Andras Schiff declares ‘major incident’ with orchestra

Something happened between the pianist and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra that prevented him directing the second half of a concert last week.

The orchestra says he withdrew from the performance ‘by mutual agreement’, Schiff says: ‘It’s a lie, political correctness, a major incident.’

Here’s a report in French.

Review here.

We’re waiting to hear more.

UPDATE:

2nd UPDATE: Orchestra hits back at ‘abrasive’ Schiff.

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • “Something happened”
    “We’re waiting to hear more”
    OK well my French isn’t perfect, but there is plenty of detail in the article. As far as I can read it he was scheduled for two concerts with the orchestra where each time in the second half he was supposed to conduct Bartok’s Dance Suite, but the rehearsal went very badly with both sides accusing each other of being ill prepared and not coping with the piece.

    • Unfortunately he is convinced he holds the truth , so everyone else s point of view is wrong . He is a musical fascist , o thing to envy to Vikto Orban , whole he dislikes , though he has been democratically elected

    • I respected him as something of an ‘elder stateman’ until I heard his boorish comments about Hungary.

      He could take a big leaf out of Brendel’s book – and they’re probably neighbours there in Hampstead.

  • As much as I absolutely love Andras Schiff as a pianist, I have to wonder how he does as a conductor. Maybe he did OK, but not every brilliant musician can be equally clear and inspiring as a conductor.

    I personally witnessed one of the most awkward rehearsals I have ever seen in my life led by the great Yehudi Menuhin. He tried many times to get the orchestra to begin Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony together, and after several unclear and failed attempts, eventually the musicians decided to just begin following the concert-master instead of the baton.

    Similarly, as wonderful as Vladimir Ashkenazy is (and for me, yes, even as a conductor), I witnessed him having extreme difficulties communicating clarity with the stick. That is just not his specialty, and he frequently had to repeat the same spot over and over with lengthy explanations. As wonderful as they all are as artists, I would like to see any of those undoubtedly great instrumentalists try to lead Le sacre du printemps, Dumbarton Oaks, Petroushka, even L’histoire du soldat … or actually, on second thought, I would rather not want to see them attempt such a challenge (which is usually standard repertoire for an audition or first round of a conducting competition).

    • It was the same with Jamie Laredo when he started conducting. He has improved a lot over the years though. How long has Schiff been trying to conduct?

    • What is wrong with being a pianist only?
      I would say thay attempt something else because they are bored with playing piano….
      See Ashkenasy,Schiff..etc
      Only Barenboim makes exception…to some extent.

  • I don’t know whose fault it is, but it is unheard of, and a stunning lapse in professionalism, for a visiting conductor/soloist to trash talk the orchestra to the press like this.

    Schiff evidently felt aggrieved, but to talk to the press to denegrate the orchestra, insulting the winds and then the strings as though there were conservatory students in one of his masterclasses, is deeply offensive, and professionally stupid.

    By contrast, no one from the orchestra critiqued Schiff’s playing to the press, when ANYone can be a critic, ANYone can be critiqued and lambasted.

    Does Schiff think that he is endearing himself to other orchestras? Sure, they’re all dying to collaborate with him now.

    • Canadians are too nice. Bullies take advantage of that. (Like Trump or Xi.)

      Not that Schiff is Trump or Xi, but watching some of his masterclass videos on youtube, you could see his condescension dripping through.

      • Canadians weren’t too nice when they re-elected Trudeau. This is a man with such smarts that when bragging about having 50% females in his party leadership, he took pride in the form of “because it’s 2016”. With an intellect like that you can see where the Canadians are going!!

        • Why would you even make this kind of political comment here? Aside from it being nasty and tasteless, it has nothing to do with the topic.

    • He’s from Hungary. An authoritarian governed state with people embracing authoritarianism and dictatorship.
      So does Schiff.

      • Some of his response to this situation does probably come from his Hungarian culture but also it seems to me that he was angry at the fact that this time the orchestra was not going to bail him out of his apparent inexperience.If they were incapable then this is probably a serious quality issue with the orchestra.

