The Astoundingly Rapid Fall Of Conductor François-Xavier Roth

When the French conductor François-Xavier Roth woke up the week before last in his apartment in Paris, his career was in excellent shape. He had just given two concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic. He had a tour to look forward to with Les Siècles, the period instrument ensemble he founded. He was the Music Director of the Gürzenich Orchestra, the general music director of the city of Cologne, the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and Chief Conductor and Artist Director designate of the SWR Symphonieorchester in Stuttgart. His calendar was packed and the gigs kept getting better. Roth’s name stood for eclectic yet carefully curated programs, creative interpretations, and joyful experimentation beyond the well-trodden paths of the repertoire. He was equally capable of discovering unknown works and rediscovering well-known classics. 

On May 22, suddenly nobody seemed to want anything to do with Roth. In the French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné, which is renowned for its investigative reporting, seven musicians accused Roth of harassment in the form of sexual text messages, including dick pics. (VAN was informed of Le Canard enchaîné’s upcoming article in advance, reporting exclusively on the story.) The evening the story was published, Roth was replaced by his assistant Adrien Perruchon for a concert with Les Siècles. The next day, Roth canceled all his upcoming engagements until further notice. In a statement, the conductor announced that he had decided not to perform “in order to allow the investigations to proceed in a calm manner.” The Gürzenich Orchestra and the city of Cologne said they take “the reporting and the subject of sexual harassment very seriously,” and that they would hire an external law firm to investigate the allegations and consider potential legal action. The SWR Symphonieorchester also announced plans to investigate the allegations. (Roth already held a position with the orchestra from 2011 to 2016, when two groups in southwestern Germany were combined. In 2025, he is meant to replace Teodor Currentzis as music director there.) “Along with other orchestras with whom François-Xavier Roth has a formal long-standing arrangement the LSO is conducting its own internal enquiries in line with its dignity at work policy,” the London Symphony Orchestra told VAN in a statement. 

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Though these investigations are still underway, several members of the Cologne City Council, a local governing body, have called for Roth’s immediate firing. In Paris, the director of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées announced that the house would seek a replacement for Roth for all of his concerts in the coming season. Les Siècles’ November tour to Japan and Korea was canceled by local promoters. The administrative council of the Féderation des Ensembles vocaux et Instrumentaux Spécialisés (FEVIS), a trade group representing independent ensembles in France, announced a unanimous decision to exclude Les Siècles. FEVIS promised its full support to the musicians and administrative and technical teams of the ensemble, but, as president Jacques Toubon wrote, “this decision is part of an exemplary approach and an uncompromising concern for the protection of musicians against sexist violence and harassment.” 

Rarely in classical music has someone fallen so far, so fast. An increased sensitivity to #MeToo issues in the field is at least partly responsible for this. The allegations also concern behavior that leaves evidence behind—as long as recipients didn’t delete the texts—making them actionable. And Roth himself at least partially confirmed them. In a statement to Le Canard enchaîné, he admitted engaging in “intimate telephone exchanges,” and apologized “to those I may have offended.” In another statement that Roth had read aloud by the managing director of the Gürzenich Orchestra before a rehearsal following the Le Canard enchaîné story, he admitted sending “inappropriate text messages to musicians.” 

Still, the vehemence with which Roth has been judged, and the speed with which action has been taken in his case, is surprising—especially compared to other conductors who have been accused of misconduct. Until recently, the history of classical music has also been a history of the boundary-crossing podium tyrant. In the rarest cases have consequences been called for, let alone enacted. After the English conductor John Eliot Gardiner slapped and punched the singer William Thomas in the face following a performance in August 2023—he was angry that Thomas exited the stage from the wrong side—Gardiner apologized for his behavior (“I am heartbroken to have caused so much distress and I am determined to learn from my mistakes”) and took a break from concert life in order to undergo counseling. Originally planned to last until early 2024, Gardiner extended his “step back” in February while simultaneously announcing his return to the podium: On July 16, he will lead a concert in Montpellier at the Festival de Radio France. A tour with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists is scheduled for the winter. 


