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The Artist as Citizen: Pianist Evgeny Kissin Speaks Out Against Anti-Semitism

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"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.

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About Ilona Oltuski

  • Paul

    Amazing article ! Couldn’t agree more. Bravo !

  • Herbert Peckenpaw

    It’s really better for artists to just be ‘non-political’ in the final analysis, because you always take the risk of insulting someone. People want to listen to music so as to have a break from the jagged political discourse that lately has polarized our world. Although Mr. Kissin thinks the BBC is not fair, there are many people who feel the BBC is the bastion of fairness and it is where THEY GO to get their news. It’s obviously not a small number of people either. I would warn Mr. Kissin to take that into consideration before he disses such an important and world-renowned network! I can tell you it’s a turn-off to me that I should have to listen to Mr. Kissin’s political ideology. He’s not running for office and he’s not a personal friend, so he should park his politics at the door so as to let everyone enjoy his brilliance as an artist.
    HB Peckenpaw
    Los Angeles, CA

  • http://www.evgenykissinfansite.co.uk Susanne James

    I totally disagree with you.

    You state “Mr. Kissin thinks the BBC is not fair, there are many people who feel the BBC is the bastion of fairness and it is where THEY GO to get their news. It’s obviously not a small number of people either.”

    Well, I can assure you there are many who are wholly dissatisfied with the BBCs propoganda – they are not always 100% right despite their so called high status.

    To cite just a few articles of UNFAIRNESS:

    JUNE 25, 2010 BBC Commemorates Palestinian Nakba With a Bit of Fakery and Propaganda

    JUNE 8, 2010 Huwaida Arraf’s Flotilla Fable on BBC

    FEBRUARY 23, 2010 BBC and New York Times Omit Coverage of Palestinian Corruption Story

    FEBRUARY 1, 2010 Stephen Sizer Complains to Police About Blogger

    JANUARY 21, 2010 BBC Panorama Distorts the Facts About Jerusalem

    JANUARY 5, 2010 BBC Removes Misinformation on US, Israel, Geneva Convention

    AUGUST 25, 2009 Updated: BBC Corrects Misrepresentation of Israeli Politician’s Proposal

    AUGUST 6, 2009 An Inside Look at the BBC Ruling Against Jeremy Bowen

    AUGUST 5, 2009 BBC Corrects: Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini Targeted All Jews, Not Only Immigrants

    JULY 17, 2009 Breaking the Silence and the British Media

    MAY 7, 2009 UK’s Independent Defends Unethical Journalism

    APRIL 15, 2009 Press Release on Key BBC Ruling Against Mideast Editor Jeremy Bowen

    MARCH 27, 2009 Charges of IDF “Wanton Killing” Crumble

    FEBRUARY 20, 2009 BBC Acknowledges Mistaken Reference to Holiest Jewish Site

    FEBRUARY 4, 2009 The McGirk Affair: Claims of Cold-Blooded Executions Not Credible

    JANUARY 23, 2009 Updated: UN Agency Condemns Israel, Enables Terror

    JANUARY 6, 2009 Norwegian Doctors in Gaza: Objective Observers or Partisan Propagandists?

    JANUARY 2, 2009 In Gaza Conflict, Context is Key

    NOVEMBER 26, 2008 BBC’s Web Site Conveys an Anti-Israel Message

    NOVEMBER 5, 2008 UPDATED: Mohammed Omer’s Allegations Raise Questions

    AUGUST 28, 2008 BBC Corrects Misrepresentation of Iran Nuclear Program

    JULY 2, 2008 Terrorist Attack in Jerusalem: Bias in Euro Headlines

    JUNE 12, 2008 BBC’s Mark Urban Feeds anti-Israel Prejudice

    MARCH 13, 2008 FoxNews Cites CAMERA on BBC’s Fake Footage

    MARCH 11, 2008 BBC Corrects False Report

    FEBRUARY 26, 2008 Selective Reporting by the BBC

    FEBRUARY 5, 2008 The BBC and the Bombers in Dimona

    AUGUST 17, 2007 BBC Amends Faulty Article on Iraqi Jews, Acknowledges Farhud

    JULY 11, 2007 BBC Radio Adopts the Arab Narrative of the Six-Day-War

    JUNE 13, 2007 Border-line Improvement at BBC “Obstacles” Series

    JUNE 10, 2007 BBC: Obstacle to Understanding on Refugees

    JUNE 10, 2007 BBC: Obstacle to Understanding on Water

    JUNE 7, 2007 BBC Web Site Pushes Arab Narrative of Six-Day War

    MAY 31, 2007 BBC: Obstacle to Understanding on Jerusalem

    JANUARY 15, 2007 BBC Editor Sets Tone for Biased Reporting

    JANUARY 3, 2007 B’Tselem’s Annual Casualty Figures Questioned

    DECEMBER 2, 2006 UPDATE: Peace Now Map Based Only on Palestinian Claims

    SEPTEMBER 7, 2006 Questioning the Number of Civilian Casualties in Lebanon

    JULY 29, 2006 BBC Headline Falsely Charges Beirut Airport “Destroyed”

    JULY 28, 2006 A BBC Fable

    JULY 17, 2006 BBC Does Not Give “Full and Fair Account” of Middle East Conflict

    JUNE 29, 2006 BBC News or BBC Propaganda?