  • Bartok’s Dance Suite is very difficult for the conductor; it requires precision in one’s beat and discipline in the use of space in order to cope with the quick changes in meter and mood. You have to know the score thoroughly as it is not the sort of piece that you just start and then follow the orchestra; in this, it must be led. It wouldn’t surprise me if the piece was simply beyond his current capabilities and he didn’t know enough about conducting to ascertain that beforehand.

    • John, while I agree with you that Bartok’s Dance Suite requires precision and discipline on the part of the conductor (to which I would also add “clarity”), I would encourage us all to not label this music from 1923 as “very difficult” anymore. The rhythmic challenges posed by Bartok, Stravinsky, Janacek, and other such composers (particularly before WWII) have long become standard fare for beginning conducting students. There are far more “very difficult” pieces to conduct which have also become fairly standard by composers such as Messiaen, Boulez, and many other post WWII composers. It is simply unacceptable today for any conductor to have challenges with the music of Bartok. This is about the equivalent of an athlete saying that a marathon in itself is very difficult to complete. Yes, a marathon would be very difficult for an amateur to complete, but for a professional athlete, that is only the beginning of the challenge.

      • I certainly agree with you. However, it does require more than basic conducting skills and not the sort of celebrity-director guest drop-ins that we have become accustomed to.

      • Arguably it didn’t. It is played well by the orchestra but it is a very safe performance that pays virtually no attention to the many tempo changes within each movement, which sometimes differ in as little as 4-5 clicks. It seems like a little thing but Bartok knew what he was asking for and it makes a huge difference in the performance achieved. The BSO carried him.

      • It’s always a question of chemistry. I remember when I was a student in Boston (late 80s), Dohnanyi came and guest conducted the BSO and it was… not a success. Not a disaster, but everyone involved agreed that it should not be repeated. If he ever went back, it was many years later. (Meanwhile, the orchestra was in the middle of its years-long love affair with Haitink and another with Marek Janowski, so they clearly had good relationships with other distinguished conductors.)

        The answer is usually not as simple as “X is a better orchestra than Y.”

      • I think Boston has more of a history working with a bad conductor. Koussevitzky made many mistakes and the orchestra learned to take cues from each other. It’s probably a skill that has been passed down over the years.

    • The article reports that Schiff also performed the same program a few days prior with the Boston Symphony. And it seems that the Boston performance was a great success.

  • I don’t have any information beyond what Christophe Huss has reported, but for Schiff to claim “sabotage” because some musicians started the wrong concerto in rehearsal is…something.
    Also, where’s was the management? Doesn’t any administrator attend rehearsals?

    Finally, Mr Lebrecht, it’s the “Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal” in any language. “Montreal Symphony Orchestra” is not the name of the orchestra, and hasn’t been in use for several years now. The orchestra is the OSM.

    • Emil, if you read the review, in French they refer to the previous week’s performance by the “l’Orchestre symphonique de Boston”. Would you try to convince them to say “Boston symphonique Orchestre”? Non! That’s just how they translate it, and similarily there is perhaps no equal translation for l’Orchestre symphonique de Montreal except Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Norman a raison 🙂

      • If you go on the English website for the orchestra, they explicitly use “Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal” even in English. Arthur Kaptainis discussed it in a column a few years back. It’s the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, just like Minkowski’s orchestra is Les Musiciens du Louvre (not the Louvre Musicians), JEG conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique even in English (and does not conduct Les Solistes Baroques Anglais in French), and Giovanni Antonini conducts Il Giardino Armonico, not the Harmonic Garden.

    • I think most of us in North America just say Montreal Symphony. Saying the French version if you’re not French or French-Canadian seems pretentious to me.

      You make an excellent point though about the management. If you’re in that line of work you have to be willing to stand up to big egos.

      • The Berliner Philharmonie advertised the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal last March, not Der Montrealer Symphonie Orchester or the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
        Same for Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo this fall.

  • I wasn’t there so I don’t have any sort of comment to make. But as much as I respect Andras Schiff as a person, I find his piano playing boring, and I’ve only heard worse things about his conducting (one friend made the comment, “out of his league”). He should stick to playing the piano, because he does have many fans who enjoy his musicianship. Unfortunately I’m not among them, as much as I admire him as a person.

    • Herr Doctor, it’s an amusing way to start your comment by saying that you have no comment to make. And then attempting to make one.
      And it is nice of you to “respect AS as a person” but do you actually know him as a person ?

    • I was at the second concert and I loved his playing. We even got two encores—the “Swineherd Dance” from Bartók’s For Children and Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 in A Major.

  • Wonderful pianist – dreadful conductor.

    We all know the story. Fischer-Dieskau meets Klemperer walking down the street. “Maestro, would you like to come and hear me conducting some Gluck tonight – it’s my first engagement as conductor.”

    Pausing thoughtfully, Maestro replies….”I’m sorry Fischer, I’m singing Dichterliebe tonight”.

    (Barenboim is really one of the very very few who have ever made this transition from piano to conductor, AND even he thinks pianists shouldn’t direct from the keyboard)

    • I think it’s difficult to succeed in conducting when you take up this art late in life, even if you are a superb instrumentalist (or composer). Solti did, but his stick technique was often criticised.

      • Solti took up conducting when he was quite young and never really had a solo career as a pianist.

        Barenboim has a significant reputation as both a conductor and a pianist. Ashkenazy is a reasonably good conductor as well: he had to be reasonably good to get the job at the Czech Phil.

  • Sometimes an orchestra and a conductor just don’t get along. It’s like a bad date. The conductor might be wonderful (or not), the orchestra might be wonderful (or not), but they certainly are not wonderful together.

    It’s possible, I guess, that another orchestra would have responded differently to Schiff’s reported behavior — either by buckling down and trying to do a better job to make him happy, or by saying “Look buddy, you can’t talk to us like that.” Maybe Schiff would have responded better to an outright objection than to silent resentment; who knows.

    Surely he must have had some idea of the orchestra’s history with Dutoit, where they got rid of their world-famous music director for just such behavior? Surely he must have realized these folks weren’t going to bend over for such behavior. Or perhaps not.

    Bravo to the musician who walked out, in any case.

    Even if the orchestra was terrible, serious criticisms can be delivered with respect and civility. If Schiff can’t be bothered to maintain decorum in rehearsal, then he should be called out for his behavior (and also not invited back).

    • They didn’t get rid of Dutoit. Dutoit just quit rather than deal with the drama. It’s not like he has problems finding conducting jobs. Schiff doesn’t admit to making any disparaging remarks:
      “In an interview, András Schiff claims to have arrived lightly at the OSM. “After the wonderful week in Boston, I came full of joy and expectation to Montreal. The first rehearsal started with Bartók. It lasted an hour. And things derailed right away. The Suite de Danses is a difficult work, even for Boston, the chef agrees. “So we started with a measured work tempo and dynamics. But nothing went, there were more or less rhythmic problems, especially in the winds, where each sound came too late, but also with the strings, too soft, too uncertain. Bartók is a music of consonants. I started again, three, four, five, six times. Nothing was evolving. And now, after an hour, I see a musician getting up to go out. I ask him, “What’s the problem?” And he says, “You’re my problem!”
      https://www.ledevoir.com/culture/musique/565916/le-passage-d-andras-schiff-a-laisse-des-traces-a-l-osm

      It’s hard to know who to believe in situations like this.

  • I’m puzzled by the business with the bouquet. Is it a tradition for the conductor to receive one and hand to the ‘nearest woman in view’? That strikes me as sexist.

    What happens with a female conductor? Does she hand it to the nearest man in view?

    If it’s not tradition, why did Schiff do it? It strikes me as pretty ungrateful to hand off ostentatiously a bouquet given as a token of appreciation.

    • Stupid tradition if the case of dumping a bouquet onto the nearest female – try that with the Vienna Phil! If flowers given to aconduxto.of either sex, take them home and put them in a vase, or if you’re travelling, give them to someone or somewhere back stage! Particularly if the chosen female onstage won’t accept them!

