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Update: Geneva hires Dutch orchestra chief. The last boss is suing for unfair dismissal

The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which fired its last director in record time, has appointed a French-speaking Dutchman in an attempt to calm things down. The new man is Henk Swinnen, artistic director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and he starts  work in February.

What’s unclear is why Henk is leaving an international orchestra that is on a high with a young conductor, Yannick Nézet-Seguin and strong media profile for a provincial one that is floundering in the toils of mediocrity. It can’t just be the size of the pay cheque and the Heidi chalet, can it?

Meantime, Miguel Esteban, who was ousted in July, has begun legal proceedings against the OSR for wrongful dismissal. Papers were filed in court on October 31. Geneva’s not going to be a happy place for musicians for quite some time.

UPDATE: Various readers in the locality have protested at my description of Geneva and its OSR as ‘provincial’ and accused me of disrespect. Let me clarify the term.

Birmingham, Liverpool, Rotterdam, Toulouse, Lyon and Gothenburg are provincial cities with orchestras of international calibre – a ranking measured by their high visibility in major festivals, on record and online, as well as their adventurous content and ambition.

Geneva has the OSR, which has vanished off the international spectrum. Geneva is one of the wealthiest tax havens on earth. It ought to be able to afford a premier ensemble. Its failure to sustain a world-class orchestra renders it, if anything, sub-provincial. I hope that makes things clear.

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  1. Mr. Lebrecht,

    No one can accuse you for do not make very clear your opinions. Pour Ansermet…

  2. Correction: Henk is Belgian, that is why he also speaks French :-)

    • The Belgian newspapers indicate he was born in Belgium and French was his first language but he has
      Dutch nationality and has lived there since his Conservatory days.

  3. Liza Standish says:

    I have known Mike Esteban for over 30 years, He is a tailented, smart man who was never really given a chance to shoe what he is capabile of achieving, I hope he wins!

  4. Dear Norman, well I hope you can see the challenge here, working on giving this orchestra the right impulse to get it right back into its historical position as a European top class ensemble. Lots of potential around in Geneva, now it is a matter to use it the right way.
    And by the way I have never done a single job for the money nor for a Heidi-chalet, which I especially dislike :-)
    All the best wishes, Henk Swinnen

    • Thanks, Henk. Good luck with the new job.

    • Henke,

      I don’t think that Neeme Jarvi made the same move just for the money or for Heidi-chalet. He is not guilty for been just a great musician and experienced MD, but not young, cute, fluffy and lack of aesthetically or physically attractive or appealing in photographs.
      Wish all the best to you.

    • Gaetan Le Divelec says:

      Dear Norman,

      I read your blog on a regular basis, and God knows I have been tempted to comment so many times, and have resisted the temptation until now, but somehow this time I feel compelled to react.

      No one will ever deny you top marks for having your finger on the pulse, and being au fait with the latest gossip, but why this constant need for sarcasm, innuendo, and generally below the belt commentary about people you don’t know? Why this cynicism which sees sinister motives behind every fact you report? Does it ever occur to you that many of us in (and possibly most of us) in this profession do what we do first and foremost for one single reason – because we love music, and care passionately for it, and that this alone is the single most important factor behind the decisions we make?

      And the Suisse Romande a “PROVINCIAL” orchestra??? Come on, get serious. I wish I could understand your motives – clearly they are more than just to inform.

      All best,

      Gaetan Le Divelec

      • Dear Gaston
        I remember a time when the OSR was on every record shelf and in major international festivals. That time is long past. The OSR has vanished from the world’s airwaves and consciousness. Both its past and its new intendant will confirm that assessment. It is a provincial orchestra with an unchallenging programme. Face the facts.

        • I agree 100 % with Norman that OSR is a provincial orchestra which also plays sloppily. They have a very arrogant President of the Board, Metin Arditi, who understands nothing about the real classical music business. Sadly I must criticize their programing under Brigitte Stockmann for the lack of dimension and for its provincial conservatism. She hasn’t had the guts to bring in artists who are interesting to hear for the public in Geneva, favoring only to work with older Maestri who are looking half dead on the podium. The orchestra members are known for their arrogance, behaving as if they are one of the top tier orchestras in the world. All these facts reflect very badly on Geneva which I am sure Ansermet cries in his grave!!!!

          • Even in Ansermet’s time the OSR were not rated as a top rate orchestra. I remember in the late 1960s a Gramophone critic commenting that Ansermet’s orchestra had gone down hill in recent years. John Culshaw in his memoir reckoned that the only reason OSR got so many recordings from Decca was that Maurice Rosengarten was Swiss and considered it his patriotic duty to record the orchestra.

          • Dear Savary,

            “The orchestra members are known for their arrogance” : it’s seems to be pretty sure that you meet all of us ( yes I am one of those “provincials” musicians) in person, that’s allow you to realize that we all are pretentious and arrogant people.
            I personaly would be delighted to invite you to a rehearsal and a coffee just to talk about what could be a proper definition of arrogance.
            It is so easy to hide on the internet and blame other peoples you just never met.

        • Gaetan Le Divelec says:

          Dear Norman

          Face the facts: NO orchestra is on every record shelf these days.

          It is true that it is an orchestra that can be viewed as going through a period of decline compared to its glory days. But to call it a PROVINCIAL orchestra? You either have no idea what a real provincial orchestra sounds like, or you deliberately use sensationalist language, which I suppose is well in keeping with the general tabloid style of your journalism.

          And I note that you are failing to answer every other question in my previous message. So I will forever remain in a state of bewilderment as to what motivates the cynicism which seems to inform tone and content with all your pieces…

    • Good luck there, Henk! You will do wonderful things for this orchestra. I had the pleasure of performing as guest artist with Suisse Romande in March 2003. It was an all-American program just on the same night the Iraq War broke! Everyone was so kind and played their hearts out–beautiful orchestra!

  5. Graf Nugent says:

    Maybe he feels he’s done enough in Rotterdam. After all, getting YN-S was a coup in itself and he’ll certainly be leaving on a high with his reputation more than intact and another potentially profile-boosting challenge ahead. Seems a pretty good time to be moving on, all said.

  6. Jason Corinth says:

    Dear Sir,

    It is because of the horrible management in Rotterdam and the even more horrible art cuts in this city and the country!

    Shame on the Netherlands!


  7. Robert Berger says:

    The Suisse Romande orchestra is hardly “fpounderig in mediocrity”, and has recently hired no less than neeme Jarvi to be its next music director succeeding Marek janowski .

  8. Of course, no-one here, least of all the author of this blog, would even consider the size of a pay cheque when accepting post! Do I detect of whiff of hypocrisy in the air here?

  9. Dalton Geneve says:

    The OSR is sadly nowadays an extremely mediocre orchestra serving a dull, boring and extremely uncreative public. This poor new manager will soon see for himself what it’s like to deal with the Swiss. It would be hard to find a more conservative public, unwilling to try anything new, lacking a thirst for something original, bold and daring, complaining if they don’t get the classical warhorses at every concert and preferring old stodgy maestros and prim and proper looking soloists to anyone with panache and fire. I wish their new manager the best of luck, but if he has any passion for music and work, he will be quickly bored to death working in Geneva and will quickly feel the cold arrogance of one of the worlds most most dull cities.

  10. Ok. Your discussion is really interesting, like musician in
    the OSR I’m really interested on your comments
    about us and our orchestra!!!!
    Thanks a lot for your compliments,
    One of these arrogant musiciens…

  11. As always we are reminded that there are two categories of people, those who perform and those who comment.
    The OSR is hardly a provincial orchestra. Well, yes, its reputation isn’t quite what it used to be (and thanks to whom, Mr. Lebrecht, if I may ask? You must know the answer to that one) but it’s actually a very good orchestra, and noticeably better than it was ever before: Steinberg, Janowski, Järvi, great clarinets and flutes, great principal horn, a concertmaster, Sergei Ostrovsky, who is a world class violinist, maestros and soloists like Dutoit and Frühbeck, Repin and Znajder. Does that sound provincial to you? The question is elsewhere: what’s the status of classical music in our pedestrian world of traders? Do orchestras have to resort to base, crowd-pleasing, PR methods inspired by the pop music industry? How to educate young talents so they can grow into real musicians and not mere circus artists?
    By the way, from what I was told, the main thing the previous director used to do was show off his muscles in stretch t-shirts – until someone told him to wear a jacket, that is… Best of luck to Mr. Swinnen.

    • Sergey Ostrovsky is a very fine violinist but he left the orchestra to take over a teaching post. Sadly his concertmaster colleague Bogdan Zvoristeanu is not in the same league as Sergey Ostrovsky. This orchestra has a few fine players but overall they are of uneven quality

  12. Savary, I don’t agree. And I heard Zvoristeanu play as soloist and he is a very able violinist (maybe not very charismatic or inspiring, I’ll give you that)

    • David, that is why I said Zvoristeanu is of a different league in comparison with Ostrovsky. What is the point of playing only notes correctly? Lack of charisma and inspiration mean Zvoristeanu is of a different league next to Ostrovsky

  13. musiclover says:

    And they just have taken 2 young brilliant soloist as a 1st and 3rd concertmasters, and also many other young and talented musicians and soloists recently (and they play with such a young and great conductors as Yamada and Petrenko among many others). This orchestra invests a lot in a young generation who believes in MUSIC and takes a lot of pleasure to MAKE music. So here is the prove that they are actually MUCH MORE OPEN MINDED than people think. It’s a period of changing and now they have everything to change for the best.

