Russian classical music stars under pressure due to war in Ukraine

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Russian maestro Valery Gergiev is known to have close ties to Vladimir Putin.

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra sacked Russian conductor and Kremlin loyalist Valery Gergiev on Tuesday after failing to speak out against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, while a leading Russian soprano withdrew from concerts as the fallout from the war engulfed artists.

Gergiev, 68, has been under pressure from classical music institutions across Europe since Russian forces entered Ukraine last week, and has already been barred from a series of high-profile concerts.

“With immediate effect, he will no longer conduct the concerts of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra,” said Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter.

The move came after Gergiev skipped a Monday deadline to publicly distance himself from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The dismissal as conductor of Munich is a blow for Gergiev, who is considered one of the greatest maestros in the world.

As well as serving as the principal conductor of the German Orchestra since 2015, Gergiev is perhaps best known as the longtime artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater and St. Petersburg’s famed White Nights Festival.

Gergiev has yet to speak publicly about the Moscow offensive.

But he has proven fiercely loyal to Putin in the past, allying himself with him in the 2014 annexation of Crimea and a law aimed at stifling LGBT rights activists in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian diva Anna Netrebko announced she was taking a step back after sparking controversy with a Facebook post that condemned the war in Ukraine, but also said it was “not fair” to force artists to express their political opinions.

“After careful consideration, I have made the extremely difficult decision to step back from concert life until further notice,” Netrebko said in a statement shared by German concert promoter River Concerts.

“New Escalations”

Netrebko, one of the world’s most in-demand opera singers and a staunch Putin supporter in the past, was scheduled to perform at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie on Wednesday.

The event has now been postponed to September.

The Zurich Opera, where Netrebko was due to perform twice in March in Verdi’s Macbeth, said she had withdrawn and the role of Lady Macbeth would be performed by Veronika Dzhioeva instead.

Netrebko, who has collaborated with Gergiev on many high-profile performances, was once a strong Putin supporter.

In 2014, she traveled to the disputed region of Donetsk where she posed with a rebel flag and presented a check for one million rubles ($15,000) to a separatist politician.

But as the ripple effects of anger over the war in Ukraine have spilled over into the entertainment and sports worlds, the pressure on Russian artists has also come under scrutiny.

The German newspaper Sueddeutsche warned against labeling anyone who does not oppose Putin loudly an “accomplice”, especially when livelihoods were at stake.

“Every day brings new escalations, big and small, and no one knows what it will lead to,” he wrote.

Tribute to Putin

Gergiev, who has known Putin for three decades, expressed his admiration for the Russian leader in a 2018 interview with AFP.

He praised Putin for securing stability in Russia and restoring national pride, saying the president’s popularity was something “the Western world struggles to understand”.

Gergiev had in recent days already been excluded from upcoming concerts at the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall and at Carnegie Hall in New York.

The Edinburgh International Festival has also cut ties with him, as has the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, as well as its agent in Germany, Marcus Felsner.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra joined the list on Tuesday, ending a collaboration with Gergiev that dated back to 1988. The Gergiev Festival in the Dutch city has also been scrapped.

The Bavarian State Opera, also in Munich, said on Twitter that it was canceling planned engagements with Gergiev and Netrebko.

In New York, Metropolitan Opera chief executive Peter Gelb promised the world-famous opera “will no longer engage with artists and institutions that support Putin or are supported by him”, without naming specific names.

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