by David Nice (from www.theartsdesk.com)
Last Thursday I was giving a talk before a concert in Birmingham, decently but not inspiringly conducted by the much-liked Vasily Sinaisky. Had I been in London I could have taken my pick between two greater interpreters, Valery Gergiev launching his Berlioz series with the London Symphony Orchestra and veteran Yury Temirkanov returning to one of his standard programmes with the Philharmonia.
Both appeared on the list of 549 “trustees” supporting Vladimir Putin’s 2012 re-election campaign. Temirkanov recently established chauvinist credentials which made the foolish remarks of young Vasily Petrenko about women conductors seem just playful. Alex Ross, one of the music world’s leading champions of gay and other human rights, pointed us towards them in a New Yorker article: there you find a link to a Russian-language interview which includes Temirkanov saying “the essence of a conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of woman is weakness”. Would that stop me going to his concerts? No; and the same applies to Petrenko, who may engage mouth before brain but remains a remarkably assured interpreter as his ongoing Shostakovich cycle with his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra continues to show. Reviewing the concerts and CDs of both conductors gives the writer a chance, where relevant, to draw attention to their unenlightened views.
What set Gergiev beyond the pale for me was the comment reported by a reader of my last article here on the issue of artists and Russia’s new institutionalized homophobia. He or she quoted Gergiev when questioned by a Rotterdam reporter about the laws making it a criminal offence not so much to promote as even to mention as significant an issue, say, as Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality to a minor (Christopher Gable and Richard Chamberlain in Ken Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers pictured above). His reply? According to my commenter’s translation from Volkskrant, “This law is not about homosexuality; it targets paedophilia”.
And so the huge outrage anyone, gay or straight, ought to feel at this supreme insult – humans’ instinct to love where they will, and must, becomes an urge to defile children – boils over, as it did when Cardinal Bertone made his stupid remarks a few years back. But the Catholic Church under the apparently genuine humility of a noble Pope seems to have moved on. Russia has moved backwards. It was only last week a well-versed friend reminded me that homosexuality was legalised there in 1917, only to be re-criminalised in the dark year of 1936. The new, if chaotic country made it legal again in 1993. And now, in a vicious atmosphere which affects anyone who challenges the regime anywhere, one which it is not fanciful or hyperbolic to define as well on the way to emulating Stalin’s turn for the worse, law upon law is added to create a climate of fear for gay people, among many others – from the Arctic 30 to Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky – whom it is not this article’s remit to discuss.
It is not the same as Section 28 in Thatcher’s Britain. It affects all Russian institutions. In Stephen Fry’s bold tour to meet brave people and stupid, malevolent lawmakers around the world for his BBC Two two-part documentary Out There, a St Petersburg lesbian told us how she was “correctively” raped and so badly beaten up that she spent a long time in hospital. When she tried to make her report to the police, they turned her away when they learned of her sexuality. The state laws are a licence for thugs to kill in every Russian town and city. The suicide rate among young gay people in Russia already stands officially at one in four; how much worse must that be in real terms.