For Conductors, Is Tyranny a Thing of the Past?

How Social Media is Shifting the Balance of Power in Orchestras

Monday, October 03, 2011

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


More in:

Comments [15]

Lynn from Cincinnati

The greatest conductors past and present were all autocrats in one way or another: some overtly, like Toscanini, Reiner, Rodzinski, Furtwangler (yes, I've seen rehearsal footage of Furtwangler snarling at his orchestra), Solti (they didn't call him "The Screaming Skull" for nothing) and Tennstedt (I still recall him screaming at the Cincinnati Symphony when they didn't play the "Tanz" in "Carmina Burana" with enough peasant roughness to please him) and some more gently but still autocrats. Bruno Walter's method was to insist on having the same section of music played over and over and over, 40 times if necessary, until the orchestra got it right, and he didn't care if the rehearsals ran two hours overtime. If you've ever seen the video of Benjamin Britten rehearsing, he was Toscanini in velvet gloves. And don't give me this nonsense about them being "jerks" or "cruel." As a famous psychologist once said, Toscanini's temper explosions and sharp comments were meant as a form of Rinzai Zen, to shock the orchestra into doing his will and nothing else but. Orchestral musicians work under a number of conductors, and unless they are COMPLETELY swayed in the direction of the conductor's vision you will have inconsistencies of style and interpretation. My complaint with most of today's conductors are that they often aren't forceful enough in their rehearsals, and it shows in their performances. Claudio Abbado famously chose to be a diplomat rather than an autocrat because he was traumatized by hearing Toscanini explode in rage during rehearsals, and what did it get him? Most of his performances are genial--often too genial for the music to be effective. I talked to musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic who firmly believed that Abbado "ruined" their sound and made them less effective as an overall orchestra than they were under the autocratic Karajan. Mariss Jansons is considered a great conductor nowadays, but in three dozen recordings I've heard by him all I hear is good, not great, whereas the much more testy Michael Gielen produced performances of genius. I guess it all depends on where you're coming from.

Jul. 02 2016 06:20 PM
Frank Feldman

Let's just say I don't think Alan Gilbert would pull the crap he pulls with the Juillard orchestra with the NY Phil.

Oct. 08 2011 08:54 PM
billy kell from n j

conductors ought to provide strong control over the musical output. they need to be leaders without tyranny. if tyranny presents itself, get rid of the leader asap

Oct. 07 2011 11:18 AM
Arden Anderson-Broecking from Connecticut

I could ramble on, but I'll just say that during my years as a performing singer, I met a few abusive conductors. They usually weren't that good, but that's another story. I worked with them only once, thank you. (You learn to say "no" politely,. after all.)

Oct. 07 2011 09:44 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I have often wondered at the god-like admiration and fear that conductors get. To me the ultimate quality of an orchestra comes from the musicians. Yes, the conductor has the overall picture of the piece in his head, and how it should sound, but it's only his interpretation. He/she has to realize that the success of the music lies in the quality of the musicians.

More often than not, the musicians in an orchestra have worked at their craft longer than the conductors has. They know their skills. They know each others' skills. They are consummate professionals, not children.

Trying to be "feared rather than loved" is not the way to evoke a quality performance. The conductor needs to evoke a love of the work to the point where it gladly plays itself.

Oct. 07 2011 08:32 AM
TomV from Ohio

Musicians have always been too good to be abused by conductors, not just in the past 20 years.

Having managed orchestras in Europe, I can say that conductors generally do not have the power to abuse anyone. Not only would the musicians not stand for it, but they have recourse through various internal orchestral councils to address issues with a union representative present. There have been aberrations, when some conductors and orchestra managers have gotten away with abusive behavior for a period of time, but they have invariably ended up fired.

Working terms are not as good for American musicians, especially in per service orchestras, where conductors still get away with arbitrary and dumb decisions that affect musicians and their orchestras' economic well-being. This dinosaur breed of conductor seems to be disappearing, however, as those who are too old to fit into the new 21st century model are deservedly phased out.

A rude, primadonna musician or conductor is an insecure and pathetic existence.

