Montreal Symphony Orchestra Upheaval

It looks like an operatic finale to one of the most productive partnerships in classical music. After 25 years as artistic director of the MONTREAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, Charles Dutoit abruptly resigned his position last week, in the midst of a nasty spat with his once loyal musicians.

Montreal Symphony Orchestra Upheaval

It looks like an operatic finale to one of the most productive partnerships in classical music. After 25 years as artistic director of the MONTREAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, Charles Dutoit abruptly resigned his position last week, in the midst of a nasty spat with his once loyal musicians. The renowned Swiss conductor, who has led the Quebec orchestra to international prominence - together they've won many top awards, including Grammys and Junos, while releasing more than 75 recordings since his arrival - took umbrage at complaints, raised by the union representing orchestra members, that his personal management style borders on the tyrannical. "It is with great sadness," Dutoit declared in a terse press release, "that following the hostile declarations, I see no other choice but to announce my resignation, effective immediately."

Coming less than two weeks before the symphony's next scheduled appearance on Apr. 23, the resignation threw the institution into turmoil. Board members held a series of emergency meetings to try to resolve the dispute and coax the conductor back to the podium, at least for the short term. "We're trying to make sure that, if Mr. Dutoit leaves, his departure will be managed in a more harmonious way," said Marie-Josée Desrochers, the symphony's director of communications.

But the Quebec Musicians' Guild, which sparked the crisis by threatening to launch legal action against the maestro to block his attempts to fire two members of the orchestra, says his departure is no great loss to those who have had to endure his mercurial temper. Even in the high-stress, high-expectations world of professional classical music, Dutoit stood out, said union president Emile Subirana. "He crossed the line consistently from strong leadership and demanding excellence to abusive behaviour, making sarcastic comments and selecting certain people - trying to get them to perform a particular passage over and over until they would finally crack."

The alleged abuses have been going on for more than a decade, said the union head. In 1997, more than 50 symphony members signed a petition asking the orchestra's board to remedy the situation, but no action was taken. A similar request made last fall was also ignored, said Subirana. The musicians voted to go public with their complaints as a last resort. "I compare it to sort of a battered spouse syndrome," said Subirana. "You put up with it, you're embarrassed to admit that it's getting to you. You want to be a strong person, you don't want to admit this guy is getting under your skin." Several orchestra members, he added, have had to seek medical help to deal with stress and depression caused by the tense atmosphere.

For the moment, Dutoit, who was busy last week conducting a series of concerts with American orchestras, has refused all comment. But relations between the musicians and management have reportedly been tense since a bitter 1998 players' strike. Tours and recordings have been curtailed since the labour dispute, in part because of contract provisions that forbid the practice of having musicians travel, rehearse and perform all on the same day.

The prospect of Dutoit's departure has many music lovers worried that he might take much of the symphony's lustre with him, and has been greeted with something close to panic in Montreal's cultural community. Claude Gingras, a critic for La Presse, wrote that the current scenario is as unthinkable as the two hijacked aircraft that brought down the World Trade Center last September. Wah Keung Chan, publisher of the Montreal-based La Scena Musicale, a monthly magazine devoted to classical music in Canada, said Dutoit is a "visionary" who put the city's symphony "on the map." "Today, it's probably one of the top10 orchestras in the world in terms of its flexibility and repertoire," said Chan. "Dutoit will leave a void."

Subirana admits the musicians are also apprehensive about the future, but still feel things have worked out for the best. "Things might be different," he says, "but their mental health will be better."

Maclean's April 22, 2002