(April 14, 2023 / JNS) A former personal assistant of a confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s new head of artistic operations.
Alisa Meves served as personal assistant to the famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev for some three decades. Over the past year, the classical music world has largely shunned Gergiev for his unabashed cheerleading for Putin.
The Munich Philharmonic fired Gergiev last year for refusing to condemn the Russian invasion, and concert halls in Vienna, Rotterdam and New York have booted him.
In an unusual coincidence, Lahav Shani, a young, talented musician who has conducted the Israeli Philharmonic and is currently its music director, announced that he will join the very German orchestra that fired Gergiev as its chief conductor in the 2026-27 season.
The ways that cultural institutions in Tel Aviv, Munich, Vienna, Rotterdam and New York have handled musicians with ties to Putin appear to underscore major differences in how artistic communities in different countries respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But answers were not forthcoming from the Tel Aviv institution.
The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra denied several JNS requests to interview Meves. It said she will be unavailable until May as she adapts to her new assignment. The orchestra also rejected several JNS requests to speak with any relevant representative of the cultural organization to discuss Meves’s hiring.
When JNS sought comment from the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the nonprofit that supports the orchestra referred questions to the orchestra.
‘Musicians should be judged on artistic merit’
Meves’s responsibilities remain unclear, but artistic administrators typically handle a wide range of roles, which can include selecting performance and musical themes, hiring directors, producers, set designers and crew, and producing, directing and choreographing. They also often have a hand in marketing, fundraising and weighing in on other important decisions that affect the organization.
Gergiev, the legendary longtime artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, served as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2007 to 2015 before becoming Munich Philharmonic chief conductor.
His support for Putin, including a campaign ad in which Gergiev praised Putin’s ability to instill fear, never seemed to come with costs for Gergiev.
But on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Milan Mayor Beppe Sala announced that Gergiev’s run leading performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at La Scala would end prematurely unless he denounced Russia’s actions.
Gergiev held his ground, and similar ultimatums followed elsewhere. He was largely cast out from the classical music world seemingly overnight, now relegated to leading performances in Russia and China.
Meves hasn’t publicly shared Gergiev’s political views, but she still came to Tel Aviv with his baggage—rightly or wrongly.
“Musicians should be judged on artistic merit, not politics,” David Goldman, a classical music critic who has written on Jewish philosophy and culture, told JNS.
He cited the circumstances around Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, whom Gergiev discovered. New York’s Metropolitan Opera canceled several of her performances last year after she refused to condemn Putin’s actions. The Met claimed the refusal was a violation of its conduct clause. An arbitrator later ordered it to pay her $200,000 for the 13 scratched appearances.
Netrebko later condemned the war but would not denounce Putin by name. The Met declined to reinstate her.
“We already saw what happened between the Metropolitan Opera and Netrebko. The Met took an extreme position, requiring Netrebko to denounce Putin in order to perform. I hope the Israelis will be more sensible,” said Goldman.
“Israel has maintained good relations with Russia, and Russia has given the Israeli Air Force a relatively free hand in Syria. Israel has also declined to sell weapons to Ukraine. The Israelis know their own requirements better than I do,” he said.
Another classical music critic, Norman Lebrecht, wrote on the Slipped Disc, a classical music website, that Meves will keep Gergiev “in the loop” at the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra “and possibly try to find him a way back in.”
Wrote Lebrecht: “This could be interesting.”