Festival’s Gergiev Problem

As the first reports of the Russian attack on Ukraine emerged, Edinburgh International Festival was putting out a press release preparing the way for the unveiling of its 2022 programme, celebrating the event’s 75th anniversary and expected at the end of March.

The Festival is likely to find itself the focus of attention over cultural sanctions before the big reveal however. Its Honorary President, and regular visiting superstar conductor, is Valery Gergiev, a close friend and associate of Vladimir Putin, who has regularly expressed his support for the Russian president and his actions.

Gergiev was due to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall this evening in the first of three concerts, but the Austrian orchestra will now be conducted by the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, who has also expressed support for President Putin, has similarly been dropped from the New York concerts.

In Italy, where Gergiev has been conducting performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the mayor of the city has instructed theatre management to sack the conductor if he fails to explicitly condemn the invasion of Ukraine.

Gergiev last appeared at the Edinburgh Festival when he conducted the RSNO and pianist Steven Osborne in the temporary concert hall tent at Edinburgh Academy Junior School last summer (reviewed by Vox Carnyx here: https://voxcarnyx.com/2021/08/20/rsno-gergiev-osborne/). With his singular conducting style, he is one the world’s most admired musicians, but his association with Putin has long been controversial.

The conductor was announced as Honorary President at the end of the 2011 Festival, the third musician to hold the title in the event’s history, succeeding Yehudi Menuhin and Charles Mackerras. The appointment marked 20 years of association with the EIF, bringing the Mariinsky Opera (previously the Kirov) to Edinburgh, and directing international orchestras. A Mariinsky production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten closed the 2011 programme at the Festival Theatre.

A year later Gergiev appeared in a television ad for Putin’s presidential campaign and in 2014 he endorsed the annexation of Crimea. In 2016 he conducted a televised propaganda concert from the Syrian city of Palmyra after Russian air strikes assisted President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin awarded the conductor a Hero of Labour medal the same year and has funded a new opera house for the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, where the men have shared roots.

While Gergiev and other vocal supporters of the Russian president have found themselves in the front line of sanctions in the cultural field, there have been calls for a wider boycott of Russian artists in protest against the action in Ukraine, regardless of their views on the country’s leader. German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt is amongst those who have said they will not play in the country or share a platform with Russian artists who support Putin in the current situation, while others have called for “a full cultural boycott” of Russia.

A spokesman for the the Edinburgh International Festival said: “The title of Honorary President has been given to a range of artists in the festival history, people who have made important artistic contributions to the festival. Valery Gergiev was named as Honorary President 11 years ago and it remains an honorific title”.