Brazil in a nutshell – so what do conductors think?

Brazil in a nutshell – so what do conductors think?


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2011

The confrontation at the Brazil Symphony Orchestra cannot be contained within Rio. The implications are universal and the interest intense.

As of this moment, as I understand it, the orchestra has suspended its musicians and ordered them to re-audition for their jobs. Those who fail to attend audition are dismissed. The music director, Robert Minczuk, has given a public assurance on this site that no-one ‘who participates in the evaluation will be dismissed’. His friend and mentor Kurt Masur has appealed to musicians to take part (though whether Mr Masur is in possession of the full facts has yet to be ascertained). Meanwhile, the first players have received dismissal notices.
Reauditioning an entire orchestra is a radical procedure, without precedent in my experience. It would be helpful to know what conductors in other countries think about it. Is it a model to be emulated? Or should it, as some suggest,be stopped immediately on grounds of illegality?
Conductors wield power in 2011 by social consent. I would like to hear some more of their responses here to what is going down in Rio.
Participants of the Street bands in Rio's Carnival


  • mark winn says:

    Absolute disgrace….perhaps the conductor himself should also reapply for his own job…and be judged by the orchestral players? Ill book my own flights to be there in the interests of impartiality!

  • ole bohn says:

    Dear Maestro Masur!
    I have read your letter concerning the crisis in the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira with great interest. Anything coming from such a wonderful musician and respected person like you, will be taken seriously anywhere in the world. However, I would like to allow myself to make a few comments, since I am like you, a great friend of the music scene in Rio de Janeiro.
    We all know that you have been the great mentor of Roberto Minczuk for years. You arranged for him to come to DDR as a very talented French horn player a long time ago and brought him later to New York as your assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Now, when he is on his own feet, you, of course, cannot follow every step he does. Neither you nor I have experienced his daily work and treatment of his orchestra in Brazil. But the musicians of the OSB know, they experience it practically every day. I don’t like what I hear. To me the most serious issue is that Mr. Minczuk doesn’t work together and for the musicians, but obviously against them.
    It is fantastic that the musicians of the OSB finally will have salaries similar to colleagues from major orchestras in New York and Europe. They deserve it ,as you say, with many years of delayed payments etc. This of course puts great demands on the orchestra. Good salary is equal to good performance, however, I have never heard the OSB intentionally play badly, even though they hadn’t been paid for months ! With a good conductor you work together to achieve better artistic results. In my opinion there is a great arrogance that Mr. Minczuk claims that the orchestra commission has only a consultative function. In today’s world music directors work together with their musicians. The days of dictatorship are over.
    In every orchestra, even in the very best, there will always be the “ weakest” member, regardless how many substitutions you make. That is a fact. There are many ways of making personell changes, the most common and best ,is having a change the natural way ,by having good retirement conditions. I don’t say that a musician necessarily doesn’t function well with age, a wonderful example is the solo trumpet player of the Chicago Symphony who stood in his position in his 80’s !However, normally when a musician reaches 70, he or she would like to retire with honor. With the new salaries for the OSB, some of it could go to a good pension plan for the older musicians. But, instead, the administration of the OSB sends out letters with threats of being fired . This is harrasement, Mr. Masur !
    In every country it is forbidden to substitute people in a work conflict with other labor. This goes for musicians as well. What does Mr Minczuk do? He lets the OSB youth orchestra replace the senior orchestra ,while he has suspended the official OSB. This is not only illegal ( I am not a lawyer), but highly unethical.
    Many orchestras invite leading musicians to work with different sections of the orchestra. At the Norwegian National Opera, we have done it with great success. We have had seminars with woodwind and brass players and I especially treasure the seminar we in the string section had with the concert master of the Berlin Philharmonic, Leon Spierer. We learned so much, and I personally got fantastic feedback, which was very helpful. Unfortunately Mr. Minczuk prefers to call in a jury and let the musicians be humiliated to reaudtion , for later being fired. This is unfortunately his intention, even if he now claims “no one will get fired”. The scheduled international auditions tell us differently.
    If we are talking about augmenting an orchestra with new members, there will of course be auditions. Every country has an obligation towards its own musicians, otherwise the educational institutions would be useless. But, we live in a global world, and when we cannot fill the vacancies with qualified musicians, we recruit internationally. Personally I treasure the different sound and personality of the major orchestras. In my opinion I can still hear it is the Vienna Philharmonic ,regardless who is conducting. I haven’t heard, however,that they are holding auditions in London and New York, before Vienna.
    At the Norwegian Opera and in many other orchestras in the world , we have sectional rehearsals. Here is the ample opportunity to work closely to achieve the best homogenous sound and intonation. These rehearsals have made the standard of performance much higher. I don’t know if Mr. Minczuk has been interested in this.
    In most companies, musical and non- musical, the employees are at least called in once a year for a confidential talk. Here the administration and the employee can discuss mutual concerns, wishes etc. Here is the time when the music director can talk directly face to face with each musician. Both parties have the chance to express their opinion. The OSB music director doesn’t do this. Instead he gives out written warnings ! Otherwise, as you, of course, know, musicians are constantly under evaluation. During rehearsals we all try to accommodate all the wishes of the conductor and at the concerts we do our utmost to perform as well as possible.
    Mr. Minczuk claims that he cannot hear how individual players actually perform in an orchestra. What a terrible thing to say! He has learned from you, Mr Masur, and he cannot hear? This is absurd and I am sorry that he belittles you as the great professor you are. . If Mr Minczuk should be unable to evaluate individual players, he has his own section leaders in the orchestra to depend on. Instead he calls in an international jury to humiliate his musicians.
    Maestro, you are not only a great artist , but a fantastic orchestra builder. The orchestras you have led have all grown considerably under your leadership and your name is closely connected to them. As far as I know, you have never fired musicians and held reauditions. Even , quite unlikely, if that would have been your wish, you would never have been allowed to do so. Why do you support Mr. Minczuk ?
    Maestro, I have always admired you as a great conductor and musician. At the same time I will never forget your contribution to the fall of the tyranny of the dictatorship in the DDR. Dictators should not be allowed anymore and this goes also for orchestras. I am sure you agree. Since you are so close to Mr Minczuk, you have the best opportunity to tell him to follow the Norwegian slogan: “It is never too late to go back “.
    Dear Mr. Masur, I feel ashamed that I feel compelled to write to you in this way. You have my utmost respect. Orchestras around the world are closely monitoring what is going on in Rio de Janeiro; the German orchestra union has spoken in favour of the musicians, the case will be brought to the International Federation of Musicians’Union,, there are in one day 1500 signatures against Mr. Minczuk’s behaviour etc. The musicians’ world is small. Please, help to stop the craziness, so that everyone can go back to their work and make music in peace and dignity.
    In deep respect,
    Ole Bohn
    Concertmaster Norwegian National Opera
    Professor Sydney Conservatory of Music

