Au Revoir, Dutoit

Written by Richard Murison

About ten years ago I shared an airplane ride with Charles Dutoit, the former conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  Dutoit had been principal conductor of the orchestra since 1977, and under his leadership the orchestra’s reputation had risen from that of an everyday regional ensemble to one with a global reputation of excellence.  In 2002, as they were preparing for a season devoted to a celebration of his 25th year with the orchestra, Dutoit abruptly resigned and walked out.

The stereotypical orchestral conductor has always been a temperamental, autocratic maestro.  In a sense, this comes with the territory.  An orchestra, particularly one with a global reputation, attracts into its membership musicians of the very highest caliber.  As a conductor, you can’t just walk into the rehearsal hall, baton in hand, and expect them to do exactly what you say.  No, it doesn’t work like that.  You have to earn their respect, either by establishing your reputation in advance, or by earning it at the podium.  And even if you’ve earned their respect, you may still need to earn their fear before you can get them to play the way you want them to.  Failing one or the other, you will be out of the door before you know what’s happened.  So for a prominent maestro to be accused of being an autocratic bastard is … well … hardly news.  But they get away with it because, as with professional sports, the world of the major classical orchestra is a results-based business, and the benefits of playing in one of the most in-demand orchestras in the world generally outweighs the personal challenges of serving under an autocrat.

Dutoit was most certainly an autocrat, and, apparently, a pretty mean-spirited one at that.  So much so that, by the spring of 2002, with a celebration of the orchestra’s 25th anniversary ahead of them, his personal relationship with the majority of his players had sunk to an all-time low.  When Dutoit initiated proceedings to dismiss two members of the orchestra, the president of the players’ union issued a public letter accusing him of a number of unreasonable, unfair, and unacceptable practices, and in an interview went so far as to state that “The musicians have, for the past 10 years at least, been abused and harassed.  They have been treated with derision and condescension”.  He further characterized Dutoit as “a tyrant” who rules by “verbal and psychological abuse”.  This was too much for Dutoit, who threw his toys out of the pram and, with immediate effect, severed his ties to the orchestra.

Thus it was that, some seven-plus years later, with the orchestra’s reputation finally beginning to show signs of a recovery under new music director Kent Nagano, I found myself flying from Montreal to San Francisco with Charles Dutoit.  Not with him, you understand.  Merely “in his presence”.  Dutoit flew first class, as did I.  But in my case, as a frequent flyer, I received an upgrade.  Dutoit, one expects, paid the full fare, or had someone pay it for him.  I first became aware of his presence as we prepared to board.  As you will know, first class passengers enjoy the privilege of advance boarding, along with frequent fliers who have attained a sufficiently prestigious level.  This wasn’t acceptable to Dutoit.  He clearly felt that passengers who paid the full first class fare (or maybe just passengers named ‘Dutoit’, I wasn’t sure) should be personally called to board before the frequent flier rabble.  Thus it was that he – literally – elbowed his way to the front of the line.  He barged past me, presented his ticket, and headed on into the first class cabin.  I must admit that I watched this whole drama unfolding with some amusement, and maneuvered myself to ensure that if he wanted to push in front of me he would be obliged to be pretty blatant about it.  Which, indeed, he was.

A few minutes later, I arrived at my own first-class seat, which as luck would have it, was adjacent to Dutoit’s, with just the aisle between us.  So I got a front row seat for the Dutoit show.  I wouldn’t describe him as loud, which he certainly wasn’t.  Nor did he monopolize the stewardess’s attentions, which he didn’t.  But he addressed the stewardess in the most condescending and superior manner, making it very plain that he expected his every command to be acted upon as if he owned the airline.  For the duration of that 5-hour flight I felt very much at one with the players of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

[All this stands in stark contrast to a remarkably similar situation where I found myself travelling from Montreal to Paris in the presence of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife.  Mr. Mulroney could not have been any less self-important, or more gracious in his interactions with his fellow passengers and the airline staff.]

So, Dutoit is a self-absorbed egotist with a well-developed sense of entitlement.  Frankly, that comes across as neither a surprise, nor as a particularly news-worthy revelation.  It would be barely worthy of raising as an anecdote in casual conversation.  But last year, the whole Dutoit story took a decidedly darker turn.  Dutoit was accused by multiple women of having raped them, these acts having taken place more or less throughout his career.  We’re not talking groping here, but actual rape.  As I write this, it is not clear to me what the legal status is regarding these accusations, or whether any of them are on track to proceed to trial.  But what I do know is that more or less every orchestra Dutoit is associated with, or has been associated with in the past, has firmly severed all ties with him.  This includes the MSO, with whom a certain rapprochement had been taking place of late.  As for Dutoit, he has formally denied the allegations.

