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Disharmony in Berlin

Rick Fulker eg
March 4, 2019

He is one of the world's most celebrated conductors, but now Daniel Barenboim's image has been tarnished by accusations of bullying. Is his style too authoritarian for a world-class orchestra in the 21st century?

Daniel Barenboim
Image: Getty Images/O. Messinger

Acclaimed musical genius, pianist, conductor and author Daniel Barenboim is also lauded as the savior of the Berlin Staatsoper, founder of an important music academy, humanist, peacemaker and one of the most influential musicians in the world.

But recently a few new attributes have also been used to describe the star conductor: Some of the musicians who have played under his baton say he is a bullying autocrat and a workaholic who puts the health of orchestra members at risk.

Following complaints from timpanist Willi Hilgers, who played with Barenboim for 16 years but has since moved to the Munich State Opera, such accusations have gained momentum, with several musicians contributing their anonymous testimonies on Barenboim's leadership style.

They say that as a chief conductor, Barenboim is "moody, aggressive, impatient, irascible, unfair." The complainants, some of whom are currently working under his leadership, describe a climate of fear and stress that has led in some cases to health problems, including high blood pressure and depression.

The reports by the online classical music magazine VAN and interviews on Bavarian public radio have presented a negative image of the world-famous conductor, who defended himself in an interview with German press agency dpa.

Daniel Barenboim
A controversial authoritarian style: conductor Daniel BarenboimImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Barenboim himself believes there's something else at stake behind the recent series of complaints. "In my view, it's linked to a campaign to prevent me from staying on in Berlin," he said. The conductor is currently in negotiations to extend his contract as general musical director of the Staatsoper until 2022.

Meanwhile, Matthias Schulz, director of the Berlin Staatsoper, has announced he will offer mediation and set up an independent point of contact for complaints.

The orchestra board has demonstrated its solidarity with the conductor. Barenboim himself has announced his willingness to talk.

An 'old-school maestro'

In the Barenboim debate, people have often referred to the concept of the "old school maestro": an all-dominant type of leader on the model of Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who was as famous for his temper as he was for his phenomenal ear for musical detail and sound. In the view of such conductors, an orchestra could not function without them; codetermination is not an option.  This type of leadership is, however, outdated, many professional musicians say.

However, classical music — arguably more than any other art form — requires great precision. The coordination of complex processes is only possible through a strong leader, and some people therefore argue that a conductor's willingness to compromise is not compatible with artistic excellence in music.

Our picture gallery looks into the image of different conductors throughout history. It definitely shows that influential conductors have their own unique style.