in the endeavour for music and art." (His critics have argued this response qualifies as little more than, "Some of my best friends are gay.")

When it comes to politics, Gergiev certainly seems to have one face for Russia and another for the West; despite his soothing remarks in London, he is one of the prominent Russian artists who signed an open letter supporting Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Egale compares his appearance with the controversy that erupted two years ago when the Toronto Symphony disinvited the pianist Valentina Lisitsa, a member of the Russian minority in Ukraine who had been posting racial slurs against Ukrainians on Twitter.

It's an odd example to raise because that case divided the community between those who agreed with the decision to cut her, and those who interpreted the TSO move as censorship – although Lisitsa still got her fee.

At the time, I argued that the orchestra had every right to distance itself from an Internet troll who could be held responsible for her tweets, but Gergiev's case seems different, since his offensive remarks now date back five years. The question here is really: How useful is it to punish Putin apologists?

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The truth is that Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime is a Soviet Union minus only the gulags; for his opponents, freedom of speech is a dangerous fantasy and many institutions are now effectively under state control.

With a new building designed by the Canadian architect Jack Diamond, the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) and its orchestra have thrived under Putin, and Gergiev can be considered something of an official artist. Certainly, he's an opportunist, but the music director signing the Ukraine letter may be a sine qua non for the future of the Mariinsky.

Classical music seems particularly prone to these political tugs-of-war.

The full-scale classical orchestra and its symphonic music carry heavy cultural capital that can be used to symbolize civilization for a state with an appetite for propaganda, while the institution is also a big and slow-moving beast that usually needs government sponsorship to survive. Meanwhile, the music itself is abstract, its meaning and possible political implications subject to any number of interpretations. Twentieth-century European music history is filled with figures – Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan, Dmitri Shostakovich – whose status as dupes, collaborators or secret dissidents was hotly debated by defenders and detractors.

So what is a 21st-century Toronto music lover to do?

Obviously any individual can decide he or she wants nothing to do with Gergiev and his murky politics – however beautifully the Mariinsky band might play – and just stay home. I suspect many of the Ukrainian-Canadians who patronize Toronto's classical-music scene will feel that way: Gergiev has been blacklisted by Ukraine.

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But asking a venue to cancel such a concert – or never to consider booking it in the first place – seems like a stretch as long as Canada maintains political, cultural and economic ties with Russia. China's appalling human-rights record doesn't stop Canadians from all kinds of exchanges with that country.

As the Russian republic of Chechnya actively and violently targets gay men, what's the best way to tell Gergiev that Canadians abhor homophobia? Maybe the situation calls not for a protest, but for a strong statement of what a rainbow-coloured pluralist democracy looks like.

The weather won't be as pleasant as it is in June, but a gay-pride parade down Simcoe Street on Nov. 10 would seem to be in order.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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