Conductor  Christoph  von  Dohnányi

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Christoph von Dohnányi was born in Berlin on September 8, 1929 to jurist Hans von Dohnányi and Christine Bonhoeffer. His uncle on his mother's side, and also his godfather, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian/ethicist. His grandfather was the pianist and composer Ernő Dohnányi, also known as Ernst von Dohnányi. His father, uncle and other family members participated in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, and were arrested and detained in several Nazi concentration camps before being executed in 1945, when Christoph was 15 years old. Dohnányi's older brother is Klaus von Dohnányi, a German politician and former mayor of Hamburg.

After World War II, Dohnányi studied law in Munich, but in 1948 he transferred to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München to study composition, piano and conducting. At the opera in Munich, he was a stage extra, coached singers, and was a house pianist. He received the Richard Strauss Prize from the city of Munich, and then went to Florida State University to study with his grandfather.

dohnanyi His first position as assistant was at the Frankfurt Opera, appointed by Georg Solti, where he also served as a ballet and opera coach. He was general musical director of the Lübeck Opera from 1957 to 1963, then Germany's youngest GMD. He also served as chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Kassel. He also served as chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. In 1968, he succeeded Solti as general music director and later "director" at the Frankfurt Opera and served in both capacities until 1977. He took the positions of intendant and chief conductor with the Hamburg State Opera in 1977, and relinquished those posts in 1984.

As director of the Frankfurt Opera and with his team including Gerard Mortier (Director of Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Salzburg Festival, Opéra de Paris), Peter Mario Katona (Director of Casting at ROH Covent Garden) and Klaus Schultz, Dramaturg in Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper) and Berlin (Philharmonic Orchestra), then General Manager of the Stadttheater Aachen, Nationaltheater Mannheim, and Gärtnerplatztheater in Munich, the balance in programming of traditional opera performance and innovative Musiktheater, promoting the idea of Regietheater, established Frankfurt opera as a leading house at that time. He continued this concept in Hamburg.

Dohnányi's fame stems largely from his relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra that spanned two decades. He made his conducting debut with the orchestra in December 1981, and soon after was appointed music director designate from 1982 to 1984 and consequently served as music director from the 1984-85 season until August 2002. At the time of Dohnányi's appointment, he was relatively unknown compared to previous musical directors Lorin Maazel and George Szell, with whom the Cleveland Orchestra "achieved what was probably the highest executant standard of any orchestra in the world" according to music critic Theodore Libbey. Dohnányi and Szell had a similar micro-managerial conducting style, and in Dohnányi's tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra, the orchestra pursued an active touring and recording schedule, being often described as the finest in the United States, "more or less on a par with the august philharmonics of Vienna and Berlin", according to The New York Times. In spite of such praise, Dohnányi's name was often mentioned only after Szell's in concert reviews. Dohnányi remarked in the late 1980s, "We give a great concert...and George Szell gets a great review." During the time when the city of Cleveland was in a dire financial condition, the joke went, "What's the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has the better orchestra!"

Dohnányi made many recordings with them, and was named the first ever "Music Director Laureate of the Cleveland Orchestra" upon his retirement in 2002. During his tenure, Severance Hall in Cleveland underwent a substantial extension and renovation, bringing back the Norton Memorial Organ that had been banned from stage during George Szell's tenure. As Music Director he initiated the foundation of The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus was founded as well, both organisations being active in Northeast Ohio for the education in and enhancement of symphonic music.

From 1998 to 2000 Dohnányi was also Artistic Advisor of the Orchestre de Paris.

In 1994, Dohnányi became the principal guest conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and in 1997 their Principal Conductor. In April 2007, Dohnányi was one of eight conductors of British orchestras to endorse the 10-year classical music outreach manifesto, "Building on Excellence: Orchestras for the 21st Century", to increase the presence of classical music in the UK, including giving free entry to all British schoolchildren to a classical music concert. In 2008, he stepped down from the Philharmonia principal conductorship and now holds the title with the orchestra of "Honorary Conductor for Life".

After retiring as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Dohnányi has been a guest conductor with the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Chicago Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as the Cleveland Orchestra. He has performed frequently at the Tanglewood Music Festival with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A regular collaboration has developed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra since the 1990s.

