The Heckler

The Heckler: why does John Eliot Gardiner have to be so rude?

There are few things this conductor can’t do. But one art eludes him: good manners

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

Sir John Eliot Gardiner is talented almost beyond measure. His Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and stupidly named Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have notched up one triumph after another over the decades: benchmark recordings of the Monteverdi Vespers and Bach B minor Mass, the finest period-instrument Beethoven symphony cycle and a cantata pilgrimage of live performances of all the Bach sacred cantatas. His recordings of Mozart operas are dazzling. At 72, Gardiner is at his artistic peak. His live re-recordings of the Beethoven Fifth, Seventh and Missa Solemnis eclipse their predecessors and in its second account of the Bach motets the Monteverdi Choir sings with such eerie precision, infused with the spirit of dance, that its rivals must despair.

Add to that Gardiner’s glorious book Music in the Castle of Heaven (2013), in which he draws on his other career as a gentleman farmer to illuminate Bach’s relationship with the agricultural year, and you have to wonder: is there anything this man can’t do?

The answer is yes. One art eludes him: good manners. Not consistently — ‘Jiggy’, as he doesn’t like to be known, is scrupulously respectful to his friend the Prince of Wales. But musicians tell a different story, of tantrums and haughty self-regard. Anecdotes about him circulated privately until Stephen Walsh, praising Gardiner’s book in The Spectator, referred to his ‘notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues’. Peter Phillips, director of the Tallis Scholars, quoted this in his column, adding that Jiggy ‘recently lost his temper with a brass player in the London Symphony Orchestra’ (which was putting it mildly, apparently).

Many legendary maestros had atrocious tempers: Toscanini, Solti (‘the screaming skull’) and, nastiest of all, Reiner. But the evidence is mostly scattered in memoirs and programme notes, and Gardiner presumably hopes that history will also airbrush his reputation. If so, he’s never tried googling his name and ‘rudeness’.

Enemies flocked to comment threads after Phillips’s piece appeared. ‘His ability to make performers and administrative staff feel worthless is quite extraordinary,’ said one. ‘A pompous ass and prima donna,’ said another. Somebody calling himself Kim Patrick Clow, on the Bach Cantatas Website, accused Jiggy of treating musicians and non-musicians alike ‘like shit’. One ‘John Pike’ said he’d known Gardiner’s former secretary and ‘the stories …are no exaggeration’. A reviewer on Amazon wrote a spoof diary of Sir John Eliot Gardiner that portrayed him as excruciatingly vain. The Scottish arts blogger Tam Pollard claimed that one celebrated amateur chorus had refused to work with the maestro again after being bawled out in rehearsal.

Sir John Eliot’s friends think all this is unfair. Although he is generously endowed with self-esteem, he is not a monster like Reiner. He inspires deep affection in some colleagues. But online chatter is magnifying his faults and, for some listeners, takes the edge off their delight at his music-making. Belatedly anxious about his image problem, he now says he has ‘mellowed’. That may be true, but there is plenty of mellowing still to do. ‘I passed Jiggy in the car park not that long ago,’ says one award-winning opera singer, ‘and he stared through me as if I was a parlourmaid.’

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  • grammarschoolman

    And the problem is? His little finger is far more talented than you will you will ever be, Damian. Get over it.

    • Damian Thompson

      Of course he’s infinitely talented. Does that make it OK for him to treat less talented people so badly?

      • Something Less Controversial

        No, it doesn’t. I wonder if these conductors find it quite a lonely business. I imagine some of them think they must maintain a lofty aloofness to get respect, especially the older ones. You’re only as good as your last performance etc…

  • Spock Puppet

    I’ve always admired Damian’s politeness and courtesy.

    • Damian Thompson

      Thank you! High time someone noticed…

  • Bosun Higgs

    A musicians’ joke:

    What’s the difference between a bull and an orchestra?

    A bull has the horns at the front and the arsehole at the back.

  • Claudio

    Gardiner’s desire to push through the Bach Cantata project in 2000 resulted in him sacking 3 GM’s who made the mistake of telling him during the course of the year that it was going to lose a fortune they didn’t have. Gardiner forced through the final quarter of concerts effectively acting himself as GM of a charity that he was charging £5-7k per concert to conduct, whilst knowing the organisation to be insolvent (legality?). The Monteverdi’s went bust c2 years later with a deficit of c £750k.The large number of singers and players financially affected by the collapse added to his already legendary unpopularity.

  • Verbatim

    This is a very sad revelation about Jiggy Gardiner. It’s hard to believe a person so endowed with gifts treats people with such impatience, contempt and disdain. It suggests that he’s actually a Narcissist – and these grandiose people can be talented but very very nasty. ‘Avoid’ is the take-home message. It’s well-spring, psychologists believe, is deep-seated shame and self-loathing. A consequence of parenting where being good was never good enough. Sad.

  • justejudexultionis

    I must admit, the alleged rudeness of John Eliot Gardner is not very high up on most people’s list of pressing concerns.

    • Verbatim

      Do you think news sites only publish things which are “pressing concerns”? Take another look. And have you heard of cartoons at all?

  • somebodystolemynamefatboy

    If we boycotted the a******** there would be precious little art.
    Far more Wagners in the world than Haydns.

    • Verbatim

      Well, there’s certainly truth to that statement!

    • We’ve been indulging the a************ for all of this century and most of the last and we’ve got precious little art anyway.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Yes, I’ve heard from friends in this world that he is none too popular. I very much enjoyed ‘Music In The Castle Of Heaven’ but I did wonder how the Cantata project could possibly be viable in financial terms. We now know that is wasn’t remotely viable, and was possibly fraudulent in that sense.

  • He has more than one nickname, one of them being H****r I understand from musician friends. The one time that I, a mere ticket-buying music lover, had the effrontery to approach The Presence mumbling thanks after an unforgettably stupendous concert, he looked at me as though I was something nasty on the sole of his shoe before turning away without a word to speak to a Face. That was the last time I paid for anything he has produced. Nose/spite my face… yeah, I know. His first Vespers and SMP are still in my Top 10. Bloody man.

  • Raymond Hall

    Only the really weak need to act like arseholes. I won’t be indulging in jeg’s canatas for sure.

  • jiggyjiggylongtime

    i was going to write what I know to be true, but then had visions of the possible subsequent vendetta.
    The naysayers are correct, the fans are gullible.

  • LaurenceBoyce

    As someone who is often accused of rudeness, I have some sympathy with Gardiner. I have no idea what went on with this brass player, but I can imagine the following scenario:

    Gardiner asks brass player to play something in a certain way. Result – nothing. So he asks him again. Nothing. One last time. Nothing.

    What are you supposed to do now apart from blow your top? The rudeness in fact lies with the brass player who is entitled to say, “I’ll play it your way if you insist, but I respectfully don’t agree and here’s why.”

    But to just ignore and override his wishes is inexcusable.

    Once again, I have no idea if this is what actually happened, but that is the point at which I would completely lose it.

    • jiggyjiggylongtime

      That is not what happened.

    • kentgeordie

      So rudeness is just a continuation of diplomacy by other means?

  • Charlie Angel

    My theory is that as we get older, we have a big choice to make: we either come to the conclusion that actually most things in life are really not worth getting angry about and therefore there’s no point making other people’s lives hell for nothing. Or we just get more and more worked up and make everybody unhappy in the process.

    Clearly this ghastly man has chosen the latter option. And while doing so, doesn’t realise that committing such abuse – whether it be emotional, sexual or physical – is a mark on the character that will stain a person’s story long after the music dies down.

  • Sam

    How utterly fascinating.