When a conductor hits a player

London has been abuzz all week with reports that a well-known conductor allegedly threw a punch at a musician in the London Symphony Orchestra. Details have been printed in a widely-read newssheet. Facebook sites have gone white-hot with past occurences.

We were interested to find out how the e bullient orchestra responded, the more so since they will be working with the same conductor again before the season is out.

The players, it seems, took a pragmatic view. The conductor was ordered to apologise to the player and the orchestra, which he did. In writing. The letter is being kept on file. Opinion remains divided.

‘Incident’s over,’ said one player, a friend of the conductor’s.

‘He’s been given a yellow card,’ said an orchestra source. ‘Once more…’

Lucky we live in 2014. These things used to be commonplace. Especially in the LSO.

Remember Josef Krips?

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    • Toscanini threw scores at the floor, broke batons, watches, tossed things like music stands into the auditorium. I don’t think there is a documented incident of throwing a score at a singer. Could be wrong. But he was sued and tried for scratching the eye of a Scala violinist with his baton. It was accidental, and he was acquitted. He certainly never punched a musician that I know of. He did punch doors and walls. At the trial, a psychiatrist testified about his state of mind when involved with music and the actual acute pain and suffering he felt when it was going badly. As Harvey Sachs observed, prozac would have helped, but then he wouldn’t have been Toscanini.

      • Louise Varèse, in the first volume of her biography of her husband (incidentally, was the second volume ever written?) says that Varèse and Toscanini were involved in a brawl in public. Given that both musicians were hot-tempered, it could have been started by either, but it seems to have been provoked by Toscanini telling Varèse bluntly what he thought of his compositions.

        • Yes, it was 1926, either at a party or in the green room, after a concert of the International Composer’s Guild in New York to which Toscanini had been invited by Respighi. It was quite the verbal set-to, but I don’t believe any fisticuffs were involved.

      • Jens Malte Fischer (Große Stimmen, 1995, p. 347) writes in the chapter on Anton Dermota: “At the Salzburg Festival [1936] he sang the tiny role of Meister Zorn in the Meistersingers with Toscanini – and he has always kept in his memory the extreme tensions at the rehersals with piano scores flying at singers’ heads. ” (My translation.) He doesn’t give a precise source for this, but generally refers to the singer’s autobiography. It might be found there, but I don’t have it at hand.

  • According to Edward Greenfield’s musical memoirs, on his one and only appearance with the orchestra in the early 1970s Riccardo Muti said, “I hate the LSO”. Some orchestras just get your backs up. They hated Colin Davis initially and refused to entertain the idea of him becoming their Principal Conductor in the 1960s. Then there were countless stories of their beer-swilling and drunken activities in the Previn era. Plus ca change?

    • Do the LSO get your back up somehow?? Seems so, but indisputably since the “Beer swilling and drunken activities of the Previn era” they have been London’s premier orchestra, quite frankly I don’t think you know what you are talking about….

      • Thank you for your snide and ill-considered comment. If I didn’t know what I was talking about, why do you think I would have posted the comment in the first place? Playing standards are one thing; corporate discipline and civilised behaviour quite another. All these instances of the uncouthness of individual players, including the then leader in his interaction with Giulini, have been well documented in these columns and elsewhere and do not need further verification. Those present, like me, at one of the LSO’s concerts last autumn will recall seeing one of the two principal trumpets storming to the front of the stage and kicking Peter Tatchell in the shins when he made his misguided anti-Putin protest to the Barbican audience. There are not many orchestras, from the top rank or from a lower drawer, in which you can observe that kind of behaviour.

    • He’s actually on the record (Berlin Philharmonic Digital-Concert-Hall interviews) as having gone through a very angry, aggressive phase that threatened to derail his career at one stage. I caught part of that when I heard him batter poor Schubert’s D major symphony into the ground with the ASMF in a concert given at the QEH. I never again wish to hear a Viennese classic mistreated in this way.

  • I remember reading on here (which isn’t to say it’s true!)that the most gentlemanly of conductors (as presented to the public) thew a double bass player down a flight of stairs: Air Adrian Boult.

