Back

Dutch conductor is at odds with his US orchestra

November 30, 2014 by norman lebrecht

31 comments.


Dallas News reports serious fictions between music director Jaap van Zweeden and his musicians:

‘The musicians have been telling me they’re extraordinarily uncomfortable with the work environment, and they feel at times like they’re being browbeaten excessively in rehearsals by the music director,’ says Ken Krause, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Professional Musicians Association.

Jaap admits he can be ‘abrasive’.

Full story here.

 

van zweeden


Comments (31)

  1. sdReader says:

    And of course Ken Krause mouthing off in public is going to help!

    1. Anon says:

      That’s Krause’s job!!! He’s the head of the Dallas Musicians’ Union for crying out loud. If the Union didn’t intervene in situations like this the profession of playing in an orchestra would still be in the dark ages.

      It’s taken decades to get musicians protected against conductors who can fire at will, abuse musicians publicly and a whole host of other assorted inconveniences. That, my friend, is because we have a Union.

      Rock on, Ken Krause. Kudos to the Dallas Local for publicizing this.

      1. MWnyc says:

        Fair enough. But orchestra musicians don’t generally get to scream at the conductor.

  2. Daphne Badger says:

    “serious fictions” ? As in, one side is making it up?

    1. Darren says:

      haha! true. I do believe he meant fRictions.

  3. Herrera says:

    The difference between a great orchestra and a merely decent orchestra is that, for the former, the pressure comes from within, from the musicians themselves, from their own expectations of themselves, from not wanting to disappoint their colleagues, from not daring to embarrass the orchestra.

    Here, it sounds like the ones making the complaints are a small minority of old-timers, past their prime, used to the old work ethics (or lack thereof), who have been demoted but still given the courtesy of a relatively high ranked chair befitting their seniority but not their abilities, who want to

    The union speaks for this minority. But I wonder how the rest of the orchestra feels about it.

    1. Anon says:

      That’s a really big supposition you’re making! No where does it say why the players were demoted. It could have been a very subjective and personal decision on the part of the conductor which is why the union regulates these situations.

      A conductor’s dislike for a player often has nothing to do with playing ability. There are zillions of examples. You can’t allow conductors carte blanche to hire and fire and demote
      with no checks and balances precisely for this reason.

      The union speaks for what’s fair. Period. No one, be they the majority or the minority in any orchestra wants to work in a situation where a conductor has this kind of power. It’s dangerous for everyone. If a conductor can do this to a few people he could do it to anyone. All orchestra members know this which is why NO ONE would support this kind of behavior from a conductor in this day and age.

  4. StopTheMusic says:

    Not at all unlike the Boston Symphony under Levine: Anthony Tommasini of the NY Times kept reporting about how much the BSO adored Levine, when in fact the orchestra absolutely couldn’t stand him: they found Levine condescending and frequently unprepared: he was using them as his laboratory to try out works of Carter, Babbitt, etc — whose complex meters he couldn’t even conduct. It was an antagonistic relationship, and the BSO celebrated when Levine resigned.

    1. Anon says:

      And fortunately thanks to the Union, the BSO players got a special clause added to their master contract. I think it’s even named after Levine. It stipulates conditions for the added rehearsal time the Maestro required to prepare the complicated pieces you’ve mentioned!

      Again, the Union, acting on behalf of and at the request of the players, saves the day

    2. Gabby Cadaver says:

      Comment that is only tangentially relevant (to anything in the known or unknown universe): Here’s to using orchestras for trying out complex pieces by Carter and Babbitt. That’s what orchestras are useful for. (BTW — and the musicians are going to scream at this –, should there not be a parallel clause in contracts stipulating less rehearsal times for works by Glass, Adams and Reich, given that there is so much repetition and the meters are so simplistic? On second thought, skip that . . . )

      1. Anon says:

        Programming. It’s all about the programming. You schedule pieces that can be performed at a good level given the rehearsal time you’ve got, not the rehearsal time you WISH you had.

        Complicated works are fine but you plan for them and program them appropriately. My guess is that that wasn’t happening which is why the union stepped in.

      2. MWnyc says:

        You think Reich’s and Adams’s rhythms are simplistic. Go sight-read Reich’s Tehillim or Adams’s String Quartet and let us know how it went.

  5. Musician says:

    Although I support our union as an institution, orchestra business should be kept out of the press. Bad move, Ken.

  6. doublebassist says:

    Well you are correct on one point: that they found Levine condescending. The BSO is in the dumps artistically, at least as far as the large American orchestras are concerned, and they do not react well to any leadership that attempts to elevate them. These are generalizations of course, but most of the musicians have no interest in a unified musical vision. The BSO’s performances have been the private laughing-stock of the “Big 5” (of course a useless term) for decades now. It is a shame because there are many, many unbelievably talented players in that ensemble.

    As for the situation in Dallas… of course no one wants a hostile work environment… but the results are speaking loudly. This is not a situation like Masur/NYP.

    1. Michael Schaffer says:

      What was the situation in NY with Masur?

    2. John Winder says:

      I’m not sure what planet your comments about the BSO are coming from, but the orchestra is actually performing extremely well in recent years. Perhaps you should actually go and hear them a few times……..

