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Perspective | John Eliot Gardiner and the stubborn archetype of the bully maestro


Only a handful of people witnessed the acclaimed conductor John Eliot Gardiner strike the 29-year-old English bass singer William Thomas, but it took less than a day for it to become the slap heard ’round the world. (Well, the classical world, at least.)

The incident happened at a recent performance Gardiner was giving with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” in the composer’s hometown of La Côte-Saint-André in southeastern France. Thomas had apparently vexed Gardiner by exiting the podium to the wrong side, a grievous enough error to send the conductor into a deferred rage backstage.

If this sounds familiar, it could be because problematic maestros are a thing right now. In recent years, and to wide acclaim, we’ve seen dramatic celebrations of meanie maestros in the cruel, colicky genius of Terence Fletcher in “Whiplash” (which earned J.K. Simmons an Oscar) and in the downward spiral of “Tár,” for which Cate Blanchett’s necessary-seeming megalomania and ruthlessness felt cut from a familiar cloth. (It remains to be seen how Bradley Cooper’s upcoming biopic, “Maestro,” will indulge this stereotype in its portrait of Leonard Bernstein.)

Reports of Gardiner’s outburst first came spilling into the classical music blog Slippedisc and swiftly surfaced all over the internet, alleging that a furious Gardiner lambasted the young singer, calling him a “dozy bugger” and threatening to empty a half-pint of beer over his head before opting instead to slap his face and punch him in the mouth.

Gardiner, 80, is a world-renowned conductor, a champion of early music who is largely responsible for its resurgence in popularity, a personal friend of King Charles (he led the music that launched Charles’s coronation ceremony) and a titan in the classical music world. That last bit may have informed his representatives’ choice to push the human angle: They told Slippedisc that Gardiner “was suffering last night from extreme heat in France and suspects that a recent change in his medication may have provoked a behavior that he now regrets.”

This was more than enough material for meme-crafters to get to work on social media. Within a day of the disclosure, they started showing up in my inbox: Gardiner’s head photoshopped onto Rocky Balboa’s body. A brawl-blooded Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” below the caption, “Auditions for [Gardiner’s] Monteverdi Choir be like.” A woman guiding an older woman in a walker: “There, there, let’s get you back to London.” The older woman’s response, “It was the French heat and the new meds, I swear!”

The next day, the conductor withdrew from all remaining performances of the opera’s tour (now led by 34-year-old Portuguese conductor Dinis Sousa), as well as a scheduled appearance at the BBC Proms. He returned to London to see his doctor and issued a general statement.

“I make no excuses for my behaviour and have apologised personally to Will Thomas, for whom I have the greatest respect. I do so again, and to the other artists, for the distress that this has caused,” Gardiner wrote. “I know that physical violence is never acceptable and that musicians should always feel safe. I ask for your patience and understanding as I take time to reflect on my actions.”

And as the rest of us reflect on his actions, one question continues to irk me: What about this unbelievable episode makes it so easy to believe?

For one thing, the incident does not appear to have been a one-off for Gardiner. The slap’s fallout created space online for other musicians to light up comment sections and social media platforms with their own alleged run-ins with the maestro.

But rumors of Gardiner losing his cool have circulated for years. In 2014, a report by pseudonymous Private Eye classical gossip “Lunchtime O’Boulez” alleged the conductor had assaulted a London Symphony Orchestra trumpet player. In a 2015 article for the Spectator plainly titled “The Rudeness of John Eliot Gardiner,” Damian Thompson wrote that “one art eludes him: good manners.” And just a few days ago, Richard Morrison wrote in the Times of London that while Gardiner remains “one of the most intellectually gifted conductors I have known,” he simultaneously “seems to raise intolerance to an art form.”

Morrison also noted that this “dinosaur” model of the overbearing maestro is not long for this world — that, heat waves aside, the “climate has changed.” “Young conductors today tend to be well-schooled, well-mannered technocrats,” he writes, “good at their jobs but rarely making outrageous demands.”

This brings us to another element of the story: the myth of the bully maestro, which isn’t really a myth so much as a problem we’ve worked diligently for decades to mythologize.

At London’s Royal Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the late and legendary conductor Georg Solti earned evocative nicknames such as “the screaming skull” and “the truckdriver.” In 1954, Time magazine described him, as a compliment, as “a peppery-tempered Hungarian.”

Fritz Reiner, the scowling conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for an impactful decade (1953-1962), was notoriously egomaniacal and cruel to his musicians. The Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt once recounted a tale of a CSO bassoonist who attempted levity by holding his instrument like a telescope and pointing it at Reiner — who was infamously (and infuriatingly) compact with his gestures. Unamused, Reiner fired him on the spot.

You can find nasty tales concerning the most gold-embossed names of the 20th century: George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Karl Böhm. But perhaps no more visceral a capture of the raging maestro exists than the 1943 recording of Arturo Toscanini going absolutely hen-pellets on the NBC Orchestra during a rehearsal of Brahms’s Second Symphony. Ninety years removed from whatever the offense, I get vicarious chills up my spine — the bad kind — hearing it.

The classical world has developed mechanisms to rein in these reigns of terror. Orchestras now have unions, human resource departments and protocols for processing grievances and addressing harassment and bullying. And the larger circulatory system of the orchestral world is built upon circuits of visiting and guest conductors who must (generally speaking) play well with others.

The rapid-response peanut galleries of the internet (who refer to Gardiner dismissively as “Jiggy”) have also helped create a system of checks and balances, employing cutting humor and dagger-sharp candor to puncture the overinflated myth of the maestro.

But bullies with batons will exist as long as the belief persists that in order for classical music to survive, it needs to project an image of itself that is more (or less?) than human. Recently in the Spectator, the writer Igor Toronyi-Lalic posits the “myth of the maestro” as the keystone holding up the entire structure of classical music — or at least its grand facade.

“Replace charismatic leadership with technocratic good manners and the whole edifice comes tumbling down,” he writes. “Fine by me, but just beware of what this means. Fewer recordings, fewer concerts, fewer subsidies, fewer jobs. We return to an 18th century world where the musician is a servant. Lower fees, more precarity, less respect. In some ways we are already there.”

As a theory, this is as simultaneously hard and easy to believe as Gardiner’s outburst. But more than anything, it feels like a pre-baked excuse for lousy conduct. One could just as easily argue that we have the pretense of “the edifice” itself to blame for this history of abuse — that protecting these walls is a way of preserving space for silence (and preventable violence) to thrive.

Watch an interview with Gardiner from 2013 — right around the time he published his biography “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven” — and listen to him talk about that composer’s own “combative” personality and “deeply flawed” character. Listen to him rail against the “deplorable tendency” among biographers to omit this side of Bach, and in doing so, “imply that great music requires a great man and a great human being and a great personality to be behind it.”

“Of course great music requires a creator, but he doesn’t have to be a paragon of virtue,” Gardiner says to the viewer. “And Bach certainly wasn’t.”

It’s hard not to hear him pleading his own case.

POST AUTHOR: Michael Andor Brodeur

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