Controversy Over UMS Award To Russian Orchestra

By |2015-01-22T09:00:00-05:00January 22nd, 2015|Michigan, News|


ANN ARBOR – Internationally known Russian conductor Valery Gergiev returns to Ann Arbor for two performances with the Mariinsky Orchestra and to receive, in collaboration with the Orchestra, the 2015 UMS Distinguished Artist Award. But his visit comes with much controversy.
Gergiev, born in 1953, is most known for his work with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Theatre in Russia and has spent his life in and around music. He was in Ann Arbor when the Mariinsky Orchestra, then the Kirov Orchestra, performed in 1992 and has been involved with 11 University Music Society (UMS) performances since that date.
Max Lepler, a longtime supporter of the arts in southeast Michigan who bought season subscriptions to UMS programming every year and regularly gave donations, has revoked his subscription and will no longer be attending any UMS productions because of the involvement and honor of Gergiev.
Lepler criticizes Gergiev for the crimes committed by Russia against the world and for his support of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, whom he has supported since Putin ran as a candidate.
“When people are being killed. When there is a genocide against gays and lesbians; when they are being beaten up; when sexual sodomy is committed, in this case more on the men; when there is a bigger influx of gays and lesbians coming to the U.S. because their lives have been torn apart; when the artists are leaving Russia because they fear if they create something they will wind up in prison; when there is the anti-driving law — it’s like the Jews before World War II,” Lepler said.
LGBT people living in Russia are subject to various forms of harassment and discrimination. In September 2014 a new law to remove children from LGBT families and individuals was drafted; additionally, there is the internationally known anti-LGBT propaganda law which seeks to penalize LGBT propaganda to “protect minors,” but the definition of propaganda is vague.
Lepler sent messages to many people about his concerns that Gergiev would be honored: the LGBT group at Ford Motor Company, U of M regents, administrators and the board of UMS; he received no reply.
“I thought that they (the University) would be on stronger moral grounds,” Lepler said with concern. “Let me just say, the University Music Society is a great institution. If they would just stand up and say ‘due to the controversy of what we have here, we must take the best stance possible, so we are canceling this…'”
Gergiev is no stranger to awards; he has received dozens from around the world, including the Laureate of the Foundation of American-Russian Cultural Cooperation in 2006. This year he will be awarded the 2015 UMS Distinguished Artist Award at the Ford Honors Program concert on Jan. 25.
This isn’t the first time the conductor has been criticized for being an anti-LGBT, Putin supporter. In 2013, at a performance in New York with the London Symphony Orchestra, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell interrupted the beginning of a performance by going on stage. “Gergiev defends the new homophobic law that persecutes gay Russians,” he said before being removed.
“I have said before that I do not discriminate against anyone, gay or otherwise, and never have done, and as head of the Mariinsky Theatre this is our policy,” Gergiev said in response to the protest. “It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation and in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people. I am an artist and have for over three decades worked with tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries from all walks of life, and many of them are indeed my friends.”
Lepler is disappointed in how UMS handled his protests. Lepler said that the University removed Gergiev’s name from official documents and from the award; however, as of Jan. 20, the UMS website for the event still reads that Gergiev — along with the Mariinsky Orchestra — will be awarded the 2015 UMS Distinguished Artist Award at the Ford Honors Program concert on Jan. 25. Lepler will consequently not be obtaining a 2015 subscription to UMS performances.
“He (Gergiev) hasn’t stood up and said that he regrets his position (to support Putin) and that we have to get rid of that law,” Lepler said. “He isn’t taking a chance there. And then he keeps saying that the Russians are different. Even though he has said that, it’s just a copout.”

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.