In 2004, Dohnányi returned to Hamburg, Germany where he maintained a residence for many years, to become chief conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra. He concluded his NDR tenure after the 2009-2010 season. He has been a frequent guest conductor in concert with the Vienna Philharmonic and at the Vienna State Opera.

With the Philharmonia Orchestra, Dohnányi performed throughout Europe at such venues as the Musikverein in Vienna, the Salzburg Festival, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, the Lucerne Festival, and Paris's Théâtre des Champs Elyseés. For several seasons, Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra were in residence at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, performing new productions of Richard Strauss's operas Arabella, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Die schweigsame Frau, Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel.  At the Opernhaus Zürich, Dohnányi led new productions of Moses and Aron, Oedipus Rex (with Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle), Strauss's Die Schweigsame Frau, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Elektra, and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Mozart's Idomeneo, Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, and Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

His conducting schedule permitting, Dohnányi also works with student orchestras of institutions like the New England Conservatory in Boston, Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the Juilliard School in New York, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and during the summer at the Tanglewood Music Center. As a mentor to younger artists, Alan Gilbert, current music director of the New York Philharmonic, was assistant conductor to Dohnányi from 1995 to 1997 at the Cleveland Orchestra. Jens Georg Bachmann, music director of the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado, had been in the same position at the NDR Symphony Orchestra from 2007 to 2009.

Among his many honors Christoph von Dohnányi has received honorary doctorates of Music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, Oberlin College of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music, Kent State University and Case Western Reserve University, London's Royal Academy of Music, and an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, and the Anti-Defamation League’s Torch of Freedom Award.  He is the recipient of the Goethe plaque of the city of Frankfurt, the prize of Wissenschaft and Forschung of the city of Hamburg and the Bartok medal in Hungary. He is a member of the Order of Arts and Letters of France, and received the Verdienstkreuz of the Republic of Austria and the Bundesverdienstkreuz of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Dohnányi has been married three times. His first wife was the German actress Renate Zillessen, and they had two children, Katja and Justus. His second wife was the German soprano Anja Silja, with whom he had three children: Julia, Benedikt and Olga. Dohnányi married his third wife, violinist Barbara Koller, in 2004.

--  Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi is among the leading lights on the podium, and Chicago has been fortunate to have had his artistry both at Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony.  It was on his visit in 2005, in between performances of Fidelio, that I was able to meet with him for a half-hour, and here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Aside from the very obvious, what are the differences between conducting opera and concert?

Christoph von Dohnányi:   There are not so many differences.  Some people think it’s easier to conduct opera, some people think it’s easier to conduct concerts, but both are very difficult.  Actually, if you start with opera, maybe you’re a little bit more flexible for concert, so I think the European tradition of being trained as a coach in opera houses and then going on from there to conduct concerts might be the right thing.  But it’s so different, you can’t say one is easier than the other.

BD:   What are the particular joys of one and the joys of the other?

dohnanyi CvD:   Just the music in both of them.  [Laughs]  Conducting, as a skill is far over-rated.  Moving the hand is not so difficult.  Really hearing well and judging and balance, and knowing the music is our profession.

BD:   So it’s the ear rather than the hand?

CvD:   It’s the ear, and it’s the brain, and the heart, and the health.  All of this.  There are certainly people who are more talented, technically speaking, with their hands, but I don’t think that’s a major matter.

BD:   At rehearsal, are you using your voice to talk to them, or your hands to demonstrate to them? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Carol Vaness, Janice Taylor, and Robert Lloyd.  Dohnányi made many recordings, including a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies.]

CvD:   Both of these.  Not too much voice, but sometimes.  Solti talked all the time while he was conducting and didn’t want to stop.  So he indicated verbally and with his hands.  Some others are very, very talented with their hands, and they just do it with their hands, but actually you need both.
BD:   Is all your work done at rehearsal, or do you purposely leave something for the night of the performance?

CvD:   What you leave for the night of the performance you cannot call it work.  What’s being added at night is certainly some, adrenaline and some kind of special atmosphere and special flare.  If you rehearse too much emotionally, then you might be disappointed during the performances, so it’s for me it’s much better to rehearse rather cool and rather technically, indicating some things you really want, and at the end of the rehearsals you start making music.  But first you have to tune the piano.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?  Do you ever get everything right on any given night?

