The Cleveland Orchestra Takes a Long Journey, Just a Few Streets Away

Je'Mirah Broadus gets some advice as she makes her first music on a violin (Photo: Gabriel Kramer)
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by David C. Barnett

The Cleveland Orchestra is stepping outside its Severance Hall home, this summer and visiting the city's Hough neighborhood, just a few blocks away.  It's part of an initiative to bring the Orchestra closer to its namesake city.  But, ideastream's David C. Barnett reports that such "community engagement" can be a tricky business.

For the past four years, the Cleveland Orchestra has taken its act on the road and set-up visits around Greater Cleveland.  These neighborhood residencies in Lakewood, the Gordon Square Arts District, and Broadway-Slavic Village saw various groupings of musicians, playing in non-traditional spaces --- from ensembles in grocery stores to solo artists in coffee shops.

Tania Boster says the Orchestra's local residencies are part of a major trend happening across the country.  She's an Associate Director of the Oberlin College-based Bonner Center for Service and Learning, which works to foster such collaborations.

"The old model of service," she says, "you know: 'I'm going in and doing something to help someone' --- that has imperial, colonial overtones." 

That's the concern that Hough councilman TJ Dow says he had as the Orchestra was planning it's residency, this year, in his ward.  But, Dow notes the relationship they actually built was refreshing.

"That's how you collaborate," he says.  "You come into a community and you have enough respect for the people who live there, and you engage with them and you talk with them, and then you come up with an event.  Some people get that wrong."

Nationally, arts and cultural organizations started exploring ways to interact with their communities, about 15 years ago.  At the time, the efforts were called "outreach" --- implying a one-way transaction.  But, the newer term, "engagement", suggests a two-way street.  Joan Katz Napoli became familiar with that street this summer.  As the Orchestra's director of Education and Community Engagement, she was involved in the nuts and bolts of connecting with Hough stakeholders.  She says it even took a while to figure out the best way to communicate.

"They don't have time to be checking their e-mails every 20 seconds," she says, "and so what we learned was, because Hough is a nearby neighbor, jump in the car and go down and talk to people eyeball to eyeball."

Napoli adds, one of the things she gained from those sessions was a real relationship with community members.

"There's no way that any of us can drive down Chester and pass the Hough community and feel the same," she reflects.  "We feel completely different, now.  It's five minutes from Severance Hall --- in some respects, a world away --- and we want to close that gap."

But, how do you know when the gap's closed?

"That's really difficult to pin down," Oberlin's Tania Boster admits.  She says research in this area is new and on-going as more traditional cultural institutions hit the streets and meet the people outside of their marble walls.  

"I think it involves building trust over time," she adds.  "The trust and the relationship-building are crucial to doing this well, and responsibly."

In this case, the Cleveland Orchestra learns to talk to a potentially new audience, and the residents experience some cultural options they might not have considered before.

One of the Orchestra's engagement workshops, this summer, involved violinist Beth Woodside playing some John Phillip Sousa for children at the Langston Hughes branch library.  Educator Rachel Novak taught the kids a little marching dance to the music, which prompted an assortment of smiles and giggles.  Afterwards, Tyrionna McClain admitted Sousa wasn't exactly her favorite jam.

"I like to listen to Silento, the rapper," she smiles.

Teenaged rap star Silento's 2015 summer dance hit, "Watch Me (The Whip/Nae Nae)" is more her style.  But, her buddy, Je'Mirah Broadus disagreed, telling Novak the century-old Sousa song was cool.

"A hundred percent better than the Whip/Nae Nae," she enthuses.

"Are you serious?  That's really nice of you to say," Rachel Novak says.  "Thank you for coming, guys.  I appreciate it."

And the two girls left the classroom with a new song in their heads and a personal connection to an old-school institution with something to share, just a few streets away. 

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