Daniel Barenboim hits back at musicians’ attacks

Daniel Barenboim hits back at musicians’ attacks


norman lebrecht

February 22, 2019

The conductor has been talking to a reporter from the German press agency DPA about allegations of bullying by members of his orchestra.

He dismissed the original allegations in VAN magazine because ‘I find it sad to comment on anonymous accusations’.

Now that three musicians have come out under their own names, he gets low down and personal.

Of the former solo timpanist Willi Hilgers, he says:

‘If I treated him so unfairly, why did he stay here for 12 or 13 years? I doubt his good will in this matter… He had a very beautiful sound and made wonderful colors on the timpani, but he had rhythmic weaknesses. I talked to him about that and of course criticised him, which is my job.’

UPDATE: Hilgers responds

Barenboim said he saw the attacks as an attempt to destabilise him in Berlin as he seeks to renew his contract beyond 2022. He claims he has full support from the orchestra. ‘I would know if there were tensions,’ he added.




  • Mike Schachter says:

    I suppose you don’t need to be self-critical if you are perfect.

    • Andy says:

      If you mean Barenboim, he hasn’t claimed that, here or elsewhere. In fact if you look at the detailed interview he’s given in response to this he confesses to being hot-headed and difficult sometimes.

      • Bruce says:

        I learned from a social-worker friend that if an alcoholic admits to drinking six beers a night, you should assume the reality is more like twelve.

        I think if someone is willing to admit he is “hot-headed and difficult at times,” then the reality is probably closer to “abusive and unpredictable.”

      • Harrumph says:

        “Hot-headed and difficult sometimes” in plain English = an abusive and bullying slimeball.

  • Alexander says:

    So what will you are going to say dear hypocrites ? 😉

  • Sibylle Luise says:

    I had once a bully as a superior and it was horrible. I developed a gastritis and an allergy and after a few months I found myself at the mornings sitting in my car in the garage under the office, crying because I really, really feared to go up.
    Although in my profession it’s rather difficult to get a good job, I quit after nine months (and despite of having no other job!). So I think Mr Barenboim’s argument “Why did the guy stay so long if it was so terrible?” rather valid. And what did his doctor say? Mine would a patient with an exogenic depression advise to go away from the cause of my depression. So if the guy was depressed because of Mr Barenboim one really wonders why he kept up with him for years?

    • Kenneth says:

      The argument of why did he stay is absurd. If you had any idea just how difficult it is to land a job in a major orchestra one would know.
      The fact that Willi landed yet another job is a testament to his playing.
      DB must be so far removed from the process to ask such a question.

      • Sibylle Luise says:

        Do you have an idea how hard it is to land another job as a deputy editor in chief at a special interest magazine? We have just four of such magazines in Germany, so if you leave one you have three others – and if one of them needs a deputy just when you’re searching? In my case it meant to go two steps back in matters of career.
        Compared to that: I suppose we have around 12 TVK A orchestras in Germany …

  • Andy says:

    It will be interesting to see how this develops. He seems to have a reputation for being hot-headed and quite demanding. In the detailed interview linked to earlier he holds his hands up to that. That in itself is no crime, but seems to be going ‘out of fashion’ as time goes on, and the world changes.

    He is in some ways a link to a bygone era, having started working in the 1950s/60s and with some (many) of the giants of that time and previous. Should he change now? Or should people in general be a bit more robust, and those who really can’t stand it just go somewhere else.

    • Adam says:

      Andy is right.

      B. really is almost that last (high-profile) link back to the 1950’s way of making music – because he started at such a high level, at such a young age ( he was 8 in 1950 i think)? 1950 was almost 70 years ago and it really shows.

      It is for that reason that I find much of his music making rather old fashioned – and I suppose some of the attitudes that accompany it.

  • Viola da Bracchio says:

    This kind of petulant vengefulness is hardly the behaviour we expect of a respected public figure – moreover, one who benefits from colossal input of governmental funds into his projects. Barenboim has humiliated himself with these juvenile outbursts.

