NY Times op-ed calls out conductors as bullies

NY Times op-ed calls out conductors as bullies


norman lebrecht

May 12, 2018

Today, in the paper that is often 30 years behind the times:

Why Do We Reward Bullies

by Arthur C. Brooks

I despise bullies. This doesn’t stem from my playground years but rather from a career in my 20s performing with a professional symphony orchestra. Orchestra conductors are notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding, with near-total control over the artistic lives of the players. To consolidate power, they turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence. As we used to note, many conductors are evil geniuses, but all are evil.

Over the decades since that time, my position on conductors has softened (a little), but my position on bullies has not. And I believe a big majority of the population shares this antipathy. Witness the box-office success of movies like “Horrible Bosses” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” in which bullies get their comeuppance. Consider also the frequent anti-bullying public service efforts, the latest of which is the first lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign.

So it is mystifying that the ultimate market-based phenomenon in a democracy — political discourse — is currently dominated by this despised character trait….

Read on here.


  • Petros Linardos says:

    ” the [New York Time] is often 30 years behind the times?” I don’t understand that claim.

  • David B says:

    I think what Norman means is that the days of domineering conductors is basically long past. The most famous ones like Szell and Reiner have been dead for decades. Some like Leinsdorf lived into the 1990s. My understanding is that changing cultural environments and stronger unions have made the kind of shouting outbursts and sarcasm Reiner was famous for pretty much a thing of the past.

  • Sue says:

    Why do you need to make gratuitous public insults? Your comments are merely projections of your own way of thinking.

    • Brian says:

      I think “Daphne Badger” got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning…

    • Nick2 says:

      If Daphne Badger and her handful of cohorts actually had any courage behind their convictions, they would pull their fingers out and start their own blog instead of lambasting and insulting others. But then of course they won’t because it is far easier to use the cloak of anonymity to be destructive than it is actually to do something constructive.

  • msc says:

    Mr. Brooks’ opinions strike me as neither irrational nor blinkered. I think his overall point is worth making, and I am glad that the days of tyrannical conductors are over, as are the days of most tyrannical bosses. A conductor can still persuade, cajole, and inspire, but these days terror will rarely produce quality art. Even in the old days most — and I’m going to stress that most, since there were a few exceptions –of the worst bully conductors were not the equals of their more humane (one can be humane yet still disciplined and determined) peers. Love will always inspire better than fear.

  • MacroV says:

    You do all realize the conductors were a small part of this piece, right? Anyway, Arthur Brooks was a professional horn player before getting a Ph.D. in economics, becoming a professor at Syracuse University, then about 10 years ago President of the American Enterprise Institute. Norman’s point about the Times being 30 years behind the times is kind of irrelevant both because conductors are a small part of the article, and this is an op-ed piece by an occasional contributor, not an opinion by the Times’ editorial staff.

  • Sharon says:

    To which conductor do you believe he was referring?

  • Doug says:

    How is it a shock to anyone that a career in which you can practice your sociopathic tendencies while being admired by female fans and treated by the board of directors as The Second Coming is not attractive to the criminal type?

  • anon says:

    Bullies exist in today’s orchestras: the unions.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The ‘snow flake’ is the ultimate bully.

    • barry guerrero says:

      I can’t name names, but a retired principal from the Chicago Symphony once told me that if had to live through the Reiner years again, he wouldn’t. True story.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        There are no ‘Reiners’ anymore. Today Reiner would not have a chance to become ‘Reiner,’ because today psychos of another kind reign, and they don’t do great Music – instead, they hinder people with talent to do it.

        • Brian says:

          I think there are still Reiner types out there but they’re not as visible. How many of us had a creepy high school or middle school band director? I hear stories too of community orchestra conductors who are on power trips with their players.

          And let’s not forget that a certain conductor who’s about to take a major post with a New York orchestra who’s been known for his short temper and disagreeable behavior in the past.

          • Britcellist says:

            Yes, it’s not only the great and the mighty. Conductors of community/semi professional orchestras often have a chip on their shoulders and take it out on lesser skilled players, humiliating them. Musicians join those orchestras to enjoy playing with a group and will do the best they can, and do not expect to be bullied. Having someone beating you down is debilitating and eventually leads to lack of confidence and a decision to leave.

    • Sue says:


  • Alice Kell says:

    Nowadays, anyone who tells anyone else what to do is labeled as a bully. Somebody has to run the show, or you will have anarchy. Those who favor anarchy might be more satisfied by listening to punk rock or screamo than they would with classical music.

    • Robert Levine says:

      That is total nonsense. I’ve worked with a number of music directors of major orchestras. No one disputes their authority as conductors. And none were bullies.