In 2019, conductor Daniel Barenboim was also accused of abuses of power, including grabbing, shaking, and yelling at an employee. The allegations resulted in few consequences. Despite widespread public debate around his leadership style, Barenboim’s contract at the Staatsoper Berlin was extended until 2027, before his initial contract was up. Barenboim himself justified his alleged behavior by saying that he is “sometimes—unfortunately!—impatient.” In an interview, he described the debate as “so exaggerated that I don’t even want to comment on it.” Cultural politicians or artistic directors have made very few public statements to the effect that Gardiner or Barenboim should have no more place in concert life. Instead, angry outbursts were considered a fair price to pay for genius. 

The difference in Roth’s case is that it’s hard to connect the allegations to art. Rather the opposite. The unsolicited dick pic is both serious and silly, and clashes with how classical music sees itself and how it is seen from outside. In a 2020 documentary, the German writer Sophie Passmann led the audience through a video exhibition meant to illuminate sexual harassment in the digital sphere. In the first room, the television presenter Palina Rojinski exhibited a selection of unwanted dick pics sent to her and her friends. As the viewer is led through the exhibit, Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 plays: an audiovisual demonstration of the contrast between high art and base desire. The same contrast led German tabloids to report on the allegations against Roth, in between articles on the rich German kids roaring Nazi slogans at a party. Those headlines show another unusual aspect of the Roth case: The dickpic is an artifact of the digital age in which harassment and ridiculousness are extraordinarily close to one another. (In that sense, it’s fitting that a satirical magazine was the first to report on the allegations against him.) The ancient Greeks knew the power of laughter to undermine authority, as did Hannah Arendt. “To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office,” she wrote in her 1970 study On Violence. “The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” That is especially true for conductors, a profession that today aims to embody authority in the positive way Arendt defined it: Admiration, respect, and voluntary acceptance, rather than power and force. 

Roth must have known that the allegations could cost him his career. That may explain why he hired a media law firm led by Ralf Höcker, the former spokesperson for the most conservative wing of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party in Germany and self-anointed “protector from bad press.” Höcker represents leading politicians from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland and rarely misses an opportunity to present himself as the tough guy busting journalists. In 2021, when VAN began researching allegations around Roth, Höcker’s firm wrote to inform us that failures to comply with “journalistic standards” could lead to a lawsuit for damages. And a day before the Le Canard enchaîné story was published, the firm responded to a VAN request for comment with a 12-page letter outlining the consequences of reporting that could fall afoul of Germany’s (relatively restrictive) press laws, including damages of “significant six-figure sums.” 

The coming weeks will reveal the true dimension of the Roth case. If the allegations are confirmed, it will be clear that he breached others’ intimate spheres, and that he put the recipients of his messages in extremely problematic situations, especially considering the obvious power imbalance between a music director and the members of his ensembles. That may have legal consequences for Roth: Under German law, sending pornographic images can count as sexual harassment if they were sent without the recipient’s consent. If that is found to have occurred, it is hard to see how Roth could continue as a public employee. 

Until then, of course, Roth is presumed innocent. But presumption of innocence is a legal, not a moral, principle, and those principles don’t always gel. How to deal with misconduct is a complicated question. There are good reasons to put the legal frame before the moral frame because it is often clearer and more concrete. But then one should use this legal frame consistently. In a recent press conference, Louwrens Langevoort, the artistic director of the Cologne Philharmonie, was asked about the house’s policy toward Roth. Langevoort answered that Roth was his friend and would remain so, no matter what. Besides, Langevoort added, Roth has not been found guilty of a crime, and so he is presumed innocent. His concerts will remain in the Philharmonie’s programs. That is one possible interpretation, except that last year, Langevoort applied the moral, rather than the legal, principle to Teodor Currentzis, canceling a concert because the Greek-Russian conductor hadn’t criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As an artist, Currentzis is a role model, Langevoort argued then. A fair question would seem: Isn’t Roth now? 

We will certainly learn more soon: Who in Cologne knew what, and when; why the allegations didn’t come to light earlier; if people kept silent on purpose, and why; and whether the reputation and artistic direction of Roth’s orchestras were held to be more important than anything else. ¶

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