Daniel Hope with young Ukrainian musicians
NCCO Music Director Daniel Hope: “With young Ukrainian musicians at the Stolyarsky School of Music, Odessa; my thoughts and prayers are with Ukraine” | Credit: Odessa Classics

Long before today’s headlines about the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Michael Tilson Thomas, then San Francisco Symphony music director, spoke frequently of his Ukrainian origin and love of Russian music.

“Tonight we’re here to tell you a story,” begins his seminal autobiographical show, The Thomashefskys – Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater.

The Thomashefskys: Michael Tilson Thomas’s Ukrainian grandparents
The Thomashefskys: Michael Tilson Thomas’s Ukrainian grandparents

“It’s the story of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, two kids from little shtetls in the middle of the Ukrainian nowhere who came to America and became the founders and pioneers of the American Yiddish Theater; they also happened to be my grandparents.”

As of this writing, no Ukraine-related statement or action has been announced either from MTT or his successor at the San Francisco Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted concerts in Davies Hall Feb. 24–27, days coinciding with the invasion in Ukraine.

The difficult situation is further complicated by the fact that Russian and Ukrainian works and artists are omnipresent in music. MTT’s next concerts are due in Montreal in early March with a long-scheduled program that includes Donetsk-born Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, with Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev as the soloist. Salonen will conduct concerts in Davies Hall, March 3–5, including Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.

The Russian attack on Ukraine especially resonates in San Francisco, where the Bay Area has a greater proportion of residents with Russian or Ukrainian heritage than the country overall. Census estimates show that about 14,000 Bay Area residents were born in Ukraine, and about 26,000 say they have Ukrainian ancestry. The data also shows that 24,000 Bay Area residents were born in Russia, and about 98,000 respond that they have Russian ancestry.

The San Francisco Opera just posted this statement on Twitter: “Our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine, and we join in the call for peace.” The SFO also announced that the Feb. 27 Opera Aficionado session, “Opera in Soviet Russia,” was postponed in recognition of the current situation. Ticket holders for the interactive lecture were refunded.

Other local arts organizations have been tacit on the topic to date, but the rest of the world has been prompt and loud in protesting the unnecessary and unjustified deadly war. Opera houses around the world reacted with statements, dedication of performances as well as illuminating the facades of their buildings with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. San Francisco City Hall, across Van Ness from the War Memorial, was among public buildings displaying the horizontal bicolor of blue and yellow.

Alexey Botvinov and Daniel Hope
Alexey Botvinov and Daniel Hope

New Century Chamber Orchestra Music Director Daniel Hope, a Berlin resident, canceled a concert scheduled in Kyiv to perform with pianist Alexey Botvinov. Hope wrote from Krün, Germany:

My old friend, Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, was able to get out of Odessa with part of his family. Tonight [Saturday] in Schloss Elmau we performed an impromptu concert together.

We were due to be in Kyiv to work with composer Valentin Silvestrov. Instead, we played Silvestrov’s music tonight in Germany, alongside pieces by Alfred Schnittke, Myroslaw Skoryk, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

For March 2, we have organized a concert for peace at the Frauenkirche Dresden to show our support for Ukraine and in the hope that a peaceful solution can be found to this humanitarian tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the people of Ukraine.”

Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov responded immediately and unhesitatingly, both at the head of the Czech Philharmonic and while withdrawing from concerts in Russia:

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought unthinkable devastation and human suffering. There can be no winners whatever the outcome of this unjust and artificially created war,” Bychkov said.

“Under these circumstances I must withdraw from conducting the Russian Youth Orchestra in Moscow next June. This is a painful decision as I was looking forward with enormous joy to making music with the exceptionally gifted young Russian artists. Yet doing so under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.”

Semyon Bychkov
Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov said, “Silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice and ends up becoming its equal.” | Credit: Petra Hajská/Czech Philharmonic

Bychkov, who has conducted SF Symphony in concerts featuring Russian works, also expressed sympathy with Russians suffering from misdirected anger: “I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear; it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime.

“Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent so that we can celebrate life over death.’”

Bychkov explained: “I was born in St. Petersburg [then Leningrad] in 1952 and lived there for 22 years before emigrating to the United States. My paternal grandfather went to war and never came back. My maternal grandfather’s family members were exterminated by the Nazis in Odessa. My father fought in the war and was twice wounded. My mother survived the 900-day siege in Leningrad.

“Russian culture, its language, its noble traditions are in my blood. They always have been and always will be. Having gifted the world with extraordinary artistic creations and scientific discoveries realized by its sons and daughters, it pains me to see how Russia is unable or maybe unwilling to escape its dark past.”

Riccardo Muti, always in the vanguard of taking a stand in favor of the underdog, spoke at the Chicago Symphony’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its “Ode to Joy” fourth movement:

“We make music, which means joy and peace. We cannot play this symphony dedicated to joy and brotherhood without thinking of the suffering of the people of Ukraine … Joy without peace cannot exist.”

At the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s concert on the day of the invasion, LACO Music Librarian Serge Liberovsky arranged Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine and it was added to the program. It was written in 1885, at a time when use of the Ukrainian language had been forbidden by the Russian government.

“There were audible gasps from the audience when the LACO musicians began playing Prayer for Ukraine,” says LACO Executive Director Ben Cadwallader. “The air was heavy with emotion; I saw people wiping their eyes. It was a solemn moment marked poignantly by our musicians.”

The prominent Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, who lives in Israel, London, and Prague, issued an immediate statement on first news of the invasion, calling “those whose army invades the territory of another ... bloodthirsty criminals.”

Kissin, the youngest-ever recipient of the Triumph Award — one of the highest cultural honors to be awarded in the Russian Republic — given for his “outstanding contribution to Russia’s culture,” cited the history of Nazi war criminals in connection with Putin’s actions.

Evgeny Kissin
The famous Russian child prodigy Evgeny Kissin, who turned 50 last year, denounced Putin’s invasion as a crime. Credit: Pierre Anthony

Along with support for Ukraine, there is also swift and widespread action against such prominent Putin supporters as conductor Valery Gergiev. Within hours of the sudden siege of Kyiv, Gergiev, whose personal and professional connection with Putin goes back decades when they were both working in St. Petersburg, lost engagements in Carnegie Hall, and his positions with the Munich Philharmonic, La Scala, and elsewhere were challenged.

Said Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter, “I have clarified my stance against Valery Gergiev and urge him to also clearly and indisputably distance himself from the brutal assault, Putin against Ukraine and now especially against our partner city Kyiv. If Valery Gergiev does not clearly position himself here on Monday, he can no longer remain the chief conductor of our Philharmonic.”

Late Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it will suspend its ties to Russian artists and institutions who are allied with Putin. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, expressed solidarity with the people and leadership of Ukraine and said:

“As an international opera company, the Met can help ring the alarm and contribute to the fight against oppression ... we can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him — not until the invasion and killing has been stopped, order has been restored and restitutions have been made.”

Specifically, the prominent artists involved in the ban are Gergiev, who is also the Met’s former principal guest conductor, and soprano Anna Netrebko.

The Met is also scheduled to host a production of Wagner’s Lohengrin from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera in 2023. The Bolshoi, like the Mariinsky, receives Russian state support. Previously, London’s Royal Opera House canceled tour appearances by the Bolshoi Ballet that had been scheduled for this summer.

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