By Leslie Ferenc, Toronto Star, April 11, 2015
Not a note of regret by pianist after TSO snub. Classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa tells the Star she plans to keep tweeting about Ukraine and still hopes to play in Toronto.
Will Valentina Lisitsa be remembered as the classical pianist with “the ugly tweets” or the pianist “who fought and perished for freedom of speech?” That’s what the Ukrainian-American artist was wondering after a turbulent few days that thrust her to the centre of the international spotlight.
A week ago, she was rehearsing for concerts in St. Catharines and then Toronto that were much anticipated by her fans. The first went off without a hitch. The second and third, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, never happened.
Social media, which Lisitsa, 45, had used successfully to launch herself as a classical star — she is known by her tens of thousands of online fans as the “YouTube pianist” and “the Justin Bieber of classical music” — also got her into trouble with the TSO.
A tweet from Oct. 27 reads: “Anonymous voter cri de coeur: ‘Torn limbs, headless bodies on streets. This is 21st century, Ukraine? Die, Nazi b*tch!’ ” Another tweet, from June 1, 2014, drew a link between former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who had recently called for the West to provide arms to Ukraine, and Down Syndrome Awareness Day.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Ukrainian-born Lisitsa said she doesn’t regret having unabashedly criticized her native country’s government on Twitter (where she uses the handle @ValLisitsa), and she has no intention of stopping. “I’m labelled a traitor and that makes me feel angry.”
She added that her criticisms are aimed at the current regime and not the people of Ukraine.
Since her concerts were cancelled, Twitter and YouTube have been inundated with reactions from her supporters, angry that she was dumped by the orchestra, and from her opponents, who applaud the TSO for its decision. Some suggested she go to Moscow and play for President Vladimir Putin, whom they claim the pianist supports.
Lisitsa says some of her tweets have elicited death threats. She also said some of her comments have been twisted, taken out of context and misunderstood. In a lengthy appeal on Facebook, she noted “… satire and hyperbole are the best literature tools to combat the lies.”
Her detractors aren’t buying it. They say she’s inciting hatred and pushing the boundaries of Canadian laws.
When asked about the impact the controversy has had on her career, Lisitsa says, “This has not yet hurt me professionally, but we will see what happens. For now it has not deterred my musical friends from supporting me. Some say they don’t share my views on Ukraine but they support my right of freedom of speech. I welcome that.”
She is concerned, however, that her mother, who lives in the U.S., will face consequences. “She definitely can’t go back to Kyiv. It will not be safe for her there.”
Born in Kyiv when Ukraine was under Soviet rule, Lisitsa has Polish and Russian heritage on her mother’s side and Ukrainian ancestry on her father’s. Growing up, she and her older brother Eugene spoke Russian with their parents. “I learned Ukrainian at school,” she says, “and I learned it very well.”
When her parents separated, her mother, also named Valentina, became the breadwinner and was determined to provide her daughter with a better future. She “began looking for an outlet for my talents,” recalls Lisitsa. Ballet, swimming and skating were crossed off the list, but the girl shone when it came to music and the piano. Lisitsa says she would sneak off with her brother’s piano notes and books, studying them to hone her skills in music and theory. “I learned for fun.”
Lisitsa was four months shy of her 4th birthday when she began playing. A piano teacher recognized her budding talents and eventually she was accepted at a music school for gifted children and later the Kyiv State Conservatory.
At 16, when applying for a passport, Lisitsa says she chose Ukrainian over Russian as her ethnicity, which caused a rift with her mother and grandmother. “I wanted to be Ukrainian,” she says, adding that when Ukraine gained independence, “it was exhilarating to be part of a new nation.”
Lisitsa met her husband, pianist Alexei Kuznetsoff, at the Kyiv Conservatory and by 1991, the two were competing in the United States, winning top honours at the Dranoff International 2 Piano Competition in Miami. They returned to the U.S. the following years and were eventually granted citizenship. Lisitsa has also retained her Ukrainian citizenship. After living in North Carolina, where their 9-year-old son, Benjamin, was born, the family moved to Paris two years ago.
Lisitsa says she practises 12 to 14 hours a day, often stuffing her piano with sweaters to muffle the sound so as not to disturb neighbours. With a busy performance schedule, the family is constantly touring. That’s why Benjamin is being home-schooled.
The last time Lisitsa performed in Ukraine was in 1997.
