Three players speak out against Barenboim

Three players speak out against Barenboim


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2019

The German controversialist Manuel Brug quotes from three musicians who say they suffered intolerable bullying from Daniel Barenboim while playing in the Staatsoper orchestra in Berlin.

Unlike the recent VAN article, whose informants were anonymous, Brug in Die Welt names the timpanist Willi Hilgers, the trombonist Martin Reinhardt and the violinist Beate Schubert, using comments gleaned from their Facebook pages.

Hilgers, who is now solo timpanist of Bavarian State Opera, says that Barenboim’s conduct towards him led to depression and high blood pressure, requiring him to go on medication.

Brug concludes that it’s time to call time on Barenboim, who will be 80 in 2022.

Full article here.

UPDATE: More, much more, here.


  • M McAlpine says:

    Dunno what these poor guys would have done if they’d have played under Reiner, Szell or Toscanini!

    • Mick the Knife says:

      Actually, what the players of today need is a Szell. They have the technical goods, what they often lack is a qualified leader.

  • Tamino says:

    Barenboim is chief conductor of the Staatskapelle for lifetime, no?
    The GMD (general music director) position of the opera house is the one that’s up for renewal (or not) in 2022.
    Of course the two are intertwined, but a decision could be made to not extend Barenboim’s contract as GMD, only leave him with the chief conductor position?
    The GMD position could then be left vacant for the time being.
    Thus he would have less executive power to use and abuse.
    Not a bad way to go gradually slip into semi-retirement if he could agree. He needs to take it a bit easier anyway.

  • Alexander says:

    …is there anybody who wants to sue Barenboim for “metoo” or similar case , maybe some incident of about half a century ago or earlier ? … why is nobody eager to bring someone who is poor and of no importance to book ? 😉
    The answer is , evidently, money, fame, pride ( hurt one of course).
    Disclaimer – just my opinion 😉

    • Andy says:

      What are you suggesting?

      • Alexander says:

        Be honest with yourself, always for the whole life. If you are displeased with how one treats you – speak out just right off the bat when you start feeling discomfort or put up with it.
        All those “metoos” smell. Madame Catherine Deneuve made her opinion on the subject quite clear before ( and what has she got for that from the morally and physically destroyed but rich and prosperous victims ?). Of course those who speak out “at the scene of crime” are under the risk of being fired, career-stuck etc. At the same time they can sleep well and have clear conscience ( and health). And a real talent will survive in any case. As they say “man assumes and God disposes”.
        Have never heard Maria Callas sued somebody for misconducting 😉

  • Nigel P says:

    The classical music world has a tendency to put up with nasty, bullying tyrants like Barenboim. I never understood why. Many thought that these unpleasant conductors disappeared with Reiner, Toscanini, Mravinsky and Szell, but there are still a few left like Barenboim. While certainly musically talented, Barenboim is, in my opinion, on a much smaller scale of talent when compared to the previously mentioned ‘bullies’.These individuals believe that they are superior to other mortals and very possibly suffer from various personality disorders, complexes and ego issues. I have watched Barenboim in action, interacting with others on at least five occasions. Every time I witnessed a very pompous, extremely arrogant, condescending man, who never once showed any humility, humbleness or kindness to those around him. Surely his music-making can not be disassociated with his persona, so why do musicians still put up with this jerk? The classical music world seems to worship these characters, making excuses for their appalling behaviour and being fearful of commenting about them in public. I agree with Mr. Brug that Barenboim’s time is over both as a public personality and as a musician, as his performances in the past dozen years have gone from bad to worse, far too often unprepared, sloppy and cursory. The music world needs committed humanists, not inflated egos who champion causes in order to consolidate their power and massage their egos.

    • Tamino says:

      Why? Because he means $$$$$.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Really well written and I have to agree. He’s always full of himself whenever you see him in interviews. And he annoyed me when he conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker Neujahrskonzert and went around and shook everybody’s hand in the orchestra during the Radetzky March. I thought, “Of course, it’s all about YOU”. Prosit Neujahr!! When I think of the shy Kleiber and how reticent he was to even face the audience, let alone conduct the clapping in that piece, especially in 1989.

      • RW2013 says:

        Sue – for someone who calls herself Sonata Form, you sure hang around a lot in the exposition (it should only be repeated once, not ad nauseam). Isn’t it time you moved onto the development?

      • Martain Smith says:

        Too true, Sue! To mention Barenboim and Kleiber in the same sentence amounts to sacrilege. The latter may not have been “easy”, but WHAT a conductor!

        • Bone says:

          Not arguing their personalities, but Barenboim has several fine recordings – his recent Brahms set is marvelous.
          But I do love Kleiber above all others.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        The shy and reticent Kleiber never shied away from cancelling and acting unprofessionally. Not a very good comparison.