    • Kristi Gjezi who won the post of 1st concertmaster of the OSR was prepared and pushed to get this post by a few insiders in the orchestra. It was one of the most unfair concertmaster auditions in the professional orchestra world. Bogdan Zvoristeanu had a lot to do with the politics behind this audition. He was afraid someone better than him got the equal post. To be honest, the girl who won the assistant concertmaster chair, Alexandra Conunova-Dumortier, is a much stronger violinist than Kristi Gjezi. She tried for the 1st concertmaster audition but the committee deliberately denied her the post and asked her to do instead the assistant concertmaster audition. It was such a brouhaha behind the screen of this provincial orchestra. The whole world ought to know this fact.

      • Do you know our voting-système? Did you know the relation
        From the musicians with our concertmaster BZ??

        Have you been at the concours???

  14. Heck, even the Berlin Phil has players of “uneven quality”. And don’t tell me Tonhalle is a better orchestra: that utter myth should be stopped.

  15. It is very easy to criticize, and more difficult to contribute to a positive solution.
    The OSR was known in the past for their interpretations of French music. The technical
    details were not necessarily on a high level. Today, there is much more raw talent
    individually from about 80 % of the musicians, but because of many complicated administrative
    problems, the level is sabotaged. It is true that in Geneva, the groups who support the orchestra are often
    more concerned with the dress code and flowers, than conditions that could contribute to a higher level
    of playing. The OSR has problems having high worldclass conductors consistently, partially because
    they work for the Grand Theatre de Geneve, who blocks weeks of dates, and imposes bad to medium
    quality conductors too often. The dates are also not published far enough in advance, and the great
    conductors and solists are blocked for years ahead of time. Finding a date is near impossible. Money
    is another problem……in a world in crisis, the arts do not often come first. For a city the size of Geneva,
    provincial if you want), we are lucky to still have our orchestra that is doing as well as it is.
    It was also mentioned in another comment that the presisdent of the foundation of the OSR has perhaps
    surpassed the limits of helping the orchestra, and is now making blunders with different conductors and
    managements. An orchestra needs good business men and women to help run it, but they need to
    know their limits when it comes to the artistic side. OSR does play with some top conductors from time to time,
    but having someone in front who can put all of the individual talents to the service of one cohesive and supple
    and lively end product is rare….it needs to be often enough to create good habits. Even if 100 individuals play
    as well as they can individually, it will not make a great performance unless the 100 undividuals all play together in the same way like one orchestra. This is the conductors job, assuming that the musicians are
    willing and capable to do what the conductor wishes. As far as Estaban goes, I am sure he was nice, intelligent, and wanting to do a good job, but apparently he made some big mistakes which will probably be mentioned in court. I hope that the newly appointed administrator will be able to deal with all the different
    problems that I mentioned in this message. The musicians in the orchestra deserve to have a chance to give their best, and have it make a difference. The musicians of OSR are just waiting for the administration to help them have the right conditions to take advantage of the talent which is there! All of these stories hurt us
    more than anyone.

    • It is easy to hide behind anonymity, as local critics of this post have done. Is this something do do with Swiss secrecy laws?

      • Dear Mr. Lebrecht, not only easy but also safer. Not everybody is a 65-year-old polemist, some still have working years ahead and cannot afford to jeopardize their jobs. But of course you know that.
        That said, Geneva indeed has become an unbearably provincial city, there’s no denying it.
        Best, RF

    • Jean-Baptiste says:

      We need to sign petition to pressure Metin Arditi to step down as President of the Board for the good of the orchestra. It is time for Arditi to let someone else take over his place

  16. Dear Mr. Lebrecht, I read on Your biography You are based in London.

    The OSR has a concert scheduled for May 24 at the Royal Festival Hall, as a part of its UK tour.

    It would be great if you could come to the concert, then Your critics may make more sense and be a bit more artistic, because all I can read in the few lines You wrote here is only bad gossip.

    For now, the only mediocrity I see is in the tone You used to express Your opinion and in the comments of a lot of “bla-bla people” who do not have any idea of what it is going on in the orchestra, but who apparently love to write. Probably that makes them feel important, too.

    Unlike them, and unlike You too, I am a musician; no matters what I write or say, the truth comes out in the very moment I start playing my instrument.

    Unfortunately for us You do not have that option.