So, while it looks pretty clear that Dutoit is at best a person you don’t want to fly with, and at worst a serial rapist, it doesn’t make him unique.  Heaven knows, there are many, many musicians whose work I admire, that at best I wouldn’t want to fly with.  No, the interesting question here, as it is with other prominent persons who have been accused of varying degrees of sexual impropriety, ranging from workplace harassment, via sexual assault, to rape, is where we go from there.  How do we separate the stains on their personal reputations from the highlights of their professional accomplishments?

Take the CBC, for example (and I’d be happy if you would).  Canada’s public broadcaster can be relied upon to take the most politically correct of all possible positions, and they have naturally applied their own patented line of logic to the Dutoit case.  They decided that they couldn’t just ban all of Dutoit’s recordings from the airwaves, since that would effectively ban all the musicians who, not only were not party to his misdeeds, but in many cases were the victims of them.  So they would continue to play from the vast catalog of Dutoit-led recordings in their library, but when doing so would no longer credit Dutoit.  In other words, if they tell you who the conductor is you know it isn’t Dutoit, and if they don’t … well you know that obviously it was!  Good old CBC.

But what am I supposed to do with Dutoit’s contribution to my own record library?  It’s not huge … less than a couple of dozen albums at a guess.  For the most part, these are excellent recordings, both in terms of music interpretation and recording quality.  Two of them are Grammy winners.  Am I supposed to stop playing them because he is a rapist?  [… which he isn’t, of course.  He’s an accused rapist.]

We need to ask ourselves what is it about accusations of sexual assault that require such special treatment.  For example, Phil Spector is serving life for murder, but I’m not sure the CBC has taken a position on his extensive and influential professional oevre.  Likewise Chuck Berry, who served 20 months in Club Fed for kidnapping a 14-year old girl and transporting her across state lines for “immoral purposes”.  Or Jim Gordon (who co-wrote ‘Layla’), who attacked his mother with a hammer, and when that didn’t work, stabbed her to death.  And then there was the Italian renaissance composer Gesualdo, who murdered his wife and her lover, but got away with it thanks to his noble birth.  None of those individuals made the CBC’s shit list.  Even Beethoven was arrested for vagrancy, and famously invoked the “don’t you know who I am?” defence.  In other words, it seems that an accusation of sexual assault is sufficient that you should become a soviet-style ‘unperson’, where a conviction for murder, kidnapping … or vagrancy … is not.

Speaking of accusations, one Pythonesque episode managed to rope in three notable classical composers.  Brahms was actually accused of being a serial cat killer who incorporated their dying cries into his chamber music (!), an accusation which if leveled today would doubtless have got him banned from the CBC for all eternity.  It gets better.  He supposedly committed the foul deed(s) using a crossbow given to him for the purpose by Dvořák.  But in the end it emerged the whole thing was a slanderous false rumor created by none other than Richard Wagner, who hated nothing more than hearing other composers’ work praised.

We have a legal system whose purpose distills down to providing society as a whole with a mechanism by which to deal with a person’s misdeeds and hold them to account.  If you do the crime, you do the time, as they say.  And, supposedly at least, the punishment is designed to be a sufficient and adequate retribution for the misdeed.  But beyond that, as individuals, we are all free to hold whatever opinions we desire about individuals who have committed crimes, regardless of whether they have been brought to book for them and served their prescribed punishment [although our freedom to act upon those opinions is more limited].  So I don’t have to watch movies produced by Harvey Weinstein, or starring Kevin Spacey, or Winona Rider (who … gasp … shoplifted), if I don’t want to.  And I don’t have to watch old episodes of The Cosby Show (which is good, because I didn’t care much for it anyway).  These should be choices for me to make personally, and I’m unhappy for other institutions, organizations, or individuals to be making them for me, particularly when their decisions are being made based on the media-driven public outrage issues du jour, as opposed to on a consistent, open, and rational basis.  The reason this happens, of course, that a cold and considered rational system fails to satisfy the outrage and bloodlust of a callous public whose attention span is not apparently up to considering an issue beyond the lurid extent of its headlines.  At our core, it seems, we are still a torches-and-pitchforks society.

I don’t have to play my Dutoit albums.  It’s my choice.  But I will, whenever I feel like it – despite my personal experiences with the man himself, and despite the despicable acts of which he stands accused – because they are worthy recordings.  In the same way that House of Cards was great TV, and Pulp Fiction was a great movie.  And, yes, I actually like Let It Be”.  As it’s equally my choice that I don’t listen to Justin Bieber, who, best as I can tell, has never raped anyone.

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