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Arts and Entertainment


Dohnanyi brings "The Bassarids" to Severance Hall
The Cleveland Orchestra's music director laureate conducts an orchestral suite of excerpts from Hans Werner Henze's opera
by WKSU's VIVIAN GOODMAN


Reporter
Vivian Goodman
 
Music Director Laureate Christoph von Dohnányi leading the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall
Courtesy of Roger Mastroianni
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In The Region:
The Cleveland Orchestra’s music director laureate is back in town.
Christoph von Dohnanyi led the orchestra for 18 years before handing the baton to Franz Welser Most in 2002. This weekend, he'll conduct Mahler's 1st Symphony plus a contemporary work he has championed since the mid-1960s.
Modern music inspired by an ancient myth

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Christoph von Dohnanyi conducted the world premiere of "The Bassarids" in 1966 at the Salzburg Festival.

The opera’s composer, the late Hans Werner Henze, was Dohnanyi’s friend. And like him, he had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Henze had been an unwilling German soldier. 

Dohnanyi was only 15 when the Nazis murdered his father and uncle for their part in the resistance.

"The  Bassarids" is based on a play by Euripides about the king of Thebes, who literally gets his head handed to him. His own mother cuts it off after a crazy bacchanale arranged by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be the god Dionysius in disguise.

Issuing a warning
It’s a warning about blind allegiance to false gods, but Dohnanyi says its larger meaning is even more relevant today.

"This is rationalism and emotion. This conflict will always be very relevant." 

Dohnanyi says one of the reasons the premiere of "The Bassarids" was so important in his career was the excellence of the opera's librettists: W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the same team that wrote "The Rake's Progress" for Stravinsky.

Dohnanyi has programmed the suite of orchestral excerpts he asked Henze to compose from "The Bassarids" along with Gustav Mahler's First Symphony for this week's concerts at Severance Hall.

"Henze was a great admirer of Mahler and even here, in this piece, we have Mahler quotes."

What American audiences often don't hear
Henze, who died last year, was a prolific composer. But his works are not often performed in the United States. Dohnanyi says part of the reason is that contemporary music still intimidates some listeners.

"The blame for this is, sometimes, too conservative programming."

Dohnanyi also believes that, though modern visual art is widely accepted, prejudice against modern music persists. He says that’s because concert-goers want to go home with a melody they can remember.

"And that's not... in contemporary music,... almost not possible."

Songbirds and Nazis
He marvels though that critics of modern music might enjoy a walk through the woods listening to birdsong. "It's certainly not very tonal music, and they love it."  

He acknowledges that there might be other reasons why American audiences haven't heard much of Henze's music. "He was a very left-wing man. He went to Cuba. He went through a lot of political turmoil."

Dohnanyi says his friend Henze also was affected by being conscripted into the Wehrmacht and writes movingly in his autobiography about conflict with his father, a Nazi sympathizer.

"So he had lots of things to digest."

Dohnanyi is delighted to be back at Severance Hall this week with the orchestra he conducted from 1984 to 2002.

"I love this orchestra. If you live together for 20 years and you develop something that was close to ideal to me, then of course you miss this. But coming back is always fine."

Related Links & Resources
The Bassarids

The Cleveland Orchestra

Hans Werner Henze biography

Listener Comments:

Nice, Vivian. Excellent new info about Henze, and audience's reaction to "modern" material.


Posted by: Dave Kanzeg (WCPN) on March 1, 2013 4:03AM
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