Charles Dutoit

Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

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Born in Lausanne in 1936, Charles Dutoit is the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. A former pupil of Ernest Ansermet and Charles Munch, he was Artistic Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 2002. Below is the transcript of our February 11, 2015 conversation with conductor Charles Dutoit.

EH: In your opinion, has the commercialism, the packaging and distribution of music weakened the power of the art form, and perhaps, even the focus and aspirations of students ? What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between the generations ?

Dutoit: Well, it’s a very good question, and it’s hard to answer precisely. I think the young generation today, they are very spoiled, in the sense that when they are studying, they have all the information at their disposal. When I was a kid, I didn’t have the money to buy recordings. I had to go, sometimes, to a record shop, and I had to flirt with the old lady who was there (laughs). Usually, these old ladies were very nice to me, and I could hear some of my favorite things. But I didn’t have the money to buy these recordings. We used to need a lot of time to study something. We could hear something over the radio, maybe, but we were more isolated in our room, working with a piece of music.

Today, young people can learn something ten times quicker than we did. I should say, also, that technique has changed. When I did the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1967 in London, with the Royal Philharmonic, they played the piece for the first time, and they were scared to death. It was not played so much, and the degree of solfeggio and reading music was completely different. Today, fifty years later, no one has any problems with the piece. A young conductor reads it like it’s their daily bread, you know ? So it’s much easier for this generation. That’s why they can approach so much music in such a short time, and that reflects an easiness in today’s society.

The other side of the coin, of course, is the time that everyone needs to get into all these things, and this is very personal. I am a very slow person, and I need a lot of time and experience with a piece to make sure that I can really handle it properly. But I also have done a lot music in a lighter way, without having much time to ask too many questions. I have to read, I have to convince, and I have to do things quickly. I can do that too, but then I don’t really remember what I did, exactly.

But the things I learned in, say, the period when I was going to see these old ladies in the record shop (laughs), for that music, I don’t even need the score today. The music is still completely in my mind. So commercialism has brought more audiences to the concert hall. You know, forty percent of the records we made were sold in Japan. People there were so excited to buy these records, and to buy tickets to the concert halls. But what can I say ? There is always an exaggeration in everything, and an excess of commercialism is certainly not very positive. But let’s be optimistic and look at the good side of it.

EH: For many musicians and listeners, the Germans and the Austrians are still considered the summit of serious music-making. Is there any truth to the idea that the works of composers like Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Ravel – your very program in California - are less profound, less metaphysical, than those of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart ?

Dutoit: It is impossible to compare the music of Debussy or Stravinsky, Beethoven or Schumann. The music is different, the time has changed, and the way an artist expresses him or herself reflects the time in which they live. Forget about music for one second - look at the painters. Look at the evolution of painting through the ages, from the 19th century into the 20th century, and today. Music is the same.

The music of Bach and Mozart reflect the 18th century, which is sort of the crown of civilization. In the 19th century, after the revolutions, especially the French Revolution in 1789, society changed, and artists changed, you see. These were the first enormous changes in society, and music was no longer written for a prince or for the Church only, but for the concert hall, for the people. The French Revolution opened things up for the general public. They built concert halls, and music went in another direction.

In the 20th century, after Wagner and all the revolutions, there was a moment where the evolution of harmony was not possible anymore. In 1914, people had a certain perception going into the First World War, and by 1918, they had a different opinion, a different perception about society. It affected the way they looked at things, their mode of expression, and they were now looking, in a way, for the roots of the past. That’s why neoclassicism became so popular in the 1920’s.

After World War II, it was more difficult because people could not trust the Judeo-Christian way of thinking, because it had brought such catastrophe. It brought nihilism, existentialism, and all these moments after that. Living in a society, living through the change, and reflecting upon it, the music also reflects these things. When you think of Ravel or Debussy, you have to think of the evolution of French painting from, say, 1860, with Impressionism. You have to also think of the bridge into the new century, and all the things that happened there.

