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Slipped Disc editorial: Music director to the dictators?

On October 7 in Berlin, Gidon Kremer will give a concert in Berlin, protesting against the suppression of free speech and human rights in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state of Russia.



Two weeks later, in Kazakhstan, Valery Gergiev will conduct the opening of ‘Eurasia’s largest theatre’, a $280 million pantheon built for the benefit of the ex-Soviet state’s wholly unreformed president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.



Western musicians can earn up to $3 million entertaining the ruthless Nazarbayev, who treats his oil workers like slaves and his citizens as silent puppets, or prisoners. Some, like the sensitive Sting, have been persuaded to pull out of Kazakh concerts.

Gergiev, though, is made of tougher stuff. Happy to serve the Putin autocracy, he has now added another dictator to his pack.

Performing in Russia and its satellites states has become a matter of choice and conscience for musicians who strut the world stage. Gergiev represents the blind-eye brigade, Kremer the proud line of Andrei Sakharov who applied his life to the struggle against tyranny.


Russian President Putin presents a Hero of Labour award to Mariinsky theatre director Gergiev during an awards ceremony in St. Petersburg

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  1. José Bergher says:

    Por plata baila el mono” (“The monkey dances for money” or “For money does the monkey dance” or “For money the monkey dances”). This Spanish saying refers to organ grinders whose little monkeys collect money from spectators at the end of the performances.

  2. Theodore McGuiver says:

    Astana Opera’s website declares that Attila is a ‘world premiere’…in…Astana!

  3. Great to see that you are not afraid to print this, Norman. Now can you get another personal interview with Valery so we can hear his thoughts on the matter? When I recently spoke with a member of his orchestra and asked for their opinion on Putin, they merely said “the only president I have is Gergiev”!

  4. Ignacio Martínez-Ybor says:

    I don’t care about Gergiev the political lap-dog. His conducting can be effective. However is was extremely disappointed when I played his recording of Walküre about two days ago. I heard it through my SACD system and the sound is fabulous. The vocal performances are superb, particularly Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme. However, the conducting was strangely feeble and lacking momentum and tension. The big moments were big, but nothing led up to them: the structure was absent. And the spaces in between just moved along from note to note as if nothing was happening in the music, as if the music had nothing to do with the drama. Gergiev needs to listen to Knappertsbusch, who whether fast or slow, tidy or sloppy, never forgot the immense story telling power of the Wagner orchestra. This Walküre has the best current contemporary cast and it is worth acquiring for that reason only, as otherwise it fails in the all-important orchestral department.

  5. “Gergiev represents the blind-eye brigade…”

    Ars gratia artis, l’art pour l’art’, art for art’s sake…say it anyway you want. It’s still true for the real artists of this age.

  6. For decades conductors and soloists happily worked with the Vienna Phil in spite of its exclusion of women and Asians. (And the orchestra continues to resist them.) Gideon Kramer has recorded with the orchestra. We see how moral standards are selective based on personal perspectives and biases.

  7. I haven’t had time to conduct an extensive search of this site, but has Lebrecht written any editorials criticizing musicians who perform in China (a much more restrictive state than Russia and perhaps Kazakhstan, and still ruled by the Communist Party)?

  8. Comparing Gidon Kremer’s humanitarian accomplishments with those of the great Andrei Sakharov may be very premature and a bit excessive, but everything is relative: in comparison with Valery Gergiev, Gidon certainly looks like a fair approximation of the legendary humanitarian of last century.

  9. I think that’s quite a harsh judgement on Kazakhstan. On the contrary, Nazarbayev has a relatively pragmatic sense of re-distribution of the country’s natural-resource wealth to the Kazakh citizens, which is why most of them continue to support him both publicly and privately. I’d certainly say it’s better to be a Kazakh there than a Russian in Russia, so the Kazakh’s are better off for their independence. Nazarbayev has started a sensible programme of training to make sure the next generation of oil and gas engineers are local Kazakhs, where at present they tend to be Western European, and has a fairly enlightened approach to having Kazakh students trained at the best institutions abroad and bringing their knowledge back to enhance the country. He seems reasonably supportive of the arts too, including western classical music (which, let’s face it, is hardly high on the list or known or understood for most of the population). I don’t think it at all fair to suggest he treats citizens as silent puppets or prisoners. Sure, it’s basically a dictatorship, but these things always take time to change and democracy cannot be imposed overnight (we’ve enough examples of trying that out to see that that’s true). Kazakhstan is peaceful and politically stable – these are the things that matter to encourage inward investment, and one hopes greater democracy as a result further down the line.

  10. Derek Castle says:

    Oh dear – and I’ve booked for his Berlioz cycle in London!

  11. Putin is no worse than Obama, a warmonger who presides over a regime (from whence dissidents have been known to seek asylum in Russia) of surveillance, prolific capital punishment, and extra-judicial torture, with a history of supporting tyrannical governments from Vietnam to Chile, and intent upon further arming the thugs in Syria who murder “blasphemers” in the street and recruit child soldiers from refugee camps.

    Performing in the USA and its satellite states has become a matter of choice and conscience for musicians who strut the world stage.

    I appreciate that we long ago attained the point of outage fatigue, but why are we still falling for the Cold War mentality that singularly pillories Putin for all of the world’s injustices?

  12. How many “dissidents [who] have been known to seek asylum in Russia” can anon name? My guess is, very few at most. Meanwhile, over 200000 people a year – dissidents and others – have been leaving Russia to live in Western countries since Putin came to power. He is far worse than Obama, for at least four main reasons: 1) to begin with, he is simply smarter, 2) he has a much nastier KGB-shaped personality, 3) majority of Russian population really like his kind of “strong leadership”, and 4) he probably will be able to rule his country for at least three times as long as Obama can remain in the White House.

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