miércoles, 27 de febrero de 2019


Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in October. Mr. Barenboim has been accused of bullying by several current and former members of the orchestra.CreditCreditPool photo by Christian Marquardt

By Alex Marshall and Christopher F. Schuetze

Daniel Barenboim, one of the world’s most celebrated conductors, is known for doing what he wants.

He founded an orchestra (the West-Eastern Divan, a youth ensemble of musicians from around the Middle East), a conservatory (the Barenboim–Said Akademie) and a concert hall (the Pierre Boulez Saal). In 2001, he broke a longstanding informal ban in Israel and conducted a piece by Richard Wagner, an anti-Semite beloved of the Nazis. He makes the kind of political statements most musicians avoid.

Mr. Barenboim, 76, has long been considered untouchable in Berlin, where he is music director of the Staatsoper — the city’s premier opera house — and principal conductor for life of its orchestra, the Staatskapelle. He is close to city politicians and has used his influence to ensure the opera company receives a healthy annual subsidy of 50.4 million euros ($57.4 million) from Berlin’s government.

But cracks have begun to emerge in the conductor’s image as Mr. Barenboim has been accused of bullying and humiliating members of the Staatskapelle. The accusations have been reported widely in German media, and there have been calls for politicians to intervene. A spokesman for Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s highest-ranking official for culture, whose department provides most of the Staatsoper’s funding, said Mr. Lederer has asked the opera company to appoint a third party to look into the matter.

“A piece of art might not always be democratic, but a public institution can’t be allowed to transform into a royal court,” said a recent article in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.
The New York Times has communicated with seven former or current members of the Staatskapelle. All highlighted examples of Mr. Barenboim’s behavior that they said was bullying and went beyond what was normal for a conductor.

Mr. Barenboim dismissed the accusations. “I was born in Argentina, so there’s a bit of Latin blood in my body, and I get upset now and then,” he told RBB, a German broadcaster.
In an email exchange with The Times, he denied bullying anyone. “Bullying and humiliating someone,” he wrote, “implies the intention of wanting to cause someone hurt, of taking pleasure in it, even. This is not in my character.”

Highhanded behavior was common in conductors of the last century, with maestros like Arturo Toscanini and George Solti known as harsh taskmasters. (One of Mr. Solti’s nicknames was “The Screaming Skull,” because of his bald head and temper.) But the debate around Mr. Barenboim raises the issue of whether such behavior is still possible.

“The issue is not personal, but a question of how orchestras are run in the 21st century,” Martin Reinhardt, a trombonist in the Copenhagen Philharmonic who played in the Staatskapelle and has openly criticized Mr. Barenboim’s behavior, said in a statement.

Willi Hilgers, a former timpanist with the Staatskapelle, said in a series of Facebook messages that Mr. Barenboim repeatedly humiliated him in front of colleagues by singling out his playing. As a result, he said, he had suffered “high blood pressure, depression, the feeling that you can no longer play your instrument, sleepless nights, my family had to suffer as well, no performance without beta blockers and antidepressants.”

Mr. Barenboim at the Staatsoper in Berlin in 2017. He says that the accusations are part of a campaign to stop him from continuing as music director of the opera company.CreditOdd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Barenboim said that the accusations were part of a campaign to stop him from continuing as music director of the Staatsoper. “The fact these allegations have surfaced now, just as I am in negotiations about renewing my contract beyond 2022,” he wrote in the email exchange, “makes me wonder: If people were indeed hurt, as they claim to have been, why speak about it now, at this precise moment?”

“I know that in certain tense moments I have used a harsh tone that I regretted,” he added, but that was all. “I am not a shy lamb — but I am not a bully, either.”

In a statement, the Staatskapelle’s orchestral board said it had achieved “great artistic successes through mutual trust and close cooperation” with Mr. Barenboim. “This confidence remains untouched,” the statement added.

The accusations against Mr. Barenboim first appeared on Feb. 6 in VAN, an online classical music magazine, which interviewed over a dozen current and former employees of the Staatsoper, quoting them anonymously. The article described a leader “who can be inspiring and generous, but also authoritarian, mercurial and frightening.”

Mr. Hilgers, 56, said in a Facebook message that his problems with Mr. Barenboim started during the Staatsoper’s 2001-02 season, at a performance of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” During the first intermission, Mr. Hilgers said, he told Mr. Barenboim he had a migraine, warning the conductor in case he lost concentration during the rest of the opera. During the next act, Mr. Barenboim would bang out the rhythm of the timpani’s solos with one hand and a foot, as if instructing a child, Mr. Hilgers said, adding that he felt humiliated.

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 “Afterward, his attacks piled up against me,” Mr. Hilgers said.

Mr. Barenboim said in an email, “The timpanist you mention had a beautiful sound and made beautiful colors,” but he had “rhythmic weaknesses, which is very problematic.” Mr. Barenboim added that the pair had “some disagreements,” but that is normal when musicians are trying to get the best results.

Leo Siberski, 49, is now the music director of the Plauen-Zwickau Theater in Germany, and played trumpet in the Staatskapelle under Mr. Barenboim from 1992 to 2003. He said he witnessed outbursts from Mr. Barenboim directed at musicians, and started experiencing them himself after asking for a sabbatical in 1996.

Mr. Barenboim refused the request, Mr. Siberski said. “He soon found a situation where he could humiliate me, also to make an example of me,” Mr. Siberski said. This behavior largely involved singling Mr. Siberski out, and making him repeat passages in front of the orchestra.

Mr. Barenboim said he didn’t remember any request for a sabbatical. He added it was “fair practice to ask musicians in a world-class orchestra to play their lines alone.”

Mr. Siberski said he eventually quit as the orchestra’s principal trumpet to “get out of the firing line.” Now a conductor himself, he said he has adopted a different approach with the musicians he works with.

“If a responsible artistic director wants to lead his ensemble to new levels of quality, this will always cause some pain,” he said. “But there is a huge abyss between pain like sore muscles, and deep mental wounds caused from attacking your very dignity.”

Mr. Barenboim acknowledged that the world is changing. “That is generally a good thing,” he said. But, he added, “an orchestra cannot function if every tempo, every dynamic is put up for a democratic vote. Somebody has to lead, take decisions and be ultimately responsible.”


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