Charles Dutoit: What I suffered in Montreal

Charles Dutoit: What I suffered in Montreal


norman lebrecht

February 13, 2015

The conductor, about to start a low-key US tour with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, has been talking for the first time to our pal Elijah Ho about his rough treatment by the orchestra that made his name.





I still live in Montreal. My wife, Chantal, is from there, and we still have an apartment there. Of course, I miss a lot of the musicians in Montreal. What happened there, you know, I made one mistake: I never answered the attacks from the union. One has to understand the context. When they signed the contract, I was completely on the side of these people. I even was wearing a shirt to help them to get more money, and I was quite close to the premier ministre, and so on.

When I read the result of the contract that was signed by the lady – who was completely ignorant of music, who took over the position of director of the orchestra – I was completely appalled, because these people were starting to think they were so good they didn’t have to work, and they didn’t need to rehearse.


Full interview here.


  • MacroV says:

    Having lived in Montreal during the last year of Dutoit’s tenure at the OSM, a lot of what he says in the interview rings plausible: a managing director who knows nothing about music, and fairly militant unionism (not unknown in Quebec) that produced some bizarre contract terms. Several years later the musicians created a stir when they wore red t-shirts during concerts as negotiating ploy, and when the applause after a performance of Mahler 3 (with incoming MD Kent Nagano) ran past the contract-specified break time, the musicians demanded – though perhaps were shamed into not collecting – about $6,000 in overtime.

    That said, the orchestra played magnificently so whatever decline Dutoit feared had not yet materialized. And more than a few people – including some OSM musicians – told me about his fairly imperious nature.

    He probably overstayed in Montreal – 25 years is a really long tenure – but it would be nice to see him go back; it’s a different orchestra now and I suspect they and the audience would receive him with great affection.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Interesting. As a sideline, ask anyone in the business what ‘Doing a Dutoit’ means…

    • mr oakmount says:

      Alas, I know too few people “in the business”. Could you elaborate, please?

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        I can’t be too explicit, but it does involve an embarrassing (and, it has to be said, somewhat hilarious) mistake while sending an e-mail.

    • MWnyc says:

      From what I’ve heard, there are several things that one could describe as “doing a Dutoit”, none of them flattering.

  • harold braun says:

    I admire Maestro Dutoit.But he was very well known for having a short temper in Montreal. Ask Mr.deVuyst,associate principal trumpet of the OSM.

  • musician says:

    Wonderful interview with a real musician. Still not sure what the problems were in Montreal. And why he was forced out. They sure disappeared after his departure.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Dutoit is a wonderful conductor, particularly in French repertoire. But he has a reputation as an autocrat.

    What is not mentioned in the article is how he bullied the Montreal players so much in rehearsal they could take it no longer

  • Andy says:

    Dutoit inherited a fine orchestra from his predecessors Decker and Mehta (Fruhbeck de Burgos had only been Music Director for a few months before the fussy musicians chased him out of Montreal), and created a crazy, extraordinary, over-the-top superb orchestra, the likes of which Canada had never heard. The Dutoit-Montreal discography on Decca is testimony to the über excellence that he achieved, and is made all the more striking by the orchestra’s retreat to its merely fine pre-Dutoit state under Nagano’s middling standards. It’s sad to hear this once magnificent ensemble sleepwalk it’s way through concerts nowadays. But the IMPORTANT thing is that the musicians are at ease and happy little homemakers — the audience and the music be damned, n’est pas?

    Dutoit is right. A few weak-link musicians couldn’t meet Olympian standards, a befuddled political-appointee in the Managing Director position was intimidated by the union and bullied by the musicians (WHO is the bully in this story?), and Dutoit, like de Burgos, was chased out of town. Is there a pattern here maybe? To his credit, both Burgos and Dutoit remained silent and gentlemanly. I’m glad Dutoit is finally talking.

    The musicians and their union should be deeply ashamed. They abdicated the incredible position they once held, betrayed the stratospheric standards they had once achieved, and most importantly, they put their own comfort and indulged their own peccadillos instead of well serving the community that supports them with ticket sales and high taxes.

    Even after 13 years, shame on the musicians of the Montreal Symphony – the insufferable divas of this story; shame on the clownish leader of the union local – a quintessential example of a weakling flourishing and bullying due to union affiliation; and kudos to Dutoit for setting the record straight.

