How Montreal let itself be branded by Charles Dutoit

Robert Everett-Green has written a thoughtful piece in the Globe and Mail on how the Montreal Symphony allowed itself to be subjugated to the image of its former music director.

Back in 2002, when Charles Dutoit resigned after complaints of bullying by several players, the organisation and its backers rallied behind the former conductor because he was seen as its lifebelt. He continues:


The MSO built a high pedestal for Mr. Dutoit, and was understandably flummoxed when he jumped off. It faced a gaping hole where its global branding had been focused. It had to reprint its brochure for the forthcoming season, which had an image of Mr. Dutoit on every page. Tellingly, there were no photos of the orchestra.

That could have been the moment for MSO management to recognize the risks of making a man your brand. But it did much the same thing with Mr. Dutoit’s successor, Kent Nagano, hailing him as the next architect of the orchestra’s greatness.

As shown by the Dutoit case, and by that of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, selling your leader as an indispensable wizard makes it hard to control him if he steps out of line.

That really needed to be said.

Read on here.

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  • Hardly surprising – many, many orchestras put their MD front and centre of their image and marketing. Because outside of their home city, it’s the easiest way to reach a global market and attract critical attention. For reasons that have been rehearsed 1000 times, record labels like to sell star maestros, and critics continue to attribute authorship of an interpretation solely to the conductor (despite the fact that any truly great performance is a collaboration). This is going to continue (and orchestras are going to be susceptible to it) for as long as the Maestro cult survives.

  • The musicians know it, managers know it, when will the rest of the world realize that conductors are professional con-artists?

    • When audiences place the primary importance where it should be: on the composer and music. The cult of the conductor should have ended a long time ago, but alas, it continues.

      • Untrue. Very few serious conductor are con-artists, though their abilities vary widely – and not all “click” with all orchestras. Only the most cynical and jaded orchestral musicians deny the musicianship of the conductors they most enjoy working with; and most that I’ve known are openly enthusiastic about working with conductors they sincerely admire. They’ll freely acknowledge the difference that a really good conductor makes, and many will go out of their way for opportunities to work with them.

        It’s true that these tend, uniformly, to be conductors who treat musicians with integrity and respect, and who also rehearse in an efficient and thoughtful manner – but that also has to be coupled with outstanding musicality. These people are not charlatans, and it insults all the musicians who work with them to imply that they are. But it’s also true that not all conductors who are admired by audiences and critics are equally admired by orchestral musicians, and it’s telling that (in my experience anyway) Dutoit was cordially disliked and only grudgingly respected by the players of the orchestras he worked with.

        • +1

          We all have our lists of conductors we’d love to work with again. Neither “nice guy but mediocre musician” nor “good musician but giant a-hole” tend to make the list.

        • The irony is that time and again, research tells us that audiences ARE totally led by repertoire. Artists are very much a secondary consideration. Its just that, for some reason, the classical music marketing world refuses to listen to the research.

          • Yes, “led by repertoire” but if I want a CD of the Eroica symphony, how do I choose which recording? That depends on the conductor. I choose the piece of music, and then I work out which recording I want depending on conductor and orchestra.

  • A very good point made in the article about what an orchestra is and does – ‘It’s not a band of puppets waiting to be activated by an inspired pair of hands. It’s a gathering of individual artists, who together maintain the sound, traditions and personality of the ensemble.’

    One problem with the current debate about conductors’ (mis)behaviour – and this is not referring to any accusations of abuse, sexual or emotional – is surely that, by focusing on personal shortcomings, the conductor remains central to our thinking. Lamenting the shortcomings is another way of lamenting that individuals have fallen from God-like status: the assumption that conductors have God-like status remains.

    I happened to be reading earlier on the booklet for a boxed set of symphonies directed by a different conductor whose manner with musicians was, we are told, unusually modest and quiet; and yet there again were the same ideas about working ‘magic’ and of almost hypnotising players in performance.

    A really skilled conductor can, surely, make a significant difference to performance: I don’t think we should be trying to deny that.

