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Originally published Sunday, May 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Classical music

Is Cleveland Orchestra the best in the country?

The Cleveland Orchestra has always ranked among the country's finest orchestras, with a secure spot among the so-called "Big Five. " But there are...

Seattle Times music critic

The Cleveland Orchestra has always ranked among the country's finest orchestras, with a secure spot among the so-called "Big Five." But there are rumblings — distilled in a lengthy and reverent Feb. 7 story in The New Yorker — that Cleveland now is floating to the top of that Five, whose ranks also include the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. While writer Charles Michener stopped just short of declaring the Cleveland the best orchestra in the country, he called it "the only one with a collective identity" and "the most 'European' of the American orchestras, the only one that is distinctive and refined enough to stand alongside the two pre-eminent European ensembles: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic."

This kind of praise, echoed elsewhere in the national and international press, makes the Cleveland Orchestra's debut at Benaroya Hall (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 206-215-4747) an event of more than usual interest. (The orchestra previously performed in Seattle in 1980, before Benaroya Hall was built.)

With their music director, the young Austrian Franz Welser-Möst, on the podium, the orchestra will undertake a program that should be quite revealing: a Ravel hors d'oeuvre ("Alborada del gracioso"), the Dvorák Fifth and Bartók's virtuoso masterpiece, the Concerto for Orchestra.

Groomed by such past masters as Artur Rodzinski, the legendary George Szell, Lorin Maazel and Christoph von Dohnányi, the orchestra will make its first West Coast tour with Welser-Möst, with nine concerts taking the orchestra to several California destinations, plus Seattle.

An extra attraction for Seattle audiences will be the chance to hear and watch concertmaster William Preucil in action. Preucil, a longtime favorite at the Seattle Chamber Music Society's Summer Festival, won the concertmaster spot after the much-admired Cleveland String Quartet (of which he was first violinist) disbanded about 10 years ago. He's a seasoned concertmaster, having held that chair in the orchestras of Utah, Nashville and Atlanta before moving on to Cleveland.

"I'm excited to come and play in Seattle again, and to be in the new hall. At least, it's a new hall for us," said Preucil in a recent phone conversation between rehearsals, concerts and teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music (where he has 18 violin students).

So what does Preucil think about the Cleveland Orchestra? Is it really the country's best?

"I'm so busy that I don't have the time to go hear all the other orchestras," says Preucil.

"So I can't really judge. But I can say that this is a very, very fine orchestra. It's like a very big string quartet.

"The people in the orchestra are such accomplished artists, doing so many subtle musical things with color and sound, that playing in it is a kind of reward. It makes the music fun, and it keeps me on my toes. You're constantly working to achieve, not just playing the notes."

Preucil also finds satisfaction in his orchestral work outside of rehearsal: editing parts, putting in bowings and markings.

"This starts us off with a certain musical imprint, and I can sneak a little bit of myself into it — hopefully the conductor will like that."

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The concertmaster also gets to do a bit of conducting himself, from the first-violin chair, in concerts of earlier repertoire involving smaller orchestral configurations.

For Welser-Möst, Preucil has considerable respect.

"He won over the players and the audiences immediately. He's been here a couple of years now, and we really understand each other. The audiences love his concerts: They turn up for Strauss waltzes and polkas, or the Mahler Seventh, or whatever. We've continued to do an opera every year, another good way to stay on our toes. It's been a good couple of years."

Welser-Möst's career has not been without its share of bumps along the road. Originally trained as a violinist and pianist, he was injured at 18 in a car accident that caused nerve damage to two fingers on his left hand. He decided to become a conductor.

Although he had some prominent mentors (including the legendary Herbert von Karajan) Welser-Möst encountered a certain amount of critical hostility in his early conducting engagements in London during the mid-1980s. In 1990, at 30, he began a troubled six-year stint as music director of the highly regarded London Philharmonic Orchestra, where some of the players gave him an unflattering nickname ("Frankly Worse than Möst"). Later posts, however, were more successful, including an acclaimed directorship of the Zurich Opera. Welser-Möst was considered a longshot for the Cleveland post, but very few of his rhapsodic reviewers and attentive audiences have found any cause for complaint since he took over. He seems to have covered all the bases in a dense, lengthy but imaginative program lineup that has stretched from opera and oratorio to classical repertoire and new works.

The orchestra's busy schedule also has kept concertmaster Preucil and his violinist wife, Gwen Starker Preucil (the daughter of famed cellist Janos Starker), away from Seattle in the past few summer seasons. The Cleveland does a lot of touring; there's the regular summer Blossom Festival, too, as well as trips to several top European festivals.

One thing Preucil especially likes about the touring schedule: The orchestra is starting to do more residencies. A two-week residency in Vienna every other year is a particular joy for the orchestra; next year the Clevelanders also will spend a week in Florida.

Not surprisingly, Preucil has heard about the current Seattle Symphony audition process for a new concertmaster, with candidates from several top orchestras (including Cleveland) coming here for a week to spend some intensive time rehearsing, auditioning, talking in depth with music director Gerard Schwarz and playing chamber music.

"This trial week is done in quite a few places. I did that once myself in Utah. I think it gives a better idea of chemistry, musical and personal."

In Cleveland, however, Preucil simply played an audition for former conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, and was promptly hired.

He still likes to play solo violin repertoire, such as the concerti of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Dvorák.

"I do it whenever I am invited, but half the invitations don't work out because of the orchestra's schedule. But still, I am more than busy enough. I had one daughter graduating from college last week, and the other daughter starting kindergarten in the fall. Keeping up with a 5-year-old is pretty exciting."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com.

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