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

Two conductors get sent home for turning up drunk

In the past week, two conductors were escorted off the premises at major institutions after arriving for rehearsal in no fit state to work.

One was a guest at a major orchestra, the other a staff member of an opera company. I am not going to mention names or identify the ensembles. If you wish to comment on this post, please exercise the same discretion. There is already much gossip about; let’s not destroy two careers.

The reason I am bringing the two incidents to attention is that both men were removed with the usual excuse of ‘health reasons’ and sent on their way. Nothing was done to offer them any kind of backup. No concern was shown for their welfare, so far as our informants are aware.

Until recently, the music world was a more caring community. A senior English conductor, known for his weakness for drink, was nursed by orchestras through many sessions on the basis of past respect and affection. Young batons who showed a propensity for drink would be taken to an austere lunch by a couple of veteran players and advised how to get their act together. Stories of such encounters are too numerous to recite.

In the callous world of 2012, this does not seem to be happening much. Many of us have great sympathy for high-profile professional musicians who succumb to the pressures of hard work and public exposure. Keep an eye out for them. Try to help. Do more than just fire them. Take care.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Peter Klatzow says:

    I thought that serious drinking was a composer’s vocation? (Sibelius and a few others)

  2. In the case of an orchestral guest conductor, from who should the support come? The only ‘body’ responsible for the conductor would be their agent; and in the case you mention I believe the conductor in question was looked after by their agent, which seems suitable and proper.

    In the case of a staff member, then perhaps, yes, the company has a moral responsibility to help.

    In my experience, the musical world remains a very caring community; from what I know of them I don’t think these two instances serve to demonstrate otherwise.

    • If pressure and difficulty of the job are to be considered good excuse for drunkenness and erratic behavior on the job, are we going to support and excuse a drunk President Obama during a War crisis? well, there is a lot of pressure there, you know…
      Also, the equation drunkenness= genius is an old myth perpetuated by ancient movies and romanticized biographies. Lenny Bernstein was a genius before, during and after his bottle of Liquor, I believe. He did not need the alcohol to be a genius, he needed it in order to adjust to the kind of life he created for himself, despite the many blessing his life counted.
      If the conductors sacked here were nice human beings one hope they will have friends to help them out, but to expect this treatment from an orchestra full of people who need their work to pay bills (and are payed one tenth of the conductor) while the maestro gets bored and drunk in his luxury hotel… this is short of fairy tales to me.

  3. Monica Damen says:

    I totally agree with what you are saying about the musical world being a caring community instead of efficient “production” organisations only.

  4. If they are young (or even some seasoned ones), then they are probably in over their own heads because he or she is realizing everyone else around them is starting to understand that they are incompetent and pretending, mainly due to the agency which is pushing them to be the next “GREAT WONDER” / if they are talented and drunk then I say (in the case of opera) it is the incompetence of the high holy directors and casting offices, mostly a bunch of idiots who are making the music last on the list of what is important (sit , be quiet, wave your arms and don’t get in the way) who wouldn’t want to drink under these conditions ?

  5. ” I am not going to mention names or identify the ensembles. If you wish to comment on this post, please exercise the same discretion. There is already much gossip about; let’s not destroy two careers.”

    Seriously?! Are you freaking kidding us?! Who forced them to get wasted? Did anybody chained them to a chair, cover their nose and forced them to drink alcohol?

    So you think it is a must to protect them and not destroy their careers, and it is also ok that the orchestras waiting for them to work should just face that situation and get their working day wasted for the irresponsibility of these conductors… and you are worry about those conductor’s careers?!!! Way to go with your moral standards, dude… not to mention you work ethics standards: protect the ones who screw things up, and don’t let any orchestra to know who might in the future waste their working days. Really?!!!

  6. Dave, I sincerely hope you are not an orchestra manager or agent…

    • Well, Rosalind, I am an orchestra manager and if anyone, from stagehand to guest artist shows up drunk to WORK, they are NOT going to be coddled, but sacked on the spot!

      Tell me, what would happen if you showed up drunk at work?

      • Doug,
        I’m a not a manager of any artistic institution, but of a major business one. I haven’t seemed you say that you’re against any support to the illness one. Mercy? Yes, there are other people depending on it including colleagues, clients, suppliers etc. (Change the names, but at the end will be people depending on the final result). Things must keep going above all. So, doesn’t matter if you are on the side of supporting the ill person or not, the first thing to do is to sack the person on the spot in order to do not cause any major damage, including to the person itself. As a manager, you cannot allow anyone to wreck the whole institutions due to individual’s personal problems. That’s your duty. Latter you can talk about necessary help or not. Also, until the person do not present conditions to perform the duties even during treatment, the institution should not accept him working again. It’s a risky to put anyone above the corporation, since at the end the damage to everyone will be worst. Let’s figure out that both conductors got to the podium in front of the audience, cameras etc. on those conditions. In this case, Mr. Lebrecht could not keep to him the secrets about names.

  7. Doug: do you have the same attitude to someone arriving ill? I think your hard line will shorten your own career. As for the two conductors, their agents/managers and family should come together to help them. Artists are human beings after all and some deal better with the stress and responsibility than others. The quality of mercy… Ann

    • Ann, someone arriving to work ill is (or should be) sent home immediately as well – the only difference being that going home ill isn’t (or shouldn’t be) held against the employee subsequently.

      And one doesn’t generally choose whether or when to become ill; one can choose whether and when to get drunk.

      (Yes, I do know that alcoholism is an addiction and, by some definitions a disease – but if the disease has progressed to the point that one can’t choose not to get drunk before arriving at work, one should be at a rehab facility and not a concert hall.)

  8. John Summers says:

    Whilst I think this is a very difficult area to comment on without knowing the exact circumstances, I do think that alchohol in the profession generally is much less of a problem than it has been in the past. I am also sure that support and backup is far more widely available than it was 20 or 30 years ago. I certainly don’t agree that the professional generally is less caring in the past, less tolerant maybe – but then is so the rest of Society.

    • I agree. It’s much easier – and there’s much less stigma – to treat alcoholism than there was a generation ago.

  9. Maybe once upon a time when there still was an existing music company working for one or many years together, maybe something was different and maybe – I do not believe it – serious talks with friends changed an alcoholic.

    But today, you are a guest conductor, you are responsible for yourself AND for the musicians actually with you AND for the music itself and I myself must confess, that I never invited again a conductor who drank before or during a performance. Two of them ruined live recordings due to changing tempi and nervous gesture. That means: they wasted the work of their colleagues, offended the audience and brought us into danger.


  10. Alcoholism is a disease. Lucky the people who have someone try to help by steering them to AAA. I’ve known too many people, dangerous to themselves and others, artists and not. Families facilitated the alcoholism, friends facilitated the alcoholism. These people hit bottom. A few didn’t make it, but the other had someone who brought them to AAA and it took. Now useful and happy and productive lives.

    I remember the one performance I ever saw live by Charles Munch in Pittsburgh, Thoroughly drunk and with a fever of 102 and the flu. He conducted the whole weekend that way. I never heard such gorgeous music. That was when I finally began to understand Debussy’s La Mer.

  11. I am sorry to hear about guest conductors coming to work drunk. Yes, this can be considered an illness, but it’s also disrespectful to the orchestra.

    Unfortunately there are conductors who see guest engagements as an opportunity to relax their usual standards of professionalism and to indulge in behaviour which they might not at home with their own orchestras., especially if they are working with less prestigious orchestras far away from home. Which brings me to the point I wish to make.

    I would like to complain about guest conductors (and sometimes male soloists) who feel that a guest engagement is an opportunity to carry on sexually, go out on the town with orchestra members and take a tour of the local whorehouses. This not only gets back to the orchestra but leaves a very bad image in the community. For me, when a conductor steps onto the podium, I would prefer not to know about his exploits in a brothel the night before.

