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By John Helmer, Moscow

The last time Russia’s leadership assembled to listen to a piece of classical music was seventy-five years ago. It was on January 26, 1936, that Josef Stalin and the entire Politburo were at the Bolshoi Theatre to hear Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin was seen not to like the atonal harmonies or the loudness of the percussion and brass lines; he also laughed at one of the erotic scenes.

Look carefully at the lower box on the left-side of the Bolshoi stage and on the right-side of the ground-floor buffet (before reconstruction), and you will have been able to spot the special doors through which Soviet leaders could come and go to the music with least distraction for the audience. It was through that passage that they exited when they didn’t like what they heard. How courteous of them, you might think in retrospect

Allowing for his name and the timing, Stalin’s reaction to 20th century atonal music isn’t unique. Nor was Shostakovich the first or last of the classicial musicians to be turned into political pawns or heroes for writing their stuff. After Boris Yeltsin came to power, Mstislav Rostropovich, who had made music with both the KGB and the CIA in earlier years, did a lucrative business fiddling for the new power elite; Rostropovich even angered Oleg Deripaska by over-charging for a concert he was commissioned to perform in Samara, when Deripaska owned the local aluminium-rolling plant.

All of them have left the stage, but Russian classical music remains a foundation for the country’s culture which is admired, imitated, played and replayed on the discs, radios and stages of the world. When President Dmitry Medvedev opted to make public his preference for Deep Purple, he was not only spurning that cultural tradition. He was declaring himself in favour of loudness and percussion as the harmonic standard for Russian ears. Brave fellow! Да здравствует шум!

A recent report on the musical tastes of both the President and Prime Minister claimed that Putin “does not care for classical music on principle.” According to Valeria Zharova, in the August 30 issue of Sobesednik, he is also averse to the melancholy of classical pieces. “Putin has idiosyncratic tastes, which greatly differ from the state template. He does not like what is usually heard at Kremlin gala concerts ([folk singer Nadezhda] Babkina, [singer and restaurateur Lev] Leshchenko, Russian classics), but chanson (stage songs, including cabaret songs, usually French, but perhaps referring to “Russian chanson”, which includes urban love songs, war songs, emigre songs, “bard” songs, in which great emphasis is placed on the lyrics, and sometimes (as a euphemism), songs of the criminal classes (blatnaya pesnya), Anshlag (a comedy act), Lyube (rock group founded in 1989), songs from the movies, pop songs of the 1970s, and for variety, gypsy songs.”

“A major music critic explained to us on conditions of anonymity, “[Putin’s] predilections stopped at the Soviet discotheque and the variety shows of his childhood and youth (the sixties and early seventies); he very much likes the repertoire of Humor FM and Radio Chanson. Important people do not admit to such tastes.”

Zharova was asked how she came by her discovery that Putin dislikes classical music “in principle”, and what that principle of Putin’s was that she has uncovered. She responded that the report was her personal view and lacks hard evidence. “Putin doesn’t attend opera houses”, she added. But what of his inauguration of this year’s International Tchaikovsky Competition at the Moscow Conservatoire on June 14, and his presence at the classical concert given as part of the festival of the two cities, Dresden and St. Petersburg at the Mikhailovsky Theatre on July 7. How about his launch of the new Moscow concert hall known as the Moscow International House of Music in September of 2005?

“Look, liking or disliking classical music doesn’t make a person worse or better”, Zharova replied. “Do you work for Putin?” she added.

The prime ministry’s text of Putin’s remarks at the Tchaikovsky Competition reports him as saying: “It would not be an overstatement to say that the Tchaikovsky Competition is this country’s most prestigious music contest, part of our national heritage. It reflects how our society relates to the arts in general, and to music in particular. And it reflects our nation’s pride in the remarkable contribution it has made to the world treasury of art. The Tchaikovsky Competition’s international reputation stems largely from the unshakeable status of Russian musical culture. This is why talented young performers from around the world are happy to come here to participate. For young performers – pianists, vocalists, cellists, violinists – this competition can be a springboard, propelling them into their music careers. “While acknowledging the competition’s celebrated history, we should above all remain focused on what is happening now, and into the future.”

So what is happening now, and what do the culture apparatchiki recall of Putin’s attitude towards classical music or his policy towards its cultivation? The information department of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire declined to say how many times Putin has been to a performance there. The question of whether Putin likes classical music should be answered by Putin’s office, the department added.

Accordingly, a fax asking the question – what is known of the Prime Minister’s interest in classical music? — was dispatched to Marina Gerasimova, chief executive of the Russian State Music centre (proprietor of Radio Orfee, the classical music broadcaster); the federal Ministry of Culture; Vladimir Kekhman, chief executive of the Mikhailovsky Theatre; Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre; the press office of the Kultura television channel; and Putin’s spokesman at the prime ministry.

The response suggests the question is still as terrifying as Shostakovich felt before he took his curtain call at the close of Lady Macbeth on January 26, 1936. Not a single word.

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