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Russian conductor pulls out of New York concerts after supporters of Ukraine protest

Conductor Valery Gergievin 2017.
Maxim Shipenkov
Conductor Valery Gergievin 2017.

Updated February 24, 2022 at 5:14 PM ET

Russian star conductor Valery Gergiev and pianist Denis Matsuev, both prominent supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, will no longer perform at New York City's famed Carnegie Hall this weekend.

They had been scheduled to appear there in three concerts this weekend with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

No reason was given by Carnegie Hall for the artists' departures, which were announced in a press release late Thursday afternoon. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin will step in for Gergiev; a soloist to replace Matsuev has yet to be announced. Later, a Carnegie Hall spokesperson told NPR that the changes were due to "recent world events."

Activists who support Ukraine had been protesting their planned appearances in New York.

Gergiev is not just any Russian musician: Over the years, he has been closely allied with Putin, in a country that reveres its classical music heritage and performers. In 2014, he — along with another classical celebrity, star soprano Anna Netrebko — voiced their support for Putin's actions in Donetsk. (Donetsk is one of the areas that Putin recognized as an independent region on Monday, and to which he ordered Russian troops.)

In 2013, Putin reviveda Stalin-era prize for Gergiev, awarding him the Hero of Labor of the Russian Federation prize — a year after Gergiev appeared in a Putin election campaign video, proclaiming his support. Their ties actually go back even further, to when Putin was a vocal champion of the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) opera and ballet companies while serving as vice mayor of St. Petersburg, and where Gergiev was and remains general and artistic director.

Pianist Denis Matsuev, who had been slated to solo with the Vienna Philharmonic at Friday night's performance, is also a vocal proponent of Putin and publicly endorsed Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2020, the Russian leader tapped him to be part of a working group to weigh proposed changes to the Russian Federation's constitution.

While there have been public complaints in past years about American appearances by both Gergiev and Matsuev, given their close ties to the Kremlin, it had seemed likely that this weekend's performances would go on as planned.

Gergiev in particular is a reliable ticket-seller — an especially important consideration right now, when international orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, are just starting to emerge from their pandemic-era financial losses. (The Friday evening performance is scheduled to be livestreamed by member station WQXR.)

The mayor in the Italian city of Milan — home to one of the world's most prestigious opera houses, La Scala — publicly called on Thursday for Gergiev to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Gergiev is scheduled to lead performances of Tchaikovsky's opera Pique Dame there until March 15, but the mayor said that if Gergiev doesn't issue the statement, "the collaboration will be over," according to the newspaper Il Corriere.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.