    JUNE 29, 2006 Update on Media Coverage of Prisoners’ Document

    JUNE 12, 2006 Israel Should Not Be Presumed Guilty of Gaza Beach Deaths

    APRIL 6, 2006 CAMERA ALERT: BBC’s Hardtalk Host Harangues Halevy with Hostile Questions

    MARCH 10, 2006 BBC Partially Revises Biased Timeline on Web site

    DECEMBER 19, 2005 Truth Elusive in BBC’s (and PBS’s) The Elusive Peace

    NOVEMBER 28, 2005 CAMERA Prompts BBC Correction on Rafah

    NOVEMBER 4, 2005 On BBC Website, Israeli Noise More Serious than Palestinian Terrorism

    SEPTEMBER 13, 2005 Media Excuses Palestinian Destruction of Synagogues

    MAY 12, 2005 BBC Correspondent Demonstrates Bias

    MARCH 21, 2005 BBC and Ha’aretz Journalist Whitewash Palestinian Incitement

    FEBRUARY 18, 2005 BBC Admits to Mistakes, Apologizes

    DECEMBER 15, 2004 Hamas Preacher Says BBC Correspondent is ‘Hamas Man’

    JULY 26, 2004 Can the BBC Change?

    MARCH 3, 2004 BBC-WATCH: BBC Jerusalem Correspondent Misleads on Settlements

    FEBRUARY 2, 2004 BBC WATCH: BBC’s Outdated Map Misleads

    JANUARY 29, 2004 BBC Under Fire

    DECEMBER 24, 2003 BBC-WATCH: Palestinians Attack Egyptian, But BBC Blames Israel

    NOVEMBER 7, 2003 BBC Questions Israel’s Legitimacy

    OCTOBER 27, 2003 BBC-WATCH: BBC on Oslo

    OCTOBER 9, 2003 BBC-WATCH: News Hour Provides Platform for Attack on Israel

    OCTOBER 1, 2003 Double Standards in Headlines

    SEPTEMBER 18, 2003 BBC-WATCH: Julian Marshall Shows Disdain

    SEPTEMBER 2, 2003 BBC-WATCH: BBC’s Warped Timeline

    SEPTEMBER 1, 2003 BBC Shapes ‘News’ to Fit Views

    AUGUST 26, 2003 BBC-WATCH: BBC Injects Anti-Israel Focus in Baghdad-U.N. Story

    AUGUST 22, 2003 BBC-WATCH: BBC Touts Hamas Line

    AUGUST 20, 2003 BBC-WATCH: BBC Blames Israel Again

    AUGUST 15, 2003 BBC-WATCH: The BBC on Egyptian Anti-Semitism

    AUGUST 15, 2003 New Web Feature: CAMERA Inaugurates BBC-Watch and Washington Post-Watch

    FEBRUARY 5, 2003 BBC’s Profiles Obscure Reality

    DECEMBER 5, 2002 BBC’s News Misjudgement

    NOVEMBER 26, 2002 The World Reports Objectively on Christian Support for Israel

    JULY 1, 2002 The World’s Version of Mideast History

    NOVEMBER 16, 2001 EYE ON THE MEDIA: Return of the British Mandate

    OCTOBER 22, 2001 BBC Softpedals Terrorism

    OCTOBER 8, 2001 The BBC, the British Press, and the Attack on America

    OCTOBER 5, 2001 BACKGROUNDER: Jewish Settlements and the Media

    JULY 12, 2001 CAMERA Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal European Edition: “The Real Story on Israel”

    JUNE 1, 2001 A Look at BBC’s Headlines

    MAY 24, 2001 BBC Correspondent Actively Supports Palestinian War Against Israel

    APRIL 19, 2001 More One-Sided Reporting by CNN, Reuters and BBC

    MARCH 30, 2001 EYE ON THE MEDIA: The BBC Goes to War

    NOVEMBER 12, 2000 BBC Provides Platform for Palestinian Propaganda

    OCTOBER 22, 2000 BBC Reporter Beaten by Palestinian Mob

    OCTOBER 12, 2000 Media Update on Temple Mount Riots

    NOVEMBER 6, 1998 CAMERA OP-ED: Seeing Through the BBC

    JUNE 26, 1997 Media Err on Jerusalem and Israel

    Mr Kissin cares deeply about his heritage and has every right, in my opinion, to speak out if he so wishes. His renowned status as one of the greatest classical pianists in the world today does not mean he has to stifle his beliefs and stay mute.

    Mr Kissin has made a bold and brave statement and I, and many others, salute him.

    AM YISRAEL KHAY VEKAYANM – THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL LIVE AND WILL LIVE!