Montreal musicians hit back at Andras Schiff

Montreal musicians hit back at Andras Schiff


norman lebrecht

November 09, 2019

The backlash continues after last week’s ‘major incident’.

‘I don’t think he is a professional conductor,’ said OSM concertmaster Richard Roberts. He is not trained to be a conductor and he is doing things that are difficult to conduct and difficult to play, in particular the Bartók…. A lot of people were insulted by his language and the way he addressed the orchestra.’

‘He may have the greatest ideas musically,’ said violinist Marc Béliveau. ‘But he is unable to show them with his hands.’

Read on here.



  • Craig says:

    About time management came down on the side of the musicians in these cases. Orchestras can carry bad, incapable conductors in many familiar pieces, but the Bartok Dance Suite needs impeccable technique and strong direction. Schiff responding to his own shortcomings by projecting them onto the orchestra in front of him is hardly surprising, and I for one am glad that the concept of the dictatorial, untouchable maestro is being consigned to the past.

    • nimitta says:

      Management should support musicians, of course, but also has a responsibility to an orchestra’s visiting conductors and soloists.

      This new self-defense is to be expected from the orchestra, but having read all the press about this situation, it’s clear to me that the situation is more complex than this latest salvo suggests, and much of the conflict must be laid to the orchestra.

      Here’s why: Schiff did a fine job with Bartók’s Dance Suite in Boston just the week before – the performances were idiomatic, sharply drawn, and very exciting. The players I know found him good to work with – we all know Schiff’s formality and seriousness can verge on the pompous, but there’s nothing drastically wrong with his conducting hands. (The BSO didn’t have a problem with the position Schiff chose for his Bösendorfer, either, by the way – a feature that threw l’OSM into a tizzy.)

      In Montréal, the orchestra was clearly not prepared to move very much in the direction of the rhythmic and dynamic flexibility he asked for (and got from the BSO). He stopped and grew serious with the band at that point, delivering a short lecture on their responsibilities as musicians. He wasn’t rude, according to reports, and didn’t pick on any individuals, but gravely requested more responsiveness from them. This clearly drove one unidentified brass player round the bend. He rose to leave, replying to Schiff’s query that HE was the problem.

      I’ve very much enjoyed l’OSM in the past, most recently during their 2016 Boston performance of Debussy (Faune), Prokofiev (PC3/Trifonov), and Stravinsky’s Sacre under Maestro Nagano. Alas, I don’t think they were ready for the Bartók this October, but hope this brouhaha will inspire better preparation and ever greater artistry.

      • Craig says:

        I agree that it is likely the situation will be more complex that it has been portrayed, but I really don’t think ‘it was fine with the BSO’ is a valid defence here. Conductors and how they work do not exist in a vacuum when placed in front of an orchestra. The job is as much about people management and diplomacy as it is about musicianship, and on that point it is undebatable that Schiff failed the OSM. This story is unusual in the respect that Schiff’s behaviour was exceptional enough that it reached the public domain, but the amount of covering for bad direction that orchestras collectively carry out, silently and without complaint, would shock you.

      • Bruce says:

        You make a very good point.

        In order to avoid further debacles of this kind, Maestro Schiff should conduct only the top 5-10 orchestras of the world henceforth.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    A very interesting article in the Montreal Gazette.
    Thanks for the link, Norman!

  • Phillip Ayling says:

    So do some Orchestras employ a mix of ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’ rather than hiring people on an informed basis?

    • Nathaniel Rosen says:

      Conductors are hired on the basis of financial considerations, as are soloists.

    • Tom Rakewell says:

      It’s the Way Of The World, Phillip. Every profession has people whose advancement is made on the basis of the skills and experience of others.

    • Emil says:

      If you want Andras Schiff in concertos, and he wants to conduct as well, one might be tempted to compromise. The idea of conducting from the keyboard in Haydn concertos is perfectly logical, and him conducting the second half would avoid having to hire an extra conductor for half a concert.

  • Music lover says:

    Aren’t there many great musicians who can’t conduct but conduct around the world because people still want them to conduct because they are great musicians?

    • SoCal Peter says:

      Yes, but it doesn’t justify on-the-job training in front of the public, using a non-training orchestra…

    • M2N2K says:

      Maybe not “many”, but there are certainly a few – and not because “people still want them to conduct” but because those musicians want to conduct and “people” simply want to keep seeing them.

    • Tony says:

      Yes, unfortunately. Because fine orchestras can mostly carry them, major soloists are able to start a second career as conductors. Only working with major orchestras from the beginning, of course… Actually being a conductor is not that easy! But management and agencies can deal with a big name and most of the audience can’t hear the difference. I’m a member of a major orchestra and when I have to deal with so called conductors I always think that they don’t deserve the good playing by the orchestra. If they’re are smart, they are polite, otherwise it’s the only chance for the orchestra to get rid of them…

    • Musician says:

      No, those people have conducting careers because management and the public can’t tell who’s good. You can bet no orchestral players enjoy working under Perlman as a conductor, even though he might be one’s favorite soloist. But alas, the players don’t make those decisions.

