Why do Swiss orchestras keep getting it wrong?

Why do Swiss orchestras keep getting it wrong?


norman lebrecht

August 18, 2016

There has been general consternation abroad at the decision by Zurich’s Tonhalle orchestra to sack its young music director, Lionel Bringuier, after just one four-year term.

lionel bringuier

Musicians tell us they found his rehearsals boring and unstructured and decided it was time for him to go.

Is that so? The most boring rehearsal conductor in recent memory was Claudio Abbado, who drove most of the London Symphony Orchestra and some in the Berlin Philharmonic to despair. But the players persisted until they got used to his methods and eventually they reaped great rewards.

Bringuier has been assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, both of whom vouch for his talent. What he didn’t learn from them should have been augmented by experienced musicians in the Tonhalle orchestra. But they showed no patience or sympathy for a conductor on a learning curve and let it be known that they’d had enough.

A weak manager and a dumb board of bankers and local worthies simply did their bidding.

That’s how the Swiss run their orchestras.

In Geneva, where two managers walked out of the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, they still don’t know if Jonathan Nott will sign his contract as music director. If he sees what’s happening in Zurich, he should decline.

Zurich and Geneva are the two premier orchestras in Switzerland and their clockwork has broken down.

Happily, the Lucerne Festival has saved the nations reputation. Its new music director Riccardo Chailly has begun with a Mahler Eighth blast and the orchestra is the envy of the continent.

Bringuier, meanwhile, made his Salzburg Festival debut this week.


  • Roberto Castaneda says:

    Not only Zurich and Geneva got it wrong in appointing their Music Directors and Intendants, Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne with a highly inexperienced, weak and boring young Music Director called Joshua Weilerstein is doomed to send him out the door at the end of his current contract and the CEO Benoit Braescu has consistently played power game like a despot, watch for Lausanne to send their Music Director out packing!

    • Swiss Patron says:

      Benoit Braescu wants a nice young Chief Conductor for Lausanne whom he can control. Since the dismissal of former Manager Patrick Peikert OCL has undergone an autocratic management style from Braescu. The appointment of Joshua Weilerstein as Chief Conductor was done without the support of the orchestra, in fact this poor young man came only once to conduct a very mediocre concert and Braescu seized the opportunity to stick the gun on the musicians and forced this chap as their Chief Conductor. Musicians in the orchestra have gone restless with Breascu, it is a ticking time bomb for Braescu and this young chap Joshua.

      • Patrick Peikert says:

        I am curious to know who is under this unfriendly comment about my friend and colleage Benoît Braescu

        Patrick Peikert

  • Toohightoosoon says:

    Why isn’t it possible that he and his manger reached too high, too soon?

    • Olassus says:

      Well, Zurich Tonhalle is not exactly “high.” Branguier looked at first like a decent follow-up to the fading Zinman.

      • Bruce says:

        In fairness, toohightoosoon didn’t say Zurich was high, he simply suggested that it may have been too high (and too soon) for Bringuier.

    • Olassus says:


    • Albert says:

      @TooHIghTooSoon: exactly. No one’s mentioned Bringuier’s manager’s possible role in this scenario & it bears consideration. I speak with caution because he’s been known to read and even comment here.

      Bringuier’s manager is a strong, opinionated professional who is very proactive about seeking success for his small clientele. His presence is always discrete but his influence is mighty. He manages Bringuier, Dudamel, Esa-Pekka and Yuja. No one else.

      I suspect that Bringuier is perhaps out of the scope of this manager’s comfort zone. His other clients came to him famous. Bringuier came to him basically unknown. He assumed that Bringuier would easily achieve the same fame. He pushed him too fast too soon.

      Tonhalle was not Bringuier’s first music directorship. He was quite successful as Music Director of a previous “starter” orchestra. It was Bringuier’s manager who pulled the plug on this relationship, choosing not to renew the contract when it was up.

      Bringuier should have stayed longer with this unknown orchestra, guesting with the big orchestras, as he was doing, before accepting a top post like Zurich. But he followed orders and did exactly what his manager told him to do: he left. He was pushed too quickly, not by his own ambition, but by that of his manager.

      Too high too soon is exactly right.

  • Sebastian says:

    Not to mention that there is an obvious fall of level in the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and Tonhalle Zurich. The orchestras have a dry atitude towards the music despite the ocasional show. Lack of essence became routine while swallowing undeserved funds. Probably because of sellecting musicians on political and ”familly” parameters. Strings are mediocre with just a few exceptions

    Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is simply a tired orchestra.

    As mentioned Luzern keeps the flag. I would add Basel on the list of worthy ones.

