x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Poor conduct from orchestra leader

Roberto Minczuk, the director of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, has caused a furore after firing musicians and putting them through evaluations.

Roberto Minczuk has caused controversy after firing musicians in the Brazil Symphony Orchestra.
Roberto Minczuk has caused controversy after firing musicians in the Brazil Symphony Orchestra.

Musical ensembles around the world are protesting against the treatment of members of the Brazil Symphony Orchestra, three dozen of whom were recently fired by the artistic director Roberto Minczuk.

Minczuk has vowed to make the OSB, as it's called in Brazil, one of the best orchestras in the world, and he told the local magazine Veja that "the struggle here is to boost the orchestra to international standards, and we are far from that level currently".

To that end, he made the 82 musicians, some of whom had been performing with the orchestra for decades, submit to evaluations in New York, London and Rio de Janeiro in May. Three dozen refused to go through with the test, and lost their positions, while 38 members have stayed on and 21 new employees were hired from Brazil and abroad.

The international classical music community has been in uproar about the process, with the International Federation of Musicians calling for a boycott to the auditions and musician's unions around the world writing open letters criticising Minczuk's approach.

The British cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht has raised the profile of the musicians' plight in the UK, where Morris Stemp of the British Musician's Union issued a statement saying that "classical musicians around the world have roundly condemned the action taken by OSB management", and urged the OSB directors to meet the Rio Musician's Union for face-to-face talks.

Orchestras as far afield as Denmark and Wales have pledged their support to the sacked musicians, as has another Brazilian orchestra, OSPA (Orquestra Sinfônica de Porto Alegre). A representative wrote to the OSB Foundation quoting George Bernard Shaw ("to blame the artist when the fault is the manager's... is to destroy half your influence") and calling the debacle an "unfair, unethical and, ultimately, useless request imposed on one of Brazil's foremost orchestras".

Meanwhile, the sacked musicians have filed lawsuits to challenge the dismissals, and plan to continue performing together, as they did in April with a "Manifesto Concert" at which they wore black shirts with the letters SOS OSB printed on them.

The Brazilian Symphony Orchestra Foundation itself has responded to the protests with a letter to the International Federation of Musicians explaining its position. It says that the controversial evaluations were intended not to "seek the dismissal of musicians" but "to recognise the artistic demands of each member of the group, provide suggestions for individual improvement and ensure best conditions for the work of the orchestra."

The letter also points out that during Minczuk's five years as the artistic director of the Brazilian orchestra, its annual budget has increased more than five-fold and its schedule expanded. It's assumed by many that the push for the orchestra to excel is at least in part due to the forthcoming Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Classical musicians' message boards online have been buzzing with chatter about the decision, and while most have sided with the fired Brazilian musicians, some suggest that assured tenure can breed complacency, and point out that many orchestras in Eastern Europe evaluate their own musicians in a similar way every few years. However, it is far from being a universal practice and rehearsals, many commentators argue, provide plenty of fodder for feedback and improvement.

The OSB is Brazil's most traditional symphony orchestra and it celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. Minczuk, who has won an Emmy and a Grammy, and was previously an associate director of the New York Philharmonic, joined in 2005. He has raised the backs of musicians before now, as the former OSB horn player Antonio Augusto comments on an online forum.

Augusto wrote in March that this year would have been his 23rd season, adding: "but I guess it was not going to happen because I am going to refuse to re-audition for a job I have already auditioned [for] 22 years ago." He said that like many long-standing orchestra members, he spent many years receiving low pay, "facing the worst working conditions and sacrific[ing] much of his personal life in favour of this institution."

Since 2005, he said "the orchestra and its conductor have not been speaking the same language," and pointed to the previous dismissal of 14 musicians on Christmas eve 2006 as a warning sign.

As for whether the fresh blood in the orchestra is going to make a difference, we'll have to wait until the next live concerts to find out: it has been announced that the revamped orchestra's schedule has been suspended until July; the organisation's youth orchestra will be filling in for them.