For what will be his 50th concert at Carnegie Hall, Cristoph von Dohnányi returns on May 23 as guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, renewing an association from three seasons ago, which included the triumphant Pittsburgh premiere of Thomas Adès's Asyla.
Included on the May 23 program will be Haydn's Symphony No. 88 and Bartók's Divertimento for Strings, about which Dohnányi says, "Its second movement is one of the most impressive that Bartók ever wrote. I played it in Westminster Abbey at a memorial concert for Georg Solti and haven't done it since then, but it remains very close to my heart."
The evening will conclude with the "Pathétique" Symphony by Tchaikovsky, a composer featured on the very first Pittsburgh Symphony program at Carnegie Hall in January 1900, when the orchestra was led by music director Victor Herbert. (The ensemble was founded in 1896 by a group of hometown industrialists that included Andrew Carnegie himself.)
Dohnányi is one of several world-class conductors who have been engaged to supplement the Pittsburgh Symphony's current artistic leadership: Since 2004, the role of music director has been shared by three conductors, Sir Andrew Davis, the Artistic Advisor who is also Music Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago; Yan Pascal Tortelier; and Marek Janowski. In addition to his artistic planning and conducting, Davis helps oversee fund-raising, auditions, and staffing decisions. Tortelier and Janowski serve as regular guest conductors.
This experimental arrangement for the orchestra heralds an exciting new era in which musicians take a more active off-stage role than in the past, including participation in artistic and strategic planning, as well as in determining which musicians play which pieces. Of course, nearly all orchestras are chameleons these days. For instance, the self-governing Vienna Philharmonic hasn't had a principal conductor since 1933.
But the concept of team podium leadership at the Pittsburgh Symphony has the particular advantage of bringing in a variety of worthy conductors working in their strengths, which in turn helps to raise the potential for a higher level of excellence across a broad range of music.
The orchestra places a premium on the quality of its guest conductors, knowing that great conductors challenge even the finest orchestras to rise to new heights.
The strengths of established conductors like Dohnányi this season have been supplemented by a string of very successful debuts by such younger conductors as Vladimir Jurowski, Andrey Boreyko, and Gianandrea Noseda. And what a wonderful thing it is to see an orchestra establish these new relationships, too often neglected in the past decade, with the most promising maestros of the next generation.
Mark Kanny is the classical music editor and critic for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.