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.
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.
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.
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.