    • It is a gesture to the orchestra that is done often (at least in Europe). It is a way for the humble conductor to say “the merit is ours, not mine”. I have received many bouquets from conductors and don’t see anything sexist. By the way, in some halls and in opera houses the bouquet is often “recovered” after the performance for the next day.

    • I’ve seen it happen a number of times, especially when several bouquets are given to the conductor. I’ve also had female soloists give me a bouquet as concertmaster. Never seen the original giver of the re-gifted bouquet go chasing after the final recipient, demanding that it be given back 🙂

      • It happens, believe me. Most recently during a tour in Asia I received the bouquet from the conductor, and later I was very nicely asked in the backstage to give it to the backstage assistant “to put it in a vase”, only to see the same assistant give the very same bouquet to the conductor the next day (who, again, very indly gave it to the orchestra)!

  • He is not the only artist who can inspire, as long as one doesn’t have to interact with him personally.
    Sometimes it feels like the classical music biz is a mental hospital.

  • The trash talk from Schiff reminds me of the ancient George Szell / Alfred Frankenstein affair concerning the San Francisco Symphony.
    You ought to look it up: it’s very interesting.

  • How about the Irish pianist, Barry Douglas? He does a fine job leading Camerata Ireland from both the keyboard and from the podium. There are a few of them around that are capable from both the bench and the stand.

  • The most overrated musician of our time. So BORING. This is a man that does literally NOTHING to the music other than merely playing the notes and slowing down here and there.

  • If it’s going to happen to anyone you’ll generally find Schiff in the frame. Much to admire (enjoy?) in his pianism but for a pricklish personality to so subdue an audience is outside my general referencing of a fine performer. Just read the preface to Kenneth Hamilton’s ‘After the Golden Age’ (no names mentioned) to get the measure of what I’m talking about.

  • A friend in the orchestra tells me that he was not doing a good job and was blaming the orchestra for all the errors. There was a lot of tension during the rehearsals.

    Not surprised. He is a fine pianist, but he is also difficult person and NOT a conductor. We have played with him as soloist and he is fine (though not pleasant) – never as conductor – but I have seem him rehearse and conduct concerts and he is absolutely terrible.

    I wrote on SD about this before: being a good musician is NOT enough to be a conductor. And this goes for many of the self-claimed soloist AND conductors of our time: Ashkenazy, Schiff, Vogt, Zacharias, Bell, Rachlin, Martín…

    I am sick a tired of the powers of my orchestra bringing world-class soloist to “conduct”… they see it as a wonderful opportunity: the big-name soloist comes, plays a couple of concertos in the first half and a standard-repertoire symphony in the second half. People who like the soloist as a soloist come to the concert, which is always a sold out event. It doesn’t matter in which of the two halls of the city we play, if there is a big-name as soloist and conductor the orchestra sell easily 99% of the non-abo. seats. The problem is that 90% of these soloist cannot conduct, and it is up to us (the orchestra) to fill in everything that is missing from the soloist-conductor. It is a massive waste of rehearsal time (their lack of technical abilities mean more verbal instructions), there is no leadership (the orchestra to supply it from the desk of the violins), and there is no musical directon (meaning bland performances). I said it before and I say it now: being a good musician is not enough, people enrolled at major conservatoires studying conducting are not idiots who don’t know what is needed to be a conductor, the orchestra will always give their best and save the performance regardless of the idiot we have in front of us…

    I have great respect for good conductors who make us sound good. I don’t respect those who stand on the podium to serve themselves (not the music) and have no skill to conduct and they are wonderful while we do their job.

    • FrauGeigerin: as a point of interest, what is it like being conducted by composers? In the past, Hindemith, Copland, Milhaud, Jolivet conducted…sometimes not limiting themselves to their own works. Messiaen, as far as I know, never conducted.

      • Honestly, the composer-conductor was the norm in the past, but it is not something I encounter very often anymore. It is more common in specialized contemporary music ensembles like Klangforum, Ensemble Intercontemporain, London Sinfonietta…

        For me Boulez was the greatest conductor-composer. He wasn’t the most encouranging and engaging conductor but he was clear and we could always perceive how he understood the architecture of the piece.

