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Shunned Elsewhere, Bulgaria To Allow Concerts Of Pro-Putin, Pro-War Pianist

Classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa (file photo)
Classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa (file photo)

SOFIA -- After embracing Russia's war on Ukraine, Valentina Lisitsa, a Kyiv-born classical pianist and the self-styled "Queen of Rachmaninoff," has seen her concerts canceled around the world. But not in Bulgaria's capital, where the 53-year-old pianist is expected to play twice in April.

The move is sparking backlash and calls for her planned performances to be canceled. Amelia Licheva, a professor of literature in Sofia, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that she wants recently installed Bulgarian Culture Minister Nayden Todorov, an accomplished musician and conductor who has performed with Lisitsa and still directs the Sofia Philharmonic, to exclude Lisitsa from the April 20 and 23 concerts to celebrate 150 years since the birth of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

"The thesis that we should judge the creator by their art and not by their personality is fundamentally important, but not always effective," Licheva said, calling the Sofia Philharmonic's invitations "shameful and immoral." In a time of war, she said, "art must give way to morality."

Lisitsa's troubles started in 2015, when her concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was canceled after controversial comments she made about the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa lashed out on social media. accusing "haters" of trying to "silence me as a musician."

Controversial Statements

Among other controversial statements, Lisitsa described Ukraine's situation after 2014 as a "civil war" and repeated pro-Kremlin talking points such as the prevalence of "neo-Nazi" elements in Ukraine. She touted herself as having become adept at "unmasking fakes published by Western media."

A few months after the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Lisitsa performed under Russian occupation in the devastated southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. A video clip of her playing and her purported rendition of "Victory Day" were used by Russian-backed separatists and pro-Kremlin state media to propagandize for Russian "liberation." The clip's timing, May 9, appeared to be symbolic as it fell on the day that Russia marks its victory in World War II over Nazi Germany, further infuriating Ukraine's defenders on social media.

In May 2022, Budapest's Margitsziget Theater canceled a planned performance by Lisitsa, citing the Mariupol appearance and, in December of the same year, an invitation to play at the legendary La Fenice opera house in Venice was withdrawn by the organizers.

Born to a Ukrainian father and a mother of Russian and Polish descent, Lisitsa grew up speaking Russian. After graduating from the conservatory in Kyiv she moved to the United States in 1991 with her partner, fellow pianist Aleksei Kuznetsov, whom she later married. A biography on Lisitsa's website said in 2019-20 that she was splitting her time living between Moscow and Rome.

In 2007, she posted her first video on YouTube of herself playing the piano; by 2012, she was the most popular pianist on the video-sharing platform, with her clips getting millions of views.

The Washington Post's chief classical-music critic in 2013 hailed Lisitsa as salvaging a "tanking" career to become "a growing star with a big-label recording contract and concert dates with the big orchestras and in the big recital halls of the world."

Valentina Lisitsa performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London in June 2012.
Valentina Lisitsa performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London in June 2012.

Lisitsa has defended some of her social-media posts. "If you wish, please take the time to read my tweets. You may find some of them offensive -- maybe. Satire and hyperbole are the best literary tools to combat lies," she wrote in a 2015 Facebook post.

Despite the other cancellations, the concerts in Sofia appear to be going ahead. Lisitsa last made a guest appearance for the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2021, notably performing under Culture Minister Todorov's baton in a guest appearance.

'It's Shameful'

Critics have praised the efforts of Todorov, who was named culture minister in February, to expand the list of guest soloists and collaborators after he took over the Sofia Philharmonic in 2017. It is unclear when the Sofia Philharmonic extended its invitations to Lisitsa for the upcoming concerts and neither the philharmonic nor the Culture Ministry responded to RFE/RL inquiries for this article.

Addressing Todorov, Licheva wrote on Facebook that "inviting her several years ago was possible, today it is not!” Licheva, who teaches at Sofia University's St. Kliment Ohridski, said that the events "should be canceled urgently; it's shameful!"

Speaking to RFE/RL, Licheva acknowledged Lisitsa's talent but said that, by siding with an undemocratic aggressor, "she becomes the object of another type of assessment." The appeal to around 4,600 Facebook followers sparked more than 170 likes and dozens of comments, but seemingly failed to attract widespread support.

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union and NATO with a history of close ties to Russia. Against a backdrop of institutional political crisis, Bulgarians have grappled with a unified response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Regarding public perceptions of Russia in Bulgaria, Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a lecturer at Oxford University, told RFE/RL in October 2022 that "sociological surveys have indicated that one-quarter to one-third of the electorate holds strong pro-Kremlin views," although adding "that's about the same percentage of the staunch pro-Western Bulgarians."

Lisitsa is not the only musician to face repercussions for supporting Putin or failing to criticize Russia's war on Ukraine. Conductor and Kremlin-loyalist Valery Gergiyev was fired in March 2022 from his position as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. A Kremlin-friendly Russian pianist, Denis Matsuyev, faced cancellations in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy, along with Russian opera singers, Ildar Abdrazakov and Anna Netrebko.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service correspondent Dilyana Teoharova in Sofia

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