Classical Notes

Charles Dutoit reflects on his legacy, role with BSO

Conductor Charles Dutoit consults the score with Haldan Martinson, BSO principal second violin, at rehearsal last week.
Conductor Charles Dutoit consults the score with Haldan Martinson, BSO principal second violin, at rehearsal last week.

The Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit is in the midst of two weeks of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts. It is a cycle, of sorts — the start of what the orchestra is calling a “multiyear survey of the repertoire for which Maestro Dutoit is a foremost interpreter.” Last week came works by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Swiss composer Frank Martin; the current program includes rare concert performances of operas by Ravel and Stravinsky. Dutoit will return in January for music by Hindemith and Prokofiev, and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto.

At first glance, the description of this “cycle” seems like a fancy way of saying that a guest conductor is leading repertoire that he knows well. But there is more to it. The music is largely French and Russian, from the first half of the 20th century, and that is an area in which both conductor and orchestra are renowned. The BSO’s proficiency goes back decades, to the music directorships of Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch; for Dutoit, 76, it goes back to his training with Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who worked closely with Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and others.

“There is a very deeply rooted tradition for this kind of music,” Dutoit said last week at Symphony Hall, just after his first rehearsal. “The Boston Symphony has something very specific, which must be kept.”


The BSO sound, Dutoit continued, is instantly recognizable and immediately present whenever he returns. Asked to elucidate, the conductor pointed to Symphony Hall as an essential ingredient. The hall “has the warmth but also the clarity, the transparency,” said Dutoit, who first conducted the orchestra in 1981. “And also the charm.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“All these qualities, put together, give the Boston Symphony a very special sound, which I would describe as the continuation of a classical sound, but, you know, with a bridge to our time,” he continued. “It’s like, in a way, chamber musicians playing chamber music for a large orchestra. They listen to each other. The balance is subtle.”

Though Dutoit now spends most of his time guest conducting, he served a four-year stint as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra that ended earlier this year. His relation to that ensemble goes back to his 1980 Philadelphia debut and includes 21 years directing its summer season in Saratoga, NY. When he took over in 2008, the orchestra was at a low point, having recently ended a turbulent association with conductor Christoph Eschenbach and needing time to find a new music director. Things would get worse, as the orchestra endured a bankruptcy filing and labor strife.

“Because of my age, I didn’t want to be too involved,” said Dutoit, noting that those four years were “the hardest time for the orchestra. I think it goes better now.” That is certainly true, and it is also true that the Philadelphia owes much of its perseverance to Dutoit’s steady guidance.

What impressed him most was the fact that, as he said, “the musicians were 100 percent there. The most incredible attitude. Despite the problems, despite the sadness, despite all these things, they always played superbly. They wanted, more than ever, to show what the Philadelphia Orchestra is all about. I was full of admiration [for] the way they behaved, the way they played.” He now plans to step back from the orchestra for a while, in order to let the new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, establish his identity. “I don’t want to be there, like a shadow.”


Of course, the BSO is in the midst of its own music director search, so the question naturally arises: Would Dutoit be willing to play a similar role in Boston, bridging the gap between James Levine and his eventual successor?

“I prefer not to talk about this openly, because I have no idea what is going on here,” he responded. The BSO’s music directorship is “an enormous responsibility,” Dutoit said, and he acknowledged that the current trend is for younger music directors. Still, he said, “I think they will need someone who has a lot of experience and maturity. I’m sure that Boston will want to wait a little bit and find someone who can take over a position of that magnitude, which is much more important than any other orchestra [in the US].”

Dutoit and the orchestra at rehearsal.

For himself, Dutoit seems content to keep up a schedule that would strain a conductor decades younger. He is especially active in Asia, and has been in talks to form an orchestra with musicians from both South and North Korea. He’s increasingly interested in passing along to young people a career’s worth of musical knowledge. And he takes special joy in revisiting works that he has conducted over the years; it is his way of taking stock of a rich artistic journey.

“I’m very happy — very happy — when I work again on a piece I have done in the past,” he said. “And I see how much maturity I’ve gained, how much knowledge I’ve gained, and how I look at that score now compared to how I looked at it, say, 30 years ago. This is so wonderful — to feel that you have grown a little bit.”

Burleigh leaving CpM

Chorus pro Musica has announced the departure of music director Betsy Burleigh. Burleigh, who also leads the Providence Singers, will leave both groups at the end of this season to take a position at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Burleigh took over Chorus pro Musica in 2009, succeeding Jeffrey Rink. The chorus has begun a search for its next director. Its concert this Sunday, at Old South Church in Boston, includes music by Ives, Bernstein, Britten, and Daniel Gawthrop.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes