Berlin Philharmonic star: I was beaten and abused

Berlin Philharmonic star: I was beaten and abused


norman lebrecht

September 22, 2022

In a pre-publication interview of his forthcoming memoir, the Berlin Philharmonic principal oboist Albrecht Mayer describes how he was taught to play the instrument in order to cure a persistent stutter and was beaten when he made a mistake.

He describes his first two years in the Berlin Philharmonic as the worst in his life. ‘I’ve been here in Berlin with the Philharmoniker for 30 years now. These probationary years were so terrible for me that I will never forget them. But when I ask my colleagues from back then, other solo oboists or other wind and string soloists, they experienced something similar. At that time there was somehow a mentality and an atmosphere that tried to bend these alleged talents, which the orchestra invited, to the point where they supposedly break.’


  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    Does he talks about the early Abbado’s years? it seems the case. Anyway Albrecht Mayer is a great artist.

    • Michal Kaznowski says:

      Meyer is a masterful player and wears wonderful jackets for his solo appearances.

      I’d certainly read this book. Any news of an English version ?

      • Concertgebouw79 says:

        He don’t need any more to show to anybody his talent of course. But I have to say that when you are principal oboist in the top orchestras you have the chance to be more on tv ahaha. .. Because you are at the center of the orchestra. it’s the same thing in Concertgebouw orchestra with Alexei Ogrintchouk.

  • tet says:

    Lang Lang’s father told him to kill himself and Lang Lang obliged by running out to the balcony at which point his father encouraged him to jump.

    Can an artist be made without trauma?

    As for the oppressive and bullying atmosphere at the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s what we would call legally today moral harassment or hostile work environment, and the employer may even be criminally liable.

    Karajan set the tone and the orchestra followed. What is the “Berlin sound” but Karajan breaking *every* musician to make them sound the way he thinks what a beautiful sound should sound like?

    • Pablo Romero says:

      “Can an artist be made without trauma?”

      Yes. We are not your sacrificial lambs to disfigure for your self-absorbed aesthetic desires. Karajan and those like him were bullies and monsters excusing their abusive personalities behind the bromide of ‘making great art.’

      • M McAlpine says:

        You are pretty good at making false accusations about things you know nothing about. Karajan may have been autocratic but he didn’t abuse individual players. Not his style.

      • Novagerio says:

        Man, you got issues Pablito! I suggest you watch Karajan in rehearsal. “A monster”? “Disguised as art”? See a shrink, man!
        Oh by the way, on a trivial note, Karajan made his players multimillionaires…

    • Rane says:

      It might come as a shock to you to hear that many classical musicians had wonderful childhoods as well as wonderful adult lives. And even the “victims” had easy lives compared to many others, relatively speaking. The problem with many classical musicians is that they are living in a bubble. They are the types that eat a giant box of chocolates, most likely given to them by a student, and then complain about having a tummy ache.

      • Guest Principal says:

        How to demonstrate that you know nothing about professional classical music, without actually saying so.

        • Gordon says:

          People like you aren’t part of the problem. People like you ARE the problem. I bet you can barely play your instrument as you reserve your power for the comments section on Slippedisc. The classical music industry is a cesspool full of mediocre talents that shamelessly work their networks and social media. They actively form cliques to block others out of performing/teaching opportunities. If someone dares to call them out on this, that individual is blocked/blacklisted to a deeper extent. This type of behavior starts with youth orchestras and runs rampant throughout the industry. I asked a colleague of mine how many fellow faculty he’s considers to be true “mensch” at the world-famous conservatory where he has taught at for a few decades now. Out of a few hundred faculty, he said, “Only about three.” Three! He was being dead serious. Then we have many classical “musicians” (clowns??) that whine about why people don’t want to attend concerts anymore. Because they are bored to death by narcissistic DG poster boys/girls that have no business being in those positions (the only exception perhaps in Yuja because she can play…taste in/motivation behind wardrobe is highly questionable though).

      • BigSir says:

        Your comments show that you don’t actually know what it takes to succeed as a classical performing artist.

    • Jobim75 says:

      Happy we could hear it at some point because Abbado and more surely Rattle tried their best to break this sound and transform the orchestra in Los Angeles Phil…..Mr. von K. had an aesthetic vision at least…..

