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XII. Hating Valentina

WSJ
ValentinaLisitsa is an American pianist from the Russian minority in Ukraine. Her experiences there caused her to resent the interpretation of Ukraine that predominates in the United States and Western Europe. The accusation that she is pro-Putin and opposed to democratic principles contradicts her obvious personality. She has been positive about America and is an American citizen. She lived in North Carolina for years where she facetiously called herself a redneck pianist. She is presently (in 2015) an American in Paris. She insists on keeping her political opinions entirely separate from her music. She kept a vitriolic commentary regarding Ukraine under a disguised name in her Internet twitter account—a medium unknown to me by choice. I have seen selected quotations that are, if accurately quoted, intemperate and mocking expressions that she defends as “satire and hyperbole.” These tweets express her attitude mainly toward the corrupt Ukrainian government but with reflections on the country itself and extenuating the Russian uprising. A significant reaction has occurred against her by Ukrainian organizations and generally Ukrainians of the diaspora. In 2015, that opposition caused the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO)to cancel a performance by Lisitsa. She was charged with “hate speech.” The comments against her often were also intemperate and mocking, as low as “Deport the whore to Russia!”

An elitist negative attitude toward her comes from her entrance into stardom as a classical pianist via the back door. Her recognition and acceptance as an extraordinary player came from her extreme success on YouTube, hardly the front door to the classical establishment. She has been insulted by one critic as the Justin Bieber of Classical Piano.[i] When she decided to try YouTube, Valentina was approaching forty and discouraged enough that she considered giving up. The YouTube technology served as the god from the machine, saving her from being just another angel burned in Hell. In making it to the top of the Classical music establishment, genius is not enough. An element of chance, influence, money and invidious distinctions are part of the game. Arguments can always be mounted as to the qualifications for greatness of musical performers. Valentina proved great enough to be argued about.    

This essay does not propose a resolution of controversy about Valentina Lisitsa. It focuses instead on the schadenfreude and freudenschade nesting in the human heart. Rule 1: Let us rejoice in the misfortune of others. Rule 2: Let us have malice toward the success of others. Those two rules hold not only toward our enemies but toward those we dislike or even in some cases toward strangers. Most of us practice them at least now and then. Valentina has borne the same malice and negative rejoicing against her as other artists and other achievers often do. Even humility and modesty fail to escape the sting of negativity and human nastiness. Being good is no defense. As Bernard Shaw commented upon the assassination of Gandhi, it is dangerous to be good. On the more ordinary level the schadenfreude and freudenschade settle for lesser goals, such as verbally stoning a perceived enemy. After all, what the political critics are doing to Lisitsa plays commonplace hardball. It is beyond their power to silence her music. Ukrainians in America and Canada are only trying to bring her down a notch in the music world as revenge for her anti-Ukrainian tweets. Nobody is stopping her free speech. Sometimes free speech has consequences. Surely she had to know the risk. Lisitsa’s attackers see their attack as fair, a case of tit-for-tat.

The exclusion decision of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra raises a far different question concerning the orchestra itself. When should a musician be barred from performing because of actions or opinions unrelated to music? Provided the artist’s private behavior keeps the artist out of jail, and provided the activities are outside the performance of music, the liberal opinion favors the artist. Uneasiness comes with the virtual banning of Wagner’s music in Israelor even with the presumably justifiable banning public performances of the ardent Nazi pianist Elly Nay after the war. That kind of illth spills over to philosophy, literature, and other creative pursuits. Let us refuse to read Being and Time. Nor will we pardon Paul Claudel, not pardon him for writing well. Let us tear down the Rivera mural in the Rockefeller Center. Let us exclude Thomas Wolfe from the Library of America.[ii] What happened to Valentina at Toronto only rhymes with such events, but their faint odor tinges the Toronto air. The decision of the TSO to silence Valentina for an evening amounts to an irritation rather than to a tragedy. Nevertheless, it steps in a wrong direction. Fiddling around with an open society’s openness goes on all the time and almost everywhere. It usually stays short of disaster. Still, it is dangerous. Our ragged history warns us of how soon and how often madness emerges among humans to run an evil course. The trivial consequence of the Toronto episode will doubtless be no more than embarrassment to the TSO. It is hardly the butterfly effect that will bring the whirlwind. Nevertheless, we should always remember about the human race that the next Auschwitz lies asleep in our silverware.    

We cannot fully understand Lisitsa’s politics from her sarcastic tweets. They reflect a grievance from her experiences in Ukraine along with a natural sympathy for her own people. Her public behavior and statements in America have been democratic and open hearted. She has publicly stated her strong belief in free speech. She recently said on a video that she favored totally “freedom of speech, freedom of discussion and freedom of heated argument.” She is a severe critic of the Kiev government, not without rational justification. Her interview in January 2015 by German Economic News gives her account of the extreme corruption and the hardships derived from it. Her more forceful explanation of the situation in Ukraine comes across in such venues as the Internet RT (Russian state funded) and in alternative news sources in America.[iii] While she is clear as to what she is against, she needs to be transparent as to exactly what she is supporting. No doubt, the Ukraine may be a good place to be from, as Lisitsa has lightly remarked. One may hear the same of Kansas or wherever.  Still, some facts are facts that Lisitsa has to deal with directly. Russia seized the Crimea. Russia incited the uprising and assisted it militarily in eastern Ukraine to make it part of Russia. These actions understandingly alarmed Western Europe and America. Does Valentina support and approve of these policies? We may logically infer that she does. She makes a good case that the war is bringing changes that will greatly improve the life of the Russians who were trapped in a hopeless Ukraine by the collapse of the old USSR in which, after all, Valentina grew up. Still, the long term relation of Ukraine and Russia is missing from her expressed view. That relation has a dark history. Not to deal with Russian brutality leaves out especially the near past of everything that happened in Ukraine from the time of Lenin’s Red Army to Stalin’s Holodomor, the created famine that took millions of Ukrainian lives.

That said, allow me a cadenza regarding this pianist that came to us from among the Russians in the Ukraine.  To me, she is the light in the eyes of God. Am I so knowledgeable of music that I can explain like a professional critic my belief that Valentia Lisitsa is not only a great pianist but a rare wonder? In saying so I must rely on the attitude of Ian Bostridge, the tenor who sang more than a hundred times the Winterreise lieder cycle. He wrote an insightful book about the music, “That I do not have the technical qualifications to analyze music in the traditional, musicological sense—I have never studied music at university or music college—has its disadvantages, but maybe advantages….”[iv] He tells us that even virtuosos usually hear their own music subjectively and emotively. If this should pass as chutzpah, read his book before you think so. I would gladly travel a thousand miles to hear Valentina Lisitsa play the piano. Luckily I missed the trip to Toronto to be denied that glad experience by the TSO.



[i] Russell, Anna, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2013. Bieber was then a 21-year-old pop singer/composer who became a shooting star on the Internet

 

[ii] Thomas Wolfe’s writings are an inherent part of American literature. His exclusion from the LOA is political and controversial. As of 2015, only a short story by Wolfe appears.

 

[iii] RT, or Russia Today, is a news source such as Voice of America or Algazeera. State funded sources can imply a bastion of untruth, e.g. Goebbels, but also a point of view sometimes sophisticated and sometimes a rational alternative to local predisposition.

 

[iv] Bostridge, Ian, Schubert’s Winter Journey, p xv, Alfred A. Knoptf, New York, 2015

 

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