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Beating the bullies
Brass band lessons from fact and fiction

From films to festivals — the brass band movement should take note of what happens to conductors who abuse their position of power.

It wasn’t that long ago that critics were acclaiming actor Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of Lydia Tár, a world-famous conductor whose career is ruined by accusations of professional misconduct.

As a study of the corrosive psychological effects of the abuse of a position of power it was a fascinating film, enhanced by her remarkable performance in the lead role (although any actual musical insight came via a script full of cliches). 

Life imitates art

However, as Oscar Wilde so pertinently opinionated, and conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner has recently found out through his own actions - “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”.

In the film’s climax Tár (below) races onto the stage during a performance of Mahler’s ‘Fifth Symphony’  to poleaxe her replacement with a rugby tackle that even Owen Farrell would wince at.

Meanwhile, the 80-year-old Gardiner was recently reported to have punched and slapped a soloist in the face after they had entered the stage incorrectly after a performance at a Berlioz festival in France.  

Ultimately Tár’s actions lead to a future of musical insignificance - reduced to conducting in front of an audience of sci-fi cosplayers in a dim theatre around the corner from a Philippines brothel. 

Ultimately Tár’s actions lead to a future of musical insignificance - reduced to conducting in front of an audience of sci-fi cosplayers in a dim theatre around the corner from a Philippines brothel. 

However, for the moment at least, Gardiner has decided (or was advised) to withdraw from a forthcoming performance at the BBC Proms, so that he could “take time to reflect on my actions.”  He is due to return to the stage in a few weeks’ time in Salzburg, Versailles and Berlin. 

PR spin and reporting

The PR management spin as well as the media reporting of the incident and its aftermath (which is now publicly documented and not in dispute) has certainly made for interesting and pertinent reading – especially for those in the brass banding world.

“I know that physical violence is never acceptable and that musicians should always feel safe,”  Gardiner said, whilst the agency representing the artist he hit stated that: “All musicians deserve the right to practise their art in an environment free from abuse or physical harm.”

Mea culpa

However, whilst Gardiner subsequently said that he had “no excuses” for his behaviour and “apologised unreservedly”,  his representative still managed to say that a recent change in mediation and extreme heat may have ‘provoked behaviour he now regrets’.

Not quite mea culpa there then…

Perhaps so, but as many people have written over the years, he has a publicly reported track record of ‘tantrums and haughty self-regard’.  As the journalist Damian Thompson wrote in an article in 2015: despite his unquestionable talent, “one art eludes him: good manners”.  

As the journalist Damian Thompson wrote in an article in 2015: despite his unquestionable talent, “one art eludes him: good manners”.  

Others agreed. ‘Speak to veterans and almost without fail they have a Sir John Eliot Gardiner horror story,’  wrote Richard Bratby earlier this year, whilst his ‘notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues’  remains notably uncontested – including an infamous incident with a member of the brass section of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Overdue focus

To many observers (including within the brass band movement) the episode has certainly brought an overdue focus on bullying, repugnant behaviour that has for far too long been accepted in the professional as well as amateur music making world.

The Musicians Union has regularly reported on its findings on various abuses, yet for others it is nothing more than yet another hysteric ‘woke’ response to those who are both blessed (and sometimes cursed) with what has been euphemistically called, “an artistic temperament”.

He added: “You cannot stop bastards from often being extremely talented. And you certainly cannot stop the fruits of such talent often being extremely enjoyable. And even if you could stop it, we’d be foolish to try.” 

That opinion was reinforced somewhat after it was pointed out that the BBC (always a juicy target) had reportedly also investigated the incident and decided it would not have been comfortable with Gardiner performing at the Proms if he had insisted on doing so.

As Igor Toronyi-Lalic (who has had his own run in with Gardiner) wrote in a recent ‘Spectator’ magazine article, said: “..if you still don’t realise bad people can make good art, you’re beyond saving. The real question is do people realise the consequences of what they’re asking for?

