an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

What should the conductor have done when his players were arrested at Gatwick?

I have been pondering the plight of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, arrested at London Gatwick Airport. Three of its non-EU players lacked the right visas and were sent back to Holland. ‘I had to leave them in detention in order to be … in time for the concert,’ said conductor and ensemble founder Ton Koopman.

But did he? There were other options. The entire orchestra and its conductor could have refused to leave without their colleagues. The could have given a protest concert. They could have tweeted their distress, as Sarah Chang did in Moscow, and secured a swift release. Leaving three colleagues behind in order to fulfil a festival date seems to us the lamest of all available options.

Bureaucracy hates disorder. It functions on the principle that most citizens will take the line of least resistance. In those circumstances, conductors are expected to show leadership.

A refugee friend of mine, newly admitted to the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, was arrested in Austria because his papers were said to be inadequate. When Neville Marriner heard that one of his violinists had been taken off the train, he contacted the tour management and the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna and announced that not a note would be played until all of his musicians, without exception, were sitting on stage.

My friend was released within the hour and the concert went ahead.

UPDATE: A report from the orchestra’s manager.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Bugger the concert – of course Mr Koopman should have stood by his players.

    • I don’t think we should be too critical of Koopman. There would probably have been a lot of criticism, had he refused to play the concert, that he didn’t value his audience… Difficult situation, so I don’t think he can be blamed for the position he took.

      Interesting question though!

      • I agree, but I am very surprised that apparently no appeals were made to concert organizers and no social media networks were used.

  2. Alex Klein says:

    I wonder where was management in this? Normally all questions regarding tours, accommodations, travel, visas and scheduling (particularly a late arrival too close to a concert when anything could happen to delay the performance) are overseen by professional administrators. The division of roles between an Executive and Artistic branches is seen as a powerful substitute to the old era or all-controlling conductors. I agree that Koopman should have stood together with his players, but I blame the situation on shoddy managerial skills on the Executive side.

    • Don’t be too hasty in pinning the blame. If I am reading this right, it was an error on the part of border control in Amsterdam which neglected to stamp the musicians passports. This caused the problem. Management can’t guarantee the actions of border agents now, can they?

    • Mary De Rosa says:

      Alex & Doug-
      I agree with both of you. Where was the management? A GM, Operations Manager, etc. all would have been able to handle this. There is someone on the road (or at least should be) with the orchestra that is charged with these types of problems. No one could have anticipated this, but they could have solved it.

      While a conductor or music director should not have left players behind, let’s not blame Koopman or anyone until the facts are completely known as to what he did or didn’t say or do.

      More than likely, my guess is that this situation became critical due to a lack of communication between Koopman, players & administration. The administration/management may not have known what was going on until it was too late. And this depends on the personalities of the people involved-like everything else in this world-some people take charge while others are more passive.

  3. The problem is that many of us have grown used to how easy it is to travel from Holland to Belgium to Germany to Austria, etc., etc. or how easy it is to travel from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania, etc., etc.. Just because these trips are easy does not mean all international travel is as free, and it is curiously naive for the administration of a professional touring operation to think that way. Any non-US passport holder knows how troublesome it is to travel to the USA as a tourist, let alone to get the paperwork to work. The UK is not easy for non-UK and non-EU passport-holders, especially for those working or studying. Taking musical instruments in and out of foreign countries can be equally complicated with requirements for carnets and photographic supporting papers as well. It is simply not worth trying to skirt around these rules.

    I think Ton Koopman behaved exactly as a music director should. The fault lies with his office for not checking the regulations and not checking the papers of his musicians properly before they thought of travelling, let alone arrived at the airport. Being indignant with border officials is misplaced and unlikely to get anywhere at all.

    • As a manager of orchestras for nearly 30 years, I have to agree that the tour management team accompanying the orchestra should have been more effective. However, in fairness, we are not told what measures the management DID in an attempt to remedy the situation. Customs and immigration officials, like those collecting taxes, are a law unto themselves. They are also often stupid, inflexible and ill-informed. They also have bad memories, it seems, for it is not exactly front-page news that orchestras tour around the world with musicians of different nationalities within their ranks; it happens all the time. To the same token, the management should know that, in these times of heightened security and paranoia, travelling musicians’ paperwork MUST be ensured to be in order to minimise the risk of such eventualities occurring.

      Finally, there is an age-old saying in the music and entertainment business: the show must go on.

    • Jackson says:

      Not sure why people are assuming the management did something wrong. If, in fact, this was a matter of border guards not putting the right stamp on a passport, the best management in the world couldn’t foresee that or fix it before it happens. We don’t know that this had anything to do with “incomplete paperwork.”

