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Violin Professor Axel Strauss Accused of Sexual Assault

Two women filed a lawsuit alleging that they were assaulted by the former violin and chamber music professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

 

As reported by VAN Magazine, German violinist Axel Strauss, 50, is the subject of a lawsuit for sexual assault brought by two former students he taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) in the 2000s. 

The joint civil lawsuit was filed by the two female students on December 28, 2023, for actions that allegedly occurred between 2007 and 2009 when the students were 18 years old.

The lawsuit overview states that the plaintiffs are accusing Strauss of taking “advantage of his role, status, and power as a well-known violinist and professor of music to gain access to, groom, manipulate, exploit and sexually assault." 

It continues to read that as a result of Strauss’ sexual abuse and assault, which was allegedly enabled by SFCM, the plaintiffs "suffered severe emotional, physical, and psychological distress, including humiliation, shame, guilt, economic, and emotional loss.”

The defendants of the civil suit are Strauss, SFCM, and five others listed anonymously. The SFCM is also being sued by the plaintiffs, who accuse the school’s management of having been aware of Strauss’s actions but had done nothing to protect them.

Further, the lawsuit states that the SFCM had a policy at the time of “allowing sexual relations between members of the music faculty and students,” as long as they were reported by the members of the faculty.

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music told The Violin Channel that, "SFCM investigates every misconduct complaint that it receives, past or present. The lawsuit refers to an issue in 2008. SFCM was first made aware of this complaint in 2022, at which point SFCM immediately launched an investigation with an independent law firm. Mr. Strauss left the employment of the Conservatory in 2012 and has not responded to repeated inquiries to participate in this investigation."

"The current SFCM handbook states that consensual sexual and romantic relationships between employees of SFCM (faculty and staff) and students at SFCM are strictly prohibited and it is strictly enforced," they continued. "As this is now an active legal matter, we are unable to comment further on the issue.

"We are resolute in our commitment to a secure and highly-supportive campus environment that emphasizes the dignity and worth of every member of its community."

 

In 2012, Strauss was appointed to the faculty of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University (where he is currently on leave). A spokesperson for McGill told VAN Magazine that the senior administration was made aware of the allegations against Strauss in January 2024, but declined to comment on “an ongoing judicial proceeding involving a faculty member.”

Following his 1998 win at the Naumburg International Violin Competition, Strauss served briefly as Dorothy DeLay’s teaching assistant at The Juilliard School and has released seven albums on Naxos. 

Representing Axel Strauss, John-Paul S. Deol of the Dhillon Law Group firm, told The Violin Channel that “this meritless legal action was filed many years after the alleged incidents supposedly took place. Professor Strauss denies the allegations made by the plaintiffs in their entirety and unequivocally. He will fight the claims made against him as the case progresses in court.” 

 

In the 27-page suit, the first plaintiff is anonymous and identified as Jane Doe to protect her privacy. On Jane Doe’s account, the professor took her home at the end of an evening, invited himself inside, and made sexual advances. 

Jane Does explains she would have clarified things with Strauss after this incident, claiming that she had no desire to be in a relationship with him; she considered filing a complaint, but “the director of student services was aware of other abusive sexual relationships between the teacher and students, and that no action had been taken against him.”

Worried about not having a positive “recommendation” from the professor and the school, she chose to say nothing. Though she had been performing well in school until then, her grades began to drop. She then left SFCM without obtaining her diploma.

The story of the second plaintiff, Lara Michaels, is similar. Michaels said she rejected Strauss’s physical advances twice. In 2008, following a party attended by students where Strauss was present and had allegedly bought alcohol for several students, he offered to take her home at the end of the night and instead stopped on a road in a deserted area. Michaels said she felt “trapped,” “desperate” and “unable to escape safely” as he made sexual advances.

This was the beginning of a series of recurring attacks that lasted a year. While everyone knew about the “abusive relationship” between her and Strauss, Michaels explains she could not denounce her teacher, who was protected by the conservatory. 

She left the SFCM and was never able to pursue the musical career she dreamed of, traumatized by the events she experienced.

“Those experiences are just so deeply etched in your consciousness and your experience," Michaels told VAN. So when I pick up my violin, I’m transported back to that period of time, in that room, with the words that were said to me.” 

“The music that I have has [Strauss’s] handwriting on it. Everything about it is saturated in this experience,” she added. “There’s nothing about it that is untouched. It’s deeply painful, because I really loved classical music prior to this happening.”

Michaels has now left the music field completely. “It’s so intermeshed,” she explained. “It’s just easier at this point not to have a relationship with classical music or my instrument.”

Both women are seeking damages as well as punitive damages. The amount requested by the plaintiffs will be determined during the trial, based on the evidence, by the members of the jury.

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