Few doors in classical music have slammed as hard as the one that closed behind Charles Dutoit when he quit l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 2002. Probably no one foresaw that the 25 years the Swiss conductor spent leading the OSM to unprecedented world renown would end in a sudden and total divorce.
Orchestras tend to keep former music directors of long standing within arm's reach, by offering them regular guest engagements and honorific titles. But Dutoit, stung by events leading up to his resignation, has refused all contact with the OSM for the past 14 years, while keeping an apartment in Montreal and continuing his career elsewhere.
So it was a surprise and a relief to many in Montreal when rumours became fact, and Dutoit's name at last appeared on two concerts with the orchestra this coming week at Maison symphonique de Montréal. They are not, strictly speaking, OSM concerts: Both were produced by cultural entrepreneur Alain Simard, who made them part of the current Montréal en lumière festival.
Simard, a friend of Dutoit's who is also founder of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, said he pitched the idea of a special return engagement to the conductor three years ago. Dutoit was still reluctant, he said, though intrigued by the prospect of performing for the first time at Maison symphonique, which opened nine years after he left.
"He was always talking about building a symphony hall while he was here," Simard said. "Two prime ministers broke ground with a shovel with him" – but those projects fell through. Dutoit's curiosity became keen enough that he visited the hall to hear a concert by the OSM and Yo-Yo Ma, said Simard. No doubt there were more than a few double-takes in the adjoining seats that evening.
For Lucien Bouchard, the former Quebec premier and current board chairman of the OSM, the concerts with Dutoit are about repairing "something that had to be mended. We know what we owe him. It's something very emotional for all of us, when we think of what happened, the deplorable circumstances of his resignation, and our separation for all these years."
Dutoit has only rarely alluded in public to his view of those "deplorable circumstances," and refused media interviews before next week's shows. But a year ago, he aired his side of the story to a freelance music writer in San Francisco, faulting both the musicians' union and the OSM administration, especially "the lady, who was completely ignorant of music" – namely current CEO Madeleine Careau, who had signed what Dutoit considered to be an unworkably lax contract with the musicians.
"These people were starting to think they were so good they didn't have to work, and they didn't need to rehearse," said Dutoit. In fact, OSM musicians at the time probably had one of the most exhausting schedules of any North American orchestra, due to extensive touring and recording, and to Dutoit's wide choice of repertoire.
"I made one mistake," Dutoit recalled, "I never answered the attacks from the union." The main attack came in a now-infamous open letter from a union representative, which triggered the resignation.
As for the reunion concerts, which were still not a sure thing when the conductor gave his interview, Dutoit said "it's not a question of reconciliation or things like that. I would be delighted to see numerous musicians. I miss a lot of them – the extraordinary tours that we did and the number of records we made. So it would be nice to see them one last time."
You may wonder why a man who has kept an apartment in the same town as so many dear colleagues for the past 14 years didn't just meet some of them for coffee. The answer is probably that for someone who answers to "Maestro," seeing a subordinate from a podium is not at all like seeing them in ordinary life.
After quitting the OSM, Dutoit found a welcome berth at the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he had already been directing a pair of annual summer concert series. When music director Christoph Eschenbach left abruptly in 2008, Dutoit became the orchestra's chief conductor. His four-year tenure came during a time of extreme administrative and financial turmoil, which he described in 2011 as "the most difficult [period] of my entire professional life" – an interesting comment from a man who was still in his Achilles tent about the OSM.
But Dutoit never became music director in Philadelphia, though "there are many signs that he came extremely close," as Philadelphia Inquirer music critic David Patrick Stearns wrote when Dutoit stepped down in 2012. "Dutoit's rare blend of gifts has been taken for granted," said Stearns's colleague Peter Dobrin, in the same paper.
Nonetheless, Philadelphia saw him off with a big backstage party, and crowned him conductor laureate – tributes that were never allowed to happen in Montreal, where Dutoit had been treated almost like a god. It must have been a bit galling for him to see the top job in Philly go to the young Montrealer Yannick Nézet-Séguin, even though the latter has said that hearing Dutoit and the OSM as a boy made him want to be a conductor.
Dutoit still has an ongoing relationship with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he is artistic director and principal conductor. But he will be 80 this year, and it's probably not too early to say that the OSM relationship marked the peak of his career, in terms of his renown and the range of what he was able to do. It helped that the partnership really began to cook during the dawn of the CD era, with an energized recording market and lots of money to record the classics. But the core of the phenomenon was that Dutoit's best performances with the OSM had a clarity and finesse, and also a kind of sensual ferocity, that were thrillingly unlike anything else.
His program next week is definitely retrospective. It includes the kind of French and Russian repertoire – by Berlioz, Ravel and Stravinsky – that appeared often on his OSM programs and his 80 recordings with the orchestra. The soloist is pianist Martha Argerich, who appeared on Dutoit's first international tour with the OSM and is also his ex-wife.
Could these shows be the beginning of the long-awaited thaw, or are they the "one last time" Dutoit foresaw last year?
"There is a standing invitation for him to come as a guest conductor any time," said Bouchard, who also counts himself as a friend of Dutoit. The public seems inclined to second the invitation: Both shows sold out early.
Charles Dutoit and Martha Argerich appear for two concerts with the OSM on Feb. 18 and 20, at Montreal's Maison symphonique (montrealenlumiere.com/en/).