The first major orchestra to fire a maestro?

The first major orchestra to fire a maestro?


norman lebrecht

August 03, 2018

The Concertgebouw’s peremptory dismissal of its music director, Daniele Gatti, has sent historians scurrying for incidents of previous executions.

They are few and far between.

Apart from June 1945, when Wilhelm Furtwängler and others were suspended from conducting pending denazification – and nobody ever lost his job permanently for having been a Nazi – the next major maestro chop does not occur until 1988 when Pierre Bergé fired Daniel Barenboim from the Opéra de Paris over a difference of repertoire opinion.

When relationships break down, the convention is for the maestro to be allowed to resign with mutual regret, a handsome payoff and sometimes an emeritus title. It is OK for a maestro to huff off – as Muti did at La Scala, for instance – but not the other way round.

The sacking of a maestro with immediate effect is practically unknown until Peter Gelb fired James Levine at the Met over alleged sexual misconduct and several orchestras followed suit with Charles Dutoit. With the Gatti precedent, convention appears to have been buried. In future, a maestro who fails to fulfil moral standards and musical expectations can expect to be given the bum’s rush.

Whether this constitutes an advance for civilisation, time will tell.


  • Alexander Hall says:

    As Karajan once famously said, you cannot have artistic policy dictated by a committee. It is quite unfair to suggest that Muti’s departure from La Scala was in a huff. If you want the highest possible standards and are not prepared to tread the path of least opposition, you sometimes have to fight your corner, and then leave if there is no willingness to compromise. There are plenty of big egos in the musical world and not all of them deserve the hype and adulation heaped upon them. But if you ever give up on your artistic ideals, you might as well throw in the towel.

  • barry guerrero says:

    “you cannot have artistic policy dictated by a committee”

    For better or for worse, that’s exactly what you do have today.

  • Offwiththeirheads says:

    Dutoit was basically fired.

  • Jack says:

    Willem Mengelberg?

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Mengelberg was not fired. He was suspended for 6 years in 1945, and died in 1951, just before he could conduct again.

      • Jack says:

        He was removed as Chief Conductor in 1945 and banned from conducting in the Netherlands for the rest of his life (later reduced to six years). Upon his removal, Eduard van Beinem (co-principal conductor after 1938) became the Chief Conductor. It’s all rather vague as to whether he was fired, but unless there was some clause in the agreement with van Beinem that he would relinquish the position back to Mengelberg once his six year ban ended, it would seem to me that the matter of any future job as Chief Conductor had been settled upon the hiring of van Beinem.

    • Hilary says:

      One of the great Mahler performances ever comes from Mengelberg. His version of the 4th is quite something.
      Gatti is also associated a bit with Mahler 4. I saw him conduct it after attending a lecture by Donald Mitchell at the RCM on Mahler. Norman Lebrecht was also in attendance, and I remember some slightly agitated discussion between the two of them at one point.

  • anon says:

    Pierre Bergé had the luck of being an early fuck buddy of Yves Saint Laurent, otherwise, Bergé would have been another petit bourgeois provincial queen. That he was in a position to fire Barenboim was pure happenstance and nothing of merit.

  • anon says:

    “nobody ever lost his job permanently for having been a Nazi”

    One survives longer in Northern Europe doing a Nazi salute than a Southern European winking at a woman. Gatti, victim of frigid attitudes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The confusion of contexts here is staggering.

    • The View from America says:

      Go ahead, believe that.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Not wanting to be sexually assaulted isn’t a frigid attitude. Unfortunately there are still people (like you) who believe that when somebody is a victim of a sexual assault it is because she (or, indeed, he) lacks the healthy sexual appetite that would lead to accepting each and every sexual approach from anybody. Can you try to get it into your head that some perfectly normal and healthy women simply didn’t want to be sexually assaulted by Daniele Gatti?

  • Joseph Cohn says:

    Pierre Bergé had no knowledge at all in music.
    Georg Sollti said about him that “a tailor can not be a musician “
    All the great conductors who were supposed to appear according to Barenboim’s programs cancelled. In between were Solti,Mehta,Celibidache and others,and also many singers.

  • Basset Horn says:

    Rodzinski was basically fired by the Chicago Symphony in 1948, and Stock was forced to resign from the Chicago Symphony during WWI until he completed his citizenship process.

    • John Kelly says:

      Karl Muck Boston during WW1?

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I take issue with the headline which seems to be using a very technical definition of the word “fired.” Or maybe I am taking issue with a definition of “Major,” i.e. British or European.

      I have always assumed that Chicago “fired” Martinon and Kubelik, although some would argue Claudia Cassidy did the actual firing. Either way I have to think they felt fired. I have to think Furtwangler regarded himself as fired by Chicago in that the position had been lined up and he was ready to step in.

      Just as there are rodent poisons that work by making the dying mouse need to leave your house to go outside to find water, employers including symphony boards are pretty adept at making someone want to leave as the constructive equivalent of firing. A case can be made that Philadelphia fired Stokowski; indeed one could argue the same about New York Phil and Bernstein and Boston and Leinsdorf, in that way, in that seemingly all of them would have preferred to stay as I understand it. After the withering George Szell comments, San Francisco either fired Enrique Jorda or made him “want to leave.”

      The more I think of it, I think it would be hard to make a list of major orchestras that have NOT “fired” a music director, in one way or another, at some point.

      • Simon Brown says:

        How could you say the same thing (constructive dismissal) about Bernstein and the NYPO? I have never read anything that suggests this.


        • bruce says:

          Kurt Masur may not have been “fired” from New York, but he was on the record saying his departure was not his idea.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            All these cases look like “not renewed” rather than “fired”. Gatti leaving was peremptory, rather than after a suitable period of notice. The same happened with Dutoit.

      • bluepumpkin says:

        “…although some would argue Claudia Cassidy did the actual firing.”
        Good point: does a music critic (then AND now) have so much more “music” than a tailor (Solti, above)?

        • David K. Nelson says:

          Well as Solti himself was quoted as saying, “I really have a hate for that woman. I wouldn’t be in Chicago today if she were still writing.”

          I used to listen to her regular radio show on WFMT. Never once did I sense she actually knew much of anything about music.

  • Ben G. says:

    What about the big money spender Alain Lombard with l’Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine in 1995? Every orchestra that hired him, (Miami, Strasbourg) quickly saw their budgets collapse. Frankly, how can a group continue to survive when this happens?

  • william osborne says:

    If sexual abuse in classical is reduced, it will lead to more professional respect for women musicians, and allow them to more frequently assume higher status positions. I think it will also be one of several factors that will change the patriarchal image we have of conductors, thus allowing more women to enter the field.

    These problems run deep in classical music. I think of the comment by the 19th century conductor Hans von Bulow who described the orchestra/conductor relationship as “orchestral coitus.” Patriarchy is so central to what orchestras are, that they might not continue to exist as we know them without it. It’s like a house collapsing when its foundation is weakened.

    We will also see a repetition of a well-known social phenomenon. As women gain more power in specific institutions, those institutions lose status and respect. The US Supreme Court is a noted example often cited by sociologists. Women strive to become part of patriarchal institutions, which causes those institutions to weaken and sometimes even dissolve as they enter them. We already see this happening with orchestras.

    Throughout history, changes in social thought have always shaped the transformations of artistic expression. What we are seeing is not just social progress. It is also an evolution of artistic thought that will eventually move us past orchestras all together. In many respects, they are already kind of historic performance ensemble centered around forms of patriarchy that are vanishing. The very real danger, however, is that due to our political and economic structures we will not fill the void with anything very intelligent.

    • Bruce says:

      Interesting. Has the medical profession lost respect because there are more women doctors than there used to be?

      I don’t see this “how special can it be, if a woman can do it” attitude, but maybe that’s just because it never occurred to me…

      • william osborne says:

        Some professions, or parts of professions, seem more immune to patriarchal perspectives. Since doctors are care-givers, women seem to be more accepted. In 2012, women accounted for 82 percent of trainees in obstetrics and gynecology and for 75 percent of pediatrics trainees. And yet women surgeons, and women directors of clinics are less common.

        Same sort of coding in orchestras. Lots of tutti violins, very few trumpeters. Women conductors a rarity.

        • Alex Davies says:

          My hope is that if I enjoy a decent lifespan I should live to see a day when women make up around 50 percent of conductors and it’s not even something that people talk about. It’s probably not unrealistic to imagine that for girls born today, who will be entering the music profession in around the year 2040, being a conductor will no longer be considered to be by default a male specialism.

          On the other hand, does one dare to suggest that there may be some career choices and career specialisms that really do appeal to one sex more than the other? In the UK, for example, men make up only 0.4 percent of midwives. One could argue that that is a special case as midwifery is a profession dealing exclusively with women. On the other hand, nobody would expect men to make up only 0.4 percent of gynaecologists. In nursing, where services are provided to male and female patients in more or less equal numbers, men make up only 11.4 percent of nurses. There really is no valid argument for it being natural for nursing to be so heavily dominated by women. In physiotherapy it isn’t much better: men make up around 21 percent of British physiotherapists. And it’s almost exactly the same in psychology, where men make up around 20 percent of the total. One of the most concerning areas in education: men make up 38 percent of secondary school teachers and a mere 15 percent of primary school teachers. There is a consensus that gender parity in the teaching profession would be a huge benefit to our children.

          On the other hand, women make up only 10.2 of UK regular armed forces (an even smaller percentage for the army, Royal Navy, and Royal Marines). Nobody seems to think that there’s anything wrong with this. Nor does anybody seem to worry that men make up the vast majority of builders, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and roofers. I tend to suspect that it has a lot to do with the prestige of the job. Nobody seems to mind that there are virtually no female minicab drivers (a poorly paid job with low status and terrible working conditions), but they do mind that there are so few female commercial pilots (a very highly paid job with high status associated with considerable glamour and excitement and fairly pleasant working conditions, apart from the necessarily unsociable hours).

          So the question is, are there specialisms within classical music that do naturally attract men and women in uneven numbers? I don’t know the answer to that. Outside of classical music, it seems that men, of their own choice, eschew careers in nursing, midwifery, physiotherapy, psychology, and teaching, while women, presumably also of their own choice, eschew careers in the armed forces, transport, and manual labour. It would be interesting to see some figures that show what proportion of young women learning musical instruments at school and then at conservatoire express an interest in establishing a professional career playing the tuba or percussion or conducting compared with the number of young women wanting to play strings or woodwind or become concert pianists.

          • Conducting feminista says:

            The day that conducting becomes an all women profession is starting right now. Women are slowly taking over the conducting profession! By the year you mentioned men will no longer be conducting. All conductors will be women.

          • Leslie Austin says:

            Regarding women conductors I am reminded of the late Franz-Paul Decker saying on a radio interview in New Zealand what he thought of women conductors replied – they may but can’t.
            Apart from a handful he may well be right. They all seem to be well trained but lack interpretive skills. One with a pig tail had the orchestra following its flowing about as the players couldn’t understand her beat.

        • Tamino says:

          If you actually knew something about the realities of being a surgeon, you would not make such uninformed ideologically preconceived remarks.
          Also why didn’t you mention the lack of women in the ranks of soldiers, particularly on the front lines?

          Your one little ideological record sounds broken.

          Yes Celi was a prick in the way he treated your wife. But since then you see all men as Celis. Get over it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Classical music is not a ‘patriarchal art form’. And orchestras are not patriarchal ensembles either. Their musically-hierarchical structure is merely the result of the complexity of the music, which is not patriarchal either, however feminists claim that Beethoven raped unwilling women in his symphonies. The conductor’s role is not male but authoritarian: he/she needs to have and to convey musical and emotional authority and control to get all the elements of a score together, nothing more, nothing less. If orchestras would disappear because of no longer compatible with feminist liberation movements, that would be cultural suicide and a criminal burden on the movements. What is the point of liberate female conductors if there are no longer any orchestras to conduct?

      • buxtehude says:

        All excellent points. It’s too bad that they need to be made.

        • Bill says:

          What on earth are you talking about, “excellent points?” This is the most bananas sexist thread I have ever read. First, NO ONE has suggested that Beethoven was raping women in his symphonies. Susan McClary used the metaphor of a rapist unable to find release in describing the frustration of the recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th Symphony (and, interestingly enough, did not specify a gender when doing so), which is HUGELY far afield from calling Beethoven a rapist, musical or otherwise.

          Name two professions that has vanished because women have entered it.

          Norman, this double-header made me laugh for 15 minutes:

          “In future, a maestro who fails to fulfil moral standards and musical expectations can expect to be given the bum’s rush. Whether this constitutes an advance for civilisation, time will tell.”

          How could meeting both musical and moral standards NOT be an advance for civilisation, given the alternative?!

          The idea that great musicians can only be great musicians if they are allowed to be lewd, aggressive, and disrespectful to others is absolute and utter nonsense. We got rid of the Toscaninis, and it turns out that you get fabulous results when you are collaborative, respectful, and inspiring.

          When we deify great musicians and excuse their behavior, we are only signalling to young musicians that this behavior is a benefit of the job. It is not.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Interesting that you should mention Toscanini. Yes, his behaviour was often terrible, but he was far from the unthinking, uncaring tyrant you describe. He would not have been a successful conductor if he merely tried to rule by fear and bullying.

            One interesting story is that when he saw how Szell treated his orchestra (Szell had been invited to guest conduct), he flew into a rage, telling Szell his musicians weren’t children, and refused to let Szell conduct his orchestra again.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Karl Muck in Boston precedes all, I think.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Well, there was also the unfortunate experience of Robert Schumann in Dusseldorf ….

      • buxtehude says:

        Schumann was unable to conduct or even communicate with the musicians he was directing. We now know for sure that this collapse was a symptom of syphilitic paresis of the brain, which was soon to cause his suicide attempt (in 1853), total breakdown and death two years later.

        It is also very likely that Schumann’s various extremes of emotional behavior, long attributed to the “romantic temperament” by psychologizing biographers, had the same cause. He was not the self-indulgent jerk sometimes claimed, his struggle against the disease was heroic.

        • steven holloway says:

          “We” do not know any such thing “for sure”. If the behaviour in question here were owing to syphilis, RS must have been wondrously sexually precocious, the more so as his malaria would have slowed the progress of syphilis. See the 2010 edition of Professor Peter Ostwald biography and Professor John Duncan’s analysis of RS’s autopsy report, for a start. One must be mightily careful when it comes to retrospective diagnosis, and many are not. Non-medical specialists who write biographies of historical figures resort to a ‘diagnosis’ of syphilis far too eagerly, but, after all, it does make things simpler for them.

  • Mark says:

    So let’s have the reason and the full facts why gatti was fired!

    • Doug says:

      Are you kidding? Do you think the Soviets hauled out facts and evidence before shipping someone off to the gulag?

    • Bill says:

      If the KCO management decides they should provide you an explanation, I am sure one will be forthcoming. But as you are not a subscriber, patron, party to any legal action, or otherwise connected, you might control your anticipation…they no more owe you the details than I owe you an analysis of which socks I’m going to wear today.

  • Michael Wilkinson says:

    Walter Legge wanted to sack Klemperer as conductor of the Philharmonia, discovered he couldn’t, so sacked the orchestra instead.

  • Chris Clift says:

    What were the circumstances surrounding the termination of Louis Fremaux’s tenure in Birmingham (UK) before the Rattle era began? At the same time the general manager left the orchestra too

    • FS60103 says:

      Fremaux quit entirely of his own accord and in sympathy with the General Manager, who’d been the victim of a sort of coup by the Players’ Committee. No-one expected him to do so – it was his own choice and came as a surprise to all concerned. He made clear later that he did so in sympathy with the GM, and the Board’s failure to support him.

  • PJay says:

    I have read with considerable interest the latest story of the dismissal of Mr Gatti from his position with the RCO..but have to confess to much more knowledgeable correspondents to this valuable site than myself that I am ever so slightly confused on this
    As I understand it Mr Gatti was removed from his post because of inappropriate behaviour over a period of time involving sexual misconduct towards some of the female members of the RCO and in other orchestras too.Please forgive me if I have misunderstood this completely.
    I am slightly confused because I was under the impression that Mr Gatti was hired by the same management team with the full support of the musicians of the RCO.Mr Gatti has been a most frequent guest conductor of the orchestra for a good many years and I just find it very strange that in prolonged contact with him over the years management and players alike have only just now discovered to their horror the “hidden” characteristics of Mr Gatti…I have a feeling that this would have very well documented ….and ..Yet !!…They all went straight ahead and hired him !!!!!
    The ways of the classical music world are indeed ..ODD

    • S. Smith says:

      The explanation is, managements and the orchestra commitees that represent the members of the orchestra want to hire somebody. That is their goal and they often ignore the warnings, complaints and concerns brought to their attention. That is how James Levine got hired at the Boston Symphony and interestingly, Gatti was on the short list to succeed him which would have been 2 disasters in a row.

    • Bill says:

      It is not possible, in your eyes, that one might behave when a guest, and lose restraint once in a position of power?

      • PJay says:

        Thank you Bill for your follow up…and ..Yes !!…is most certainly the answer to your question…However Mr Gatti.has ,as I said , guest conducted this orchestra over a period of very many years and I find it very odd that in that period of time no one it musicians , management etc had absolutely no idea at all of Mr Gatti’s characteristics…it would indeed require consummate ability on Mr Gatti’s part to conceal this trait of character from 70 – 100 musicians with whom he is working with very closely over an extended period of time…Is it possible that people did know and turned a blind eye to it ?

        • M2N2K says:

          Of course it is, but it is also possible that he behaved one way as a guest and in a different way as “the boss” – that happens all the time.

        • Bill says:

          I haven’t worked with him, so I can’t comment on what he is like. However, it seems to me that it is not uncommon for an orchestra to be enamored of a conductor seen in only small doses, yet discover upon prolonged exposure that maybe things aren’t as wonderful as previously thought. Certainly divorce lawyers find plenty of work as a result of a similar phenomenon! That is most certainly not to say that sexual harassment is typically why orchestras tire of conductors, but not a few of the allegations have involved frequent contact over a moderate period of time, not just the sort of contact one might have with a conductor who simply flies in to do one program a year. And as it is unlikely that even the sleaziest operator would put the moves on every female member of the orchestra, perhaps one or two members did come in for some unwelcome attention but decided to keep quiet out of fear of the usual reception (especially if everyone else loves the conductor), doubt as to whether they were partly responsible, etc. As time goes on, if the conductor does have predatory tendencies, one would expect that word would eventually get around and those unwilling to speak up earlier might now step forward.

          Is this proof that it happened/ Absolutely not. But based on my experience with human affairs, it is entirely possible. I find it hard to believe that some individuals can develop such reputations and have them seemingly become common knowledge based solely on a whisper campaign, which seems to be what some posters would have us believe. Pay no attention to the smoke billowing out from behind the curtain, there’s no fire here!

  • SWYaness says:

    Manuel Rosenthal, Seattle, fired 1951, for moral turpitude (and deported); François Huybrechts, San Antonio, fired 1979, for being, shall we say, over ambitious.

    • Martin Anderson says:

      I have to defend Manuel Rosenthal against the charge of ‘moral turpitude’. It was simply discovered that he was not married to his long-standing partner and so he was given the elbow. They were still happy together forty years later when I got to know him.

      • anon says:

        And in the ’50s, that was moral turpitude, ya can’t be shacking up with a broad in sin. Gotta respect the morals of the times, just as we respect the morals of our times, today, ya can’t be hitting up on a broad.

    • Bruce says:

      Not sure either of those would count as a “major” orchestra especially back in the 1950s…

  • S. Smith says:

    Conductor Daniele Gatti, Leaving on a Sour Note
    By Tim Page Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, February 14, 2004; Page C01

    Conductor Daniele Gatti, who will be leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, left a trailof enraged promoters and concertgoers in Naples, Fla., after a concert there Wednesday night.
    According to Myra Daniels, the CEO of the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Gatti had just completed a program that included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto. “It was a — oh, let’s say a pretty good concert,” she said yesterday, “but our audience is very polite and stood and applauded. And then Gatti came out on the stage and stopped the applause. We thought he was going to do an encore. Well, he did, but it was his encore.”
    Gatti, 42, began by apologizing for the quality of the performance, explaining that the orchestra had been on tour for two weeks. Then, in heated, broken English, he berated everybody there — the presenters, the orchestra and the audience — for a full two to three minutes.
    “It was very difficult to understand him, but we got the basic point,” a concertgoer, Nicolas Hemes, said yesterday. “He was furious, like some angry, dictatorial professor, beating the class up because it failed its exams. He made everyone nervous, so people started to laugh — and he shushed us! It was like — ‘Quiet! I’m speaking! The maestro is speaking!’ ”
    What set Gatti off? “I’m still wondering,” Daniels said. “I wish we’d made a tape recording that we could try to decipher. He seemed to be angry because we seated some patrons after a movement. He seemed to be upset with our acoustics. Well, I’m sorry, but we’ve had orchestras from Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis and many other cities here, and they’ve found nothing wrong with our acoustics.”
    Peg Goldberg Longstreth, in her review of the concert for the Naples DailyNews, called Gatti an “incredibly rude, ill-mannered, churlish, boorish young conductor” who “tripped over his enormous ego and, in the process ,managed to insult and alienate an entire, enthusiastic, respectful audience who had paid nearly $100 a ticket for the evening.
    “I have seen many gaffes and disasters onstage or during performances in my lifetime,” Goldberg Longstreth continued.
    “But until Wednesday, I have never seen a highly touted, internationally much heralded conductor blow his stack, come back on stage following a standing ovation and berate the audience.” She concluded by calling Gatti a “pretentious, angry little twit.”
    This was Gatti’s third visit to Naples with the Royal Philharmonic. “He’s been fine whenever he’s been here before,” Daniels said. “Of course, if you pay $90,000 to bring an orchestra to your city, you expect polite behavior.”
    Until Wednesday, Gatti had been invited back for the 2005-06 season. “We will not honor that contract,” Daniels said. “You should see the messages I’m getting from our audience. This one says, ‘I’m 80 years old and I’ve been attending classical music concerts all over the world for most of my life and I’ve never been so insulted.’ Here’s one that just says he is an SOB. I like this one — ‘Let’s have a “Goodbye Gatti” concert and drive him to the airport.’ “

  • Gregor Tassie says:

    Yevgeny Svetlanov was sacked by the Ministry of Culture in 2000 a couple of years before he died, and of course his orchestra is now named after him

  • monsoon says:

    I bet if you take a look at conductors’ contracts, especially in the past, it’s near impossible to fire a conductor without having to still payout the remainder of their contract. Thus, it’s cheaper to just runout the contract.

    And I also imagine that until recently, orchestra management thought that the only fireable offense was extreme criminal behavior, like murder. I mean, it’s not like sexual harassment and worse just started happening this year. It obviously happened in the past and was completely ignored.

  • JRM says:

    What annoyed Gatti in Naples was his purist view that, by his own and the orchestra’s own very high standards, they had just given a below par performance and he was irritated/surprised to get a standing ovation when he felt it was undeserved. ‘Don’t they listen, or know anything’ would have been his reaction. Exhausted, intolerant – yes, but that does not make him an abuser or a harasser. So the Washington Post story, in the current context, is totally irrelevant.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Even if you think the audience are uncultured and ignorant fools, you really shouldn’t stand in front of them and berate them. If you do then you are an arrogant jerk.

      • buxtehude says:

        Of course you’re right but JRM points out, or suggests, the sad route through which Gatti lost his way and ended up acting the “arrogant jerk”: he forgot his role in things, and the peopleness of other people, because he suddenly realized that he was all alone with the standards and ideals that motivated him.

        I wonder whether, in a less huffy time, everyone standing on his or her dignity, he might be forgiven for such a lapse.

  • Graeme says:

    Eugene Goosens was sacked from all jobs in Sydney – including the chief conductorship of the Sydney SO, for attempting to smuggle prohibited material into the country. Of course, Oz was a petty, parochial, small-minded, fearful, backwards-looking place back then. This was a country which banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover on moral grounds, for instance. (Comment on its present outlook is reserved!)