New York — For most music lovers in the United States, the first important encounter with the name of Christoph von Dohnanyi probably came with an early digital recording of rare beauty and elegance of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony, the ''Italian,'' (London LDR 10003).
Dohnanyi has been for the past two years music director-designate of the Cleveland Orchestra, replacing Lorin Maazel, who went off to Vienna to become head of the State Opera. Dohnanyi takes over as full-fledged music director this September. His opening program, in which Itzhak Perlman plays the Berg Violin Concerto, will be telecast live to Europe Sunday Sept. 23 and taped for later broadcast in the US on PBS.
So just where was the man who, out of nowhere, ''landed'' George Szell's legendary orchestra? As he told me over lunch while his orchestra was playing at Tanglewood last month, he was in Stuttgart and then Hamburg, devoting most of his energies to the job of general director or, as the Germans put it, Intendant , of the opera companies there. While at that post he established himself as a conductor of insight and as an imaginative, highly gifted administrator. A few guest dates here in the US with several of its finest orchestras, as well as with the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric, and San Francisco Operas, showed what a seasoned professional he had become, but it was all we would hear of him until the Cleveland appointment.
The family name was not unfamiliar. Ernst von Dohnanyi, his grandfather, was a celebrated pianist and composer of, among other works, the delectable ''Variations on a Nursery Rhyme'' - temporarily (one hopes) out of favor despite its charm and its bravura opportunites for an elegant pianist. Christoph studied with his grandfather at Florida State University for a year and participated in the conducting classes of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in the summer of 1952, while the young Leonard Bernstein was still teaching. From there, Dohnanyi went back to Europe, took pivotal jobs in various German cities - Lubeck, Kassel, Cologne - until his appointments first in Frankfort, and then Hamburg (in '78).
Now he has the different challenge of dealing with the symphonic repertoire full time. He is emphatic about leaving opera as a company head. He knew he had buried himself, in terms of his career, by staying at the head of those two important opera companies. ''Finally you say - especially if you are an Intendant - I lost a lot of time, but gained so much organizational experience.''
He was able to bow gracefully out of Hamburg because his brother was elected mayor of the city. He was considered for the Vienna State Opera job but did not pursue it. Once Maazel was appointed, they talked about guest dates, at which time Maazel invited Dohnanyi to Cleveland, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For Dohnanyi, running an opera company was not just a matter of dealing with temperamental artists. It was nurturing the entire staff, creating a total professional environment within which good opera could flourish. It was dealing with wigmakers and cellists, lighting designers and doormen. It was coping with prima donnas and politicians, box office and budgets. ''I see in America what you can do with so little state support, as I saw in Hamburg what little you can do with so much state support. The job involved a tremendous time of struggling for quality. We got some things, but it really turned my hair gray.''
He speaks with pride of his new orchestra, which is composed of players who have learned to listen to each other and who thrive under conductors who value that quality. ''Rehearsing is like when you write a book - you have to do research. You have to be critical about every comma, every section: This is the professional approach.'' One of his goals is to train orchestras ''to make beating time less and less important. The main thing is that the orchestra is so secure about what we altogether want, that by listening together we can make music - style, phrasing, etc. - instead of beating bars.''
We talked about the unique properties of the Cleveland ''sound'' and of his recording sessions with TELARC last year in Severance Hall, home of the orchestra. ''You cannot care enough about the home hall of an orchestra. It is the instrument of an orchestra: The sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is the sound of the Musikverein, as the sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra is the sound of the Concertgebouw, and so on.'' He was delighted to bring recording back to Severance and was particularly pleased that Robert Woods, the TELARC producer, allowed the conductor to be himself. ''The sound engineer and producer in the average big companies usually are people who conduct you in a way. Every conductor should have his own sound. I don't want someone with a set of headphones saying, 'I want to hear a clarinet.' ''
Dohnanyi's programming this year reflects his taste for newer music. His recordings (for London Records) of Alban Berg's two operas, ''Lulu'' and ''Wozzeck,'' were highly acclaimed. Composer Hans Werner Henze requested he conduct the world premiere of ''The Young Lords,'' and at the Salzburg Festival, ''The Bassarids.'' Also at Salzburg, Dohnanyi led the world premiere performances of Friedrich Cerha's ''Baal.'' This year in Cleveland such 20 th-century notables as Schoenberg, Berg, Berio, Wourinen, and Henze share programs with Beethoven, Bach, Berlioz, Schubert, Haydn, Bruckner, and Brahms, among others.
Is Dohnanyi worried that audiences might not react well to so much new music? ''We need most a self-confidence that what we do we really want to do, and we trust the people will be interested in getting to know something they don't already know.... I'm rather selfish: I think there are enough people who appreciate this.''