Conductor/Orchestra Retrospective, vol. 1: Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal



Charles Dutoit/Montreal Symphony Orchestra: Ravel - Dpahnis et Chloe

Charles Dutoit/Montreal Symphony Orchestra: Ravel – Dpahnis et Chloe

There is perhaps no musical relationship of the last 30 or 40 years married to its specific time and place more than that of Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, or as they’re known in Quebec, the (insert accent that sounds like an alcoholic with a head cold and a mouthful of brownie – WHAT!). Like two relatively bright stars passing in the night sky, they found each other and subsequently embarked on a 25-year relationship that raised both of their respective profiles immensely. And as can be the case in many 25-year relationships, things ended sourly and abruptly (shout out to parents everywhere!). Dutoit, attempting to fire two musicians, instead was the subject of an open letter from a union rep alleging that he had verbally and psychologically abused everybody during his tenure. He left immediately. He hasn’t conducted in Montreal since.

At their peak, Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony had an incredibly high profile. Thanks to Dutoit’s friendship with a London/Decca Records producer, the group began a long-term collaboration that saw them record heavily for the better part of 20 years, on a par with the greatest orchestras in the world. As of me typing this sentence, there are still 193 recordings with the pairing available on ArkivMusic (many of them compilations, but still), a fairly staggering number. These were the halcyon days when orchestras recorded for major labels and people were still enthused about something called compact discs and every conductor with even a remotely respectable reputation gave us his or her take on Symphonie Fantastique and Tschaikovsky 5. Dutoit and the OSM recorded a shitload of French and Russian music, which presumably leads to the sentence from Dutoit’s Wikipedia page that says that he is “particularly noted for his interpretations of French and Russian 20th century music.”

It’s interesting, and perhaps instructive, to look at the fates of the respective parts of this relationship before and after their marriage to one another. Dutoit was a guest conductor of two orchestras from his native country, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra beginning in 1959, and got his first music directorship in 1967 when he took over the Bern Symphony Orchestra from the underrated Paul Kletzki. After Montreal he’s had gigs with Philadelphia, the French National Orchestra, the NHK, and currently is the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. I don’t want to say that Dutoit’s non-Montreal career has been forgettable, but wait what was I talking about I don’t remember because it doesn’t matter in any way. Montreal or GTFO.

The Montreal Symphony has actually had quite a few famous maestros in its history: Desire Defauw (who took over the Chicago Symphony from the legendary Frederick Stock during his tenure in Montreal no less), Igor Markevitch, a young and virile Zubin Mehta, brief stints with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Otto Klemperer (as artistic advisor), and currently Kent Nagano. I had to be reminded that Nagano was still there through a Google search and had no idea whatsoever that those other great conductors were ever affiliated with the band.

In this sense this pairing is something of an anomaly when viewed alongside some of the other great orchestras and conductors of the world – most of the great ones have at least one other relationship that strikes listeners as meaningful – but in a way that says all that needs to be said. I’ve never considered Dutoit a particularly great conductor nor the Montreal Symphony a particularly great orchestra within their respective fields, yet their collaboration is without question one of the most successful of the last several decades. It’s a bit like a television show: when the component parts mesh seamlessly, the result is greater than the sum of said parts. The six main characters from “Friends,” for example, have gone on to varying degrees of success that probably top out at middling, but that show was enormously popular and influential during its nine seasons, in large part because of the chemistry and rapport of the cast members.

Another, and better, way to look at it is like a coach and their team. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan often has the criticism levied against him that his two Super Bowl championships as a head coach only came during his years in Denver when Hall of Famer John Elway was his quarterback. This is true, but how many Super Bowl championships did Hall of Famer John Elway win when he was being coached by someone other than Mike Shanahan? If you guessed zero, you are not only correct but also probably hate John Elway as much as I do. The relationship between that specific coach and that specific team at that specific time made them all better.

So it is with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony. For two solid decades they went toe-to-toe with the greatest orchestras on the planet, and they have an extensive (though admittedly narrowly focused) discography to show for it. Neither has achieved anything close to the degree of success that they experienced together on their own, and neither appears in a position to change that anytime soon. With the acrimony that lingers from Dutoit’s departure, it’s hard to imagine the two ever having a significant musical encounter again. Keep your fingers crossed, especially if you like French music.

Recommended recordings:

Berlioz: Les Troyens

Probably the high point of the Dutoit/Montreal years, this recording might qualify as one of those “every other recording doesn’t matter” recordings like the Reiner Mysterious Mountain or Kleiber Beethoven 7.

Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette and Symphonie Funebre et triomphale

They were good at Berlioz, what else is there to say? This is, at least in my opinion, the go-to recording of Romeo et Juliette.

Ravel: Orchestral Works, etc.

It’s not that every single one of these performances are amazing, but some of them are, and Pascal Roge is awesome in the Piano Concerti. Having all this Ravel in one handy and well-executed place is just healthy living.

Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat

Not close to the best Three-Cornered Hat out there, but it is part of a surprisingly great set of Falla recordings and it’s good enough to mention as the only non-French thing on this brief list.



3 thoughts on “Conductor/Orchestra Retrospective, vol. 1: Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

  1. Agree with PPP, the Holst Planets is incredible in all respects.

  2. Hey, Bruce: Regarding the Montréal / Dutoit recording of The Planets, I created a blog comparing all known CD versions of that work, and Chuck’s version came out on top.

    You can [Warning: Self-Promotion Alert] see the list here:

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