Whenever he meets an orchestra for the first time, Hans Vonk says, "I'm sure the players spend the first 15 minutes wondering, 'Who is this guy and why is he here?' " But for the last three years, Vonk, who guest conducts the Baltimore Symphony tonight and tomorrow, has been grateful just to be able to walk to the podium.
Almost three years ago, it seemed the Dutch conductor -- the current music director of the Cologne Radio Symphony and the former music director of the Dresden State Philharmonic -- might not be able to do even that. In fact, he almost died.
"I went to a hospital because I had experienced trouble walking up a flight of stairs," says the conductor, a lifelong tennis player. "Within a day I was almost completely paralyzed; I could only move my eyes."
He was struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder "they call 'quick polio,' " says his wife, Jessie. "He was in the emergency room on a respirator for five weeks."
It was five months before Vonk was able to conduct again. Although Guillain-Barre often leaves its victims partially or completely paralyzed, Vonk was lucky. Today he is not only conducting, but playing tennis again.
"All that is left is a little numbness in the third and fourth toes of my left foot," he says. "In some ways, it was a good experience. I had to concentrate on staying alive. Jessie was almost always by my side and I had time to think about my life. It made me value music even more than before and made me glad I am a musician."
Vonk resumed one of the most promising conducting careers of his generation. The now 49-year-old conductor was appointed music director at the age of 38 in Dresden, home of Europe's oldest -- and one of its finest -- orchestras. His current status is such that EMI-Angel, his record company, has contracted with him and the Cologne orchestra to make an enormous number of records, including cycles of the symphonies of Bruckner and Schumann.
He has come a long way since he was a young ballet conductor, which is how he met Jessie.
"It was 22 years ago, I was a soloist with the Netherlands National Ballet," she says. "He was conducting in the pit."
"I looked up and saw her," he says.
"It was very romantic," she says. "We had dinner that night and we've been together ever since."
Vonk is now a frequent guest conductor in the United States. He is a particular favorite in Philadelphia, where he nearly won the music director's job -- it went to Wolfgang Sawallisch -- and where he spends almost two weeks every year guest conducting. He also regularly appears with the Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Detroit and St. Louis orchestras. He has almost invariably gotten a warm critical reception here, but still wonders a little bit about American music critics -- how, for instance, the same New York critic could have liked his Bruckner so much and not liked that of his admired Dutch compatriot, Bernard Haitink.
"My Bruckner is so much like his," Vonk protests.
"No, darling, you're much more interesting than Haitink," she says.
Tonight and tomorrow night's BSO concerts are sold out. Tickets remain for Vonk's performances of Brahms' Fourth Symphony Saturday at 11 a.m. in Meyerhoff Hall. Call 783-8000.