      • trumpetherald says:

        Yes, he made it sound like Mantovani. Thanks God those days are over. An orchestra needs a thousand sounds, not one for all styles.

        • Herb says:

          How absurd. If the Berlin Phil under Karajan sounded like, as you say, Mantovani, that would also mean that Mantovani sounded like Karajan and the Berlin Phil.

        • Jobim75 says:

          Yes so that we just need one orchestra left because they all sound the same from Singapore to San Francisco….

    • G.G. says:

      Dear Tet, you start perhaps not in the best way. Why the anecdote about Liberace II’s father? It’s another level.

  • Schultz says:

    Apparently playing the victim still sells in 2022. If he really wants to experience abuse, he could try the French Fry Technology Department at McDonald’s.

  • MMcGrath says:

    Once again we are surprised that classical music organizations mimic real life! If you join the US Marines or Green Berets equivalent of orchestras, why on earth would you be shocked to find out that they are (were) a tough, at times cruel bunch until they let you “belong,” but also capable of the greatest achievements?

    When you attended a famous business school that will remain nameless, on the welcome evening for new students, the dean greets you with a dry and wry comment that “half of you will fail.” You either take up the challenge or leave.

    This artist took the challenge and succeeded beyond all measure. Good for him. But why the retrospective victim-playing and whining finger-pointing? Or is it just the way things are today, with everyone expecting a cushy ride, and you sue people for directness?

    • PFmus says:

      SO basically you take the side of “I was bullied, so why shouldn’t I pass it on to you now” instead of just stopping the bullying.

      I don’t understand people who insist on perpetuating old wrongs, but that’s how you get your Trumps, Putins, Erdogans, Orbans, Marcoses, Modis and on and on…

      • Simon says:

        Based on some of his master classes, some might say that Albi can be quite a bully at times. Now we know where he got it from. Anyone who watched concerts on Digital Concert Hall understands that although the Berlin Phil plays at incredibly high standards they are a miserable bunch. That’s why some incredible players actually leave the orchestra.

        • MacroV says:

          I never get that feeling, but who knows what it’s really like on the ground? And great players leave great orchestras all the time, for all sorts of reasons.

    • Jobim75 says:

      So though and heart breaking….. that he’s still there. Maybe trying to break for future generations what helped him achieve his art and accomplish..

  • Jack Burt says:

    Meyer came to the BPO in 1992, three years after Karajan died, and almost 4 years after he resigned. Whatever pressure and negativity he felt during his probationary period most certainly came from his colleagues, not Karajan, and not Abbado, neither of whom were abusive. There were many contentious cliques in the orchestra at that time, like everywhere else in the orchestral world. A person in a trial period feels as if they music please everyone, which is of course impossible.

    Over 35 years in the position, there is almost no evidence that Karajan ever abused musicians individually, like Reiner or Szell did. He never reacted to mistakes in concert by individual players, nor did he humiliate musicians in rehearsals. He was a tyrant in other ways: power and control were important to him, but not in this way.

    • MacroV says:

      I heard Dan Stabrawa talk about how when he was appointed First Concertmaster (after being in the orchestra about five years), Karajan strongly objected, saying he would resign if it stood. It stood. Karajan walked into the rehearsal, shook hands with Stabrawa, and started rehearsal. Problem resolved.

      • Jobim75 says:

        I didn’t know the anecdote but I sure understand better why I never enjoyed his sound and felt he was a casting mistake ….. glad Herbie and I share the same opinion….

    • Guest Principal says:

      He’s not talking about conductors. He’s talking about his colleagues.

    • Billy says:

      It was actually worse than that. Reiner had “spies” in the orchestra, normally principal players. Some of these people were so brutal that people quit with ulcers or due to alcoholism. And back during the golden era they were barely paid anything. Imagine a legendary musician having to sell used cars on the side in order to survive.

    • GUEST says:

      You want to see humiliation in concert? Check out Herr Dr Bohm in one of his last shows in Japan, Beethoven 7th Intro when the horn cracks a note (on YouTube). Unrepentant old Nazi.

