Audience members were gifted with a rare treat Saturday night when Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Laureate Christoph von Dohnányi appeared as guest conductor in the second of two weekend gala concerts with the San Diego Symphony. In a program that would challenge the mental acuity and physical strength of a conductor twenty or more years his junior (Dohnányi is eighty-four), the much-in-demand maestro held sway over the orchestra from the very first note of Brahms’s mighty Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major to the final timpani roll of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor.

This weekend’s pair of concerts were given to honor a promise to San Diego Symphony Music Director, Jahja Ling, Dohnányi’s former conductor-in-residence in Cleveland. Dohnányi doesn’t often appear with the San Diego orchestra, but the players responded as if the maestro were a familiar presence, a likely result of his vast experience as one of the world’s most respected conductors. His every gesture, whether grand, sweeping or subtle, commanded keen attention from the ensemble.

To begin a program with what has been called the grandest of all piano concerti was a brave move for both the maestro and the justifiably celebrated Emanuel Ax, whose powerful yet subtle performance garnered even greater respect by virtue of his having performed a completely different work - Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 - the previous evening. Ax immediately played up the multifaceted contrasts that form an integral part of the Brahms concerto’s immense challenges - caressing the opening notes, then hammering home the powerful arpeggiated statements that follow - while demonstrating his virtuosic mastery in the fiendishly difficult passages that dominate the lengthy work. In this complex concerto, Brahms reveals his ability to musically portray a panoply of human characteristics, from dreamy, rapturous love, to introspection and melancholy. Ax succeeded in illustrating these emotions like a virtuoso painter with a magical brush.

Dohnányi supported him forcefully, drawing weight and urgency from the orchestra in the most passionate passages, while still giving the soloist space to dominate. Of special note was the pianist’s rendering of the tempestuous “bonus” movement, which Brahms had originally described to his amateur violinist friend Theodor Billroth as a “little wisp of a scherzo.” Ax skillfully captured the movement’s contrasts, from turbulent and aggressive to nobly serene. Particular mention goes to principal San Diego Symphony cellist Yao Zhao for his exquisite rendering of the solo in the Andante. Pianist and maestro showed their appreciation for the cellist’s artistry by insisting he take multiple bows along with them.

Given Robert Schumann’s prediction that Brahms would become the next Beethoven, it  seemed appropriate to close the program with a Beethoven symphony. Once asked by his friend Küffner which was the favorite among his symphonies, Beethoven replied, “The Eroica.” “I should have guessed the C minor,” Küffner said. “No. The Eroica,” insisted the composer. Nonetheless, the C minor not only has remained Beethoven’s most popular symphony, but possibly the most familiar work in all of the classical repertoire. Its first four notes became even more legendary after Leonard Bernstein, standing atop an image of the score projected onto the floor, famously analyzed the work on the televised Omnibus program in 1954. The opening phrase is notoriously difficult to conduct distinctly enough to affect an accurate orchestral entrance. Dohnányi gave clear evidence of his masterful stick technique from his first upbeat, bringing in the orchestra without a shred of ambiguity. He continued throughout the work, balancing aggression with sensitivity, distinctive beats with ethereal - though never vague - gestures, sometimes at breakneck pace. The orchestra was up to the task, sticking to him like glue. He drew especially expansive playing from the string players, who seemed to move perfectly together, like the ebbing and flowing of waves to and from the shores of the Pacific Ocean bordering their city.

The maestro gathered momentum through the first two movements to make a final burst of energy in the transition from the third movement scherzo to the final allegro. Donald F. Tovey called this passage “one of the most famous arousings of expectation in all music”. The relentless tapping of the timpani creates an anticipation of a blockbuster finale, which bursts through from the somber key of C minor to the ecstatic C major, but not before an unexpected return to the conflict of the scherzo, and then back to the triumphal major key. “The final presto is the outcome of a grand contrapuntal cadenza for the full orchestra,” Tovey asserted. Dohnányi resisted the conventional impulse to overly accelerate this section, while still accomplishing the hoped for climactic frenzy to which the previous movements lead.

A conductor, above all, should be a great communicator. In this performance, Christoph von Dohnányi made clear his exceptional ability to communicate, not only to his musicians but also to the audience. One hopes he will return to San Diego to demonstrate those skills sometime in the future.