    The proof is in the pudding: Dutoit’s recordings with Montreal are pinnacles of orchestral achievement in Canada. No other Canadian orchestra comes remotely close, either before or since. The orchestra’s lacklustre performances and recordings since his departure undercut the sentiments of the crybaby musicians who value eating croissants and smoking cigarettes over hard work, achievement and excellence.

    • Esteban says:

      wow, andy. did you not win a job in the osm? at least that would explain all this that’s flaming.

      the early dutoit years were awesome. but by the late 1990s the osm was reduced to a back-up band status for recordings on decca, emi and cbc (leila j, martha a, jean-yves t, james e, and a couple of piazzolla and theodorakis cds).

      dutoit unilaterally decided he did not want to tour after 1999 because he felt the touring clauses of the agreement were too restrictive. that’s what he talks about when he says they did not want to rehearse. the board and management were weak and did not seek other touring and recording opportunities with different conductors, while dutoit was touring with philly and london groups.

      the osm may have dropped off the radar for a few years, yes, but by kent nagano’s second year they were back on tour, they are recording annually, they appear on medici streams, and they have a new, outstanding concert hall.

      croissants and cigarettes? i don’t think so.

      • Rgiarola says:


        I don’t know if it can be considered as “tour”, but I still have OSM/Dutoit concert program at Carnegie NY of November 2000.

      • Derek says:

        This reminds me also of Rattle’s career at Berlin. His first few Mahler, Brahms, and Nielsen recordings were good to great, but now? Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? What the hell?

    • Judit Despaties says:

      ….at last, something other than gossip !
      – – –
      And from someone NOT in the business but a fan, I confess : could it just be that mere authority searching for excellence, if still allowed, might be viewed, perceived in some cultures as bullying……this maybe just a very sad misunderstanding and a question of context……I thought all these people were enjoying making the best music they could under a maestro taking “Montreal” to places who had never heard of us…..Mr. Dutoit, if you read these things and if I were you, it’s sad but I would give up on Montreal…

  • Marc-Antoine Hamet says:


    I think your title is misleading!

    It does not reflect at all the content of the interview you invite us to read.

    The same thing happened recently, upon the death of the French journalist and broadcaster Jacques Chancel, and you posted a link to the program he hosted in the 70’s with Herbert von Karajan.
    Your title was: “Karajan’s interrogator is dead” (or something close to that, I don’t recall exactly).
    Viewed from Paris, I can tell you it was quite a bizarre title, as the program itself was not at all an “interrogatoire”, as we say in French, quite the contrary, Chancel let HvK shine like a diamond, together with his Berlin orchestra.

    Coming back to Charles Dutoit, it is quite interesting to read the end of the interview.
    One can only hope that the spectacular Dutoit/Montreal Symphony adventure can be closed in this beautiful way: a last concert together!

  • Walter Winterfeldt says:

    As a side mention, the NY Philharmonic could not wait to see Kurt Masur depart after always over-rehearsing everything to death. This info came from a long term violinist in the orchestra. Of course the orchestra is known to be a collective bunch of ball-breaking prima donnas. Now Gilbert is stepping down in a couple of years. Maybe they will get someone more interesting and dynamic onto the podium.

  • Marc-Antoine Hamet says:

    Exact title to what I was referring to above:
    Three days after John Freeman, who elicited Otto Klemperer’s most famous interview, we learn of the death of Jacques Chancel, the gentle inquisitor of Radiocopie and Le Grand Échiquier on France’s Antenne 2. He was 86 and a national institution. President Hollande called him ‘the incarnation of public service broadcasting.’ Chancel’s subjects included Truffaut, Godard, Chagall, Brassens, […]
    – See more at:

  • Andy says:

    No, the fella who wasn’t good enough to win a job with the MSO was Emile Subirana. You’ve heard the expression ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’? The musician-version is ‘those who can, play; those who can’t, become union autocrats’.

    As for the ham-handed attempt to obfuscate by prefacing your response with a ad hominem swipe, well, good try – sort of.

    To compare Dutoit’s discography with Montreal Symphony with Nagano’s is revealing. One of the EMI CDs (with Argerich) to which the orchestra was “reduced” won a Grammy Award. As for back-up band status, I guess this is something all orchestras must endure if they are to record minor, undeserving bagatelles like concerti. Pity folks like Karajan, who, along with the Berlin Philharmonic, uffered the indignity of making recordings with the likes of Lipatti, Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Richter, or orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic, having to work with Zimerman, Perlman, Pollini, et al.

    Looking at the Nagano-Montreal discography (on the vaunted Analekta label, amidst its wondrous roster of Quebec vedettes), the CDs devoted to the groundbreaking reconstruction of Andre Mathieu’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Alain Lefevre as the star soloist, or better yet, the more recent CD of Japanese children’s songs, I’m wondering exactly how straight hour face was when you wrote your rebuttal of my original post. (And by the way, the Nagano-Montreal CDs of Beethoven and Wagner on Sony Classical were recordedand are owned by the MSO and merely licensed to Sony).

    In truth, I’m not a professional musician. I may be in the minority of Slipped Disc readers in this aspect. I’m an old-fashioned concertgoer and record buyer. It’s from this vantage point that my observations emanate. The Montreal Symphony under Dutoit was a greater orchestra than it was before or since – far, far greater, Medici streaming of MSO-produced videos and recordings of Japanese children’s songs notwithstanding. Whether this is because musicians like Marc Beliveau and Russell Devuyst (the two musicians over whom the “scandal” initially erupted 13 years ago) are still in the orchestra is debatable. Reading about the musicians’ concerns with Dutoit’s behaviour at the time, shocking things like dirty looks and angry scowls were cited as justification for launching a lawsuit against him. Well boo hoo – why not join the rest of the world?

    I do grant you that my remark about the Montreal musicians preference to croissants and cigarettes over hard work and excellence was perhaps harsh. Maybe if I had written Pepsi and May Wests (an inside joke), I would have been closer to the truth.

    And to douse the flame, I’m Andy Ferrier, patron of the arts.

    • Roscoe Daoust says:

      Auditioning for a symphony job and winning is a 1 in 200 chance so I don’t think blaming someone for not winning a job with an orchestra is a fair criticism. Kind of a cheap shot.

      • YWL says:

        Andy is merely reacting to the same criticism aimed at himself earlier. Just pointing it out that he did not start it.

  • Roscoe Daoust says:

    I don’t understand why Dutoit would want to go back to Montreal. From what I know, he harassed many of the players and tried to destroy the orchestra before he left. Many were happy to see him go. The friends that he mentions are the one’s who were the “teacher’s pet” syndrome.
    And, Andy, if you are a patron of the arts, you seem to hate the very ones who provide it.

    • Andy says:

      He tried to destroy the orchestra? Seriously Roscoe?

      And Judit, Dutoit should give up on Montreal because some musicians didn’t like his impatience with their work?

      The audience be damned then, I suppose. Problem is, Dutoit on the MSO podium again would sell out. Fast. Therein lies the divide, the difference in how some musicians feel about the man, and how the public feels about him. The union’s tactic was to attempt to discredit Dutoit. How terribly provincial.

      And if requiring extremely high standards amounts to harassment in your world, as it did for some poor unfortunate souls in the MSO, there are plenty of other orchestras in the world where life is easier and standards are less lofty. For example, the current incarnation of the MSO.

      The point is that I mourn the loss of the Magnificent MSO, which has been replaced by the Very Good MSO. The union wanted to take Dutoit to court, a spectacle that I would have paid good money to see. I well remember the musicians’ complaints – dirty looks and too much time spent in the Musikverein and the Concertgebouw rehearsing and modulating their playing to best exploit the acoustics of the Magnificent Concert Halls in which they performed. They were OK with touring to these lofty venues, but unwilling to maintain the standards that brought them there in the first place. “He makes us work too hard, your honor! And he looks at me and frowns when I make mistakes. You need to put him in jail!”

      “Case dismissed. Adjourned. You pansies.”

      And so I suppose you’re right; I don’t so much admire the union mentality that serves the interests of the musicians at the expense of all else. The audience? The union knows what’s best for them — happy musicians who can spend their time on tour shopping and restauranting instead of working. The big recording companies? Fuggedabout ’em; we can make do with tiny local labels. The community? The union knows what’s best — happy musicians with easily achievable goals and standards.

      When the musicians’ union – which is accountable ONLY to itself – bullies the administration and the Music Director – both of whom are accountable to the community, the donors, the sponsors, the founders, the volunteers, and the patrons – we’ve stepped through the looking glass into Wonderland.

      And so no, I’ve no respect for the musicians or their union for acting in their own best interests with ZERO regard for the real stakeholders of the MSO.

      If the union was accountable to the very community that pays to hear the musicians, and whose tax dollars subsidize the musicians’ salaries, and if the union was responsible for maintaining the quality of the orchestra’s performances, we might be discussing loftier matters. But the union, and the musicians, are looking out for themselves, and couldn’t care less about the community. The proof is in the increasingly mediocre MSO pudding.

