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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 2 October 2006

Charles Dutoit: Stepping Forward and Looking Back

by Wah Keung Chan / October 5, 2006

“T he problem we have with audiences today is that we have to attract them not through culture, but through the entertainment business,” said Montreal Symphony Orchestra artistic director Charles Dutoit in an interview between rehearsals, at the Festival international de Lanaudičre. “Culture is something we used to respect a lot. In my time, we were pushed to go to concerts. There were concerts at school, but we were already educated about them. Today people just listen to music, crossover, on TV, or parts of Beethoven’s Ninth while cooking–it is not the same.” At 63, Dutoit is very vocal about the state of education today.

Dutoit’s mastery of music and his legendary ability to learn new works do not reflect his humble beginnings. “Singing in the chorus was compulsory, and I learned to read and sing the solfeggio at age six, but I didn’t take up an instrument until I was 11. I was more gifted in the sciences. Art history, languages and the humanities did not interest me at the time. My father wanted me to play something to develop my culture; the band had these fancy uniforms with an impressive cap, so I took up the trombone. After two days of awful noise, my father told me that it was not an instrument to play in an apartment, so he suggested the violin and I was a lousy pupil.”

After finishing his university degree in mathematics and receiving first prize at the conservatory, Dutoit decided to turn to music as a career and broaden his culture. He studied languages, including English and Italian, art history, sociology, politics, economics: the social context in which music and the arts are created. He also studied percussion and piano, music theory, composition, and culture in general. There happened to be openings for viola players in Lausanne; Dutoit changed to viola, which allowed him to earn a living while pursuing conducting lessons.

Dutoit first studied with Samuel Baud-Bovy. Ernest Ansermet, music director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, allowed Dutoit to attend rehearsals. “He was very impressive, intelligent and had a great capacity for explaining and relating all things together with a humanistic approach. Although not my teacher, he was my mentor,” said Dutoit. Other influences include Italian conductor Alceo Galliera, Charles Munch at Tanglewood and Herbert von Karajan at the Lucerne Festival.

When von Karajan invited Dutoit to conduct the premiere of de Falla’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat in Vienna, it pushed him into the international spotlight. Dutoit soon became second conductor of the Bern Symphony Orchestra, and shortly afterward its principal conductor, a tenure lasting eleven years.

Dutoit’s 23 years as artistic director has molded the MSO into Canada’s top ensemble and one of the best in North America. In October, MSO-Dutoit will celebrate 20 years of recording with the Decca label, a partnership that has yielded 70 discs, 1 Grammy and many other awards.

“When I arrived, the MSO was good, but missing the finesse and personality of a great orchestra.” said Dutoit. “I set about training the orchestra, making recordings and going on tours.”

Contrary to conventional belief, Dutoit and the MSO do not follow a French style. Dutoit trains the orchestra in the fundamentals of the classical style of Haydn, Mozart and the early Schubert. “You know, when I was a student at Tanglewood, I could not stand Debussy,” laughs Dutoit. “We try to build on the principles of chamber music and the string quartet. The sound has to be perfectly balanced, with great clarity. You must hear every phrase and start and finish the notes together to have perfect balance. My dream was to build a large chamber orchestra with a rich round sound that is extremely transparent, like 18th-century- music. I was very lucky to have been in a chamber orchestra to learn these basic principles as opposed to people in big opera orchestras, where playing all the notes is not important. We play all the notes carefully in this orchestra. Many orchestras have an international sound. My aim is to create the sound of the music we perform, not the sound of the orchestra. You can’t play Berlioz or Beethoven like Wagner. I recently conducted Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and at the first rehearsal they played it like Bruckner.”

When digital recording and the compact disc came out in 1980, Dutoit was quick to embrace the new technology. Their recording of Daphnis et Chloé was only the fourth digital recording available at the time; this quickness to market helped put the MSO on the map. Now Dutoit is eyeing the internet; the MSO is one of 9 top orchestras in the world negotiating with an internet start-up to record special programs for downloading. “It’s purely commercial,” says Dutoit.

Dutoit maintains, “A new concert hall would give us that extra boost.” On the artistic end, several MSO musicians have left for the US because of salary and taxes. “We have some new gifted young people. I have to work very hard to keep the sound of the orchestra intact. To justify our position in the music world, we need to prove that we are still good. It’s hard to build excellence, but it takes no time to destroy it.” n

(c) La Scena Musicale