Dutoit-Philadelphia: A Grand Night

Philadelphia Orchestra
La Presse

By Claude Gingras

The grand night has finally come: the long-awaited return of Charles Dutoit. Absent from our music scene since his sensational departure of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 2002, Dutoit had to return one day. Not return to the MSO – he swore never to again – but with another orchestra, something entirely possible since he leads quite a few!

This other orchestra was Philadelphia, which has not visited us since 1986. Its chief conductor then was Riccardo Muti.

We talked about this visit, Dutoit and Philadelphia, in 2003, the year after their great start. Eight years later, the duo is finally with us, for two concerts: Friday, July 22, and tonight, July 23.

Despite the heat, we could not wish for more beautiful evening. But the attendance was not quite what we expected: 5,000, when we had counted over 6,000 on opening night.

A difficult program and the absence of a soloist were probably to blame. The menu tonight is much more attractive, with the Second Piano Concerto by Rachmaninov and Symphonie fantastique.

François Bédard, Director General of the Festival, first welcomed the 100-plus musicians from Philadelphia, in both languages, and then drew attention to  the presence of former Prime Minister Bernard Landry , a great music lover.

The musicians were  in white shirts – like I said: heat – and Dutoit in a black shirt open, with the top buttons undone. Half of the audience rose to applaud.

Dutoit has designed this program around the repertoire he has championed for years in concert and record.
First (like what many conductors do today): his own suite from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, eight extracts, unlike his 1989 recording with the OSM contains twenty-four.

Then: the Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff. The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it in 1941 with Ormandy, and recorded with Dutoit in 1990.

Finally: Ravel's La Valse; which Dutoit had conducted countless times with the MSO before and since their recording of it in 1981.

The concert was perfectly conducted at all levels; strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and playing to perfection. When I say "perfection", I include a small oboe mistake certainly attributed to humidity. Here, uncontested, one of the famous "Big Five" American Orchestras (with New York, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland).

With elegant, generous and attentive gestures that surely no one here has forgotten – magnified by the big screens of the Amphitheatre – and the playing of musicians of various ages and origins, Dutoit snapped dissonance out of Prokofiev and gave the endless drama to the Rachmaninov. His Ravel, less attractive than when conducted it with the MSO, leads to a tremendous racket  that rouses  the audience and calls to mind a reminder of Berlioz's Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust.