I don’t especially care to give Norman Lebrecht publicity. Given his penchant for self-promotion he seems to garner enough for himself. I know quite a few musicians who hold him in low regard, but either find it useful to cultivate him as a promoter, or fear retributions from him – and thus tolerate his antics. For those who don’t depend on his favor, he’s something of a laughingstock. Despite seeing factual errors on his site nearly as often as I view it, more often than not I decline to leave a comment there - or to mention it here. Lebrecht often presents opinions as facts, cherry-picks actual facts and places them out of context, and uses sensationalistic and vulgar headlines as click-bait. He also posts information from other sources without attribution. His posts run the gamut from the Chicken Little “sky is falling” variety – foretelling the imminent demise of Classical music, to stories of musicians as abuse victims from airlines and bureaucrats, to stories of musicians as perverts and pedophiles. One seldom encounters in his posting any actual discussion of music. Indeed, reading Lebrecht’s “journalism” has left me with the impression he doesn’t know much about music. But this tidbit from Lebrecht’s recent posting on the “Makers and Breakers of 2015” made my blood boil.
As for Lebrecht’s statement that the Cleveland Orchestra is America’s finest, I’ll accept that with good graces as a proud local. Some will disagree, and that’s alright. What makes one great orchestra stand above another is largely a matter of opinion. The basics are a given: An orchestra must play the right notes, must plan in tune, and must play together. The Chicago Symphony is known for its great brass section (or at least the loudest), the Philadelphia Orchestra is known for its lush string sound, the Berlin Philharmonic for its depth of sonority, the Vienna Philharmonic for transparency. The Cleveland Orchestra, at its best, has all these. Not that the orchestra always plays at its best. There was a period, roughly from 1990 until about a decade ago, when standards seemed to be slipping. I’m not basing this on any critic’s opinion, because I’ve learned they often have their own agendas – but what I’ve heard with my own ears: a number a splattery entrances, fluffed notes (particularly in the brass), and balances that were off. But in recent years the orchestra has been back on form in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Scriabin. I would also say that Franz Welser-Möst, about whom I had a great many reservations in 2002, has really grown into the job. (Nor would I say that the Cleveland Orchestra’s rise to greatness was the sole result of George Szell’s tenure, as they were already a Top Four orchestra under Artur Rodzinski. But it’s true that standards fell in the three years preceding Szell’s tenure, when orchestras world-wide lost players during World War II, and Cleveland had a part-time and inexperienced Music Director. But I’ll save further discussion on that subject for another post.)
But look at Lebrecht’s qualifier for his praise of Cleveland. “Severe social blight”. Excuse me? Is Lebrecht stuck in 1978, when Cleveland went into default? Does Lebrecht still imagine the Cuyahoga River catching fire? Is the Hough neighborhood in flames like it was in the 1960s? Cleveland has come a long way since the bad old days of 30 years ago, and this is especially so in University Circle – which has been extensively redeveloped. I’m aware that Lebrecht paid Cleveland a visit earlier this year, but I wonder how much of Cleveland he saw beyond Severance Hall and Hopkins airport. So, I will assume he didn’t see the revived areas downtown, or Playhouse Square, Ohio City, or Gordon Square. Or, that he’d never experienced the bad old days in Cleveland, so he had no reference point to see how far we’ve come.
Then there’s this – which Americans will grasp but Europeans may not: the majority of people who attend Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall do not live within the City of Cleveland. They live in the surrounding suburbs. I cite this obvious fact because an earlier post from Lebrecht crowed about what a miracle it was that a city of less than 400,000 could support such an orchestra – as if Cleveland was Smallville, Kansas! This is an example of how Lebrecht carefully selects facts and presents them out of context, distorting the truth. In fact, Cuyahoga County alone has nearly 1.3 million residents – and many who come to the orchestra’s concerts come from beyond the county line. This is even more the case for those who go to summer concerts at Blossom Music Center which is way down in Cuyahoga Falls.
True, Cleveland’s not perfect, and neither is the region. There are gross disparities of income, as is the case everywhere in the US. There are neighborhoods which suffer from neglect, which can be found in nearly any major city, in and outside the US. That the Cleveland Police Department is an embarrassment is known internationally. The Lakefront is poorly utilized. These and more are issues which need to be addressed – to paraphrase President Kennedy: they are human made problems which can be solved by humans.
But what’s interesting to me is that the orchestra has mostly thrived even during our region’s darkest eras. Could it be because the Cleveland Orchestra, along with other cultural institutions and the Cleveland Metroparks are some of the few things in our region which have never let the people down? Think about it. Have the Cleveland Indians, Cavaliers, or Browns consistently brought as much fulfillment to so many as the aforementioned institutions? Residents of Cuyahoga County have long recognized this and generously subsidized these institutions, by supporting property tax levies, and – just this year – renewing a small tax on cigarettes and alcohol which goes a long way toward supporting the orchestra.
The success of the Cleveland Orchestra is not some anomalous blip in an urban ghetto, as Norman Lebrecht would have you believe. It’s the result of the people who’ve supported it – both in the orchestra and out. Both those who live within Cleveland’s borders and those who live beyond.
I’d also point out that Norman Lebrecht’s home base, London, is far from perfect. I saw my share of panhandlers during our recent trip there, one harassing a women so aggressively that I had to intervene. This took place a posh area near Piccadilly Circus. Sometimes blight occurs where one least expects it. And London’s main orchestra pales in comparison with Cleveland’s.