        With modern composers I find that they very often lack understanding of how the orchestra works (even the really famous ones). Maybe if more of them also studied conducting…

        • Recently performed with Jörg Widmann, his Mendelssohn 5th was simply fantastic! Some more rehearsal time would have been nice though.

  • I never really understood why some pianists want to to conduct orchestras too….what is wrong with being a pianist?
    May be conducting is less demanding …
    Daniel Barenboim is the only odd man out .

  • I think the general perception here that Andras is completely in the wrong here, is in correct and as an insider who has played with members of OSM, and knowledgeable of Schiff as a conductor and pianist, I will explain some things that people here do not realize.

    OSM has many gracious players but I can also tell you that also this orchestra,
    like many great orchestras, have abrasive, rude, and arrogant ones as well. Players who are stuck in tradition of how things should go, who REFUSE to offer any flexibility of interpretation of rehearsal management, much less a pianist turned conductor. Is he as clear as a day, likely not! But he is a great musician and has interpretive opinions that should be valued and in context. Simply put, this is a case of an orchestra that doesn’t want to make music, and try and be sports about collaboration. They want to play and go home. A symptom of the overpaid, tenured mess that generally is North American orchestras.

    I know leading conductors who have stopped working with OSM because of declining quality and receptivity to ideas. It is shocking that the OSM prevented a guest conductor from
    doing their job fully. How dare a concert master usurp the conductor’s role: that is despite popular layman thought, not their job! Total hypocrisy.

    Good for Andras fighting this in public. He probably called them out In rehearsal (and yes he can be abrasive), and they reacted like babies. These players would not last a second under certain older generation conductors. Ones that were actually clear but had no reservations of destroying you in a rehearsal.

    There was a reason for the old “little Mussolini” types.
    The orchestra is a gang at the end of the day and if they don’t fear you, they will destroy you. I am not endorsing poorly skilled idiots being mean at the podium. Rather that the pendulum has swung in the wrong direction too far and now we have orchestras full of babies!

  • If there is one thing I have learned in over forty years of performing as a professional trombonist and conductor it is that EVERYONE thinks they can conduct. What many do not understand is that beginning conducting is like beginning a new instrument with very specific techniques that must be mastered over a long period of training and experience. I don’t know how many times I have been in situations where rather simple fermatas in a score cause near-disasters in performance, purely because the conductor has not prepared properly. And, to make matters worse, pianists and many soloists do not have the experience sitting in an orchestra that leads to understanding what players need to see. Usually the players just say, “Please just show us where one is and we will do the rest.” Alas.

    Andre Previn once said that the problem with starting out as a conductor was that there was nowhere to go be bad at it while learning. Being a world-class pianist does not mean one should access to the great orchestras to wave the stick around.

    • That’s why conductor go to schools in Musikhochschules in Germany and Austria for 5 years after their training in an instrument to study a diplom, 5 years in the US (2 years master + 3 years DMA), 5,5 years in Finland etc…. there is a reason. People go there to conduct pianist and lab orchestras and make mistakes THERE. People studying conducting are not idiots. They study because they have understood that being a good musician IS NOT ENOUGH.

  • Whilst he is a well loved and diplomatic person, the lamentable RPO performance in London last year “conducted” by Itzhak Perlman does prove the point about soloists who drift into conducting

  • Greg Bottini refers to the entertaining incident between guest conductor George Szell and San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein. Szell flew in, took one rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony then conducted by Enrique Jorda, canceled his engagement and flew back to Cleveland, uncharacteristically without a word.

    Fpr Frankenstein this wasn’t enough. or maybe he saw a chance to be rid of Jorda at a time when “Glossalalia spoken here” signs blossomed backstage at SFSO rehearsals. Frankenstein wrote in the Chronicle that Szell owed San Francisco an explanation, which wasn’t long coming in a public letter from Szell saying the state of affairs at SFSO was the worst he had encountered in his career.

