The death of Pierre Bergé reminds me of the unexpected consequences of the wealthy fashion mogul’s decision to sack Daniel Barenboim as music director of the new Opéra Bastille in 1988. The cause of dismissal was, ostensibly, Barenboim’s $1.1 million salary, which Bergé wanted to cut by half.
Bergé argued that Barenboim lacked operatic experience (true, at the time), that his programme was heavily weighted towards German operas (also true) and that he was too independent (tick that, too).
But when Bergé got on the phone and tried to hire a replacement, he ran into a wall of maestro solidarity. No conductor of any consequence would agree to replace Barenboim. Most shocking of all, Herbert von Karajan cancelled a concert he was supposed to give at the Bastille, saying (through a spokesman) that ‘as Daniel Barenboim has been fired in debatable circumstances, he is no longer coming. He will conduct in Paris, but not at the Bastille.’
Now Karajan detested Barenboim. Richard Osborne, in his biography of the conductor, relates that the old Nazi practically leaped up from his sickbed after a heart attack when he was told that the young Israeli might replace him at a couple of Berlin concerts. Karajan never met Barenboim, never invited to him conduct at Salzburg or Berlin and never had a good word to say about the circle of musicians who hung out in Daniel’s den.
Despite these prejudices, the conductor-for-life of the Berlin Philharmonic joined and actively led a boycott against the Bastille, outraged that a state-appointed dilettant like Bergé could impinge on the powers of a legitimate music director. In a passion, he picked up the phone and called Barenboim in Paris, asking what else he could do to support him. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, which Barenboim once shared with me (‘I was astonished,’ he said), but the essence of it was that all maestros must stick together or the whole of civilisation will fail.
In retrospect, this would prove to be the final roar of the maestro myth. Karajan died in July 1989.
Five years later, record labels sacked their conductors wholesale and the power of the podium was broken.