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Tchaikovsky op-ed

Sunday 3/20/22

On the time and place for tact.

I think you'd have a hard time finding someone who loves Russian art more than I do. I run stairs to the sounds of Rimsky-Korsakov, laugh and cry with the avant-garde fiction of Daniil Kharms, journey to the depths of human motivation with the novels of Dostoevsky, and am regularly knocked aback by the daring invention of the films of Sergei Eisenstein. Among those abiding loves is one for the oeuvre of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893, and a program of whose work was recently canceled by the Cardiff Philharmonic on account of war in the Ukraine.


Of all people—someone who devotes the entirety of their life and being to art—and a hardcore Tchaikovsky guy, I should, in theory, be troubled by this development. But the reality is, I'm more disturbed by people's reaction to the news.

You have, for instance, individuals who'd no more attend the symphony than they'd read a Tolstoy story, or anything that might broaden their humanity and understanding of the world, who will "decry" the decision, "decry" being one of those words that no one knew two years ago, which is now stapled into seemingly every conversation where it's important to express outrage.

But you know what? There is this thing called life, and life is full of vicissitudes. Or, as a cynic—or wise person—might say, stuff happens, and that is not an indictment on anybody, necessarily, but rather a challenge for us to move things around with a modicum of grace. An evening on the concert program might get displaced. It's not forever, it's not for long, but there is tact. We should cultivate it.

Tchaikovsky wouldn’t be a Putin fan, just as Putin, if he knew very much about Tchaikovsky, wouldn't exactly be cranking the Pathetique Symphony in the Kremlin. But Russian music has a certain tonal flavor that is largely inescapable. Russian literature often has an Existential flavor. When we hear Russian music, though, we know it, typically within a few bars, until we get to the Modernist era of a Stravinsky. Which isn't to say that the great Russian composers were dogged nationalists, because they were often the opposite. Russian/Soviet art has regularly been produced almost in spite of the various ruling regimes.

But a concert evening has a feel. A vibe. And right now, the Russian vibe isn't an awesome one, because of the story that is dominating the news and impacting so many lives. That doesn't mean you boo Russian hockey players in the NHL, or you have any kind of negative attitude towards people you wouldn't have had one towards anyway. They're not dictating policy. They're living their lives.

I happened to reading James Agee's A Death in the Family when my dad had the heart attack that eventually killed him. Death can take a while. You're in the ICU and you have time to fill. People read.


Guess what book I didn't take with me? I just grabbed another. My mom didn't need to see that title. Tact. No knock on Mr. Agee's prose.

Things can wait in this life, but grace, less so. That's fine. Trust me: Tchaikovsky was an amazing artist. You'll be able to go to the concert later. And you should. He can change your life. That kind of thing never really goes away. It might just get rescheduled. Show up when it does.