    The SFSO board dismissed Jorda and brought in Josef Krips.

    • It’s nice to hear from you, Edgar.
      I remember that the kerfluffle happened a bit differently than your retelling of it. I could be wrong, of course…. my memory is not as good as Szell’s was!
      My memory is that Szell finished conducting the series and went back to Cleveland without saying a word. Frankenstein then wrote to Szell suggesting that the polite thing for him to do would be to reciprocate and offer Jorda a guest gig with Cleveland. (Imagine anyone presuming to suggest to Szell what he should do!)
      Szell blew up at AF’s affrontery and wrote that (in-)famous public letter, which not only raked Jorda and the SFS over the coals, but also questioned AF’s integrity and honesty as a music critic. Jorda was dismissed and Frankenstein retired shortly thereafter.
      But to be fair to Jorda, he truly did catch a bad break. He was a middling journeyman conductor who followed a genius (Pierre Monteux was the previous conductor of the SFS), and his English was very poor. A real double-whammy!
      A sideline story: I happened to become very friendly with Charles Bubb towards the end of his life. Charlie was first trumpet of the SFS throughout the Monteux years and the first years of Jorda. Charlie told me that he was so disappointed by the drop in conducting quality after Monteux, and so disgusted with the loose orchestral discipline that Jorda allowed, that he retired and went back to teaching math(!) and private trumpet lessons.

  • Yes, Greg, a pleasure. Your memory and details bring more of the story back to me, such as Frankenstein’s suggesting Szell engage Jorda as guest. Imagine! That served as George Szell;s annual fit for that year.

    Jordda’s farewell was Berlioz’s Requiem in Civic Auditorium with four brass bands at the compass points, a solo tenor from Mexico City, and every male chorister west of Denver including me. I’m still hoarse from the Tuba Mirum, but I never knew Charles Bubb’s name before now. Many thanks. I also remember Jorda’s chaotic rehearsals. I think his next post was in South Africa.

    • Yes, Charlie was one of the great ones, in the Harry Glantz / William Vacchiano tradition – a real co-leader of the orchestra. He once told me that he really admired Harry James for his beautiful tone. (I actually thought he said “Glantz”, so I asked him to repeat himself.) You would not have heard Charlie at your performance of the Requiem; by then he was long-gone from the orchestra.
      If you really want to hear what this wonderful orchestra could do, get yourself a copy of “Sunday Evenings with Pierre Monteux”, a 13-CD set of live broadcast performances on Music and Arts. (Make sure you get the 13-CD set; there was a 10-CD set issued under the same title which was superceded when more material became available. The orchestra was billed as “The Standard Symphony Orchestra” for contractual reasons.)
      Many people don’t realize what a wide repertoire Monteux had at his command. This set features music of numerous composers, from Gluck to Messiaen, from Mozart to Walton. And the music-making is incredible!

  • I was present at the second concert, and to my ear, the standard of the orchestra was much higher during the two concerti than usual. More specifically, I find a general sloppiness in both rhythm and textural differentiation (separation and blending of lines or instrument groups) to persist in this orchestra. Both were drastically improved in the concerti.

    As a listener, I have no doubts about the validity of Schiff’s demands of the orchestra. They worked, even if the orchestra did not appreciate his direction.

    Aside from that, we will never know what really transpired in rehearsal. It is possible that Schiff used disrespectful language toward the orchestra. Likewise, it is also possible that the orchestra just could not accept his micromanaging and high demands.

    What I do know is that the refusal of the bouquet by an orchestra member was infantile. I have heard from multiple sources present at this concert (it was the first one) that this was very much noticed by the audience, and that it was generally an embarassing affair. One would hope that the orchestra would have more respect towards the public and their artistic product (the internal tensions are none of my business! I am there to hear music!), even if they lack respect for the guest artist. That is a real shame.

    • Piano man, you got it right. “Infantile” was a kind word for her. It sure isn’t the word I would use. By the way, he is Sir Andras Schiff. Not Ms. not Andras. Sir. A Sir is a man and a very fine man at that.

  • >