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Russian conductor Valery Gergiev fired from Munich Philharmonic for not opposing Putin, his friend

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs with the Munich Philharmonic orchestra on the stage of Grand Palace Hall during Enescu Festival in Bucharest, in September 2021. (Robert Ghement/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was fired from the Munich Philharmonic orchestra on Tuesday because he supports Russian President Vladimir Putin and has not rejected Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German city’s mayor said.

Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter said in a news release that the decision came after he issued an ultimatum to the 68-year-old Russian conductor to reject the invasion. When Gergiev, a close friend of Putin, did not respond by Monday, Reiter said he was left with no choice but to dismiss the conductor.

“I had expected him to rethink and revise his very positive assessment of the Russian leader,” Reiter said. “After this didn’t occur, the only option is the immediate severance of ties.”

The move to dismiss Gergiev, a prominent classical music conductor who has led the Munich Philharmonic since the 2015-16 season, follows a stretch of widespread anger toward the conductor for his refusal to denounce Putin. Some of Gergiev’s concerts have been canceled, and he’s been asked to resign from honorary positions because he has not spoken out against the invasion.

Marcus Felsner, Gergiev’s manager, announced Sunday he was dropping his client for backing Putin. Felsner, who described Gergiev as “the greatest conductor alive and an extraordinary human being with a profound sense of decency,” said to the Guardian that the conductor would not and cannot “publicly end his long-expressed support for a regime that has come to commit such crimes.”

“In the light of the criminal war waged by the Russian regime against the democratic and independent nation of Ukraine, and against the European open society as a whole, it has become impossible for us, and clearly unwelcome, to defend the interests of Maestro Gergiev,” Felsner said in a statement, noting the decision to drop the conductor was “the saddest day of my professional life.”

Gergiev did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. He has yet to speak publicly about Russia’s invasion.

The announcement comes as Russian forces gathered menacing strength Tuesday. While Ukrainian soldiers and ad hoc civilian militias have provided tenacious defense of major cities, a Russian projectile appeared to strike near Kharkiv’s administration building and a convoy of tanks, troop carriers and artillery more than 40 miles long threatened Kyiv. Five hours of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations near Belarus’s border on Monday failed to yield a breakthrough, with the two sides agreeing only to continue discussions in coming days.

The Moscow-born Gergiev is a star maestro who regularly packs opera houses and concert halls. He has made no secret of his bond with Putin, whom he has known for decades. The conductor has endorsed Putin’s presidential campaigns and sided with the Russian leader in denouncing the band Pussy Riot, which had spoken out against Putin’s control over the nation’s culture.

In addition to being the longtime artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Gergiev was honored by Putin in 2013 as an official “Hero of Labor,” the Atlantic reported. That same year, at the Opening Ceremonies of a million-dollar expansion to the Mariinsky Theater, Putin offered a birthday toast to Gergiev, who had just turned 60, according to the New Yorker.

In 2014, Gergiev was among those who signed a letter supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. He also conducted a 2016 concert in front of Russian soldiers in the Syrian city of Palmyra shortly after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, according to the BBC.

The classical music world has responded to Gergiev’s recent inaction. The Verbier Festival in Switzerland confirmed that Gergiev had resigned as music director at its request. He has been dropped by the Vienna Philharmonic’s five-concert tour in the United States, the Edinburgh International Festival, and the Festspielhaus theater in Germany. Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala told reporters Monday that Gergiev would no longer conduct “The Queen of Spades” at the La Scala theater.

“I don’t think he will be there, I think at this point we can rule it out,” said Sala, who is also La Scala board chairman, according to Reuters. When asked about whether Gergiev responded to La Scala’s request for him to speak out about the invasion, Sala said, “The maestro did not reply to us.”

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra has also indicated it would drop Gergiev if he continued to support Putin. A September festival he was expected to conduct would be canceled if he did not speak out against the invasion, the orchestra said.

Reiter, the Munich mayor, noted that he terminated Gergiev’s contract three years before his deal was set to expire.

“With immediate effect, there will be no further concerts by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under his direction,” he said in a statement.

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