Creating a Monster

The Cleveland Orchestra unleashes a beast.

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As an 18-year-old composition student, Wolfgang Rihm received a handwritten note from his teacher, the uncompromising modern-music master Karlheinz Stockhausen. Dear Wolfgang Rihm, it began. Please only heed your inner voice. "It hung for years above my desk," Rihm later recalled. "Until the green felt-tip had begun to fade. His advice was decisive: that I should not heed the opinion of others, but rather take the risk of embarking on my own path."

A prodigy who began writing music at age 11, Rihm took his mentor's advice and became a prolific composer of evocative, deeply felt music. At 49, he is the leading representative of the German neoexpressionist movement, which emphasizes intense emotion and freedom from rigid forms. On Thursday, the Cleveland Orchestra will perform the U.S. premiere of Rihm's "Concerto" Dithyrambe for String Quartet and Orchestra, with the acclaimed Emerson Quartet.

The piece is so new that most orchestra employees haven't heard it yet. A translation of Rihm's cryptic description of the concerto prominently features words like "nerves" and "nervous." "I compose with nerve ends," Rihm writes, "not only with the pencil." The fast, dense "Concerto" Dithyrambe dispenses with the classical concerto form and creates what he calls "a monologue of a creature with four mouths -- yes, four heads and four mouths, one beast!" To Rihm, music is a living creature.

The premiere is one of many that grace the orchestra's 2001-2002 schedule. In his 20th and final season as music director, Christoph von Dohnányi, long a champion of 20th-century music, has programmed an exhilarating lineup of U.S. and world premieres, including works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Harrison Birtwistle. The Thursday and Saturday programs also include Witold Lutoslawski's dark, intense Musique funèbre and -- for those who still fear the shock of the new -- Beethoven's safe, reliable Symphony No. 5.

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