  • Zacharias Galaviz Guerra says:

    I have not much more to say than my words on a previous post on this topic:

    “Nearly all great conductors have shared this stern disposition. When an instrumentalist rolls their eyes in sarcasm or the musicians aren’t focused (something necessary and expected, purely professionally) the music will suffer, without a doubt. A conductor’s job must include “whipping the votes!” Dissent in the concert hall is destructive.
    Maestro Barenboim is not malicious. He is akin to Maestro Claudio Arrau in the sense that “he is uncompromising and most serious as an artist.” I myself become furious with loud and obnoxious audience goers, as this is ludicrous and the music deserves much more reverence than that – “silence in between the notes,” let’s not forget. Image clapping in between movements of Mozart’s Concerto 23, or Brahms’ Symphony 1. Ridiculous.
    Also, let us not forget that Maestro Barenboim is also a kind person who cares for his musicians, especially off the podium. The rest of this article is very subjective and essentially libel and defamatory in an era where everything must be “politically correct.”
    I understand why a stern Maestro is often necessary to preserve the integrity of the music. The greats prove this.”

    • The Original Anon says:

      Instead of just giving you a “thumbs down”, Zacharias, I’m going to try to address your comment.

      I’m not sure what country you’re writing from, but it sounds a little 3rd world. Eastern Europe, perhaps?

      In the mainstream, “stern” conductors who bully musicians have gone the way of the dinosaur. Musicians unions, at least in the US, have made sure of that.

      I’ve observed plenty of top conductors working with fine orchestras and even had the privilege of playing under some of them. Bullying musicians is just not acceptable any more.

      DB has guested with my orch. and he stood out against every conductor we’ve ever had for being a total xxxhole. We had never seen anything like it. Fortunately it wasn’t directed at specific musicians, it was just a general sense of entitlement. He felt that rules didn’t apply to him.

      This kind of behavior is not at all necessary or appropriate in this day and age for conducting an orchestra. It doesn’t work anymore.

      Orch. musicians used to have to play all concerts standing up. That doesn’t work anymore either.

      Orchestras and how conductors behave toward musicians has evolved significantly since the days of Toscanini. Unions and musicians’ committees are in the mix now, and musicians have tenure which gives them the security to defend themselves.

      Being a good conductor, getting what you want from an orch. and giving a good interpretation no longer relies on conductors bullying musicians. I’m afraid you’re out of date, Zacharias.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Excellent refutation.

      • Martain Smith says:

        Original Anon.. dream on!
        DB is simply not great or significant enough – but if the artistic and (above all) economic sway is present, forget the unions!
        For managements, producers, et al, it’s the status and Dollar which reigns – not the unionist or the ensemble member.

        • The Original Anon says:

          Martain. . .or should that be Martian? Your comment sounds a little extraterrestrial.

          What you’ve said makes no sense. Where there’s a labor union, they will prevail with respect to working conditions.

          Conductors, mgts and producers all have to abide by what the union mandates. This is indisputable in the US. The AFM is allied with the Teamsters Union, for God’s sake. It doesn’t get more powerful than that. Just read the history of the unionization of musicians in the US.

          Sounds like you don’t have much experience with unionized musicians. If managers and producers don’t want to deal with labor unions, they can take their business elsewhere, which they often do. This is why we’re seeing more film soundtrack recording in countries without strong labor unions for musicians.

          But if they are working in a situation within union jurisdiction, the union’s authority is seldom challenged successfully. Not by producers, managers, conductors or for any amount of money.

    • Yoram Ben -Zeev says:

      Totally agree

    • Harrumph says:

      What planet are you living on? Get a clue.

  • Steve says:

    Rhythmic weaknesses? What about his own conducting weaknesses?? Barenboim is just making a petulant fool of himself with these comments…

  • Bruce says:

    Criticizing a fellow musician respectfully requires … respect. I find it highly doubtful that the timpanist, who went to school, had demanding teachers and must have developed a formidable work ethic and an even more formidable capacity for self-criticism (not to mention he quite possibly has a number of unsuccessful auditions in his past), would be such a delicate flower that the slightest hint of something not being perfect would send him over the edge.

