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February 11, 2010

Bad boys in the classical music world

With all the meterological distractions around here lately, I've been slowly catching up with some bits of news out there. Of morbid interest are the items about bad guys in the classical music world.

There's quite a dust-up at the Salzburg Easter Festival, one of the toniest events of its kind, with a long, distinguished history behind it. This story includes massive embezzlement and an apparent suicide attempt, so, naturally, folks are comparing it to the operatic drama that is a traditional part of the festival's attractions -- coincidentally, Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" is on the schedule this spring. 

This scandal comes close on the heels of a scam at the Barbican Centre, home of the great London Symphony Orchestra and much more. A much smaller amount of

money was involved, but still rather creepy.   

And then there's the sad case of Alberto Vilar, once the king of opera patrons, famed for throwing money at the Met, Covent Garden and the Kennedy Center, and for getting his name all over the place. He was recently sentenced to nine years for his Madoff-like schemes. I've always felt rather sorry for him ever since his rapid fall from the heights of donordom. After all, when the checks were good, this crook sure did some nice things for the arts.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:55 AM | | Comments (4)


"After all, when the checks were good, this crook sure did some nice things for the arts."

Haha! Maybe we should give the crooks who are generous to the arts a pass.

It's a thought. Desperate times call for desperate measures. TIM

Dear Mr. Smith,

Comparing Alberto Vilar to Bernie Madoff is a stretch. Had you been at the sentencing hearing on 5 February, you would have learned, to the astonishment of most everybody, that no money is missing in this strangest of all white collar crime cases. The victims' claims of $21 million are offset by assets of $47 million frozen by the government in 2005 when Mr Vilar and his partner were arrested. This means that all claimants will be made whole.
It is also clear that Mr. Vilar's company, Amerindo Investment Advisors, had only a handfull of private, or offshore clients and never made any attempt to sollicit additional clients whose money would be used, in a typical Ponzi scheme, to pay off old clients. 95 percent of Amerindo's businesses was to advise institutional investors. True, the jury found the two partners guilty on the basis of the evidence presented in court. But jury verdicts are only a step in the process. I and many of Mr Vilar's friends believe that there are sufficient grounds for a successful appeal.

Well, I was writing about an opera-loving guy, and, as the Callas character says in "Master Class," "never miss an opportunity to theatricalize." I'll be fascinated to see how the appeal goes. TS

Yes, while the people he defrauded might get paid, the millions he promised to Arts organizations (such as the 10 mil he promised to WNO and then reneged on) will never be paid. And in the case of some local companies they spend or borrowed against that money because his name was so big and they are now greatly hurting because of his fraud. So while he may not be a "Madoff" in one respect he has caused "madoff-esk" terror to the Arts world.

Dear operaBaltimorte,

"Madoff-esk" terror? You must be kidding. The technology stocks, which took a nosedive in 2000-2001, were recovering nicely at the time of Mr. Vilar's arrest. He would have made good on his pledges. But the government used a sledgehammer to kill a fly: They destroyed Amerindo by shutting it down, and froze all company assets and Mr.Vilar/s personal funds. This is being contested on appeal. Please, don't have too much faith in the American criminal justice system, Sir.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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