As the United States and its allies ramp up their economic sanctions on Russia, Benjamin Folkman of New York City and frequent visitor to Brunswick for decades put his version of economic sanctions on Russia as President of the New York-based Tcherepnin Society, which promotes the music of “the Tcherepnin family’s three generations of distinguished composers: Nikolai (1873-1945), Alexander (1899-1977) and Ivan (1943-1998).”
Prominent in the music world, Folkman shared a gold record in 1968 with musician W. Carlos, for assisting on the pioneering synthesized album, “Switched-On Bach.” He has written over 150 essays for the New York Philharmonic program book and annotations for Carnegie Hall, the Tanglewood Festival and the Metropolitan Opera. In 1983 he was Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Bowdoin College.
Yet perhaps his greatest musical achievement was realized recently when he led the Tcherepnin Society in refusing a request of one Nika Pshinko, who represented herself as the manager of the “Russian Abroad Heritage Foundation . . . dedicated to preserving the memory and popularizing the heritage of Russian emigrants of the first waves.” Folkman told me he interpreted this to mean re-integrating back into the post-communist Russian repertory the work of émigré artists such as Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Tcherepnin.
In an April 20 email proposing a “collaboration,” Pshinko asked the Tcherepnin Society for support in “staging the [Nikolai Tcherepnin] operas “Svat” and “Vanka the Keymaster” . . . in one of Moscow’s music venues: the chamber stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, the Helikon Opera or the Novaya Opera.”
Folkman said the possibility of seeing these neglected operas mounted was tantalizing. But after consulting with Tcherepnin Board members, he resisted — especially after hearing from a credible source that the Russian Abroad Heritage Foundation seems like a state organization, with the Bolshoi Theater under the music direction of disgraced world-wide, ardent Putin supporter and conductor Valery Gergiev. Moreover, with sanctions on Russia, the timing seemed suspicious — though the broader debate about whether sanctions should include cultural/artistic events loomed nonetheless.
With a unified board, Folkman sent his regrets to Pshinko. He noted Pshinko closed her request with “Faithfully.” “To whom Pshinko is faithful?” Folkman wondered.
The story doesn’t end there. Days later a request came to one Board member from a young flutist studying at a Moscow Conservatory, saying she’d “like to create a transcription of ‘7 japanese lyrics’ [N. Tcherepnin] for flute and piano . . . to take part in a competition in Germany.” She couldn’t find the “score of the whole cycle,” and asked for help in obtaining it.
Her request garnered sympathy: Folkman said she had flute videos on YouTube and had put a dove on her Facebook photo one day after Putin invaded Ukraine. Though not a member of the Tcherepnin Society, I shared their sympathy.
Still, according to Folkman, one former board member rhetorically asked if the request had come from Germany 1938, would they send the requested score? Given Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, there was no escaping the moral implications of the Society’s decision. And though the arrival of this second request on the heels of the first could be mere coincidence, it again raised questions.
And so we arrive at the Society’s dilemma: risk complicity with Putin by helping a musician perform underperformed Tcherepnin music, or turn down her perhaps benign request to eliminate any risk of complicity with Putin. A progressive on human rights, Folkman chose the latter.
With the society’s board ultimately united, Folkman suggested that the member who received the request write back to the flutist, saying she should hold off on her requests “until a peace treaty that fully restores Ukraine.” He feared this reply might seem “draconian,” as he put it, but he didn’t want to risk even inadvertent complicity with Putin.
To be sure, most of us won’t face the dilemma faced by the Tcherepnin Society. Yet as Americans, we might be inspired by the society’s deliberations to think carefully in taking our stands on the many moral matters that divide our nation — not least the right of women and LGBTQ people to self-determination, in the face of conservative Supreme Court Justices with regressive opinions that embolden draconian laws on abortion, contraception and gay marriage.
Because there are no risk-free moral decisions, the question asked by the Tcherepnin Society in resolving its dilemma is noteworthy: Should we risk complicity by associating even with those we fear might be collaborating with people whose human-rights positions we find repugnant, especially if they dangle deeply-valued, distracting enticements? The society’s negative answer reminds us that doing what’s deemed to be right morally often entails accepting nontrivial costs.
Barbara S. Held is a Barry N. Wish professor of psychology and social studies, emerita, at Bowdoin College.