CvD:   Sometimes the public thinks so, and even sometimes the critics think so.  For us it’s never perfect, and it should not be.  Actually there’s always something left which we would have liked to have done differently.  

BD:   Can we assume that each successive performance gets a little better and a little better?

CvD:   Yes, if it’s a good orchestra, and good people, and good conductor... up to a certain point.  I don’t know whether if you conduct a Broadway show hundreds of times, it might get a little less good after a while. [Both laugh again]  But concert music is never perfect, and if you realize it’s not perfect, that you didn’t achieve everything, it should be getting better.

BD:   What about a recording where you can cut and paste?

CvD:   I always considered recording as a good training camp.  Recording sessions are wonderful for a conductor because sometimes you choose tempi which, once you listen to them, might not have been seen to be the right ones.  So in a sense you learn a lot by being to listen to yourself.  If they are live recordings, then it might be interesting to follow up the different dates to see how you are handling a piece in different times.  So some of my recordings I like very much, some I don’t, but I did a lot of them.  It was very good for me and for the orchestra, also for the musicians to go up there to the booth and listen to things.  That’s very good.

BD:   If you feel like you have gotten something out of either a session or a performance, and then you listen to the recording (or the broadcast) and it’s different, which is right
the original performance or the recording?

CvD:   You have to judge.  You are the listener, and since recordings are done for listeners, you should judge it as a listener.  Then, if you like it, you might have done right as far as your thoughts are concerned.  But sometimes you don’t, and then you have to go back and do it again.

BD:   What about the listeners who are behind you on a night of performance?  They are there on the session.
CvD:   That’s why I like live things very much.  That’s totally different.  If they are behind you and they like it, it’s fine.  If not, well, you’re disappointed.

BD:   Are you conscious of the public that is behind you?

CvD:   In some ways, yes, but most of the musicians
and also actorswould lie if they would say they would do it for the public.  We do it because it’s lots of fun to do it.  [Laughs]

BD:   But they’re looking beyond you and can see the audience out there.  You have it behind you, so do you feel it in your back?

CvD:   You feel a good public, very much so.  Also you can feel a disciplined public if they don’t cough all the time.

BD:   Does your performance react to a better public or a less good public?

CvD:   I don’t think so, no.  Sometimes you might be disturbed if you have rehearsed something subtly and everybody seems to have the flu.  In one city, at the beginning of the Bruckner Fourth, I just stopped because people were coughing so much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   From the vast array of literature that’s available to you, how do you decide which pieces you want to conduct and which pieces you will set aside?

CvD:   That’s difficult to answer.  If you know the pieces, first of all you should assume that there
s a reason for most of the pieces which are set aside already, but you should check.  If it’s a great composer, you should check why this piece is not done.  I would not go to all the Meyerbeer pieces and check whether they’re right or not because I just categorize Meyerbeer somewhere lower.  If I have a different composer which I think is a greater composer, I would deal with his music, but we know there are pieces...  Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte was re-discovered in 1931.  Nobody liked it because Beethoven was against it for some kind of ethical reasons, and Wagner was against it, so people thought it’s a bad piece.  However, it’s one of his best.  

dohnanyi BD:   Is it right that some of the pieces come in and go out, and come in and go out again over generations?

CvD:   I hope so!  [Both laugh]  There are too many in.  We have much too much music.  That’s why people don’t compose very much.  It’s like here in this room.  If you have all these pictures around, you don’t have to space hang another one, or to paint one yourself.

BD:   But do you always want the same pictures up, or do you want to rotate them?
CvD:   No, you should rotate them.  But if there’s a lot of pictures and the walls are full, it
s the same as when there’s too much music.  Our challenge would be throw away a lot of music, to get rid of music which is not so great.  

BD:   Throw it away, or just bury it for a little while?

CvD:   No, no, no, bury it for good.  [Has a huge laugh]  There’s lots of music you have to bury for good, and yet they’re still playing it.

BD:   What is it that makes a piece better or worse?