    • Mustafa Kandan says:

      The problem is there are not so many truly great conductors today. Berlin Staatskapelle owes a lot to Barenboim for putting them back on the map once again. This superb orchestra still sound at their best whenever they play under Barenboim than many other conductors. The reconstruction of the Opera House itself , protracted and costly as it was, would not have been possible without his influence. His commitment to the institution throughout the years of exile in Schiller Theatre contributed to the impressive success of that period. One can contrast that with the difficult times that both ROH & La Scala endured during their own restorations. In spite of his undeniably difficult personality , I would think his merits outweigh his deficits.

      • John Borstlap says:

        All of that is also true. It is quite possible that performers under great pressures simply get unhinged along the way. Why would people feel the need to be hard on other people over whom they have authority anyway? Either it is a ventilation issue or an insecurity one. If you need to put people down who don’t pose any threat to your ego or authority, you fear things that are not there or you need to get rid of pressures that have become too much. Either way, you end-up as a nasty personality.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Given their budget, the Berlin Staatskapelle were always going to be among the leading German opera houses. The fact that both Munich and Vienna have better opera houses tells you Barenboim really has not been particularly successful. (Some would claim Dresden and the Deutsche Oper are also better.) Really, he has only very moderate achievements in front of the orchestra.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Enterily agreed with the last sentence. Classical music is about humanism, not ego trip indulgence. Musicians who consider the music they perform merely as a vehicle for career building and ego boosting, are parasites.

    • alicen says:

      Well put,
      Often times people put up with it (bullying from superiors) with “enthusiasm” because whether they realize it or not, they themselves don’t have high self esteem. So by taking the side of the “talented bully”, it is a way of saying to others and to themselves that “I may be beneath than that figure, but at least I know my place and am better than those who don’t!”.

  • anon says:

    Reiner, Szell or Toscanini would not have a career today if they behaved today as they were allowed to behave back then.

    I am not saying that Reiner, Szell and Toscanini were innately bullies, I am saying that the culture, the economics, the labor and employment laws of the 1950s allowed, encouraged and permitted bullying behavior.

    People submit to conductors’ abusive conduct not because of their superior musical abilities, but because of their (relative) absolute power to hire and fire at will and to destroy careers.

    Bullies are bullies to those in who are in a weaker economic position.

    Believe me, Barenboim did not and could not bully Pierre Bergé. One could even argue Bergé bullied Barenboim by firing him. So bullying is relative to the power one possesses.

    This type of bullying behavior continues today where too much power is given to a single individual without responsible oversight by the Board and management, whoever that person is, whether he’s a Barenboim or a Bergé.

    • We privatize your value says:

      Reiner, Szell, and Barenboim, were (are) 20th-century men. Toscanini was a 19th-century man ! He was born in 1867, in a completely different era! Stop mentioning him in the same breath as people not called Weingartner or Mengelberg.

  • RW2013 says:

    Welser-Möst as possible successor? (it’s in the article)
    Please, no!!!

  • Andy says:

    Perhaps he’s just very demanding because he wanted the orchestra to be really really top class. There’s plenty of mediocrity around.

    • Emil says:

      Yes, unlike that Carlos Kleiber, who was kind to everyone and therefore ended up reveling in mediocrity.

      Being a tyrant does not lead to excellence, and there is a clear distinction between being demanding and being a bully.

      By the way, when your musicians have to go on sick leave because of bullying, how exactly does that improve their musicianship?

      • Andy says:

        Not sure why you make a sarcastic reference to another conductor. I didn’t say a conductor *has* to be demanding to avoid mediocrity, just that that’s perhaps why Barenboim is difficult. Neither did I say that being a tyrant leads to excellence. Your last question is another straw-man, you’re arguing with things I didn’t say.

        • Emil says:

          Yes, and my point is that:
          – Striving for excellence is no excuse whatsoever. Excellence built on human misery is not worth pursuing.
          – Being a bully to musicians is counter-productive; it weakens the orchestra rather than strengthens it.

          Perhaps Barenboim is simply a jerk, perhaps he genuinely thinks he is “striving for excellence.” In my view, that doesn’t matter. When you start treating musicians as means rather than human beings, you’ve lost any claim to legitimacy to lead, and it’s time to go.

      • Tamino says:

        Carlos Kleiber was not kind to everyone. There is no point comparing these very different characters. Kleiber also never took on the structural responsibilities Barenboim took on in his later age.
        Just leave Kleiber out if this, he had his own troubles.

        • SeaTac says:

          Tamino makes a valid point. Kleiber never had the administrative and orchestra building responsibilities Barenboim has. Also note that While Kleiber’s interpretations are beyond reproach, he really only sounded great with an orchestra others had made great before (Vienna, Concertgebouw, CSO). If you listen to some of the live takes with the likes of the Bavarian State Orchestra there are lots and lots of technical problems.

