In this Cleve­land hall, clas­si­cal mu­sic is king

In a city renowned for rock, a grand sym­phonic venue

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - TRAVEL & ARTS - By Christo­pher Reynolds

CLEVE­LAND — Above, the ceil­ing was done up in sil­ver, beige and blue like frost­ing on a wed­ding cake. Be­low, at the lip of the stage, a tall man in a black suit and white bow tie leaned for­ward with a tip.

“This is go­ing to be some­thing,” said Mark Jack­obs, one of the Cleve­land Or­ches­tra’s vi­ola play­ers. “This is a freight train.”

Jack­obs, who has played in the room for 25 years, knew just how the sound would flood Sev­er­ance Hall, one of North Amer­ica’s most ad­mired clas­si­cal mu­sic venues.

This was my first con­cert in the hall, so I had plenty of ques­tions. But be­fore I could ask more, the lights dimmed in the 1,920-seat au­di­to­rium, and we rushed to our seats.

Con­duc­tor Franz Welser-Most raised his ba­ton. A hun­dred mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Jack­obs, snapped to at­ten­tion. The train, also known as Prokofiev’s Sym­phony No. 3, was leav­ing the sta­tion.

In­side the hall

When the or­ches­tra’s lead­ers launched the cam­paign to build Sev­er­ance Hall in 1928, Cleve­land was on a roll. As Amer­ica built sky­scrapers, Cleve­land’s steel mills were ship­ping vast ton­nage on Lake Erie and the Cuya­hoga River.

The city’s pop­u­la­tion was about to hit 900,000. The or­ches­tra, founded in 1918, had already played New York, made its record­ing de­but and started on the path to world­wide ac­claim.

Since then, Cleve­land has shrunk, suf­fered and been smirked at like few other Amer­i­can cities. But it also has rein­vented it­self and be­gun to bloom again.

As I ex­plored the au­di­to­rium and roamed the city for four days in Septem­ber, I was amazed that in the mid­dle of a city so changed, the or­ches­tra and its hall have never stopped do­ing what they set out to do.

A day be­fore I heard the or­ches­tra, An­dria Hoy, its ar­chiv­ist, gave me a tour of the hall, which didn’t quicken my pulse right away. In fact, if ar­chi­tec­ture is frozen mu­sic, Sev­er­ance Hall’s Ge­or­gian neo­clas­si­cal ex­te­rior is “Pomp and Cir­cum­stance” at 23 beats a minute.

But in­side, it’s “Rhap­sody in Blue” meets “King Tut.” Once you step into the grand foyer, you’re swal­lowed by a mashup of art deco swoops and Egyp­tian Re­vival de­tails.

It was 1928, Hoy told me, when phi­lan­thropists John and Elis­a­beth Sev­er­ance pledged $1 mil­lion for a project to be de­signed by Walker & Weeks, a lo­cal ar­chi­tec­ture firm. Then Elis­a­beth died at the fam­ily winter home in Cal­i­for­nia, fol­lowed by the stock mar­ket crash in late 1929.

Yet John didn’t hes­i­tate. Con­struc­tion be­gan a month after the crash, and he took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to stamp the con­cert hall with Elis­a­beth’s per­son­al­ity, ul­ti­mately spend­ing more than $2 mil­lion in Great De­pres­sion dol­lars, about $29 mil­lion today. It opened in 1931.

The in­tri­cate, lace­like alu­minum leaf pat­tern on the ceil­ing is said to match Elis­a­beth’s wed­ding dress.

“He re­ally turned this build­ing into a me­mo­rial to her, which is where a lot of the op­u­lence comes from,” Hoy told me.

The grand foyer, a dou­ble-height oval space out­fit­ted with mar­ble from Italy and In­di­ana, is sur­rounded by two dozen col­umns, a se­ries of Egyp­tian Re­vival mu­rals and two sets of stately stairs.

As for Cleve­land’s or­ches­tra, the mu­si­cians never re­lin­quished the rep­u­ta­tion that spread glob­ally un­der the ex­act­ing Ge­orge Szell, mu­sic di­rec­tor from 1946 to 1970.