  7. MezzA says:

    Herrera, I fail to see how the article could lead you to believe that this was from a minority or players who can either no longer hack it or are simply too lazy to try. This is Dallas Symphony, not an amateur regional band, and if anything would make the tight-lipped circle of professional orchestra players break their silence, it would likely be due to a fine and mighty reason. It’s somewhat surprising that it has taken quite so long for that silence to be broken: one needs to only put an ear to the ground to hear more than discordant rumblings on Jaap’s style of rehearsing, general treatment, back office decorum, (not to mention the monochromatic result, IMO), and there are those orchestras that choose to no longer employ him because of “alleged” fear mongering tactics and, as it was delicately put, abrasive tendencies. There are stories, too, that show him to be a not too decent individual outside the hall. The point being, if the environment were such to inspire more than one tenured musician, each in a hotly contested seat in one of the dwindling few, major US orchestras to speak out against a highly connected MD… then it had likely reached a point where speaking out, and the desire to combat with actual experience the usual spin MDs are afforded, outweighed the potential for repercussions or retaliation.

  8. Michael B. says:

    This is another reason why the Musicians’ Union in America will have to go if American orchestras will be able to survive. The unions are unprofessional and want no changes in the status quo, except for regular raises, of course, so that each orchestra can retain its relative standing in terms of meaningless prestige as measured against other major orchestras (the reason for a brief strike by the San Francisco Symphony a couple of years ago). The unions go into conniptions if the players are asked to do something innovative like outreach to the community (a major reason for the Minnesota Orchestra lockout). They want things to continue as they have always been–playing the same, limited, boring, ultra-comfortable repertoire for an increasingly small proportion of the local elite (Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak (Sibelius in Minnesota)–rinse and repeat. Heaven forbid that the orchestra is required to play anything as difficult as Schoenberg! The unions have virtually destroyed recording by major American orchestras with their incredibly rigid work rules–rehearsals have to end on the clock as though the orchestra were a soap factory, musical considerations be damned.

    Eventually, serious musicians will have to choose between the union and true professionalism.

    1. Anon says:

      If it weren’t for the Union it wouldn’t be a profession.

    2. Robert Holmén says:

      In every line of work in which there is a union it is because there were ghastly abuses without it. It takes a lot to persuade people to part with even a small part of their paycheck to support a union, so there must have been some serious motivations to do so.

      Major American orchestras made made many, many recordings under union rules. It’s the collapse of the market for recordings that has “virtually destroyed” orchestra recording, not unions.

      1. Nick says:

        “The collapse of the market.” Much has been written here and elsewhere about this phenomenon that hit the music industry when it least expected it. Clearly there is no single reason, although the failure of fat-cat industry tycoons rolling in massive profits from the 1980s CD boom to realise that (1) the market was changing, (2) existing collectors no longer wanted yet more CDs of standard repertoire at high prices, and (3) a new relatively untapped market could be wooed by recordings without ‘name’ conductors, soloists and orchestras, must all be added to the toxic mix.

        In my view, unions must bear some of the blame, along with managements and the industry itself. In the 1960s and 70s, musicians in the top US orchestras were each receiving several thousand dollars in recording fees plus smaller sums in royalty payments. The example of Hollywood was plain to see even in the 1970s. Major films requiring large symphonic soundtracks started using London orchestras where recording and musician costs were far less expensive. In 2012 the music soundtracks for the 6 top-grossing films of the year were all recorded in London. Even nowadays 1% of video revenues have to be paid to members of the AFM in the US who work on film and TV productions.

        Following this trend US symphony orchestras started to lose their long-term recording contracts. They became just too expensive in an industry where Naxos was providing the quality with relatively unknown orchestras, conductors and soloists at a fraction of the price. Instead of adapting, reducing costs and renegotiating contracts, many major US orchestras were left out in the cold. I don’t know any details of the discussions with the AFM at this time, but I have no doubt that a reluctance to accept the rapidly changing reality of the industry will have played its part.

        1. Robert Holmén says:

          Yes, there are recordings being made with foreign non-union orchestras… and those aren’t racing off the shelves either.

          Union rules are not what made people lose their interest in classical CDs.

          -Recording for Hollywood films… That might have been significant income for one US orchestra.

          -The notion that US players should drop their union fees and record for Naxos rates. Why? A player who is in a market where they were likely to have been asked to do recordings could probably put out a shingle and teach private lessons for more money than a cut-rate recording session was going to get them.

          -“Even nowadays 1% of video revenues have to be paid to members of the AFM in the US who work on film and TV productions.”

          Demanding 1% for work that makes up 10-20% of the final product? How dare they!

    3. UnionViolinist says:

      Michael B.’s anti-union comments can probably be explained by an affiliation with the US Republican party. However, to describe the longest, most damaging lockout in American orchestra history as being partly caused by “outreach” demands can only be explained by lunacy. The actual reason for the lockout was to reduce total expenditures, which they achieved by reducing pay by 15% and the number of musicians by even more. If the musicians could have avoided the hollowing out of their storied orchestra by doing even more “outreach” than what they already do, of course they would have done that. Hate on the unions all you want but don’t pretend to be intelligent or knowledgable while you do so.

