A toast to the maestro

In Charles Dutoit's valedictory performance at Saratoga, one piece in particular reflected his close harmony with the orchestra.

Posted: August 14, 2010

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Any fete for Charles Dutoit would necessarily involve a certain amount of frisson, and Thursday night, in capping the conductor's 21 summers leading the Philadelphia Orchestra's concerts here, it came in bubbly form.

At a preconcert talk, there was champagne. For the audience at intermission, champagne. With musicians backstage after this last Dutoit concert as artistic chief of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center - real champagne.

"The greatest conductor in the world," declared Marcia White, SPAC's president, as she brought Dutoit out for what she said was his 182d concert at this horse-racing resort town where the orchestra has spent part of every summer since 1966.

White left the maestro little wiggle room when she offered him, in front of the audience, the title of emeritus conductor, and added: "However, you don't get the title unless you come back."

He acquiesced.

But there's no ignoring Thursday night as the latest step in Dutoit's gradual withdrawal from the musical life of this orchestra.

Dutoit has been heavily involved with the ensemble since his debut in 1980, and while he hoped to become its music director, he was passed over three times. The greatest commitment the orchestra was willing to make was naming him "chief conductor," through 2011-12. He stepped down as artistic director of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, and, after marrying longtime partner and SPAC chamber music festival director Chantal Juillet in February, the two announced their impending departure from their Saratoga posts.

Dutoit plans a Saratoga coda for two concerts next summer, as he prepares the orchestra for a European tour. It would be Dutoit's first real tour with the ensemble, normally a time for deepening relationships. But a firm case could be made that when it comes to epoch-making musical experiences, Thursday's concert was the marker.

The orchestra likes to rise to an occasion, and the unusually brilliant alloy of polish and brawn that Dutoit drew in Shostakovich's Festive Overture signaled that this was a night of playing for the maestro. The evening ended with a solidly affecting Respighi Pines of Rome, in Dutoit's sixth outing with the piece in this place with a few ancient pines of its own.

The piece, though, that rather mystified was an even more standard member of the orchestral repertoire, La Mer. One of the reasons the Dutoit/Philadelphia partnership has worked so well is that they can get along on a one-rehearsal, one-concert formula that produces acceptable performances.

"I can't think of another conductor who the musicians are totally comfortable with," said Emilio Gravagno, a recently retired orchestra double-bassist, speaking at a preconcert talk about Dutoit.

Granted.

But that doesn't explain how this La Mer turned into a highly developed interpretation - one of those fleeting surprise statements that you wish someone had captured on disk.

The orchestra played wonderfully, in that single-minded mode they sometimes achieve. The revelation, though, came via Dutoit. He held the first movement to a steady inner beat, but released sudden bursts of a quickened phrase here or there. He clarified textures by shortening the length of some notes. None of these vague, gauzy brushstrokes of Debussy sought by other conductors - that seemed like kid stuff by comparison.

The second movement was paced beautifully, with subtle tempo changes marking out the structure. Dutoit turned to the cellos and mouthed something that may or may not have been related to a particularly silken sound they produced at one point. The third movement, "Dialogue Between the Wind and the Sea," opened as an act of menace - not by way of a growling orchestral timbre or degradation of tone, but through a gripping unfolding of successively more angry statements.

It was incisive and lean, yet there were moments of great subtlety, like the delicately slowing arrival point Dutoit set down just before that extremely high and sustained misty violin harmonic (an A flat) in the third movement. You need trust to pull off moments like this - something that exists, perhaps, only between friends.

That, in fact, is a big piece of collateral loss that Dutoit's departure will bring - the roster of friends he's brought with him. Saratogans heard a lot of pianist Martha Argerich, his former wife, during the Dutoit years. Thursday night, his current spouse, Juillet, performed the Korngold Violin Concerto. She was tentative in the first movement, enough so in spots to make you wonder whether the resumé that brought her to the stage was more familial than musical. But then the sketchiness disappeared, and in the second movement Juillet grasped the most vocal, even human, aspects of the work.

Was it one of those warm looks that passed between them that put her at ease?

The personal and professional are inseparable with Dutoit - a happy state of confusion on which the listening public was lucky to eavesdrop for more than two decades.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/

philly/blogs/artswatch/.

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