  • Alexander, the LSO from the 1960s and 70s you are referring to has changed in the subsequent 35-40 years. There is no implication in the current story that the orchestral musicians are in any sense responsible for the (unnamed but hugely famous and significantly older than Harding) conductor’s violent behaviour.

  • I wonder how this story would be written if it was the other way around? Goodness knows orchestral players are sorely tempted sometimes… I know I’ve often had evil thoughts.

    Also, consider any other profession – I think you’d find the culprit would be out on their ear quicker than a historically informed performance of a Beethoven Presto. No warnings, nothing.

  • In the 1970s Jochum and Giulini were treated disgracefully in rehearsal by the LSO. Leader John Georgadis poked Giulini with his bow saying, “You’re not that good, you know. “That was mild compared with the swearing at both maestros, calls of : “You’re no fucking good!” Some players threw paper darts, blew raspberries with their instruments while a double-bass player simulated copulation with his. Matters improved with the departure of Georgadis and the introduction of more women players.

  • Disgusting that this person is permitted to work with the orchestra again – and that some preople seem to respond with a gentle chuckle: “maestros will be maestros”. What is this, the 1890s?

    There are no circumstances whatever in which using physical violence against a work colleague is acceptable. This is common assault. He should have been disciplined, at the very least – possibly prosecuted. He should at the very least be named.

    If I was treated this way by any artist, however eminent, I would expect immediate disciplinary sanctions to be taken against him and an undertaking given that he would not be engaged again. If this was not forthcoming, I’d be talking to my union and possibly my lawyers. And I’d be scheduling a quiet coffee with Norman to name names.

    If Toscanini came back and acted the way he acted in the 1930s – the same would apply. It is inexcusable. Zero tolerance.

    • Toscanini wouldn’t be the only one. Mahler flew into titanic rages; Koussevitsky fired players on capricious whims because he had the power to do it (before the BSO was unionized); Mischakoff resigned in protest from the Philadelphia Orchestra over Stokowski’s abusive and humiliating behaviour when he berated him in front of the orchestra and made every single player in the violin section play their part solo. Though he had nothing but warm memories about his NBC years under Toscanini. Reiner, Szell…all would be gone. Maybe only Walter, Monteux, Munch, and Furtwangler could operate today?

        • IK never had the chance to work with Mitropoulis, but to all accounts I have heard,from people who did, he was ALWAYS a gentleman; referring to ALL players with Mr/Mrsand their surnames. Never 2nd oboe or picolo etc.

    • Well not really, actually. Some orchestral musicians are so bored and have such vapid, vacuous lives that their only enjoyment is baiting people who are more professionally successful. Their jealousy occasionally harvests a clout. Who cares?

  • Toscanini never actually hit a player though he did once make a brusque gesture which broke the first violinist’s bow and caused the loss of his eye.

  • [redacted] I have been told a joke about this individual which goes;

    What is it called if you kill your father? – Patricide
    What is it called if you kill X? – Countryside

    On a more serious note, i presume the punch caused no more than a black eye. if he had hit the player in the mouth, that could have had serious career repercussions for the player.

    • Malcolm – there is something very sick in the music biusiness if it doesn’t have serious career repercussions for the conductor.

  • What’s the goss on old Kripsy? He doesn’t sound like a mean two-fisted brawler on his rather anodyne recordings…

    • He doesn’t come across too well in John Culshaw’s books, being the “unnamed conductor” in “RIng Resounding” who not only forced the extended ostracism of a member of the Decca staff because the latter wrote a (positive) review of his conducting that included what Krips thought of as an unflattering photograph, but also celebrated when said staff member died at an early age, declaring that “God has punished him and his family for what he did to me.”

  • “Lucky we live in 2014. These things used to be commonplace. Especially in the LSO.”

    True, but the music was performed better back then.

  • Well, having found out who it is after one click on Google, I am not at all surprised and I’m with Malcolm James on this, karma has a way of working out.

  • Said conductor – a noble Knight of the realm – was named in a generally irreverent ( and usually irrelevant) weekly ‘magazine’ that often refers to itself as an ‘organ’.

    • Said organ describes him as ‘a great conductor, but something of a thug with an unbridled temper’, so he clearly has plenty of previous.

    • And the only source so far as I can discern with my powerful search engine (called “google). Story is not mentioned in the conductor’s Wikipedia entry, the Daily Mail, or the Grauniad.

