One of my favourite conductors is the unpretentious Russian maestro, Valery Gergiev, who has for years roamed the world in a blur of adoring fans and admiring critics.
He is known to wield a great deal of power from his base in St Petersburg’s Mariensky Theatre where he masterminded a £450 million development programme thanks mostly to his good relations with Vladimir Putin.
His activities abroad are stupendous. He conducts most of the world’s top orchestras and runs a host of international festivals. His level of energy is undeniably prodigious and exhausting to musicians who nevertheless try hard to follow his example.
But recent remarks attributed to him in defence of the controversial new Russian law banning the promotion of homosexuality have incensed activists in the US and the UK, and have taken the gloss off his reputation and made him an easy target for the dissenting homosexual lobbyists.
On at least four occasions in the past two months protestors have disrupted his concerts forcing the very puissant maestro onto the defensive. The protests seem to have been sparked by remarks he aired to a Dutch newspaper in September, asserting that in Russia they do everything they can to protect children from paedophiles. He went on to say that ‘the new law is not about homosexuality, it targets paedophilia’.
If Maestro Gergiev assumed that his off the cuff remark was harmless and nothing to lose sleep over he was obviously wrong.
It did not take the activist group Queer Nation NY long to picket the gala season opener at New York’s Metropolitan Opera two weeks later, Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky – a work, as people were quick to point out, by a homosexual. In October, Queer Nation NY repeated the exercise at Carnegie Hall
In the UK, Peter Tatchell, the well-known human rights campaigner, followed a similar tactic by walking onstage at London’s Barbican Hall just before the maestro was due to conduct the LSO of which he is principal conductor. Mr Tatchell told the audience that the maestro was ‘a friend, ally and supporter of the Russian tyrant, Vladimir Putin, whose regime is arresting peaceful protestors and opposition leaders’.
More was to come when on Thursday about sixty people gathered outside the Barbican shouting ‘Gay Rights for Russia’, and ‘Gergiev stop supporting Putin’. Clearly rattled, the conductor posted a statement on his official Facebook page: ‘I have said before that I do not discriminate against anyone, gay or otherwise, and never have done. It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation and in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people.’
Given that the subject of homosexuality and what is considered gay rights abuse is a very sensitive topic, the maestro should not have made his remarks in the first place – knowing that such an explosive pronouncement could easily end up being misinterpreted. Music and politics are not good bedfellows but it does not mean that the conductor should be harassed or persecuted as a result. One must always remember that to err is human and all these over-zealous activists should bear that in mind for their cause will not achieve its objective if their tolerance seems to hit rock bottom. The freedom to express opinions must remain unassailable.