About the orchestra Listen to l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal The first, and most important fact to know about the Montreal Symphony/Orchestre de Montréal (OSM) is that it’s a wonderful orchestra. I heard them during a recording session a number of years ago and was blown away, both by the beauty of the sound and the
The first, and most important fact to know about the Montreal Symphony/Orchestre de Montréal (OSM) is that it’s a wonderful orchestra. I heard them during a recording session a number of years ago and was blown away, both by the beauty of the sound and the precision with which they played in their “studio,” a church with an extravagant reverberation period. (You can hear the results of that session by clicking on the link above.)
The second thing to know is that the OSM is both a cultural icon for Francophone Canada and yet is not financially at the level of any of its international peers. This may be related to the OSM being one of the youngest of the major international orchestras.
Lastly, the OSM’s recent history has been extraordinarily turbulent. There was a strike in 1998, their long-time music director, Charles Dutoit, left after a public and bitter dispute with the musicians and their union in 2002, and the orchestra endured one of the longest and most bitter strikes in North American orchestral history in 2005. Nonetheless, things seem to be turning around for them. The OSM’s new music director, Kent Nagano, is a superstar on the European scene, while plans for a new concert hall finally seem to be gelling after many years of disappointment.
The OSM played its first concert on January 14, 2019 during the depths of the Great Depression. The first Music Director of the OSM of truly international stature was Igor Markevitch, who spent four years with the orchestra beginning in 1957. The next music director was the rising superstar Zubin Mehta, in his first important post.
But without question the music director who was most important in developing the international reputation of the OSM was the Swiss conductor and violist Charles Dutoit, who led the orchestra from 1977 until his acrimonious departure in 2002.
Dutoit was an inspired choice in several ways. A very skilled technician, he had tremendous flair for the French repertoire in particular, although he performed and recorded a good deal of Russian and contemporary music with the orchestra as well. A plus for him in an increasingly assertive Quebec was his status as a Francophone as well. The orchestra developed a reputation – partly PR hyperbole but with a solid core of fact – as the best French orchestra in the world.
With Dutoit, the OSM made a mark on the recording business as well. Of the 123 recordings by the OSM in the current catalog, all but 6 are with Dutoit, and over half are of music by French composers. The orchestra also toured regularly; six of the orchestra’s nine European tours, as well as 5 of 8 tours of the Far East, were with Dutoit.
Unfortunately for the musicians, the orchestra’s stellar reputation did not lead to commensurate compensation. In the early 1960s, the orchestra’s annual wage was around 80-90% of that of the top American orchestras not in the “Big Five”; by the late 1990s that had slipped considerably (especially as computed in US dollars, due to the long-term slide of the Canadian dollar on international currency markets). This led to the a three-week strike in 1998. Although the settlement produced real gains for the musicians, it may also have contained the seeds of the next major public dispute regarding the OSM – the departure of Charles Dutoit.
According to local observers, Dutoit was unhappy with new language in the 1998 settlement regarding the scheduling of tours and recordings. The new language barred travel on two-service days, for example, while the old contract allowed some truly punishing tour schedules. (I remember seeing one of their tour books and being very thankful that my orchestra didn’t do tours like that.)
But whatever the cause, things got very bad between Dutoit and the members of the OSM; one musician was quoted in the local paper as saying that “the atmosphere in the orchestra [had] degenerated exponentially” and that the musician had taken a leave to cope with his resulting depression. The dispute finally went public when Dutoit initiated termination proceedings against two members of the orchestra and the local union responded with an open letter regarding Dutoit’s “offensive behavior and complete lack of respect for the musicians” which included a threat of legal action against Dutoit for harassment.Only days later, Dutoit announced his resignation and immediate departure. A number of major guest artists, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mstislav Rostropovich, Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, canceled appearances with the orchestra in response.
OSM management’s response was puzzlement at the news of friction between Dutoit and the musicians. Madeleine Careau, managing director of the OSM, said “for sure he has to ask for discipline and work…you don’t come to this point without working and discipline.” She went on to describe the union’s letter as simply a negotiating ploy in advance of the first contract negotiations since the 1998 strike.