          (Disclaimer: none of this is intended to excuse gratuitously tyrannical behavior)

          (PS: it would be nice if we stopped putting people on pedestals and listened to the music instead. Pedestals lead to people becoming a$$holes, which leads to pedestals having to be torn down again, none of which serves the music.)

    • Ainslie says:

      How does a desire to make the Chicago Symphony “really really top class” (which many thought Solti had already done) reconcile with screaming tantrums at staffers who could not locate fresh- squeezed orange juice for him on demand? He was, and is, a jerk.

      • Alex says:

        Hi Ainslie – I’m a reporter with the New York Times looking into all this. If you would be happy to talk on the record, please email me at [redacted]. You’re the only person here commenting who seems to maybe be a former employee, although anyone else can happily contact me. Sorry for using your site to try and get sources, Norman, Alex

  • Alex says:

    I know who Barenboim is. Pretty much the entire music world does. But…who daheck is…Brug?

    In ANY orchestra (with the possible exception of the PyongYang Phil) it is common to have a great number of musicians who have an adverse opinion of their conductor, many of which would bring up serious accusations. Its the nature of the job, unfortunately – or fortunately if you consider the privilege of dissenting. But in this case there is a whopping….three? All of this for THREE musicians, whose stories are not told, nor the circumstances of their complaint, if they had issues with other conductors, teachers, students and so on?


    Barenboim should be commended!

    • Christopher Storey says:

      Commended for what, exactly ?

    • RW2013 says:

      “who daheck is…Brug?”
      Kneel and adore –
      giving a “keynote” (arme deutsche Sprache!)

      • Tamino says:

        Thomas Quasthoff about Brug (on NL’s facebook feed): “Herr Brug ist ein elender Schmierfink mit sehr schlechter Recherche und einem üblen Charakter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Überall hinfahren, sich durchfressen und dann schlecht über ein Konzert oder Musiker schreiben, ein widerlicher Mensch!”

        In English: “Mr. Brug is a miserable hack with very poor research and an evil character !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Going everywhere, eat at the free buffet, and then writing bad about a concert or a musician, a disgusting person!”

        I think that’s quite accurate. 😉

    • Sibylle Luise says:

      Brug is someone who’s opinions seems to change sometimes and who’s – at least in my opinion – sometimes rather vile.
      I remember one case of a singer he first praised to the sky and who later on always became badmouthed by him. And by that he’s really sometimes vile and makes one wonder if he’s got a personal vendetta (wasn’t the singer “grateful” enough for being lauded by Brug?).
      In the case of Brug vs. Barenboim I feel once again a bit unwell. I’m a former journalist and I’ve once learned that one should at least try to keep his articles “factual”. However, Brug is rather tendentious here. Just take the passage about Barenboim’s “defender”. While Brug doesn’t ask the attacker’s motives he insinuates the defenders that they only speak out for Barenboim because of opportunism. That’s – at least in my opinion – rather bad style.

  • It’s time to stop this psycho-terror!
    It happens too often.
    In my own experience Christine Mielitz and Roberto Paternostro. It is time they stop this horror.

  • Quintus Beckmesser says:

    Prigs United are out in force again. Unless one is a musician in his orchestra what does it matter if Barenboim is a bit of a bully? And we don’t get news of conductors being bullied by their musicians by way of compensation.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There has been a conductor in Mexico who was kidnapped by the players and held hostage for a pay rise. Unfortunately he was a guest conductor so the action did not have the desired result.

      Anyway, conductors are bullied often enough, by bad behavior of the players: chatting, playing wrong notes, bad counting and female hairdo adjustments during rehearsels. In former times – but after WW II – the substitute system in some orchestras meant that at every rehearsel there would be different players here & there, so that any end result got hindered by absentees. And then, there is the structural circumstance of players who simply don’t do what the conductor had asked them very friendly:

  • Doug says:

    There will be NO bags of cash for Schubert, Reinhardt and Hilgers.

  • Doug says:

    Example #999,999 “sociopath is part of a conductors job description.”

    • Tamino says:

      Not really. It only might feel that way, because the person with its personality is more exposed. But try getting to know some orchestra musicians or orchestra managers… 😉
      They are everywhere. The classical music biz is not a good place to look for sane balanced people to begin with, which begs the question: where are they anyway? 🙂

  • Karl says:

    How easy is it to fire a musician? My last boss was a terrible bully, but the rules made it difficult to fire someone so I sometimes just ignored her or made sarcastic replies. (Yes – women can be terrible bullies too!) Eventually I got put on an indefinite paid administrative leave and ended up with full pay for doing nothing.