Ernest Ansermet, my mentor, who was chief conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which I am conducting on this tour, was in the concert hall sitting next to Maurice Ravel, listening to Iberia by Debussy. And there was Stravinsky, who came from a different school, from Russia. He, of course, was their next influence, living in Switzerland and in France. He was a very close friend to Ravel and Debussy, who were both at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, in Paris. They were among the very few people who were praising the piece in an extraordinary way, while other people were whistling, and so on. So there was a moment, something extraordinary that happened at that time. They all had something in common, this bridge over a new century. We are now at the next bridge.

So the question of depth is a difficult one. It is hard to compare a painting by Monet with a Botticelli, you see. We cannot judge the music with the same criteria – whether you take a piece by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or by Ravel. But a masterpiece by Picasso, Braque, or Stravinsky, a book by Proust or Balzac, all these things have something in common: it is an enormous level of quality.

EH: From a very young age, students are taught to find the essence of a piece and to play it in the proper style. How does one realize the essence of a composer, which some believe has a certain spiritual quality to it ?

Dutoit: First of all, one has to study not only music, but the context in which that music was written. I insist, when I have young people around, that they not only have a musical point of view, but that they look at the context, which is so important. If you play the music of Berlioz, you have to understand the relationship this composer had with the development of the social system in France, with the revolutions, the discovery of Romanticism in France in 1830, the revolutions of 1848, and so on. The political and economic contexts are extremely important.

You can approach Beethoven musically, but if you want to understand why things are written one way and not another, what was happening inside Beethoven, one has to understand the decades that he lived in - from the French Revolution, to Napoleon, to 1827. Beethoven was the end of a great classical tradition. He was very uneasy, for instance, living in that period, believing in things that were brought up by the revolutions, despised Napoleon, and, of course, was a very lonely person. It’s all there in his music.

On the other hand, today, young people must be aware and study all the music of the 19th and 20th century, as well, the political and economic context around it. It’s amazing when I see many young people, especially in China - fantastically gifted people! I encourage them, and I’ve even taken some of them to museums or plays, in order to help them to understand what they have to study, the things that really help the playing.

EH: For many listeners and conducting students, you have one of the most refined senses when it comes to sound. What is your personal take on the relationship between tempo and dynamics, phrasing and texture ?

Dutoit: When I was with the Montreal Symphony, we worked for about two years to get the sound I felt we needed for the music we were going to record. Now, that was not a French sound, as some people like to say – it was more of a classical sound. I was a string player myself, and I played in a string quartet. The school of playing, that precise way of approaching the style, the phrasing, the sound, the intonation, playing together - all of these things are always very present in my mind, and I have always tried to build the sound with these in mind. To me, music is related to a beautiful sound. When I listen to a pianist or a violinist, the quality of sound is so very important. Some music fights that, you know ? In some modern music, the composer wants to destroy these elements. But let’s talk about a classical approach.

Daphnis et Chloé is played today, and usually played very well. But you cannot destroy Ravel. It always sounds good, or more or less good (laughs). But the way the music is written - and I’m sure had I known Ravel, I would have loved to discuss these things with him – it’s like everything that is subtle. I should say it’s like cooking something in the cuisine – add more salt, and the entire balance of everything is changed.

In rehearsals, I work on a piece like the Ravel, and the balance between the instruments is just so important. The balance of the core is so important for the intonation; the overtones can just come out, like a rainbow, and produce all these beautiful colors. I’m often trying to remind musicians about these qualities. A piece like the Ravel is a good example, because it’s all based on this chemistry. It is so subtle, so beautiful, that it becomes like an obsession. You want people to really play very well. So the quality of sound is the foundation.

