Community Orchestras Find Fertile Ground in Northeast Ohio

The Suburban Symphony Orchestra [Courtesy of the Suburban Symphony Orchestra]
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Northeast Ohio is fertile ground for classical music organizations great and small.

Lakeland Civic Orchestra director Matt Saunders noticed it shortly after moving here.

"I've lived in all 3 C's in Ohio - Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland - and Cleveland has a diffferent vibe.  The balance of professional players and amateur players is wonderful.  I find that professionals are willing to come and play with my group sometimes as regular members, sometimes as ringers.  It's amazing that way," Saunders said.

Violinist Ariel Karas, who leads Classical Revolution Cleveland, agrees.  She's a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music who grew up in Texas.

"Dallas is a huge, very economically successful cosmopolitan city.  It has a fantastic orchestra but nothing on the scope of what it is here," Karas said.

Along with freelance groups like Karas' Classical Revolution, a number of local symphonies perform across Northeast Ohio from Saunders' Lakeland Civic Orchestra, located at Lakeland Community College, to the Suburban Symphony Orchestra, based in Beachwood.

These groups have benefitted from the Cleveland Orchestra's presence, which has been so good for so long, that over decades local listeners have developed a refined taste for live classical music.

Suburban Symphony music director Martin Kessler argues that the Cleveland Orchestra is not just great.  In his words it's "super-great". 

"It's the difference between a $65 bottle of wine and a $365 bottle of wine.  They're both fantastic but to the discerning ear there really is a difference," Kessler said.

Kessler believes the Cleveland Orchestra helped create a perfect storm here in Northeast Ohio during Cleveland's heyday in the 1920's, when it was the fifth largest city in the United States. 

“There was access to [significant] funding for cultural projects.  What amazes me is that some of that money is still laying around and still available.  That's what we call interest," Kessler said.

The history and tradition of the Cleveland Orchestra's 100 years of performing have encouraged something elusive when it comes to other community ensembles like the Cleveland Philharmonic, the Heights Chamber Orchestra or the Shaker Symphony.

Kessler uses another wine metaphor to describe the result.

"The word that occurs to me is the fancy word - terroir - which is the French term for what's in the soil that makes the wine so good," Kessler said.

By way of example, he points to the musicians of his own Suburban Symphony.

"The principal string players were all members of the Cleveland Orchestra.  They were willing to share their expertise to essentially boost a predominantly amateur group," Kessler said.

Because the Cleveland Orchestra musicians live here year round, area music conservatories have benefitted, such as those at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Baldwin Wallace University and Oberlin College.

"Five conservatories in this area that teach the full range of orchestral instruments and all of them have Cleveland Orchestra teachers on the faculty," Kessler said.

The cost of living in Northeast Ohio allows many graduates to make a living as professional musicians, even if they never perform a note at Severance Hall.

Saunders thinks that helps his Lakeland Community College students.

"Yes they could've all up and moved to New York or Chicago or LA, but living is prohibitively expensive for that.  The artists can't afford to live in Greenwich Village anymore.  And so we are the Greenwich Village," Saunders said.

Even if those students decide to pursue other professions, they can continue to perform here on the side like one of Kessler's brass musicians.

"Our principal horn for example is a dentist but he trained with Myron Bloom at CIM.  And there's a surprising amount of that," Kessler said.

Today fans of classical music can attend performances almost anywhere from shopping malls to hot dog joints.

Ariel Karas, whose group performs monthly at The Happy Dog,-  tells aspiring music students, "don't be afraid to try anything."

"There's lots of ensembles that sprout up and they give it a go.  Sometimes it doesn't stick but maybe it does.  There's so much more room here because of the nuts and bolts of being a very affordable place and friendly place for artists in general.  You aren't having to work two coffee shop jobs in order to make your way and then try to keep up with whatever it is that inspires you.  You're able to actually do it here and afford to do it, and I think that's really important," Karas said.

Meanwhile, classical music fans here in Northeast Ohio get to sample it all.





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