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Christoph von Dohnányi is back with the BSO

Christoph von Dohnányiís long-awaited return to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a highlight of last yearís season. It was only his second appearance with the orchestra, and their first encounter, in 1989, had resulted in something of a meltdown. But last yearís concerts ó highlighted by dynamic readings of Thomas Adèsís remarkable Asyla ó showed that the two parties had cultivated a deep mutual understanding in short order.

"Yes, I had a very, very good time," Dohnányi recalls over the phone from his home in Paris, "and we worked together extremely well." The German-born conductor is back in town next week to conduct three evenings of music by Kurtág (Stele), Schumann (the Piano Concerto, with soloist Radu Lupu), and Brahms (the Fourth Symphony). An additional Sunday concert, a pension-fund benefit, will feature the Overture to Mozartís Le nozze di Figaro, Mahlerís Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"), with baritone Thomas Hampson, and the Brahms.

Most who heard last yearís concert were amazed that Dohnányi and the BSO could assemble such an authoritative account of Asyla, a riotously complex score using a huge orchestra, with only a weekís worth of rehearsals. But the piece, he says, "sounds more complicated than it actually is. So I think if you know the piece well and the orchestra reads well, and you have a composer who knows how to treat an orchestra ó then actually things should go rather quickly. Thatís the way it happened."

In fact, contemporary music claims a space in most of Dohnányiís programs, and he thinks that itís best heard alongside more familiar fare rather than in isolation. "Some people would say that in the future we should try to have a certain public which listens mainly to contemporary music and another public which listens mostly to older music. Iím not quite convinced that this is the way to do it." Instead, heís committed to the idea that an attentive listener can understand the best music of any era. "As long as a composer deals with emotions, which Kurtág does a lot in his work, I think whether itís 100 years old, 200 years old, or from our own day doesnít make so much of a difference. Itís like going to a great city ó you have modern architecture, and the next building is 200 years old. And both you can look at and appreciate in different ways, if thereís quality. To point out too much that this is music of our time and this is old music ó thatís a little like the old Europe and the new Europe!"

Europe, old and new, is now the center of Dohnányiís professional life. After 18 productive years heading the Cleveland Orchestra, he left in 2002 to become chief conductor of Londonís Philharmonia Orchestra. And he says thereís a marked difference between the musiciansí lives. The Clevelanders "have a heavenly life for a musician in terms of working conditions," since most musicians live nearby and "no one needs more than 10 minutes to get to the hall." In London, by contrast, "if you have a 10 oíclock rehearsal, most of the musicians have to get up at 6 because they live outside of London, since itís so expensive to live there. And you donít rehearse everything in your own hall." Neither are British orchestra musicians paid as well as their American counterparts. "But the wonderful thing about the London orchestras," he continues, "is the spirit of these people. Thereís no complaining, everyone is just working very hard, and they love music. Itís a tremendous partnership with lots of respect for each other and great love of music, so thatís a wonderful way of working. But itís hard."

Besides working with the BSO, Dohnányi says he always looks forward to performing in Symphony Hall. "Boston has for classical-romantic music, music of the earlier 19th century, a very ideal hall," though he points out that "you have to choose the right repertoire," since it was built with the 19th-century orchestra in mind. Overall, he seems to have found a comfortable niche here. "I would say Iím looking forward very much to more concerts this season and the next season, as far as possible. [The BSO has just announced next yearís season ó see "Arts News," on page 4 ó and Dohnányi will conduct two series of concerts in April 2005.] And I should say that the city and the orchestra and especially the hall is a joy."

Christoph von Dohnányi conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, January 29 through 31 at 8 p.m. and February 1 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $26 to $95; call (617) 266-1200.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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