True to the cautious way American symphony orchestras like to do things, music directors unlikely to upset the status quo will soon be taking over the big bands in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Cleveland. No doubt that means we are due for some emotional farewells as the departing maestros of those orchestras come to town and bid us adieu. The first to do so -- and the conductor whom thoughtful audiences are most likely to miss -- is Christoph von Dohnányi, who for the past eighteen years, in his quietly determined way, has brought style and substance to our musical lives as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.
His three concerts in Carnegie Hall were typical. Each contained a Beethoven symphony (the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth) prefaced by the sort of tough but rewarding music that Dohnányi regularly programs. On this occasion he chose "difficult" scores by accepted older composers (Sibelius's Night Ride and Sunrise, Strauss's Metamorphosen, and Lutoslawski's Musique Funèbre), as well as confrontational new works by living composers who make no concessions to tender ears (Wolfgang Rihm's "Concerto," Dithyrambe for String Quartet and Orchestra and Harrison Birtwistle's The Shadow of Night). Beethoven fits well into this context, reminding us that he, too, still challenges audiences who really want to listen.
The juxtaposition of Strauss's searing threnody for German cultural monuments destroyed in World War II and Beethoven's eternally inspirational Ninth Symphony made a perfect valedictory statement. For those who want a fuller aural picture of Dohnányi's Cleveland years, the orchestra has just released a ten-CD set. Even the warhorses sound fresh, but the piece I am most grateful to revisit is the staggering account of Schoenberg's unfinished oratorio, Die Jakobsleiter. (Call 216-231-7478 or order at clevelandorchestra.com.)
I first encountered Dohnányi in 1966, leading Hans Werner Henze's The Bassarids in Salzburg. He bowled me over, and it's been an adventure ever since. I trust that these recent concerts are not his last, but if so, it has been a stimulating ride.
The Cleveland Orchestra
Conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi; Carnegie Hall