    But perhaps it’s time we focused less on them and more on the players, and the way in which music-making actually happens? I remember an interesting behind-the-scenes documentary series on (I think: please correct me if wrong) the Philharmonia during the 1990s. It was refreshingly honest about the demanding life of orchestral musicians, the emphasis rightly on them. I wonder if it’s available anywhere online? The one thing I fear, in these litigious and ‘accountability’-fixated times, is that players might be afraid to be themselves.

  • The Montreal Symphony made a man their brand??? Was this a first? (Duh… Szell/Cleveland, Karajan/Berlin, Ormandy/Philadelphia, Bernstein/NY Philharmonic, Solti/Chicago…etc)

  • As a matter of fact, indeed, Christophe Huss (Le Devoir) has pointed out repeatedly the low calibre of guest conductors under Nagano’s tenure (as opposed to the regular visits by top-class soloists); I suspect this might be a connected issue. And while OSM concerts always tend to sell very well, there is definitely increased demand for Nagano concerts, even after 13 years in Montreal.

    There is clearly a sense at the OSM (and not only in Montreal, I suspect) that the orchestra cannot present itself internationally without its MD. The orchestra does not record without Nagano, does not go on tour without Nagano, and does not even play at the Lanaudière festival without Nagano (this year’s opening concert with Susanna Mälkki being a first exception – possibly as she is rumoured to be in the running for the MD job post-Nagano).

    But then, if you’re going to criticise an orchestra for building its name around a demigod music director in Montreal, questions should be asked of the Orchestre Métropolitain and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, too… or the Violons du Roy, where Labadie resigned as MD following his illness, but retained the title of “Founding Counductor” with priority on big projects…

    • It does record with Nagano.I have a Beethoven cycle.and two discs of Bartok and Saint Saens and others on ATMA and Onyx.They have a new Decca contract since 2015,Ibert/Honegger´s opera “LÁiglon”and a “halloween” program with scary orchestral favourites already out.Just do your homework before posting.And their concerts get streamed on mediciTV.

  • I love the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, San Francisco Symphony, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brochures/publicity that feature the orchestra members. (These are the ones I get in the mail).

    This is a good trend. And it can dislodge the Cult of the Maestro.

  • Every orchestra does this, and has for many years. The only present-day exception I can think of is Berlin, which seemed to move away from that model after Karajan left: ever since then, they have not been synonymous with any conductor (as far as I’ve been aware), even if everyone knows who their music director is.

    Oh, and the Vienna Philharmonic.

    Are there any others?

    And since I’ve never seen any other model of public branding for non-behemoth orchestras, I wonder what other possibilities are out there?

    • Dear Norman how would your conscience feel if your writing would lead Dutoit to commit suicide because this seems to be the intention of the hunters. Don’t be one of them.
      Your friend Menahem Pressler

      • Dear Menahem
        Follow the evidence. There is a very long trail. Dutoit is responsible for his actions, and I know you would be the last person in the world to stand up in defence of a rapist. best wishes, Norman

        • You could learn one or two things by Mr.Pressler.Actually,Dutoit should sue you for libel.If you have any proof,show it.If not,keep shut.

        • Dear Norman
          You are my soulmate and I love you dearly. Do you remember how we Jews suffered for many many years from blood libel? You know what the end result was… Auschwitz Dachau etc.
          I am grateful there is an Israel where I can breath freely confidently and express the joy of being a non-persecuted man. Poor Charles he wasn’t born a Jew…

          • Dear Menahem
            I listen first to the victims, and there are many. Your analogy to Auschwitz is sadly misplaced. love, Norman

  • Do I smell blood in the air? Hyenas and jackals are certainly out for the kill. This is a very stupid piece because like it or not, all orchestras become identified with their conductors, whether nice or nasty, —did anyone hear Toscanini rehearse? The public and PR alike know that the conductor makes the programs, decides on soloists, guides and forms the orchestra and, if popular with the public, sells the tickets. The OSM was proud to have a great conductor who IS a great conductor, sitting at home with nothing to do, Did he commit murder? Did he beat anyone up? Those orchestras so happy to have him for so long have deserted him without questioning allegations, without caring for proof of guilt even after witnesses, when rarely present refute such claims. His recordings played on CBC without mentioning the name of the conductor. Perhaps you would like to translate an excellent article in La Croix by Metin Arditi (ex President of the Suisse Romande Orchestra amongst other things) The title is ‘Charles Dutoit Has Ceased to exist’.