    It’s like some of these guys feel they have a get out of jail card free when they come to guest; their indiscretions are legendary. These are often respected musicians. We know their wives, their children. Somehow they figure it’s OK because they’re away from home in a foreign place. But we always, ALWAYS hear about it.

    So dear guest conductors: please keep your pants on and don’t come to work drunk. Thank you.

  12. Richard Bernas says:

    What sort of standard would now be applied to first-rate talents like John Barbirolli or Franz Konwitschny? No longer worth listening to?

  13. As long as someone is a great musician what is wrong to be a drunkard….:)??? Sir John Barbirolli……many more people, so what??

  14. Luckily Churchill did not conduct – although I might be mistaken here

  15. Sang, Ulysses,

    As I could understood we’re talking about two conductors that were not able to carry their duties or at the least to pretend. Churchill enjoyed booze, but was always lucid and able to perform his role anytime it was demanded. Let’s forget about drink, but consider that for any reason the person is completely out of order, not able to keep stand by itself or to say even a short sentence . We’re not talking about someone that drunk and is relaxed, easy talking and acting differently but not in a bad trip.

    However, if the point here is just about drink some alcohol beverages before the concert as a problem. I will agree with Sang and Ulysses.

  16. Sadly there are many accounts of Churchill being incapacitated by booze and not just the fabled encounter with Bessie Braddock: “Sir, you are drunk.” Churchill: “Madam, you are ugly. In the morning, I shall be sober.” To reach the heights these two conductors have attained has taken a lifetime of dedicated hard work and no modicum of talent. They have not become incapable over night but such is the world of classical music today, the “world” ie about 250 orchestral managers and agents will already know all they need to know and their careers will be cooked. I agree that all professional musicians, no matter how exalted, need a mentor or some sane voice somewhere in their lives who can ask the awkward questions and put a warm hand on the shoulder.

  17. In no profession is it acceptable to show up drunk to work. Why should conductor be any different?

    It’s disrespectful to the orchestra, wastes precious rehearsal time, and violates the trust between conductor and players.

    Any musician who shows up drunk to work should be dismissed immediately, and not allowed to return until it is proven that the problem has been resolved.

  18. Just wait…. now that Colorado and Washington legalized (state law) 1 oz. of canabis for recreational use the Denver Symphony may be playing both Mendelson & Motorhead!

    • I don’t quite see the point. It is perfectly legal to drink, and problem here is not the legality, it’s the excess to the detriment of being able to carry out your work.
      Just because it becomes legal to smoke cannabis doesn’t mean everyone is about to do so to excess; and in any case, those who wish to already do, by and large, so the new law makes barely any difference whatsoever to the way you would expect that orchestra to play, nor to their programming.

  19. Maria de Moel says:

    I don’t think our musical community is a cold and heartless place to be. It is good to realise that there is a possibility to live a life in recovery as an alcoholic, in a solid 12 step program. I know of a singer who was taken off the stage by his agent, went into recovery and perfomed again after a year or so. But keeping on facilitating drunks in the work place is not a good idea, too much damage will be done by denial and cover-up, giving them the sack might just be the necessary wake up call. AA is everywhere, let’s hope they find their way in…..

  20. Dear Norman Lebrecht, You can be quite mean spirited at times, but today you were the opposite. Bravo.

  21. Mmmmm….drunk in charge of a stick!

  22. I must confess is not having too much sympathy with these gentlemen who turn up drunk for work. At my workplace if we turn up drunk we would not just get sent home but probably dismissed on the spot.

  23. Graf Nugent says:

    I’d heard the staff conductor story from someone in the business. Although I’m very much in favour of supporting colleagues with weaknesses, turning up to work drunk is the result of a conscious decision on that person’s part and should maybe be treated with a little more firmness than just mollycoddling. We all have stuff to deal with, some thyings more difficult than others, but all need to behave responsibly in our professional lives, whatever proclivities we may nourish privately. There are many shades of grey in this situation.

