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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Sex, drugs and symphony orchestras

By Norman Lebrecht / June 22, 2005


Orchestral life, at its best, is a cross between summer camp and labour camp. The Gulag aspect involves endless repetition of meaningless tasks at the command of a remote, sometimes cruel, commander. There is fear, too - of weakness and betrayal. One wrong note overheard by a neighbouring player can undermine a musician's confidence and propel him or her towards dismissal.

The compensations are measured in comradeship. The orchestra is one big family; when a player falls on hard times others rally round with homebaked cakes and cash. On tour, there is lots of fun to be had in bars and bed. Or so the legend goes.

A grimmer reality is exposed in explosive personal memoir that is about to appear in the US. It opens in a cocaine den, and then gets worse. Blair Tindall, an idealistic young oboist from North Carolina, discovered the facts of orchestral life in high school where the way to get ahead was by sleeping with the student concertmaster and the middle-aged professor. Once in the swing of things, she found that getting gigs in the big city meant fixing a few tenured instrumentalists, one way or another.

She got to play in the New York Philharmonic with Tennstedt, Bernstein and Mehta and made her best money on a 40-week tour of The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Concert, where she leaped naked into a hotel pool with an English conductor who promised her a run in Aspects of Love. "I got hired for most of my gigs in bed," says Tindall unaffectedly. She made $1,100 a week on Broadway, before they replaced real musicians with electronic machines.

Drugs were ubiquitous - coke, pot, poppers, and, when all else failed, alcohol. A beautiful cellist in the American Symphony Orchestra wound up selling her body on the streets for a fix; diagnosed HIV-positive, she sold everything except her $350,000 Testore cello, a last shred of dignity. Orchestras, decimated by Aids, had plenty of gaps for freelancers, provided they fixed the job providers.

A new conductorless chamber orchestra called Orpheus assembled in the mid-Eighties spouting a superior ethos of equality. Tindall smiles out from an Orpheus photo on the front of a Deutsche Grammophon album of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, a picture taken during the band's debut at the 1987 Salzburg Festival. She slept with an oboist to get the job, and with other Orpheans to keep it going. None of her assignations sounds like much fun and her home life was no happier.

Freelance musicians in New York would rent small apartments in the Allendale, a rundown block on 99th Street which rang day and night to the misery of practising. Her one true love, the pianist Samuel Sanders who accompanied Itzhak Perlman for a paltry fee, died of a congenital disease, unattended by celebrities.

At 39, Tindall decided to call it quits and lift the lid on the whole rotten charade. Her story, admirably unvarnished and intelligently contextualised, has been authenticated by a former president of the New York musicians union, Bill Moriarty, who says that "no book before this has so accurately captured the harrowing life of the free-lance artist trying to make a career in the music business."

"I only wish I were making it all up," Blair Tindall told me. She is a freelance writer now, keen on her new her vocation and well shot of the Allendale. She plays the oboe still for pleasure but seldom attends symphony concerts, which she sees as a realm of unreality, paying fortunes to conductors and section leaders and a pittance to the rank and file who make most of the sound.

Reading her vivid manuscript, I wonder whether anything can be done before orchestral life is consumed by its manifold corruptions. The London scene differs markedly from New York because there are more orchestras here, more openings for newcomers and therefore fewer opportunities for extortion. Nevertheless, musicians have to toe the line and orchestras go to great lengths to protect miscreants.

I know of one key player whose schoolgate prowls for young teens were laughed off by the band and others whose racism governs auditions. A friend of mine who was invited to try out as concertmaster for one of the London orchestras was subjected to barracks-room assaults of sadism and personal vilification. It was supposed to test his suitability for leadership but he concluded that viciousness was endemic to orchestral life and he went off to play in a string quartet.

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic have taken bribes from record companies in the bad old days; one had his mistress put on a media company's payroll. The professors of the Vienna Philharmonic are musically renowned for their moral flexibility - all in the service of the sacred art, of course.

It is an unstated axiom of orchestral life that naughty boys are protected by a code of omerta and that civil law is suspended in the rehearsal room. This detachment, dangerous to mental health, aggravates the growing distance between orchestras and worldly reality. It is almost as if we are speaking different languages. Orchestras like to pretend they are part of the living arts, but the composers they play are all dead.

They attach great importance to titular appointments which, to an innocent eye, are utterly meaningless. The new 'principal conductor' of the LSO, Valery Gergiev, will devote no more time to them than he does to his other three jobs. The London Philharmonic will go through the whole of next season without a visit from their so-called 'principal conductor', Kurt Masur, though he is no more than a tunnel away, working with the Orchestre National de France.

Who are they kidding? Not the audience, which is in steep decline and is never consulted about anything. Symphony concerts have fallen off the map of cultured people's consciousness. Blair Tindall's book is an eleventh-hour wake-up call to orchestras to clean up their act before it's too late. What is needed is more honesty, more democracy and more engagement with audiences who ought to have a say in choosing programmes and conductors. Untenable? In my view there is no alternative if orchestras are to survive into the 21st century.

Blair Tindall, Music in the Jungle is published by Atlantic Books next week ($24)

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001