      • Alice Kell says:

        Unfortunately, m’dear, what goes on in classical music doesn’t reflect what goes on in the rest of the world. Everybody is Looking Out For Number One, and they all let their feelings get in the way of common sense.

    • Bruce says:

      Nice try, Alice.

  • Nelson says:

    Arthur C. Brooks is a nobody (musically) who held a grand total of ONE orchestral position. Yet he seems to know about all conductors, who are all evil bullies. Currently he heads a “conservative think tank”. So, what is this? Quasi “fake news”? An attempt to deflect (in his conservative world?) from the fact that the real and undeniable bully-in-chief that his ilk elected is 10 times the a-hole of ANY conductor in the history of the world? Anyhow, his observations are certainly very out of date….99.9% percent of conductors these days know the limits of their “powers” are contingent upon making nice with boards and unions and orchestral players. Whether it is true that they are compelled to act in a more colleagial manner for self preservation, my perception as an orchestral musician is that the vast majority of conductors are aware that encouragement and persuasion are more powerful tools to be employed in the pursuit of a good performance and career advancement. Very probably the “me too” movement is the final nail in the coffin for the dying embers of the era of the tyrannical maestro. Maybe Norman L’s next book about conductors will be entitled “The Maestro Meek”? Well, of course, it’s NOT a democracy ultimately, and only the authoritative and courageous need apply for consideration as master maestros, but the methods are a-changing.

  • David Taylor says:

    Look at Reiner . . . “I am smiling!!!”

  • La Verita says:

    Conductor bullies are a thing of the past – having been replaced by diplomatic yes-men who have yet to achieve the musical levels of such Uber-bullies as Szell, Reiner, & Toscanini. Today, the bullies are the critics.

    • Sue says:

      I like to think there are people right in the middle who are neither of those things. What about Nelsons? He strikes me as congenial and successful.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In former times, the average technical level of orchestral players was presumably much lower than today, and conductors had more trouble to get the ensemble right, the tempo right, to get the players counting correctly, etc. etc. so they got easier frustrated and resorted quicker to tantrums. With today’s much more alert professionalism, conductors can concentrate more on the music – as far as rehearsel schemes allow for it.

      Imagine how scores by Berlioz and Wagner must have sounded in their life times – their memoirs are full of frustration. Mahler wrote many ‘over the top’ instructions in his scores to overcome the inertia of players in his times. First performances of La Mer and Le Sacre were apparently quite flawed, in spite of rehearsel time being much more generous than today.

      Early recordings of some top orchestras in the twenties and thirties often demonstrate an amazing technical level, but we can assume that the efforts to get there were superhuman and dense with bullying and tantrums.


  • Mark says:

    Are there many orchestras that sound like Reiner’s Chicago or Szell’s Cleveland today ?

    • Sue says:

      Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic. Shall I go on? (cf “The Big Country”)

      • Mark says:

        Berlin is still a great orchestra, but hardly what it was under Karajan.

        • Gerhard says:

          I agree. It is much better today.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            I don’t know about “better now” but it is different since the kind of sound Karajan was after has gone out of fashion. Also, Rattle is less interested in the core German repertoire than was Karajan, so they often play different kinds of music.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            I don’t know about “better now” but it is different since the kind of sound Karajan was after has gone out of fashion. Also, Rattle is less interested in the core German repertoire than was Karajan, so they often play different kinds of music..

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      While I get your point, I think it’s also sad when an important principal of a very major symphony orchestra tells you that he would not want to live through that experience again. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the whole point of what music should be about?

      And by the way, while Reiner’s recordings are pretty amazing in terms of precision, some of them do sound somewhat ‘straight jacketed’ to me. Personally, I hear more humanity in the CSO recordings with Kubelik and Martinon, even if they weren’t always so razor sharp as Reiner (but still more than ‘sharp’ enough). In addition, the opinions of Claudia Cassidy mean nothing to me in hindsight. To each their own, I suppose.

  • Peter says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that I clicked on this hoping to read some bully accounts of current high-profile conductors. Sorry, I won’t do it again.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But there is enough material.

      For instance, [redacted] had the percussionist in the Lohengrin prelude repeat his ‘bang’ so many times, while all other players were patiently waiting silently, that the poor man fainted and had to be carried away.

      To everybody’s surprise, [redacted] got so angry at the woodwind while rehearsing the Symphonie Fantastique that he made his way through the strings, took the clarinet (in B) and banged it on the player’s head until the poor man was rescued by the 2nd horn player who then got in a fist fight with the conductor. Since they stopped exactly when rehearsel time was up, the union did not see any reason to reprimand.

      During a rehearsel of Mozart’s pf concerto in d minor, the always elegantly-dressed [redacted] distracted some players in the 1st violins so much that the well-known conductor [redacted] had a screen put around the piano. This put an end to their liaison and he never performed with her again.

      Young [redacted] who is famous for his pianissimos, once got so irritated with the brass that he took the tuba from the hands of the poor player and wrangled it over his head. The rest of the rehearsel was enlivened by desperate mumbling from inside the instrument upon which [redacted] commented: “Finally a pianissimo”.

      During his last years with the [redacted], old [redacted] said at the end of a particularly trying rehearsel to the orchestra: “I would love to put a rope around you all, pour gasoline over you, and put you all on fire.” Upon which one player stood up and commented that in that case, he would no longer have an orchestra to bully any longer. “Yes, I had forgotten that”, came the reaction.

      There is more, but I think this gives something of a picture of interpretative problems during rehearsels.

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    I don’t mind any conductor who bullies an orchestra, as long as he does it for the sake of the music. Orchestras – even the most proficient – often need to be bullied. A conductor is the person for whom the players play. If he lets them play any way they want, believe me, they will. He is like the violin teacher who demands the best the student can give. On the other hand, I absolutely despise flamboyant conductors, no matter how “kind” they are to the players. For me, Carlos Kleiber was the ideal conductor.

    • Bruce says:

      Demanding from players the best that they can give is not bullying.

    • Gerhard says:

      “Orchestras – even the most proficient – often need to be bullied. A conductor is the person for whom the players play. ”
      Have you ever played in any orchestra? Your statement suggest that you have no idea about it. Orchestra playing is a team sport. Players play in the end for the audience, of course, but first and above all for their colleagues. The conductor’s role can be compared with a coach in sports. In music and in sports the times of despots and tyrants are luckily bygone once and for all. The very few conductors and coaches who haven’t grasped this have become an embarrassement to themselves and are not taken seriously anymore outside the place where they reign.

      • Gerhard says:

        BTW, I find it amazing how you can advocate for the bullying of orchestra players and name Carlos Kleiber as your personal favourite conductor in the same breath.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Carlos Kleiber wasn’t a bully – he didn’t need to be. His father, Erich Kleiber, might have been different story. Perhaps someone can enlighten us about that.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Reportedly Carlos Kleiber was no bully in the sense that Reiner or Toscanini or Bohm were. Apparently off the podium he often acted unprofessionally, like spoiled brat. By contrast Erich is said have been polite, but very firm. Perhaps a dictator, but not a bully. See from about 7′ in the documentary “I am lost to the world.”

    • muslit says:

      I played Traviata with Kleiber in Florence. I didn’t find him to be a bully. Demanding, but not a bully.

  • James Jolly says:

    Far be it from me to argue with a former solo horn plaayer. But it’s a bit surprising that Mr. Brooks doesn’t bother to consider the market economics of symphony orchestras. There’s an anecdote told by economists: In Mozart’s day, to dig a hole of certain dimens, say, 6x6x6 fr, you needed two workers with shovels and 8 hours time. For a Mozart quartet, you needed four highly trained musicians, four expensive instruments and 20′ time.

    Today, to dig the hole, you need one backhoe, one “moderately trained” workman, and 5′ time.
    For the Mozart quartet you still need: four highly trained musicians, four expensive instruments and 20′ time.
    The point is that classical music music has become vastly more expensive in relation to other endeavors. Appearances by star conductors are among the most effective ways for orchestras to differentiate themselves in a market where al the music has already been recorden by dozens of other ensembles. Strictly speaking, some of the individual musicians may well be superior to the conductor in terms of virtuosity, musicality or orality. But no one is going to buy a concert ticket or a CD because of the courageous oboist.
    It’s weird that Brooks doesn’t consider this.

    • Peter says:

      Interesting points. Unfortunately, too many so-called “classic rock bands” still “earn” way more than orchestras by performing songs that they’ve been playing for thirty or forty years with no variation or reinterpretation, at a fraction of the cost that it takes for an orchestra to play a symphony. A conductor bringing his or her orchestra to a fresh and vital interpretation of Shostakovich’s Fifth will take a lot more work and cost a lot more money upfront (if the musicians are paid decently) than the Rolling Stones prancing through the same old “Honky Tonk Woman” in a stadium for the 850th time, yet the latter will command far higher ticket prices and fill more seats. So the economics really comes down to culture and the disinterest of much of the general population on both sides of the Atlantic in supporting classical music.

  • James Jolly says:

    (Sorry, so many typos! Guess I should take a phone-typing course.)