Orchestras today are more international than they used to be. You could hear that orchestras used to have different personalities. They would have long relationships with music directors, people with certain personalities, concepts of sound, and so on, with a certain repertoire that they played more often than others, etc. For instance, if I go to Vienna and I play de Falla or Ravel, I would certainly not get the same result as I could get with the Boston Symphony or the Chicago Symphony. On the other hand, when they play their own music - Strauss, for example - they have a style that is quite unique, too.

EH: With the decline of newspapers and the rise of music blogs, has the role of the music critic changed as well ? What are your personal feelings on this aspect of performance art ?

Dutoit: I think music critics are very important. Of course, we are exposed as musicians all the time (laughs). Sometimes, we like to have a good review; sometimes, we don’t get one (laughs), and so on. Music critics represent their own voice. But they are very important, you see, because for instance, I know very many people who read these reviews to form their own opinion about something - perhaps less so when the critic is simply writing about a performer.

When we are talking about a new piece of music, or something that has to be introduced, analyzed, and presented to the public, that is a huge responsibility. And of course, just like in our profession, not everyone is of the same competence. But we would really hope that these people, who are writing in the newspapers - they are thinking, anyway - that sometimes, they would really dig a little deeper in a work, or in something to present to the public. It is a huge responsibility they have, and one that I respect.

EH: It’s been almost thirteen years since your last concert with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. A recent piece in the Montreal Gazette states that there is a chance you might return as a guest conductor next year. Do you have any residual feelings toward the city, its orchestra - any bitterness about the way you were treated in the end ? Is there a path to reconciliation on the horizon ? You have done much for the city, and there are many new to classical music who have never heard you perform there.

Dutoit: Well, frankly, 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. We were touring, and we could not rehearse, and so on. And I never read this contract until it was signed. When I saw it, I was appalled.

I wrote a message to these representatives of the union, young people in the orchestra - 2 or 3 only, you know. I said, okay, you want what you want, but this, the artistic side of the orchestra, is getting very weak because of these demands, which are completely out of proportion and silly. And you will see, in three years, when they renegotiate this contract, you will have many problems. And indeed, they had that, because we had to write a proposal of about twenty pages of changes of this contract. We were not prepared to negotiate that. So they went to see the president of the union, a musician who tried two or three times to get into the orchestra - couldn’t make it. So the only thing they had was to attack me, because these were all artistic methods. So they did, and I was so sad about that.

But the union convinced the orchestra - they forced many of the musicians to vote for these things - and I knew at the time, my option was to have a lawyer, and say, ‘okay, now, let’s see where we go’. They could convince the musicians, as they wanted to manipulate everything. So I decided not to react. And of course, the result is that people know only the side of the union. They don’t know my side. I thought, one day, I should do something, but it’s over.

Eventually, a friend of mine, who is the director of the Jazz Festival, said to me, ‘You have a new concert hall there. It’s a concert hall that, in 1981, René Lévesque and Mayor Drapeau put the first stone in the soil for this concert hall. It took thirty years to build,’. It was opened nine years after my departure. So some people said, ‘You know, you at least have to come and listen to this new concert hall,’. So I was invited to do that. I haven’t signed anything. It’s completely in the air. The press ? I don’t know how they found that. It’s probably because musicians started to talk, and maybe they have some contact with some musicians. And obviously, probably, there was something behind -- trying to see how the musicians would react, things like that. But it’s not signed yet.

I will probably go one day. I will go, and it’s not a question of reconciliation or things like that. I would be delighted to see numerous musicians who, actually, I tried to book when I arrived there, when it was a new orchestra. I know these people, and I miss a lot of them - the extraordinary tours that we did and the number of records we made. I would love to see them because they are getting old as well. Actually, we played a concert with the Suisse Romande, and a former second-flute player wrote me a letter. She said, ‘I would like to come to the concert and see you. I am now retired!’ (laughs). So many of these people are getting close to 60-65-years-old – very ancient now! So it would be nice to see them one last time. But nothing is confirmed yet.

EH: Maestro, thank you for sharing that, and for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dutoit: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure as well!