Oct. 06 2011 04:56 PM
Vincent Ellin from Winnipeg, Canada

I have seen the best and the worst of conductors in my 40 years as an orchestral musician, and I have played with some of the best. Music Directors in many orchestras far out weigh the input that musicians have in decision making. I have seen this abused far too much. The models in Vienna and Berlin are far more what I would like to in the future. The musicians today and in the last 20 years are far too good to have to do with any less.

Oct. 06 2011 02:24 PM
Frank Feldman

Let's hope not. Most orchestral musicians get by on instinct alone, and are utterly ignorant of the way composers operate and think. They need parents, whom they respect/fear, with plenty of disciplinary tricks up their sleeves. Just kidding. Sort of.

Oct. 05 2011 07:43 PM
marilyn rey from Cambria Heights, NY

I am not a musician, but had friends and acquaintances who were. The thing that impressed me was that they went to schools like Julliard and Curtiss. In other words, they were not only talented, they were well educated in their profession. They probably knew as much as any conductor about musical style, etc. and may have been a classmate of their conductor. The modern conductor is a person chosen to be a leader of his peers because someone has to make the final decision or there would be chaos. The old fashion conductor was a person in charge of a bunch of people whom God had granted a good ear and an immense talent to play an instrument, but who were generally not well educated. Naturally, such a conductor would scream at some poor musician who didn't clearly understand what the conductor wanted.

Oct. 05 2011 10:36 AM
Max Power

Bernie - So true. How he manages to get even remotely decent performances out of those kids is astonishing! He treats them like dogs in rehearsal.

Oct. 05 2011 09:50 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Toscanini might have been a tough egg but boy the music that came forth was great. The musicians need discipline.. Too much whining going on. Oh boo hoo..

Oct. 05 2011 09:37 AM
Bernie from UWS

@Max - I hear Gilbert is none too easy to work with at Juilliard - throws his weight around a lot. True?

Oct. 05 2011 12:33 AM
Andrew Balio from USA

I agree with Anne Midgette that conductors for the most part have become far more collegial collaberatives in recent generations. I have heard first hand accounts from my teachers regarding Szell, Reiner, and Koussevitsky and I feel the vast majority of the truly great ones up there nowadays are far better behaved. There simply isn't any need (or excuse) for such abusive, narcissistic behavior anymore as evidenced by true gentlemen such as Mehta, Abaddo and Rattle who give terrific performances.
Of course there are a few hold-outs who see the orchestra as a stage to act out their infantile fantasies, but thankfully we musicians know that it isn't a mark of genius but shallowness. Let's hope there is indeed an "Arab Spring" for musicians to empower the conductors who know they are just fellow musicians working for the cause of music and not royalty. I find often that performances under terrible duress end up sounding stiff and mannered. These good hearted ones deserve more attention.

Oct. 04 2011 11:56 PM
Max Power

Y'all should see how Alan Gilbert rehearses with the Juilliard Orchestra....

Oct. 04 2011 11:40 PM
Tobias Gossmann

Hello, I would like to say something to this matter....

First in defense for my humble opinion he was a great musician and interpret.
He was born in his time where autocratism was the time's education. On top of it he was a deadly choleric, hot-blooded character looking for perfect interpretation of genius' masterworks (not considering himself a genius). I think this speaks enough for himself, the great respect he had for the great masters and therefore he deserves all the respect. I'm sure he made human mistakes and commited injustice to some fellow musicians, but overall I think he did a pretty good job. We still speak about his music making, not only his meanness. At least it is not black and white.

Nowadays, most of the conductors are very educated people and I speak with my experience of more than 25 years of orchestra as musician. Rather sometimes they suffer from not having enough power to force certain star artists into a coherent musical interpretation (yes I'm talking about some star singers, surely not most of them, some stage directors and even some star orchestras).

On the other hand, the "nasty" conductors as I experienced them, needed or used nastyness to cover up their deficiant musician- and/or leadership (that's a problem of conducting careers promoted strongly and by far too fast without the conductor having the necessary experience and background, by some famous agencies).

And then there is the problem of musicians not doing their job in their orchestra. Who has to take care of that, calling them to order or more? Orchestra members by nature will seldom do it, mangement only if there is hard the bad paper goes to????

Oct. 04 2011 07:17 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Conducting Business

WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

subscribe to Conducting Business

Listen to Stitcher