The Cathedral choir, children and adults The Concert for Unity. (Credit: Stephen Elliot). (ImageLink Photo)
Classical music critic

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra are wrapping up a major American tour. On Sunday, they played the Kennedy Center; on Tuesday and Wednesday, they will perform at Carnegie Hall. Between those events, on Monday, came a special appearance at Washington National Cathedral, a "Concert for Unity" signaling art's power to build bridges. That concert was recorded for future television broadcast; excerpts are already available online. Oddly, though, the organizers strongly attempted to keep some members of the media away.

It was an unusual event from the outset: a privately funded reception and concert of music by Russian and American composers, all based on an ambiguous premise. What, exactly, does "unity" mean? Guests were invited to light candles "for unity, healing, and peace in the world," and a symposium before the event brought together religious and cultural leaders, including the head of the Orthodox parishes in the United States and the Kennedy Center's president, Deborah Rutter, to talk about cultural and religious bridges across political divides. The whole thing was planned and funded by Susan Lehrman, a Washington socialite and philanthropist who has for some years devoted herself to promoting cultural understanding with Russia — and who, last November, received Russia's Order of Friendship from Vladi­mir Putin himself.

The leading Washington institutions whose names were printed on the flier — the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts leading the roster — were supporters in name only.

“Our institutional names are included ‘in unity’ because we share in a commitment to cultural unity through artistry,” said Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive of Washington Performing Arts, adding, “Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center had no involvement in planning, programming or funding the concert at the cathedral.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Susan E. Lehrman, a president of the Lehrman LLC investment company, who was presented with the Order of Friendship at the ceremony of presenting state awards and presidential prizes to foreign citizens for special merits in strengthening peace, friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding between the peoples during the Unity Day awards ceremony. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik via AP)

Gergiev and the Mariinsky are no strangers to striking acts of cultural diplomacy. In 2016, there was much debate about their concert in the ancient ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, amid the ongoing warfare in that country, after Russian warplanes had helped take the region back from ISIS. The message that Russia was not only bringing peace, but high art, was meant to send a clear international signal, and it was violently controversial: some saw it as a sign that the Russians had their priorities right, while the British foreign secretary at the time, Philip Hammond, saw it as “a tasteless attempt to divert attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians,” showing “that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink.”

"It was a sublime experiment in propaganda, marrying Russia's cultural heritage to its martial ambitions," Andrew Roth wrote in The Washington Post. It also echoed a similar concert Gergiev and the orchestra gave in 2008, in the ruined capital of the region of South Ossetia, after Russia took it back from Georgia.

On Monday, Gergiev stepped in yet again to give a carefully staged message of peace in another area that has lately been marked by pronounced conflict with Russia: the United States. And in the heart of the American capital, the Russians showed their mastery of both Russian and American composers. The concert included chestnuts by Borodin (the Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor”) and Stravinsky (the “Firebird” suite). But the featured work was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” played at exhaustive length by the pianist Denis Matsuev, with an interpolated jazz trio for improvised sections in the cadenzas.

To opponents of Putin’s regime, the concert was controversial before it started: There was a groundswell of resistance on ­Facebook, letter-writing campaigns from the Ukranian American community, and a small but vocal group of protesters outside the cathedral, waving signs and chanting “Shame on you!”

“It’s a clear mixture of art and politics under the name of unity,” said Vladislav Beresofsky, a Ukrainian American activist.

But to others, it was just a concert, a gesture of understanding and appreciation of culture, and a chance to hear one of the world’s best-known orchestras perform some of its strongest works — with the cathedral choir, children and adults singing three a cappella pieces by Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Randall Thompson, holding up their end of the bargain.

The collaboration with the choir and other church musicians — the event also made use of the organ and the church’s bells — was a later addition, said Michael McCarthy, the chorus’s director. “This was a private event,” he said, noting that the cathedral has been renting itself out, as a revenue stream, for the past two years. “We were guests in our own space, to some extent.” But for the children in the chorus, especially, he thought the event was memorable. “It lifts the music program out of its normal round of activities,” he said. “You don’t see the cathedral like that very often, and we won’t see it again soon.” Few private citizens can afford the lavish display of light, sound, food and drink that filled the building.

An ultimate test of cultural diplomacy is the question of who controls the narrative. On Monday, the organizers restricted media access to this high-security event. After trying unsuccessfully to reach media representatives before the event, then waiting at the door, I was told that the fire marshal had ruled that no more people could enter the building. Later, the media representative explained that she had promised the fire marshal they would not exceed the RSVP list, and they took that seriously. When I did enter, thanks to the intervention of a cathedral staffer, there was plenty of room inside. Some members of the media, certainly, had been alerted: TASS, the state Russian news agency, ran an article shortly before the event. “The new Mariinsky Orchestra performance is a highly anticipated event in the States,” read the subhead, not mentioning that the event was open only by invitation.

And a news release issued shortly after the event gave its own spin. “The concert was perhaps a first — a Russian orchestra in concert with American artists in one of the nation’s premier venues for mutual understanding,” it said. Forget about Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center: this evening, as Lehrman and the Russian ambassador, Antatoli Antonov, said in their introductory remarks, was historic.

The United States certainly tries to play the cultural diplomacy game. In March, the National Symphony Orchestra traveled to Russia for three concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, also trumpeting the idea that culture can build bridges. But in terms of the image it projected, the NSO, by Russian standards, seemed naive. In 1993, the NSO returned from its tour to Russia with images of playing to an audience of 100,000 in Red Square. In March, however, they played under the banner of their former music director, Mstislav Rostropovich — showing their continuing allegiance to a great Russian musician. With this concert, the Russians emerge with a video that shows Gergiev leading American music in the heart of the nation's capital. The only thing that was missing, in the glossy program, was a message from an American politician. Perhaps they neglected to ask the White House.