Like several previous Philadelphia Orchestra conductors, Charles Dutoit appears to be leaving a bit wounded.
After visiting for more than 30 years — as guest conductor, director of the orchestra's two summer seasons, and finally as chief conductor of the regular subscription concerts — Dutoit, who is 75, this week concludes a four-year appointment that encompassed the most troubled period of the institution's history. He'll no doubt return as a guest, though not for awhile, as he maintains a respectful distance while Yannick Nézet-Séguin launches his own music-director tenure in the fall.
Those four years under Dutoit, however, have been far more important than their relative bevity would suggest. Dutoit has maintained a lofty artistic standard during a leadership crisis when the orchestra had no president or permanent board chair; later, during the current year-plus bankruptcy, his concerts have been a constant reminder that the institution is much more than a money-devouring 19th-century dinosaur. At the most unstable point in the bankruptcy, the fall of 2011, he led the musicians in a playing-for-their-lives European tour that knocked out audiences from Lucerne, Switzerland, to Dublin to Paris.
A savior? No. But Dutoit (casually known as Charlie) was a key part of the orchestra's survival. The experience of age, unflappable professionalism, and distinctive deployment of the Philadelphia sound are qualities almost impossible to find on short notice in the booked-till-the-next-decade world of symphony orchestra conductors. Christoph Eschenbach and the orchestra parted ways amid his contract negotiations with no obvious, available replacement in the wings — and with financial problems on the horizon. In the wake of that, Dutoit was a godsend.
Having led the orchestra's Mann Center season for 10 years and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for 21 (more than Eugene Ormandy's 19), Dutoit needed no warm-up time to claim the orchestra as his own. Though the Philadelphia sound has been described as "the solid gold Cadillac" of orchestral playing, Dutoit's version was more like a prismatic rainbow, unforced, evenly voiced, and slightly demure in ways that beckon the ear rather than lunging at it. No vulgar American excess with him. Even in the most feverish music, the orchestra's sound is civilized and cultivated.
He has enjoyed a good relationship with the musicians, and a warm reception from Philadelphia audiences.
So, what was it that wounded him? "These recent years here in Philadelphia have been the most difficult ones of my entire professional life," he wrote in an e-mail to The Inquirer in April 2011. "The total vacuum in the administration when I started, the recession, the strange attitude of the press and the search committee [for a new music director] have all created an unhealthy atmosphere in which it was often hard to work."
He explained further in a recent interview with Jim Cotter at WRTI-FM: When the orchestra filed for Chapter 11, Dutoit — Swiss by birth and long based in Montreal — barely knew what that meant. "I was completely appalled, and not informed properly," he said.
Perhaps most important, he was not offered the title of music director, nor was he asked to stay beyond the four years of his chief-conductor tenure.
In fact, he might have been too busy anyway: In the Far East, he's an elder statesman, even a god. In London, he has a lifetime appointment with the excellent-if-not-great Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And there's sure to be more. "One thing is for sure, I need positiveness in my life. And grandeur of ideas. So I will always try to associate myself with such elements," he wrote in the April e-mail. (Since then, he has turned down numerous interview requests from The Inquirer).
The orchestra administration probably did as well by Dutoit as it could in the uncharted territory of bankruptcy. One tangible failing, though, is the lack of electronic presence: At present, his four years are documented by only two downloads that didn't really capture his kind of music-making, despite pleas from at least one veteran engineer to reestablish the orchestra as a force in the recording industry.
At least he got off easier than Leopold Stokowski, who was edged out in favor Eugene Ormandy so abruptly that he left a new house unfinished in Gladwyn. Or the older, deeply infirm Ormandy, who stepped down only after much dogged hesitation. Or Christoph Eschenbach, who left after being told of a no-confidence vote from the musicians.
Whether the orchestra was wrong not to make Dutoit music director is hard to say. There were many signs that he came extremely close. Orchestra president Allison Vulgamore, in her original contract, called for him to have an appointment and title that would allow and encourage him to more fully participate in maximizing orchestra revenue. During his limited spans of time here, while he may not have been out conducting neighborhood concerts, he did, in a sign of community-mindedness, conduct the Temple University orchestra as well as nonpublic reading sessions with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. Many wondered if the 2010 Saratoga resignation of Dutoit and his wife, violinist Chantal Juillet, was a prelude to a bigger appointment in Philadelphia. Critics were encouraging on that front but stopped short of campaigning for his appointment.
Dutoit had grand plans for the orchestra (operas in concert, similar to last week's concert performance of Strauss' Elektra) that apparently were deemed unaffordable. Thus, his Philadelphia programming stuck so close to his core repertoire — one well known from his many pre-Philadelphia recordings — that one can't say whether his relationship with the orchestra would have progressed to a new level had he become full-fledged music director.
The Geneva-born Dutoit's main role model was the late Ernest Ansermet, who specialized in the highly colored French/Russian repertoire Dutoit has recycled for decades, both in his career-making relationship with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (1977-2002) and in guest dates among the world's great orchestras ever since. Dutoit (easily a greater artist than Ansermet) is also a full-service conductor: From Mozart to Beethoven to Mahler to Sibelius, he's unquestionably world-class. But at a time when he might have claimed a more visible degree of ownership of that music among the world's great orchestras, he stuck close to Sheherazade and Petroushka and stayed based in Montreal rather too long for his and the orchestra's good.
Thus, for someone with a repertoire as vast as his (he's even terrific with lesser-known music by Penderecki and Piazzolla), he's known for a fairly narrow range of music. Though his reviews worldwide have been more consistently fine than even those of such towering figures as Sir Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein, Dutoit hasn't seriously put himself in the Germanic-repertoire arena and hasn't been a strong presence in the world's great opera houses. As great as his recording of Chabrier's Le Roi Malgre Lui is, it doesn't occupy the same place in history as a classic Aida.
Therein lies the one tough-to-articulate shortcoming of his Philadelphia tenure: It was too much of what we'd heard before, and too comfortable. Though Dutoit's flashy, ultra-standard programs on the 2011 European tour more readily allowed positive comparisons with the great orchestras of the world, the musicians did struggle to find something fresh in a piece with as much mileage on it as Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique — even though Dutoit, most nights, was as "on" as he could be.
His ease of expression and utter dependability could seem too comfortable, too emotionally cool night after night, but he was a magnet for great soloists. And what would a symphony orchestra season be without that kind of glamour? Even the most elusive, such as Martha Argerich (one of this three ex-wives) and this week's Maria Joao Pires (seldom heard in the U.S.), would be there for Dutoit.
With a similar sense of loyalty, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet readily upended his plans in order to fill in for ailing violinist Janine Jansen during the 2011 European tour. Amid the orchestra's bankruptcy, visiting artists were known to wonder aloud if they would be paid. But did they cancel? Not on Charlie.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.