With the music directorship of conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi winding down to a close after next season, the Cleveland Orchestra is at a crucial turning point.
Along with CD reissues and a successful renovation of its home at Severance Hall, the orchestra is the subject of a new historical study by critic Donald Rosenberg (Gray & Co. Publishers) that sheds new light on its long history.
Dohnanyi, who has led the Clevelanders since 1984, furthered a tradition that began in 1918 and reached high points with conductors like the Polish-born Artur Rodzinski, George Szell, and Lorin Maazel. Dohnanyi, an accomplished operatic as well as symphonic conductor, shows a true gift for making an orchestra sing in works by Brahms (for example, a four-CD set from Teldec, just reissued).
Not to be outdone, Decca has released a 10-CD compilation, "The Cleveland Sound," that contains Dohnanyi's lofty interpretations of symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler.
Perhaps as significant a legacy is Dohnanyi's humane approach to his job, a rarity in the world of podium divos. As nephew of the great Protestant theologian and anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich von Bonhoeffer, Dohnanyi was raised to understand that there are things more important in life than the petty details of a conducting career.
Rosenberg's plain-speaking history establishes that Dohnanyi was nearly unique in this sense. After the underrated Artur Rodzinski, the Cleveland Orchestra was led by a young Erich Leinsdorf, who was drafted into World War II despite his best efforts, clearing the way for the advent of George Szell.
According to Rosenberg, the intimidating and coldly insulting Szell was known to his musicians as "Dr. Cyclops." Yet he was an undisputed master of getting the finest orchestral players to sound well together and had the smarts to hire Toscanini's choral director, Robert Shaw, for a long and happy stint with the orchestra's chorus.
Renowned for his amazingly precise, if chilly, way with Haydn and Mozart, Szell could really let loose with a modern work like Henri Dutilleux's "Cinq Metaboles," which the orchestra premiered in 1967. The orchestra's fiery rendition of the Dutilleux work is a highlight of the Szell centenary CD set issued by the Orchestra's Musical Arts Association, and indeed may be Szell's greatest recorded achievement ever.
After the "cold squire of Severance," as the Cleveland Press dubbed the martinet Szell, died in 1970, his successor Lorin Maazel drove some musicians away with his "surly and hostile" moods and "weird, maddening, and indifferent performances," Rosenberg says. By the early '80s, the orchestra, while still playing brilliantly, clearly needed an injection of new life.
That came from Dohnanyi, who was little known in America when he was named to the prestigious post. Under his leadership, the Clevelanders became hyperactive in the recording studio at a time when the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta found itself underemployed. Dohnanyi successfully led the group through recording projects with Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, and Teldec, leaving a rich legacy that is ripe for further reissues.
Speaking by phone from his Cleveland office, Dohnanyi explains that his stewardship of the orchestra was also a learning process for himself, not least in American music by symphonic masters like Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles.
"Coming from Europe, I didn't know the music of Ruggles, and I find his 'Sun-Treader' a genius piece," Dohnanyi says. "Ives's scores are evidence of his genius, not sloppy, but showing he was not satisfied with what he wrote, and how he tried to rewrite it. You can find this in Beethoven and Berlioz's scores as well....
"The real genius composers are never 'victorious,' just as in art you can never be victorious. You can only try harder and harder."
After nearly two decades of ovations, Dohnanyi is still trying harder. In January, Severance Hall's newly restored Skinner organ - first heard when the hall opened in 1930 - will make its debut. In May, he will lead the orchestra on its first Latin America tour in 20 years.
Dohnanyi's successor-designate, the young German conductor Franz Welser-Most, will conduct a much-anticipated series of concerts. After a tenure with the London Philharmonic, Welser-Most will have his hands full in matching the musical and human achievements of his predecessor.
When Cassandras howl about the dim future of symphonic music in America, perhaps the best refutation is the example of the Cleveland Orchestra, in its distinguished past and equally exciting future.
For more information, go to www.clevelandorchestra.com or www.grayco.com (publisher of Donald Rosenberg's book).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society