Christoph von Dohnšnyi: Musician, Mentor ... Maestro

Classic Arts Features   Christoph von Dohnšnyi: Musician, Mentor ... Maestro
Christoph von Dohnšnyi spoke with Lawrence Van Gelder about his return to the New York Philharmonic this month : and about his work with the next generation, including composer J‹rg Widmann and Music Director Alan Gilbert.


As winter deepens, old friendships are giving shape and lending warmth to a series of New York Philharmonic concerts at Avery Fisher Hall. At the heart of the January 13 to 15 performances stands the renowned conductor Christoph von Dohnšnyi, who is leading a program that comprises J‹rg Widmann's Con brio, Concert Overture for Orchestra; Schumann's Symphony No. 4; and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The maestro : now age 81 and bedecked with such laurels as honorary conductor for life of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, music director laureate of The Cleveland Orchestra, and chief conductor of the NDR Symphony of Hamburg, Germany : is a welcome and familiar figure in the great concert halls and opera houses of the world.

Beyond the long and intense personal acclaim that has accompanied his career, he is known for fostering young talent, including Alan Gilbert. During Mr. Dohnšnyi's 20-year tenure in Cleveland, which began in 1982 with his appointment as music director designate, Mr. Gilbert served as the assistant conductor from 1995 to 1997, and has been principal guest conductor of the NDR Symphony since 2004.

"I thought he would be a great help here in Hamburg," Mr. Dohnšnyi said recently from his home, "and so he was." In fact, he expected Alan Gilbert to succeed him as chief conductor. "I think there was a contract ready, when New York came along," he recalled, adding with evident good humor: "Of course, I don't blame him for taking New York." Of the younger conductor, the veteran said, "He is doing a great job."

Count J‹rg Widmann, too, among the rising talent and old friends associated with the program that Mr. Dohnšnyi constructed for the mid-January concerts. "I know Widmann," he said, "and he is a very promising German composer. He is also an instrumentalist, a terrific clarinet soloist." In discussing Con brio he observed, "It is a very classical orchestration, and he uses quite a bit of Beethoven material. Most of it is from the Seventh [Symphony], but you have to know the piece very well, because it is not too obvious. It is an interesting piece."

When it came to the Schumann symphony, a favorite among audiences, Christoph von Dohnšnyi faced some choices because there are several versions. "I do the very late, wellknown edition, since the composer liked it better," he said, noting a tendency in some circles to do so-called original versions, which the composer may not have preferred. "One should always do what the composer liked best."

The Brahms? "What can you say?" Mr. Dohnšnyi asked. "It is one of the great piano concerti that have ever been written. It is very special. There are four movements, which is not too usual in a concerto : it really is a very symphonic structure."

Which brings up the pleasure of collaboration with another old friend, Yefim Bronfman. "First of all, one doesn't have to talk technique because he's got it," Christoph von Dohnšnyi said. "You start right away with music. That's the thing about great orchestras and great soloists. Their priority is music making, and the technique you can take for granted. You don't lose time with technique." This quest to make superb music, he added, is also characteristic of the New York Philharmonic: "I think this orchestra, like some of the great orchestras, has the tendency of really liking to work and come out with the best results. It's an orchestra that always tries from scratch to reach the best. The musicians are always open to special approaches and new things. We never lean back and say, 'Oh, we know it.'" And so, Mr. Dohnšnyi said, "I think I can say we love each other."

New York is not Mr. Dohnšnyi's only port of call as a guest conductor these days. He is looking forward to European appearances with the Philharmonia of London, the Orchestre de Paris, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, among others. "I am in a fortunate position," he observed. "I can pick what I want to do. There are the great orchestras in the United States, which I always did conduct, and which I will continue to do." New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia came quickly to mind. "All these orchestras are great," he said, "and it is a great joy to be over there."


Lawrence Van Gelder is a retired New York Times culture reporter and contributor to WQXR; he is also a retired adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

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