    Matteo de Luca
    Principal Trombone – OSR

    • Mr De Luca
      Why do you assume that I have not heard the OSR? And what gives you the right to be so disrespectful?
      I have spent 35 years studying orchestras and writing about them in many books and media. Might not my experience be broader than yours?
      Your attitude may help explain why the OSR has reached its present level of sub-provinciality.

      • Dear Mr Lebrecht,

        It seems that you really like to criticize the musical world. But you do not seem so fair when it’s your turn to be on the hot seat.

        As Matteo, I am one part of this horrible orchestra you described with so much nuances…

        And no, we are not writers like you, just musical players.
        Trying to express our feelings through our instrument.
        Trying to stay open-minded to all comments about that instrument that is our orchestra, good ones as bad ones…

        Open minded. Wide open.

        If I may, I would like just humbly advise you to stay also wide open in your statements.

        And to consider and accept all the littles nuances that for sure are composing the REAL life. Sadly is the internet life really too often in black and white.

        Missing the most important part.
        In any case for people interested in art.

        Loïc Schneider.
        Principal Flute.

      • Sarah Rumer says:

        Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

        We would be glad to welcome you to one of our upcoming concerts in the UK. Every time a music critic writes with a minimum of goodwill and has some concrete proposals to give us what we should do better and how we could do it, we read his article with big interest.
        We’re very happy that Henk Swinnen is becoming our new general director, because, indeed, there’s work to do: the orchestra is highly motivated to continue the progresses of the last years, to play beautiful concerts with fascinating conductors and brilliant soloists, to expand our repertoire, to make our public in Geneva continuously discover the beauty of music we love so much and to be an ambassador of the cultural life in Switzerland. We’re eager to realize the potential he sees in our orchestra and thank him for his confidence in us.

        Best regards,

        Sarah Rumer
        Principal Flute OSR

  17. On the contrary. Mr De Luca is being very polite and respectful. Respectful first of all to his job and to his colleagues and of course defending music they do. A truly musician and artist’s speech!

    Actually we can see many other disrespectful comments addressed to OSR earlier. I’m not saying it’s not good to criticize, but there are also a border line. To be so categoric and so sure, many of people who expressed themselves have to know very good the topic and what is actually going on inside each orchestra in general. Otherwise it could be taken as simply arrogant and jealous thoughts based on rumors and other gossip which is absolutely not fair and no musician deserve it.

  18. Gaetan Le Divelec says:

    Dear Norman

    Thank you for your clarification of your understanding of the terminology “provincial” when it relates to an orchestra.

    Let me in turn make a clarification of my own: you begin your update referring, with thinly veiled contempt to “Various readers in the locality”. For the record, I am am not “in the locality” – I am a Londoner. I go to around 60 concerts a year, and I hear world-class orchestras on an almost weekly basis, in London and around the world (yes, including in Geneva). This does not make my opinion more valid than “local” people, but I would like to stand up and be counted as one who is not “in the locality”, and who has no connection to it, and who continues, even after your clarifications, to challenge your description of the OSR as “provincial”.

    Your clarification has one merit: it exposes that your classification method, whatever it is, is deeply flawed. Equally flawed when it comes to identifying “provincial” orchestras, or when it comes to indentifying “orchestras of international calibre”. If I may respectfully make a suggestion: forget your studies, forget your books, and use your ears. And use them with honesty.

    You have written an ill-judged, ill-informed piece. This is plain for all to see. It is a piece which has offended many, and has enlightened no one. No one will expect an apology, let alone a retraction, but it is perhaps at least time for you to stop digging.

    Best regards,

    Gaetan Le Divelec

  19. Daniel Miller says:

    I am laughin and certainly not only one doing it right now.
    There are no records sold, the record industry as it has been is now dead, classical music isn’t on shelves anymore and no one cares really who’s going to be the next one nominated. It’s just huge paycheck to be taken, for the conductor and the musicians. Get it, people!
    You don’t see it and won’t see it probably, but it will soon be over and you’ll be looking behind your backs.

  20. Daniel Miller says:

    From what I have just read above confirms what I’d said before: if you will not get out of your golden bubble of friendship, brotherhood and paternalism, you so to speak classical musicians, you would not see anything good out of it, my friends! I am pretty ashamed that you have given up to the cliqués, to pre-arranged auditions, to under the table arrangements between one group of interest and another. You have to think about the audience and the audience will not come and no one will buy the records because people do not want to pay for art anymore whatever its distribution model will be. One may think that OSR should shift its base to the East and South given the origin of names of its members.
    Just do not post any comment anymore, this page will suffice for the story, as Mr Lebrecht insight is excellent, as always.

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