    • Yes, how stupid, characterless, weak and easily manipulated people tend to be.
      No wonder the Nazis, say, had such an easy time of it dragging a great culture
      into the abyss.

    • “Did he commit murder? Did he beat anyone up?”

      He raped someone. Isn’t that bad enough for you? Please get a clue.

      • Sorry, he “allegedly raped” someone. No proof. When we get to the point that anyone is guilty just because someone else says so then we are in an extremely dangerous world that Orwell, Kafka and others warned us about. I don’t know if he did it or not, and you don’t know either! Very sad state of affairs. So much for innocent until proven guilty. Frightening times we live in.

        • Exactly! Since when is an allegation “evidence”? One person’s word against another and when evidence does appear in the shape of a witness who refutes an allegation it is ignored! Why? To call someone a “rapist” on an allegation is actually libellous.

        • Exactly! Since when does an allegation become “evidence” ? An allegation requires proof to become a fact. When evideidence from an eyewitness is there refuting an allegation it is ignored. To call someone a rapist without proof is quite simply libellous!

        • “Innocent until proven guilty” is a concept in CRIMINAL LAW. He can’t be convicted and go to jail until it is proven. But the Montreal Symphony Orchestra aren’t forced to hire him until he is convicted; they can hire whomsoever they like on whatever grounds they like. Including because they don’t much like him, or believe him to be an unpleasant person.

    • Lady Weidenfeld,it´s McCarthynism 2.0.And all the small lights smelling their chance now to step in,with the help of all the little Roy Cohns also on this website.Reminds me of the Germany my families fled from in 1938.The Nazis couldn´t ban Mendelssohn´s wedding march,because its popularity.So they continued it under the label”Wedding march,by Anonymous”.

  • It’s a good piece and correct about the events (at least the public version) of 15 years ago. Though I think a lot of public also saw Dutoit as having resigned in a huff, self-importantly finding his dignity insulted. I never saw the effort to lure him back as a OSM mea culpa, but simply a desire to reconcile with its longtime MD.

    He’s also right about the OSM relying too much on Dutoit (and then Nagano) for its brand. But that’s true of nearly every orchestra. Just thing about how many orchestras – around the world – have such a strong identity and profile that they can tour without their music director or, more critically, without a soloist to help draw in listeners. I can count them on one hand.

  • The problems for an orchestra linking its long-term brand to a ‘name’ conductor are quite obvious and have been well rehearsed. In this debate, though, there is a suggestion that it is time the cult of the conductor has – or should have – run its course and more emphasis should be placed on the musicians.

    I certainly agree that musicians rarely get all the credit they deserve. Even though many managements create figureheads out of Music Directors and this may have been overdone, to suggest that conductors play little role is simply not true. Even when you put some of the world’s finest musicians on the stage, as Abbado did in Lucerne, they themselves would certainly have admitted they could not produce the same results without Abbado directing them.

    Then how do you create a really fine orchestra from one which was not at that level. Birmingham developed in quality and its major international reputation only in the Rattle years. Earlier Alexander Gibson had done something similar by invigorating the SNO after his stodgy European predecessors Rankl and Swarowsky, Kenneth Schermerhorn may not have been one of the top conductors but he transformed the Nashville Orchestra which began collecting nominations and then several Grammy Awards. Similarly, why were orchestra players, managements and audiences so desperate to engage the reclusive Carlos Kleiber?

    Some years ago there was an interesting magazine article about Mariss Jansons taking over the Concertgebouw. I kept part of it, although I regret I cannot now recall its origin. In it, he says this –

    “When I took over the Concertgebouw, journalists asked me what I would change. I said, ‘Nothing for the moment. It’s my task to find out their special qualities and preserve them. Then, if through a natural process my own individuality adds something – and theirs to me – that will be fine.’ I would never set out to change the Concertgebouw. We continue to learn together . . .

    “They have an understanding of each composer like an actor understands his roles – they interpret, and shift into the appropriate character. It comes from a hunger to comprehend what is behind the notes. Notes are after all only signs, and if you only follow the signs they won’t get you there. Yet very few orchestras in the world have that quality of knowing the depth and the character of the music. We have many technically good orchestras these days. But this musicial intelligence, allied to the orchestra’s very personal sound, makes the Concertgebouw stand out.

    “In rehearsals the . . . Concertgebouw players expect something extra from you, an interesting interpretation, illuminating ideas, a fantasy. If you offer them that, they play with a passion as though for a new piece rather than a work they have played a million times before. This is what the players want – that higher level, when you forget about the notes and play the image, the idea . . .

    I would never set out to change the Concertgebouw. We continue to learn together.”

    • Well,the OSM wasn´t exactly the Concertgebouw,when Dutoit took over Nor was the Oslo Phil,when Jansons took over.When they took over,both changed a lot.Montreal and Oslo became world class ensembles…

      • Montreal was probably an excellent orchestra even before Dutoit, under the late, great and much-underrated Franz-Paul Decker and briefly under Fruhbeck (and maybe even under Mehta). But they didn’t have a record contract.

        • They were good,but not great…Dutoit hired many,many new players.including nearly all principals over the years.And licked them into shape…creating a world class band.What he did,is comparable to what Rattle did in Brum,Jansons in Oslo,Shaw in Atlanta.

          • One major fallacy: Conductors don’t hire new players, audition committees do. Depending on the orchestra, the conductor may have a major or a minor role. In any case, in the years Dutoit led the OSM, the players coming out of schools were generally much better than their predecessors ever were (and not just the person hired, but probably most of the people auditioning). It probably didn’t make a big difference in the top-tier orchestras, where the players were very good. But in the next-tier orchestras (including Montreal), you would get major upgrades in many positions. Dutoit, together with Decca, deserves credit for cultivating a style and brand, i.e. “the best French orchestra in the world,” but the orchestra would have improved under any conductor, as has just about every orchestra.

  • ==Tellingly, there were no photos of the orchestra.

    You know, when Nigel Kennedy made an LP with Tennstedt of (I think) Beethoven concerto, he *insisted* that the name of all orchestral players should be put on the covering notes. A nice touch for rank and file players who never get recognition to be remembered. Worlds away from this Dutoit vanity.

    • In the booklet of his recording of Bartok´s Concerto for Orchestra from 1988,all OSM members are listed.Apart from that,thankfully this become the norm now with many orchestral CDs.

    • As an ensemble they are as good as they were with Dutoit. Nagano might not be very exciting, but the orchestra itself is still very good.

    • If you live in Montreal and hear them regularly, I’ll respect your opinion of their quality, and you’re free to prefer Dutoit to Nagano as a leader/interpreter. But orchestras improve largely by replacing older, past-their-prime players with younger players who generally play better than their predecessors ever did. The quality of players coming out of music schools these days is so high that many orchestras once considered mediocre and provincial are now superb. The conductor plays an important role in shaping an orchestra’s sound and style, but it’s the retirement/audition processes that largely determine its quality.

  • Let´s set straight a few things here.Dutoit was very popular with the orchestra until the mid90s.he had turned them into a world class band,brought them lucrative recordings,top soloists,international tours.Then a working dispute broke out,culminating in a strike.Dutoit sided with the musicians and pulled his punches for better regulations,and salaries.
    When the players comitee demanded more rights a few years later,includinga say in programmimg,hiring guest soloists and -conductors,Dutoit felt betrayed by “his”musicians,after all what he had done for them,and became very hostile towards some members,especially to those who were on the players´comitee.and most of all,towards assistant principal trumpet Russ DeVuyst.This really created division inside the orchestra…Dutoit had a group of people supporting him,like principal flutist Tim Hutchins,and a group who hated him,similar to Martinon in Chicago.When the players comitee filed a no-confidence vote,Dutoit immediately resigned,without waiting for the results.
    He simply had stayed too long in his job,like Ozawa,Karajan,and many more.Qualities nonwithstanding,every orchestra need some fresh blood after 2 or more decades….

