Just in: Germany’s music directors demand clarity from politicians

Just in: Germany’s music directors demand clarity from politicians


norman lebrecht

April 29, 2020

The biannual conference of GMDs and chief conductors will take place digitally on May1. Ahead of their conference, the big sticks have sent an open letter to the political authorities seeking clarity about the resumption of musical life. The conference consists of 60 members, both active and retired.

The letter is a bit long so we’ve highlighted the relevant bits.

DER GMD und Chefdirigentenkonferenz e.V. · c/o Eckehard Stier · Tolstoistraße 6 · 01326 Dresden
VORSTAND Prof. Marcus Bosch (V.) Will Humburg Mihkel Kütson Open Letter of the Generalmusikdirektoren- und Chefdirigentenkonferenz e.V.
Marc Niemann Eckehard Stier

On the Current Situation of Opera Houses and Orchestras during the Corona Crisis
EHRENMITGLIEDER Prof. Dr. Peter Gülke, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Haenchen (pictured)


April 28, 2020

Dear Madame Minister of State for Cultural and Media Affairs Professor Monika Grütters, dear Minister Presidents, dear Members of the Board of the Cultural Commission of the Bundestag

The GMD- und Chefdirigentenkonferenz e.V. requests a set of guidelines for the gradual resumption of opera and concert schedules that is in line with current legal regulations and the recommendations of the Robert Koch-Institut.

Construction superstores, furniture shops and the football Bundesliga are not alone in deserving a clear future perspective accompanied by guidelines for a timely reopening.

We are well aware of the risks associated with a premature resumption of business as usual. We believe, however, that further measures forcing opera and concert venues to close without the intro- duction of a corresponding timeline that outlines when performances and rehearsals can be expec- ted to resume, will inflict irreparable damage to both German musical life and the globally unparalleled municipal theatre scene.

The unique network comprising both publicly funded musical institutions and freelance musicians is not only an essential part of the creative industry, it is an indispensable and essential part of German cultural heritage and thus of high systemic importance. For these reasons, we endorse and express our wholehearted support for the requests by freelancers to receive appropriate support in these difficult times. The current situation has also cast doubt regarding the success of the Federal Republic of Germany’s ongoing efforts to have its orchestral and theatrical landscapes adopted into UNESCO’s list of immaterial heritages.

Due to the global impairment of everyday life and the damage that the arts and cultural sectors have had to endure, it is paramount that we respond to the many calls to provide a counterweight to the hardship through inventive, creative, and energetic cultural offerings such as concerts and operas. It goes without saying that this must occur in a responsible manner, fully taking into account the necessity to protect the health of our musicians, our singers and our audiences. To this end, we are currently in discussions with the task force assigned to questions of health and safety of the Deutsche Orchestervereinigung (DOV).

We realize that it will likely be a long time before we are able to once again enjoy operas and con- certs as before. However, surely there are a number of possible alternatives to live performances that adhere to the novel COVID-19 regulations, such as open air performances of concertante operas or special productions that abide by the distancing regulations. Other possibilities would be pe formances of works written for small ensembles, such as from the baroque and classic eras, that constitute a significant part of orchestral repertoire. Conductors and string instrument players could wear masks, small choirs and wind instrumentalists could be placed at necessary distances and even additionally protected by plexiglass panes. With regard to audiences, existing measures could be adopted and altered to suit concert settings.
However, all of these suggestions and possible solutions will remain fruitless if politicians and public health departments do not come forward soon with a clear set of conditions and guidelines to this end.

The General Music Directors, Chief Conductors and their orchestras, in close exchange with the Bühnenverein and the DOV, are ready and willing to develop new, creative and exciting formats for our audiences, who miss us dearly. Orchestras have already begun creating numerous initiatives to remain visible, help those in need and express how vital it is for musicians to be able to perform. Especially during times such as these, in our evermore digitally connected world, we are deeply convinced that our analogue forms of art are increasingly important and constitute an integral part of what makes us human.

With kind regards, The Board of the GMD- und Chefdirigentenkonferenz e.V.


  • Ron Swanson says:

    German infection rates are rasing again. No government can guarantee six months ahead because no one knows. This situation is a marathon but not a sprint.

  • Tamino says:

    I’m wondering what this crisis does to all the young aspiring teenagers who are trying to make up their mind if they should go down that professional musician route, or if they should stick to science, law, medicine, accounting or other such more worldly professions. I foresee an effect for many years into the future.

    • DAVID says:

      I really hope they take heed of what’s going on and make a realistic assessment of the situation. It was already hard before; it will only become much harder after this. Any young musician nowadays needs to have a plan B and take it seriously — this was already true before, but I’m afraid that now it has become an absolute necessity.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        So many musicians throughout history have had plan Bs — either willingly, or forced by their parents. Mr Lebrecht has recently been finding dentist and physician-composers, for instance — and how many composers were forced to study law before dropping it for their passion, for another example?

        This is not at all to dismiss the gravity of the present situation and its possible consequences for the arts; but the arts have survived plagues and wars, and we must trust that they shall do so again.

