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Ivan Katz

Ivan Katz

Posted: September 4, 2008 02:53 PM

The Maestro and The Butchers


Very little good ever happens when artists insert themselves in politics. The major exceptions to this rule were Ignacy Paderewski (Polish Prime Minister and pianist), Giuseppe Verdi (peerless composer; a member of the Italian parliament and senator) and Vytautas Landsbergis (Lithuanian Prime Minister and musicologist). On the other hand, Condoleeza Rice plays the piano.

Too often musicians entering the political arena manage to stub their toes - or worse, as any musician affiliated with the Nazi Party would have told you after 1945. The prime example was not, as is often thought, Wilhelm Furtwangler; it was Oswald Kabasta. An Austrian, after the Anschluss in 1938 Kabasta signed all of his letters "Heil Hitler!" and his fealty to the cause was unquestioned. When as a result of his activities on behalf of the butchers during World War Two he was relegated to the status of "common laborer" he promptly killed himself. The consequences of a musician backing the wrong horse can, in fact, be fatal.

If you are able to put out of your mind the fact that Kabasta was a perfectly dreadful human being - and I freely confess that I am not - he was quite a good conductor. Actually, the man was among the most remarkable conductors in the years between the end of World War One and the end of World War Two.

Valery Gergiev is many things but a remarkable conductor is not among them. Granted, there are times when he actually manifests some interest in the score he is conducting, and there are times that he can lead a brilliant performance. But the over-all average of his work is "middle-middle", the stupendous performances being balanced out by the nights that he just seems to phone it in. The Gergiev phenomenon is a creature of marketing, not of music.

All of this came to mind when, on August 21, 2008, Valery Gergiev conducted a concert in the main square of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, to, as one press report had it, "pay tribute to the memories of those who suffered in the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia." Gergiev is an Ossetian, and his relationship with the current Kremlin leadership could not be closer. Gergiev and Vladimir Putin are godfathers to each other's children. When the Kremlin says "Jump!" Gergiev asks "How high?" Were he alive today, Mstislav Rostropovich would verbally flay the skin off him.

North Ossetia is part of the Russia Federation; South Ossetia is part of Georgia. A quick look at a map will show that South Ossetia is to Georgia as Michigan and Wisconsin are to the USA. Russian demands for "protection" of South Ossetians sounds an awful lot like German demands for the protection of Germans in the Sudeten, and the Russian invasion and continued occupation of South Ossetia looks an awful lot like the Nazi march into Czechoslovakia after Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich. One can only imagine the reaction of the American people were Canada, in an attempt to "protect" its citizens, to invade and occupy Michigan and Wisconsin.

It is quite clear that insofar as the Western press is concerned, Russia is the aggressor and "tiny, democratic Georgia" is the victim in a typical "slaughter first and ask questions later" military operation in the Caucasus. It certainly looks like a case of the military giant to the north trying to squash the fledgling democracy to the south like a bug. The world community has condemned the Russian invasion with considerable vigor and something approaching proper moral outrage.

But according to Valery Gergiev, this is all utter nonsense. Gergiev was quoted as saying that "People should know the truth of what occurred in South Ossetia and why Russia had to send in troops. They were sent to save the lives of thousands of people who would have been slaughtered by the Georgians in their treacherous sneak attack, an attack that took too many human lives!" To my untrained ear, this is merely a slight updating of the ranting of Dr. Goebbels in 1938.

So as the world community has rallied in support of the Georgian government, Gergiev has firmly and inextricably placed himself on the side of the Russians by both his words and his deeds. His concert with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre in Tskhinvali was, not surprisingly, broadcast live throughout Russia where the press noted its "symbolic meaning."

The "symbolic meaning" is that Valery Gergiev has, like Oswald Kabasta before him, cast his lot with the murderers and against the innocent. The man who has claimed to possess the soul of an Artist has shown himself to have the morals of an alley cat and the soul of a pig.