Dohnányi, the "non-Yannick' (1st review)

The return of ‘old school' conducting

For von Dohnányi, a few terse gestures suffice.
For von Dohnányi, a few terse gestures suffice.

Despite the sometimes crass media onslaught, it's hard not to get excited about the Yannick Nézet-Séguin phenomenon. The Philadelphia Orchestra's new music director is a whirling bundle of charisma, a great sport, and he's certainly putting fannies in the seats at Verizon Hall.

Most important, Yannick is a seriously talented conductor. You can close your eyes (in my case, literally; I highly recommend the practice) to all of the hype and still hear great music-making.

But Yannick's formula isn't the only way to lead the band, as the deeply felt accolades from Orchestra musicians for the late Wolfgang Sawallisch attest. Sawallisch was a drastically less demonstrative conductor than Nézet-Séguin and even a somewhat grey presence for many in the audience. Yet even amid the Yannick hoopla several players were unabashed about declaring Sawallisch the finest conductor they'd ever worked with.

Philadelphia Orchestra audiences got a taste of that old-fashioned central European manner last weekend when Christoph von Dohnányi led a program of an early Lutoslawski work as well as two staples of the core repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven.

Terse gestures

Von Dohnányi, best known for his 20-year stint as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, is a master of the terse gesture. He surely knows the famous stories about the legendary conductor Fritz Reiner (with whom he shares Hungarian ancestry), who, when he felt that the players were drifting in their attention, would make his beat smaller and smaller, forcing them to follow his direction.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, of course, doesn't need that kind of condescending leadership (nor would its musicians tolerate it). But such economy of conducting technique tends to lead to performances that work from the inside out, with the players spending much more of their time figuring out what Mozart and Beethoven wanted to say, rather than trying to decipher the flailing gestures of the conductor.

Von Dohnányi almost surely expressed some specific ideas about how he wanted the music to sound during rehearsals, but in concert we heard a kind of nuts and bolts approach— not without nuance, to be sure, but consisting of sturdy pacing and phrasing, and a superb sense for orchestral texture.

Beethoven vs. Mozart

A full sense of the scores was communicated, as I found myself observing that Beethoven's music is mightier than Mozart's, but that Mozart's is more beautiful. The piano soloist in the Mozart, the venerable Rudolf Buchbinder, matched von Dohnányi's smart and insightful approach neatly.

Can a masterpiece such as the mighty Beethoven Third Symphony withstand some injection of artistic personality, or even benefit from it? Certainly. But it's more than useful to recall Toscanini's famous dictum about the glorious first movement; "To some it is Napoleon, to some it is a philosophical struggle. To me it is allegro con brio."♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read a related comment by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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