The Philadelphia Orchestra enters new but not entirely uncharted waters as Charles Dutoit begins his tenure as chief conductor and artistic adviser. Anyone trying to define the transition from the Christoph Eschenbach era can simply call it the Dutoit reunion, for the Swiss-born conductor has been intimately involved with the Orchestra for 28 years. In those years, he has been a frequent guest conductor, music director of the Orchestra's summer season at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts, and long- time artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestra's summer weeks at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
Dutoit's appointment last year surprised no one, although his long tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra has been marked by emotional highs and lows. Disappointed at having been passed over as Riccardo Muti's successor as music director, he resigned in 1990 as chief of the Orchestra's season at the Mann Center. But now, after continued highly successful appearances as guest conductor and his prominence at Saratoga, he seemed such an obvious and welcome choice that the reaction from the public and from within the Orchestra was extremely favorable.
It was Dutoit himself who proposed his title of "chief conductor." It's a European title, never before used in Philadelphia, which specifically describes his role. He is musical CEO, artistic beacon, adviser on repertoire and artists, and coordinator of artistic plans and performers. He will audition players for vacancies, but will otherwise stop just short of the ultimate authority and decade- long planning inherent in being music director. But more, he will bring his strengths to performance, and serve as curator of an orchestral sound he has cherished since his days in Geneva's Conservatory. His long association has also ensured his authority is unquestioned and his aims are long shared by the players.
Dutoit's immediate challenge comes from his own global success. His life seems like that of Wagner's Flying Dutchman. He has just completed an astonishing journey in which he set himself the goal of visiting all the nations of the earth. Small wonder, then, that he says: "I don't really have a home. I have a pied-a-terre in Montreal [where he led the Montreal Symphony for 22 years], but I think that if I live anywhere it is in Europe." Just after being offered his position here, he agreed to be principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic in London. Earlier contracts mean that he will take another London orchestra, the Philharmonia, on tour this season instead of the Royal. He will also conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the NHK Symphony in Tokyo, an orchestra with which he has had a long association, in December, and will close the Boston Symphony's subscription season next spring.
Dutoit continues: "I will go to Lugano to help [pianist and former wife] Martha [Argerich] with her Festival. Then I go to Paris, and I will also conduct in Munich, Berlin, and Lucerne. I sometimes wonder why I do all that, but the music is so wonderful." Looking at the orchestral scene, Dutoit says, "You know, many conductors are happy to work as guests without any of the responsibility of shaping and modeling an orchestra. I'm old- fashioned that way. I believe I must take those responsibilities. I like to work closely with this orchestra in every aspect of music making."
Despite those long-standing commitments, Dutoit will conduct nine sets of subscription concerts this season, the same number, incidentally, Georg Solti spent with the Chicago Symphony at the height of his tenure. And in his wish to spend more time with the Philadelphians, he had his first reunion with them at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in July and continued with them for three weeks in Saratoga. "I won't be able to open the season here," he says. "Because of contracts signed years ago, I'll be opening the Chicago Symphony's season. In this life, you are booked four and five years in advance."
A close reading of this season reveals Dutoit's influence already. He has long championed the French and Russian repertoire, and sure enough, his first concerts include music by Ravel, Musorgsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. During those concerts, incidentally, he will celebrate his 72nd birthday. But his range is vast. He will lead the Orchestra in a week-long celebration of the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's 75th birthday, October 10 _12 and 14. In those concerts, he will lead the American premiere of Penderecki's Concerto grosso No. 1 for three cellos and orchestra. Then he will bring to the Verizon Hall stage music of great importance to him, Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet, October 16 _18 and 21.
"Mr. Eschenbach introduced the Mahler cycle, and I would like to do the same for Berlioz. I feel he has been somewhat neglected in Philadelphia. We will do the Requiem in the closing concerts of this season. Then there are L'Enfance du Christ and La Damnation de Faust. I hope I can do Les Troyens, which has not been done here." The logistics and dimensions of Les Troyens would challenge any orchestra, but with the Requiem and Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" under their belts, The Philadelphia Orchestra is used to mammoth undertakings.
In his position, Dutoit must juggle the need to keep alive masterworks from four centuries, but also to find new works and new composers to write them. That could be the formula for despair, and Dutoit laughs wryly at the view from the podium. "Just think of the repertoire," he says. "How it has grown just since I have been conducting. We must carefully preserve the music of Mozart and Haydn, we must insure stylistic care through the 19th century, know the brilliance of the 20th century, and the new voices of today. I must be finding composers, an international array of composers, from whom to commission works. Many excellent composers have not been represented here. This orchestra has a long tradition of having important composers write for it. Just think of Rachmaninoff, for instance. I want to continue that tradition because that is a cornerstone of the Orchestra's life."
As he talks, Dutoit admits he must constantly define his own position. He will be curator, iconoclast, comforter, and challenger. He will be teacher, counselor, and model to the players. "Many of the players are new, and have not had the tradition of sound this orchestra represents. Some were not even born when I first conducted here," he laughs. "We will have a lot to do together. I must stress flexibility," he goes on. "We must be ready to go beyond merely repeating the great works of the past. This great orchestra was formed by players who spent a lot of time developing a sound that is unique. I value that, as I value the need for this orchestra to be more and more international in its outlook."
The maestro pauses there, at the threshold of a monumental undertaking. "I will do my best," he says.
For season information visit the Philadelphia Orchestra Website.
Daniel Webster is former music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer.