The Cleveland Orchestra is one of today’s foremost symphony orchestras and one of America’s ‘Big Five’ orchestras. The Orchestra is currently led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, who joined the orchestra in 2002. While the orchestra will be celebrating its 100th birthday in 2018, it is a fresh and innovative institution.
The Cleveland Orchestra was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1918 and served as a regional orchestra. It was under the direction of Nikolai Sokoloff until 1933, when Artur Rodinski took over as Music Director. After ten years, Rodinski was succeeded by Erich Leinsdorf, who served for just three years (1943-6). It was George Szell’s influence as Music Director from 1946 to 1970 that shaped the orchestra into the world-class ensemble it is today. Szell was succeeded by Lorin Mazel (1972-82), Christoph von Dohnányi (1984-2002) and finally Franz Welser-Möst in 2002.
Since 1931, the Cleveland Orchestra has called Severance Hall home. However, the acoustics were quite dismal until Szell insisted on improvements. Under Szell’s critical supervision, Severance Hall became one of the most spectacular concert halls in the country, bringing much pride to the orchestra and the community alike. Also upon Szell’s arrival, much of the orchestra was dismissed and replaced with players of Szell’s choosing. Despite, or because of, the tense working environment, the musicians rose to Szell’s demands and established themselves as one of the top orchestras in 1957. In 1968, the Blossom Music Center was opened—an outdoor concert venue—allowing the orchestra to perform year-round.
Under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst, who holds the Kelvin Smith Family Endowed Chair, the orchestra has continued its tradition of excellence. Welser-Möst is one of the most distinguished conductors today and has already been with the orchestra for 15 years as of the 2016-2017 season. His contract extends into the next decade. With his leadership, the Cleveland Orchestra has been hailed by the New York Times as the ‘best American orchestra’. It is regularly praised for its ‘virtuosity, elegance of sound, variety of colour and chamber-like musical cohesion’. Its innovative programming and interest in new works is also frequently applauded. In addition to the standard repertoire, the orchestra commissions and premieres new works and performs semi-staged and staged operas.
The Cleveland Orchestra enjoys an unprecedented annual residency in Miami in addition to performing as guests at many prestigious concert halls and festivals, such as the Salzburg Festival and the Lucerne Festival. It also has a reoccurring residency at Vienna’s Musikverein and performs regularly at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York and at Indiana University.
The Cleveland Orchestra is no stranger to the recording process. It made its first recording in 1924 with Nikolai Sokoloff of Tchaikovsky’s1812 Overture for the Brunswick label. It then partnered with Columbia Masterworks under Artur Rodzinski’s direction. Following Rodzinski’s tenure as Music Director, the orchestra continued to record with Columbia, though some of Szell’s earliest recordings were on Columbia’s budget sub-label, Epic. Szell’s recordings with the orchestra show attention to detail that was never before present in an orchestra. Many of these recordings are still available. In the 1990s, the orchestra’s recordings began being issued by Sony Classics, who acquired Columbia’s catalogue. The Cleveland Orchestra was one of the first orchestras to use digital recording technology, which it did with the help of Telarc. Later associations with Decca began under Maazel’s direction. With Dohnányi and the recording of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, the Cleveland Orchestra became one of the first major orchestras to digitally record an entire cycle.
During the 1990s, the orchestra recorded much less, due to a diminishing demand for CDs. In fact, a recording of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle with Dohnányi and Decca was abandoned. Some of the newest recordings include Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 (2007, Deutsche Grammophon) and a series of Mozart piano concertos with pianist Mitsuko Uchida on the Decca label. Among the orchestra’s many recordings are many with guest conductors, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Riccardo Chailly and Pierre Boulez. The orchestra also made a number of premiere recordings, including of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 with Nikolai Sokoloff, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto Rodzinki and violin soloist Louis Krasner, John Adams’Century Rolls with Dohnányi and pianist Emanuel Ax and Harrison Birtwistle’sSonance Severance 2000, also with Dohnányi.
Franz Welser-Möst has also led the orchestra in an all-Wagner album with soprano Measha Brueggergosman and in live performances of Bruckner’s symphonies that have been captured on DVD. N 2015 a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 ‘Eroica’ was released, along with Wagner’sTannhäuser Overture.
In addition to its rigorous performance and recording schedule, the Cleveland Orchestra is dedicated to the its community and its students. Members of the orchestra help people connect with each other and with music through a variety of projects, including At Home, a neighbourhood residency programme. Another project, Make Music!, encourages people of all ages to participate in making music.
The orchestra is also home to the flagship programme Under 18s Free, in which people under the age of 18 are able to attend an unlimited number of concerts free of charge. They also created the unprecedented Center for Future Audiences in 2010. Remarkably, 20% of the orchestra’s audience is aged 25 and under.
In addition to its normal concert series, the Cleveland Orchestra gives popular Friday night concerts that contain a mix of onstage symphonic works and post-concert entertainment. Additionally, it has given live performances of film scores, collaborated with pop and jazz singers and had ballet and opera performances. The orchestra strives to juxtapose standard repertoire ‘in meaningful contexts with new and older works’.