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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 1

Charles Dutoit -- Stepping Forward and Looking Back

by Wah Keung Chan / September 1, 2000

Version française...

"The 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 Lanaudière. "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."

At that age it is important to have peer role models, and Dutoit found one in the Italian child prodigy Roberto Benzi, who was featured in a biographical ilm. "At age 13, I became friends with Benzi. He was my age and was conducting Mozart and Liszt. I found this an incredible incentive and I started to work very hard. In a year and a half, I did more than anyone else in five." Dutoit entered the conservatory and led a double life, in science and music.

When he was 15, to make ends met, Dutoit took a job playing violin in the orchestra for Sunday mass. "I came to know every part of the whole mass repertoire except the Credo, which was reserved for the priest."

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.

Training the Orchestra

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."

"At first, we work slowly, piano. The musicians learn how to listen to each other and to correct themselves. I don't have time to correct notes. The musicians have to know their roles and take the responsibility of integrating themselves in the group. An orchestra has to be exposed to challenges - to digest music in a short time. Before our first recording, I knew I had to prepare the orchestra to be ready for those challenges. I would rehearse by saying 'start 20 bars before letter A' or '3 before B. ' Bang, we are there. The musicians have to be alert. This is physical and intellectual training.

Working Techniques and Rehearsals

"It's important to know how to rehearse, how to divide your work and how to organize your time. It's something that's not taught. There is no point in practicing the entire work over and over, the same mistakes are still there. Practice 5 bars here and 6 bars there. Then live with the music, read about it, learn about other things related to the work, memorize, divide the movements, and analyze. There is no real technique to using analysis on harmonic structure, thematic structures and the orchestrations. That's what I've developed myself and it allows me to conduct so many scores in Montreal and in the world as well. When I was young it took me months to learn a score, now it takes me a few hours." Dutoit once worked with a violinist who could not memorize the Berg concerto. "I suggested analyzing the music and over two days we did the complete analysis. After that memorizing was no longer a problem."

"Efficiency at work is extremely important today because we have to absorb so much in so little time. Besides technique, you have to develop reactions. The eyes, the brain, if you don't use them every day, you lose it.

Opinions on Education

"Today the preparation of young musicians is very often insufficient. Kids are trained to play an instrument very well but that's not enough. They have little general culture. Talk about Boccaccio's Decameron, and they don't know what it is. The most important authors of the Italian language-no one knows. It is frustrating how little interest is developed in other fields. The average person is not being educated properly. After the baby boom and Dr. Spock's generation, I think people were afraid to ask too much from kids for fear of creating blockage. They invented the system of options-you could have three right answers. It's the responsibility of the government, schools, and the teachers themselves who are unionized and don't want to work extra hours. It doesn't mean that our system was better. I don't want to give you the impression that I'm a person of the past and that everything was great, but we have a responsibility. Today, with the lack of general education, music is certainly one of the things which is cancelled or is not talked about."

Dutoit is very excited about his recent appointment as head of the Sapuro Festival in Japan. "Traditions are carried on through the experiences of people, who become mature by accumulating new experiences, but always have their roots where they were born and with the people they meet. I am interested now in transmitting my experiences and the traditions I've acquired to young people. The Festival in the north of Japan was founded by Bernstein who wanted to dedicate the rest of his days to the education of the young. He died in 1991 after one season. His pupil Michael Tilson Thomas continued his mission. When he left, they asked me to take over even though I am not a disciple of Bernstein, because I am in Japan a lot. I really like the idea. The orchestra of young professionals in their twenties spends 2 weeks with 15 members of the Vienna Philharmonic and then I train them for 2 weeks like I train the MSO. The wonderful thing is that it is all paid for by sponsorship."

To the Future

What challenges does the maestro see?

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."

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