      Et voila! There it is.

  • Roscoe Daoust says:

    From what I know, Dutoit harassed many musicians.

  • Roscoe Daoust says:

    And Andy, for a patron of the arts, you seem to despise the very one’s that provide the music. ( the musicians)

  • Rgiarola says:

    There is an article from 2002 by Clifford Krauss (Published: April 18, 2002), that was the first news I’ve got at that time about the issue. I could refresh some details reading it again now, and then able to understand some of the comments here.

  • Roscoe Daoust says:

    How frustrated you seem to be about this. The real point is “abuse” in all forms. You seem all hurt by this but cannot see who was really hurt. “Pansies?” You say? Your interest is only in what you want and your attitude needs work.
    Abuse comes in many forms and from your display I can only assume that you seem to have a good grasp of it and treat people near you as such.

  • Roscoe Daoust says:

    How frustrated you seem to be about this. The real point is “abuse” in all forms. You seem all hurt by this but cannot see who was really hurt. “Pansies?” You say? Your interest is only in what you want and your attitude needs work. It’s as if someone insulted you. Poor boy!
    Abuse comes in many forms and from your display I can only assume that you seem to have a good grasp of it and treat people near you as such.

    • Andy says:

      Thank you so much, Roscoe. What would I have done without your wonderfully ad nominee assistance following my cry for help?. I’ve trotted out the Yellow Pages to locate a psychiatrist for my angry little self, and hope to one day meet your standards and be a good soul with a benevolent heart. You’re right, of course, everything I wrote was so wrong and ill-conceived. And so I hope to quell my frustration – which is a blight and my attitude – which is so damaging to all and sundry- and will get me to a nunnery. I hope one day to meet with hour approval.

      Don’t worry, be happy. That will be my new theme song!

      What would I — what would all of us — do without your guidance?

    • Andy says:

      Here’s the bottom line, Roscoe: Dutoit wanted to fire two musicians. His contracted responsibilities included firing musicians for musical reasons whose job performance wasn’t up to snuff. The two musicians – Beliveau and Devuyst, could have appealed, an avenue provided by their contracts.

      Instead, the AFM local decided to ignore contract provisions and allowances, and (just as you have done to me, although you’ve done so in a miniature doll house manner) launch a personal attack on Dutoit, rife with accusations, thus exposing the union and it’s membership to litigation.

      And so I would expect no less of you than a solemn and righteous reenactment of the union’s tactics.

  • Roscoe Daoust says:

    Has far as I know, Beliveau and Devyust were targeted because they stood up to the abuses that were being handed down and that’s the fact, Andy. Both of them can play their intstruments beyond what Dutoit demanded. Dutoit is simply a demented man. I, however, cannot disagree with you regarding the quality of the orchestra now to then. But, obviously, you don’t have your facts straight and never will because of your pompous attitude. As a patron of the arts my suggestion to you would be to open your ears and shut your mouth…..

    • Andy says:

      Let me review — I want to get this right for my impending visit to my shrink…

      Dutoit is demented and wanted to destroy the orchestra. And I’m a poor boy who needs to shut my mouth and keep my pompous attitude in check.

      As I wrote, what WOULD we all do without your guidance.

      Thank you. Thank you. Thank you…

  • Roscoe says:

    P.S. Don’t forget to take your medication.

  • Ken Berv says:

    Is autocratic a criticism? To be placed with the likes of Reiner, Szell, Toscanini, and H Von K is very hard to take..

  • paul lewis says:

    I never heard the OSM conducted by Dutoit in a live performance but own many of his outstanding recordings he made for Decca in the 1980’s/1990’s. The playing in the complete recording of Berlioz Les Troyens for instance, is as fine as you will hear from any orchestra. I have however heard him with the RPO in London and all I can say is that he totally transforms that band from a generally good to very good orchestra into something quite amazing – autocrat or not, as far as the audience is concerned, he delivers the goods and that’s what matters.

  • Phil says:

    Yup, many great conductors have their quirks. Reiner and Szell amongst others. Difference is the Cleveland Orchestra were more accommodating to Szell’s perfectionism. Any OSM players that couldn’t take the heat could always come over here to the Toronto Symphony or elsewhere. Dutoit had a lot of insight and detail in his interpretations, unlike Nagano, so you gotta work more to keep up with him. If I’m accused of not appreciating the very musicians providing my enjoyment, I can live with that. I don’t need their mediocre concerts, when I got the classics I need in my CD collection. Go for it OSM union