In this Cleveland hall, classical music is king
In a city renowned for rock, a grand symphonic venue
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.
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.