CLEVELAND — IT is widely rumored among the matrons of Shaker Heights that the celebrated conductor Christoph von Dohn'anyi is a friend of 20th-century music. Such a rumor is not necessarily a compliment. Though the subscribers of the Cleveland Orchestra live in the late 20th century, they, like so many other music lovers, often insist upon listening exclusively to the music of earlier eras. It was therefore interesting to be on hand a few weeks ago at Severance Hall for a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra of the Arnold Schoenberg ``Variations for Orchestra'' Op. 31, and the Anton Webern orchestral recasting of J.S. Bach's famous Fuga from the ``Musical Offering.'' Here, then, was the perfect setting for a pitched battle between the local ``white bread'' people and conductor Dohn'anyi, who came on stage fully armed with the music of serialist composers who are still widely detested despite the fact that most of their works were premi`ered more than 60 years ago. I was also intrigued to discover that Dohn'anyi, like many other conductors, programmed his modern pieces before the intermission so that patrons who wanted to hear the closing Brahms symphony were obliged to sit through the Viennese cacophonies of Webern and Schoenberg.
Anton Webern was a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and one of the most radical of 20th-century composers. His modernism was very much under wraps, however, in the Fuga from ``Musical Offering,'' a comfortably retrospective orchestration of the original Bach keyboard work made by Anton Webern in 1935. What was immediately evident about this brief score was its transparency and meticulousness, quite the opposite of what we discover in the sumptuously romantic transcriptions of Bach pieces by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. Yet for all the austerity of the Webern version, it lacked nothing in mood. Clarity and color were achieved by Webern as a result of his excellent decision not to transcribe the original literally, and not to imitate the instrumental timbre found in Bach's own orchestrations.
INSTEAD, the scoring employs a profound economy of means, which results in a transparency usually found in chamber music. Though the music seems to be quite unthreatening to conservative listeners, it is nonetheless typical of Webern's modernism. He atomized Bach's music, giving the melodic line to a constantly changing succession of instruments. Only toward the end of the work is there a doubling of Bach's lines, a device which produces a flowing sonority reminiscent of Wagnerian romanticism.
The performance by von Dohn'anyi and the Clevelanders was finely detailed, providing a vivid sense of the splendid and complex textures which characterize this deceptively ``simple'' piece. Not surprisingly, the audience was enthusiastic. Dohn'anyi bowed gravely in response to the applause, suggesting that he realized that the Schoenberg opus that was to follow before the intermission would be a more significant indicator of the public's pleasure with modern orchestral music.
The one movement, ``Variations for Orchestra,'' Op. 31, by Arnold Schoenberg was premi`ered in Berlin in 1928. It is a durable example of Schoenberg's system of 12-tone, or serial, composition. The theme which opens the piece is strongly lyrical, while the set of nine variations are exceptionally inventive and challenging. It is with these variations that the audience in Cleveland would get a chance to show its mettle. Despite a good deal of program rattling and shifting in seats, the public gave the work its full attention. Dohn'anyi was masterful in his control of the orchestra, conducting with such precision that his musicians provided a clarity usually associated only with chamber ensembles.
This careful attention to detail vivified the work's essential instrumental transparency without neglecting the vast sonic clusters which marked its several climaxes.
MUCH as Pierre Boulez often rediscovers the freshness of the music he conducts, Dohn'anyi's interpretation resulted in the fullest possible realization of the ``Variations for Orchestra,'' giving us a revolutionary view of a neglected landmark of 20th-century music. Unlike Boulez, however, Dohn'anyi infused his interpretation with passion as well as control and reason. As a result, the ``Variations for Orchestra'' seemed remarkably fresh, retaining its sense of randomness and complexity, while it was also so familiar that at times the music seemed to gush with romantic dread and expectation.
To my considerable surprise, the audience cheered the performance, calling maestro Dohn'anyi back to the podium time and again with enthusiastic applause. Undoubtedly, it was the skill of the conductor and of the members of the Cleveland Orchestra as excellent solo and ensemble interpreters that were largely responsible for this ovation.
But there was yet another force contributing to the success of a work by a composer who is still considered highly obscure and unreachable. Apparently time has passed, and the ear has finally become capable of hearing not simply what it wants to hear but something of what Schoenberg intended.
The program closed with the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.