Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Dismantle the maestro myth and classical music will suffer

That John Eliot Gardiner has, it is reported, now gone and socked another musician in a performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in the composer’s birthplace should surprise no one. Image: Roberto Serra / Iguana Press / Getty Images

The news that conductor John Eliot Gardiner is thin-skinned, ill-mannered and thuggish should not be news to anyone. Or not to any Spectator readers anyway. ‘What, one wonders, will John Eliot Gardiner be chiefly remembered for?’ wrote Stephen Walsh in October 2013. ‘Perhaps, by many who have worked with him, for his notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues.’ Peter Phillips wrote about Gardiner ‘losing his temper’ with a member of the London Symphony Orchestra in April 2014 (Private Eye had alleged the conductor had clocked a trumpeter). ‘Is there anything [Gardiner] can’t do?’ asked Damian Thompson in a Heckler column from 2015. ‘The answer is yes. One art eludes him: good manners.’ ‘Speak to veterans and almost without fail they have a Sir John Eliot Gardiner horror story,’ wrote Richard Bratby earlier this year. That Gardiner has now, it is reported, gone and socked a singer in a performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in the composer’s birthplace should, therefore, surprise no one. (I’m almost certain the composer would have approved.)

Note that this is just the stuff in the public domain. Among those who work in the business, there’s no one who doesn’t have a story. I have a story. I once met him backstage in Paris while I was working for the Times. A mutual musician friend introduced us. Before I could fully congratulate him on the incredible concert I’d just seen him conduct, he was waving a hand in my face saying, ‘I don’t talk to the Murdoch press’, and walked straight past me. Touché. You’d have had to have had your head in the sand for the past six decades not to know Gardiner was like this. 

So the truth is that everyone who hired him (including the King), everyone who worked with him, every radio presenter who allowed his music to be played on the airwaves, many if not most of the people who attended his concerts, knew about his behaviour and were perfectly fine with it.

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