My cultural education started early, and backwardly. Aside from a sneak of Genesee beer from my uncle as a kid, my first alcoholic beverage was from a bottle of Chianti brought back from Tuscany just for me. When it came to music, I turned away from my dad’s Fogerty and Cash for classical music. Only later in life, when my palate turned into a leviathan, did I consume the alternative and grunge of my 1990’s, the Cash and the Fogerty, as well as develop an appreciation for every libation. However, some of those earliest experiences are indelible, and when stirred from their hibernation, create an immediate and visceral return to the past.
Such is the case for me when I hear a classical music conductor well known to the art, but little known outside of his field. I was 14 years old when I first saw Christoph von Dohnanyi (DOCK-nahn-ee) conduct the Cleveland Orchestra. My aunt, who was a member of the Orchestra’s parent association and it’s women’s committee, was a season ticket subscriber. When the concert on deck had less familiar tunes, she’d hand over her tickets to my mom. Taking the unwanted, second-hand tickets, my mom and I would go to the home of the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. There, I would wear my little man suit and tie and take my music lessons in the audience from the finest orchestra in America.
Von Dohnanyi, or CvD as he is known in the press, has a poignant back story. He is no Bernstein (though he studied with him). He is not flamboyant. CvD’s father was a German lawyer who worked for the government in the 1930’s. When the Nazis came to power, his father began a resistance movement from within the government. CvD’s uncle was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister and avatar of peace who fought against the fascists. Both men were captured and thrown into the camps. CvD fled to America and abandoned his legal studies. He studied music with his grandfather, Erno von Dohnanyi, a major composer before the war, reduced to modesty as a professor in Florida during the war years. CvD would write his uncle and father in the camps as Bonhoeffer’s popularity gave him a little protection from the worst pains the regime could inflict. CvD would never see them again. Hitler ordered their execution just days before the end of the war. Political prisoners were given no quarter by the regime, not even at the end. Through this tremendous destruction came music making from both grandfather and grandson, and whether CvD carried that anguish in his music making, I have never been able to really tell. He doesn’t exploit this story, but his activism with the Anti-Defamation League helped to salve the wounds of post-war Europe.
CvD has a knack for programming challenging 20th century classical music with famous pieces. He does this in order to get audiences in the door. He was always willing to give you Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, but you had to get through Ives, Varese and Messiaen first. I loved the modern music as well as the more familiar pieces.
On the docket for my first Cleveland Orchestra concert was the Haydn 104th Symphony, known as the “London” and among the last of his symphonic works. No recording has ever come close the matching the timbre and feeling of sitting in a concert hall, especially with a very familiar piece of music that you know inside and out. As I kid, I didn’t have such a memory for classical tunes, but after decades of repetition and performing on my own occasionally, I have committed a lot of music to memory. And like your favorite movie, you can discover something anew each time you experience it.
CvD forced his audience that evening to sit through a modern piece by Hans Werner Henze, a German communist composer who spent most of his life rebelling against everyone–politically and musically. That piece, the “Appasionatamente” from his earlier piece Lo Sdegno del Mare (The Indignation of the Sea) was a beautifully violent work that left no impression of melody on my nascent classical ears. But from this early concert going experience, I started to consume classical music at a furious pace, checking out every CD from my town library and in the process, becoming a real audiophile.
I attended college near Cleveland, in part to keep the Cleveland Orchestra close by. I’d go to concerts both in Cleveland and in Oberlin, when the Orchestra played there. I saw countless concerts under CvD–his premiere of John Williams’ Trumpet Concerto (sounds like Jurassic Park for Orchestra), the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the German actor Maximilian Schell as narrator, the Schoenburg Erwartung (the aural equal to Munch’s “The Scream“), the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the Sibelius violin concerto with Gil Shaham, the music of Charles Ives and the Beethoven Triple Concerto. Of that last piece, I was able to attend the dress rehearsal with a handful of music majors. We were to meet CvD himself after the rehearsal.
CvD was an aloof conductor. Clevelanders loved his music making, and cheered on their orchestra as the world’s best. They did this not always for a love of classical music, but because with the shameful performance of Cleveland’s sports teams, the grizzled working class of the rust belt needed to believe in something. They believed in their Cleveland Orchestra. I had the feeling that CvD only tolerated Cleveland, his spiritual home being in the grand cities of Europe. He commanded the only international cultural establishment in the city, and seemed to spend him time either on the podium or on a plane out of town.
I took him for aloof that day, as he didn’t come to speak with the students but sent his assistant conductor to speak with us. He had a legitimate reason–the rehearsal did not go well (rather, it was perfect, but it was not the Cleveland Sound of balance, polish and transcendence). He wanted to work the trio to death to get the sound right, so he hand to cancel on us.
I was defeated. When it came time to ask some questions about the concert to the assistant, I clammed up. I had nothing to say to the substitute. I let the opportunity pass by.
A year later, I moved away from Cleveland. CvD did as well, moving onto other orchestras. The Cleveland Sound changed a little after CvD left. They are still capable of transcendent music making, but just with a slight difference, as their new conductor has put his imprimatur on the ensemble. Where CvD was Apollonian, his successor, Franz Welser-Most, is crystalline in his music making. Not polished marble, but pure glacial water. These are of course, nuanced observations. Perfect is still perfect.
Fast forward nearly 20 years. The now 83-year old CvD tours the world as a permanent guest conductor. He conducts what he wants and where he wants. He is in demand by orchestras around the world. He is, from what my orchestra friends tell me, a real musicians’ conductor. Orchestras loathe the dictator, the diva or the dilettante on the podium. CvD is none of the above. He had an engagement with my local band, the National Symphony Orchestra, and he was playing Brahms…and Henze. Not the same Henze as my first concert, but a newer piece. Henze had passed away this year, and amazingly, the NSO had never performed a single piece by the composer. CvD brought that suite to town, and I knew that I had to be there. Given his age, this could be the last time I could hear the maestro live. The Brahms 4th Symphony–a piece that I have burned into my soul with recordings by the other great Cleveland conductor, the late Georg Szell–would be gravy on top of a well-conceived concert.
I sat in the orchestra seats–on the floor–at the concert hall. I bought a ticket in approximation to the stage where my Aunt’s seats used to be at Severance, about a dozen rows back on stage left. The orchestra members mosey to the stage, playing bits and pieces of the evening rep in a warm-up that always reminds me of bad 20th century classical music–polyphonic, poly-rhythmic quotations and snippets of music. The orchestra was arranged in the German manner, the way CvD prefers, with 1st violins to the left, and 2nd violins to the right–almost quartet style. Out came the concertmistress, then the tuning note. Then CvD. He seemed timeless. Age has not diminished his stick-work, and the NSO adopted his “sound” for the evening–his polished interpretation and incredible balance among the forces of the orchestra. I closed my eyes and was transported from the Kennedy Center into 1990’s Cleveland.
I felt unusually smaller in my seat. I was 14 again.