A lot of conductors have led the Philadelphia Orchestra since its first Saratoga visit in 1966; in addition to Ormandy, brief appearances have been made by Wolfgang Sawallisch, Riccardo Muti, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Daniel Barenboim, Seiji Ozawa, Julius Rudel, Erich Kunzel, and Aaron Copland. When it comes to divining audience taste, and perhaps even developing it over a sustained period, no one has rivaled Dutoit.
SPAC, on the grounds of a spa near the rise of the Adirondacks, has been a defier of expectations. It was originally intended to be the summer home of the New York Philharmonic - which would have made sense geographically, and, as a potential summer destination for the orchestra's subscription-year fans, a smart fund-raising opportunity. But the residency never materialized, and in 1966 the Philadelphia Orchestra, though based 265 miles south, was looking to satisfy its new 52-week payroll and stepped in.
Summer music is its own sub-genre, one that sometimes references nature and perhaps acknowledges audiences with a certain ineffable charm. Sketching out three weeks of programming each year is an art.
Comparisons to Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home 90 minutes away, are inevitable, and inevitably miss the point.
Each has its role to play. Tanglewood, with its venerable educational arm and seriously monied crowd, is a place for aficionados (and fans of local resident James Taylor). Saratoga, if it is able to further develop what it has started, is a family-friendly entry point for classical music newbies as well as safe haven for traditionalists.
Dutoit, who followed Dennis Russell Davies in 1990, has been a master of balancing art and entertainment amid financial challenges and administrative disarray. Few could have been more adept at keeping substance on stage while eyeing box office.
Over his two decades, the Swiss-born Dutoit, 73, mixed his proven sensitivity to French repertoire (La Mer, Daphnis et Chloe), with core barnstormers (Carmina Burana), a few works for the cognoscenti (Berg Violin Concerto), and a small number of commissions.
He also had an excellent instinct for pieces that audiences may have forgotten they once loved - who else does Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia anymore? - and for programming music that established a connection with the bucolic setting: not just literally, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral," Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Berlioz's Les nuits d'été (Summer Nights), but also more subtly with Symphonie fantastique, Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne (for those fluent in Occitan), Debussy's Nocturnes, and Mahler's Symphony No. 3.
Dutoit was perhaps unique in being able to coax fiery pianist Martha Argerich to the stage, even at a time when she was often canceling dates elsewhere. Dutoit, once married to the pianist, has explained their dance this way: "When I ask her to come, she says, 'But I play so much.' And then I say, 'Oh come on, come on.' "
And she did - about a dozen times, including visits for chamber music performances.
With one rehearsal for each program, it took a conductor with an established rapport to bring off performances at a certain high level with this orchestra. But even more impressive was Dutoit's ability to hold it together when the music threatened to unravel. I'm thinking of a particular Beethoven Triple Concerto in 2002 with Argerich, cellist Mischa Maisky, and the eccentric, elderly Polish violinist Ida Haendel. No performance was ever more unstable, and none has ever been more rewarding. For the classical fan who mourns the modern emergence of technical perfection over truth-telling and musicality, the evening was sweet justice.
No one will accuse Dutoit of neglecting basic repertoire. He led 16 performances of Beethoven's five piano concertos, seven iterations of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and an astonishing amount of Tchaikovsky.
French repertoire bloomed, with a handful of performances each of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer, the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos, and Mother Goose Suite.
Populists could feel validated with Ravel's famously repetitive Boléro - repeated by Dutoit eight times.
Marcia White, SPAC president, says that Dutoit will be given the title of conductor emeritus, and that she expects him to maintain a role in an advisory capacity.
"Charles will always be someone I can pick up the phone and get, someone to get guidance from. We have a great relationship," she said.
Dutoit's current wife, Chantal Juillet, artistic director and founder of the Saratoga Chamber Festival, also is stepping down after this season. SPAC board chairman William P. Dake, who called Juillet "the soul of the chamber music series," said a similar continuing relationship is being explored.
White says no new artistic director will be in place for 2011. Instead, those concerts will employ a series of guest conductors - including two performances led by Dutoit, who will be preparing the orchestra for its European festivals tour.
"We have to see what we're going to be doing with the chamber and orchestra series," she said. "We're in no rush to put somebody in those positions."
A new title, at least, might provide some continuity between Dutoit and whatever artistic leadership comes next. If the current SPAC season represents a programming battle Dutoit lost, it is a sad bellwether of artistic direction. Of the 12 Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, only eight are pure classical. Two are Broadway, one Gershwin.
The summer's fourth nontraditional concert, on Friday, the night after Dutoit's final appearance, was called "Cirque de la Symphonie" and promised "juggler and contortionists . . . and trapeze artists fly[ing] through the air with the greatest of ease performing to classical masterpieces."
Dutoit has had his critics over the years. But tightrope-walking the line between substance and ticket booth, he never put a foot wrong, and he never let you forget, in word and deed, that it was the orchestra that was the greatest show on earth.
Many nights it was even true.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/.