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    What is going on in Rio is disturbing. The art of a conductor is to produce the best artistic results from any group of musicians. It is a difficult situation when a player or a few players truly get in the way of an entire orchestra because of their artistic shortcomings. Many orchestras have negotiated into their master agreements procedures that allow the conductor and affected players to deal with these difficulties fairly.
    I am not at all familiar with the artistic level of the orchestra in Rio but from what I read so far I find the treatment of the musicians disgraceful. It is also extremely humiliating that the management planned to bring in international judges. That is humiliating to the entire musical community of Brazil as if in this huge country there are not competent, fair and honest musicians to judge orchestral auditions.
    A music director should have the fair tools to be able to elevate the artistic level of an orchestra. Giving a chance to a player to prove themselves at an internal audition is proper in some extreme cases of incompetence. I also prefer that this audition is judged by the orchestra’s own audition committee and the conductor should not attend the audition. The committee’s decision should be final and the conductor should accept it. This should only be done when everything else fails. To re-audition an entire orchestra and use a youth orchestra as a substitute to play their concerts is not a humane way to elevate the artistic level of an orchestra.

  • mhtetzel says:

    Below is the link for John Neschling´s blog and the post “The Dilemma of OSB”. He was the MD/AD of Osesp, the symphony orchestra of Sao Paulo. Under his leadership a quasi moribund orchestra with no concert hall and no place to rehearse was transformed into an orchestra of international quality, look up 2010 Respighi´s CD by BIS. Politics in Sao Paulo, within the orchestra and outside it, now dictates that his name be systematically wiped out from the history of Osesp as if the “New Osesp” were the production of spontaneous generation. After 12 years, in January 2009 he was dismissed by the Board by email, while on his annual holiday!!! Pressure from the public changed nothing. Orchestral classical music in Brazil can be dated “before” and “after” Neschling. I mention Osesp because it is hard for someone living abroad to understand the influence of “politics” in all walks of life in Brazil. OSB is no exception. Sorry that Neschling`s blog is in Portuguese and hope some of you can understand at least the gist of it.