With such mutual distrust as the backdrop, it is not surprising that the negotiations didn’t go well. But it wasn’t until May 2005 that the musicians actually walked out. The resulting strike, which lasted until October, was one of the longest and most bitter in North American orchestra history.
Since the end of the strike, news about the OSM has been more positive. Kent Nagano’s appointment as music director was announced before the strike, but he began his tenure in the fall of 2006. And in June the Quebec government committed to a public-private partnership of $105 million to build a dedicated concert hall for the OSM, a long-time dream of all those who’ve had to put up with the mediocre acoustics of the current hall.
Unresolved is the question of whether Nagano and the OSM’s management can recapture the kind of recording, international touring, and world-wide recognition that characterized the Dutoit years.
OSM Orchestra Committee Chair
On Dutoit and Nagano
Brian Robinson: Dutoit was quite young when he came here and hadn’t much that much of a career. But he and Zarin Mehta, the general manager at the time, they hit it off well. And the CD era was just getting cranked up. So a lot of good things happened all at the right time. The orchestra jumped in prestige, and the people in the city and the province – even those who never went to a concert –just felt good about having something that was seen as being known around the world; that was very important to them. People really jumped on the OSM bandwagon. It was known around the world and people were proud of that reputation. Dutoit was a big part of that, so that’s why they were proud of him.
But it’s the same with Nagano; Although he’s not a Francophone, the public perception is “here’s a guy that’s of high enough stature that he can put the orchestra back to where they feel it should be.” So they’re right behind him. Whereas if we’d had to get some someone of less stature, even someone viewed as coming from here, it wouldn’t have been seen in the same way.
Nagano’s very different from Dutoit in many, many respects. Dutoit basically hired the majority of the players who are still here now, and he changed the sound of the orchestra and so on.I think he really felt that it was his orchestra, which it was. By the time he left here, he was in his mid-60s, and he felt more like he was the mentor of an orchestra which he had brought along. He was older than the great majority of people in the orchestra, even though the orchestra had a tremendous amount of experience by the time he left.
Nagano is right in the middle of the age distribution of the orchestra. I get the feeling from him that he feels he’s coming to an orchestra that’s on a par with him. It’s an experienced, virtuosic orchestra, and he sees the orchestra and himself as being more on a equal footing. With Dutoit, it was more of a father-child relationship.
Nagano’s a California guy but all of his musical training was in Germany. That’s an interesting mixture. To this point it’s a much more collegial relationship with the orchestra. There’s no doubt what he wants, and the orchestra’s not a democracy, but he wants to distance himself from the way Dutoit ran things, which was very authoritarian.
Robert Levine: Do you have any sense of where he wants to go musically?
Brian Robinson: He’s stated right up front where he wants to take the orchestra. The orchestra has built up a reputation with a virtuoso repertoire. It’s not a mid-19th century Germanic orchestra. He wants to take advantage of that brilliance and virtuosity, but add in the standard Austro-Germanic repertoire. That’s his meat and potatoes; that and the 20th century repertoire. The 20th century is where he and Dutoit mesh, because the orchestra’s done a lot of that, and he’s looking forward to working on that repertoire. But other than that, I think he wants to take us more back to a traditional Germanic sound without losing the kind of brilliance that we have.
Robert Levine: How’s that going to play with the Montreal audience?
Brian Robinson: I think it’ll be fine. What we’re talking about is the real heart of the symphonic repertoire. We kind of tip-toed around that under Dutoit’s tutelage. He did a certain amount, because it was expected of a music director. But he had guest conductors doing a lot of the big German repertoire. We did a little bit of Mahler on tour, but never in big centers. We’d do Mahler 5 on tour, but we would pair it with the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Big cities would hear the Berlioz, because that’s what they wanted to hear. The big Strauss stuff; he’d leave that to other conductors. Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Schumann just came to bore him.
Whereas with Nagano, that’s the repertoire he comes from. He’s programmed a lot of that in the first couple of years. He wants to get the orchestra back into that, and that’s what the audience wants to hear.
