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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 4th August 2010
Russian around...

While I was away, my interview with 'the other Jurowski' appeared in The Independent - Dmitri, little brother of Vladimir, who's due to make his conducting debut with the Bolshoi and at the Royal Opera House in one fell swoop next week. But in the meantime, another Russian conductor has been in the news, and for less happy reasons.

I wouldn't like to be in Proms director Roger Wright's shoes at present as Mikhail Pletnev's scheduled concert steams into view. Imagine it: you book a star pianist/conductor with a worldwide following - someone with whom you'd worked extensively in the past while at Deutsche Grammophon - for Britain's most prominent music festival, which is funded by the taxpayer via the BBC. Then the musician is charged with child rape on the other side of the world and is due in court in Thailand one week before his Prom.

Rumblings begin. The man is innocent until proven guilty, but in a nation where paedophilia has become a source of nearly hysterical mass paranoia, to the point that almost anyone who walks into a school has to undergo police checks, what will happen if the performance goes ahead? Since when do the readers of the Daily Muck take notice of "innocent until proven guilty"? 

Here is Pletnev's statement following his appearance in the Pattaya District Court on 19 July...

The truth, and the result, could be anywhere on a broad spectrum from a conviction carrying a 20-year jail sentence to the possibility that Pletnev, being rich and famous, is a prime candidate for being framed. But might his high-profile appearances at the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival  attract public protests? What happens if so? Does he need police protection?

It'll be interesting to see if he can get into the UK at all; but actually, assuming he can, it seems unlikely that there'd be anything waiting for him but the warmest welcome from his faithful fans. Admirers leap to his defence on artistic grounds and other character traits - modesty, financial generosity, etc. To this I can add that he is highly intelligent, has a dry, wry sense of humour, is reputed to be remarkably philanthropic with his own cash towards artists in need, and gives an excellent interview if he is in the right mood. 

But if a performer is big-time enough, it appears that fans will forgive him anything. Michael Jackson; Roman Polanski; the list could go on. The music-loving British public has turned a blind eye to the immortal Benjamin Britten's adoration of underaged boys for decades, despite the fact that his operas are overtly riddled with it. The composer was never charged with any offence, let alone convicted, so any potential problem is always brushed aside. The conductor Robert King, though, was indeed convicted and has done time in jail. His recordings are still available and his admirers have not turned away from them. I hear that his former orchestra has changed its name.

I don't see how proven paedophilia offences can ever be forgiven, tolerated or defended under any circumstances, no matter how great the artist in question. And personally, after 20 years in the music business, I'd be quite willing never to clap eyes or ears on Pletnev again, should he be convicted (not to mention one or two other musicians about whom rumours have been rife more or less forever).

The legal facts, though, remain clear: he is innocent until proven guilty and contracts cannot be broken just because he sounds like he might be an allegedly unpalatable character. If I were Mr Wright, I'd be hoping against hope that Mr P is turned back at passport control so that the issue cannot demand an actual decision. Up in the Edinburgh Festival, similar thought-processes must be taking place: Pletnev is due there the next day. 

As things stand, unless Pletnev voluntarily pulls out or is prevented from travelling, the concerts must go ahead. Whether we wish to attend them is up to us. After that, he must undergo a fair trial. 

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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