Big Issue column 26

Gay rights activists have been protesting at concerts given by the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev in London and New York. The underlying issue is legislation recently passed by the Russian president Vladmir Putin that bans the promotion of homosexual “propaganda” in Russia – legislation that amounts to institutionalised homophobia in a country where hate crimes are already all-too frequent. The reason that protesters are targeting Gergiev is twofold. First, he publicly supported Putin’s re-election in 2012, thus in the words of activist Peter Tatchell “colludes with a tyrant and shows little respect for freedom and equality”. Second, he did not renounce the Duma’s new laws and, when asked by about them by a Dutch newspaper, seemingly equated homosexuality with paedophilia.

Gergiev has since issued a statement clarifying that he does “not discriminate against anyone, gay or otherwise […]. In all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people. I am an artist and have for over three decades worked with tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries from all walks of life and many of them are indeed my friends.” Gergiev is in a tight spot. He most likely believes what he wrote in his statement, but without maintaining his good relationship with Putin (he has flat-out denied that he is godfather to the president’s children) he could never have pushed through St Petersberg’s controversial new £450m Mariinsky II, where he is general director. The British institutions where Gergiev holds titles are also forced into a tight spot. He is honorary president of the Edinburgh International Festival, whose founding principle was to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’. Putin’s laws prevent the equal flowering of Russian citizens. In such a symbolic role as Gergiev’s, can and should political affiliation be overlooked?

Meanwhile the third annual Jazz and Experimental Music from Poland Festival takes place around London this month (25 November to 5 December), and its programme promises a penchant for dark and wintry ambient sounds. There’s a screening of cult animation shorts by Lenica, Kucia, Kijowicz and other influential Polish filmmakers with live improvised accompaniment by Warsaw group SzaZaZe (The Macbeth, 26 November); woozy psychedelia from Piotr Kurek and Andie Brown (27 November, Cafe Oto); transcendental drumming from duo HATI (Cargo, 1 December); and an “electro-mechanical assault on the senses” from the fairly brutal noise-rock band BNNT (ICA, 5 November). Possibly not for the faint-hearted.

If you’re after something a wee bit gentler, Britten Sinfonia doffs its cap to its namesake’s 100th birthday with the pre-eminent Britten tenor Mark Padmore. The programme includes the haunting Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and a new work for the occasion by Judith Weir. Pekka Kuusisto, feistiest of all Finnish violinists, directs. (Norwich, 17 November; Cambridge, 22 November; London, 24 November.)

89-year-old Menahem Pressler has released a new album of late-period Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Pressler founded the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955 and was their pianist for a whopping 54 years. The extraordinary fluidity of such a seasoned chamber musician is everywhere on his new disc: Beethoven’s A-flat Major Sonata, Op 110, is noble, searching; the opening chords of Schubert’s great B-flat Major Sonata D. 960 are broad and grounded; Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, published posthumously, is as bitter-sweet as you can imagine. [BIS 1999]

AND ANOTHER THING: Too early for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio? Not when the performance is this good. Stephen Layton conducts a new recording with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and star soloists including countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist and bass Matthew Brook. [Hyperion CDA68031/2]

GO TO: The Mahler Chamber Orchestra on tour with Norwegian powerhouse pianist Lief Ove Andsnes. He plays not one but two Beethoven piano concertos per night; Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and Septet complete the programme. Edinburgh, 20 November; London, 21 November; Basingstoke, 23 November; Dublin, 24 November