He added: “You cannot stop bastards from often being extremely talented. And you certainly cannot stop the fruits of such talent often being extremely enjoyable. And even if you could stop it, we’d be foolish to try.” 

Dinosaur

Recently in The Times, Richard Morrison noted that Gardiner “is an enthralling conductor – who now looks like a dinosaur”. 

However, he also noted that ‘young conductors today tend to be well-schooled, well-mannered technocrats.’  He argued that it had led to ‘routine concerts by jobbing conductors who had their careers solely because they were good at ingratiating themselves with the players – often by letting them slack off’.

His example to back his opinion was that “who on earth would shell out 200-plus quid to see a ‘well-mannered technocrat’ conduct Elektra or The Rite? I want a beast on the podium conducting this rep. Not a musical version of Rishi Sunak.”

Antediluvian attitudes

In response to the articles though others strongly pointed out that nobody ever recalled a story of Bernard Haitink or Bruno Walter (above) resorting to such behaviour. They also ridiculed what they felt was a deliberately provocative celebration from lazy journalists of what are in truth, antediluvian attitudes and lack of minimum standards of professionalism.   

So where does this all fit in with the brass banding world – one which has had its fair share of autocratic, aggressive, arrogant, martinet conductors of note throughout its history? 

As they stated, there have been countless magnificent performances given by orchestras inspired through respect rather than fear from charismatic conductors who sought collaboration through their communal musical vision.  Haitink was no shrinking violet – but the respect for his performers was mirrored by the genuine affection of him as a remarkable, humane man as well as being a quite brilliant maestro. 

Brass banding world

So where does this all fit in with the brass banding world – one which has had its fair share of autocratic, aggressive, arrogant, martinet conductors of note throughout its history? 

And that is being charitable: To quote ‘The Spectator’ - some of those are remembered as being ‘right bastards’ too.

What both Gardiner and the artist agency said following the incident remains as essential to the brass banding world and its performers as it does to those in the professional realms: Musicians should always feel safe and deserve the right to practise their art in an environment free from abuse or physical harm.

Abuses of power

Accusations of physical abuse from conductors are rare but not without precedence, whilst overt displays of threatening behaviour, misogynist, racist, homophobic attitudes and abuses of power, are more regularly noted and have for far too long been allowed to fester unchallenged.

There is a fine line to tread between a sense of constructive forcefulness and insidious nastiness, from cajoling determination to simply destroying confidence by humiliation - from the humblest non-competitive ensemble to the highest echelons of elite level banding. 

And with the busy contesting season once again upon us, surely now is the time to reinforce the desire to rid ourselves of abuse of power in any form - and from any person, conductor or otherwise.

The passion of competition and the desire to beat rivals should never be an excuse to accept it – physical or non-physical.  

Fine line

There is a fine line to tread between a sense of constructive forcefulness and insidious nastiness, from cajoling determination to simply destroying confidence by humiliation - from the humblest non-competitive ensemble to the highest echelons of elite level banding. 

The days of a conductor who can threaten rather than encourage, exclude rather than include and seek division rather than affinity should be long gone, yet all too often we hear of stories of those whose behaviour is seemingly tolerated because they ‘bring success’.

BandSafe

Thankfully, organisations such as Brass Bands England have pioneered new approaches to understanding, assessing and implementing safeguarding procedures, especially towards the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Yet more is needed to be done – starting with the bands themselves in calling out those who abuse their position of authority.

Simply parting company with a conductor so that they have time to “reflect” without also ensuring that you are not just washing your hands of a problem that will soon become that of the next organisation that takes them on, is no solution either.  

Simply parting company with a conductor so that they have time to “reflect”  without also ensuring that you are not just washing your hands of a problem that will soon become that of the next organisation that takes them on, is no solution either.  

We must all work together and seek guidance from those able to help rid us of those who cannot or are unwilling to change their attitudes.  

Hopefully only then will more end up reduced to insignificance like Lydia Tár and not be welcomed back like Sir John Eliot Gardiner after a period of meaningless reflection. 

Iwan Fox 

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