Revisiting: Montreal Symphony Orchestra & the Dutoit years

First published in The Herald in July, 2011

I arrived in Montreal in early May, the morning after a general election. Talk in the cafes was gloomy: Canada had shuffled to the right, boosting Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from minority to forcible majority and leaving the French-speaking, left-leaning province of Quebec yet again at political odds with its neighbours. Francophone voters habitually ignore their Tory candidates. This time they’d also abandoned en masse their long-standing separatist Bloc Quebecois in favour of the young National Democrats — Canada’s new opposition party.

A couple of days later, Madeleine Careau simply shrugged at the strange results. ‘C’est bien normal,’ she explained; ‘le balancier quebecois’ — the Quebecois swing. Careau would know. As general manager of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, her job is dependant on Quebec’s political climate, and for much of the past two decades has had plenty volatility of its own. Dictatorial conductors, several rounds of industrial action, quick-changing popular support… Shrugging at melodrama must become a default reaction.

The MSO made its name in the 1980s by playing French music better than any other orchestra in the world. For a city where the wrong size of English lettering on a poster earns you hefty fines, the choice of repertoire was no accident: Debussy and Ravel were as much a statement of le Quebec francophone as provincial language laws. Successive Quebec governments have supported the arts with a small nation’s recognition that cultural identity is best packaged in creative expression. When Montreal’s commercial sector moved west to Toronto to escape separatist politics and French language laws, a generation of artists filled the empty lots. The city’s economy still hasn’t recovered (ask a Montrealer about potholes and you’ll make Edinburgh look delighted about the trams) but the Plateau neighbourhood is home to the highest density of artists anywhere in Canada.

The orchestra grew from solid roots, the likes of Zubin Mehta and Franz-Paul Decker among its artistic directors in the 1960s and 70s. But the architect of the signature MSO sound — the sound you’d instantly recognise when you turned on the radio — was the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit. His reign began in 1977 and lasted an epic 24 years. And it really was a reign, despotic and Machiavellian in a way that now seems quaintly old-fashioned.

‘The running joke was that the orchestra lost a marriage every tour: that’s how hard Dutoit worked us,’ bass player Scott Feltham told me between rehearsals at Place des Arts. ‘I remember the first time I played Ravel with the orchestra. I was looking at the music stand, I was looking up at Charlie, but I had no idea where the energy was coming from. I was being swept up by some collective force. After that long together a kind of osmosis develops.’

A 20-year recording contract with Decca made the MSO the most recorded orchestra in the world, and the best of these recordings — Ravel’s La Valse and Daphnis et Chloe, Debussy’s La Mer, Stravinsky’s French-period ballets — remain unsurpassed. Even Decca’s jacket art became iconic, staples of collectors’ shelves around the world.

But Dutoit’s time with the orchestra was not entirely a happy one. Montrealers look back on it like a passionate but abusive marriage. ‘It had a lot to do with management,’ Feltham pointed out. ‘Zarin Mehta [brother of Zubin] was orchestral manager until 1990. He knew the music industry inside out, knew what the musicians should and shouldn’t do, so he’d stand up to Dutoit when he tried to work us too hard. When he left, the musicians started standing up for themselves. That totally did for the relationship.’

Things deteriorated at the turn of the millennium, just ahead of Dutoit’s 25th anniversary with the orchestra. ‘I think he planned it so it would hurt most,’ Careau said. ‘He messed around the players to the point where he knew they couldn‘t respect him anymore.’ Stories of his emotional and sexual bullying are widespread in Montreal, but still the orchestra’s PR agent winced as Feltham began to divulge. ‘We became a laughing stock when we toured because of Charlie’s behaviour. I mean, that time in Las Vegas…’ Glancing at the PR agent, he trailed off.

‘More to the point, Dutoit alienated everyone in Montreal,’ Careau took over. ‘The board refused to work with him. Politicians didn’t want to support the orchestra because they saw him as aloof. He may have had international clout as a great maestro, but he lost touch with the community at home.’ When he tried firing a well-liked trumpet player overnight, the orchestra finally decided they’d had enough and the Musicians‘ Union published an open letter to say so. Dutoit walked out and has never returned since.

What followed were several years — the interregia period, Feltham calls it — that most members of the orchestra would rather forget. B-rate conductors came and went, the union staged strikes over contracts and pay, the best musicians started leaving for more stable positions elsewhere. ‘Standards fell apart,’ said Feltham. ‘If I’m honest? We still haven’t recovered.’

Kent Nagano arrived as artistic director in 2006. ‘By the time I honoured my commitment to take up the position’ — the conductor chose his words carefully when we met to talk about it — ‘a lot had changed. The orchestra was held together by the sheer will of its players to keep the institution going. There was a lot of work to do, not just musically, but with the community who had lost faith in what the orchestra stood for.’ His challenge has been two-fold: rebuilding the support of the Montreal community and politicians, and rebuild the orchestra’s musical identity. Judging by a brand new concert hall going up at Place des Arts, built specially for the MSO by the Quebec government, the first is fait-accompli. ‘Dutoit had the dream to build a decent hall 30 years ago,’ said Careau. ‘But he could never curry enough favour with politicians to make it happen. Nagano has done it.’

The second is trickier. Le balancier quebecois inevitably saw to the public hysteria — Naganomania, according to local press — that greeted Nagano’s arrival in 2006. Musicians admit that the orchestra’s honeymoon period with Nagano is now over, too. Nagano himself was defensive when I asked whether that classic MSO sound has survived. ‘A quarter of a century is a long time, you know. Of course the orchestra sounds different now. Like any healthy community, an orchestra evolves.’ He has steered away from the former staple diet of French music, focusing instead on the Austro-German repertoire that Dutoit pointedly neglected. But forging a new identity out of Beethoven symphonies is a risk; every orchestra plays them, many play them better. It would be a terrible shame if, after everything the MSO has been, it evolved into a generic pop-classics band.

Can you still turn on the radio and instantly tell it’s them? The answer (not really) may have to do with the fact that orchestras everywhere are becoming more homogenous; ‘national sounds’ are less overt than they once were. Feltham told me that French music is still there in the orchestra’s collective memory, but that it is emotionally loaded, ‘like getting back together with an old lover. Deep down we probably want to rebel against how we used to do La Valse with Charlie, even though we know it was so good…’

The MSO visits the Edinburgh Festival for the first time this summer. Their programmes are the perfect statement of what the orchestra was and what it has become: Debussy’s La Mer and Beethoven’s Sixth, Stravinsky’s Firebird and Mahler’s Ruckertliederare. A politician’s state visit could not have been more diplomatically planned. And, by excellent coincidence, the other visiting North American orchestra this year is Philadelphia — which is conducted by a certain Maestro Dutoit…