I think one thing that attracted him to Montreal is that the orchestra’s gone through lots of changes. It’s not a stuffy orchestra that refuses to changes styles, or refuses to change the way the strings sit, for example. People are pretty open to lots of ideas, and that appeals to him, I know.
Before he was hired, I had a conversation with him, and I asked him how he liked to set up the string section for different repertoire. He threw the question back to me; he said, “Well, I want to know how you guys feel about changing around. I know some orchestras simply refuse.” It was interesting; he was curious to know how we felt. He enjoys that too; the orchestra’s willing to try anything, as long as it’s thought-out and looks like it might be successful.
On the language issue
Robert Levine: One of the things about the OSM that has always made me curious is how the language issue plays out. Looking at the roster, there are a fair number of people that appear to be Francophone and a fair number that aren’t. How does that work out?
Brian Robinson: Well, it works pretty well here. It works the way the whole city of Montreal works. Quebec gets a lot of press for its policies about language, but the city of Montreal just functions. It’s a bilingual city and the orchestra is a bilingual orchestra.
People gravitate to whatever language works best in the situation. If we have a conductor come in who speaks only German and English, then everything happens in English. If a conductor has a certain command of French, and uses it, people appreciate it. But if it’s more efficient to get the job done with a mixture of French and English, or 75% English, that’s OK too.
Nagano’s French is functional, but he does know, and makes a point of knowing, who in the orchestra is French-speaking and who is English-speaking. The one thing that has worked consistently well is that the Francophone members of the orchestra know that, in rehearsal, if they have a question to ask him, they can ask him the question in French and he’ll respond in French. That carries a lot of weight; it shows that he respects the local language.
My mother tongue is English, and he knows that perfectly well. So when he turns to me and asks something of the bass section, he speaks in English. He knows after a very short time - better than Dutoit knew after 25 years - what language everybody speaks. He’s won people over with that. If there were any potential language tensions, he’s done very well resolving them, despite the fact that his French is not fantastic.
The language issue has always been interesting for me. As head of the orchestra committee, everything is done, when it’s done officially - announcements, discussions, orchestra meetings – everything has to be done in both languages. The legally binding version of the labor agreement is in French; the English version is only a translation for information purposes. That’s the law in Quebec.
But it works. With the orchestra, you’re dealing with a crowd of very intelligent and educated people. And they have no problem working things out.
On hiring musicians
Robert Levine: 20-30 years ago, it was generally accepted that Americans could go up to Canada and have a pretty good chance of finding a job. What kinds of people are you getting to auditions now? Has it become more “Canadian first?”
Brian Robinson: It’s always been “Canadian first” in terms of the process. We hold the Canadian auditions first and then go on to the American level. I would say it’s still fairly politics-free. If the committee doesn’t hear what they want at the Canadian level, they simply say so and they go on. There’s not very much politicking about how we have to hire a local player or that we’ve got to hire from within Canada.
Robert Levine: What kind of balance are you seeing now in terms of hiring Quebecois or Canadians or outsiders?
Brian Robinson: It’s hard to say because we haven’t hired many people lately. There’s a big stack of auditions coming up over the next 18 months or so, because we have no provision for hiring without a music director; there has to be one in place. We’ll have a better idea after those are done.
We have a tough audition procedure. The screen is up the whole time. But a surprising number of Quebec musicians have made it through nonetheless. It’s interesting that many of them have been hired at the international auditions. They’ve gone through the local auditions, have gone on to the international level, and are still the ones who come through. There are a lot of good players from here, many of whom do graduate work elsewhere.
The one thing we do get here is that when Quebec musicians go off elsewhere, to the US for example, and a good job shows up back here, this is where they want to come back to. So we get the cream of the local musicians who’ve gone away and who want to come back. We’ll get guys who’ve played 10 years in Buffalo, or in Houston for 5 years; they see the open spot and they want to come back here. So we get some good experienced players that way. They want to come back home. That’s an interesting phenomenon.
On the orchestra’s Board
Brian Robinson: A few us talk about how we’re lucky, because we’ve gone through some of the worst things that could happen to an orchestra. We had a conductor bailing out publicly and with a lot of hullabaloo: just attacking us and leaving town. It was a huge uproar. And then the strike and so on; it’s interesting that we’re getting ourselves back on track.