CvD:   As a musician you would be able to judge the so-called handiwork You would be able to judge the make of a piece, and then you would certainly be able to see whether it’s a good piece of a composer or not.  Not all Mozart is good, and not all Haydn is good, and not all Beethoven is good.  While dealing with the pieces which are not so good, Beethoven nowadays would say, 
Don’t play it anymore.

BD:   What about a brand new piece?  You have to give it a chance, right?

CvD:   Oh yes, you have to make a choice, but they’re not so many, and since we know we cannot judge.  We are a little far-sighted in some sense.  If pieces are too close, you cannot judge them.  You need history with it, and it comes to you after a while.  But we should try as many new pieces as possible because, as we know, there were lots of misjudgment about new pieces
even great pieces and popular pieces like Carmen and Barbiere were total flops. 

BD:   Sure.  Beethoven even took three whacks at Fidelio.

CvD:   [Smiles]  Fidelio is still is a very difficult opera for the public.

BD:   Is that part of your responsibility
to solve the problems of each piece?

CvD:   Solve the problems?  No.  As far as the conductor or stage director is concerned, these problems exist because they are beyond our possibilities.  But sometimes you can make things a little bit clearer.  There are problems, but Beethoven doesn’t need too much help.  That’s the good thing about great composers and great artists
there’s not too much help you can give them, but you can somehow try to understand a little bit more than the average person since you deal for years with these pieces, as they did, and maybe you find out what’s important.  That might be some kind of help. 

BD:   Well, we’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

CvD:   The purpose of music is certainly not only entertainment.  Nowadays we are doing a little too much entertainment, and we abuse music very much.  The other day I saw an advertisement where they played the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem, and they showed a nonfunctioning toilet with it.  They think it
s a very original idea, but I don’t think it’s the purpose of the music.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you think Mozart is unhappy that his music is used in that way?

CvD:   I think he’s not unhappy.  He doesn’t need happiness, but it would be our challenge to fight these people who do this nonsense with classical music because, finally, classical music is being played at too many wrong places, and not with high quality.  Less classical music would be better. 

BD:   Is the music that you play for everyone?

CvD:   No, absolutely not!  Beethoven himself wrote,
I’m not writing for everyone.  I’m writing for the educated ones.

BD:   Then how do we get more people to be more educated about more music?

CvD:   Get better schools!  [Laughs]  Do something with democracy which is worthwhile to enhance education.

BD:   Do you feel you are a teacher when you are standing there on the podium?

CvD:   No, for heaven sake!  As soon as people notice that they’re being taught, they don’t like it anymore.   No, you shouldn’t teach as a conductor or as a musician.  You should just be excited about what you’re doing, and then sometimes the sparkle gets to function, and there’s a little something going on which we like.

BD:   So the music must excite you, and then you have to excite the players, who excite the audience?

CvD:   Otherwise it doesn’t function.  That’s the only way.

BD:   But it has to go in that direction?

CvD:   That’s absolutely right.

*     *     *     *     *

dohnanyi BD:   You’ve had a long and distinguished career.  Do you find that there are some surprises, such as pieces you didn’t think excited you and all of a sudden they do?

CvD:   Yes, absolutely.  There are pieces which you understand, or try to understand later, and some of them you don’t understand at any time.  But that’s one of the advantages of getting older
at least you think you understand a little bit more.

BD:   But I assume you don’t disown the performances and recordings you’ve made over your career.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Philip Glass, and Gidon Kremer.]

CvD:   No, no.  There are some I would not do... for instance, I did a Schubert Eight which was much too slow, which I would differently now.  But in itself it’s a nice recording.

BD:   What advice do you have for younger conductors coming along?

CvD:   It is hard to say.  Many young conductors come up and ask for advice.  It is hard, you know.  The first thing is that real talent needs not so much advice.  It needs the talent of copying first.  Copying is a practice which is not really regarded as something which is important in art, but it’s very important in the beginning that you are able to copy.  So if you have a real great chef as a conductor, somebody you really admire, you should first try to get close to what he is doing, and learn how he’s doing things.  Once you get over this, it’s like a painting.  Most of the great painters
people like Goya, and so onstarted copying other pictures, and finally developed their own style.  Nowadays it seems that everybody has to be very original from the very beginningto be too slow, or too fast, or too nothing.  It is more important to try to get close by going the route other people went.

