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San Diego Symphony pulls Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ in light of Ukraine

The San Diego Symphony announced Thursday the removal of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous “1812 Overture” from their end-of-season concert on Aug. 26. The work was a state commission to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon’s invading forces in 1812.

Note: they’re still playing Tchaikovsky — just not the battle victory song.

“When you understand that this was commissioned to really showcase Russian imperialism and aggression and that it is the canons of war, it feels to us highly inappropriate to perform it this year under the certain circumstances — when this unprovoked war in Ukraine is literally decimating that country, and people are fighting for their lives. It did not seem that it is appropriate for us,” said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, orchestras and art spaces around the world have grappled with how to handle Russian art, performers and artists — making decisions to cut a piece from a program or cancel an appearance is not without nuance.

While some cancellations have been directly linked to artists’ political leanings, many of these decisions have not been made as a boycott, but instead out of sensitivity towards today’s audiences.

“There are certainly members of our public who would be offended by that,” Gilmer said. “This is not the time, in our opinion, to be performing this piece.”

The San Diego Symphony performs the “1812 Overture” each year to close out and celebrate the season. This year, according to Gilmer, the organization stands in support of Ukraine.

Gilmer also said that the composer wasn’t particularly fond of the commission.

“I don’t think Tchaikovsky would want this to be his legend in any way,” Gilmer said. “I mean, one of the great ballet writers, one of the great symphonic writers, one of the great opera composers — this piece he would probably prefer to have forgotten, honestly.”

Replacing the “1812 Overture” will be Tchaikovsky’s tone poem “The Tempest,” inspired by the Shakespeare play. It’s a moody, reflective piece, and Gilmer said it reflects a sort of human, internal struggle.

“I think Tchaikovsky was certainly a humanist. It’s a very beautiful piece of music and not often played here in San Diego,” she said.

Of the change, the symphony hopes their audiences will understand the decision.

“Of course, traditions are hard to let go of, but I think as people coming together around this and coming to this concert with that hope for a better future, a better outcome, is another way of being able to express our support,” Gilmer said.

In related news: Members of the San Diego Symphony and FF Collective will host Ukrainian refugee flutist Daria Hudymenko of the Lviv National Philharmonic for a special benefit concert at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 10. The show features works by Ukrainian composers and folk songs, and will be held at St. Peter’s Church in Del Mar.