The Artist As Citizen: Pianist Evgeny Kissin Speaks Out Against Anti-Semitism
“I just felt that it was no longer possible to remain silent and not protest,” world-renowned pianist Evgeny Kissin said about his open letter to BBC Director General Mark Thompson, criticizing the media giant’s alleged habit of on-air favoritism.
“I don’t know what my letter has accomplished, if anything, but my motivation to write it came from the dramatic increase of anti-Israel bias and slander in some of the prominent British media in general and the BBC in particular in the last few years,” Mr. Kissin explained to me when I asked him about the reactions to his outrage relating to a BBC report in December, 2009.
The report and the arguments that followed had centered on Israel’s alleged harvesting of Palestinian organs and blood for future transplants, which Kissin regarded as biased reporting. He accused the organization of having lost “its position of truth and responsibility,” the very virtues he, as a young pianist growing up behind the Iron Curtain during the cold war, had admired and come to regard as a “model of democracy and human rights.”
It was a remarkable outcry by the Russian-born pianist, and – since 2002 – UK citizen, who is not known to be an extrovert, but usually makes headlines by playing sold-out concerts worldwide.
“Yes, I do believe it is right to describe my letter as an ‘outcry’, both on a humanistic level and from a Jewish perspective,” Mr. Kissin said, confirming his position as a defensive opposition against the political tendencies he perceives as injustice. He further sways political influence on his audience by posting a selection of political books, articles, and transcripts of selected speeches by renowned intellectuals and writers like George Orwell, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Yelena Bonner, Oriana Fallaci, Walid Shoebat, and Salma Abdallah in the library of his fan club’s web site.
Ever since his debut in the west in 1987, when he performed Tchaikovsky’s “First Piano Concerto” with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan at the Berlin Festival, Kissin – then hailed as a ‘wunderkind’ – has continued to shine in unusually memorable performances, such as the 1997 first-ever piano-only recital at the BBC proms. Today, 23 years after his Berlin debut, the 38-year-old pianist still has critics around the world raving about his mastery.
Allan Kozinn, in a review for the New York Times, comments on Kissin’s Carnegie Hall performance in 2005: “Mr. Kissin was true to form, his playing hard-driven and full of passion, and his interpretations ranging from the downright quirky to the elevated and insightful.”
And about the very special air Kissin exudes, Kozinn says: “Pianist Evgeny Kissin has an ironclad technique and is the master of the fiery grand gesture. But those are qualities that other pianists offer in equal (well, nearly equal) measure, and they are probably not the only reasons he has built a large and loyal following in New York since he first played here, at 19, in 1990. More likely, there is something in his enigmatic persona that draws and engages listeners much in the way a mystery novel does: each concert challenges the audience to figure out what makes him tick. It is unlikely that anyone will succeed. Even guessing how he’ll play a particular work is a loser’s game.”
And in the AllMusic Guide, Joseph Stevenson marvels: “His amazing finger dexterity and power are coupled with an electrifying stage personality.”
For the past five years Kissin has been living in Paris. He continues to follow a very challenging international touring calendar, which includes only the most necessary breaks after performances, so as to avoid burn-out and to make sure he is in the best physical as well as mental form. “My goal is to play as much as possible and as well as possible,” states Kissin very unambiguously when summing up his raison d’être as a spirited pianist and musician. About his social and political beliefs in general he says, “I do not have the time to stand up for everything I feel is right, or against everything I feel is wrong.”
In this case, though, he has decidedly left the l’art pour l’art podium for the deliverance of a political message. “In writing his letter, Kissin stuck his neck out,” comments Jay Nordlinger. “The classical music world, like the arts and academia at large, is not exactly friendly towards Israel. An anti-Israel stance is de rigueur and chic. Some musicians – I think I have spoken before about Nigel Kennedy, the British violinist – actually boycott Israel. I wonder if Kissin will suffer any professional setbacks for speaking out. … In any case, I bow deep to Kissin, somewhat stunned by his clarity and courage.”
And Jessica Duchen poignantly stated in her Standpoint Blog on December 31, 2009: “No doubt there will be people who say Kissin should shut up and play the piano, as they did to Krystian Zimerman when he spoke out against America’s missile shield that was to be stationed in Poland, and to Daniel Barenboim when he speaks up in favor of more peaceful practices in the Middle East, building the necessary bridges through music.”
But shouldn’t our highest ranked artists not only have the right to speak up as citizens but also be allowed to go beyond that, and act on a deeper moral obligation? Shouldn’t they be able to muster their civil courage and stand behind their principles? After all, few other people have the opportunity to create awareness outside the narrowly defined political realm as effectively as artists do through their work as well as through their persona.
Particularly famous performers – always subject of worldwide media attention – have a unique chance to make their voices heard. This certainly shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of pop and rock artists, but extend to classical musicians who, incidentally, have been getting close to rock star status lately.
Polish star pianist Krystian Zimerman went several steps further than just proclaiming his opinions. By putting his money where his mouth is, he not only used his 2009 debut recital at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles to speak up against the proposed US stationing of missiles on Polish soil, he also canceled all future concerts in the US, thus accepting financial losses to make his point.
In the Guardian’s “On Classical” column of April 28, 2009, Tom Service applauded Zimerman for his actions. In his opinion, Zimerman had broken “…the invisible wall that often separates classical musicians from their audiences… I am glad Zimerman isn’t afraid to shatter that barrier, and to show that however cut off from the world a celebrity recital in a glitzy hall might seem to be, it’s not.” And he reminds us that “… from Paderewski, Poland’s piano virtuoso prime minister, to Hanns Eisler, from Cornelius Cardew to Kurt Masur, countless classical composers and performers have been just as vocal and committed in their political beliefs.”
Another example of a famous musician actively using his status as an international celebrity and musical giant to advance his social and political perspective is Daniel Barenboim. The West-Eastern Divan orchestra, which he founded with Palestinian-born intellectual Edward Said, consists of young musicians from Israel and the Arab world, promoting peaceful interaction and personal communication through a common denominator: classical music.
In his 2008 book, Music Quickens Time, he says: “The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is, of course, unable to bring about peace. It can however, create conditions for understanding without which it is impossible even to speak of peace. It has the potential to awaken the curiosity of each individual to listen to the narrative of the other and to inspire the courage necessary to hear what one would prefer to block out. Then, having heard the unacceptable, it may become possible at the very least to accept the legitimacy of the other’s point of view.”
All this reminds me of a book I came across when contemplating the issues at hand. In his 2005 publication, The Artist as Citizen, Joseph W. Polisi compiled a selection of articles and speeches from his two-decade tenure as president of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, focusing on the role of the performing artist as a leader and communicator of human values. In his volume, Mr. Polisi defines what he considers to be the duty of the performing artist: “…to enrich the fabric of our society and bring forward the virtues and abilities that represent the best in humankind.”
But to which extent does this apply to the realm outside the artistic environment? And where and when does the artist’s responsibility cross over into the sphere of political engagement?
Says composer Sergej Prokofiev: “In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve man, the people. He must beautify life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art might consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future.”
I wholeheartedly applaud the civil courage and the integrity of artists who not only inspire through their mastery, but care to act as a “spark for thought” by appealing to their audience’s consciousness, thus reaching far beyond the stages of the performance halls