The sex charges against frequent Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit - and what they mean for classical music

Charles Dutoit leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in 2011.

At a particular moment a few weeks ago, dozens of recordings, seemingly safe at rest in their jewel cases and MP3 files, suddenly began to morph. Works of Ravel, Falla, Berlioz, and Tchaikovsky would never be heard the same way again, simply because of knowledge we all gained that first day of winter about the conductor of those recordings.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Charles Dutoit have mounted since an initial Associated Press story last month voiced the stories of four women. Thursday brought another AP story with allegations from six more women, including Curtis-trained pianist Jenny Q. Chai, who said she was touched and kissed by Dutoit after a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in the early 2000s, and one anonymous musician who said Dutoit raped her in 1988, when she was working with an unidentified East Coast orchestra.

The conductor has denied the charge, issuing a statement saying he was “appalled and sickened” to be accused “of the heinous crime of rape. I am shaken to the core by this bewildering and baseless charge. To this, I submit my categorical and complete denial.”

Given the speed with which the #MeToo movement moves, something new might have rolled across your Facebook newsfeed since reading the first paragraph of this column. If you are reading it in the Sunday paper’s Live Life Love section, which goes to press Friday morning, it could be many somethings. Regardless, it’s safe to say the 81-year-old conductor’s career has acquired an indelible asterisk, and now, the institutions that he helped to make, and that helped to make him, must grapple with how to frame his legacy.

Even before the latest round of allegations, the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has more than three and a half decades worth of history with Dutoit — a total of 650 performances — had revoked his conductor laureate title. It has no further appearances by him on the schedule. WRTI-FM (90.1), the local classical station, had also decided to pull his recordings. Charles Dutoit, once made an honorary citizen of Philadelphia, seems at risk of becoming an artistic non-person.

CBC Radio will continue to play Dutoit recordings but will not identify them as such, the Montreal Gazette reports. Now that’s an artistic non-person.

WRTI general manager Bill Johnson said last week he and his staff had struggled with what to do about Dutoit’s vast recorded legacy. “You have this brilliant work that has been done, that up until this point we’ve all listened to and celebrated, and now you find these things out. And they are allegations, but in the current climate it has an impact,” he says.

In the end, because Dutoit’s name is in the news in a negative way and because the station has decades of recorded material from which to choose, WRTI’s leaders decided, at least for now, to broadcast neither Dutoit recordings nor those of James Levine, also accused of sexual misconduct.

“We know our audience comes to us as a respite from a lot of the news of the day, and we have to protect that experience for them,” Johnson says.

Camera icon Carliss Million Photography
WRTI general manager Bill Johnson.

Dutoit took charge of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra just before digital technology and CDs started replacing vinyl on air and in bins around the world. That advent helped establish Montreal’s orchestra as a force, and Dutoit emerged as a polished and exciting personality who kept company with many of the world’s great soloists and coaxed secrets from scores by giants like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and certain French composers. For many, Dutoit’s recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé with the Montreal Symphony is a high point of sensuousness, expressivity, and vivid colors that might never be surpassed.

Given what 10 women now claim, how do institutions, and each one of us individually, engage with Dutoit the artist? The Philadelphia Orchestra, with which Dutoit held several important titles, has choices to make on how to portray his substantial history and contributions here.

After the first allegations surfaced, the orchestra issued a statement saying the “seriousness of the accusations demands a thorough investigation,” but it has not launched one in response to complaints from the 10 women in the AP articles. On Friday, though, an orchestra spokeswoman said the orchestra has received separate complaints from women of sexual misconduct against Dutoit, and it is investigating those complaints. She would not elaborate, citing the confidential nature of the human resources issues.

Dutoit issued a statement regarding the first round of allegations, saying that “whilst informal physical contact is commonplace in the arts world as a mutual gesture of friendship, the serious accusations made involving coercion and forced physical contact have absolutely no basis in truth.”

A strong denial, to be sure. But the orchestra had little choice but to cut ties with Dutoit when it did, says Americus Reed, a Wharton School marketing professor and brand identity theorist (and amateur musician).

“It’s like this idea of Al Franken and Charlie Rose — I looked up to this guy, I loved him. It hurts you, and at the same time they deserve a day in court,” says Reed. “But institutions have to act very swiftly, and perhaps violating the rights of the accused, and that’s the cost of doing business. If you don’t act, it seems like you are condoning it.”

Camera icon Tommy Leonardi
Wharton School marketing professor Americus Reed

Cultural institutions in fact have a greater burden  not to be seen as harboring moral transgressions, Reed says, “because they exist to bring delight into the universe, and so if that gets compromised, that is seen as a much more harmful kind of thing.”

We probably should get used to thinking about this topic. More sexual-misconduct accusations in classical music seem likely, as they do in almost every sector, and the Dutoit episode raises knotty questions likely to recur. Can we separate the artist from the art? And what do we really know about the backstage behavior of artists we’ve admired?

Standing not far from these questions always is the notion that being in the arts somehow makes for a better person, that spending time with Schubert or Goethe turns out more sensitive and thoughtful humans, or that artists might be self-selecting as more introspective and moral. I can’t say the musicians I’ve known have shown greater moral clarity or virtuous thinking than the general population.

Another uncomfortable question: Is it easier to excuse bad behavior when the artist in question is especially great? Rejecting Percy Grainger because he was anti-Semitic is a low-cost gesture if you think he was a musical lightweight. Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover, but his music is hardly popular, and the cushion of centuries blunts our need to factor in character when we listen.

But I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who reads Wagner’s essay “Judaism in Music” will never listen to his music the same way again. In this lengthy polemic, Wagner reduces Jews to hateful caricature: in the way they speak (“we hear this Jewish talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what,”); in song (where “the peculiarity of the Jewish nature attains for us its climax of distastefulness,”); as a race skilled in making money without engaging in any “actual labor”; and, inevitably, as outsiders to true art.

This is an old conundrum, though what’s different about classical music now is that it has worked so hard to personify orchestras through the image of the conductor, and it’s going to be especially tricky to separate podium stars from the music they produce — not to mention the ensembles they lead.

“What does that mean for the 100 musicians who were playing their hearts and souls out?” Johnson asks about ensembles whose sound, after all, is the one captured in recordings by Dutoit and Levine. “By exercising editorial discretion, we’re also excising them from the public sphere, and is that right? It makes the decision all the more painful to make, knowing we are losing the artistic efforts of all these great artists at the same time.”

Striving for equanimity might be a worthy goal — something along the lines of continuing to listen, but learning to listen with a new awareness of the capacity for great beauty and deep flaws to flow from the same human source. But it won’t be easy. And by even having to consider such an accommodation, much of the pleasure is already draining away.

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