      • lamed says:

        “epic fail face” as one commentator called it, very funny actually, but look, he dropped his baton arm and stopped conducting at that point, and guess what? the orchestra just kept playing anyway, which proves, 1) musicians don’t actually follow conductors, 2) or no one even watches the conductor, 3) so no one actually saw his “epic fail face”

        in keeping with the theme of this article, orchestra member bullying, the REAL question is, what did the horn’s colleagues do afterwards? no one sat with him at the post-concert dinner? ha ha

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    All the macho posturing by people here, comparing institutions to the Marine Corp and such – ridiculous! I’ll bet many of you have hardly even done pushups. But more to the point, Carlo Maria Giulini could get great results without resorting to verbal abuse. Many of you are huge fans of Carlos Kleiber – all twelve pieces that he conducted. I’ll bet he didn’t resort to intimidation either. You can argue that American orchestras are too unionized. However, you can imagine how well physical abuse in the Philadelphia Orchestra would fly. It seems to me they’re pretty good too. It’s funny, but I thought music was tied to art, which is tied to the humanities. What’s it say about humanity if it takes fear, intimidation and abuse to produce something worthwhile?

    • Anon! A Moose! says:

      “But more to the point, Carlo Maria Giulini could get great results without resorting to verbal abuse.”

      Yes this is an excellent point. The quickest way to destroy the notion that a great artist has to be an asshole is to point to all of the great artists that aren’t.

    • Arnie says:

      Back in the day, some of the brass players from the CSO got into fist fights. Anything can happen at any time.

  • Gustavo says:

    So Abbado’s regime was harsh?

    This really sounds like “Jammern auf hohem Niveau “.

  • Kirk Heriot says:

    I think some of these remarks, although technically true, miss the point. It is indeed true that bullying and abuse occur in almost all fields. But this does not excuse abuse in music. Rather, it underscores the widespread nature of a human tragedy. All of us are fragile, and in our short lifetimes, we need nurturing, support, and a sense of belonging. It is always wrong for those in power, in any field, to deny us these necessary ingredients, and it is not productive to excuse abusive behavior simply because it occurs in other fields. The finest of thought and expression arises from gentleness, not from cruelty.

    • Greg says:

      Any Tom Dick and Harry can agree with the above because ‘bullying’, ‘harsh’ and ‘abuse’ are just words. The problems start when you realise that some people use them in a trivial way when they are merely describing hardship or even just hard work!

      • Roger says:

        Well said. And those same types do not know what true backbreaking work is because they have never experienced it, they only think that they have. You don’t know what you don’t know. Playing an instrument is still a luxury even when it isn’t.

      • Warner says:

        Sorry, but could we get Harry’s last name as well?

  • M McAlpine says:

    So what is a biography today without victimhood? My first years in a job were tough too! Problem is no-one is interested in hearing about them!

  • Gustavo says:

    I mean no one forced him to join one of the best orchestras in the world.

    He could have chosen a small provincial ensemble where flubs are excused, or not even noticed by a grateful audience.

    But he chose to become one of those male divas, dressing up like Mozart, writing memoires, etc.

    So what’s the problem?

  • kaf says:

    More abused than Sabine Meyer? who won the audition 3 times as principal clarinet and was voted out 3 times even with Karajan’s backing. (Karajan paid the price, he resigned soon thereafter.)

    At least Albrecht Mayer got the job.

    If there is one biographical account I want to read about of a Berlin Philharmonic player and what exactly transpired, all the ugly behind the scene drama, it’d be Sabine Meyer’s account.

    • Pedro says:

      Indeed. I have heard Sabine Meyer several times with Karajan and other conductors, and imho, her playing worked very well with the other wind musicians.

    • Tony says:

      Back in the 1990s shortly after one of Sabine’s EMI releases, I remember witnessing a world famous clarinetist in the classical section of Tower Records in a major city tell his wife, “She looks like a complete slut.” As a young man at the time, it sent chills down my spine.

      • Riccardo says:

        ‘As a young man at the time, it sent chills down my spine…’

        If you suffered emotional shock eavesdropping in Tower Records good luck with the harsher realities of life!

        • Heinze says:

          Excuse you, but I was not eavesdropping. They said it loudly because they were so jealous and I simply looked. Trust me…I’m not stalking kazoo players…

  • Evan Tucker says:

    It would be very nice to stop organizational abuse, but the idea that doing so will eliminate the kind of trauma that traditionally draws people to art is naive.

    We’re about to undergo a series of the biggest crises known to man since World War II, and possibly quite a bit larger. The trauma inflicted by them will dwarf any abuse we may have already experienced or eliminated.

