A Brief History of the Cleveland Orchestra

There could hardly be a less likely city than Cleveland [Ohio] to host one of the world’s foremost orchestras. Even at its height as a manufacturing powerhouse, beginning in the early 1900s and lasting until a bit past mid-century — the city was home to steel mills, auto assembly plants, and General Electric’s Nela Park — the city paled in comparison to many of its Midwestern neighbors such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. It later gained a reputation for ineptness, as it was the first major U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, and its primary watercourse (the Cuyahoga River) famously caught fire in the 1970s due to rampant pollution.

All past municipal history aside, however, the Cleveland Orchestra continues to occupy a top place in the world of classical music. The organization was founded in 1918 by a group of local citizens led by Adella Prentiss Hughes, a professional pianist and budding impresario whose first efforts at creating a citywide classical ensemble were unsuccessful. She convinced Russian-born conductor Nikolai Sokoloff to leave his post in San Francisco to become the orchestra’s music director. He was one of the first conductors in North America to open auditions to women and insisted they receive the same pay as their male counterparts. Sokoloff remained with the Cleveland Orchestra until 1932.

The years following World War II saw the orchestra attain its world-class ranking under the baton of George Szell, a Hungarian-born conductor whose exacting standards and precise musicianship created a distinctive sound that emulated the best of the top European ensembles. Szell held the post as the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, as well as serving as its primary conductor, from 1946 to 1970. During his tenure the orchestra made hundreds of recordings — many of them for Columbia Records — and became especially known for playing music by such German Romantic composers as Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann.

Severance Hall is the official home of the Cleveland Orchestra. It is situated east of downtown Cleveland in the University Circle area, a district that also boasts the city’s art museum, auto museum, and the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Opened in 1931 and named for patron John L. Severance, whose father was treasurer of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, the building was designed by the local firm of Walker & Weeks. Georgian-style architecture dominates the structure but elements of other styles are also found, including Art Deco, Egyptian Revival, and French Nouveau. The opening night’s concert included a performance of an orchestral version of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia, plus Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

While Severance Hall was heralded as one of the country’s most beautiful concert halls, its acoustics did not live up to the standards deemed necessary by music director Szell. In 1958 he engaged a team of sound engineers that had previously revamped the Vienna Opera House. Their recommendations included the construction of a curved stage shell made of solid maple and backed by chambers filled with sand to nine feet in height. Along with the removal of the auditorium’s carpeting and side curtains, these changes greatly improved the overall sound quality. A large-scale renovation took place beginning in 1997 at a cost of nearly US$37 million, including the restoration of the facility’s E.M. Skinner 6,025-pipe organ. The Grand Re-Opening was observed on January 8, 2000. Today, the concert hall seats 2,100 and the recital hall can accommodate 400 audience members.

In addition to the ensemble’s indoor season at Severance Hall, which runs from September through May, the Cleveland Orchestra has been performing outdoors at Blossom Music Center since 1968. The summer season generally runs from Fourth of July through Labor Day. The covered portion of the amphitheater seats 5,700, while more than 13,000 additional patrons can be accommodated on the broad lawn that faces the bandshell. The facility is located in suburban Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, approximately 30 miles south of downtown Cleveland.

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