  • MacroV says:

    I’m sure Barenboim can be a pompous, imperious sort. And I’m not a huge fan of him as an interpreter even though I respect his brilliance as a musician. All that said, it’s probably a very short list of conductors about whom you couldn’t find three musicians to complain about, so I’m not sure what the news is here.

    • Max Grimm says:

      It’s not as black and white. The three musicians you refer to (2 former and one current SKB members) are the only ones who agreed to be named publicly alongside their complaints.
      The problem isn’t DB’s behaviour per se (which seems universally acknowledged by his detractors as well as his supporters) but how the orchestra deals with it and how much of/to what degree it should be tolerated, given all he has done for the orchestra.
      As per a corresponding article on BR Klassik, the split appears to run rather deep, with part of the orchestra supporting their colleagues to go public, urging (albeit anonymously) for a change in leadership and another part of the orchestra urging them to keep quiet in fear of losing DB (apparently his biggest threat…’If you want, I [along with my networks and connections] can leave, I don’t need to stay here’).
      Of course similar things have happened and happen in other orchestras and it certainly doesn’t fall into the “most important news” category. For some however, it could be considered part of “business news” in a way, as DB and Berlin are currently in negotiations regarding the renewal of his GMD contract.

      For those interested in reading the BR Klassik article (only auf Deutsch)…

    • Sibylle Luise says:

      I remember a friend of mine who gave up his position as the concert master of a big orchestra because of Celibidache’s bullying. And I was in some of Celibidache’s rehearsal and I would rather have played in Andre Rieu’s orchestra (though I really dislike pastel-coloured dresses) as in one of Celibidache’s. I’m absolutely sure you can find easily more than three musicians complaining about “Celi”. Nevertheless he was a great conductor.

  • Steve says:

    It takes courage to speak up against tyrants such as Barenboim, especially for the potential impacts speaking up can have on career outcomes. I applaud the three musicians who have spoken up and I hope that others continue to follow.

  • kaa12840 says:

    DB is a great conductor with very high standards leading an orchestra of 100+ musicians to do wonderful things night after night. High standards require that sometimes musicians need to be told that they have to raise the level of their playing to that of their colleagues. Not everyone’s ego can take that, hence the griping. As an expert on hypertension, I find it laughable that one of them claims that DB’s bullying caused him to have high blood pressure and to go under treatment.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Bluntly, Barenboim is not particularly special as a conductor. Many other conductors achieve better results without such behaviour.

    • What? says:

      You cannot be an expert on hypertension going by the rubbish you wrote about its aetiologies. Also, if you are a self-proclaimed expert on hypertension , you are not in the position to also be an expert on musical performances. Go away and tslk rubbish elsewhere.

  • Terry van Vliet says:

    Jacqueline du Pre?

    • Sibylle Luise says:

      His relationship with Jacqueline du Pre was private and shouldn’t be judged when his professional behaviour is discussed.

      • Harrumph says:

        No, sorry, that’s a steaming pile. His behavior is UNprofessional, and that’s the point. Moreover his disgusting treatment of Jacqueline will never be forgotten and is fair game, and people may discuss at as they wish. So go do your finger-wagging somewhere else.

  • Sibylle Luise says:

    Hmmm … I don’t know Mr Barenboim, so I can’t judge about him. However I’ve never known a conductor not disliked by some of his musicians. And in the special case of Mr B he’s obviously someone who polarize. I know people who can’t stand him and say that he’s a bully, while other people around me almost “swoon” about him.
    I reckon the “truth” about him is somewhere in the middle – not a monster, not a saint, but a human being. Yet I also believe he’s a great musician – and isn’t that what we should discuss here first?

  • Sibylle Luise says:

    By the way: I hope for the solo timpanist he’s going into pension before Jurowski comes. He is known for not always throwing kisses either. I’ve got friends who work with him and they sometimes name him “Vlad the Impaler”.

  • Karl says:

    I have heard of discontent with DB in the Staatskapelle and am not surprised by the content of the article by Brug. The institution placed itself in a bind by appointing DB to a lifetime contract. I hope that Barenboim, who is frequently underprepared, and who is known for his temper, will not miss the right moment of extracting himself from his postion as their Music Director. This decision may, however, be too difficult to make even for someone of his accomplishments, experience, and talent.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    OK so here is a challenge for our contributors to this site. Name conductors who were humane and respectful of their musician colleagues (after all many conductors rose from the orchestral ranks) and managed to produce great music. To start I propose Giulini, Munch, Sir John B, William Steinberg, Eugene Ormandy and Cludio Abbado. So let’s go! Names please!

  • Nick says:

    FINALLY! The Karma got to DB!! It is certainly way overdue!

  • Dan Oria says:

    Let me add two more conductors having a very nasty tone with orchestra players (and believe to be the best in the world): Jose Sererbier and Charles Dutoit…