        • DAVID says:

          They will, eventually. However the question is whether a career in music is going to be an economically viable and realistic proposition for a reasonable percentage of those who choose it as their path. There are undoubtedly musicians who will succeed in the future, the question is how many of them and how competitive the field will become in the face of an increasing scarcity of opportunities. There comes a time when food needs to be put on a table and rent be paid, and when that time inevitably comes decisions have to be made. This is not to say that music is going to disappear, but that an already saturated field is going to become even more precarious once the new normal sets in. I feel for young musicians and believe they need to be aware of this.

  • Player says:

    What’s wrong, conductors? Dancing in front of a mirror at home not doin’ it for you? You need your adulation and high fees again? So, you would put string players in masks (never mind that one’s posture is compromised by slippery fabric on the chinrest), wind players at a distance with plexiglass shields between for an outdoor concert of baroque or classical rep, where we won’t be watching you anyway.

    You’ll have your cushy dressing room, but is there a plan to add 10 times the tables normally used for unpacking instruments? We’re accustomed to the bad ideas and narcissistic tendencies of conductors. This is the one time we don’t have to listen to them. We all want to get back to work. If you’re not a doctor or scientist, demands to return are selfish and uninformed, at best.

    • Player says:

      Judging from the number of downvotes, I see I’ve struck a nerve. I’ll attempt to explain the reason for the tone of my previous comment. It comes from fear of being put in harm’s way and possibly dying from this virus, or having one’s loved ones die.

      I agree that everyone should be thinking creatively about how to emerge from this with our musical institutions and traditions intact. But a letter written by conductors should not have so many impractical suggestions. For example, I’m a violinist and I have not been able to find a mask that is comfortable to wear while playing. Cellists and bassists may be more amenable to that idea. Most violinists and violists put a lot of thought into our setup and points of contact with our instrument. You can’t just throw on a mask and wind us up.

      All of us want to get back to singing our song. We have a desire for this crisis to be over. Unfortunately, it’s still evolving.

      • Tamino says:

        You have been infected by the hysteria pandemic.
        I wish you a speedy recovery.

        • Anon says:


          I see the mounting death toll hasn’t caused you to modify your thinking about this virus, which doesn’t make you a bastion of wisdom. This is your post from March:

          What a mass hysteria.
          18.000 people have died in the US alone this winter season due to the regular flu.
          17 people died so far from he Corona virus.
          Have we closed schools and concert halls, due to the regular flu?

          People are so easy to manipulate, THAT is scary.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            While it is a bit more dangerous than the regular flu, it really isn’t terrifying. It is quite likely that in Britain, France, Italy and Spain that one-in-five people have already had the virus. (We don’t know for sure since we would have to test large numbers for the antibodies to be certain, and no-one has done this).

    • I guess, for you, “Player”, its much better to sit this out with your hand in the sand, still probably receiving your monthly payroll of a musician in subsidized orchestra.
      If you have such a disdain for “high fees” and “cushy dressing rooms” why don’t you make a living in chamber music world where everyone is bleeding to death during this current crisis, or, indeed, become a conductor who will be entrusted with leading a group of motivated and music loving (read: music missing!) performers? The message by the Germany’s Music Directors (and for 12 years I was privileged to be one) is sober but passionate at the same time. There is nothing slightly narcissistic in it and they all worry about the future of the music making in Germany and around the world. Perhaps not for you, but for thousands others, being a musician does actually mean being able to perform, to play music together and to share our common love and passion for it with thousands of listeners. This is not just a profession or skill, this is who we ARE. And being deprived of being who we are is, for many, more dangerous than any existing virus, COVID-19 included.

      • John Rook says:

        There are many elements at play, here: subsidised orchestras (and conductors) against pure freelancers who are the first to be affected by the downturn in activity. Some freelance conductors shouldn’t need to worry whereas many in the subsidised field are concerned as they exist on tax revenue which has dried up due to CV lockdown. We are all affected in some way, it’s just a question of when each particular group starts to get nervous.

      • DAVID says:

        Wow, that was a truly stunning comment and I feel compelled to respond. With all due respect, I’ve never heard any conductor sound good in front of an empty stage and without an orchestra of “subsidized musicians” getting their “monthly payroll” and putting out the product people are actually hearing. I believe you might be severely overestimating the role conductors actually play in any given performance, which is in great part due to our culture obsessed with image and celebrity adulation, and the figure of the conductor fulfills that role very well indeed. Don’t get me wrong, there are conductors out there who do make a difference, but in my 30 years of playing in a highly respected orchestra I’ve seen perhaps 5 of them, at the very most. The disrespect you are showing to those highly skilled musicians who ARE the product being heard is truly disheartening. Frankly, besides a handful of exceptions, I don’t see any conductor out there nowadays having any real musical vision, message or thought — such a time, as far as I’m concerned, has been over for a while now.

      • Player says:

        I guess for you, “Music Director,” it’s much better to attack anyone who questions the authority of conductors. I’m glad you replied as you did, because your comment illustrates perfectly many of the points I was trying to make. Even though you’re not used to anyone talking back, I will use the platform Norman has provided to do exactly that.

