Classical Music #MeToo Firings Send Signal: Time’s Up

Where do we go from here? The shakedowns are not in themselves the victory.

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Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil and his accuser, violinist Zeneba Bowers. Photo: The Washington Post.

Somewhere just outside the limelight of celebrity and political #MeToo takedowns (or should-have-been takedowns), classical music is having an unprecedented reckoning. In the past few months, orchestras worldwide have fired a slew of high-profile conductors and musicians for alleged sexual misconduct. Could it be that in the most reform-proof corner of the performing arts, the paradigm is starting to shift?

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The sackings seemed to crescendo with the dismissal of William Preucil as concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra following abuse accusations reported the Washington Post back in July. (Massimo La Rosa, the orchestra’s principal trombonist, was also sacked.)

In layman’s terms, Preucil is nothing less than the industry’s Kobe Bryant — or, if you like, LeBron James. Until last month, his celebrity existed simultaneously with the knowledge, ubiquitous in the industry, that he was a serial philanderer and the Principal Creep of the orchestra, if not the business.

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Everyone knew everything about these men already. Thinking back to my conservatory years, we students knew even then; where detail lacked, we understood implicitly that these things happened frequently and without consequence — assuming you wanted a career. My private teacher, a veteran of a world-renowned ensemble, contributed to this sense with cryptic references to harassment known and experienced. Justice was never a part of the story.

So collective surprise at this shit-to-fan trajectory cannot be understated; it was literally unthinkable before 2017. It’s worth reviewing who and what all of the following were — before abuse allegations forced them out:

William Preucil
Worth noting a second time because of his other former gig, Distinguished Professor of Violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music, an institutional peer of Juilliard.

James Levine
Among the most important conductors of his generation, Levine led and was synonymous with the Metropolitan Opera for over 40 years.

Charles Dutoit
Principal Conductor of Royal Philharmonic of London and a senior statesman-musician known worldwide for making orchestras sound insanely beautiful.

Massimo La Rosa
Taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music and many of the major music schools, where it seems he had trouble remembering female students’ names.

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Liang Wang
It’s hard to think of a bigger “oboe star” than the Principal Oboist of the New York Philharmonic. Just ask The New York Times.

Matthew Muckey
The associate principal trumpetist of the New York Philharmonic rocketed to the very top of the profession at age 22, just before completing his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University.

Daniele Gatti
Gatti, Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, was, with Bernard Uzan (see below), part of the same WaPo beatdown that prompted The Cleveland Orchestra’s investigation into Preucil. The Netherlands’ Concertgebouw is one of the finest orchestras in the world.

Bernard Uzan
Opera Conductor at various midlevel companies, all of which he has bowed out from.

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William Florescu
The General Director of Minnesota’s Florentine Opera previously did great work with the respected company, including garnering three Grammys.

Daniel Lipton
The Artistic Director of Opera Tampa provides me with the only instance I know of involving a police hunt.

And let’s not forget higher ed:

Bradley Garner
Both an adjunct professor of flute at New York University and professor of flute at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, NYU took immediate action against him while UC permitted Garner to quietly “retire” after 24 years of teaching, and nearly as many of misconduct.

Eric Alexander Hewitt
This guy had three teaching gigs and managed to think…nevermind.

Three professors at Boston’s Berklee College of Music
More disturbing news — both about the misconduct of educators and the institution’s failure to address it expediently.

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Of course, not all claims are equal. Take, for example, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Principal Oboist Katherine Needleman, who, in September, filed a sexual harassment complaint against that group’s concertmaster. Needleman didn’t so much raise accusations as reiterate them; independent counsels investigated the matter first in 2005 and again earlier this year, finding no evidence to support her claims of a hostile work environment or cause for disciplinary action. And here I thought the point was that women are capable and effective without needing legal protection from working with others — distasteful though the accused may be known to be. (Full disclosure: this hot, but informed take is brought to you by me — a former employee of that organization.)

Where do we go from here? The shakedowns are not in themselves the victory. But one can hope that they’re an opening; that women will fill some of these new vacancies and change the balances of power; that orchestras and their leaders will increasingly represent the communities and country they serve; that, in the future, no group will be marginalized or need to be empowered to speak up for themselves. Because, in the future, everyone will have a seat at the table.