IN the name of high art -- perhaps even Canadian nationalism -- one of this community's oldest church buildings has been turned into a musical instrument. Pews have been removed to far corners. Microphone wires droop like clotheslines from gilded archways. A giant black curtain hides the altar. Shirttail out, Charles Dutoit (``He directs the symphony up the road in Montreal,'' says one local) and 112 musicians in jeans and sneakers are exploiting the wood-and-plaster acoustics for a superior recording of Mussorgsky's ``Pictures at an Exhibition.''
If the resulting disc is anything like the ensemble's previous 15, it will do more than help nudge the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) into the forefront of world-class orchestras. It will also help reestablish the pride of Montrealers in a city bouncing back from 10 years of economic and cultural stagnation.
So successful has Mr. Dutoit been in making his orchestra Canada's best -- even critics in rival Toronto concur -- that the provincial and city governments have made him a symbol not only of economic and cultural renaissance, but unity in a province torn by a decade of separatist furor.
He insists on perfection. ``No, no, no. I don't want any ugly sound,'' says Dutoit (pronounced ``doo-TWAH''), glaring at his brass section, separated by a plywood panel from the string basses for this day's recording session. He tells one trumpeter to come in on F sharp this time, and not so loud. After the first movement has been recorded in a trial run-through, Dutoit and sound technicians retreat to a back room for a listen. ``See? Right there, the brass is far too loud!'' He glances around the room for the guilty parties, then scribbles a note in the score. His care with the details and the results of such care are things on which the city of Montreal has captitalized.
The well-publicized struggle of predominantly French Quebec to achieve autonomy from the national government in Ottawa has gone on so long that Quebec Cultural Minister Clement Richard, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, and the city's economic development council had long searched for a unifying star. The wagon they would hitch to it would be a long-term, civic promotional campaign.
With the expressed purpose to curtail French-English infighting, the campaign was to have a message: World-class achievements are definitely within grasp of Montrealers, if only they will overcome the divisiveness that has driven many of the the city's economic and cultural assets to other provinces, and Toronto in particular.
The thinking was that, in a half-French, half-English city, where two language communities must come to terms with each other and where the arts are often perceived as expressions of cultural identity, what better symbol of both diversity and unity could be found? The Montreal Expos hockey team had been a candidate for the campaign until, beginning about 1981, the Montreal orchestra's rebirth started ``unfolding like a public relations dream,'' in the words of one journalist.
After nearly disbanding 12 years ago, the orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary last year with a ranking among the finest in the world. After signing a three-record contract with London-Decca records in 1980, it has produced 15 digital recordings, five of which have won prestigious awards -- including the highest, the Montreux International Record Award.
The awards have generated great interest at home and abroad. Season subscriptions have doubled. And conductor-director Dutoit has become one of the hottest properties in all of conducting.
``Dutoit has put Montreal on the map internationally,'' says Franz Kraemer of the Ottawa-based Canada Council, the country's version of the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. In December, the MSO became the first Canadian orchestra to achieve platinum status, selling more than 100,000 copies of Ravel's ``Bolero.''
Perhaps more important, he says, ``where historically the MSO was considered an English institution for English people, it is now much more balanced, with hosts of French backers and a more Francophile audience.'' Quebec is 80 percent French, 12 percent English; Montreal is about 50-50; and Canada overall is about 40-60.
``There's been a tremendous spillover of prestige and pride to all the other cultural institutions in the city,'' says Kraemer. ``And that translates into other organizations being able to attract the best in fields from painting to jazz.''
To capitalize on Dutoit's success and his dark and dashing visage, the city two years ago began splashing his face on billboards all over the province. A $5 million ``I Love New York''-style campaign was designed -- not for external promotion, but rather internal soul-lifting. Buildings and buses carried his countenance enlarged up to 40 feet high with the words, ``La fiert'e a une ville'' (``A city, call it proud''). Other billboards read, ``La Fierte a un Nom -- Montreal (``Pride has a name -- Montreal'').
Before the current subscription season, his orchestra provided the visual backdrop for new commercials publicizing the cultural diversity of the city. These included interviews with Dutoit, leading museum curators, and people from other arts institutions.
``When I arrived in 1978,'' says the Swiss-born conductor, ``the orchestra was good, but broke, completely demoralized, in crisis with management. My whole activity here has been to change that self-image and project it to the community and abroad.''
With seemingly limitless energy, he is credited with revamping the entire orchestra, screening almost 50 new members, honing its sound through demanding rehearsal schedules, and winning international prestige with superior renderings of French repertoire. He has also broadened the base of the orchestra at home, taking music (including show tunes and pop music) to the parks and shopping centers throughout a new, full summer schedule.
``There are two important aspects to the resurgence Mr. Dutoit has brought to Montreal,'' says Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's general manager (and the younger brother of Zubin Mehta, music director of the New York Philharmonic). ``One is his excellence as a first-class musician, and the other is his strong sense of civic responsibility.'' Mr. Mehta says Dutoit spent immeasurable amounts of time in extramusical activity -- media promotion, fund raising, and advertising -- as well as carving out a repertoir e that is giving international audiences a reason to stand up and take notice.
Says Sir Peter Davies, a music critic for New York Magazine: ``If fine-point detail, expressive clarity, technical precision, and refined sensuality are prized Gallic virtues, then Montreal must possess the best French orchestra in the world.''
A veteran music director -- he held posts with four orchestras while still in his 20s -- Mr. Dutoit had performed as guest conductor more than 1,000 times with 150 of the world's finest orchestras before coming to Montreal in 1977. Once in Montreal, he harnessed his international reputation to attract the recording contract with London-based Decca Records.
The words most often heard to describe him are ``indefatigable'' and ``perfectionist.''
``He has an exceptionally good ear,'' says timpanist Louis Charbonneau, who has seen the orchestra under half a dozen conductors since 1950. ``And he drives us very hard, to our great distress, until we see the results. Then we smile.''
Born in Lausanne, Dutoit studied violin, piano, and viola beginning at age 11. Later he enrolled at the Geneva Conservatory and won first prize in conducting. In 1963 he debuted as conductor of the Bern Symphony. Still in his 20s, he served alternately as director the Zurich Radio Orchestra, the Mexican National Orchestra, and the Goteborg Symphony in Sweden.
Besides leading the orchestra to recording successes and fame at home, Dutoit has recently signed on to take them, via regular syndicated radio, to 150 concert-music stations across the United States. The Montreal now tours internationally seven years of every eight instead of just one, as before. And in March, it begins a 14-city tour up the East Coast that includes stops in Miami, the Carolinas, Washington, Boston, and Chicago.