Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

In thrall to former director Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra became tone deaf

An old story caught up with the board and administration of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra last week, as allegations of psychological abuse of players by former music director Charles Dutoit were spelled out in detail in two francophone newspapers.

The scenario resembled that of many recent accusations of sexual misconduct – including those against Mr. Dutoit – with one important difference: The players' complaints of bullying from the podium were made very public 15 years ago, and ignored.

An open letter alleging the abuse, in April, 2002, was the precipitating factor in Mr. Dutoit's abrupt resignation days later. "The reality of life in the MSO for most players," wrote Quebec Musicians' Guild president Émile Subirana, "is unrelenting harassment, condescension and humiliation by a man whose autocratic behaviour has become intolerable."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Dutoit's departure was big news, and virtually every story about it referred to the letter's abuse allegations. But MSO leadership, the media and much of the orchestra's public seemed too stunned by the conductor's resignation to spare much sympathy for players who had risen up the world's orchestral ranks during his watch.

As recently as 2016, when Mr. Dutoit made a return visit to the MSO podium, board chair and former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard retailed the same view he broadcast in 2002: that the letter's attack on the music director was a shocking blemish on an otherwise legendary collaboration.

"The deplorable circumstances of his resignation were something that had to be mended," Mr. Bouchard told The Globe and Mail at the time. "We know what we owe him." Mr. Bouchard said nothing about what might have been owed to the players, although six were quietly allowed to skip the Dutoit concerts with pay.

Dramatically different sounds came from the top immediately after Le Devoir and La Presse last week published detailed accounts of how players allegedly were bullied and intimidated by the conductor for many years.

A 1997 petition, signed by a majority of the players and unearthed by Le Devoir, pleaded for a meeting with the board of directors to discuss the problem, but the request was refused.

The papers were still fresh on the stands when Mr. Bouchard issued a statement saying he was touched by the accounts, and vowing "renewed determination to safeguard and respect the dignity and fundamental rights of the musicians and administrative personnel."

Rather than simply blame Mr. Bouchard and other directors for missing their cue to show compassion, it's worth looking at the circumstances that may have led them to brush off the players' complaints for about 20 years. Workplace abuse was not much discussed as a public-health and human-rights issue in 1997.

Story continues below advertisement

Quebec labour standards did not require employers to address or prevent psychological harassment in the workplace till 2002.

As well, the culture of symphony orchestras has historically tolerated and even approved of conductors who trample their ensembles into shape.

Old-school autocrats seem to be vanishing from the podium, unlike a closely related phenomenon: the focus of orchestral marketing on the leader. NBC started that trend in the 1930s when it popularized its radio orchestra by hyping Arturo Toscanini as an imported musical demigod. Most orchestras follow the same strategy, greeting every music director as a new messiah. That may be part of the reasons North American orchestras still look abroad for leadership, perpetuating the idea of salvation from afar.

The MSO built a high pedestal for Mr. Dutoit, and was understandably flummoxed when he jumped off. It faced a gaping hole where its global branding had been focused. It had to reprint its brochure for the forthcoming season, which had an image of Mr. Dutoit on every page. Tellingly, there were no photos of the orchestra.

That could have been the moment for MSO management to recognize the risks of making a man your brand. But it did much the same thing with Mr. Dutoit's successor, Kent Nagano, hailing him as the next architect of the orchestra's greatness.

As shown by the Dutoit case, and by that of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, selling your leader as an indispensable wizard makes it hard to control him if he steps out of line. It also confuses the public about what an orchestra is. It's not a band of puppets waiting to be activated by an inspired pair of hands. It's a gathering of individual artists, who together maintain the sound, traditions and personality of the ensemble. However great the conductor, nothing would be heard without the craft, dedication and art of the players.

Story continues below advertisement

To recognize that more openly would give a more accurate picture of how orchestral music is made. It would also shore up the players' personal dignity and rights, which Mr. Bouchard has sworn to protect.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.