Music legend revives another

Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit to lead Singapore Symphony Orchestra in the South-east Asian premiere of Stravinsky's Funeral Song

Hours ago, 80-year-old conducting legend Charles Dutoit concluded a fiery performance of Bizet's Carmen with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Yet on the phone from Tokyo, he shows no signs of strain. He is as focused and balletic as Stravinsky's The Firebird, which the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) will play under his baton on Feb 16.

The double Grammy Award-winning maestro is hoping to work more with the SSO now that he is a permanent resident of Singapore.

He has a home here. "But I'm not going to give you my address," laughs the Swiss artist, who is notoriously protective of his privacy.

Dutoit is a living legend, sought after by top-tier orchestras around the world. In his 20s, he was picked by Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan to conduct the Vienna State Opera. Today, Dutoit is artistic director and principal conductor of London's Royal Philharmonic, conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, music director emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra and known to have performed in 196 nations.

He has made more than 200 recordings with Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Philips and Erato. Two of these won Grammy Awards (see sidebar), including his 1999 collaboration with former wife Martha Argerich in a recording of Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 and Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3.

He is a great example of what a conductor or artist should be. Nothing superfluous, artificial or pandering to the audience or the musicians.

CONDUCTOR JOSHUA TAN KANG MING on Charles Dutoit, who was his teacher

Dutoit married Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet in 2010, but is on excellent terms with Argerich. They united in February this year in a ground-breaking concert that ended another separation: Dutoit led his former ensemble, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, after 14 years of snubbing it.

His return was such an event that tickets for the reunion went on sale nearly a year in advance - and sold out in two days.

But forget that bit of history. In less than two months, Dutoit will make more in Singapore.

February's concert, his second with the SSO after this year's debut in January, will feature Stravinsky's recently rediscovered Funeral Song. This 12-minute work has been lost for more than 100 years. Musicologists unearthed it last year in a library in St Petersburg.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Feb 16, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $25 to $98 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

The song was played in 1909 during a memorial concert for Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. The scores disappeared during the chaos of the Russian revolution, according to the late composer's principal publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.

The work received its first airing in 107 years on Dec 2, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra plays it on Jan 20 and 21 in Seoul, making the SSO concert in February the third airing of the song and its South-east Asian premiere.

Dutoit is excited about the piece because it is a "new" work.

"A conductor is not so necessary at a certain stage," he says. "When an orchestra plays classical symphony, they know the piece very well. But when you play a new piece for the first time, the musicians are very happy to have someone to help them.

"Musicians have only one line of a piece. They read that line and it's up to the conductor to be aware of the dynamic."

It is a huge honour for the SSO to premiere Funeral Song before the leading lights of the classical music world. The Berlin Philharmonic, led by Simon Rattle, performs it in May. Dutoit will guide the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the song in April.

How did the SSO get so lucky? "The artistic director was aware of the honour," Dutoit says, half-joking in his reference to the orchestra's Shui Lan.

More likely, the Swiss conductor has a soft spot for Singapore. During the 20-minute phone conversation, he speaks fondly of his long connection with the country. He led the NHK Symphony Orchestra at the National University of Singapore's University Cultural Centre in 2002. Two years later, he conducted the Verbier Festival Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall. "It was a very nice experience," he says.

The story he really wants to tell, however, is that of a young Singaporean musician he met in 2005 during his conducting masterclass at the Canton International Summer Music Academy. He took on Joshua Tan Kang Ming as a student and in December 2006 told him to focus on conducting.

Tan, 40, tells The Straits Times: "Coming from Charles Dutoit, obviously I took that very seriously. Before that, I wasn't sure if I possessed the right attributes or talent to make it."

Thanks to that encouragement, Tan is today a familiar sight in tails on stage. He is associate conductor of the SSO, principal conductor of the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra and appeared a number of times on Chinese television as resident conductor of Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra from 2009 to 2012.

Dutoit recites most of these achievements. He is proud and delighted by his former pupil - "He's very good".

He recalls his early training at the Conservatory of Music in Geneva and the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy: "I was a violinist and a viola player and played in several orchestras. I had training in chamber music and chorale. I didn't decide to be a conductor without any other knowledge of instrumental music. It's very important to have a strong knowledge of that.

"The rules of the job take a long time to learn," he says. "Not just how to conduct with your hands or your body, but also how to rehearse. Rehearsal technique must be learnt."

He demands much of his orchestras, but he transforms them, Tan says. He walks the talk, looking "tirelessly" through familiar music scores for new insight.

"He is a great example of what a conductor or artist should be. Nothing superfluous, artificial or pandering to the audience or the musicians," Tan says. "He is extremely demanding, works very hard and tirelessly, but always in service to the music."

It is service that possibly exhausted the match made in heaven between Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The conductor worked with the Canadian ensemble for 25 years until 2002. Even today, ask him where home is and after a moment's pause he answers: "It used to be the Montreal Symphony Orchestra."

Together, they made 40 international tours and hundreds of recordings, but by 2002, there was friction among Dutoit, the musicians union and the orchestra's management over his demanding rehearsal schedule.

"It was very unpleasant and I decided not to go back," he says in summary of what precipitated the snub. "The orchestra invited me several times, but I didn't go."

Then an old friend not directly affiliated with the orchestra invited Dutoit to lead the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in two concerts. Dutoit agreed - making it clear several times in this interview that this was because it was not the orchestra directly inviting him - and the reunion made the headlines.

"It was interesting to see that the connection with the public and the community was so strong," he says. "Today, communications are so easy, travelling is so easy, but personally, I think it's very important to live in the city where the orchestra is."

So it is good news for audiences here that he has decided to set down roots in Singapore. The Straits Times understands that there will be more collaborations with the SSO to come.

"The orchestra is really wonderful and I'm very happy to work with it," Dutoit says. "I'm very happy to go back to Singapore and very happy to be a resident of Singapore."

 Musical life

Charles Dutoit was born in 1936 in Lausanne, Switzerland. He studied music at the famous Conservatory Of Music in Geneva and later at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy.

In his early 20s, he was invited by Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan to conduct the Vienna State Opera. He has also conducted at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Rome Opera and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. A recording of Berlioz: Les Troyens, with Dutoit on the baton, won a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.

He is artistic director and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, conductor laureate with the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. From 1991 to 2001, he was music director of the Orchestre National de France.

In 2009, he became music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra, one of the most renowned training orchestras in the world. Other recognitions include a lifetime achievement award from International Classical Music Awards in 2014 and a commandeur de l'ordre des arts et des lettres from the government of France. In 1998, he was invested as an honorary officer of the order of Canada.

He was artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for 25 years until 2002, when he left over differences with the union and management. He ended their 14-year detente with a concert in February this year, featuring his former wife, pianist Martha Argerich. His collaboration with her on the Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3/Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 3 won a 1999 Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (With Orchestra).

According to the Montreal Gazette, Dutoit married Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet in 2010. It is his fourth marriage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Music legend revives another'. Print Edition | Subscribe