From YouTube To Royal Albert Hall: The Ukrainian Justin Bieber Of Classical Music

Lang Lang look out!

Valentina Lisitsa performing in London
Valentina Lisitsa performing in London
Manuel Brug

BERLIN – A concert hall or the Internet? For any fan of classical music, the choice is easy. Music is played in the city, in a beautiful hall or chamber.

You dress up a little for a 45 + 45 minute program, plus some encores, and down a glass of Champagne during the intermission. Leafing through the program – perhaps even some socializing – is also part of the occasion. No question about it, this bourgeois ritual is alive and well. And the careers of the great classical performers are still largely made on the concert circuit, nurtured by agents, their recording labels, and the press.

If Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who made her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic last week, is now a part of that universe her beginnings were anything but the same old same old.

She owes her rise to stardom to the Internet, to viewer numbers that – for the classical music world – are dazzling: over 54 million clicks and 73,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel. That leaves even Lang Lang in the dust.

Traditionally, classical artists have been discovered in competitions, or via talent scouts – and it was often unclear why some got their big breaks and others didn’t. The Internet is a much more democratic medium. Everybody can give it a go, with simple modest means, although many purists equate it with selling out.

Lisitsa didn’t sell out. As ambitious as she is tech-savvy, this Kiev native is blonde and pretty – but she’s not a “piano babe,” using skin-tight miniskirts and f**k-me stilettos to build a fan base. Lisitsa has solid, Soviet-style musical training behind her, and she wanted her skill to be the source of her appeal.

It was a long, hard journey that took courage, risk and sacrifice. By the time her big break finally came, it seemed highly unlikely that it ever would, Lisitsa says: "I was 39 years old; if you haven’t made it by then in classical music, you’re dead. You have to be 16 today, the competitions end at 29, and after that it’s curtains." It looked as if she were going to be just another of the thousands of gifted young musicians whose wunderkind status fizzled to nothing.

YouTube Sensation

Lisitsa had her first piano lesson aged three, and held her first solo recital at age four. Her dream however was not to be a musician – it was to be a chess player. But after attending a school for gifted kids she went on to Kiev Conservatory of Music where she met her future husband with whom she sometimes played piano duos. She won various competitions, and a prize she won in Miami in 1991 gave her the idea of pursuing her career in the U.S.

Progress was slow: there were a few concerts in second and third tier cities, and nobody wanted the three CDs she’d self-produced. She got enough rejections by the big record labels and agencies to fill a ring binder. Lisitsa saw no future for herself beyond being simply "another nimble-fingered East European blonde” at the keyboard.

So, after over 20 years of performing, she gave up playing professionally – to become a government employee in Washington. But her music career kept nagging at her. Was that really it? After all the commitment, the deprivation, not to mention her obvious skill? To keep her sanity, in 2007 she started posting videos on YouTube – to soothe her soul, she says, and as a way of maintaining balance and not giving in to despair.

As the number of YouTube clicks gradually mounted, so did her confidence, even if the official music world was still ignoring her. In 2010 she and her husband borrowed some money against the value of their house and hired, at their own expense, the London Symphony Orchestra to record all four Rachmaninov piano concertos.

The first conductor bailed out of the project. There wasn’t enough money for rehearsals so interpretation details had to be agreed on in e-mails. And then when the project was completed – still nobody wanted it! Until the YouTube wave turned into a tsunami.

The record companies finally bit. In 2012, Decca launched to great fanfare the CD and DVD of Lisitsa’s first London mega-gig (8,000 people packing the Royal Albert Hall): a romantic virtuoso potpourri of Rachmaninov, Liszt, Scriabin and Chopin around a fluid interpretation Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Violin star Hilary Hahn chose to tour and make a CD of Charles Ives violin sonatas with her, that won the 2012 German recording critics award. Renowned Vienna piano maker Bösendorfer hired her as an ambassador for their instruments.

Lisitsa is now being marketed by the same music companies that formerly rejected her – at going-on-40 she’s become the "Justin Bieber of Classical Music," a "YouTube Star," an "Internet Invasion". She says she’s also known as "The People's Pianist" and that music lovers can vote on what they want her to play in concert. For the February 28 concert she gave with the Berlin Philharmonic, two variations were available to choose from.

And her Rachmaninov concertos, how did they fare? They were bought by Decca and in the English charts ranked right up there with Cecilia Bartoli’s expensively marketed "Mission" CD. "All the effort," says Lisitsa laughing, "was definitely worth it."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!