  • What a dope! But of course i should have guessed that. He’s legendary and that wasn’t the first time he’s hit anyone. Players, regular people or just anyone who gets in his way

  • As usual, exaggeration all round. No black eye or bruise was sustained by anyone. The conductor in question has apologised unreservedly. Incidents do happen between conductors and orchestras, it is called “human nature”. The page has been turned and the relationship continues.

    I must say that in general I am getting fed up with the rubbish I read in comments about artists, orchestras, conductors etc. I am afraid that many (not all) people talk in very assured ways about something they don’t live from day to day as professional performers. Recently the vilification of Christoph Eschenbach in particular has been totally out of order and unjustified. Verbal assassination dispatched from the safety of the computer keyboard has become too common-place.

    • “Verbal assassination dispatched from the safety of the computer keyboard has become too common-place.”

      Says the person who goes by the name “anonymous”.

    • What I don’t understand, anonymous, is why the relationship continues.

      If a blow was actually struck, especially on a musician in a musician-governed orchestra, I can’t quite understand why the conductor wasn’t escorted off the premises on the spot, even if the decision was made not to call the police to have him arrested. (Often it’s only that kind of consequence that can get abusive people to stop being abusive.)

      Can you explain why?

      (Come to think of it, in 2014 I’m surprised that nobody there grabbed a smartphone, took a video of the incident and posted it on YouTube.)

        • My late father, during his work at as a civil servant at the Home Office Prison Department (as it was at that time) frequently had cause to speak to extremely notorious criminals who were behind bars. He found that many of them came across as absolutely charming individuals on first encounter…

        • He is often charming. I worked for him for years, and sometimes saw the worst side of him as well. But there are worse people out there than him, believe me. His “difficultness” is legendary, and some stories about his temper and demanding attitude are certainly true. But in the end the “myths” always outgrow the truth and a lot of stuff has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

        • And because…well, just look at some of the comments here; the suggestions that the musician may somehow have been “asking for it”, the implication that the great conductors of the past acted this way and therefore it’s OK (and that their music-making was somehow better for it), the explanations that it’s “just one of those things” and we all need to get over it and move on.

          The cult of maestro-worship – the unthinking reverence accorded to wealthy, powerful white males in a hierarchical environment – is clearly thriving in the 21st century. Is it any wonder that people from different backgrounds are unwilling to enter a profession in which colleagues are willing to make excuses for this sort of behaviour – indeed, to close ranks and protect the perpetrators?

          An employee of a publicly-funded arts organisation has apparently assaulted another employee. It’s that simple, and that despicable. No excuses.

          • The Maestro Cult is long gone. Their exhorbitant salaries remain, but the unquestioning serfdom proffered to conductors by the huddled masses of orchestral minions is as passé as cigarette stubbers on the back of bus seats. Secure in their brave new democratic musical world, a lot of musicians provoke conductors as sport, waiting, à la Napoléon, for their adversary to turn aggressor. Sometimes it works and the oh-so-hard-done-by musician turns into an instant hero, supported by the self-interested, so-called ‘solidarity’ of his/her colleagues. If the conductor in question had behaved like a total shit, then the musician in question should have belted him back. End of story.

          • Well said Halidor. Im sure that in many workplace environments there is animosity and provocation between individuals, but physical violence should not be tolerated. The orchestra in question is in a strong enough position to to give a red card to this arrogant temper-fuelled conductor. I also wonder why only a written apology and not a verbal one was given to the orchestra.

            I suppose the police could only have been called if the musician on the receiving end had reported the alleged assault.

      • If it’s a single punch, it’s a bit difficult to take a video after the event.

        By all accounts it was a one-off, not a prolonged bout of fisticuffs.

  • I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the case of a certain conductor at ENO way back in the twentieth century (whenever that was) who said to a horn player “I didn’t come down with the last shower of rain, sunny” and belted him. Many people present allegedly referrred to the maestro as James Lockhart, but I’m keeping schtumm.

  • I have no idea of the circumstances of course, but down here in the real world if you punch someone the police would be called and it would be ‘assault’. I can not understand why that misogynistic bully is getting off so lightly. One wonders if the cows on his farm receive the same treatment

  • Ah. I had been wondering when Norman was going to get around to this.

