Robert Levine  

l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal

Robert Levine
November 17, 2019

About the orchestra

Listen to the Montreal Symphony 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 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 Montreal Symphony The Montreal Symphony/Orchestre de Montréal (OSM)

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.

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