        Your purported benevolence towards working musicians is hard to swallow when you say I should make a living in the chamber music world “where everyone is bleeding to death.” We’re to believe you’re concerned for freelancers and musicians in general, but if I say your ideas are bad and this isn’t the way to approach the problem, you want me to go straight to hell. This is nothing new to me, it’s just interesting that you have unwittingly exposed “the conductor mentality” to SD readers.

        It’s clear that you think conductors automatically have more knowledge and more commitment to the art form than those of us who play the notes. You believe you have a right to demand others return to work based on a predetermined timeline instead of when it’s deemed safe, because, in your mind, your loss and pain are too great to bear. You are wrong. Unless you die from the virus or some other cause, you will survive this terrible time.

        Conductors are not more worried about the future than the rest of us. Many musicians don’t have money for food, let alone rent. Many of us have already taken substantial cuts, and we don’t know if there will be anything left by the time this crisis is over. We’re not independently wealthy, and we’re terrified of the catastrophic effects of this pandemic.

        You write, “perhaps not for you, but for thousands others, being a musician does actually mean being able to perform, to play music together and to share our common love and passion for it with thousands of listeners.” This is also typical of the way conductors think. You believe you’re the real artists, and we’re cogs in a machine. This is inaccurate and insulting. It’s next to impossible to achieve the kind of proficiency required to actually play an instrument professionally without love and passion for music. What we do is so much more difficult than you realize.

        Further examples of your pomposity followed: “This is not just a profession or skill, this is who we ARE.” That’s a ridiculous statement, because every musician feels the same way. I started playing at three years old and have been in this business for decades. You do not have a monopoly on the suffering or discomfort that arises from not being able to perform one’s craft. Just because you’re a conductor, your love for music is not greater or deeper than anyone else’s.

        “DAVID” seemed upset with the disrespect you showed me, but it’s completely in keeping with the character of most conductors. I’m never intimidated by any of you, because the only conductors worthy of my respect are perceptive enough to respect me.

        • DAVID says:

          “Cogs in a machine” captures it quite well.

          A few points to mention:

          — a mediocre orchestra in front of a great conductor will still sound mediocre. However, the converse is not true — the Vienna or Berlin Phil will still sound amazing even with a mediocre conductor. Perhaps not as inspired, but still amazing.

          — that’s because most experienced musicians know their repertoire inside and out, and in most cases much better than the majority of conductors, some of which routinely give no entries to musicians within the score, and in occasionally wrong entries, signaling them to play in the score at the wrong time. Experienced orchestra musicians don’t pay attention to those and thus preserve the integrity of the performance.

          — the profession of conductor has to be one of the most misleading and overrated professions out there. It borders in most cases on charlatanism. People without professional musical knowledge actually believe that musicians couldn’t play at all without a conductor. They should google the video of David Grimal and Les Dissonances playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — without a conductor. It is an absolute joke that the person who literally produces no sound gets both credit as well as pay exponentially higher than those who actually produce the product and who in many cases master their skill much better than the person in front of them. This phenomenon is just another manifestation of our deeply seated human need to venerate and adulate authority figures.

          — There are conductors who can transform a performance. These are born once every generation and there is less than a dozen (probably less than ten) on stage today. The era of great conductors (as well as of great musicians) is mostly over. Talent agencies, in keeping with administrations who often manage musical organizations with the same depth as they would a bank or a corporation, promote young, good-looking, marketable faces for the most part devoid of any musical message or depth. In a society obsessed with image and disdainful of any substance, they operate in a manner closer to modeling agencies than to institutions designed to preserve and promote an art form.

          • DAVID says:

            I would like to add to my comment that this is a topic that truly warrants psychoanalytic study, and I hope that someone out there, at some point, will write such study — it would be fascinating to both musicians and non-musicians alike. The spell and charisma transpiring through authority figures and embodied in the figure of the conductor is sadly prevalent even in highly competent musicians in the best orchestras in the world. Many of them revere the conductor as a symbolic figure, clinging throughout their careers to some sort of infantile submissiveness whereby the figure of the conductor, more often than not male, takes on the aura of a father figure who may reward the obedient musician with approval, validation, and ultimately inclusion in the select circle of the conductor’s favorites. This is a dynamic present in almost every single orchestra in the world. Such infantilism is just the flipside of most conductors’ personalities, as the stories of conductors affected by serious personality disorders (including some of the biggest names in history), even in some cases sociopathy, are now legion and no longer a secret — everybody knows them. But such aura, such mystique, is more often than not the embodiment of the proverbial emperor’s new clothes, though it is a necessary ingredient in order to command the exorbitant fees routinely obtained by conductors who have important careers. Let’s not forget the elephant in the room — conducting is a greatly lucrative business involving for the most part virtuoso social skills as well as a strong drive towards careerism, as opposed to the humble apprenticeship of a skill slowly obtained through decades of perseverance and thousands of hours spent in a practice room mastering an instrument.

    • RW2013 says:

      Only “Dancing in front of a mirror at home”?
      They’re probably also having New Headshots/Actionshots done, writing Their Memoirs, exhibiting Their Cooking Skills online etc.

  • Steve says:

    Well I don’t think the virus is listening to the big sticks.