For our concerts coming up this weekend and beyond, we have chosen the title “International Colors.” The programs feature the works of composers from France, Italy and Hungary.
The work by the Hungarian, Ernst von Dohnanyi, has a tangential tie to Door County.
Dohnanyi was one of the triumvirate of Hungarian composers from the late 19th century and first half of the 20th, which put Hungary on the map as a source of great classical music. The other two composers were Bartok and Kodaly.
The connection to Door County, however, revolves around Ernst von Dohnanyi’s grandson, Christoph von Dohnanyi.
Christoph is one of the world’s great conductors of symphony orchestras. For many years, he was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. During his tenure, it was regarded as being one of the very finest in existence. Few residents of Door County know it, but Maestro Dohnanyi has a vacation retreat in Door County.
Jean and I had the opportunity to work with Christoph Dohnanyi very early in our careers at Lyric Opera of Chicago. He was a rather brash twenty-something conductor, but his great talent and ability to bring our orchestra up to a higher level made some of us forgive his difficult temperament. I believe he made his American debut with us at Lyric Opera and came back each season for several years. We did works of Richard Strauss, Mozart, Wagner and Verdi with him during this period.
Then his rapidly ascending fame took him to other orchestras around the world. It was only when Lyric Opera celebrated its 50th anniversary several seasons ago that Christoph came back to help in those festivities by leading a number of performances of Beethoven’s opera, “Fidelio.”
However, sometime before his return, I learned that Christoph had purchased a vacation home in Door County. Somehow, I found out that it was south of Sturgeon Bay. I even remember one time when Jean and I were going home from Door County, we took County U on our way to Algoma in the not very realistic hope that we would find his place. I didn’t really expect to see a mailbox along the road that said “Maestro Dohnanyi” (and we didn’t).
During the production of “Fidelio,” I found out that the maestro came to Door County when he had a few free days between performances, despite the fact that it was January and very cold and snowy that year. He enjoyed it here that much.
Several seasons later, Midsummer’s Music was doing another work by Christoph’s grandfather, and I was delivering my usual remarks to our concert audience about the work. I happened to mention the grandson/Door County connection.
Later, at our customary post-concert reception, I had the opportunity to talk with Barbara Lawton, our former lieutenant governor, who was attending the concert. Lawton has been coming to our concerts for some time, and her mother, Helen, for even longer.
Since I had told the audience I hadn’t been able to find Christoph Dohnanyi’s home, Barbara allowed that she knew exactly where it was because he was a neighbor of her family. Finally the riddle was solved in a most unexpected way.
However, there is a little more to the whole Dohnanyi saga.
One of our pianists, Bill Billingham, is also an assistant conductor at Lyric Opera and assisted Maestro Dohnanyi in “Fidelio.” Bill is very interested in the writings of the theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer. He knew that Christoph’s father and Ernst’s son, Hans von Dohnanyi, was married to Bonhöffer’s sister, and that Bonhöffer and Hans von Dohnanyi were both implicated in an attempt to assassinate Hitler during the early 1940s. Both were hanged for their nearly successful attempt.
So here we have something of the story of a very interesting family that leads to Door County. Composer Ernst von Dohnanyi also has a very interesting story to tell in his Sextet for Winds, Strings and Piano — a fabulous work. You can enjoy it, and works of Fauré and Bottesini, at Birch Creek in Egg Harbor on June 21, at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship June 22 or at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Sister Bay on Thursday, June 27. The St. Luke’s concert begins earlier than our normal start, at 6:30 p.m. and can be combined with a special dinner at Mission Grille. For tickets or more information, please call (920) 854-7088.