Cleveland's loss is everyone else's gain. As proof, consider New York's great gain this Thanksgiving weekend, as Christoph von Dohnányi takes over the Philharmonic podium for the first time in nearly 20 years for four performances (Nov. 27, 28, 30, and Dec. 3). He first led the Philharmonic in May 1981, in a program of Schubert and Mendelssohn, with Itzhak Perlman as the soloist. His last program with the Philharmonic came two years later in March 1983, featuring works by Haydn, Henze, and Brahms. As the grandson of the estimable composer-pianist Ernst von Dohnányi, he is, unsurprisingly, at home in the central-European repertory, as his Philharmonic program this season‹Richard Strauss, Janácek, and Brahms‹amply demonstrates.
In between his last Philharmonic appearance and this one lie the two decades during which Dohnányi brought the Cleveland Orchestra to an enviable place among America's top orchestras, carrying forward a tradition that began under the leadership of Artur Rodzinski and George Szell. As is often the case when particularly precious talents are put under contract, Dohnányi's agreement in Cleveland forbade his appearance with other American orchestras. Restrictive though it may have been, the agreement produced a unique intimacy between conductor and orchestra, a kind of benevolent give-and-take more typical of chamber music than of symphonic performance.
In a recent telephone interview from his apartment in Paris, midway through a European tour with London's Philharmonia Orchestra, of which he is now principal conductor, the 73-year-old Dohnányi reflected on the kinds of changes that his new situation will bring: "Now that I can conduct many more orchestras, I need to work on getting acquainted in new surroundings, sometimes week by week. I am looking forward to my return to the Philharmonic; after all, I have made many friends in New York over the years. As for the Philharmonic itself, it will of course be an entirely new orchestra for me after all these years; even the hall itself has gone through changes.
"What I will do first," he continued, "is to let the orchestra play without giving them too many instructions. That way I can learn their manner, their tone and, of course, the hall itself. That will give me the chance to study the orchestra; it will give them the chance to study me. When I had my own orchestra, of course, all this could happen automatically, and I could get down to work a little earlier. Now, things are different."
Dohnányi's departure from Cleveland was like the sundering of a loving family circle. "The main thing a conductor can hope to accomplish," he noted, "is to part from an orchestra as a leave-taking among friends. I think we succeeded in this in Cleveland and I will miss that wonderful atmosphere. Now that I have the freedom to conduct many more orchestras, I have the chance to create that kind of atmosphere in more cities including, most important, New York."
Alan Rich writes about music for LA Weekly, Opera News, and Daily Variety, and is the author of several books.