BD:   What about for composers, especially somebody who wants to write for the orchestra?

CvD:   It’s the same.  A composer should also be able to write like Haydn and Mozart.  Haydn adored Mozart and Mozart adored Haydn.  Beethoven went back to Bach, and Mendelssohn went back to Bach, and then they developed their own styles.

BD:   So music is one long continuous line?

CvD:   There are certain people who try to interrupt, like Schoenberg [both laugh], but even those people are not so successful in interrupting.  You discover a lot of Brahms and other things in Schoenberg, of course.  

BD:   Where’s music going today?

CvD:   Ah, that’s a good question.  I don’t think we can judge because we are in a social structure and political structure where we still live in a system where freedom is partly misunderstood.  Freedom needs form; freedom needs borders.  Like in art, if you can do anything in a society, whatever you want, art is kind of insecure.  At the moment we certainly have a total entertaining society.  Entertainment is everything, and if you read Don Juan in Hell, Bernard Shaw uses the expression,
Hell is where there is only entertainment.  That’s about where we are at the moment, but it’s fun.

Don Juan in Hell is the long third act of the play Man and Superman (1903), which shows Don Juan himself having a conversation with several characters in Hell.  This act is often cut. Charles A. Berst observes of Act III:

Paradoxically, the act is both extraneous and central to the drama which surrounds it. It can be dispensed with, and usually is, on grounds that it is just too long to include in an already full-length play. More significantly, it is in some aspects a digression, operates in a different mode from the rest of the material, delays the immediate well-made story line, and much of its subject matter is already implicit in the rest of the play. The play performs well without it.
Don Juan in Hell consists of a philosophical debate between Don Juan (played by the same actor who plays Jack Tanner), and the Devil, with Doña Ana (Ann) and the Statue of Don Gonzalo, Ana's father (Roebuck Ramsden) looking on. This third act is often performed separately as a play in its own right, most famously during the 1950s in a concert version, featuring Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana.

BD:   Are you optimistic about it all?

CvD:   Very optimistic.  We are having hard times now, but it will change, and each of the worst conflicts we have had in our history somehow produced better times.  You wouldn’t be able to have a war now within Europe anymore, so after a while it will be world-wide peace.  I’m very optimistic, yes.

BD:   Are there special joys when you are working with singers?

CvD:   Very many.  Since music comes from singing, it’s the basic element of music, and I like it very much.  I have been Intendant and music director sixteen years of opera houses, so I really love it.

BD:   Is it more difficult to select repertoire for an opera house than it is for symphony orchestra?

CvD:   I wouldn’t say so.  The public likes operas, but there’s certainly more symphonic music to be played which is always liked.  The general public still consists of people who want to be able to hum along, so they go fifteen times to Tosca, or to Bohème, or things like that.  If you play Moses and Aron they will maybe come once, but a certain group will come back.  It is just that the repertoire of opera is rather limited because people want to hear the same stuff again.  But there are some very nice ones which are being done these days have proved to be good, and somehow are sneaked into the repertoire.

Christoph von Dohnányi at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1969 - Flying Dutchman with Silja, Stewart, Talvela, Cox; Ebermann, Wolf Siegfried Wagner

1970 - Rosenkavalier with Ludwig, Minton, Berry, Garaventa, Zilio, Andreolli, Brooks; Neugebauer, Schneider-Siemssen

1971 - Salome with Silja, Ulfung, Cervena, Nienstedt, Little, Zilio, Andreolli, Drake; Lehmann/Darling, Pizzi

1972 - Masked Ball with Arroyo, Tagliavini, Milnes, Kozut, Baldani, Ferrin, Voketaitis; Gobbi, Darling
            Così Fan Tutte with Price, Howells, Davies, Krause, Kozut, Evans; Ponnelle (dir & des)

2004-05 - Fidelio with Mattila, Begley, Struckmann, Pape, Bayrakdarian, Davislim, Held; Lapinski, Israel, Schuler

BD:   Do you like this idea of having the supertitles, or surtitles?

