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Why renowned conductor John Eliot Gardiner has drawn comparisons with Lydia Tár

Allegations against the celebrated conductor have drawn comparison with Lydia Tár

John Eliot Gardiner and Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tar. Photos: Shutterstock / Alamy

Punch-ups backstage, audience brawls, a reviewer smeared with dog excrement – not the latest modern staging of a Verdi opera, but real-life events in actual concert halls. The most recent involves John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor who performed with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists at the King’s coronation.

After a performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (The Trojans), Gardiner, reportedly annoyed with William Thomas’s stage positioning, allegedly hit the singer in the face. Official statements blamed new medication for the outburst and Gardiner withdrew from his upcoming concerts. He is now taking a leave of absence to “work on his mental health”. 

Of course, ill health manifests in all sorts of ways, irritable mood being one symptom and, if true, a certain amount of sympathy is due. However, if the illness has reached a stage where a musician of the highest seniority – among various honours, John Eliot Gardiner was appointed CBE in 1990 – is physically assaulting a colleague, then something has gone badly wrong.

And that is to give Gardiner a generous benefit of doubt: rumours of his – let’s call it leadership style – have been in circulation for years.

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It’s a problem that particularly pertains to conducting, a role that requires large groups of musicians to closely follow one person’s vision. The best baton-wielders exert quiet authority, the worst, loud authoritarianism. But that quiet authority must be benevolent – as we saw in Tár, this year’s pseudo-biopic starring Cate Blanchett, conductors can easily cross the line. 

A cartoon in Private Eye – possibly the only publication to have historically questioned Gardiner’s behaviour – morphed both fictional and real-life conductors’ bodies in a spoof advert for fake film Gár.

In a world of cancellations and no-platforms, John Eliot Gardiner has been Tárred with the same brush as his imaginary counterpart. We leave Tár conducting a play-along at a video-game convention, a major side-step from recording Mahler’s Fifth, which she was doing before attacking her stand-in on the podium. Perhaps we’ll see Gardiner conducting a live movie soundtrack at a regional theatre soon.

Few historic cancellations have been as seismic as that of Colston. The former Colston Hall, Bristol’s main classical concert venue, took its name from Edward Colston, the wealthy philanthropist born in the city who generously supported the local poor. 

Such was the appreciation of his legacy that several streets – including Colston Avenue, the location of Colston Hall – bore the merchant’s name, and in 1895 a large bronze statue was erected in his likeness. 

Unfortunately, Colston’s largesse seems to have been in atonement for his rotten business interests: his fortune came from the slave trade, from which he benefitted enormously.

When a statue of Colston was pushed into docks during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests – a moment immortalised on T-shirts designed by Banksy, sold to support the four people who faced trial accused of criminal damage (they were found not guilty) – there was renewed urgency for a fresh start for Colston Hall, which was then undergoing extensive renovation and a rebrand.

Shortly after the statue toppling, the venue announced its new name – Bristol Beacon – with a note that ‘the organisation was founded long after Colston’s death, and has no direct connection to him, financial or otherwise’.

Having been closed since 2018, Bristol Beacon re-opens on 30 November, with a special sound-and-light event created to show off the new space, featuring Paraorchestra, the groundbreaking inclusive ensemble. 

The venue’s inaugural orchestral season – with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as its ensemble in residence and the London Symphony Orchestra as associate artists – includes the premiere of Odyssey, Jonathan Dove’s music-drama inspired by first-hand accounts of refugees, and Beacons, a new fanfare written especially for Bristol Beacon by English contemporary classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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