    Abysmal experiences are a simple fact of life that will always have to be endured, and they can come from anywhere. Eliminate them in one place and they come from another. It’s quite simply the human condition, and a large part of why art is so necessary. We can all wish to god it were not so (god knows I do), but this is a problem to which there is no solution.

    • Guest Principal says:

      So because we can’t eliminate bullying everywhere, we shouldn’t try to eliminate it anywhere?
      A ludicrously nihilistic attitude.

      • Steve says:

        Do you they allow you to bring your blanket and feeding bottle on stage with you when you amaze audiences with your nothingness?

      • Evan Tucker says:

        You should put the beneficent services of your trolling toward an actual cause, like stopping billions of people dying from climate change and nuclear war, not building a safer world for oboeists.

  • Gerry McDonald says:

    Musical performance is a profession where mere perfection is taken for granted! Is tough, but that’s life!

  • emmkay says:

    As so often, so many of the comments here could have been avoided, had the relevant commenter bothered to read the linked article before commenting. (And no, the fact that it’s in German is no longer an excuse, since you can run it through google translate and still get the gist of it.)

  • Herr Forkenspoon says:

    I’ve worked for 2 abusive employers, who thought that the way to improve performance was to belittle the performer. The solution was simple and easy; I quit. There’s always another position available for someone who can play.

    • Meister says:

      There’s always another position available for someone who can play? Can you honestly say this when, in some cases, 300 to 500 show up for an orchestra audition? Even if you are fantastic, you have at least 10 candidates to worry about. Not very good odds.

  • Christos says:

    I’d like to see him tell someone displaced in the Ukrainian war that the first two years in the Berlin Philharmonic were the ‘worst in his life’. He’d be blowing his oboe from a different orifice. Musicians can seriously lack perspective with self-absorbtion.

    • Guest Principal says:

      Ah, you don’t understand the difference between ‘his life’ and ‘every single person’s life’.
      That’s OK. Though perhaps best not to parade your ignorance.

  • Paul Capon says:

    I wonder what the experience of Sabine Meyer, clarinetist, was like when she tried to work for the BP 10 years earlier?

  • Pedro says:

    Koch, Schellenberger, Mayer. Three great first oboists of the BPO. Having heard all of them many times, it still impresses me how an orchestra can keep this top quality for decades. Regarding the beginning of Mayer’s tenure, it seems to me that the stress derived from the fact that the orchestra was used to be conducted by a genius , i.e. Karajan, who was forced to quit by them, and then realised that Abbado, undoubtedly a great conductor, was not at the same level. I feel that Karajan’s death was somewhat related to the separation from the orchestra he formed for 35 years. In my opinion, Mayer still felt it three years after Karajan’s departure.

  • Liz says:

    My son is a oboe musician, full ride, as humble as one can be, considering how much encouragement he receives. He has a strong faith in God, despite my alternative upbringing, but he has light peppering of non-perfection, but to use quirks as assets. I had no problem with my son living in a bubble, so to speak, because I want him safe and secure. I was on the outside of that bubble, and I want my DNA to experience something creative, and beautiful. If I ever pushed my son, it was with the complete understanding that he really has to want it… He did. All is kosher. We joke about he has to make up drama in his life, in order to experience the struggling artist mentality. I told him life will bring pain soon enough, enjoy yourself, but try to glorify God for all the blessings he’s received. We loved Al Mayer tho. His YT master classes lessons were wonderful and helpful. He was our rock star on oboe, literally making a hipster music video that was so entertaining! My son wants to meet Al Mayer and Nicholas Daniel. (Nicholas Daniel was a conductor, at my son’s university.) I think it wise to not judge a person on their personal experience, because it’s a one person perspective, just witness it, don’t shut people down for sharing. The classical scene is so harsh on one another, but it’s the anal retention that makes you superb. Chill. Be lovely. We got enough uglies out there.

    aufwiedersehn from the USA

  • Dietmar says:

    This thread is proof that the great delight many musicians and teachers take in bullying and belittling is still well and alive and it will remain. Anybody who has been in music school and survived it knows the routine. Go ahead, insult each other, misinterpret and bully, you learned it in school – any school. I hope it brought you fame and happiness…Meanwhile, music is great therapy. Try it!