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Mutiny in the orchestra

by Ayano Hodouchi at 01/09/2011 20:22

In the sleepy days before the start of the new season, classical music lovers were jolted awake by an unbelievable piece of news – members of the Svetlanov State Academic Symphony Orchestra, or GASO, petitioned the Ministry of Culture to fire their artistic director and chief conductor, Mark Gorenstein.

The open letter, signed by longterm members of the orchestra, claimed that working conditions at the orchestra were impossible, that the conductor’s behavior was unacceptable and the members could not work under constant humiliation and threats.

That Gorenstein is no angel is not news to most musicians. What was surprising was that the orchestra, after nine years under Gorenstein’s leadership, finally mustered the courage to speak up.

Circumstances were ripe. In May, Gorenstein singlehandedly fired 50 musicians who did not wish to participate in the Japan tour due to health concerns over radiation. In June, an international scandal broke out when Gorenstein was dismissed from the Tchaikovsky Competition after making derogatory remarks about a competitor.

At the time, Gorenstein tried to force his orchestra to petition the competition on his behalf, and at least one of the members, a young cellist, heatedly argued on a classical music forum that no such incident ever took place (despite the existence of a video). Gorenstein was by no means beloved – but he was the boss, and bosses can order their minions to do whatever they like. But even as his minions did his bidding, the straw was breaking the camel’s back.

Gorenstein tried to fight back – he appeared live on Ekho Moskvy radio, but it was evident he was a desperate man. He said everything at GASO had been rosy until that unfortunate, taken-out-of-context incident at the Tchaikovsky Competition. He claimed he had a friendly and loving relationship with his orchestra during the Japan tour in May; that such an ideal relationship cannot be found anywhere else in this world.

Gorenstein’s definition of “loving” might differ from yours or mine, but one thing I know – at a rehearsal in Fukuoka, he spent three hours screaming at his orchestra, according to a contrabass player participating in the tour. Since Gorenstein came to the helm, over 280 people left or were fired from this ensemble of more than 100 members. Many stayed – or tried to, anyway – for the money; GASO is still the best-paid orchestra in Moscow.

Gorenstein was originally appointed head of GASO by the Culture Ministry, but now in desperation, he seems not to care whose hand he bites – he accused the ministry of trying to fire him by forcing the orchestra members to revolt.

Over the years, the once-stellar orchestra lost its reputation until tours abroad became a rarity. Famous soloists no longer wished to play with the orchestra. Plenty of conductors are dictatorial in their approach; despotism is forgiven in this profession – but only if the artistic results are good.

It’s good to see the orchestra finally standing up for itself. Being one of many who made the Tchaikovsky Competition scandal public, I hope that the publicity convinced them that their appeal would be taken seriously if they spoke up. Or perhaps they felt they had no choice – after that scandal, Gorenstein allegedly told his orchestra, “I will destroy you all.” To his surprise, the cornered orchestra bit back.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #67"
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