  9. Anonymous says:

    This article is just the tip of the iceberg, and says nothing about the unfair audition practices and other violations of union rules that have been reported. The fact that “numerous senior players discussed their feelings but asked not to be quoted for publication” is telling. Sounds like they fear retaliation from the Godfather-esque Maestro and his management lackeys who display no remorse for their scorched-earth style of orchestral management. If the goal is to transform the DSO into a world-class orchestra, perhaps they ought to start by treating the musicians with class. At least then, the DSO will be noteworthy for its newfound acclaim, rather than its internal strife and discontent.

  10. Gerhard says:

    You are so dead wrong that I can’t help wondering whether you have any personal insight into the work of professional orchestras at all. In reality it is quite the opposite. Top paying orchestras always had top class musicians, but in previous decades less well remunerated orchestras had players of very uneven abilities and aspirations. This has changed dramatically as I have witnessed myself during my professional life. When I started out there were some really fine musicians in my orchestra, but neither they had a majority nor they could as minority set the pace for the orchestra as a whole. The majority would have been well characterized by your description as “mediocre players who know their unionized rights and have little ambition to raise higher than what they have in their convenient full time positions”. The change came with the ever greater numbers of excellently trained young musicians who compete for ever fewer positions. Now we have a large majority of excellent and ambitious players, and it is this majority which is setting the pace. If you compare recordings of Berlin Phil for instance, you will hear an almost consistent level of orchestral excellence through the decades. With our radio symphonies you may already detect some small, but noticable development. But the real quality revolution has taken place in the “provincial” orchestras all around.
    I live in Germany, therefore I know the situation here better than in other places. But I’m not entirely unaquainted with orchestras in the US, and there the same phenomenon exists as well. It would also be most surprising if it were any different considering the even greater disparity and therefore competition of huge numbers of well-trained musicians for very scarce orchestra positions. So perhaps it might be a good idea that you go and listen for once to one of the “mediocre” orchestras you put down here. In my experience poor music making is far more likely imposed on an orchestra by an incompetent conductor than the result of an orchestra being unwilling to follow good musical leadership.

    1. Gerhard says:

      With this I, too, won’t disagree mostly. But don’t forget that conductors have the monopoly on the use of the entire rehearsal time an orchestra has for any program (Mr. Gergiev notwithstanding, of course, whose rehearsals are done by others). Excellent orchestras may be able to make excellent music for a short period without any great conductor, and for longer without a great chief conductor, but with some really good guests. But they generally get to work with a lot more different conductors to begin with than the ones lower on the totem pole, and usually they are well in the position to avoid continuing to work with the ones they find holding them back or impairing their level. The ones that can’t achieve that for whatever reason stop being excellent after a while. The reason why you hear more complaints about conductors from “lesser” orchestras is not so much that they need them more per se, but that in the average their share of good ones is so much smaller, while they are dragged down much longer by the others. Those who are lucky in that respect don’t complain.

  11. Herrera says:

    As for Dallas, the article identifies exactly 2 players, the 4th chair first violin and the associate horn, otherwise, it’s all just anonymous, vague grumblings by unspecified “numerous senior players” (who are probably comprised of just these 2 players).

    What workplace does not have a couple of disgruntled employees who, if given a chance to rag on his boss in the press anonymously, would not do so with relish?

    If the entire orchestra feels the same way, let the unioin call a strike, let the musicians sign a letter of no-confidence, let managment terminate the conductor’s contract, because God forbid anyone should work under such horrible working conditions one more day!

    1. Anonymous says:

      Herrera, you clearly know nothing about the situation. I would be careful with who you claim has discussed this with the press. It actually names 5 players and a very well known tenor. In addition it also says they spoke to several senior players. The associate horn and principal horn both appear to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s. Hardly “senior”. What management do you work for?

  12. Anon2 says:

    Call a strike? Silly. That’s illegal as long as the term of their contract is current. On topic: reading the article gleans that 2/3 of the incidents mentioned involve “behavior”. I’m confused why a conductor in an American orchestra would be given jurisdiction by his CEO over employees’ behavior, including the horn players who are members and the tenor who was a guest artist. Isn’t pure artistic competency the realm of the conductor? And how can the CEO defend the conductor’s response to such behaviors when we don’t even know the details of what happened? And are guest artist contracts structured such that the artist can be fired at will and without pay? I would like to know if the orchestra had to pay for 2 tenors (germain to the budget mention in the article) over what is an unspecified behavior issue??

    1. Anon3 says:

      “Behavior” could be any issue that disrupts a rehearsal. Arguing loudly during a rehearsal, being publicly disrespectful to a colleague or conductor, etc. “Pure artistic competency” doesn’t matter if someone is behaving badly; great players have been fired (some very high profile) for terrible behavior before in other orchestras.

      “And how can the CEO defend the conductor’s response to such behaviors when we don’t even know the details of what happened?”
      That makes absolutely no sense.
      WE don’t have to know what happened for the CEO to defend the conductor’s response; the CEO is the one who would have to know what happened.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *