The Russian maestro conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Palmyra Ruins, recently recaptured from Islamic State.

Russian maestro and former chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, has conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra in a landmark performance at the ruins of Palmyra in Syria. The 2000-year-old historic site was used by the Muslim fundamentalist group, Islamic State (IS), to carry out executions as recently as last July. However, the ruins, including its ancient Roman amphitheatre, were recaptured in March by Syrian forces backed by Russian air strikes.

In front of an invited audience of Russian soldiers, government officials and journalists, Gergiev conducted a concert including music by J.S. Bach, Prokofiev and Rodion Schedrin. The performance also featured cellist Sergei Roldugin, who, like Gergiev himself, is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gergiev and President Putin together in 2013.

The performance was broadcast on Russian state television, intercut with footage of Russian military forces retaking the Palmyra ruins from IS militants. It also included a pre-recorded address by President Putin, in which he denounced IS saying that terrorism was a “contagion” the world needed to destroy.

Some international politicians and commentators have criticised Gergiev’s Syrian performance for being a political PR stunt in an attempt to sanitise Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond branded the performance as “tasteless,” adding, “It shows there are no depths to which the [Putin] regime will not sink.”

The eminent maestro is well known for his open support of President Putin and is no stranger to playing a role in Russian propaganda. In 2008 Gergiev conducted publically broadcast performances in South Ossetia during Russia’s dispute with Georgia over the territory, and in 2014 the conductor’s backing of Putin’s military action in the Ukraine sparked public protests outside his performances around the world.