  24. Two small points: a) some conductors are so bloody awful they should try doing it drunk, it might improve things. I won’t mention names…there would be too many!
    b) I encountered a VERY senior politician the other night and he was so pickled pronouncing English words was a challenge (yes, he is English and from one of the main parties and not currently in office). I wonder who looks after them?

  25. If you are reporting NEWS, then report the news and publish names. There are far too many skilled and sober conductors out there waiting to fill in for some drunk who is being protected by the establishment. At least you could mention HOW they were found out. I would be especially curious about that because I know a few conductors who are known for conducting drunk but no one has ever raised a fuss about it.

    • Paul – since you want to know – the first here was found out by turning up to rehearse the orchestra, but being incapable of doing so. After a short while on the podium, s/he was retired. Happily, the soloist was also decently capable of directing from his/her instrument, so things could continue. I think that answers the question without revealing too much!

  26. Norman is totally correct in what he says. Where is the compassion in frying someone’s career ? Satisfaction for the bitter one methinks.

  27. For too many years society accepted people in positions of authority, particularly affluent ones, maintaining a level of steady alcoholism – look at our own Queen, who apparently consumes somewhere around 5 units a day. But it is time that people are given consequences. It is well known and documented that a lot of addicts only turn themselves around when they hit rock bottom, and for many these stern consequences would be part of said rock bottom. If it is basically ignored and in the cases of the guest conductor allowed to continue elsewhere they are likely to never seek help and only get worse.
    In these days of increased health and safety, if a conductor fell off the platform drunk, the stage manager might get sacked or the theatre would be sued, all because a conductor’s alcoholism was swept under the rug again. Why should other people suffer when it is not their doing? But there should be ‘aftercare’ – whether that is a mini intervention in the form of a chat with colleagues, or going to counselling being a proviso of continued employment with the orchestra, or something else entirely.

    • I hardly think 5 units per day really counts as “alcoholism”, whatever the government guidelines wish you to think.

    • “look at our own Queen, who apparently consumes somewhere around 5 units a day.”

      She likes Dubonnet apparently. 50ml is about 1 unit. I’m curious how you know she takes in 5 units a day.

  28. Musicien OSR says:

    Dear Mr. Norman Lebrecht, it is obvious to many readers that your blog is full of bias. You have dishonored our great orchestra by posting many negative comments in regards to myself and my colleagues in the orchestra. For a topic such as 2 drunk conductors you chose to be so politically correct fearing to ruin someone’s career/s. However when you posted the blog about the OSR, you very kindly called us provincial and arrogant. Is this what one calls fair journalism? We are very disgusted and angry by your way of instigating fire, rumors among the music world. Shame on you and to Hell with you Mr. Lebrecht! You may choose not to publish what I write here but I am glad to have been able to honestly say my thought.

  29. I am a full-time orchestral musician, I have never showed up to work drunk, and I would not want to work with anyone who is drunk. Therefore, I agree what both institute did which was sending the drunk conductors home. However, I also agree with Mr. Lebrecht about not revealing the names in order not to destroy two careers.

    Why? Simply because I don’t know enough facts of the two incidents. I don’t know what happened to them the night before, could there something happened and they need a drink and went out of control. I also don’t know whether this was their first irresponsible situation that link with alcohol. There wasn’t enough information for me to decide whether I would like these two conductor’s career be terminated.

  30. minacciosa says:

    With the music business being stocked full of capable and available talent looking for prime opportunities, it surprises that any conductor would presently dare to show up to a rehearsal inebriated or otherwise incapacitated. The ability of orchestras to quickly replace executants at anytime has never been greater than it is today, and one would think the fear of just that would be enough to ensure that a conductor or soloist shows up ready and able to perform their contracted duties.

an ArtsJournal blog