    • Dear Harold,
      These are mere allegations which have not been proven and that are quite slanderous. If you can’t provide evidence, then maybe you shouldn’t write them in public. As you say above, “prove it, or shut up.”

      See how that works?

      Now, contrary to this account, you have multiple musicians who have spoken on the record about their experience of Dutoit’s abuse, not least in the newspaper articles NL linked to last week (yes, testimonies *are* considered evidence). So since you care so deeply about evidence standards, where’s yours?

      • Where did i post allegations?The story about Dutoit´s rift with the OSM is well documented.And i heard some of it,16 years ago,from some OSM musicians i happen to know,and some soloists as well.

        • And friends of my parents,living in Montreal for decades,who were donors to the OSM,and knew many orchestra players,kept us always posted…

          • You’re putting the words of friends of your parents who gave money to the orchestra against the words of musicians of the orchestra who have spoken openly about their experiences with Dutoit? Really?

        • As a matter of fact, the complaints of psychological harassment and mistreatment against Dutoit are also well documented, and were well documented at the time. So where’s the difference between your story and the accounts of psychological abuse?

          By the way, saying something is “well documented” is not the same as providing documentation. As for saying you heard it from people you know, that is no different from relying on testimony of victims, which you refuse to do. In other words, according to you we should trust unnamed musicians you know, but not the multiple OSM musicians who came out openly to tell their stories of harassment. Why?
          I’m not saying victims should be believed automatically all the time. But here, there is a story that is confirmed by multiple musicians on the record, which corresponds to documentary evidence (the management has confirmed the existence of the 1997 petition, and there are the union complaints, etc.).
          Same with the accusations of sexual harassment/assault. There is either a vast conspiracy to take down an old innocent man, or there are a number of very troubling and plausible accounts.
          So why not believe them?

          • The story of the rift in 2002 was well documented at that time,among others,in the New York Times.Speak to the members,and you´ll find a fifty-fifty assessment of his work there.What´s more,Dutoit has been ousted now by many organizations because of allegations of sexual misconduct,not his working style.So what???If you start to attack conductors because of dictatorial behaviour,okay,then stop 50% from performing.I´ve seen less than nice rehearsal behaviour from many,many,also active today.Among them the world´s two greatest Generalmusikdirektoren and a knighted icon of period performance(and fabuluos not just in this repertoire).making music professionally isn´t always for the faint hearted….

          • Ok. There is a distinction between unpleasant, direct, or rude behaviour and working practices, and bullying that puts several musicians on sick leave. Dutoit is not accused on being impolite – he’s accused of systematic bullying and harassment which caused significant harm to a number of musicians.

            As for sexual misconduct, same rules apply. Six independent accusations – that doesn’t make you raise an eyebrow? You’re right – there isn’t enough evidence to get a condemnation in a court of law. That’s a very common feature in sexual crimes – it tends to be one on one, without witnesses or evidence. But you don’t think six independent accusations – plus the workplace harassment evidence in Montreal – is enough to strongly suggest that orchestras may not want to work with him? Now, I’m not saying condemn by default, but I’m definitely not saying ignore by default either.

      • You’re posing two things that are not actually mutually exclusive. As Harold noted, Dutoit intervened on behalf of the musicians in the late 1990s contract negotiations, but then felt betrayed by some of the demands they pushed for. That doesn’t in any way conflict with musician allegations of his abusive behavior.

    • I really would like to know where you get this inside information. At one point you seem to take the musician’s side and at another, you defend the conductor and argue the ” basis of proof” nonsense. What’s your take on this Harold? Where do you come from to be such an expert on this matter. I, on the other hand, know.

  • This thread, unfortunately, unnecessarily trod the “Dutoit assault” ground yet again. The article Norman posted focused not on that, but on the practice in the orchestra world – and in particular with OSM/Dutoit – to focus on the conductor rather than the orchestra. And as many pointed out, the OSM was hardly the only orchestra to have done this. Dutoit’s alleged predation has now put the OSM in a difficult spot because it’s harder for them to market the brand/relationship for which they remain best known, but even without these allegations, the “conductor focus” is a worthwhile topic of discussion.

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