      • C Porumbescu says:

        “The public can’t tell who’s good”. Silly public. Is there a way we could exclude them from concerts altogether? They do have this ignorant habit of judging performances on how they sound.

        • Musician says:

          C Porumbescu, I didn’t intend to offend you. The public/listener is in integral part of music making. The problem lies in attributing how performances “sound” to the conductor, instead of to the repertoire or the skills of the players who execute that repertoire. Conductors can be helpful or harmful, but the players always cover for them, leaving the public “none the wiser.”

      • M2N2K says:

        Not necessarily: some orchestral managements do know quite well how bad those “conductors” really are, but keep inviting them anyway because those names put butts in the seats.

  • MacroV says:

    I’m kind of (pleasantly) surprised that Richard Roberts would be so frank about Schiff’s shortcomings as a conductor.

    Schiff lost me when he alleged members of the OSM were unprepared for the Bartok Dance Suite. That doesn’t happen in an orchestra of the OSM’s calibre. Much more likely that a pianist who only conducts part-time (and probably in his concertos primarily) isn’t up to conducting a Bartok piece. Good that the OSM players gave him his due as a pianist, at least.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I am surprised that the OSM agreed to play such a difficult piece as part of the programme given the conductor. It must be easy to say: we will play Haydn or Mozart (or even something by Mendelssohn) for example, but not Bartok. The orchestra could probably play Mozart fairly easily even with an incompetent conductor; 20th century music is rather more difficult.

      • The View from America says:

        A good point, but that decision isn’t likely up to the musicians, but rather orchestra management.

        Another thing: Schiff obviously loves his Bartok “Dance Suite” a great deal (having conducted it elsewhere) and probably strongly suggested (pushed) it as a piece he wanted to play as part of his negotiation for appearing as soloist with the OSM. Likely, the piece wasn’t something that the orchestra or the audience was clamoring for in the first place.

  • Paul Dawson says:


  • Algernon says:

    Those semi-professional amateur orchestra members of the OSM, keep forgetting that a week before Schiff conducted the same Bartok music with the Boston Symphony orchestra impeccably and wonderfully, praised by critics public alike. Many members in the Montreal orchestra on the other hand just wanted to play the way it came to them spontaneously, finish the show and go to sleep after their recent international tour… a unique master as Schiff with his rarest musicality and culture will donate the world his artistry with better orchestras! Many musicians nowadays forget too easily that criticism or requests from conductors are not indiscrimination not dictatorship, especially if those orchestra members are both rude and amateur!

    • music_montreal says:

      Did you not read other posts here? There’s demanding conductors, and then there’s Schiff who went as far as suggesting that the OSM musicians were trying to ‘sabotage’ him. Take away that kind of abusive, paranoid behavior and I have no doubt the Montrealers could have played like they did in Boston.

    • Bruce says:

      Yes! From now on, Maestro Schiff should conduct only fully professional orchestras. Any orchestra below the level of Berlin or Chicago is probably not worthy of his conducting talents.

    • Emil says:

      If you had read the article, you would know that there are reports (via OSM musicians) of BSO musicians being very displeased with Schiff’s conducting and professionalism.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The Boston performance was no more than adequate. The orchestra largely agreed to follow the concertmaster and ignore Schiff.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I’m trying hard to imagine Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, or Horowitz conducting. Nope. Can’t be done.

  • Julia says:

    What can you expect from an orchestra whose music director is the mediocre Nagano!

  • OSM Fan says:

    It becomes very funny : in Montreal you will probably find more people thinking that Andras Schiff is a conductor than people believing that Richard Roberts is a concertmaster (including the music director, probably, who avoids him) !

  • NNN222 says:

    Frankly, his playing has never exactly set the Thames on fire. But hey, that’s ok if you’re a humble, honest and generous musician.

    Schiff is neither humble nor generous. His ego and apparent self-entitlement render him to be a rather obnoxious man – multiple people in the industry share that view. That, coupled with dull-at-best performances, make him one of the most over-rated and spoilt musicians of our time.

    Time he learnt some humility and dropped the obvious and off-putting attitude problem he has.

    • Walter says:

      I guess you are entitled to your opinion but, as a professional musician myself, I would say that your comment says more about you than Andras, who is very highly regarded where i come from.

      • NNN222 says:

        I guess you’re entitled to your opinion, despite it demonstrating a lack of logic or critical thought.

        And stating you’re a ‘professional musician’, and calling Andras ‘Andras’, doesn’t add validity to your statement.

        Better luck next time!

        • Walter says:

          Schiff’s (happy now?) playing is unquestionably of the highest order. It’s not disputable. You may not like it, which is a different thing. I have not met another high-level performer who would think otherwise.
          As to his generosity, perhaps you should watch the masterclasses he took at the RCM in recent years. They’re on YouTube.
          I’m not quite sure why I need ‘luck’. Your statements simply display profound lack of knowledge.

    • M2N2K says:

      You lost me at “dull-at-best”, because as a pianist he is much better than that.