Usually, with two things like that happening, you end up with your board of directors just running for cover; they don’t want to be associated with it. But our board is actually very strong; it’s seen as a desirable board in town to be part of.
Robert Levine: Is that a change?
Brian Robinson: I think so. The guy in charge of the board is a very high-profile person, Lucien Bouchard (former Premiere of the Province of Quebec - ed.), and people want to be associated with him. He’s always been a big fan of the orchestra; he was very good friends with Dutoit. I find him a bit of a perplexing person but he’s very charismatic and extremely popular in Quebec; a very high profile person. Since he’s taken the position he’s attracted a number of high-powered business people. And, with a new conductor coming to town who’s also pretty charismatic, a lot of people want to jump on the bandwagon. If they see that it’s something that’s going to be successful, they want to be there. So that’s helped too.
On the prospect of a new hall
Brian Robinson: We’ve been going through hall projects for 20 years. They advanced a new project in June; this is the fourth one that’s seen the light of day. But this one has a lot more government and private sector people on board. It also has the current hall organization – the Place des Arts – supporting it. In the past, they were always strongly against it; they felt they would be losing one of their major tenants. This time, whether because of how it was worked out in the back rooms, I don’t know, but they’re in favor of it. Basically they’re getting another hall in their complex.
And they’re talking about the right kind of hall; an 1,800-2,000 seat hall. People seem to be realizing that you just can’t build 3,000 seat halls and make them sound good. They’ve just opened a new opera house in Toronto, and I heard one of the performances of Wagner’s “Ring” they did during the opening. It’s an old-style horseshoe-shaped hall of the right size, with just spectacular sound.
For years when we toured so much, the most frustrating thing was to know that there were so many people back home who had never heard the orchestra in a really good hall. My wife’s been to Carnegie a number of times when we’ve played them and she says the orchestra sounds so different there than in our current hall.
So I hope to see a new hall before I retire. We’re always leery about changes of government, but this has a lot of private sector energy behind it as well. The orchestra is the real flavor of the day at the moment; hopefully even a change of government won’t squash something that’s seen as a popular project. We just need to get through one more government change; one more election. If the project is still going after the next election, then I’ll be very optimistic.
An overview of their current situation
Brian Robinson: Overall I’d say we’re in a period of cautious optimism. People have the feeling that we’ve left some tough times behind us and are really looking ahead. But still it’s always cautious. Orchestras, and not just in Canada, are living a little hand -to-mouth. It’s tough finding the funding. The one advantage we do have up here is that Quebec is going to subsidize the arts far more than anywhere else in Canada. We’re supported pretty heavily by the provincial government.
Robert Levine: Do you see that as displacing private funding you might be able to get otherwise?
Brian Robinson: That’s the problem. We’re told that, with so much public support, the private sector says “we pay high taxes; that’s how we contribute.” It’s not the same way that it is in the US.
And it’s not just that. The universities in Canada - which are nothing in terms of fundraising compared to the Harvards and Yales, but still - have high-powered fundraising operations compared to arts organizations. Arts groups have tiny little staffs operating out of little back offices by comparison; real small operations. I find it frustrating sometimes when I see how they’re trying to run a pretty major symphony.
Robert Levine: And, by American standards, with weak boards too.
Brian Robinson: That’s one area where I think Bouchard is pushing the board. He knows that you can’t just keep going back to the government for more money. He said that at the last board meeting I was at. That’s where I would hope that he’s pushing the board: to come up with more private funding. So that’s what we’re hoping, and we hope that people are a little star-struck with the new glamorous conductor as well.
Robert Levine: Are you seeing that in ticket sales?
Brian Robinson: They’re definitely stronger, for sure. The houses are pretty good. We play in a big hall; a barn in every sense. But it’s looking good. When Nagano is town, at least at this point in time, it’s always full.
Robert Levine: And if the timing works out, by the time he stops being such a draw, you’ll have the new hall to draw people in.
Brian Robinson: That’s what we’re hoping.