History of a World Class Orchestra

Dee Perry–It is considered one of America's "big five" orchestras, along with New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. But when you consider the musical proficiency of the Cleveland Orchestra, it is truly second to none. Established in 1918, the Cleveland Orchestra has delighted audiences throughout Northeast Ohio and around the world, with its chamber-like concentration and strict attention to musical detail. You see what makes our orchestra so great is that while the audience listens to the orchestra perform, the players are listening to themselves like the musicians of a chamber string quartet paying strict attention to every single note.

Joining me now is a man who's paid strict attention to the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra for almost a quarter of a century. This week, Plain Dealer classical music critic Don Rosenberg released his new book, chronicling the orchestra's history, titled - "The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None." And he's with me now in studio B, Thanks for coming today Don and welcome to Around Noon!

Donald Rosenberg–Thanks Dee.

DP–Don, do you remember the first time you ever heard the Cleveland Orchestra?

DR–Yes, the first time I heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform live was in 1972 at Carnegie Hall in New York. Daniel Barenboim was conducting and I remember that they did the Bruckner 7th Symphony.

DP–How did you feel on that first hearing?

DR–I was astonished by the clarity of the orchestra and the vibrancy. It made a big impression.

DP–I understand you're a musician yourself, with a Masters of Music Degree from Yale. Was writing about classical music a second choice for you?

DR–Actually it wasn't a choice for me at all. It was an accident. I had gone to the Yale School of Music to get the masters as a French Horn player. While I was there I took an elective course on music criticism with Paul Hume who was then music critic for the Washington Post. He liked my writing and encouraged me but after I finished Yale I wanted to be a horn player. I'd taken auditions et cetera but there were no jobs for a horn player at that time. So I went home to my home town in New Jersey and I took a job in the local bagel store. One day at the bagel store the phone rang and it was Yale calling saying there was an opening at for a music critic in Akron, Ohio at the Beacon Journal and would I be interested? And of course my answer was anything's better than baking bagels. So they said the Beacon Journal would call in five minutes and you can talk to them about it. Indeed five minutes later the Beacon Journal called and asked me all sorts of questions. I had no idea what a "clip" was at that point and I had no real writings. I had done a masters project on the Wagner tuba. So they said send that along. So a couple weeks later they invited me to come out and I spent a week. One of the test reviews was the Cleveland Orchestra. I went to the Severance Hall for the first time. It was 1977 with Lorin Maazel conducting. They hired me and the rest is history.

DP–As we mentioned, the Cleveland Orchestra was established back in 1918. And the person responsible, was the first woman ever to manage a symphony orchestra - Adella Prentiss Hughes. Tell us about Adella Prentiss Hughes...

DR–Adella Prentiss, originally, was a Clevelander who grew up in society here. She was good friends with the Rockefeller family, she was related to the Severance family. She was very fine pianist. After she was in Europe for a few years with her mother, she came back and began managing the concert series of the Fortnightly Club. One year they decided they wanted to have a festival and they wanted to bring orchestras here. So they engaged Adella to manage the series. This became the Symphony Orchestra Concerts Series. It began in 1901 and Adella brought the great American orchestra's to Cleveland, mostly to play at Grays Armory. This continued for almost twenty years, even through World War One it was very popular. They brought in the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra. So this was really what nurtured Cleveland's taste for symphonic music.

DP–But up until she got involved, there was apparently no big drive to have one of its own?

DR–Well actually there were a couple attempts to establish an orchestra here but they all failed. It's because they didn't have someone of vision like Adella Prentiss or the men who supported her endeavors.

DP–Let's talk about one of those men, the man she chose to lead the orchestra - Nikolai Sokoloff.

DR–That's right. He was a Russian-born American violinist who played in the Russian Symphony Orchestra in New York. He also played in the Boston Symphony when he was very young. And he happened to be a graduate of the Yale School of Music(laughs). So, a little connection there. She met him at a music teachers conference in Cincinnati in the summer of 1918 and she was very taken with his ability to speak to people about music education. So she talked the Musical Arts Association and John Severance into bringing him to Cleveland. Not really to create a symphony orchestra but to develop music education programs in the Cleveland schools. So he arrived in September of 1918 with the intention of doing that but he had in mind also to create a symphony orchestra and he thought it would take about five years. Well it took him three months. He put together this orchestra and they had their first concert in December of 1918 and it developed very quickly from there.

DP–Where did he draw the musicians from, all from the Northeast Ohio area or other places?

DR–Well, the original Cleveland Orchestra the first fifty-two or so players were all Cleveland musicians who played the first concerts of December 1918. But then he realized he had to go out of town to really get some superb musicians to fill in key spots. So he went to New York and he auditioned lots of players and he began importing players. Actually much to the chagrin of the local musician's union which wanted only Cleveland musicians to play in the Cleveland Orchestra. But Sokoloff and Hughes were right, they needed to bring the best musicians and so they began auditioning.

DP–Now prior to Severance Hall, the orchestra performed as you mentioned downtown at Grays Armory. What led to the move to University Circle?

DR–Well, they only actually performed in Grays Armory for one season. A year after that the Masonic Auditorium, just a couple blocks from here, was built and they were invited to play there. So from 1919 until 1931 they played Masonic Auditorium, or Masonic Hall as it was called at that time. But in 1928 John Severance and his wife decided to pledge a million dollars to build new concert hall. So the orchestra began raising more funds from the public to endow the hall. It was built in 1930 and opened in February of 1931.

DP–Following Sokoloff as Music Director was Artur Rodzinski who apparently came to performances armed with more than just a baton. Interesting man, tell us more about him.

DR–A very interesting man. Actually Rodzinski rarely used a baton, he conducted with just his arms but the other thing he brought with him was a loaded revolver. He always had a pistol in his back right pocket during rehearsals and performances. As the story goes when he was young he was a rather amorous fellow and had a lot of affairs, some with married women. At one point he decided to kill the husband of one his paramours. So he purchased a revolver. Well luckily the night he planned to carry out this deed the conductor at the local opera house became ill and Rodzinski was called in to substitute for him. Well evidently the performance was such a big success that Rodzinski believed that the pistol was a good luck charm. So from therein he kept this pistol in his back pocket and it was there all the time during Severance Hall performances. He never used it to intimidate anybody though.

DP–But they knew it was there.

DR–Yeah, I think so, yes. (laughs)

DP–We're talking with Donald Rosenberg who has written the book "The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None" which has just been released by Gray and Company Publishers. And we will hear some music that you've brought along Don. You were kind enough to share some of the Orchestra sound. What is it that we're going to hear first?

DR–The first excerpt is the last movement of the... or maybe the third movement of the Shostakovich First Symphony. I wanted to bring this because during Rodzinski's era he did fourteen fully staged operas at Severance Hall including the American premiere of Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk" I wanted you and the audience to hear how the Cleveland Orchestra would've sounded in Shostakovich during the period when Rodzinski was there. So here's a little excerpt from that...

(music plays)

DP–Music performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, as you stay tuned to Around Noon on 90.3 WCPN®. And they sound wonderful there, the quality of the recording is amazing and in terms of what year it was...19...?

DR–This was 1941. It was actually towards the end of Rodzinski's tenure with the orchestra. Yes, these were all made for Columbia records and of course these were 78's so they could only record about 4 _ minutes on each side. The Rodzinski recordings are really marvelous. They show the orchestra in really top form, even though it was a rather small orchestra at the time, only 82 players. I think it shows that the orchestra was really a great orchestra even from this early period.

DP–Right, and when you say rather small at 82 that's because most were over a hundred?

DR–Right, but the Cleveland board would not hire any more players and Rodzinski actually was very frustrated by this because the orchestra couldn't compete with the other major orchestras in the country that had more than a hundred players.

DP–Now, at the beginning we mentioned the Orchestra's knack for performing like a chamber group, in the way the players all listen to each other. And that is really the legacy of the man who came to embody the heart and soul of the Cleveland Orchestra - George Szell. Let's get into Szell's influence on the orchestra's sound and its prominence in the world.

DR–Well, when Szell arrived in 1946, he made major demands. He said he wanted a larger orchestra, he wanted a certain budget and of course he wanted complete authority to hire and fire. What he did in five years was he hired and fired about 90 players, which is enough for another orchestra actually. He wanted to create an ensemble like you said, that was like a string quartet in which every musician would be an important part of the texture, and they would listen to each other closely and every line would be heard very clearly. He achieved it very quickly. Within about 5 or 6 years the Cleveland Orchestra sounded like Szell's orchestra. It actually has continued to do so since. The legacy has continued for more than about 50 years.

DP–I'm curious what George Szell had in terms of persuasive powers that Artur Rodzinski didn't. How was he able to get past that block?

DR–Well I don't think Rodzinski didn't have those powers. I think that Szell just made many more demands and he was given more freedom. The board gave him more money to basically develop the orchestra so he could hire more players and he could program the way he wanted to. Basically he was given free reign. They wanted him to make, as he said, an orchestra that was "second to none," and he delivered. He was an uncompromising person, very difficult but he was also difficult on himself.

DP–His reign was the longest to date?

DR–Yes, 24 years.