  4. José Bergher says:

    He should have cancelled the concert.

  5. Stop crying about his decision. It’s so useless… This is what happened, now deal with it and go on with your life. Canceling a whole concert will have big consequences, not only financially. Besides that I’m sure they discussed together about what would be the best thing to do. So stop trying to be a holy saint, and start working on your own imperfect life.

  6. José Bergher says:

    The other musicians didn’t show solidarity with their imprisoned colleagues and, on the contrary, backed the conductor’s and the management’s decision to go on with the concert.

  7. Of course “the show must go on” but stupidity should not. These are no-win situations without a perfect way of handling that pleases everyone.

    I myself had to give in once at a Canadian airport when I was told I couldn’t fly with my baton since it was a “sharp object”. My long argument and negotiations delayed the plane but at the end I had to give in and checked in my carry on containing the baton. There were couple of rehearsals that I could not afford to miss. At the time this incident received lots of national and international coverage which mostly ridiculed the idiocy of the officials. Here is a link that I just found.

    Musicians have to fight against airline and security officials’ stupidities but the show must go on. Maestro Koopman was in a no win situation. Now he should talk a lot to the media.

    • Jonathan says:

      How can you compare a silly baton with musicians held in jail? Not in the same league, I’m afraid. If they wouldn’t let you take your baton you could have phoned somebody in the city you were about to visit and they could have bought you a new one. You can’t really do that when you’re talking about a colleague in prison.

  8. Sir:

    I do not think that there is a definitive right answer to this unfortunate situation. However, I hope that, the orchestra having decided to go ahead with an altered programme (which I personally find preferable to cancellation), the reasons for the alteration were made apparent to the audience, the wider public, and the people with the power to rectify the situation.

    Will the UK Border Agency at least be consistent and also impose these draconian policies upon any Olympic athletes with defective paperwork, I wonder?

    • Malcolm James says:

      No, as a pre-requisite for being allowed to host it, we have to let anyone connected with the Olympics into the country, regardless of criminal record etc. FIFA and UEFA make similar stipulations.

    • Jackson says:

      I am part of an arts organization that once had to alter a program for almost this exact same reason. We made a decision that melodramatically announcing the reason would have taken attention away from the performance. The news would come out the next day, and the reaction would be just as big whether or not we told the audience on the night of the show, thus making the show about the problems of international travel instead of Bach or whatever.

  9. Chan wing-Chi says:

    As a concert administrator in Washington for over 20 years, I can tell that the concert presenter is totally liable to process all immigration/visa documents well in advance; namely the paper work with both the Labor Department and the Immigration Services, or Visa Section of the US State Department. Also the Musician Union will be the first unit to be communicated with in seeking for a green light to apply for a performer visa. Upon the confirmation of a concert contract, the orchestra must provide a full list of performers with nationalities and passport information. So the local presenter will handle the paper work, issuing all supporting documents for the orchestra to apply for performer visas at the local, related embassy before departure. I must say that the newcomers, of the current concert management circle, are a little bit weak of professional sensitivity.

  10. I think that poeple have been long brainwashed by idiotic bureaucrats. I had a reaction similar to Mr. Lebrecht’s when I first read about this incident, which by the way has not been widely reported. We should not empower arbitrary application of “the law”. Man should remain Master of the Sabbath, and not the other way around. With all due respect to his artistry, Mr. Koopman could have shown more leadership and support for his troops.

  11. Nelson Armitano says:

    In the ’80s The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra voted against going on tour to South Africa due to the then standing policy of apartheid. One of their members was not totally white – he was Latin-American – and they feared he could be treated differently. I should know, I was that player … That was solidarity! … Ton Koopman should have definitively done something. He choose not to …

  12. I think the question is, what would the 3 arrested performers have wished. It’s possible that Koopman asked them, and they said that they wanted the concert to go on. Nowadays it’s very much the trend to blame people for what they should have done. Often the people who indulge in this would not have behaved any differently

  13. Long ago I used to be an officer with the U. S. Government who made similar decisions. If I felt I had correctly interpreted the law, I had absolutely no discretion to change my decision because the people affected did not like it or were inconvenienced by the ruling. Somebody confronting me or my colleagues would likely be skating around a violation of a Federal criminal statute and the current climate of border enforcement is certainly less user-friendly than it was in my time.
    That said, I do believe that many of these new regulations are a waste of effort and the increased difficulties are counter-productive. Write your legislator about this.

an ArtsJournal blog