  • Rob says:

    If you’ve ever visited Montreal in the winter it is bitterly cold, and he ever ventures back the reception will be equally frosty.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    If it’s any consolation, Robert Schumann had exactly the same trouble – sans the arrogance.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==in the rehearsal…..certain players — witnesses say two or three — began playing Beethoven rather than Haydn,

      Oh big deal. In a rehearsal ? Look at that guy in Moscow competition expecting Tchaikovsky cto and got PagRhap. He was OK

      Incidentally, have you heard Schiff’s recording of Tchaik concerto ? That was a recording which should have never been made. I doubt he’s ever played the piece since then

      • Hilary says:

        Listening to his recording of the Tchaikovsky now. What’s so abominable about it? A genuine question…
        The first movement is a bit perfunctory compared to Weissenberg/Karajan but the finale moves along at a good pace.

  • piano lover says:

    A.Schiff is only good at playing Bach P&F.

    • nimitta says:

      You’ve obviously never heard his Bartók. He did a sublime 3rd concerto with the Boston Symphony several years ago, and bracing accounts of all 3 with Iván Fischer and the Budapest in NY. His recitals frequently feature fantastically nuanced, thrilling performances of solo works like the Sonata, Out Of Doors, Suite Opus 14, Allegro Barbaro, Romanian Folk Dances, and…wait for it…BB’s reduction of the Dance Suite – a piece he knows like the back of his hand, pace l’OSM.

      I’ve also heard Schiff offer stunning Schubert, Mozart, and late Brahms, plus a delightful Children’s Corner in Salzburg some years ago. His versatility is astonishing, and his instrument’s a wonder as well. One of his greatest programs was a recent one, in 2016: the last sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert – each was magnificent.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    I have so many replies for some comments….

    1. Yes, Kent Nagano is a music and conducting medriocrity. I can share stories that would make everyone wonder how such person dares to call himself a conductor.

    2. “Conducting” soloists are a candy for orchestra’s management. You get a soloist and a conductor for the same price. You will get people who would buy tickets just because a famous soloist is playing (and kind of conducting). These concerts atract publicity in the media, and are always sold out. Never mind that the soloist cannot conduct, the managers know that we (the orchestra musicians) would save the performance. You have no idea the hit it will be if Lang Lang or Yuja Wang one day decide to buy a 15 EUR baton and call themselves ‘conductor’… within one year they will be in front of the Berlin Philharmoniker.

    3. Schiff cannot conduct. That simple. (Neither can Ashkenazy, Vogt, Bell, etc.). But still he is called to conduct. For example, the Salzburg Mozartwoche 2020 is having Schiff conduct a concert version of Le Nozze from the Keyboard. Why is the Mozarteum doing such thing? See Number 2.

    Soloists and conductors are a prime product. They are the hook. These days projecting the right image (right now, for instance, being a woman is a plus, as a few years back it was being a latin-american conductor), being young and atractive, having the name etc. is more important than actual quality. Music is a business, and there is a lot of money to be made by agencies, recording companies etc.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      While I accept what you say about soloists getting conducting gigs. That really doesn’t extend to being given chief conductor jobs at top-20 orchestras. Ashkenazy was given the job at the Czech Phil, which would kind-of suggest he may actually be a little bit competent.

      • FrauGeigerin says:

        Please don’t forget something important: c.60-70% of what decides an orchestra’s admin/artistic leaders to hire a conductor has nothing to do with music but with things such as cost/salary, commitments possible per season (an orchestra doesn’t want a music director or principal conductor who is never there), the conductor’s agency (agencies are so powerful it is difficult believe), the kind of soloist he can engage (because his personal relationship or because they are also represented by the agency), recording contracts/agreements, how ‘likeable’ is the conductor for audiences (if it is someone young, atractive or who engages really well with audiences that is a massive plus)… the artistry, skills and experience are 30-40% of the conductor’s possibility to be hired as Music Director, Principal Conductor, or Artistic Director. Believe me, I know. We have been trying to change this in my orchestra, but the “powers” are too strong (and one of my previous orchestras it was a scandalous because it was an orchestra that depended heavily on private donations and at the end it was the donors, who had no idea of music, who in the dark decided who the next conductor was going to be).

    • The View from America says:

      “Yes. Kent Nagano is a music and conducting mediocrity.”

      Exactly. Just like this:

      With a Tamara as listless as this one, no lonely traveler would ever need to worry about losing his life, because he would have departed the castle within minutes of arriving.

  • BassoProfundo says:

    An truly excellent article; there are so many variables at play in instances like this. I can only speak from my experience in the American orchestral scene, but I think it’s rather clear the primary reason for the contrast in results in Boston vs. Montreal; Boston knew not to look up from their stands, completely trusting just on one another, while Montreal was still working to engage and take their cues from Schiff (many not able to see him at all, it seems).

    That’s by no means a knock on other orchestra’s approach, or saying one is superior, or even right, necessarily. These are two of the finest orchestras in the world today, each with rich discographies and incredible achievements under many different conductors from many different backgrounds. It’s just that sometimes seasoned orchestral musicians, having either a history with that particular “conductor” or quickly assessing matters in rehearsal, feel it better to just allow the individual on the podium to wave to their heart’s content and not harm the music being made.