She says her first tweets were often sarcastic comments about U.S. politics as well as issues such as animal rights. More recently, she began translating news reports on events in Ukraine, and said on Facebook recently that her goal has been to tell the other side of the story, “the one you never see in the mainstream media, the plight of my people, the good and bad things that were happening in Ukraine.”
Eventually, her comments on social media came back to bite her. First, there was a small protest at her concert in Pittsburgh in October and the occasional online criticism. She received death threats in Cincinnati, but there were no demonstrations in London, which also has a large population of Ukrainian descent. As more people read her tweets, anger mounted. Months before her Toronto engagement, TSO management wrote to her and her agent expressing concern about reaction to some of her tweets.
In one letter, TSO president and CEO Jeff Melanson said that the Ukrainian Consulate wanted her barred from playing because of her anti-government position.
“Then we were told that an important donor would withdraw support if I was allowed to play,” says Lisitsa, adding that she asked to meet with TSO management and the anonymous donor but her requests were ignored. In published reports, Melanson has denied that there was any such pressure.
The curtain came down Sunday when Melanson wrote to the pianist’s agent advising her that a few of Lisitsa’s social media posts had been translated. “Our inclination is to withdraw from presenting this artist due to the inflammatory nature of the content, which is attributed directly to Ms. Lisitsa and would likely breach or come close to breaching the Criminal Code of Canada.”
In another email, Melanson told Lisitsa that since he had not had any responses from her agent by the deadline requested, “we are exercising our rights not to have you perform on April ?8 and 9 and not to meet or rehearse as scheduled … Your fee will of course be paid.”
Lisitsa says she fired back with time-stamped emails she and her lawyer had sent to TSO.
So far, Lisitsa says, she has taken all the criticism of her in stride. But when a free concert she was invited to give Friday evening as part of the North York Music Festival was quashed, she sent an email to the Star saying, “This is quite worrisome.” She believed all arrangements for the concert had been secured.
In an email to the Star, John Schienke, a festival sponsor, explained that in the spirit of “the non-partisanship” that music brings, he had invited Lisitsa to the event. His company, J.D. Grandt Piano, was to provide a Steingraeber concert grand for her to perform on. He added that “due to some miscommunication in the scheduling of the concert,” her appearance had to be cancelled.
John Suk, minister at Lawrence Park Community Church, where the performance was to be held, told the Star in an email that he would never give permission for the pianist to perform at his church.
“It is our belief, as Christians, that we must be ambassadors of reconciliation . . . especially on pressing matters of race,” he wrote. “For that reason we would not under any circumstances invite or condone a concert by Valentina Lisitsa at our church.”
Lisitsa is scheduled to perform in Calgary in June and plans to return to Toronto in April 2016 for a concert at Koerner Hall. Given her intention to continue tweeting about Ukraine, controversy over her performing in Canada is unlikely to go away.
A tweet and an explanation
Lisitsa’s tweet from Aug. 28, 2014, included photos of men and women in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts juxtaposed with a picture of African dancers in traditional garb. It reads, “New school year begins in Odessa with teachers forced to wear Ukrainian tribal dress, a truly European custom :)”
Her explanation this week: “The depiction of an abstract ‘African tribe’ doesn’t allude to anything racist. It shows what it shows — primitive society that is not ‘civilized.’ I, as many people with roots in Odessa, thought it barbaric to force the teachers of many ethnicities to wear the embroidered Ukrainian ethnic shirt — particularly with consideration to the history of Ukrainian nationalists’ collaboration with Germans in mass exterminations of many minority groups in Odessa … In Odessa the teachers were too intimidated to object.
“What I was most stunned with is that Ukrainians say I mock African Americans by using this photo. Now, I don’t ever imagine African Americans as wearing tribal dress. This is a stereotype that only the racists themselves would ever apply to African Americans, isn’t it?”
Politics and the pianist, a selection of letters to the editor published by the Toronto Star, April 11, 2015
Shut up and play, by Susan Cole, columnist, Toronto Now, April 7, 2015
‘I haven’t seen a tweet from her that qualifies as hate speech. She hasn’t advocated genocide or even racism. She is categorically opposed to a civil war, so can’t be accused of promoting slaughter. She has only bemoaned – albeit vituperatively – a Ukrainian society that has lost its moral compass and its sense of history.‘
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