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Amid Ukraine War, Orchestras Rethink ‘1812 Overture,’ a July 4 Rite


With its earsplitting rounds of cannon fire and triumphal spirit, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has been a staple of Fourth of July festivities across the US for a long time, serving as a rousing prelude to glittering displays of fireworks.

But this 12 months many ensembles, concerned in regards to the overture’s history as a celebration of the Russian military — Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate the rout of Napoleon’s army from Russia within the winter of 1812 — are reconsidering the work due to the war in Ukraine.

Some groups have decided to skip it, arguing that its bellicose themes could be offensive during wartime. Others, desperate to show solidarity with Ukraine, have added renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem to their programs to counter the overture’s exaltation of czarist Russia. Still others are reworking it, in a single case by adding calls for peace.

For the primary time since 1978, the storied Cleveland Orchestra is omitting the work from its Fourth of July live shows, which feature the Blossom Festival Band. “Given the best way Russia is behaving right away and the propaganda that’s on the market, to go and play music that celebrates their victory I just think could be upsetting for a number of people,” said André Gremillet, the president and chief executive of the orchestra. “Everyone would hear that reference, complete with the cannons, to the present war involving Russia. It could be insensitive to people typically, and positively to the Ukrainian population particularly.”

The reconsideration of the “1812 Overture” is the most recent example of the difficult questions facing cultural institutions for the reason that war began.

Arts groups have come under pressure from audiences, board members and activists to chop ties with Russian artists, especially those that have expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin. Some have also faced calls to scrap works by Russian composers, including revered figures like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky.

Many groups have resisted, arguing that removing Russian works would amount to censorship. But there have been exceptions. The Polish National Opera in March dropped a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” considered one of the best Russian operas, to precise “solidarity with the people of Ukraine.” The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales and the Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan have all recently abandoned plans to perform the “1812 Overture,” citing the war.

The overture, which runs about quarter-hour, is unabashedly patriotic, featuring Russian folk songs and a volley of cannon fire set to the previous Russian national anthem, “God Save the Czar.” Some renditions include vocal lines from a Russian Orthodox text, “God Preserve Thy People.”

While Tchaikovsky was not particularly keen on his overture when it debuted in Moscow in 1882, it has since change into considered one of classical music’s best known pieces.

Because the Seventies, when the Boston Pops began playing it before crowds of lots of of 1000’s along the banks of the Charles River, the overture has change into a preferred a part of Fourth of July celebrations across the US. It’s performed every year by lots of of ensembles in big cities and small towns; local governments often supply howitzers for the overture’s stirring conclusion.

Interpretations of the piece have modified over time, said Emily Richmond Pollock, an associate professor of music on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it was first used to have a good time the Russian empire, it later became synonymous with American democracy. Now, in some circles, it symbolizes authoritarianism in modern Russia.

“It has been used for various purposes throughout history,” Pollock said. “In 2022, with ambivalence about Russian power, it has come to mean something different. And it could mean something different again in the long run.”

In recent weeks, greater than a dozen ensembles in Connecticut, Indiana, Latest York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Wyoming and elsewhere have decided to forgo the piece due to concerns about backlash from Ukrainians and others against the war. Some have replaced the piece with works by Americans, including the film composer John Williams, and standards like Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Without end” and “America the Beautiful.”

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut, which has played the overture since 1995, felt that “celebrating a Russian military victory is just too sensitive a subject right away” and removed the piece from its program, said Steve Collins, the ensemble’s president and chief executive.

“The chance of offending and running afoul of our Ukrainian American friends — the very people we would like to support — far outweighed any profit to playing this piece,” he said. “It just wasn’t that necessary, in our final evaluation, to perform this piece this summer.”

The Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming decided to skip the work partially since it didn’t need to alienate Ukrainians, including those affiliated with the festival.

“We didn’t think it was appropriate to program a piece that featured sounds of cannons accompanying ‘God Save the Czar,’ given what is occurring in Ukraine,” said Emma Kail, the festival’s executive director. “We thought we’d construct a latest tradition and keep all of it American this 12 months.”

Other ensembles, including the Boston Pops and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, which generally perform the overture before large audiences on live television spectacles, are planning to proceed with the piece this 12 months.

“We play this to have a good time independence and freedom and people who find themselves willing to sacrifice loads to make that occur,” said Keith Lockhart, the conductor of the Boston Pops, which may also perform the Ukrainian national anthem.

Lockhart said that in a time of war, the overture could function a reminder of the perils of aggression. In 1812, he noted, Russia was keeping off an invasion from a more powerful country, very similar to Ukraine is today.

“In that fight, the Russians were the Ukrainians of 2022,” he said. “It’s not only as simplistic as ‘Russia, bad.’ It’s the attempt of authoritarian powers to dominate other powers that’s bad.”

How the Ukraine War Is Affecting the Cultural World

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Valentin Silvestrov. Ukraine’s best-known living composer, Mr. Silvestrov made his way from his home in Kyiv to Berlin, where he’s now sheltering. In recent weeks, his consoling music has taken on latest significance for listeners in his war-torn country.

Alexei Ratmansky. The choreographer, who grew up in Kyiv, was preparing a latest ballet on the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow when the invasion began, and immediately decided to depart Moscow. The ballet, whose premiere was set for March 30, was postponed indefinitely.

The query of whether to perform the overture has put arts leaders, largely unaccustomed to handling geopolitical matters, in an uncomfortable position.

In Massachusetts, the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra faced questions from patrons about whether it was appropriate to play the overture at its holiday concert. The orchestra decided to perform the piece, anxious that omitting it could feed a perception that the West was attempting to stamp out Russian culture.

“Canceling it plays exactly into the narrative that Putin wants us all to imagine: That the world desires to cast off the Russian culture,” said Steven Karidoyanes, the orchestra’s conductor. “Nothing may very well be farther from the reality.”

Some ensembles, desperate to show solidarity with Ukraine, but anxious about canceling a cherished Independence Day tradition, have tried to search out creative solutions. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform the overture, but it’s going to add an announcement before the concert discussing the piece’s history and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.

In Naperville, Unwell., a suburb of Chicago, the Naperville Municipal Band this 12 months sought to remove any references to Russia. At its holiday concert, an onstage narrator normally recounts the history of the overture, including its origins as a commemoration of the Russian victory against the French. This 12 months, the narrator described the piece simply as a “depiction of all victories over oppression, including our own War of 1812,” and spoke in regards to the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.

Ronald J. Keller, the band’s music director, who has led 44 performances of the piece since 1977, said he told colleagues it was necessary to avoid any discussion of Russia given the war.

“I said, ‘No, we’re not even going to say Russia — none of it in any respect,” Keller recalled. “This thing with Ukraine and Russia shouldn’t be highly regarded right away. We didn’t need to be involved. We desired to keep the give attention to America and our history and what we’re all about.”

Other ensembles have used performances of the “1812 Overture” to make political statements.

During a concert in mid-June, the Chorus of Westerly in Rhode Island sang an English text written by the group’s leaders as a substitute of a conventional Russian prayer.

Andrew Howell, the group’s music director, said the chorus was trying to create a “nonsectarian prayer of hope and peace” that might maintain the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s music, but additionally reflect opposition to war.

The brand new text reads:

Let our voices now unite in song.

Voices rising, join with us to sing this song. Imagine.

There may be peace to return.

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