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The art of being difficult: behind the scenes of Lisitsa’s cancelled Oakville concerts

The art of being difficult: behind the scenes of Lisitsa’s cancelled Oakville concerts

Life is often messy, and the messiness of Valentina Lisitsa’s professional life seems to be on par with the best Hollywood examples. Her May 8 Oakville concert, which was cancelled last week, was the fourth Greater Toronto cancellation in a month, which doesn’t bode well for Lisitsa, regardless of specific reasons behind the cancellation.

We know that the first news of the cancellation of the Oakville concert came on Saturday, May 2, at 10:21am in a tweet from the organizer of the concert – Les Holdway, a Cambridge-area property developer. However, a subsequent article in the Slipped Disk on May 4 claimed that the concerts were cancelled a day before (Friday) by Valentina Lisitsa herself. As proof, the article offered an edited email from Lisitsa to Holdway, which was full of stern words, but missed some key items. In particular, the header of the email was missing, making it impossible to be sure when it was sent. It is hard to believe that Lisitsa waited 3 days to announce the cancellation to her fans – she is normally quicker than that. At least one key item was completely cut out of the email as well. Lisitsa’s big interview in Paris on May 2 also didn’t mention the cancellation.

We managed to get in touch with Les Holdway to hear his side of the story. The falling out between Lisitsa and Holdway happened because of mistrust leading to unreasonable demands, particularly from Lisitsa’s husband-promoter Alexei Kuznetsoff, whom Holdway describes as “unstable.” Lisitsa’s camp got very nervous about the charities that were meant to benefit from the fundraiser. They suspected that either Holdway personally, or one of his businesses, would be able to keep the surplus money from the fundraiser. ‎‎ That was puzzling to Holdway, who knew that hundreds of nonprofits operate in Canada legally, file their T1044 returns under a trust number or a business number assigned to them by the Canada Revenue Agency.

Les Holdway is a director of two nonprofit organizations, which were the official reason for the concerts. One is very new – the Canadian Journalists Defence Fund was incorporated on March 9 (i.e. before Lisitsa had the TSO problem). The other one – the Noah’s Ark Wetlands Foundation – has existed since at least 2003, was a registered charity but lost that prestigious status in 2013 due to non-filing and now exists as a regular nonprofit organization, not able to issue tax receipts for charitable donations. Both organization operate legally and are able to raise funds for their causes.

Kuznetsoff started calling all suppliers trying to check if the Holdway’s payments were received. In one situation, the cheque was still in the mail, but Kuznetsoff got agitated and ranted to Holdway about this. Holdway suggested emailing him copies of certified cheques, but Kuznetsoff said all those invoices are a part of a “conspiracy of lies.” When asked if he believed all suppliers were in on it, Kuznetsoff said “yes.”

In order to deflect the suspicions about the charities, Kuznetsoff demanded to change the purpose of the fundraiser concerts from supporting general causes of the Holdway’s two funds to specifically covering legal costs of Ruslan Kotsaba, a Ukrainian journalist who was arrested for dodging the draft (and being public and vocal about it). Per Holdway, it was difficult for him to accept, because covering legal costs is not among permitted activities of the Canadian Journalists Defence Fund (nor the Wetlands Foundation), so this would require a change in the charter of at least one fund.

Holdway did not have much co-operation from Lisitsa and her group. In one bizarre example, they expected to have a pre-production meeting a month ago. Lisitsa was a no-show, and Holdway’s messages were not returned for another day or so. Finally, Kuznetsoff called to apologize and offered some vague explanations. In another case, Holdway planned to recoup some of the costs by filming the event, but Lisitsa requested that Holdway not hire any lighting or sound camera men because Kuznetsoff is capable of doing everything. About a week after that, Kuznetsoff said that Holdway couldn’t record the concert because Holdway didn’t have permission from DECCA, but he (Kuznetsoff) would be able to film. Why Holdway was not informed about that problem earlier is a mystery. Holdway decided not to film.

The venue of the Oakville concerts was quite large, and Holdway had reservations about having two concerts, but Lisitsa was confident in successful ticket sales. In fact, she claimed to be able to arrange for block ticket sales through her contacts in the Russian expat community, so that the concerts would be “sold out” within 1-2 days. And the only reason that she hadn’t pulled the strings just yet was because of her lingering doubts about Holdway’s charities. This implied a remarkable level of control and discipline in that Russian expat community. At the same time, Lisitsa and Kuznetsoff pushed Holdway to place more ads and deliver more ticket sales.

Block sales never materialized. There was just one inquiry and it did not come from Lisitsa. After the first weekend of Ticketmaster sales, Holdway knew the response was not that great, and the second concert on May 9 had to be cancelled. A “scheduling problem” was the cover suggested by Lisitsa.

The grand piano from Steinway was indeed promised, but it was not really free. While Holdway was not required to pay a rental fee, he was still on the hook for insurance, tune-up, transportation and storage. In view of slow ticket sales, Holdway decided to take not a 9-foot concert grand but a smaller 7-foot grand, bringing the cost down to about $1,000 a night. That was perceived by Lisitsa as an insult.

Holdway says that the charities extended about $12-14k in prepayments. None of that is technically refundable, but Holdway hopes $8-10k would be returned. Paradoxically, those harassing calls, which Kuznetsoff made to the suppliers, made them more sympathetic to Holdway in terms of issuing refunds.

Ticket sales was not great. Holdway sold about 250 tickets by Apr 30 and expected to reach 400-500 in the last week. Holdway thought the charities would be able to at least break even on the May 8 concert. When this news was given to Kuznetsoff, he got very excited. Unfortunately for Holdway, Lisitsa’s camp now felt safe enough to demand that Holdway give up financial control. Kuznetsoff said that the “fake charities” would get nothing, because the invoices they had paid were also “fake.” He gave Holdway the weekend to consider the ultimatum.

So in the end, Holdway had to cut his losses. After 6 weeks of long 16-hour work days, he is left with a financial loss to his charity funds, and perhaps a sober thought that he shouldn’t have gotten himself involved with Lisitsa in the first place.

For more information about the Valentina Lisitsa scandal, please visit Valentina Lisitsa Performance 
[hr]CORRECTION. The CJDF articles of incorporation were signed by Les Holdway on March 9, but formally deposited with the corporations branch of CRA only in late April, after a review by the Charities Directorate. The charities returns for the Wetlands Foundation were filed, twice, but rejected due to what Holdway believes was a clerical error. Holdway continues his attempts to rectify the error and restore the registered charity status for the foundation.


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