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Top Five Politically Outspoken Classical Musicians

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On July 5, Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica staged a concert in Strasbourg, France with a greater purpose than pleasing its audience. The program was a statement to the nearby European Court of Human Rights concerning the plight of Russian political prisoners, including the oil magnates Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky and Platon A. Lebedev.

Kremer followed a tradition of using music to carry political messages—one used in both Mozart operas and popular folk music. We present our top five recent political statements made through music. 

1. Daniel Barenboim, East-West Mediator

Though one of Israel’s most notable citizens, Daniel Barenboim is also one of its most controversial. The conductor and pianist earned enemies for his outspoken support for a Palestinian state. His comments have also won him friends in Palestine, which offered Barenboim citizenship in 2008. He accepted. Barenboim has tried foster understanding between the two ethnicities through his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of both Jewish and Arab young musicians. No stranger to controversy, Barenboim also conducted the first performance of Richard Wagner’s music in Israel, which unofficially banned Wagner’s music because of the composer’s anti-Semitic feelings.

2. Valery Gergiev Defends Russian Actions Against Georgia

Valery Gergiev also used his podium as a platform for political statement. The Russian conductor presided over a provocative concert marking the end of Georgia’s unsuccessful invasion of South Ossetia in 2008. An ethnic Ossetian, Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra in a program rife with symbolism in Ossetia. He chose to play Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, written to honor the U.S.S.R.’s victory over its Nazi invaders, and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.

3. Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads

The American composer Ted Hearne incorporated interviews, news articles and other primary sources into his Katrina Ballads. (George Bush’s notorious comment, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” finds a place in the libretto.) This 60-minute, 5-singer, 11-instrument work retells the devastation from the hurricane and the further suffering inflicted through the mishandled response to the natural disaster.

4. David T. Little’s "Love Song" to Oil

A question asking whether music should and or should not carry a political message was at the core of last winter’s Tune-In Festival; ensembles presented works representing both sides of the debate. David T. Little’s sweet light crude was an anchor of the powerFUL program. (Little himself articulated his thoughts on politics in music in a New York Times op-ed.) The ensemble, Newspeak, which Little helped found in part to play socially- and politically-charged works, played the 8-minute ode to oil usage.

5. Krystian Zimerman Denounces Bush Administration Policies

Krystian Zimerman is best known for his interpretation of romantic piano repertory staples. During a 2009 concert in L.A. however, the virtuoso’s political views overshadowed his playing. The Polish pianist, upset by America's occupation of Guantanamo Bay and the use of Polish military bases for questioning suspected terrorists, announced that he would no longer perform in the United States. Zimerman had previously suffered from America’s increased mistrust of foreigners: Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. Transportation Security Agents seized and destroyed his custom-made Steinway piano that he traveled with, claiming it smelled suspicious.

Who is your favorite politically outspoken musician? Leave a comment below: