Barenboim blast: Timpanist hits back

Barenboim blast: Timpanist hits back


norman lebrecht

February 22, 2019

Willi Hilgers, solo timpanist of Bavarian State Opera, has sent us this response to today’s personal attack by Daniel Barenboim, whom he had accused of bullying his musicians. Here’s his response:

Ich bin wegen Daniel Barenboim an die Staatskapelle nach Berlin gegangen und dort geblieben, weil es ein phantastisches Orchester ist. Gegangen bin ich dann aus demselben Grund, nämlich wegen Daniel Barenboim. Ich habe den Kampf damals aufgegeben und dazu gelernt. Genau wie Barenboims Qualität als Musiker unbestritten ist, hätte ich mir gewünscht, dass auch meine Arbeit als Künstler nicht in Frage gestellt wird. Das sieht Herr Barenboim wohl nicht so, wie er ja zu Protokoll gab.  Ich möchte aber gar nicht erst beginnen, meine Fähigkeiten zu verteidigen, meine aktuelle Position beim Bayerischen Staatsorchester unter Kirill Petrenko spricht für sich. Daniel Barenboims Reaktion auf die Anschuldigungen zeigt ein weiteres Mal seine übliche Vorgangsweise: Alles von sich weisen und die Schuld bei anderen suchen. Es war mir wichtig, über meine persönlichen Erfahrungen zu sprechen, aber ich ziehe nun für mich einen Schlussstrich unter der Akte Barenboim.


  • Alexander says:

    he’s finally got his minute of fame …Amen

  • Tamino says:

    “hätte ich mir gewünscht, dass auch meine Arbeit als Künstler nicht in Frage gestellt wird.”

    “I would have wished that my work as an artist would not be called into question either.”

    Now he lost me. Of course his work is subject to questioning and criticism. That’s the nature of artistic collaboration in an orchestra with an artistic leader.
    If you don’t like the chief conductor telling you your rhythm is problematic at times, then tough call, find another orchestra or have a solo career.

    The question should not be IF he is criticised, but HOW that is done, which seems to be the problem with Barenboim.

    Mama mia, now I’m wondering, if we only have a conflict between narcissistic egos on both sides.

    Maybe all should shut up and talk to each other internally, not wash your dirty laundry with the so eager classical music yellow press.

    • steven holloway says:

      Your comment is commendable. No orchestral musician is immune to criticism from the conductor, but that sounds exactly what Hilgers thinks he deserves. NL thinks DB’s response to Hilger is getting down and dirty. But DB was himself criticised, and in simply laying out the problem he is defending himself in a perfectly fair manner. At one time this would have been dealt with privately, but social media have made the public arena the first court of resort, when it should be the last. All public complaints and pleas for sympathy do is feed that ‘yellow press’ you rightly allude to. And around here, there is no clickbait like a mention of Barenboim.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what Hilgers meant. ‘Im Frage stellen’ in this context is clearly not being corrected by the conductor, but to be questioned why he is there in the first place, which could not be more insulting. No orchestral player complains about being corrected, but no one would accept being inadequate.

        • Tamino says:

          Could be, but then it is worded ambiguously.
          What he then actually meant was he does not want to be called in question fundamentally, as a person and professional. But as an artist, in an orchestra, you are always judged and questioned. That’s just business as usual.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          Exactly. Barenboim as quoted by Engel doesn’t claim Hilgers’ rhythm was “problematic at times” (Tamino) but that “he had rhythmic weaknesses.” Nasty phrase, and not a condition to resolve with talk or “of course also criticize” (again Barenboim).

        • Nick says:

          Your absolutely right, John. And DB IS “famous” for his rudeness, unearthly narcissism and utmost disrespect to orchestral musicians. So no one here should be surprised. This IS DB in his bloom!

    • The Original Anonymous says:

      His work should not be subject to questioning in public, in the press, which DB did. That was petty and unprofessional, IMHO.

      In general, conductors who feel that they are in a position to criticize a player’s playing need to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are truly so deific and on such an elevated plane artistically that they are qualified to do this. Most are not.

      A conductor expressing a desired change to a player in the way he/she is interpreting something is an art form. You can express how you would like something to be played, but you don’t attack their playing. And you certainly don’t do it publicly in the press. It borders on defamation. Players shouldn’t do it about conductors and conductors shouldn’t do it about players.

      Complaining about bullying is another kettle of fish entirely.

      • steven holloway says:

        It was not DB who chucked all this into the public arena. He was criticised in public, he replies in public.

        • The Original Anon says:

          DB was criticized about his behavior with musicians, not about his conducting. For him to drag artistic criticism into this publicly is uncalled for. It’s a cheap shot.

          • Bone says:

            The subordinate attacked his boss’ character; completely reasonable for boss to respond with criticism of the subordinate’s abilities, thus calling his line of whining into question as well.

          • The Original Anon says:

            The timpanist did not criticize DB’s character but his behavior. And he said nothing about DB artistically.

            DB, in his childish response, dragged it into the gutter and instead of defending or justifying his own behavior – the issue at hand – he attacked the musician’s artistic ability.

            It’s a lot like when a kid is accused of something – like playing too rough on the playground – and he responds with a completely unrelated insult like “Yeah, but your mother’s a whore.”

            That’s pretty much how DB reacted here. As a lot of people have commented, it’s beneath the dignity of an artist of his stature.

        • Viola da Bracchio says:

          A conductor – especially one who also aspires to making political comments in public – needs to rise above this kind of cat-calling. DB has demeaned himself, and the causes he espouses too.

      • Tamino says:

        “A conductor expressing a desired change to a player in the way he/she is interpreting something is an art form. You can express how you would like something to be played, but you don’t attack their playing.”

        I disagree. That is the recipe for artistic mediocrity and stagnation.
        Only if the musicians are pushed to their limits of what they can do, sometimes, measured, even beyond, can they develop toward a higher level, individually and as an orchestra.

        Of course that needs a highly skilled conductor, both musically and in social competences, to not create an atmosphere of fear and self-consciousness.

        It is a well known fact, that never all orchestra musicians are in the mindset to be ambitious, so some will always complain.

        In the causa Barenboim we must distinguish between his high demands, which are inconvenient yet desirable, and his rude and demeaning attitude at times.

        Bottomline he simply has too much power. As soon as someone feels comfortable muttering the statement: “If you don’t like me the way I am, I will leave.” then it is time to act, either make him leave, or put a counter weight in the power structure, that can put him in his place.

        His personality will not change. He expects the orchestra to react like his piano he grew up with. He is not the first conductor, who treats musicians as objects who’s purpose it is to execute his musical ideas, not subjects.

        Interestingly though, when he works with singers, he behaves in a fundamentally different way.

        • The Original Anon says:

          A good conductor can get what he/she wants without bullying and humiliating players. You can “push them to their limits” (what are we, race cars?) without abusing them.

          There has to be thought – careful thought – in how a conductor expresses his/her wishes, that’s all. That’s the art in it. DB apparently feels like he can just skip this step.

          There’s no mediocrity in asking a player in a civilized way to do something.

    • guest says:

      maybe only communicate by text with exclamation point disabled.

    • Karl says:

      Agreed. This all should have been handled internally. It reminds me of what happened in Montreal in 2002 when some musicians publicly criticized Dutoit. Dutoit didn’t talk about it. He just quit. Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy cancelled their engagements, in solidarity with Dutoit. The orchestra got booed. And they lost a lot of money.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Er…hasn’t it been established that they were right to criticize Dutoit?

        • Karl says:

          No. He was cleared of any misconduct in Montreal. I don’t doubt that he’s a difficult boss, but he is one of the great conductors of our time. If the musicians don’t like working for him they can get work elsewhere.

      • Martin says:

        Sorry Karl, but do you really think these issues werent adressed internally (to no avail) several times over the previous 27 years?

        We have to put this article about the timpanist in its context.

        It all started with a distress call from 10-20 current employees of the stateopera, they are bound to silence by their contracts thus it had to be anonymous.
        If the german stateopera had reacted to this immidiately by making an inquiry with external advisors the issue would have stopped there.
        Instead they chose to brush it off answering that they wouldnt comment/react to anonymous complaints.

        Knowing the house from the inside, and many of the colleagues that are and were suffering and recognizing the description of the workingconditions from his time as a musician in the staatskapelle, Willi decided to get some former employees together who were not bound to silence by their current contracts. The goal was to confirm that there was, and is a real problem and that the issues raised by the VAN article should be taken seriously.

        Only after Willi stepped forward in BR-Klassik did the leader of the opera take measures to adress the problems!

        This story is also about about a house, CEOs, a board, a comitee, colleagues and a Union who all failed to help musicians in need and i hope it paves the way for a better internal warning and communication system in the future.

  • The Original Anon says:

    Bravo to Professor Hilgers for his integrity and courage in speaking the truth. He sounds like a fine musician who’s not afraid to defend himself.

    • Andrew Powell says:

      He’s a wonderful musician, and there were certainly no “rhythmische Schwächen” during Sunday morning’s gloriously sung and played Missa solemnis here.

      Bravo, too, to Manuel Brug and Esteban Engel.

  • We privatize your value says:

    Next : trombonist blows back.

  • RW2013 says:

    With all of DB’s striving for the best – what does he think of the Maestra’s Zauberflöte (neu)? Assuming that he goes to performances that are not his own (he doesn’t).

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    What was Barenboim’s motive? I think the timpanist must be able to give some information, musical or personal, that can explain this. Possibly the timpanist is more affected by a bullying type conductor than others in the orchestra. I would think that concertmaster, principal horn, trumpet, oboe, and timpanist, because of the prominence of parts, would be the most affected by a bully demeanor.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      All of this personal stuff is way too much information in a public space. But this is the age we live in now; narcissism and the need to be heard. Constantly.

      Nobody is benefiting from this kind of over-exposure; nobody at all. Privacy, self-respect and respect for others is urgently needed. Before it all goes to hell in a handbag.

      When I was a girl it was referred to as ‘airing your dirty linen in public’.

      • Karl says:

        I think it hurts the orchestra more than the conductor, especially when it’s a conductor as well known as Barenboim. Maybe if they had a vid of his throwing a drum at someone’s head it might be different.

  • Harrumph says:

    A well-deserved bitch-slap on Barenboim’s pompous mug.

  • anon says:

    It is not about which criticism is valid, it is about whose criticism counts (no pun intended). It’s about who is given the power to critique.

    Afterall, Mr. Hilgers can make the equal (and probably more credible claim) that it is Mr. Barenboim who is rhythmically weak.

    But in the orchestral world, orchestra members are not entitled to critique the conductor. Is Mr. Hilgers allowed to say Barenboim’s beat is weak? His gestures unclear? His technique failing?

    In today’s business world, there is the “360 review”, where the supervisor reviews her subordinates, and the subordinates also get to review the supervisor and each other, and their raises/bonuses depend on good reviews from the everyone.

    It’s time to institute 360 reviews in orchestras. In a 360 review, we’d know from the entire orchestra who they really think has no rhythm, the timpanist or the conductor.

    • Tamino says:

      In which business world do the subordinates review the superiors and decide about their remuneration?
      Please give some actual examples. I don’t think any business that is measured by a tangible bottomline to be made, can afford such procedures.
      Maybe about social ettiquette. But never about competence, because that would lead to tyranny of the mediocer.

      • Martin says:

        It actually works that way in many businesses in scandinavia. If workenvironment reports (which should be made at regular intervals) turn out negative several times in a row, the board is expected to take action (mediate or even remove the director)
        It works that way in Danish orchestras and is a very good way of keeping a good balance of power at work.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      What you seem to believe about the business world isn’t true. However, a good senior manager will have a clear idea of how more junior managers behave towards their staff. And if the junior manager persistently behaves badly then they will be dealt with (it usually takes a while though).

  • anon says:

    LOL, Mr. Hilgers really knows how to throw shade (to insult someone subtly), basically: “I’m in a better orchestra under a better conductor”. Ouch, that has to sting a bit for Barenboim since Petrenko got the job Barenboim always coveted.

  • Andrew Kennaugh says:

    Barenboim is an UNBELIEVABLE musician…his foibles are the price we must pay for having him…what’s the alternative?A world of mediocrity and ‘nice’ people…

    • Harrumph says:

      Oh please, you’re hilarious. Barenboim is a middling musician with an absurdly bloated reputation to go with his ego.

    • Anon says:

      Dutoit and Levine are also great musicians and the day of reckoning for their foibles finally came.

      There are limits, Andrew. There are too many brilliant well-behaved young conductors waiting in the wings to have to put up with this crap from the big names.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        While I think Dutoit was brilliant in some repertoire (esp. French), I think Levine and Barenboim have rather bloated reputations, and nothing much has been lost with Levine’s demise.

  • AOK says:

    So sad to see this new social media trend of whining. orchestra musicians are the most protected unions in the music world! if the rehearsal is 1 minute over time they pack their instruments and go home…..FACT! (in which job outside the music world could you do that?) The life they live(on this international level) is not so bad at all. Most have beside their well paid full-time job as orchestra member a full position as professor in university on top. If they have a problem with a maestro they should stand up right in that minute and shout back instead confronting now via media. Anyways they have section leaders and orchestra manager protecting them.

    • Martin says:

      You cant generalize orchestral musicians and unions like that. I can guarantee you if DB said we will rehearse one hour longer, there would be no one from the union stopping it in that house, so please dont generalize

  • fflambeau says:

    Barenboim’s reply is never answered by this man: if he was abused why did he stay there so long? It make no sense to me.

    • We privatize your value says:

      A good salary, perhaps?

    • Tamino says:

      Where should he have gone? Solo timpani positions are rare. And almost no other orchestra in Germany paid comparable salaries. And the artistic reputation was very high. It’s not as simple as you think it is.

    • Martin says:

      First you have 1-2 years of trial, then you are awestruck by playing in that kind of orchestra, after realizing the problems you spend years trying to change things from within. After years you realize you are getting nowhere but have a family to take care of you start looking for another job, which is difficult in Germany once you have passed 30 years of age.

      This should be common knowledge, thats probably why he doesnt feel sentiment to go down that road

  • simon says:

    Good luck with Yurovsky.

  • John Edward Niles says:

    Ich erinnere mich an Daniel Barenboim aus seinen Teenagerjahren. Ich habe ihn an verschiedenen Aufnahmeprojekten gearbeitet. Er war ein SEHR talentierter Pianist, ein sehr begabter Musiker und zunächst eher Verstand. Er war auch ein arroganter, selbstzentrierter, selbstsüchtiger, gemeiner, narsassiktischer junger Mann. Er ist ein Genie … ein Genie mit schrecklichen Fehlern. Er ist wie Wagner. Er ist kein sehr guter Mensch. Er sollte in einem Käfig gehalten werden. Lassen Sie ihn aus dem Käfig zum Dirigieren, Klavier spielen usw. Dann sperren Sie ihn in seinen Käfig. Halten Sie ihn von anständigen Menschen fern.[redacted]