Allegations against Charles Dutoit and its impact on the audience

Earlier today the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra issued a statement regarding the allegations of historic ‘inappropriate behaviour’ made against its artistic director and principal conductor, Charles Dutoit.

The allegations were made in a report published by Associated Press yesterday.

In the statement the orchestra made clear that its commitment to working to the ‘highest standards of ethical behaviour’, adding that it was important that investigations were carried out and the legal process adhered to.

It’s easy to have an emotional reaction to the allegations. And I do have them. Just as I did when the details of Jimmy Savile’s horrific crimes surfaced when I was working at the BBC.

If these allegations turn out to be true, then they’re sickening, abhorrent. Whilst they do involve sex, they have far more to do with power, and the power society has bestowed on people in particular positions.

What pushes the knife in deeper here are the assumptions – most of them unarticulated – that surface about classical music amid such horrific allegations.

Those of us who are shocked (including those who profess to not being surprised because they figured it went on anyway) now come to realise that we assume that something so emotionally charged, so transcendent, and so miraculous as live performance could at the same time be home to something as brutal and disrespectful as sexual assault.

That is of course naivety. More the fool us.

Classical music, opera, theatre, television and radio, is as likely to harbour those capable of sexual assault as any other walk of life. If we are shocked or surprised, that says as much about our assumptions as it does about the ethics of the alleged perpetrator(s).

The RPO’s statement is well-crafted, well-timed, and well-executed. It’s classic crisis comms in operation.

Other commentators are quick to leap to the RPO’s defence, fearing the worst in the hope of fending off any hint of organisational decline.

The RPO’s future success won’t be undermined by this at all. The past fifteen years at least has seen a pragmatic and resourceful approach to generating revenue meaning its future success will be down more to business decisions than reputation.

Orchestras are a work place. That means orchestras are businesses. They will need to survive if they implement business decisions. That includes PR.

The potent impact of these allegations (whether they’re later proved true or false) is that on the audience. In the space of 24 hours, a back catalogue of works is now sullied. Knowing what I know now, I find it difficult to listen to any recordings by that conductor.

Artists don’t own the music they perform, they’re guardians and interpreters of it.

I listened earlier this evening to a recording of Poulenc’s first piano concerto conducted by Dutoit. I realised as I was listening I was trying to eradicate the idea of there being a conductor present on the recording at all, seeking refuge instead solely in the melody crafted by the composer. It’s not a fool proof methodology I hasten to add. But it was an interesting exercise.

That was when I started thinking about how the conductor as a role – the traditional image of the conductor – seems rather archaic.

Then I started to dream a bit. Maybe if people held their nerve it might just be the case that this would be an opportunity to shake things up a bit. And for that to happen will need business people to have nerves of steel.

Fingers crossed.

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