  • Anon says:

    @ Mark
    conductor’s contracts tend to be renewed fairly regularly. Conductors do re-apply for their jobs; and frequently orchestral players are balloted.
    What you suggest already happens in many (most?) orchestras.
    [ plus – players dissatisfied with a conductor usually manage to oust them! ]
    Do you think musicians should also reapply; or do you think that conductors should have an equal “tenure for life” as some orchestral musicians and shouldn’t reapply?
    – – – – – –
    In general – it’s clear that the situation in Brazil is awful (and probably for all concerned). That shouldn’t prevent anyone from suggesting a fair system of re-evalutaion / re-audition / encouraging development & improvement / maintaining artistic standards.
    I do believe that most orchestral musicians – if talking privately – will acknowledge that there are players in their orchestra (even in their section) who are not up to scratch. Certainly most freelancers / extras who go in and play with regular bands readily identify such! Some players are readily identifiable as being out of their depth from an audience (visually and/or audibly).
    But most bands don’t have an effective system to deal with this.
    The anti-audition camp suggest that orchestras magically improve themselves (not always, and not reliably); and/or that a conductor should be capable of identifying and dealing with weaknesses. Yet the same people say that conductors are no longer permitted to wield the sword of change and to deal with it in their own way. So if conductors can’t pick and choose, and if orchestras do not reliably improve themselves by some magical force (and it all gets messy when players start picking on each other) – what’s the solution?
    Nobody who has complained at the situation in Brazil seems to be willing to suggest a sensible, workable alternative solution which could be applied across orchestras in general! It’s all very well to criticise, but what’s the dream alternative?
    Suggestions on a postcard. . .

  • Mario Palacios says:

    Totally agree with the comments from Ole Bohn.
    I am a viola player, born in Mexico, and I spend the last 25 years playing in orchestras is Europe, I had been confronted with “Reauditioning” a couple of times in my life.
    The first time in a Belgian orchestra was a solo wind player and a couple of first violins who were clearly not qualified for the job, not because of age, but because of their artistic shortcomings. So, the whole orchestra had to reaudition, as was not legal to force only the 3 players to do it. In the end the 3 players left the orchestra, after a long legal battle. I can understand that if a few players are lowering down the lever of the entire orchestra something have to be done.
    But a whole orchestra?
    In sudamerica happened before, after perestroika russian players came to Mexico and willing to play ( very fine playing) for 5 pesos the hour..and much better that the mexicans, and in a coupe of years the ” Orquesta de el Teatro de Bellas Artes” and the Mexico City phil orch. were 40% russians, the mexicans were fired. Yes a better orchestra, made of people who only wanted pesos, the concerts were more “in tune” but the magic was gone… I can tell you.
    But what is an orchestra? not only a machine who plays, but a group of musiciens who represents a city, a country, who show the rest of the world what they can do.
    What is this? “internationals auditions” for Orchestra of Brazil?
    Sudamerican orchestras and musiciens dont have the level of americans or europeans, but they can make music too, you know? at their own level, and if possible get better with time, with love and RESPECT, good conductors can make miracles.
    By the way a real good conductor, can see if a viola or chello player is good or not, even if far in the last stand.. bow speed,timing, I personally can pick the player with shortcomings in seconds, by only looking at him/her. A good music director should be able too.
    An orchestra is like a human body, in place of taking out the heart and replace it with a new one, will be better to maximise the one you already have.
    And if in the end, this people decide to go on with their plans, auditions should be held for brazilians, after all is their country and their orchestra.
    And why if this conductor want such a great orchestra he does not go to find a orchestra in Europe? wait.. may be because there he is the one not good enough…..
    sorry for my english..
    Mario Palacios
    Charlemagne orchestre for Europe

  • Fabio J. says:

    Mr. Lebrecht,
    I have great friends working on OSB, we constantly spoken about the current situation. In general, the feeling that we can see in the entire group is a quiet revolt and disappointment. Disappointment because they believed would go to Rio do a decent job, with compatible wages and form part of an already historical group. But the fact is that good wages, at least the way it was promised, never happened. Participate in some decisions? Never! This is something considered utopian given the current direction. What we have then, are promising talents, young hopefuls being underutilized. And that I mean the young people in the orchestra. If bad feelings as this already has taken hold of young people of my generation, imagine what would be the oldest members, who have a legacy of their lives within that group.
    Unfortunately I can not name names or excerpts of the e-mails I have been here, but the musicians situation, yes, is desesperate.
    Solutions, of course there are many ways. But the specific cause of all this confusion is very clear to everyone, and that’s not today, has been dragging for years.
    Therefore, this declaration from Mr. Masur is, in the best of intentions, blind and disappointing!

  • harold emert says:

    Hi Norman:
    Thanks for publishing my “oboist’s tale”
    (1)Re:Masur–a source in Calagary,where Minczuk conducts, e mails to say what was supposedly written by Maestro Kurt Masur was “lifted” or borrowed from the Calagary orchestra website where Masur praises his former pupil.
    (2)We are also informed that the oldest violinist in the orchestra,who has never missed a rehearsal in his life,was sacked for not appearing at the audition and internationally-known concert master Michel Bessler (quartet recordings) has been suspended.
    (3)The Musician’s Union in Germany has advised OSB musicians not to appear at the re-evaluation or re-auditions
    (a) A German flautist from one of the big radio orchestra there is on the evaluation committee
    (4)The Calagary orchestra writes that there will be no re-evaluation-re-auditions there but makes the mistake of claiming “the unions in Brazil have another agreement with Maestro Minzcuk” /Correction:The Sindiato dos musicos,or Musicians’ Union in Rio is adamantly against these re-auditions
    (5)Despite the immorality of it all, the Youth Orchestra of the OSB with “ringers” from the orchestra –who have pulled out of their colleagues protests–will play the first half of the season.
    I read most of the major Brazilian newspapers every day ,etc and will be correcting whatever lies or omissions come out
    Harold Emert
    oboist,Brazilain National Orchestra
    Oquestra Sinfonica Nacional-UFF

  • Joao Silveira says:

    To tell you the truth who cares about this orchestra,
    Is a disgraceful orchestra, is very famous due to these actions if disrespect
    Every conductor. They expelled the great Karabtchesvsky
    For the OSB he was useless, they also expelled one of best local conductors as well, Mr. Tibirica, not a big deal what they are trying to do with the
    New administration.
    What I would like to make mention as well is that the Brazilian labour
    Authorities are not backing them up, so far all their actions against
    The foundation were considered inappropriate and with no legal basis.
    All of from outside of Brazil should learn more about the whole before posting comments.
    Greetings from Barra Mansa

  • As Gustav mahler said, There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors. I can count on one hand the number of conductors that I have worked with, that have actually behaved ethically. And I have worked with some very great ones. This is a damning estimation of the profession but I believe it is true.

  • Roberto says:

    It is quite funny that only those who support Mr. Minczuk are questioned if the are “in possession of the full facts”. It is even funnier that foreigners consider themselves able to say what is legal or illegal in our country. Perhaps all american and european critics and musicians have an LLM or PhD in Brazilian Labor Law… For those few who may be interested in the facts, the President of the OSB Foundation released a public statement informing, among othe things, that the musicians asked the Courts to suspend the auditions and thir claim has been rejected twice.

  • Guy Dammann says:

    The Hungarian National Philharmonic made all their players reaudition in the 90s. The wounds are still quite fresh from what I understand, although it’s generally agreed it really helped the quality of the playing

  • Michal Wolosznijak says:

    The same type of auditions are happening in the City of Curitiba, south of Brazil.
    Nobody is complaining, because is a small orchestra, nobody know those musicians or the conductor. But, those are professional musicians as well and they proved that going through audition, so they deserve to be members of that body. Not a big deal for them and for sure the Curitiba orchestra does not offer half of what BSO is offering in compensation and benefits.
    What is the fuzz all about in Rio? As already posted here, in Hungary that also happened, no complaints. But in Rio this is illegal? By who’s laws? Brazilian labour ministry just released a note saying that there is nothing illegal and the employees can be evaluated anytime by their employer.
    The whole process prepared by the BSO Foundation is 100% legal by the local laws, as also, already posted here.
    Many people from outside of Brazil are completely miss-informed and miss-leaded by some when they are bombarding the direction of the orchestra. One thing I have to say, Mr. Minczuk is a very competent person, you can see he works not only in Rio but in São Paulo and abroad.
    Before he started to conduct the BSO things where really bad. He was able, through his competence and his great team, to bring more sponsors and get the orchestra to a level that they never had before.
    For the records, São Paulo State Orchestra and the Municipal Orchestra of the City of São Paulo are the biggest orchestras of Brazil, with a core of excellent musicians, many from abroad but there are some hicups there too. specially with the OSMSP.
    The Municipal Orchestra of the City of São Paulo is going through a difficult time after Mr. Alex Klein resigned, he left the orchestra in a situation that they never had before, his administration was like a Tsunami. Interesting that we see many ideas and suggestions from his emails and letters, but he was unable to do at least .01% in the OSM, his dictatorship did not long too much there.
    Why we do not see any one like Mr. Ole Bohn (that by the way we never heard of him in São Paulo among the local musicians) or Mr. Weir (famous by his postings) doing or commenting anything to help the OSM of SP? Where were they when Mr. Klein was devastating the Paulistano Choir? Firing 70% of the choir?
    What the BSO has so special the people are supporting musicians that do not respect their leadership?
    This is all demagogy, or fallacy? Can someone explain that here?

  • Dean Williams says:

    What do conductors think? They will look on with consternation, but they will not say much, as it is not in their interest to do so. And of course, a vast majority will be thinking, but never saying, “Man, I wish I could get away with that!”
    I think that people are getting confused on two points; these being what is legal and what is moral. I am not even going to try to decipher Brazilian labour law, as it would be a waste of my time. The inaction of the Brazilian authorities that have been contacted by the musicians tells me that the actions of management are well within the law.
    The real question is what is morally acceptable. I am an amateur classical musician (bassoonist) and I have had to audition for different gigs at different times. Sometimes I got the gig, sometimes I did not, but when I did, by custom, the gig was mine until I gave it up. Musicians travel the world in seach of chairs with the same expectation. If I had travelled to Rio to get a job I would have expected to keep it. If someone had told me two or three years after that I had to re-audition, the first thing I would have done was to check the fine print of my contract. If a clause that allowed the orchestra to re-audition me had been there, I would shut up and done it, but if the opposite were true, I would not re-audition.
    An audition is probably the most stressful thing that I have ever done in my life. I have been in the Armed Forces, I am a high school teacher in the public system, so believe me, I know what stress is. If you go into the job knowing that you have to re-audition, you have the opportunity to prepare yourself for it both mentally and musically, but if you do not expect it, the results can very well be devastating. Rather than taking the time to properly prepare for concerts, you end up spending time, and lots of it, to prepare for the audition. If you ask the entire orchestra to do this, it is absolutely sure that the quality of the ensemble will drop off drastically. The fact that the OSB cancelled all of its concerts speaks volumes when seen in this light.
    Each of the musicians in the orchestra were playing under a set of expectations. They believed that they had won their jobs, they believed that their jobs were safe, and they believed that the orchestra had confidence in their abilities as musicians. Now we can see that none of this is true. I cannot blame the musicians for fighting back, I would do the same in their shoes. Basically, their world fell apart when Mr. Minczuk announced the re-audition process. While he may have followed Brazilian labour laws, the fact that he did not follow the customs of the classical music world damn his actions. As a conductor, he should have been able to hear and see which of the musicians was unable to meet his standard and react in the usual manner. The fact that he is doing this makes me wonder why. Can it be that Mr. Minczuk wants to improve the ensemble, but that he is simply too incompetent to do it in the usual manner? Frankly, I doubt it, but due to the fact that he has decided to re-audition everyone makes me believe one of two things:
    That Mr. Minczuk is indeed incompetent,
    or that the musicians are right in that in saying that Mr. Minczuk is leading a drive to rid the orchestra of certain undesireable elements.
    Either way, the process that is currently occurring is deeply flawed, and will not improve the orchestra in any way in the short or medium term. I also believe that the international musicians who have agreed to adjudicate on the jury should not go, as doing so will negatively affect your reputations in many ways. It will also create a precedent that many, myself included, do not want to see. As things stand, I am watching this situation unfold with great sadness, and nothing that the management has said has made me feel any better.
    In addition, I often go to orchestral concerts in my area. If Mr.Minczuk comes to Montreal, I will NOT be going to hear him. And I know that I far from being the only person who feels this way.

  • Joaquim Nogueira says:

    Mr. Williams,
    you are 100% correct in your own words, “If a clause that allowed the orchestra to re-audition me had been there, I would shut up and done it” .
    There is definitely a clause that allowed the orchestra to re-audition, so, if you not re-audition is a contract violation.

  • Martinho Nogueira says:

    Just a clarification in regards to Mr. Emert email.
    The Union of Rio de Janeiro does not represent the professional musicians of Brazil as he is trying to say here, this is a local union, basically only in the city of Rio de Janeiro.
    Very weak, disorganized and does absolutely nothing for the musicians, go ahead Harold and list here what they have done for us when pay was late and we had no benefits or even a decent contract with the BSO? you are no longer with the BSO so you do not care. The Union, is a very good tool just to create confusion.
    Not everyone, again, not all of us, musicians of Rio de Janeiro agree with this defamatory campaign promoted by this local, again, LOCAL union that do not represent professional musicians of Brazil.
    Here is what is happening, everybody that does not agree with the union have being harassed and called traitor. We have our right to agree and disagree, in this case the union does not have 100% of support, since more than 35 musicians from the BSO had already auditioned with praise.
    It looks like the union is not an union anymore but a disunion.