CvD:   It makes sense if it’s not distracting too much.  If you play Così Fan Tutte in a German city
as I did, for instance, in Munich, where some people speak Italian, but very few funnilythen all the ‘vis comica’ is gone.  But if people don’t understand it, the titles help a little bit.  Of course, as we see here in Chicago in our Fidelio, for instance, people always laugh in one spot where Marzelline finally discovers she was in love with a boy, which in fact is a tragic moment for her.  But it’s maybe a little bit a matter of how it’s being staged where people laugh, because the surtitles are really a little bit silly.

BD:   Maybe leave that title out?

CvD:   Maybe, but that has to be done rather subtly.

BD:   In Siegfried they usually leave out the title for ‘Das ist kein Mann!’.

CvD:   Yes, it’s better that way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

CvD:   Yes.  I’m very happy because I can pretty much choose what I want to do, and that’s always good in any profession.  I’m pleased that I can be with mainly very great orchestras.  I do a little bit too much sometimes since there are not so many runs where I have to be here and there.  Then you attempt to do too many things.

BD:   You should learn to say no.

CvD:   Yes, yes, my wife tries to teach me.

BD:   Having been Music Director in Cleveland for so long, does that give you a little more sympathy for the times when you are a guest there?

CvD:   No.  I would say that orchestra was very different.  I need very much to be responsible for an orchestra, and for many years now I am the Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia in London, and I just took over the NDR in Hamburg [known in English as The North German Radio Symphony Orchestra].  So these two orchestras are the ones I’m really responsible for artistically.  In London it is a little easier because that’s a self-governed orchestra, and in Hamburg they need a little bit more involvement by the Music Director.  So these are the two things I do mainly.  Then I do guest conducting just in the United States.  Not so much in other countries, but from time to time in France.

dohnanyi BD:   Do you like jetting all over the world?

CvD:   That’s interesting, I must say, because it’s difficult now that there’s all the security checks, and standing in line, and getting the visa costs you two hours standing somewhere.  So that’s what I don’t like so much at the time being. 

BD:   Is there a particular joy of doing music of your grandfather?

CvD:   I don’t do very much.  I do some things from time to time, but as much as I adored him as a musician, I have problems sometimes with the music because I am so much educated in the twentieth century music.  I like his chamber music very much, but the orchestra music is sometimes a little too exuberant for me, a little too sumptuous.

BD:   Does it please you when others conduct it?

CvD:   Yes, that pleases me because he wrote very nice music.  In a conductor’s life, as we said before, you have to choose what you want to do, and if this means you only deal with very important pieces, then you wouldn’t deal too much with music where you really do not find very easily a direct contact.  That doesn’t mean anything about judging about his music.  It’s a personal question whether you are close this or not style-wise.  For instance, I did Zemlinsky a lot, and I did Reger quite a bit, but I stopped this, too.  Actually it is good music, but it’s not the greatest of the twentieth century.  I try to deal rather with the Second Viennese School and following.  Now I do a bit of Harrison Birtwistle, for instance, and Luciano Berio.

BD:   Without naming names, necessarily, are there some composers who are going to take their place alongside the giants of the previous age?

CvD:   There are some, of course.  We really cannot judge the second half of the twentieth century yet, but from the first half we can, and we know there are a lot of great pieces in opera and in concert.  I know some pieces are great pieces.  For instance, The Bassarids by Hans Werner Henze is a really great piece, a great opera [see photo of rehearsal for the premiere below], and there are other things, of course.  For the time being I deal a lot with Birtwistle.  I think he’s a great man, a wonderful man, and a wonderful composer.  But it’s still difficult to bring to the public, but we’ll take time.  

BD:   Are there some American composers that interest you?

CvD:   I like John Adams very much.  He’s a wonderful composer.  He’s got lots of imagination, and is a terrific musician, so I like him very much.  There are other ones, too, which are very good, and while I was in Cleveland I conducted quite a bit of Cleveland composers, some even in the orchestra, which was nice.  I think you should do a lot of contemporary music just to offer and to see what’s happening.

BD:   It’s part of your responsibility?

CvD:   Absolutely, yes.  

BD:   And you encourage that with other conductors too?

