For Conductors, Is Tyranny a Thing of the Past?

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The notion of the conductor as autocrat, bent on achieving perfection by any means necessary, can seem like a throwback to another era. It was Arturo Toscanini who famously broke batons, berated musicians and even threw a score at his orchestra during rehearsals, all we were told, in the service of the music. By the 1960s, collective bargaining agreements and workplace rules helped to do away with such behavior. Or did they?

In this podcast we explore some recent incidents along with the larger question of how the Internet and social media play a role in modern orchestras.

• Recently, Roberto Minczuk, the director of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, caused a furor when he announced to its players that they would have to re-audition for their jobs. When they refused; he fired them. In all, 33 players were let go. Minczuk was subsequently demoted from artistic director to principal conductor.

• Mark Gorenstein, music director of the Svatlanov Orchestra in Russia, was fired last week after making an ethnic slur about a cello soloist at the Tchaikovsky Competition. 

• In North America, the past decade has seen well-publicized skirmishes between musicians and their conductors at the Seattle Symphony, Montreal Symphony and among smaller groups.

What is interesting about these incidents -- though they're hardly alone -- is how the misbehavior was exposed: often through blogs, video clips and other social media.

"We're experiencing a kind of Arab Spring among orchestra musicians," says Norman Lebrecht, author of several books including Why Mahler? which is just out in paperback. "With looming bankruptcies in Philadelphia and Colorado, dissident views will be expressed and the old manner of managing orchestras will be if not overturned at least very very shaken."

Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, is less convinced that conductors are any worse today than before, and cautions against blowing up localized issues. "Basically there are jerks in every facet of our lives. We should try to curb them when we can and any tool we can use to curb them as a group is great. Conductors have grown far more collegial."

Jesse Rosen, President & CEO of the League of American Orchestras, argues that "command and control" is no longer the dominant leadership style that it was in Toscanini's day, and today in the U.S. at least, a more collegial atmosphere pervades.

What do you think? Do conductors have too much power? Or has the playing field been leveled? Please leave your comments below.

Norman Lebrecht
Anne Midgette
Jesse Rosen

Host: Naomi Lewin
Producer: Brian Wise; Engineer: Jason Isaac