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Ukrainian Pianist Dropped From Toronto Orchestra Will Still Play In Calgary

04/08/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/08/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - A Ukrainian-born pianist who has been barred from performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra over what it called her "deeply offensive" comments will still be playing with an orchestra in Calgary later this year.

Despite being at the centre of a controversy that has triggered a flurry of online commentary, Valentina Lisitsa will perform with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra as scheduled, the group said Wednesday.

"Whether or not one agrees with Ms. Lisitsa’s political views, at this time at the CPO, our agreement with her is as a guest artist, to perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with our orchestra in June," Heather Slater, the orchestra's director of artistic planning told The Canadian Press.

Lisitsa announced in a lengthy Facebook post on Monday morning that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had asked her not to play at performances scheduled for this week.

Lisitsa, an ethnic Russian born in Ukraine who now lives in the United States, said she had been accused by the orchestra of "inciting hatred" on Twitter because of her comments on the conflict in Ukraine.

She said she had been exercising her right to free speech as she spoke out against the "atrocities" of the civil war in the country, particularly those committed against the Russian minority in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, however, defended its decision.

Symphony president and CEO Jeff Melanson said Tuesday that Lisitsa was replaced following complaints from "hundreds" of people and after the TSO compiled seven pages of "offensive" Twitter posts.

"This is not about free speech, this is not about a political perspective or persuasion, this is about very offensive, intolerant comments about people," he said.

The incident has unleashed a firestorm of divisive online commentary, with many taking sides on Twitter and Facebook over whether Lisitsa should have been dropped from the Toronto orchestra.

The discussion generated was seen by at least one observer as a welcome development as it aired a variety of perspectives on the armed conflict in Ukraine.

"It actually brought a conflict which was far away from Canada to Canada itself," said Ivan Katchanovski, a University of Ottawa professor who conducts research on Ukraine.

"I do not endorse her take on the conflict but I think it's important to allow different views on the conflict to be expressed in Canada."

The federal government's foreign policy on Ukraine has presented the conflict in the European country as one solely between Ukraine and Russia, Katchanovski said, but the situation is more complex than that.

"There is no political debate in Canada on this issue," he said. "This is an internal Ukrainian conflict, there are different points of view...it's not a black and white conflict."

The still simmering discussion over Lisitsa being turfed from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has even forced the Canadian pianist who was initially scheduled to replace her to withdraw from the engagement.

Stewart Goodyear said he was "bullied" into turning down an opportunity he had seen as a dream come true.

In a statement posted on his Facebook fan page, Goodyear said he found himself "in the middle of a social media frenzy" with "bile and hatred" hurled at him from all sides.

Goodyear said he was accused of supporting censorship. What began as one of the happiest moments of his life, he said, turned into a "shattering display of mob hysteria."

"Yesterday, my dream was shattered," he wrote."With all due respect to the pianist who I was going to replace ... one must own one's opinions and words, and have the courage to defend her position."

"Free speech has consequences," he added. "Dragging other people who have nothing to do with her position does nothing constructive."

The symphony said ticketholders who attend the concerts to hear Mahler's Fifth Symphony will receive a free ticket to an upcoming concert, while those who don't wish to attend can request a refund.

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