CvD:   Very much so.  We should also do something like sight-reading concerts, where good orchestras read and the public will listen to new pieces.  Even if it’s not perfect-perfect, it’s something which is needed so much if the concert is very strong.  If you’re on tour with an orchestra in Madrid or Barcelona, for instance, you could ask people if there is a composer around who wants to be performed.  It’s not perfect but at least things get introduced.

BD:   I would think that would excite the orchestra players to have that kind of opportunity.

CvD:   The orchestra, yes; the union no, and they’re not totally wrong in this.  I tried it with Cleveland, and finally it didn’t succeed because there are so many pirates now who just tape while you’re playing.  Then they would say,
“That’s the way Cleveland played this piece.  So that’s a concern which I do understand, but we have to go around to find a solution for this.
dohnanyi BD:   So you want more control over it then?

CvD:   Yes, but I don’t know how you can do it.  Actually you have to consider that the public needs it, but we would rather sight-read Tristan than a bad piece by Cherubini.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Ah, but occasionally there’s a wonderful line in Cherubini...

CvD:   Yes, something, but I can do without it.  [Both laugh]  Actually there’s a piece of Cherubini I like.  I did conduct Medea quite a lot, but this is just an example.  If you play Beethoven’s string quartets and you don’t do very well, it’s still better to deal with this than some kind of easy-going quartet.

BD:   Are there any undiscovered masterpieces lying around?

CvD:   I guess so, but if I would know I would play them.  [Laughs]

BD:   I assume you’re getting new scores and also digging up old scores?

CvD:   Yes, we do.  Digging is something which is fine, but the past should be the past somehow.  It’s nice to discover things looking into the future rather than into the past. 

BD:   Do the musicologists get it right?

CvD:   I don’t know.  Anybody can claim to get things right, but they try.

BD:   What about versions?  Do you have to deal with different versions of some operas?

CvD:   Sometimes you do.  Fidelio is one.  I also did Boris Godunov in three different versions.  It’s interesting to see what people do with it, and Rimsky Korsakov is not the worst one.

BD:   Is it right for us to want to see what you do with various scores?

CvD:   Oh, yes.  That’s why people go to concerts.  People have favorite conductors, favorite pianists for certain things, and so they should.  They had better, otherwise we would starve.  [Much laughter]

BD:   But should the public come for Beethoven, or should they come for Cleveland, or should they come for Dohnányi?

CvD:   There’s no Beethoven without us.  That’s the difference.  A painting, such as the Mona Lisa, is in one place.  You can copy it and you know it’s a copy.  We are copying all day, and still being very necessary.  There is no absolute Beethoven because I have five lines, and some are little above and some are beneath, and there are markings such as mezzo-forte, and forte, and più forte, and forte-piano, and things like that.  It’s all a matter of taste.

BD:   So, of necessity the composer leaves it unfinished and expects you to finish it?

CvD:   I don’t know.  It’s a piece which needs the communication via some artists.  It cannot communicate alone with the public.  Very few people can read music in a way that they really listen to it, and if they can, they usually don’t go to concerts.  Brahms said,
“My best concert are the ones where I sit in my chair and read the score.

BD:   One last question.  Is conducting fun?

CvD:   In this country, when you go on stage people usually say to have fun.  A definition of
fun is somehow difficult for me.  I enjoy it very much but whether it’s always fun...  Is it fun to read James Joyce?  I don’t know, but it’s great.

BD:   Then why do you conduct?

CvD:   Because it’s great.  It’s not only fun.  Sometimes it’s fun, but it should not only be fun.  It’s something which you have to enjoy thoroughly, and which somehow puts you in a level of life.

BD:   It’s very special?

CvD:   Yes.  It’s something very special to be with sound and people at the same time, and looking and watching people, how they produce sound.  If you have the right relation to an orchestra, it’s a terrific profession.

BD:   Good.  I wish you lots of continued success.

CvD:   Thank you.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago.  You’ve been here on occasion, but not very often.

CvD:   Not very often, but I am coming a little bit more now, since, as we said in the beginning, I’m a little freer to guest conduct.

BD:   Good.  We look forward to having you back again. 

CvD:   Thank you so much.


© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 9, 2005.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR a few weeks later, and again in 2014; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2007 and 2009.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.