New York, Bos­ton, Chicago, Philadel­phia and Los Angeles may be big­ger cities, but in Jan­uary last year a New York Times head­line pro­claimed that “At 100, the Cleve­land Or­ches­tra May (Qui­etly) Be Amer­ica’s Best.” (A later ar­ti­cle in Oc­to­ber noted that the or­ches­tra had fired its con­cert­mas­ter and prin­ci­pal trom­bon­ist for sex­ual mis­con­duct and ha­rass­ment.)

Bela Bar­tok, Leonard Bern­stein, Benny Good­man, Wyn­ton Marsalis, Ye­hudi Menuhin, Leon­tyne Price, Sergei Rach­mani­noff and Mstislav Rostropovich — all have stood on the Sev­er­ance Hall stage.

It re­mains the or­ches­tra’s home for about 100 per­for­mances a year in fall, winter and spring. (Con­certs move to the Blos­som Mu­sic Cen­ter in Cuya­hoga Falls in the sum­mer.) The hall also hosts grad­u­a­tions, wed­dings, Cleve­land Pops Or­ches­tra con­certs and other events.

The legacy

On con­cert night, I ar­rived early so I could start with a meal at Sev­er­ance, the venue’s fine­din­ing restau­rant. So­lic­i­tous ser­vice, tasty sea bass spe­cial. Good omens.

The mu­sic be­gan with Prokofiev’s Sym­phony No. 1, a sprightly, sunny work de­spite be­ing com­posed while Rus­sia and the rest of Europe were a mess. I’m no mu­sic critic, but it sounded seam­less and pre­cise to me, and the rest of the room seemed to agree.

The hall was about two-thirds oc­cu­pied, the crowd mostly 50 and older and white, although one or two sec­tions were dom­i­nated by stu­dents. Ea­ger to woo young and var­ied lis­ten­ers, the or­ches­tra of­fers free ad­mis­sion to those 18 and younger for many per­for­mances.

The next piece was Bar­tok’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 2 from 1931 — a chal­leng­ing, dense work fea­tur­ing fe­ro­cious guest pi­anist Ye­fim Bronf­man. In one pas­sage he seemed to con­jure the sound of mist rising from a pond. In an­other, Bronf­man played with such force and speed that his whole body shud­dered.

After in­ter­mis­sion was the sonic as­sault that Jack­obs had warned me about, Prokofiev’s Sym­phony No. 3, com­posed in 1928.

Be­fore be­gin­ning, Welser Most ad­dressed the au­di­ence, sug­gest­ing that Sig­mund Freud must have in­flu­enced this piece. He also asked us “to lis­ten for not just the melody but what is hap­pen­ing un­der­neath.”

Then, from the first note: shriek­ing strings and brass, boom­ing tim­pani, cu­ri­ous three note clus­ters as­cend­ing and de­scend­ing — a be­gin­ning as dark and alarm­ing as the night’s first Prokofiev piece had been bright and frisky.

From there, things calmed a bit, with plenty of del­i­cate pas­sages. I could re­lax and look around a lit­tle. But this is a sym­phony that be­gan its life as an opera about de­monic pos­ses­sion, so chaos was bound to re­turn.

At the close of the fourth move­ment, Prokofiev dis­patched us with a pair of boom­ing, dis­so­nant full-or­ches­tra chords. Ut­ter doom, un­der a twin­kling alu­minum ceil­ing.

At Cleve­land’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the amps are turned to 11 to get ef­fects like this. In Sev­er­ance Hall, they do it with­out am­pli­fiers, in a suit and bow tie, just as they have for 87 years.


The in­tri­cate, lace­like alu­minum leaf pat­tern on the ceil­ing of Cleve­land’s Sev­er­ance Hall is said to match phi­lan­thropist Elis­a­beth Sev­er­ance’s wed­ding dress. The or­ches­tra’s lead­ers launched the cam­paign to build the venue in 1928, and per­for­mances be­gan there in 1931.

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