Cleveland Orchestra Boasts Matchless Sound

From Christoph von Dohnanyi back to George Szell, the seamless style of this world-class institution stands strong

FINE intonation is the Cleveland Orchestra's stock in trade, now under as it was under George Szell 22 years ago. The orchestra's lively, passionate, utterly distinctive sound embodies ardor, precision, and clarity. How that sound was developed and maintained over the years is a lesson in artistic vision and individual sacrifice.

In addition to being the most recorded ensemble in America (with 30 recordings under Maestro Dohnanyi released and at least 11 more awaiting release this year), the Cleveland Orchestra has been honored all over the world. This summer it begins a long-term commitment to play at the Salzburg Festival in Austria (performances July 27-31.)

The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the youngest of the top orchestras and is preparing to celebrate its 75th anniversary season in 1993. During its venerable history, it has chosen its musicians and especially its artistic directors sagely: Nikolai Sokoloff, Artur Rodzinski, Erich Leinsdorf, Szell, Lorin Maazel, and now Dohnanyi represent an unbroken line of mastery even where there was controversy.

"There are certain things that I think are indispensable priorities [in the making of a great orchestra]," says Dohnanyi in an interview. "The first thing is, you try to create a spirit where the musicians and the conductor try to achieve the same goals. There are orchestras where the conductor does his 'pirouette,' so to speak, and the orchestra does their 'pirouette.' Then what you need is discipline and a real understanding of democracy. That's why I think there are lots of good orchestras in this cou ntry, because the social structure makes it possible to acknowledge authority without feeling dominated."

Still, the selection of musicians falls exclusively to music director Dohnanyi as it did to Szell and to Maazel. First oboist John Mack remarks that it is the audition process that makes it possible for the orchestra to maintain its artistic profile. Committees of musicians listen with the director, but he has the final word. Mr. Mack says that because the orchestra has such a clearly defined idea of how it thinks the music should sound, choosing the right musicians is easy. A musician must be more than brilliant, he says. He must be able to blend with the orchestra, to "adopt the phrasing, mannerisms, and musical personality of the orchestra...."

Concertmaster Daniel Majeske says the way the orchestra plays requires the highest degree of virtuosity because one must maintain control at all times. It's easy for a fine musician to play a passage gorgeously. But it takes more restraint, for example, to let the clarinet through without strain. This is good musical manners.

"We have fiddle players and cellists and violists who have sounds as large as anyone's," Mr. Majeske says, "but they are willing to put it on the back burner in order that the music can be a success."

In Szell's day a conductor could demand perfection by force of will. Musicians could be summarily dismissed. But today, because of unions, that is not the case. Conductors have had to change their style in order to elicit the best from their players.

"You have to know people," Dohnanyi says. "You have to be able to convince people to open their minds and hearts to join you." When he selects a musician, he is concerned with the individual's personality as well as the musicianship.

Several musicians remark that the maestro is "orthodox," and by that they mean he serves the music rather than any personal ends.

"I try to get this orchestra as close as possible to the meaning of the music," says Dohnanyi, "the meaning I think the music does own. So I try to prepare myself in a very thorough way, even if we do the music again and again."

Dohnanyi has continued the tradition of precision and clarity inherited from Szell. Reigning for 24 years (1946-1970), Szell expanded the orchestra and raised it to world-class status. His was an iron hand, but he is remembered by colleagues with affection and certainly with respect.

"Szell liked to stick to the things he felt he did the best - the classics - Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.," says oboist Mack, who was hired by Szell. "He liked things to be very, very clean, to be exceedingly tidy from an ensemble standpoint, from an intonation standpoint, and so forth. To me, one of the things that makes the sound of the orchestra different from others is unity.... The word ensemble does mean 'together.' Szell not only wanted us to pull together, he wanted us to pull exactl y together."

"Szell used to say that the specialty of the Cleveland Orchestra was to have no specialty," says Robert Finn, music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who has covered the Cleveland beat for part of Szell's tenure and ever since. "It's still the case. It's still Szell's orchestra - that clarity of texture.... I mean, when they play a piece that has a lot going on, where the texture is very busy and very dense, you can hear a long way down into that sound. Its almost like a blueprint of the music.... I t's the same sound, the same balancing of choirs, the same clarity of texture that Szell nurtured...."

While Maazel's 10 years with the orchestra were riddled with controversy, his more dramatic "Dionysian" style did feed the orchestra another dimension of emotion.

But Dohnanyi is able to combine both the rigorous precision and classicism of Szell with the romanticism and spontaneity of Maazel, says David Zauder, first coronet.

Critics and musicians alike credit Dohnanyi with broadening the repertoire (as did Maazel before him). Dohnanyi has particularly championed the contemporary music of Europe and the United States, balancing the orchestra's programming among the classics, modern classics, and contemporary music.

Mack says Dohnanyi is not afraid of any repertoire.

Of their different styles of conducting, Mr. Zauder says, "George Szell was an authoritarian; he believed in benevolent dictatorship. Maazel was a liberal - he probably would have stormed the Bastille. Dohnanyi is really a man of the '80s. He is very sensitive, an intellectually stimulated man with great compassion." The orchestra's Blossom Festival in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, runs June 26 through Sept. 6. Free concerts run June 18-20 at Northcoast Harbor and July 3 at Public Square in Cleveland. For information, call (216) 213-7300.

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