From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Michael Anthony
Star Tribune

Published Jan. 5, 2003

Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit made news when he was appointed principal guest conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra 20 years ago. His attention-grabbing tours and big-selling records with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, of which he was then artistic director, made him a hot property -- "an enormous catch" for Minnesota, according to USA Today. Dutoit's appointment was a coup for then orchestra president Richard Cisek because the Philadelphia Orchestra also had been interested in the conductor.

Two decades later, Dutoit returns to the Minnesota Orchestra during its centennial season, his first visit here in 16 years, to lead a program at Orchestra Hall this week of Shostakovich, Ravel and Prokofiev. The soloist for Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 will be the celebrated Argentine pianist (and Dutoit's ex-wife) Martha Argerich.

Just as in 1982, Dutoit arrives on the wave of headlines in the orchestra world over his abrupt resignation earlier this year in Montreal.

He quit April 10 after the union representing the musicians issued an open letter accusing him of being a tyrant on the podium and threatening legal action over his move to dismiss two members of the orchestra. The orchestra's president asked him to reconsider, especially because the orchestra had just begun promoting its 25th season with Dutoit and had a star-studded lineup of guests planned (at least two of whom, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mstislav Rostropovich, eventually canceled as a show of solidarity with Dutoit).

Dutoit and Montreal had been considered one of the great musical marriages of recent decades -- one that had brought acclaim to the orchestra and almost rock-star celebrity to Dutoit, whose face was seen until recently on billboards throughout the city. But Dutoit refused to back down.

Other than a short official statement made at the time, the 66-year-old conductor has kept quiet about his break with Montreal -- until last month when he spoke by phone from Tokyo, where he is music director of the NHK Orchestra.

"I actually wanted to leave Montreal three years ago when the new musicians' contract was negotiated," he said.

The contract, he thought, was weak. It put too many restrictions on recordings and on tours. And he thought the orchestra management at that time was inexperienced. He stayed, but last spring, when the labor dispute went public, he decided to leave. He also had wanted, he said, to stop being a music director for a while.

Almost unbearably busy

He said he won't ever return to Montreal to conduct, unless it's with a visiting orchestra. At the same time, he says he's not bitter.

"I had been there long enough," he said. "For the past 20 years, I've been so busy it was almost unbearable. I'm ready now to change the course of my life. Not that I'm giving up concerts, but I want to reduce from, on average, 150 concerts a season to about 100."

He remains proud of his accomplishments in Montreal: the 37 international tours he made with the orchestra, the nearly 100 recordings he made for Decca-London, two of which won Grammy Awards. Nearly all were recorded at the Church of St. Eustache outside Montreal, a space that has become legendary in the recording industry for its pure but resonant acoustics.

By the time he made his Twin Cities debut conducting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra during the 1981-82 season, Dutoit was a star, and Cisek thought he would be perfect for the Minnesota Orchestra as principal guest. The two spent a day together that week.

"We just clicked," Cisek recalled.

Then Cisek went to Montreal and signed a three-year contract with Dutoit that would start in September 1983, even though Dutoit had never led the orchestra at the time the deal was made.

"If I delayed, they were going to give him to Philadelphia," Cisek said. "So I had to move quickly. Under normal circumstances, we would have had him here for a week to see how he and the orchestra got along. But I had done a lot of homework on the guy, and the word on him was so positive. But going ahead with the contract did create some flak within the orchestra."

Dutoit's repertoire is vast, but if he has a specialty, it's French music, the color and charm of which he seems to be able to draw out of almost any orchestra. During his years here, his skills complemented those of Neville Marriner, the music director.

"And also Dutoit brought an old pro's approach to his work, whereas Neville was new in a lot of the large-orchestra repertoire," Cisek said.

Assessing Argerich

Dutoit's program here has undergone one significant change since it was announced. The soloist, violinist Chantal Juillet, canceled due to a scheduling conflict. Dutoit provided the replacement, his ex-wife, Argerich, with whom he has continued a productive professional relationship. Their recording of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, the work they will play here this week, won a 1999 Grammy Award for best instrumental soloist."

"Basically, Martha doesn't play in America, except when I ask her to. Otherwise, she wouldn't play at all," Dutoit said.

(Argerich's most recent appearances here were with the Minnesota Orchestra, in 1976. There were two others, in 1972 and 1974.)

"It's difficult for me to talk about her," he said. "She was my first soloist, ever, when I was a kid, just starting out in Lausanne. She played the Ravel concerto for the first time. She was 16. We have a long history together. We were married for five or six years, and we have a daughter who is 30, and she just had a child, so we are now grandfather and grandmother."

What is it that has fascinated people for so long about Argerich's playing?

"I think there are only three pianists on this level," he said, also citing Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Vladimir Horowitz. "Many others are fantastic pianists, but this is quite a special level of technique and control of the keyboard, of the colors. And, in her case, what makes it most interesting is her freedom. She has so much imagination. It's never the same. It's spontaneous."

Asked further about their relationship, he said, "She is the big exception in my life. My attitude is always when it's finished it's finished, which is how I feel about Montreal. But she and I have known each other all this time. Before getting married, we had 10 years of a totally Platonic relationship: best friends and so on. Plus, I love her country, Argentina. No, she's an intelligent, sensitive and fascinating personality, but very difficult to live with. That's why we had to divorce."

He laughed.

"Practically speaking, it's impossible to have a schedule or anything with her," he said. "But, as a person, she has a fascination, and I think she also has a lot of affection for me."

After leaving Montreal, he suddenly had 15 weeks free, much of which he spent traveling through Asia -- his first real holiday in 30 years, he said. But then the calls started from orchestras and opera companies in Europe and the United States.

He laughed.

"Now I'm back to it next season: not a single day off," he said.

He continues as artistic director and principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Saratoga Festival of the Performing Arts in upstate New York. He will tour with three London orchestras next season as well as with the Czech Philharmonic. And in July he starts a five-year commitment to do Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the famous Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He seems genuinely happy to be returning to the Twin Cities.

"I don't know who in the orchestra I will still know," he said. "After 15 years, orchestras change a lot. But I still have a lot of good friends in Minneapolis. I had a great time there, except for the weather. One time, it was unbelievably cold. They were warning on television not to go out. Otherwise, I love the city: the museums, the Walker. I love paintings. I even got to know the curators."

-- Michael Anthony is at manthony@startribune.com.