Rambling about Tanglewood: A reckoning with Stravinsky

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LENOX, MASS. >> Charles Dutoit, one of the world's leading Stravinsky conductors, finagled his way in to meet the composer he would ultimately champion.

In late 1959, after his summer as a Tanglewood conducting student, the young Swiss found himself seated next to Henri Dutilleux on the shuttle to New York. Dutoit had just heard the French composer's Second Symphony ("Le Double") premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra the night before.

Both men spoke French. A conversation started. Dutilleux said he was on his way to hear Stravinsky conduct his own music.

"So I said, 'Stravinsky, in New York!' " Dutoit recalls. And off he went to hear and meet Stravinsky.

Robert Craft, Stravinsky's longtime assistant, barred the door backstage. But Lukas Foss, whom Dutoit knew from Tanglewood, came to the rescue. He was one of four composers — the others were Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Roger Sessions — playing the piano for Stravinsky's "Les Noces." You'll be my page turner, Foss said.

Connection made, Dutoit met Stravinsky.

That, Dutoit says, was how it all began. Tonight, it culminates in the Stravinsky chamber concert that Dutoit will conduct in Ozawa Hall. He'll have his wife, Chantal Juillet, as the violinist in a staged performance of "The Soldier's Tale," the story of the soldier who sells his fiddle and soul to the Devil.

BSO members will join them in both that fable and the Octet for winds. The program follows Dutoit's conducting stints with the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, with another BSO program coming tomorrow night.

The 79-year-old conductor is Tanglewood's 2016 Koussevitzky Artist, honored for his 35-year association with the BSO. The recognition came, according to BSO artistic administrator Anthony Fogg, with carte blanche for him and his wife to present a program of their favorite chamber works.

They could either perform or just sit and listen. "The Soldier's Tale" was a natural for a conductor who has been doing the piece ever since it earned him his diploma at the Geneva conservatory.

In a phone interview, the genial conductor said he made the very first recording of "The Soldier's Tale" — the disc is still available in Europe, paired with the Octet, he noted — and he has conducted staged versions in many countries and languages, including Japanese. In Geneva, he lived on Quay Igor Stravinsky, 200 meters away from the place where Stravinsky completed "The Soldier's Tale." He knew the family.

Stravinsky, he says, is "a lucky number" for him.

The BSO can't entirely claim Dutoit. In various capacities, he has headed many orchestras, including the Philadelphia, which he directed at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for 21 years, occasioning an absence from Tanglewood during that time. His 25 years with the Montreal Symphony have recently been documented with re-release of the 35 much-acclaimed compact discs they made during those years.

Among other distinctions, he is a regular visitor to China, where he figures he has conducted 26 times with the BSO, Philadelphia, New York Philharmonic and other orchestras. He spends a month every year conducting in Japan.

One of those trips to China and Japan made him an honest-to-goodness BSO hero.

In the spring of 2014, before Andris Nelsons came on board as music director, Lorin Maazel was scheduled to take the orchestra on tour in those two countries. Maazel, who died not long after, became too sick to make the trip.

Out went the call to Dutoit.

He was on vacation, with a single concert, in Singapore, scheduled in the middle. Singapore let him go. "And so," Anthony Fogg recounts, "God bless him, he missed the first day of rehearsal but he took over the programs exactly as they were."

"I came from the airport from Europe to the rehearsals — a zombie," Dutoit remembers. "And then after the last concert in Tokyo, I hardly had time to go and take a bow because I had to run to the airport to take the night flight to Europe and work the next morning."

As "La Mer" and "Bolero" on Dutoit's BSO program last week testified, he is known as much for his Debussy and Ravel as for his Stravinsky. But he says that early on, in his teens and early 20s, he was too much into strongly rhythmic music like Stravinsky's to get excited about Debussy.

Later, at the dawn of the compact disc era, he and the Montreal Symphony recorded Debussy's complete works and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" music. The sound on the "Daphne" recording was so glorious, he says, that it became a demonstration disc for the new format.

And that, he says, is how he acquired the image as a Debussy-Ravel conductor.

The BSO is "like a family" for this world traveler. "I really adore Boston and Tanglewood, and the Boston Symphony is such a warm orchestra," he says. The affection is returned.


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