Norman Lebrecht

Out of tune with the times

The shrewdest political conductor we have ever seen is mired in accusations of bullying

A few years ago, I hooked up with a BBC team in Berlin to record a programme with Daniel Barenboim. We were shown in to his spartan offices at the Staatsoper and, without preliminaries, I conducted an interview with him across a low table for 45 minutes. When our time was up, Barenboim rose and left. I am not even sure if we shook hands.

Knowing him from previous encounters, I was not particularly bothered. What did shock me was the sight of my BBC colleagues, their faces white with stress, their limbs rendered catatonic. No one creates tension in a room like Daniel Barenboim.

Last month, seven musicians in his Staatsoper orchestra complained of a threatening atmosphere at work and added charges of bullying which, in post-#MeToo times, have to be taken very seriously. One man, the principal timpanist, said things got so bad he had to be put on medication. Barenboim hit back, saying, ‘If I treated him so unfairly, why did he stay here for 12 or 13 years?’ He went on to accuse unnamed enemies of trying to sabotage his Berlin contract renewal. ‘I would know if there were tensions,’ said Barenboim tersely. An official investigation has been ordered.

The case has ramifications far beyond the conducting podium. Barenboim, 76, took up his baton around the time the screaming had to stop. Tantrums thrown by Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Fritz Reiner and George Szell were no longer tolerated by the late 1970s. Georg Solti, who started out as an old-style screamer, simmered down into a shrewd musical psychologist.

I remember Riccardo Muti letting rip once at the Philharmonia with a visceral rage, but someone must have had a word in his ear (today he swears he never shouted). Barenboim learned quickly that he could not rule by fear.

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