Since its founding, the Cleveland Orchestra has become a source of tremendous pride for the city of Cleveland. It is one of America's artistic treasures, an orchestra capable of playing as well as any in the world. Franz Welser-Möst led the orchestra on a recording of music by Schubert and Ernst Krenek in 2020 on the group's Cleveland Orchestra label.
Chamber music flourished in Cleveland from the middle of the 19th century on, but the orchestra was not founded until 1918. Adella P. Hughes, with the support of the Musical Arts Association, spearheaded the formation of the orchestra and engaged conductor Nikolai Sokoloff to direct it. Sokoloff remained the music director until 1933 and led national tours, educational concerts, commercial recordings, and radio broadcasts. Perhaps the most important legacy of his tenure is Severance Hall, which opened in 1931 and received immediate renown for both its acoustics and its aesthetics. In 1999, the hall was renovated and improved and then reopened in 2000 to renewed acclaim. Artur Rodzinski directed the orchestra from 1933 to 1943 and was followed by Erich Leinsdorf from 1943 to 1946. Both of these men contributed to Cleveland's budding reputation, but the golden age of orchestral playing in Cleveland came with the arrival of the now-legendary George Szell in 1946.
One of the last of the old-time conductors, Szell ruled the orchestra with an iron fist, lashed out at players whom he felt were giving less than full effort, erupted at even the smallest technical mistakes, and built the best orchestra in America. The Cleveland Orchestra, under Szell, played with marvelously clear textures, impeccable precision, perfect ensemble, and inspiring passion. It was also astonishingly adaptable to different genres and styles of music; Szell liked to say that the specialty of the Cleveland Orchestra was that it had no specialty. The orchestra recorded extensively for Columbia (now Sony), toured internationally, and staked its claim as the biggest of the "Big Five" American orchestras. In 1968, the orchestra began a long and fruitful association with composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. During the same year, Szell opened the Blossom Music Center, a summer concert venue owned by the orchestra, which has been enormously successful financially and musically. Szell died in 1970 but could have been the music director for as long as he wanted. Boulez served as musical advisor until 1972 when Lorin Maazel became the music director. While Maazel was and is a great conductor, the orchestra felt it had not been properly consulted in the decision to hire him, and his tenure was marked by controversy. His interpretations were seen as extreme, and although he kept the orchestra playing at a high technical level, he was never much loved by the city of Cleveland.
The appointment of Christoph von Dohnányi as the music director in 1982 started the Cleveland Orchestra on another long run of greatness. Dohnányi successfully preserved the tonal clarity of the Szell years while broadening the orchestra's repertoire to include more contemporary music and modern classics. Franz Welser-Möst succeeded Dohnányi in 2002, with Dohnányi serving since then as the music director laureate. In 2018, Welser-Möst led the orchestra in its 100th anniversary concert, which was broadcast on the television series Great Performances. The Cleveland Orchestra issued two albums in 2020, A New Century and a recording of Schubert's Great Symphony and Krenek's Static and Ecstatic, with both released on the Cleveland Orchestra label. To the extent that orchestras can be ranked, the Cleveland Orchestra is widely considered America's best, and the city of Cleveland supports its orchestra in the manner it deserves.