The Vienna Festival has canceled the participation of the Greek-Russian conductor Theodoros Kourentzis and the symphony orchestra of the Southwest German Radio SWR, because the internationally renowned conductor has not taken a clear distance from Russia’s war against Ukraine. The new director of the Vienna Festival, the Swiss Milo Rau, had planned two concerts on the theme of the war, one by the SWR orchestra under the direction of Mr. Kourentzis and the second by the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra under Oksana Liniv, who expressed her dissatisfaction with the participation of her Greek-Russian colleague.

“During discussions over the past few days it has become clear that the presentation of both concerts as part of the Vienna Festival is currently not feasible,” the organizers said in a statement.

According to information cited by the magazine Der Spiegel, Oksana Liniv, who is going to conduct the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra on June 2 in the requiem “Babyn Yar” by her compatriot Yevhen Stankovich on the subject of the massacres in the homonymous region of Ukraine during of the Holocaust, had previously expressed her negative opinion about the participation of Theodoros Kourentzis, who was going to present Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at the Vienna State Theater on June 12. “The Greek, who also holds a Russian passport, has yet to publicly distance himself from the Russian military offensive in Ukraine,” the magazine reports.

“We respect Mrs. Liniv’s wish not to appear in the same context as Mr. Kourentzis at this time. Unfortunately, this means that there is no other option than to cancel the planned concert under the direction of Theodoros Kourentzis, whom we greatly appreciate as an artist,” said Milo Rau. According to the Festival’s initial announcement, the two concerts aimed to “address the issue of responsibility and the limits of art as a utopian space”.

“We are glad that the Vienna Festival has found a solution and we are also very happy that we will finally perform ‘Babyn Yar’ in Vienna,” announced Oksana Liniv.

For SWR’s part, Culture Program Director Anke Mai expressed her regret at the cancellation of the orchestra’s participation, but noted that she understands that both Ms. Liniv and the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra would like a public statement from Theodoros Kurentzi against the Russian attack on Ukraine. “Given the consequences such a statement would have for Mr Kourentzis in Russia, we never asked him to do so,” Mrs May clarified.

Instead of the SWR orchestra concert, the Vienna Festival (May 17 – June 23) will present a new musical work by a student of Jeven Stankovic.

However, Milo Rau still considers his initial choice for the participation of the two conductors in the Festival to be correct. “But it is crucial that the artists feel comfortable and, as a manager, I had to give in to their legitimate wishes,” he stressed. As he clarified, it was not only the Ukrainian conductor that led to the decision to exclude Theodoros Kourentzis, as many of the Ukrainian musicians also refused to play at the Festival. “They are suffering from the war and they certainly have a voice and we had to take that into account,” Mr. Rau said. However, last week he had declared to the Austrian News Agency ARA that the Vienna Festival “would be a weak, cowardly institution” if it avoided the discussion about the invitation of Theodoros Kourentzis.

According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Ukrainian artists did not want to appear in the same context as an artist who remains silent about what is happening in Ukraine, continues to give concerts in Russia and his group, “MusicAeterna”, is financed by Russian companies which are even on the sanctions lists of the European Union and its members mock the Western sanctions policy on social media. Oksana Liniv was informed about the rationale of the Festival, herself to present the Ukrainian side of the war and Theodoros Kourentzis the Russian one, only after she had agreed on her participation, the newspaper explains. “Of course there was no choice but to cancel. But if Mr. Rau was really interested in the “War Requiem,” someone else could conduct the SWR orchestra. And if symbolism related to the conductor’s biography was needed, there was the choice of Thomas Sanderling, who was born in the Soviet Union as a child persecuted by the Nazi regime, grew up in the former East Germany and now lives in London. So it perfectly embodies the German-Soviet-British history of this work”, comments the editor of FAZ and estimates that Milo Rau is not interested in art. “His aim is to use art in order to depict current conflicts, to reduce it to illustrative material for his studies (…) He and Kourentzis are “combatants” when it comes to attacking the notions of art for the educated middle class ( …) For years, Kourentzis loved to appear in a black shirt and military boots, in order to provoke the culture-weary bohemians through risky practices. For Rau, as for Kourentzis, art serves primarily as fuel for their ego. As in the totalitarian movements of the 1930s, whose dress codes Kourentzis enjoys conveying as a conductor, both lack empathy: specifically for Oksana Liniv, the Ukrainian orchestra, their country and the works themselves.” In such a totalitarianism, which is far from art, there are obviously no alternatives”, concludes the FAZ columnist.