  • Jon H says:

    Just to clarify the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is made up of hand-picked players from elsewhere – so they (better sound good and) shouldn’t really be compared. Maybe the Lucerne Symphony is a better comparison.

  • Tom Gossard says:

    Bringuier is a premier class conductor who happens to run very efficient rehearsals. He would be classed as a literalist conductor in that he strives not to add to (nor subtract from) the music as written. His concerts in Los Angeles were uniformly fully competent to brilliant, but they weren’t flashy a la Dudamel, nor were they as “interesting” as Salonen’s.

  • Quincy Liu says:

    Has anyone any insight into how and why David Zinman could work with Tonhalle for nearly 10 years, 1995-2014, and brought some measure of international acclaim through his recordings with them?


    • Jon H says:

      David Zinman is a first rate conductor – everything from historically informed to modern, from Richard Strauss to Gershwin. He does a very wide variety with distinction.
      However it’s difficult to be a music director for more than 10 years and the players still having the excitement they had on the first day. It’s a lot of exposure – so emeritus/laureate is a good idea because then it’s one or two concerts a season after that and you’d never grow old.
      People say that a long tenure allows some performance style to becoming more ingrained – which might work magic with some of the repertoire, but the tradeoff historically has meant a less than ideal approach in other repertoire.

    • Olassus says:


  • Dominique says:

    Bringuier did also have some troubles rehearsing with the NY Phil.
    While he is quite a decent conductor, he doesn’t have the authority to be a music director. Two different jobs.

  • Ulrich says:

    Having worked for over 30 years in the arts management business, I must say that much of the Swiss problems come form their own cultural tendencies. Few nations can be as rigid, “pig-headed”, arrogant and deeply and truly believing that they are superior, that they, and only they, know how things must be done and always inflexible and condescending in negotiations or disputes.

    Any professional going into the Swiss system must know what they are up against, especially if they are not Swiss. No matter how long they live in the country, no matter how well they may speak one of the main Swiss languages, they will ALWAYS be treated as inferior and therein lies the root of the endless failures of the Swiss system. The Swiss would be better off keeping to themselves, employing their own and maintaining their desired level of meticulous status quo and deadly lack of fantasy, both in concepts and in resolving issues. In my opinion, a country to be avoided at all costs in the professional realm. Great for tourism, hiking, asking, chocolates, banking, etc., but definitely not a place for creative minds and spirits.

    • Michael says:

      … funny to note how everybody here knows everything about swiss character, just because a single contract has not been renewed. I thought the times were over, when human traits were so clearly associated with nations.
      greetings from the land with the second highest number of foreign residents in europe (1st is Luxembourg).

    • Quincy Liu says:

      My other contribution to this thread in which I brought up the nearly 10 years tenure of David Zinman with Tonhalle was really another take on the heading “why do Swiss orchestras keep getting wrong?” At least with Zinman, it did not get it “wrong”, and he was the immediate predecessor of Bringuier. In the teeth of all the unlovely characteristics of the Swiss that you listed, my question thus remains: how did Zinman do it, and for nearly 10 years? The feat bordered on heroic?!

      • Olassus says:

        19 years.

        Not heroic.

        For the money.

        • Tom Gossard says:

          Zinman is a culturally experienced, very entertaining man. Bringuier is still quite young and relatively inexperienced when compared to his elders (conductors, in particular). He might have been inadequate to the professional aspects of his music directorship, though I seriously doubt that, after six seasons as Assistant, then Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I would be excited to see Bringuier conduct the Tonhalle if they came to my home town (also Los Angeles). I think it is a more complex problem of how to deal with a provincial orchestra that thinks it is superior to its conductor/music director, and perhaps resenting whatever pressure might have been involved in hiring him in the first place. Difficult to say, but I think the facile “too high, too soon” reaction is certainly questionable.

    • W. M. says:

      So incredibly well said!

  • What a blatant distortion of the truth regarding the appointment of Joshua Weilerstein as Music Director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne!
    I would kindly suggest commentators to verify the accuracy of their information before disinforming the readers.
    As a member of the OCL I was, Together with 5 fellow musicians and 5 non musicians, part of the committee in charge with the election of our future Music Director.
    The orchestra, who was informed on a regular basis about the committee’s activities and progress, had the legitimate right to approve or reject our proposals.
    The result of the musicians vote, strictly confidential and democratic, proved to be overwhelmingly in Joshua Weilerstein’s favour.
    I will not dispute the rather dubious and inappropriate remarks concerning the ” young, boring, highly inexperienced, weak Joshua chap”, because “de gustibus non disputandum”.
    What matters, is that the orchestra’s voice was heard and it’s choice was respected without the use of guns, whips or other weapons.
    With all due respect, let the future tell if our choice was right or wrong.