Putting Conductors In Their Place: Sexual Harassment and the Death of the “Maestro Myth”

In the wake of an excellent article by Anne Midgette and Peggy McGlone in The Washington Post on sexual harassment in the classical music business, Holland’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra announced that it had terminated the ensemble’s relationship with chief conductor Daniele Gatti. To its credit, the orchestra did not rely solely on allegations detailed in the Post article, dating back to 1996 and 2000, but also on more recent findings regarding Gatti’s interactions with female members of the Concertgebouw. Gatti, for his part, has apologized for his alleged disgusting behavior and promised to mend his ways. Perhaps he is sincere, perhaps not. Immediately after the apology, his Italian lawyer issued a statement in which Gatti denies all accusations and threatens legal action against those participating in the “smear campaign” against him. It will be interesting to see if anyone feels inclined to give him a second chance. Certainly there is no special urgency.

The recent spate of firings and “distancings” in the wake of revelations regarding the revolting behavior of today’s podium “giants”—James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Gatti, and others—offers both challenges and opportunities for the way classical music is packaged and sold in today’s marketplace. The usual paradigm runs something like this: an orchestra hires a new music director, and a phalanx of public relations professionals swings into action, creating a cult of personality around their new, resident “genius”. They tout his (usually it’s a “his”) uniqueness, insight, spiritual otherworldliness, and cultural significance, drumming up as proof the occasional, theoretically profound quotation whose very meaninglessness serves to reinforce the quasi-mystical depth of perception emanating from The Great Man on the Podium.

Everyone involved has a stake in buying into this foolishness: orchestra management, the players, the conductor himself, obviously, and the audience too, which feels gratified to have its patronage rewarded with the privilege of eavesdropping on a sacred ritual, the ineffable communion of souls that constitutes the act of orchestral performance. How, then, do we square this carefully constructed image with the reality that many of these guys are sleazebags with all of the culture and class of a drunken slob at a frat party looking for an easy way to get laid? It’s a real conundrum, one that pits the more difficult to define (and promote) image of the institution against its most visible human avatar.

Orchestras and opera companies may be grand, illustrious, and historically significant, but at the end of the day they remain, comparatively speaking, faceless. Their music directors give them a face. Until relatively recently, this phenomenon expressed itself as a sort of symbiosis. The great conductors of the mid-twentieth century, for example, Szell, Reiner, Ormandy, Karajan, and the like, may have been egomaniacal monsters, but they were also extremely loyal to their musicians, and they crafted their image as a function of the audible musical results that they achieved with their ensembles over time. Today, when conductors jet around the world playing the same stuff everywhere, and a music director rarely commits to more than a limited number of weeks per season even with his own orchestra, they reap the benefits of the music director image-making infrastructure, while delivering none of the results that formerly justified its existence.

In other words, they don’t matter. With a few notable exceptions among recent conductors (Charles Mackerras, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or Manfred Honeck, for instance) they are all interchangeable and largely indistinguishable. This doesn’t mean that the occasional great interpretation doesn’t happen, or that the standard of performance isn’t very high. But it does mean that none of these supposedly unique geniuses is essential, distinctive, or irreplaceable—precisely the qualities that they use to justify the esteem (and the often outrageous salaries) to which they feel entitled, and on which they build their careers. They still get credit for what they are supposed to be, rather than for what they most often truly are. By dumping the most egregious offenders for their revolting behavior, the result of this strange reality is now becoming evident for all to see.

When George Szell died suddenly in 1970 it precipitated an artistic crisis in Cleveland that took years, decades even, to resolve, and his shadow arguably still hangs over an orchestra that he truly shaped in his own image. With Gatti’s departure, the Concertgebouw management announced that his concerts would be taken over by other hands (no shortage there), and it’s business as usual. The same was true of Levine’s departure from the Met. It was never “Gatti’s Concertgebouw” in the way that it was “Szell’s Clevelanders” or “Ormandy’s Philadelphians”. Today the show goes on, significantly with no noticeable decline or even detectable difference in the quality of the musical results.

It’s difficult to see how this fact is not, on the whole, a good thing. The death or departure of a conductor, no matter how great, ought not to imperil the very existence of the ensemble he once led. The great orchestras and opera houses, along with the high quality of musical results that they routinely achieve and maintain, truly are cultural and historical treasures. They should remain sources of civic pride, and they deserve to be supported and cherished. There will always be conductors with the genius necessary to create performances of unusual distinction, few in number though they may be, and every so often we do find the dedication to a single ensemble over time that offers the possibility of rekindling the spirit that characterized the great musical partnerships of the past. It’s harder now, if only because the orchestras are so much better than most of their conductors that audibly positive results are trickier to assess, but it could happen.

The lesson that I hope our major ensembles begin to take from this is that they need to continue to find ways to bolster their independent identity, while spending less time promoting conductors who are not just empty suits, musically speaking, but who, even if geniuses, may well turn out to have the emotional maturity of horny adolescents. Neither Furtwängler nor Toscanini would have been tolerated in today’s professional climate, especially given the increasing number of female members in our best orchestras. More thorough vetting of prospective candidates for the music director’s job will help, of course. No one could have predicted the climactic shift in attitudes that made any of this possible or necessary, but here we are. Certainly it would be a pity if, having mucked out the stables, we return to the same tired paradigm as before. Either way though, careful development and preservation of a great orchestra’s distinctive, corporate “face” will minimize the need for emergency cosmetic surgery later on.