‘If you have been to the Alhambra in the summer – you can really understand his music,’ says Charles Dutoit. ‘There is a perfume in the gardens, and the air is so soft, as if it is caressing you.’ The topic under discussion is the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, whose Three-Cornered Hat Suite No.2 the RPO has just performed in Granada under Dutoit’s baton.
The Swiss conductor knows how to charm. With his suave manner and extravagant accent Dutoit exudes a charisma that has served him well during his five decades on the podium. His reference to the Three-Cornered Hat is significant. In his twenties, he was invited by the legendary maestro Herbert von Karajan to conduct this very work at the Vienna State Opera.
It was a milestone in Dutoit’s musical career – one which began unconventionally. ‘I was interested in many things as a child: maths, physics, languages, history… I didn’t really start my musical education before I was twelve years old.’
It all went from there. Along with Karajan, Dutoit has met figures such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Igor Stravinsky (‘who spoke French to me with a charming Russian accent,’ he says). By now, he has conducted all the great orchestras of Europe, including the Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras and has been Artistic Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre Nationale de France. Did he have time for a life in between? ‘Oh yes, don’t you worry about that!’ he laughs.
He first conducted the RPO in a 1966 concert – his first in London. Although he has since formed a strong relationship with the RPO, becoming its Artistic Director in 2009, and is full of praise for the players, he still reminisces about the past. ‘1966 was a great time in London,’ he says: ‘you had women in mini skirts, The Beatles, players smoking during rehearsals while writing down bowings.’ It was also a time when ‘people had the highest respect for their elders. Nowadays conductors are so young and they learn in no time. Conducting is like a wine. It takes several decades to be really ready and good.’ Does he then consider himself to be a fine wine? ‘I have a lot of experience,’ he smiles.