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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 8

Editorial: The Dutoit Affair

by Wah Keung Chan / May 1, 2002

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Charles Dutoit is gone. His era as artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra has come to an abrupt end. Most readers have heard that he was a tyrant, that he had sent two musicians letters to review their performance (mid-March), that all the MSO musicians were outraged and voted with a strong majority to grant their union "any means necessary" to rectify the situation (March 27), that the Guilde des musiciens went public with their accusations of harassment and threat of a lawsuit (April 8), that Dutoit suddenly resigned (April 10), and finally that the musicians abstained from supporting Dutoit's return for his 25th season (April 17). No matter what side one takes in this drama, it could not have come at a worst time for the orchestra: They had just announced a star-studded 25th season with Dutoit at the helm (March 26). The crisis might have been averted if the parties had been guided solely by the desire to produce excellent music. Instead, personal egos prevailed.

Piecing together the events from the many published sources and through our own investigations, it now seems clear that a major cause of the Dutoit affair lay in a provision of the 1998 collective agreement. Alan Conter of the Globe and Mail first reported on April 13th that the root of the problem was clause 12.05 c), which states that when the maestro initiates a dismissal procedure, the dismissal can only be set aside by at least 75% of the review committee, meaning that only 25% of the committee is needed to fire a musician. The review committee is normally composed of the audition or tenure committee without the participation of the maestro. La Scena Musicale has learned that the terms of clause 12.05 c) had existed in various forms since 1987 or before. According to our sources, at one time, the maestro had needed at least 50% of the committee to side with him. In a subsequent contract, the clause was meant to be changed to 75% of the committee to give musicians more security, but a typo or other error altered the requirement to 25%. Nobody caught it, and the time bomb has been handed down from contract to contract ever since; indeed, according to the Marie-Josée Desrochers, the MSO's director of communications, in the current round of negotiations, clause 12.05 c) was on the list of conditions the union wanted repeated with no change. Laura Brownell, Director of the Symphonic Services Division of the Canadian office of the American Federation of Musicians, said, "The other major Canadian orchestras need at least a majority to dismiss, and the Toronto and Vancouver Symphonies require 9 votes out of 13."

According to Desrochers, Dutoit was simply following the rules of the collective agreement in requesting a meeting with the two musicians to discuss their work, a first step that might lead to dismissal. La Scena Musicale has learned that this was the first time Dutoit had initiated such a procedure since the last musician was fired back around 1980. Never having had the need to refer to clause 12.05 c) until last March, the MSO musicians were shocked at its contents. It is understandable, then, that the musicians took Dutoit's action as another case of harassment, personally motivated. As a result they asked their union to save the jobs of their two colleagues. Given the details of the collective agreement, Guild president Emile Subirana (who also served as president from 1982-91) must have realized that he could really do nothing more to save the musicians if Dutoit were to dismiss them. Instead, Subirana resorted to playing the harassment card and threatening a lawsuit. Clearly, the decision to go public was meant to disgrace Dutoit, forcing him to resign while diverting attention from the Guild's handling of clause 12.05 c).

Where do we go from here?

Management must take a more active role in improving dialogue so that the different parts of the orchestra (conductor, musicians, administration and board) work together harmoniously. To avoid future conflicts, contentious issues must be resolved. For instance:

  • give back to the musicians the security of the dismissal procedures as found in other major Canadian orchestras;
  • ensure that the touring clauses conform to industry standards as found in other world-class orchestras. This could mean that rehearsal of orchestral works on travel days may be permitted.

In an interview given to La Scena Musicale (September 2000), Dutoit said, "To justify our [the MSO's] position in the music world, we need to prove that we continue to be very good. It takes a long time and hard work to build excellence, but it takes no time to destroy it." Whoever is chosen as the new artistic director will be facing a huge challenge. Let's hope that all elements of the orchestra will pull together to maintain the quality of the music.

To follow the Dutoit affair in detail, visit <http://dutoit.scena.org>

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