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article imageBarenboim to stay at Berlin opera despite bullying claims

By Deborah COLE (AFP)     Jun 4, 2019 in Music

World-renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim has had his contract with Berlin's State Opera extended until 2027, the city said Tuesday, despite several musicians complaining about his bullying.

Berlin's chief culture official Klaus Lederer told a news conference that Barenboim, 76, would be staying on as general musical director of the capital's flagship opera house, the Staatsoper.

Lederer said he had taken the decision after a three-month investigation of the accusations against the Israeli-Argentinian conductor, and that the opera's Staatskapelle orchestra backed his conclusions.

However he said the contract extension included a pledge to improve the working atmosphere within the 450-year-old orchestra.

"First of all, none of the legally relevant accusations could be proved," Lederer told reporters, explaining his decision.

"Secondly the vast majority of those we spoke to made clear that they were strongly interested in continuing to work with Barenboim.

"And thirdly, all those involved -- including the general music director -- accepted the challenge to improve their cooperation. That was key for me."

- 'Temperamental' -

Barenboim's current contract was to run out in 2022. He has held the post at the Staatsoper since 1992.

Reports, initially quoting around a dozen anonymous musicians, surfaced in February claiming that Barenboim had a "temperamental" and autocratic style.

Some of his critics then publicly came forward, accusing him of indulging in fits of rage and humiliating members of his staff.

One former member of the Staatsoper, Willi Hilgers, told classical music broadcaster BR Klassik that while he respected the conductor as "one of the greatest musicians on this planet", it had damaged his health to be part of his team.

"In the last two years, I had to take anti-depressants to be able to play again," said the solo timpanist, who said he felt harassed by Barenboim during the 16 years he played under him.

Another musician, Martin Reinhardt, who played for Barenboim in the Staatskapelle for 13 years, said he started to "always feel afraid about going to work."

"Scared of his temperament. Sometimes he was very temperamental, it can come from nothing, sudden mood change, or he sometimes blasts someone with little reason," Reinhardt told the broadcaster.

- 'I'll tell the orchestra' -

At the time, Barenboim hit back angrily at critics, accusing them of being part of a plot to drive him from the podium in Berlin.

At Tuesday's press conference, he took a more conciliatory note but acknowledged that there was bound to be tension between an ambitious, exacting conductor and his orchestra.

"Of course there are musicians who are unhappy when they hear they shouldn't play so loudly," he said.

"But that's unimportant -- the main thing is that at the end of the day, everyone can hear why the conductor interrupted them."

Barenboim said he was "very pleased" to be staying on and would do so as long as he remained in good health and the orchestra still wanted to play under his baton.

Asked how he planned to change his approach to the orchestra, Barenboim would only say: "I'll tell the orchestra that."

Barenboim had to negotiate with Berlin's government to extend his contract as general musical d...
Barenboim had to negotiate with Berlin's government to extend his contract as general musical director of the Staatsoper
Michael Kappeler, POOL/AFP/File

Although Barenboim has been named chief conductor for life of the opera's Staatskapelle orchestra, he had to negotiate with Berlin's government to extend his contract as general musical director of the Staatsoper.

One of the most recognised names in classical music today, Barenboim is much feted for his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together talented young Israeli and Arab musicians.

He also founded the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which trains gifted musicians mainly from the Middle East and North Africa for a professional career.

There are few musicians alive today with comparable knowledge or breadth of repertoire.

However, the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct, sparked by assault allegations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein in 2017, has shifted the conversation around perceived abuses of power in the arts.

The classical music world is the latest to come under scrutiny, with several prominent conductors and musicians facing accusations in recent months.

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