By James Conlon

Since arriving in New York in mid-October to rehearse Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera, and until finishing my last concert with RAI National Symphony Orchestra (Torino) on Friday night, I have not conducted a note of music that is not Russian.  I flew to Europe immediately after the last performance at the Met to attend a new, beautiful production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina at the Vienna State Opera.  I then conducted three performances of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (“The Leningrad”) with the Orquesta Nacional in Madrid and two concerts in Torino (the program consisting of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky). I have Russian music, which I love, and Russia, on my mind.

As are many people, I am saddened to see the gradual dissolution of the friendlier feelings between Russia and the United States that emerged in the 1990s. I am troubled by what appears to be a re-emergence of Cold War sentiments on both sides. I am not qualified to make informed judgments about any of this, and I am not conversant enough with the facts and arguments surrounding most of the issues to proffer a public opinion. It does seem to me, however, that no one will be better off in the future should this continue to escalate.

I would further suggest that although we classical musicians, constituting a tiny fraction of the world’s population, may have minimal influence on world events, we can nevertheless do our part to keep communication open and meaningful.

Last Wednesday night, after rehearsal with the orchestra in Torino, I turned on CNN in my hotel room and heard the news that President Obama was about to announce the beginning of normalizing relations with Cuba.

That same evening, in a remarkable coincidence, The National Ballet of Cuba was opening a run of guest performances in the Teatro Regio (where, as part of its long history, the young Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere of La Boheme in 1896). My wife and I had been invited to attend and were preparing to do so. The announcement was made at 6:00 P.M. Italian time, and by 7:30 we were being given a back stage “tour” before the performance. The news had just broken amongst the dancers, and the emotion was palpable. I am no expert about classical ballet, but the performance clearly reflected the best of the splendid influence of Russian tradition and discipline that is a part of this superb company’s history.

By an equally remarkable happenstance, at that very moment, our two daughters were in Havana. Luisa, the elder, was there for the second time and Emma, the younger, for the first. Among their weeklong activities, they went to Matanzas, the city of their maternal grandmother’s birth, to better acquaint themselves with a part of their roots. They visited the little park, where a portion of her ashes had been spread.  My mother-in-law, who lived to the age of ninety-nine years and seven months, left Cuba in 1923.  She returned once in the 1930s to fulfill a dancing engagement. She attempted to visit in the 1980s but, advised not to risk being detained, canceled her plans.

Together with my father-in-law, they spearheaded the creation of the Cuban Institute, which was a part of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The purpose was to help integrate recent exiles into their new communities as well as to function as an epicenter where Cubans could continue to congregate and preserve a certain degree of their own culture. My mother-in-law never shed her Cuban-Spanish identity, never outlived her longing to go back, and never ceased to empathize with her newly “adopted” immigrants and their plight.

They both would have been happy to see the events of last Wednesday. They were not political, but would have understood the many competing emotions and viewpoints surrounding these changes today. But remembering the day our two countries’ diplomatic relations were broken (as I still remember it), they wanted nothing else but to see families, friends and cultures reunited.

The blockade, which lasted half a century, is a remnant of the Cold War. It is ironic, as one of its last vestiges is dismantled, that the same type of hostility which produced it, is reviving. As I watched the ballet on Wednesday evening, I could not help thinking that a few hours earlier, our governments were still officially antagonists in a now defunct struggle for world domination. That struggle has had nothing to do with the mastery in evidence on the stage. Nor did it have anything to do with countless performances of works written by Classical composers who lived and created in countries that at one time or another were our “enemies.”

Classical music and ballet unite human beings not only across geographic and political borders, but also across the centuries. Music is healing and salutary for the human spirit. The performing arts, the survival of the Classical arts, and contemporary cultural exchange, are all essential for humanity’s peaceful future. Musicians and dancers are human beings who bring music and dance to other human beings. We must not lose sight of that fact. Their art and endeavors transcend political, nationalistic, religious and philosophical differences.

The heritage and patrimony of the Classical arts are fundamental and necessary for all peoples. That is why it is important to continue defending and supporting the arts. They are worth the fight.

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