How a Russian conductor abuses his orchestra
June 30, 2011 by Norman Lebrecht
The incident involving Mark Gorenstein and the Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan at the Tchaikovsky competition has brought in a shoal of mails about the way some Russian conductors treat their musicians these days, effectively as old-style commissars.
One case in particular stands out. I have deleted the names in the following mail, since the individual (AB) concerned refuses to respond to my contact request, but the conditions described may be considered fairly typical for Russian orchestras in 2011. The mail is written by a well-known international soloist, who has spoken to many musicians in this orchestra and has no personal axe to grind. Read on, and despair.
The comment at the Tchaikovsky competition is actually pretty mild compared to what happens in rehearsal here every day. AB swears, screams and humiliates musicians beyond belief. What he has been known to say and shout to people in rehearsal is horrifying.
The orchestral salaries come mostly from the presidential grant, which by law is distributed by the Director as he pleases. So each player is guaranteed around 3000 rubles a month (about £70) and for the rest AB runs a penalty system. If someone plays too early, or too late, or in the wrong part of the bow, there is a penalty deducted from their salary. This can range from a quarter to a half of a monthly income of the musician. Sometimes if one person makes a mistake, the whole section is penalised. When someone does something AB considers wrong, he likes to stop the orchestra and say ‘you will see how much that cost you the next time you put your card in a cash-machine’. It has also been known to happen, that if musicians show too much respect for guest conductors, they again get fined.
People are very easily fired – AB has fired many people, sometimes even after a first rehearsal, because he didn’t like the way someone looked at him. And unfortunately in Russia, there is nothing one can do – no musicians’ unions, no one to complain to. AB is very much supported by YB, a relative of his, formerly Minister of xxxxx in Russia and now on another high position in the government’s xxxxxx department.
Right in the beginning, when he took over the orchestra, after the first concerts a few Russian critics wrote negative reviews about him. After those, a Moscow journalist received a vile and violently threatening phonecall from a close family member of AB. This led to all major journalists of Moscow announce a boycott to him, and they have refrained from writing about him for around eight years now. Sometimes he pays for some articles in less significant newspapers, and those are always full of praise.
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