Franz Welser-Moest, a conductor solidly in the Central European tradition of the Cleveland Orchestra, will become the orchestra's music director in 2002 when the contract of Christoph von Dohnanyi expires.

Since 1984, Dohnanyi has been the music director in Cleveland, which has what some critics consider the best orchestra in the country.

Dohnanyi, who recently conducted the Cleveland Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in an acclaimed performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, long ago announced his plan to leave the job in 2002. The search for his successor began shortly after the signing of his last contract in 1998. Welser-Moest was the unanimous choice of the orchestra's board of trustees.

Since 1995, the 38-year-old native of Linz, Austria, has been the music director of the Zurich Opera, a position he will keep after taking the directorship in Cleveland. He is the seventh music director in the Cleveland Orchestra's history, which began in 1918. Among his distinguished predecessors, besides Dohnanyi, are Artur Rodzinski, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell and Lorin Maazel. Szell, who led the orchestra from 1946 to 1970, is generally credited with establishing its reputation as one of the world's great orchestras--often described as playing like a large chamber ensemble. It is routinely listed among the "Big Five" American orchestras, with those of Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, all of which Welser-Moest frequently has conducted.

"I consider the Cleveland Orchestra one of a handful of great orchestras in the world," Welser-Moest said at the press conference in Cleveland. "I have enjoyed many great moments with the orchestra since we first met in 1993, and I look forward to building on that relationship."

Dohnanyi has been offered an emeritus relationship and continued conducting engagements with the orchestra after his contract expires.

CAPTION: The Cleveland Orchestra's future music director.