DP–While many of the players were fearful of Maestro Szell, he really fought for them didn't he?

DR–Well yes, I think he did in terms of trying to get more weeks of work. He wanted that increased. He pushed for a summer season, which eventually happened with the opening of Blossom Music Center. It was a very slow process of course. He also had the hall renovated in 1958 to improve the acoustics. The acoustics of Severance Hall were very dry before that. So that all had a big impact on the personality of the orchestra and the world's image of the orchestra. He also took the orchestra on its first European tour in 1957 that was a crucial event in the orchestra's history. It showed the world that Cleveland had an orchestra that was absolutely top flight.

DP–And the world responded by saying "yes!"

DR–Yes, they responded by saying "Cleveland? You have a great orchestra. In Cleveland, Ohio!" And I think the orchestra from that point on put Cleveland on the map. I think it's the institution in Cleveland that has done that and continues to do so.

DP–You've also said that "some people associated with the orchestra might be less than pleased by facts" revealed in your book. And I'm guessing some of those facts might concern the man who succeeded Szell, Lorin Maazel. Talk about his tenure with the orchestra.

DR–After Szell died, the orchestra was thrown into a period of chaos. They really had not prepared for any succession. I guess they thought that Szell would always be there. So when he wasn't there, they really had no idea what to do. The process by which they chose the next music director was very secretive and was handled in a way that really infuriated the musicians because they had absolutely no input. Lorin Maazel seemed to be the candidate from the beginning and indeed turned out to be. It really wasn't Maazel's fault, it was other forces. That's chronicled in the chapter called "Discord." But when Maazel came in there was much resentment because the orchestra wanted a different kind of leader. Even though they admired and respected Szell as a musician they were quite tired of the way he treated them. And they wanted someone who perhaps was a little more enlightened and solicitous to them. But Maazel came in and turned out to be rather authoritarian himself. He was an absolutely superb conductor with an unparalleled baton technique and a memory that, I don't know, hasn't been equaled. He knew about three-thousand scores by the time he'd gotten to Cleveland. It was a turbulent period because there were people who believed that Maazel was not very good in certain repertoire. But he was superb in some repertoire. He stretched the orchestra by programming much more contemporary music and pieces that tested their flexibility. Under Szell, the orchestra was viewed as being rather regimented, and tight. Maazel I think freed that a little bit and allowed the orchestra to play a little more naturally. So it was a difficult period, but I think it was also a very productive period.

DP–I'm talking with Donald Rosenberg and Don you have some more music for us. What else is in your bag of sounds?

DR–The next recording is the scherzo movement from the Bruckner 5th Symphony. This is conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi the successor to Lorin Maazel and the current music director. This is from 1991 and I wanted to play this to show a different aspect of the orchestra. Bruckner has been a composer that hasn't really figured that heavily into the orchestra's history. Szell did a few Bruckner symphonies but Dohnanyi has done a lot of the Bruckner symphonies and recorded a lot of the Bruckner symphonies. He brings a real genuine sense of Bruckner's sonority and pacing. So I think this recording also reflects that the orchestra has remained in supreme shape for so long. So here's the Scherzo of the Bruckner 5.

(music plays)

DP–Music by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, as you stay tuned to Around Noon on 90.3 WCPN®. I'm here with the Plain Dealer's classical music critic Don Rosenberg whose new book is "The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None." And if Don was going to write another book, he might write one on "Orchestra Etiquette" because there's nothing he hates more than this sound...

(sound of beeper going off)

DR–(laughs) Yes that's very true.

DP–You would probably outlaw cell phones and pagers right?

DR–In concert halls I would. Oh certainly yes. I did write a column about that last week and it got quite a good response so look for the sequel this Sunday. Literally.

DP–Excellent. And speaking of continuing stories in just a little bit, we're going to say goodbye to some members of the Cleveland San Jose Ballet. And while I know you don't cover ballet, there has been a ripple effect from the ballet's closing that's affecting the local music scene. Can you touch a bit on what's happened with that?

DR–Well the members of the Cleveland San Jose Ballet Orchestra of course have lost a large part of their living now because of the closing of the ballet. A lot of these players are also members of the Ohio Chamber Orchestra which is going through a transition not quite resolved yet. They're supposed to be restructured into two orchestras. One called Camerata Cleveland and one called the New American Orchestra. But it's really unclear at this point what the outcome of that will be. This is affecting all of these musicians in a very, I don't know how to say this, it's...

DP–Yet to be revealed...

DR–Yet to be determined. This is their living and it's very hard for them to have this all happening at once.

DP–And we'll be waiting to see what you write next...

DR–Keep reading.

DP–Thanks Donald.

DR–Thank you.

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