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Russian and Ukrainian Pianists Meet in Texas at Cliburn Competition

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FORT WORTH, Texas – On a sultry recent morning, 30 young pianists from around the world gathered in an auditorium at Texas Christian University here for the start of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious contests in classical music.

The mood was celebratory. But politics also loomed. The Cliburn, defying pressure to ban Russian competitors after the invasion of Ukraine, had invited six Russians to take part, as well as two pianists from Belarus, which has supported the Russian invasion. A Ukrainian also made the cut.

As they signed posters outside the auditorium and were fitted for cowboy boots, a Cliburn tradition, several competitors from those countries said they found it difficult to think beyond the war.

“It’s a tragedy, what’s happening now,” said Dmytro Choni, a 28-year-old pianist from Kyiv. “I’m trying to stay focused on the music.”

Ilya Shmukler, 27, a competitor from Russia, said he at times felt guilty about the invasion. “The key words for me,” he said, “are shame and responsibility.”

The politics surrounding the Cliburn competition show the depths to which the war has upended the performing arts. Largely unaccustomed to grappling with geopolitical concerns, arts organizations are now being forced to resolve difficult questions about the rights of Russian and Ukrainian artists, the morality of cultural boycotts and the limits of free expression. Many institutions have cut ties with artists closely associated with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, while continuing to welcome Russians with less public political leanings.

Competitions like the Cliburn, which help determine who rises in the field, have come under intense scrutiny. Some contests, responding to pressure from board members and activists, have banned Russians altogether. Others have announced plans to disinvite Russians, only to face a backlash and reverse course weeks later.

The debate over Russian artists echoes similar discussions playing out in the athletic sphere, with Wimbledon saying it would not allow players from Russia and Belarus this summer, and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, kicking out all Russian teams from global competition.

The Cliburn, named for Van Cliburn, an American whose victory at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, during the Cold War, was seen as a sign that art could transcend politics, said it had an obligation to defend Russian artists, who have long been a prominent force in classical music.

The Cliburn has also taken steps to ensure some degree of political conformity, warning competitors that any statements in support of Putin or the invasion of Ukraine could result in disqualification or the revocation of awards.

“I don’t think sanctioning a young pianist who is 22 years old will have an effect on the Russian government,” said Jacques Marquis, Cliburn’s president and chief executive. “That will play exactly into the playbook of Putin, if we isolate the Russian people.”

While the Cliburn was widely applauded in the arts world for allowing Russians to compete, the decision has alienated some Ukrainian activists and Texas residents. Some argued that the only way to put pressure on Moscow to end the invasion is to cut political, economic and cultural ties.

“It’s a shame that the Cliburn is not paying attention to human suffering and public opinion,” said the Rev. Pavlo Popov, the leader of a Ukrainian church in suburban Dallas. “How do you influence Russia? It has to come from the people. If they don’t like the war, if they want to be part of the civilized world, if they want to be part of these competitions, they have to stand for the same values. ”

Many of the Russian competitors now live outside Russia and have said that they are fiercely opposed to the invasion. Some have taken part in protests and signed petitions demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces.

Anna Geniushene, a 31-year-old pianist from Moscow, said she felt a duty as an artist to show solidarity with Ukraine. When she tried to sum up the right character for a series of Brahms Ballades in the quarterfinal round of the competition, she said she thought about the grief and suffering in Ukraine.

“I have a lot of chats with different people who are really surprised to know that the entire population, the whole nation, is not supporting and rooting for Putin,” said Geniushene, who lives in Lithuania. “Being an artist doesn’t mean that you are a kind of freelancer, that you’re living in a completely different world, and that you forget about politics and everything that you are not involved in. You must speak up and spread the word. ”

Even as they have denounced the war, many Russian competitors said they were distraught by the scrutiny of Russian artists in the United States and Europe. Some Western cultural institutions have demanded that artists condemn Putin as a condition for performing. Others have removed works by Russian composers in an effort to show solidarity with Ukraine.

“The fact that you’re Russian doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” said Sergey Tanin, 26, a Siberian pianist who added that he had lost engagements and invitations to competitions since the start of the war. “We shouldn’t be forced to have political discussions before concerts or competitions.”

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Russian participants said they felt that Cliburn offered a platform to remind the world of a side of Russia distinct from Putin’s bellicosity.

Arseniy Gusev, a Russian pianist who grew up in St. Petersburg, said that as an artist, he had grown distant from contemporary Russia but felt intimately tied to its history, and particularly to the music of composers like Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

“I can’t say I belong to this contemporary Russia anymore, but I feel I’m connected to some parts of its past culture,” said Gusev, 23, who will begin a graduate program at the Yale School of Music in fall. “And I think in this way that unites many of us here.”

In March, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, Gusev took part in screening auditions for the Cliburn in Fort Worth. His program was to feature several works by Russian composers. But he replaced some with works by Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best-known living composer, feeling it was not appropriate to play so much Russian music in the light of the war.

As Cliburn enters its semifinal stage this week, several competitors said they were trying to keep some distance from the war, worried that it could become a distraction. But the conflict has at times seemed inescapable.

Denis Linnik, 26, a pianist from Belarus, said that in the weeks before the competition, he was reading news about the war around the clock, using his phone up to 12 hours a day. He said he sometimes considered withdrawing because it didn’t feel right to compete.

He still struggles with his decision to participate, he said, although he has been reassured by the presence of Choni, the lone Ukrainian participant. Winning the Cliburn requires intense focus, and when competitors are together, they rarely discuss politics. When they gathered in an auditorium on Saturday night to hear the results of the preliminary round, the pianists from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine sat together, speaking in Russian about interpretations of music, conservatory teachers and the feel of the onstage piano.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s a war, which is maybe a good thing for a competition, where we celebrate the beauty of art and artistry,” Linnik said. “But it feels a bit wrong that you don’t feel it.”

To the audience and the jury, the war seemed to color the performances.

“You can feel the intense emotion of what’s going on,” said Marin Alsop, the renowned conductor, who is the jury chair. “Maybe part of it is projecting onto it, but I think it’s very genuine from them.”

When Choni took the stage last week in the preliminary round, a man in the audience shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” Internet commenters flooded a livestream of his performance with Ukrainian flag emojis.

Choni said that as the sole Ukraine competitor, he sometimes felt additional pressure, but added that he appreciated the support of the audience and colleagues. In between performances and practicing, he sends messages to his parents and friends, checking on their safety.

Music, he hopes, could serve as therapy in a dark moment. While practicing here, he has been playing pieces by Ukrainian composers, including bagatelles by Silvestrov, to remind him of home.

“The goal must be to unite people, to give a kind of relief from what’s going on in the world,” he said. “Music can be a cure, a treatment. It has always been like this, but maybe in these times, it is especially relevant. ”

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