Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

by Garrett McQueen

For several weeks now the world’s attention has been focused on Ukraine after Russia deployed its army in an effort to take over the country by force. Reaction to this conflict outside of Russia has generally been unified – the world wants peace and hopes that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, will pull back his troops.

While moral support and “thoughts and prayers” are valid and serve as an essential part of the conversation, taking action is what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has inspired in people around the world, and arts institutions are doing their best to engage this in their own way.

It would be a long shot (no pun intended) to expect orchestral musicians, for example, to put down their instruments and pick up weapons, but there are steps that can and have been made in the arts sector toward supporting the people of Ukraine during this most challenging time. What does support for Ukraine from arts organizations look like, though? It’s a question that a few arts institutions have engaged directly, one that holds historical precedent, and even one that could challenge the very notion of an arts organization’s role in this broad world of social and political challenge.

In considering the role of an orchestra or opera company when engaging the war in Ukraine, it’s important to remember a very pervasive narrative within the arts community that, to an extent, continues to drive the culture of many arts institutions.

In 2019, backers of Scala Radio, a then new station centered on western classical music, released the results of a study that highlighted a growing young audience for the western classical genre. The study found that about half of the people in this growing demographic were coming to the sounds of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as an “escape”, or a means of blocking out the issues and challenges of the world for the sake of a musical experience filled with calm, serenity, and peace.

This, of course, is only a ruse, as the “out of sight, out of mind” approach doesn’t create or promote anything positive for the individuals and communities involved in what is being ignored. Additionally, this sort of engagement (or lack, thereof) showcases the privilege that’s inherent among many western classical fans.

In response to the murders of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, this status quo has been challenged to an extent in the United States, but it is still largely upheld. The maintenance of this practice as it relates to the war in Ukraine hasn’t been without challenge. The way some institutions have maintained this “escapism” has actually created more visibility for institutions that have taken direct action.

The names Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko are ones that have been celebrated for generations across arts ecosystems, but their musicianship and fame weren’t enough to keep them from being removed from the rosters of a number of influential arts organizations. Among them, was the Metropolitan Opera, whose general manager, Peter Gelb, released the following statement:

“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.”

While the dismissals of Gergiev and Netrebko have been celebrated among Ukraine’s distant supporters, the Metropolitan Opera hasn’t always been so comfortable taking direct actions against artists whose values don’t align with the values of the organization.

In 2018, The Met fired James Levine, whose work as a conductor within the institution had been celebrated for decades. The problem is that his sexual misconduct was widely known well before 2018. While this, in itself, is a valid critique of the organization, their much more immediate actions against Gergiev and Netrebko have served as an example to much of the western classical industry; taking an alleged “neutral” stance is no longer acceptable.

Other institutions that have forsaken the “escapism” foundational to western classical music include the United Kingdom’s Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra. In a statement posted on their website, they offered the following:

“In light of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra, with the agreement of St. David’s Hall, feel the previously advertised programme including the 1812 Overture to be inappropriate at this time.”

The sudden “cancellation” of Tchaikovsky’s music, considering his Russian nationality, may seem relatively inconsequential in light of the over 2 million refugees that have fled Ukraine, but it certainly highlights a shift in the way orchestras have been engaging the broader world through their programs. Many orchestras have even turned to historical European composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev who, while Russian, openly opposed the totalitarian rule that they lived under by writing music that spoke against the oppressive nature of Stalin’s regime.

Additionally, there are a number of orchestras that have taken this opportunity to platform the national anthem of Ukraine in solidarity, including The Boston Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Arkansas’ Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra, the world-famous New York Philharmonic.

What is the role of an arts institution in the face of the tragedies that the world has seen coming out of Ukraine? There is no one answer, as organizations have explored several ways in which the conversation can be engaged, but what’s important is to engage the conversation. A culture of dismissing and acting against the “escapism” that’s been tantamount to the opera and orchestral experience is vital, and if it can be normalized now, it can have an application that not only shows support to the people of Ukraine today, but initiates a broader shift that will impact western classical music’s relationship with the world and its communities forever.