More than a year ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hired pianist Valentina Lisitsa to be this weekend's soloist in a Mozart concerto, based on her musical reputation and her unique position as an uber-YouTube phenomenon who has chalked up 95 million views of her performance clips.
The Lisitsa remains a formidable talent, but she's now also a lightning rod, attracting intense reactions for her boldly expressed views about the crisis in her native Ukraine.
Born in Kiev, Lisitsa has expressed contempt for the government of Ukraine and sympathy for pro-Russian separatists. In June, she performed in the occupied city of Donetsk, where she was photographed with a rebel leader.
Ukrainian-American organizations have urged the BSO to cancel the pianist's appearances, following the precedent of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which did so last April, citing her "offensive, intolerant speech." A petition drive on the website Change.org has been launched, likewise calling for a cancellation. And protesters are expected outside at least one of the BSO's two performance venues.
"Of course, I've ruffled a lot of feathers," Lisitsa, 41, said during an interview at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. "But I just had to speak up."
And the more Lisitsa spoke up via Twitter, the more the response.
The Toronto situation promoted a flurry of commentary in newspapers and on websites on both sides of the Atlantic, debating the merits of the orchestra's decision and the merits of Lisitsa, musical and personal. Some of the conversation, especially in online comment sections, turned ugly.
In August, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines removed Lisitsa's recordings from in-flight entertainment in response to complaints about her political views.
"At the time we invited her, it was because of who she is as an artist, a YouTube sensation who rather unconventionally made her way to the top of her generation of pianists," said Paul Meecham, president and CEO of the BSO.
"We do have freedom of expression in this country. Anything that would restrict artists to express themselves is censorship of one kind or another. We would defend the right to allow our audiences to make up their minds about her as an artist," Meecham said.
Those opposed to Lisitsa's appearance made up their minds about the nonmusical side of her some time ago.
"It is wrong to see her performing here or in any free country," says Yuri Yankovski, a member of the Gaithersburg-based volunteer organization United Help Ukraine. "There have been 8,000 killed and 1 million displaced in Ukraine, everything the result of Russian aggression and Russian invasion. Lisitsa is very clearly a representative of the Russians and is clearly anti-Ukrainian."
United Help Ukraine is organizing a protest before Saturday night's concert at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
"We will not enter the stage or the concert hall, but will demonstrate at the building to make people aware of what Lisitsa has been doing," Yankovski said.
The pianist was enthusiastic about the uprisings in her native Ukraine that led to changes in political leadership, but grew disillusioned. "The ruling class doesn't let go easily," she posted on Facebook. "They managed to cunningly channel away the anger" to other "enemies, and worse, to turn people upon themselves."
Posting on Twitter under the name "NedoUkrainka," a word for "sub-Ukrainian" adopted in response to what she says was a Ukrainian official's description of Russian-speakers in the country as "subhuman," Lisitsa tweets frequently in provocative fashion to her 16,000 followers.
Terms such as "Nazis," "fascists" and "dog feces" have been used to describe the Ukrainian government and its supporters. Illustrations attached to the tweets have included vulgar images of animal and human body parts.
"I am a news junkie," said Lisitsa. "I know many artists stay out of politics, but I have always been interested in politics. When I saw what happened to my country, and I saw half-truths and some things not being said, I started reporting on what was happening. I could not rely on just what the BBC or other media [said]."
Whether the pianist's sources are reliable is a subject of debate, as is her style, which, she said, is often satirical.
"And if you just look at my tweets, you don't see what I was responding to," Lisitsa said.
A letter from United Help Ukraine asked the orchestra to follow the Toronto Symphony's example.
"Their response was that they were supportive of freedom of speech," Yankovski said. "But there should be some kind of line between what you can and cannot do."
John Kun, vice president and chief operating officer of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation in Washington, which sent a similar letter to the BSO, echoed that point.
"From an American standpoint, [Lisitsa] can say what she wants," Kun said. "We all understand there is tolerance of an individual's personal outlook. But she is a bigot spouting vile language. She is committing what I would call verbal hate crimes. I would think concertgoers will be concerned about who this person is. They will be turned off by this and the orchestra could sully its reputation. "
As in-your-face as Lisitsa's commentary can be, her critics can be unsubtle, too. Consider the Facebook page posted by United Help Ukraine to encourage people "to protest together against the music of war and occupation" before the Strathmore performance.
At the top of the page is a cartoon depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin manipulating a puppet of Lisitsa, who reveals vampire fangs as she plays an alligator-shaped piano. An arm reaches out from inside the instrument to stab a man in the back. Beneath the blood spurting from the man's shirt is one word: "Ukraine."
Passions, clearly, are high.
"We don't want to offend the public," Meecham said. "But [Lisitsa] is very clear about separating her [political] activities from her performing career."
That career stretches back to the early 1990s, when she and her husband, Alexei Kuznetsoff, won the Dranoff International Two Piano Competition in Miami. Lisitsa soon focused on performing solo, making a series of recordings for the Miami-based boutique record label Audiofon that revealed a pianist with extraordinary technical facility, intensity of expression and breadth of repertoire.
Lisitsa did not, however, receive a major boost in concert engagements. She and her husband moved from Florida to North Carolina and her career stalled (she currently lives in France). In 2007, it got a jump-start with the first posting on YouTube of a clip of her playing.
Those videos, produced by her husband, gradually improved in quality and global reach, registering tens of millions of views, an unlikely achievement for any classical musician. Lisitsa's YouTube channel has 224,000 subscribers.
The online buzz eventually resulted in an increasingly busy concert schedule and a recording contract with the major label Decca. Among her most recent recordings is one devoted to the solo piano music of Baltimore-born composer Philip Glass, a departure from the Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff more commonly associated with her.
Lisitsa, whose disarming, gregarious personality can seem at odds with her Twitter persona, has no plans to say anything about matters in Ukraine when she takes the stage with the BSO, making her debut with the orchestra. Her mind will be on Mozart.
"I am always happy to come onstage and play for people," the pianist said. "It is exhilarating. I cease to exist, in a way, when I am playing. In sports, they say it's being in the zone."
But, once out of that zone, Lisitsa is likely to be making waves again with more observations about Ukraine and other issues that motivate her, regardless of any protest that might ensue.
"I'm very stubborn," she said with a smile. "Just ask my husband."