    But I have seen a conductor stop the orchestra when someone came in forte on an entrance marked piano (and immediately apologized, not that it made any difference), and shout “What’s wrong with you? Do you not care about music? Or are you really just that stupid?” It went on for awhile like that. (I understand we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but quoting something Gunther Schuller said in front of a hundred witnesses is not disrespectful.) That is what I would call “calling someone’s work as an artist into question.”

    You can tell someone he needs to be more careful in observing dynamic markings, and it’s an ongoing problem you have noticed several times, and he needs to get his act together in this respect, with no need for sugar-coating — that kind of criticism is a conductor’s job, just as receiving criticism is part of a musician’s job.

    Of course I don’t know what happened in this case, but from the general tenor of the stories it sounds like DB has tended more toward the disrespectful end of the spectrum.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Generally speaking, you shouldn’t criticise people for making a mistake, especially if they realise it. Mistakes happen. You should criticise people if they are “unprofessional”, be clear about what you don’t like, and how the problem can be solved.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Hopefully, Barenboim will modify his behaviour from now on and this issue will not arise again. I think his contribution is still beneficial in Berlin.

  • her royal snarkiness says:

    Gawd, if Barenboim doesn’t sound like a certain trifling head of state. . .

  • klavierBWV988 says:

    Furtwangler used to play for Hitler, he plays for Frau Merkel.

  • NIck2 says:

    Love all these suggestions as to how to criticize. It reminds me of a story told decades ago on the old My Music programme. Solti was conducting a work with the London Philharmonic. A deputy had been engaged as second trombone. At one point in the work, Solti was unhappy with this deputy’s attack on a particular note and rather politely told him so.

    After repeating the passage, he was still unhappy and made it known. So it was repeated again – with no noticeable difference. By now a somewhat exasperated conductor asked, “Second trombone! What did I ask you to do on the first note of bar xy?”

    The musician, who hailed from Wales, allegedly responded in a broad lyrical Welsh accent. “I am att-ack-ing the note, Mr. Solti, but it’s making a blood-y good job of defend-ing itself!”

  • Lady Weidenfeld says:

    Would it be difficult to find three or four disguntled players in any orchestra who will complain bitterly about their conductor? There may be conductors blessed with seraphic patience and diplomacy when striving for perfection, but I think there are very few. I ask myself what is the point of this vicious attack on Daniel Barenboim and it smells like a bit of a witch-hunt. I could not comment on alleged incidents I didn’t witness and it is possible he lost his cool while trying to achieve the very best this wonderful orchestra can give, so what? Rehearsals are tough whether for a chamber group or a big symphony orchestra. Striving for the ideal is tough, feelings run high, this is not the Knickerbocker Club! What Daniel Barenboim has achieved with the Staatskapelle over the decades under his leadership, at one point fighting for its very survival during a budgetary crisis in Berlin when five orchestras were considered too many, what he achieved for the city of Berlin with the Academy and the Boulezsaal puts Berlin in an enviable position. Go to one of their concerts or opera performances and ask yourselves if all that could be achieved by a cowed brow-beaten orchestra who hate their conductor! I must disagree with my friend Manuel Brug who suggests Barenboim should bow out at 80; how many great conductors we all know continued to excel in their 80s and 90s! What he has given the rest of the world of music as unique musician, pianist and conductor should inspire gratitude in all of us and knowing him for most of my adult life I know only the kindest humanitarian who has often been the friend in need during sad times.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The Berlin Staatskapelle were never under threat from the budget cuts “when five orchestras were considered too many”. It was only the smaller orchestras which were threatened. And some of them were eliminated.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    “Bully asks orchestra if there are tensions”

    They did not tell him there was a problem so there can’t be one. [Obviously not too frightened to speak up…]