The Cleveland Orchestra Story

Cleveland is full of surprises.

Having just returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, I find myself recalling one such surprise I learned en route: both cities have a metro area population near 2 million.

Sure, we’ve been criticized for our wimpy skyline and beleaguered sports teams, but even hipster Portland can’t claim a river that catches on fire.

Actually, I take that back. The Cuyahoga is no longer flammable, and regardless of how well the Browns are doing (read: not well), at least one visitor once praised Cleveland as “a most colossal city, sown with skyscrapers.”

Granted, the architectural tastes of a Russian composer may not be the most discriminating, but even Sergei Prokofiev had a healthy respect for a city – and its orchestra – on the rise.

While Cleveland’s ascendancy may not have lasted (it was the 5th most populous American city in 1920; today it’s 51st), the opposite has been true of its orchestra, often referred to as one of the “big five” American orchestras.rosenberg

Last month I hinted that the Cleveland Orchestra came together at the hands of a remarkable woman. Her name was Adella Prentiss Hughes, and until I moved here, I’d never heard of her.

But that’s just one of many things I also hadn’t heard about Cleveland.

Did you know we have an award-winning metroparks system?

Or that we were the first city to install electric street lights?

Even the name has an interesting twist; it’s missing an ‘a’ before the ‘v’ thanks to a newspaper editor who needed some extra space.

[Just goes to show – those “hastily-made” Cleveland tourism videos only tell half the story.]

We’re also the place that fostered John D. Rockefeller’s fortune. Most people associate him with New York City (myself included), but he’s actually buried here, sharing the same graveyard as our beloved symphony’s impresario.

In the early twentieth century, few people might have expected a woman to organize a professional orchestra, or thought Cleveland capable of nurturing an ensemble of stature similar to New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. As Rosenberg puts it, “for a symphony orchestra of international stature to have emerged from a midsized, Midwestern industrial city was an extraordinary achievement. Even today, people around the globe continue to marvel at Cleveland’s ability to sustain such a jewel.”

But that’s exactly the legacy Hughes left behind. Though she died before the orchestra reached the zenith of its success, her fortitude paved the way for future generations to experience this enduring ensemble.

And thanks to her high regard for radio, broadcasts of the Cleveland Orchestra continue to reach concert-goers like me in the comfort of their homes. I’m indebted to her, as well as the previous tenant who left behind the Sony receiver which, with some carefully rigged speaker wire, has become my companion for classical concerts on WCLV.

Yet, there’s another woman whose memory lives on with the orchestra, not audibly, but visually. During construction of the orchestra’s permanent dwelling, Severance Hall, benefactor John L. Severance requested a tribute to his dear wife, Elizabeth; the ceiling is patterned after the lace on her wedding gown.

Merely a week ago, I found myself staring at this very design from the stage of Severance. Its inimitable elegance drew my eyes upward throughout the evening, particularly when I could spare a few seconds to look away from the conductor.

But you might be wondering: how did a nascent city slicker such as myself find her way to the spotlights of Severance?

Well, there’s a native Clevelander to thank for that, and more specifically, a piece of his legacy that unexpectedly landed in my hands.

During my waning days of employment in life B.C. (Before Cleveland), I found a concert band recording featuring Frederick Fennell and the Cleveland Winds. The CD stood out to me for a couple reasons, one being that I had spent the last four years working in a music library bearing Fennell’s name. But of more significance was the repertoire, which included Gustav Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band. I’d known and loved this piece since performing it with All-County band in ninth grade, when I decided that wherever life took me, the clarinet and concert band wouldn’t be far behind.

Thus it was befitting that I took to the stage of Severance Hall as I began reading about the ensemble who called it home. While the Cleveland Winds don’t regularly perform at Severance Hall (bummer!), the timing of my move meant I was able to join their guest appearance at the Northeast Ohio Band Invitational. Prior to taking the stage, I spent a few moments wandering the building, pausing by photos and plaques that immortalized the directors and trustees responsible for stewarding the orchestra to its present day reputation. Like any great accomplishment, it took time, persistence, and unwavering vision (plus lots of cash, but that’s why orchestras hire development directors.)

I couldn’t help but think that a similar responsibility lay on our shoulders; this group of paraprofessionals who made music in their free time, modeling for younger generations what it looks like to balance life’s demands while creating and sharing a form of art we deem beautiful and valuable. I hoped there might be another young student in the audience, experiencing the wonder of the wind band as I once had.

I’m still awed that I got to experience Severance up close and personal, particularly as I learn more about the venerated ensemble normally parked there. It’s certainly something for an underdog city to be proud of, though it apparently takes a backseat to Rock’n’Roll, Superman, and Duct Tape, the three most visible icons that greeted me at the airport baggage claim. (Can’t we call ourselves home to something classier than an adhesive product?)

So, while our population may be dwindling and our football team is hanging on by a thread, there’s a lot of regional pride in this town, musically and beyond. I see people everywhere wearing Cleveland paraphernalia, and I’m actually tempted to join in each time I pass the window of a local shop, whose display features a t-shirt boasting “Cleveland’s the reason I’m cool.” But there are two suppositions in that statement, and I’m not sure I’m brave enough to claim either one just yet. Maybe once the Browns win the Superbowl.

Wouldn’t that be a surprise?