    Norman, do I infer that you’re not printing the name of this particular maestro because of Britain’s notoriously expansive defamation laws?

    Anyway, Sir Maestro certainly wouldn’t get away with this at a U.S. orchestra (and I expect he knows it). But then, to my knowledge, he does not guest-conduct over here; when he does come, it’s with his own ensemble.

    • Come to think of it, if Sir Maestro tried that in Florida, the musician he hit could legally shoot him. (As long as he did it on the spot.)

          • Dave, I fear you may have missed the joke. (Which means, granted, that I probably didn’t phrase it cleverly enough.)

            But then, I missed Sixtus’s joke the first time I read it, so …

          • MWnyc,

            Here’s what we know: I think I got Sixtus’s joke. Looks like you are coming ’round to that one. Pretty sure I didn’t get yours. Got a good feeling that you didn’t get mine, either. Not sure where Sixtus stands on yours or mine. Brian seems above it all.

            Trying to sort this out is probably not the best use of Norman’s blog, but at least we’re not resorting to violinz.

          • Violinz! Violinz! (as Honey cheered in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

            Sixtus referred to Florida’s stand-your-ground-bass law.

            I responded that discussion of the law was repeated over and over.

            I know, it’s a groaner. My standard for puns is usually much higher.

  • I remember him conducting a joint Wells Cathedral School and Chethams school orchestra course a long while back, and he struck me then as rude and verbally agressive, and we were only kids.

  • I had heard through the grapevine that the conductor involved in this incident was sorely provoked. Having, at the end of a rehearsal gone up to a particular brass player to complain about some exceedingly disturbing playing and attitude during the rehearsal (apparently there may have been a hint of alcohol on the player’s breath, but that would be nothing new if true). It is alleged that the brass player then retorted with some obscenity, like “f… off you old c…!!”, at which point the conductor, having already begun to move away, turned back round after a moment’s thought walked back up and punched the player in the face. Knowing the conductor concerned, I can understand it (the punch) must have hurt!

    The conductor concerned, who I have admired and respected all my 40 year career, does have a reputation for being difficult (though he has mellowed over the years), but I think he must have felt very provoked if his reaction to the verbal retort was so physically inclined. If, and I stress IF what I heard is true, then frankly I don’t blame him for trying to lay the fella out! 🙂

    The LSO might be a great orchestra, but it also (still) has a reputation for sometimes bolshy and difficult players with attitude!

    • The conductor should have been sacked immediately for “gross misconduct” for assaulting a member of the orchestra.So he got some backchat from a brass player, well diddleydums. I would like to see him try it with a brass player form a brass band up here in the north of England!

    • If that story is true, wouldn’t the correct thing for the conductor have been to go to the orchestra manager and make a complaint about both the player’s performance in rehearsal and alleged verbal insult rather than just hit him?

  • There must be some lawyers lurking under the skirting board on here, who can chime in on the legal implications of such behaviour in the workplace. I think the “shake hands, no harm done” approach isn’t really a proper procedure for any company placed in this situation.

  • I used to be the music director of an especially volatile and cantankerous choral society who ‘always did it their way’. I managed to get round the problems of backchat and general provocation by charm and humour. And if that didn’t work I’d simply ignore the remarks and get on with the job. Simply standing there in silence usually worked because the fury would eventually abate and some members would actually sort out the miscreants themselves. Only one occasion however, things started getting way out of hand so I simply terminated the rehearsal and sent them home.

    There was one member who came close to getting a black eye but I refrained because I knew that’s exactly what he wanted to happen, thus putting me in the wrong and gaining control of the choir. In many ways the tensions at rehearsals often led to some thrilling concerts and they sang very well for me when the chips were down. It was only when internal politics among the members got the better of the actual music-making that I stood down. What happened with the LSO is no different from the world of football. That’s life, I’m afraid.

    • What true remarks Robert.

      I’ve conducted choirs with similar attitudes to yours. Rising to the provocation of egotistical or difficult individual members with verbal or indeed physical aggression, like the aforementioned conductor, seldom works.

      You are right that charm and humour will get you out of most tricky situations that all conductors, however charming and charismatic, face some of the time.

