The Lisitsa Controversy

History of the Symphony Six Repeated? Quite the Opposite.

Last week, The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) cancelled the performances of Ukraine-born piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa for her Twitter comments that offended many Ukrainians. Later, she was also denied from playing at the Lake Park Community Church in Toronto.

An outcry from Lisitsa herself and her many supporters has followed. There was a small rally last Wednesday outside the Roy Thomson Hall, where Lisitsa was supposed to perform. According to the Toronto Star, Lisitsa’s would-be replacement, a Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, said he was “bullied into declining” the invitation by her devotees.

Some observers have questioned the TSO’s decision, like Thomas Walkom who called the situation an “ideological purge”, and Cara Faith Zwibel who said that “Valentina Lisitsa has a right to speak up”, both in the Toronto Star.

You can make your own judgement as to whether Lisitsa was fired justly by examining One of her notable tweets, according to the above web-site went “@ValLisitsa: New school year begins in Odessa with teachers forced to wear Ukrainian tribal dress, a truly European custom :)”

The New Pathway received a letter which praises the TSO’s decision and draws a parallel with a historic fact which looks strikingly similar to the current controversy. However, the author believes that what the TSO did last week is actually quite the opposite to what it did more than 60 years ago.

“The latest news of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s choice to cancel the performances of Valentina Lisitsa’s in Toronto rings very close to home for me and my family.

I was named John William Moskalyk. My first name for my paternal grandfather; and second for my maternal grandfather. My paternal grandfather- John Moskalyk was a talented violinist, who played for many years with the TSO, and taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music- and in whose name to this date there remains a scholarship for young musicians.

In 1951, at the height of the TSO’s popularity, it was engaged to give its first US concert, in Detroit. The McCarthy “witch hunts” then were having their terrorizing effects on immigration to the USA. At the border, six TSO players (including two Ukrainians) were refused entry, and essentially “thrown off the bus”. The immigration officials accused them of having communist sympathies. Rather than having the orchestra as a whole return to Toronto, the conductor, Sir Arthur MacMillan, found intermittent replacements for the concert, and the engagement went ahead.

For the following season, further US concerts had been booked (New York, Boston, Philadelphia). In order to fulfil them, the management decided not to renew the contracts of the six players, and they were ‘let-go’ from the TSO, based on their ethnic and religious backgrounds. This response to an unjustified smear led to a general outcry in the broad community. The incident of the “Symphony Six” (Ruth Budd, Dirk Keetbass, William Kuintka, Abe Mannheim, John Moskalyk, and Steven Staryk) became a controversial and divisive one, causing several TSO board resignations.

Needless to say, the result had devastating effects on my family as a whole. Although he recovered, my grandfather – John Moskalyk – was deeply hurt by the TSO decision. My own father – a child at the time of his father’s dismissal, never did recover from the shame, and thus became estranged from his Ukrainian roots. My grandfather did rebound, and went on to have a very fulfilling career as a teacher, holding the position of lead violin instructor at the University of Toronto – Faculty of Music, until his untimely death in August 1966, at age 49.

This week’s announcement by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to cancel Valentina Lisitsa’s performances, at the behest of Torontonians of all ethnic backgrounds, therefore leads me to believe that my grandfather’s own wrongful dismissal was not in vain. History did not repeat itself: where the TSO allowed itself to be influenced by hate-mongering and abusive profiling in the 1950s, last week it showed itself to have evolved. This time, its board took affirmative action in defense of human rights – taking public action not to support those who promote hate, racism and abuse.

As the namesake of a grandfather who suffered due to his Ukrainian heritage, in a time when society was silently complicit to untrue profiling, I cannot help but feel that John Moskalyk has somehow been vindicated – 60 years later – by the actions of the same orchestra which deserted him. Times have changed – and for the better!

During this most holy of weeks, with the Passion of the Christ upon us, I feel a rejuvenated sense of rejoice. This Easter Sunday, when I raise my glass with my family, I will remember the memory of a beautifully artistic grandfather, whom I did not know, but whose memory was celebrated posthumously, in a very indirect way, this Holy Week.

Proudly, the grandson of a member of the Symphony Six,

John Moskalyk.”