Chords and discords

Musical excellence can blunt the edge of political disputes

Elisabeth Braw

It was a fiery rendition of Sergey Prokoviev’s second piano concerto, an oeuvre so demanding of the soloist that it is rarely performed. Denis Matsuev “produced perfect accuracy in the most death-defying leaps of the left hand crossing over the right to the far reaches of his keyboard,” a reviewer wrote of the soloist, going on to praise the evening’s conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, for an animated performance.

The audience at London’s Barbican Centre rewarded Matsuev with warm applause; he was even enticed to perform an encore. The fact that Matsuev is not just Russian but a friend of Vladimir Putin’s seemed not to matter. A few weeks later, very different attitudes surfaced when Azeri tenor Yusif Eyvazov reportedly refused to perform alongside Armenian soprano Ruzan Mantashyan.

Political ties between Russia and the West are becoming as frosty as those between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as are relations between China and the West. Pundits speak of a new cold war. Even so, Eyvazov is the exception—and the Dresden opera house later said his refusal was all a misunderstanding. Western concert halls are featuring soloists and conductors from Russia and other so-called hostile states.

Last year, Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko assumed the music directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic. This spring Anna Netrebko, one of the world’s leading sopranos (and Eyvazov’s wife), is performing at the best houses in New York, Vienna and Berlin. Even as the US government is going to bat against China over Huawei and industrial espionage, Chinese piano virtuosos Yuja Wang and Lang Lang are touring the US. Meanwhile, Georgian tenor Otar Jorjikia and Greek conductor Theodor Currentzis will perform at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Young European musicians join Currentzis’s St Petersburg-based orchestra, MusicAeterna. The Carnegie Hall-based National Youth Orchestra of the USA has toured Russia and works with the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Carnegie Hall has hosted performances of Chinese culture and Russian music.

This state of affairs stands in stark contrast to most other areas of transnational interaction. The 2014 Olympic games in Sochi were tainted by the Russian government’s increasing belligerence. Scientific collaboration is being harmed, too. The US Congress, in particular, is rightly concerned that Chinese researchers are exploiting the intellectual property of US universities for the benefit of the communist government.

Classical music is a rare remaining area where citizens of countries that are at loggerheads (or worse) with one another can interact in a productive manner. “The most important aspect we’re missing in the public debate today is the ability to listen. Listening is fundamental in music-making,” Noseda, an Italian, told me. Indeed, long before the US State Department coined the phrase Track II Diplomacy—encounters between hostile states involving think tank and other civil society experts—in the early 1980s, classical music was Track II. “The world needs to find a layer where we can talk, and that layer is music,” Noseda suggested.

During the Cold War, Warsaw Pact musicians were invited to perform in Nato states. East Germany’s renowned tenor Peter Schreier sang Bach oratorios; Western audiences soaked up the artistry of Soviet pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter. In 1958, American pianist Van Cliburn won the Soviet Union’s Tchaikovsky Competition after the nervous judges had received assurances from Nikita Khrushchev that it was OK. On August 21, 1968, the day the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra played at the Proms in London. As chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt—a first-rate pianist—conducted his own musical diplomacy through friendships with East German musicians.

The socialist regimes were never entirely comfortable with their artists experiencing the West. Some musicians were banned from foreign travel. In 1965 East Germany’s Neues Deutschland reported a “cloak-and-dagger” plan to entice Gewandhaus Orchestra musicians to defect to the West during a trip to Cyprus. Even so, the de-facto Track II continued. “Musical connections were incredibly important, and the governments on both sides understood that,” noted Sir Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and
artistic director. “They knew that they had to communicate, and music provided that platform.”

More recently, ensembles have even been created with the intention of easing geopolitical tensions: the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said 20 years ago, and, last year, Georgia’s Tsinandali Festival, which features a pan-Caucasian youth orchestra. “At the end of one of our concerts, a Turkish woman got up and hugged an Armenian man,” recalled Noseda, the festival’s music director.

Featuring musicians from the other side does involve moral dilemmas. But just as the network of musical contacts kept relations alive during the Cold War, it can do so today. “The State Department is adamant that what we’re doing is important,” Sir Clive said. To be sure, classical music won’t end wars or even cold wars. But should Putin decide that cooperation is preferable to confrontation he could send a public signal by, for example, attending a performance by Western musicians in Moscow. Xi Jinping could do the same in Beijing. Donald Trump, in turn, could make the brief journey to Washington’s Kennedy Center and listen to the National Symphony Orchestra (coincidentally also led by Noseda) with its soloists from Russia, China and other countries. The Track II encounters arranged by foreign ministries are a worthy effort, but they are mostly conducted for their own sake. The musical interaction is already in place.

There’s another aspect: artistic standards. When Nazi Germany banned Jewish musicians from its concert stages, the quality of its music-making rapidly deteriorated. Some people may not like Matsuev’s friendship with Putin, but he is one of exceptionally few pianists able to pull off the death-defying leaps of Prokoviev’s second piano concerto. “What matters is musical excellence,” Noseda pointed out. Politics should be divorced from artistry—but musicians can help the politicians along.

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