      It has to be said that unlike the tempestuous maestro, who is protected by a considerable reputation and no doubt a very powerful agent, if we physically assaulted one of our choir members, we would be called before the all powerful choir committee and certainly fired very quickly.

    • Robert, I recommend the book “Generation to Generation” by Edwin H. Friedman to you. It will confirm your excellent understanding and give you even better tools to deal with another choir. It can be bought on Kindle.

  • Kudos to Robert Kenchington for his profound understanding of human interaction and the dysfunctional nature of choirs and orchestras. I have two examples of conductor orchestra interaction to relate. (This is hearsay but I did hear from people who witnessed it) Around 1980 (?) Barenboim was conducting the NY Philharmonic and said something untoward to a musician (no idea what it was). The indignation in the orchestra manifested in masses of the musicians throwing their pencils at him! Barenboim subsequently refused to conduct the Phil for years. Leonard Bernstein had a falling out with the Boston Symphony (disrespectful something or other) so big that he was one of the founders of the LA Philharmonic Summer Institute which was obviously modeled on The BSO’s own Tanglewood summer program. After the repprochement with the BSO in 1983 the alternate “Tanglewood” faded away in a few years.

    And finally, Bravo to the principal player who while witnessing a guest conductor berate a fellow musician simply stood up and said “That’s enough, Maestro” and then went to management and made sure that conductor would not return. You don’t need your fists to stand up to a bully.

  • ive played with him once and within 3 minutes of coming on stage for the 1st rehersal he was shounting at the principal viola……violent…..yes

  • What a bizarre post. The remarks about Toscanini, unsubstantiated by anything resembling fact, especially about his patriotism and ignoring his very real anguish at what Mussolini’s thugs were doing to his country, could have come right out of an official Italian Fascist newspaper in the thirties.

    As for the aristo-envy, I suppose you can always hang them from the lamp posts and be done with it…

    • Aristo-envy? Why would anybody with some education envy the aristos?

      Not only do they not work, having no work ethic obviously, they have no real education; in terms of humanity. Call the post bizarre all you want, but Toscanini ranting on about Italy and how great it is and ranting against Germany and France is nationalistic, aswell as imbecilic. If a German would publicly talk of his/her pride in German culture most people would have the n word on their minds.

      Personally when an Italian goes on about how great Italy is, olive oil, crap food and high cholesterol come to mind, as well as cheesy operas.

      • You must be thinking of Italian American food which really is mostly crap. Italian Italian food is very good in general and some of it is fabulous.

        I didn’t know Toscanini ranted nationalistically like that. Is that true?

        • He didn’t though his bete noire, Il Duce, had a slight inclination to. Italian food in the Veneto is delicious and healthy. Though the grappa is like rocket fuel.

  • Nico, Toscanini mediocre at best? Aristos being uneducated? Italy has crap food?? Boy, you are definitely not playing with a full deck!

  • Who is it? Can someone just give a hint what you have to google to come up with this conductor’s name? It would be a public service for orchs. who may be getting this guy as a guest conductor. We need to know what to expect. Also would be good to know who the brass player was who provoked him. That would be good for conductors to know.

    In response to Krips, yes he was famous for being a real jerk. He was mean to his players and did everything in his power to keep orchestra playing an all-male profession.

    • Not sure what you have to Google but it’s printed in black and white in the current Private Eye. The identity will surprise no-one who’s ever worked with this particular individual.

  • Come, anyone in London knows who this was… storm in a veritable tea cup. I won’t mention his name, not because it might be redacted, but because his artistic integrity far outweighs a temper tantrum….

  • A bassoon player heard that rehearsal was cancelled and called up the orchestra to find out why. The receptionist answered him, “I’m sorry sir, the maestro has passed away and all services are cancelled this week.” “Oh, OK,” he replied and hung up. A few minutes later he calls back, “wait a minute, what did you say?” The receptionist calmly replied, “I’m very sorry sir, but the director has passed away and there will be no concerts this week.” “Oh, OK,” he replied. After several more phone calls from the bassoon player the exasperated receptionist finally explodes, “he’s dead already, you don’t have to come to work! Why do you keep calling me?” “Oh I just love to hear you say it,” was the reply.

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