Sexual harassment allegations against Charles Dutoit

A conductor and his enablers

Charles Dutoit first conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1980, when he was 44. From 1990 to 1999, he led its summer concerts at the Mann Center. From 1990 to 2010, he served as artistic director and principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra's summer festival in Saratoga Springs, New York. Although Dutoit is Swiss, in 1991 the city of Philadelphia made him an honorary citizen. 

Charles Dutoit leads L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 2015. (Photo via New Jersey Performing Arts Center.)

In 2008, Dutoit succeeded Christoph Eschenbach as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s interim chief conductor and artistic adviser, a tenure that lasted four years, until the arrival of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. At that point, the orchestra named Dutoit its conductor laureate, a title he has held ever since. All told, Dutoit conducted 651 performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, most recently in March 2017.

Nevertheless, last Thursday, when the Associated Press reported four women’s allegations of sexual assault by Dutoit over a 25-year period stretching back to 1985, the Philadelphia Orchestra took just 24 hours to revoke his “conductor laureate” title and sever its connections with him. By the time 48 hours had passed, seven other major symphony orchestras had similarly terminated long relationships with Dutoit. These included Dutoit’s primary current employer, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, which said Friday it had jointly decided with Dutoit to relieve him of his future concert obligations.

Rush to judgment

The allegations against Dutoit are surely serious: According to the four women — three opera singers and an instrumentalist — his behavior included physically restraining them, forcing his body against theirs, sticking his tongue into their mouths, and, in one case, sticking a woman’s hands down his pants. But at first glance, the orchestras’ reactions seemed unusually hasty.

None of the alleged assaults were reported when they occurred, and none of the eight orchestras appeared to have investigated the charges before renouncing their ties with Dutoit. (A Philadelphia Orchestra spokeswoman said Friday the orchestra isn't currently conducting an investigation into Dutoit’s tenure.) Dutoit, when he finally surfaced on Saturday, vehemently denied the allegations and threatened legal action.

For such prestigious organizations to terminate their longstanding relationships with Dutoit on the basis of a single newspaper article would seem an outrageous media-driven stampede to judgment. Unless, of course, these organizations already had good reason to believe, based on their long associations with Dutoit, that the allegations were probably true.

Which appears to be the case.

"How do you say no to God?" A scene from the film 'Spotlight.' (Photo via IMDB.)

Locking her office

My acquaintances within the Philadelphia Orchestra expressed no surprise at the charges against Dutoit; they said his lecherous behavior was well known during his tenure there, but no one formally complained because, as a victim of priestly molestation explains in Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, “How do you say no to God?” (Another musical god, James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera’s legendary conductor for more than 40 years, was suspended earlier this month when sexual misconduct allegations surfaced.) I’m told that one woman on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s staff was driven to tears by Dutoit’s repeated unwanted intrusions and subsequently took to locking her office door to keep him away. Rather than file a complaint, she subsequently left the orchestra’s employ.

Most likely, Thursday’s Associated Press exposé of Dutoit — like the recent exposés of sexual harassment by Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, et al— merely confirmed in public what insiders had long accepted as common knowledge.

Catch-22

Joseph Kluger, the orchestra’s president from 1989 to 2005, told the Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin he was aware of rumors of Dutoit’s flirtatious, “inappropriate behavior,” but that he was “not aware of any occasion in which anybody brought, certainly not to my attention or anyone else’s at the Philadelphia Orchestra, any complaints about his behavior throughout the time I was there.” This is the catch-22 of large institutions: executives rightly refuse to fire people on the basis of mere rumor, but nobody wants to formally report — or receive formal reports about — misconduct by key personnel, least of all an individual who personifies the organization.

Conductors, movie producers, media moguls, and U.S. presidents get away with sexual offenses thanks to the willful blindness of their enablers, which include many of us. It took courage to stand up to Dutoit in his prime — a time when conductorial hanky-panky was shrugged off as the price we pay for great art. Not so today. It’s only a matter of time before some enterprising cultural journalist nails one of the most disturbing (and thus far unreported) rumors of the 20th century: that the sainted Eugene Ormandy, who led the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1936 to 1980, may have been the greatest lecher of all. If and when that happens, please remember, you read it here first.

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on December 27, 2017

Dan, I think you nailed it when you said the "exposé ... merely confirmed in public what insiders had long accepted." And I don't mean Mr. Dutoit necessarily, but all harassment.

The real question for me, having just seen a magnificent movie— All the Money In the World, where an accused actor was hastily replaced— is: Shall we forego the art created by the guilty? If Leonardo da Vinci were found to have been lecherous and aggressive, shall we forego the Mona Lisa?

Cameron Kelsall

of Oaklyn, NJ on December 27, 2017

Dutoit desperately coveted the position of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he never received. (Bestowing upon him the title of "Chief Conductor" from 2008-2012 was a deliberate choice). I had heard that one of the main reasons he never achieved that goal was because the orchestra musicians held him in spectacularly low regard, and were not shy about voicing their displeasure with his bullying and verbally abusive tactics in the rehearsal room. Unlike Levine, I doubt anyone equated him with a demi-god among men, and unlike Levine, I'd never actually heard rumors about his sexual misconduct before the AP story broke. But given his personal conduct elsewhere, it seems utterly truthful. He was always — to my ears, at least —a decidely second-rate musician, too. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as they say.

Greg Maughan

of Philadelphia, PA on December 28, 2017

Great article, Dan. It's nice to see a growing understanding of the importance of believing people (especially women, since they are more often the targets) when they make reports of inappropriate behavior.

I would take issue with one statement you made. I disagree with the notion that nobody wants to receive formal reports about key personnel. I run a small-ish arts organization in the city, and we have made a concerted effort to counter discrimination and harassment for many years. In that time, I have received reports about people who were in important positions and welcomed them. An organization that wants to root out harassment must embrace that work fully to succeed, even when it is hard. We have removed people from positions, and it has been disruptive to our growth and artistic success in the short-term. I am also certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that it has been vital to our longer term reputation and sustainability. Hopefully, more people in charge will come to see issues of harassment and discrimination from this point of view.

The writer is founder and executive director of Philly Improv Theater.— Ed.

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