Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thoughts on the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th anniversary season

The 2017-2018 concert season will be the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th.  Significant anniversaries such as this are an occasion to look backward, as well as forward.  

It appears that those who make the decisions that shape the orchestra’s future have looked back, but only so far- only to 1946, to be precise.  They seem to forget that ours was a distinguished ensemble before George Szell took over in 1946 and molded the orchestra in his own image.  True, the Cleveland Orchestra went through a difficult period during the war – a reduced number of players, a music director, the young Erich Leinsdorf, who was in the Army and periodically absent, and few recordings due to wartime restrictions on materials.  But nearly every American orchestra had to deal with similar restrictions, to say nothing of what European orchestras went through. Szell stated he wanted to combine the best aspects of America’s and Europe’s great orchestras in Cleveland – and he did.  But Szell was also a musical conservative who, with a few exceptions, avoided modern music.  Instead, he sought out younger conductors to bring the latest works the Cleveland – including Pierre Boulez, whose relationship with the orchestra spanned five decades until his death in 2016.  

If the orchestra’s management wants inspiration for how to enhance Cleveland’s already formidable standing and secure a stronger future, it should look further back – past Boulez, past Szell.  It was Artur Rodziński, not Szell, who first turned the Cleveland Orchestra into one of America’s Big Five ensembles (along with the Philadelphia Orchestra (which Rachmaninoff thought was the world’s finest), the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Boston Symphony.  He did this not by merely getting the orchestra to play with impeccable technique and refinement (as his recordings, which should be reissued in their entirety, attest) but by demanding as much of the audience as the orchestra.  Rodziński tenure in Cleveland was known for innovative, challenging programming – including the American premiere of Shostakovich’s controversial opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.   It was also Rodziński who first advocated for a casual dress code at Severance, writing in 1936 “Let the music lover come in any garb.  Let them come in their working clothes, their overalls if they like, and they will be most highly welcome.  Severance Hall is not just for the rich.”

Much of Rodziński’s challenge was conveniently forgotten as Szell repaired the neglect of the war years, restored the orchestra to what Rodziński had built – and eventually took them to an even higher level.  It’s hardly a surprise then, that many of the orchestra’s pre-Szell recordings have never been reissued on compact disc (except a few issued on the orchestra’s private label).  Most are worthy, including Nikolai Sokoloff’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony which, although cut, is the first ever of that work, with some gorgeous string playing.

My mind contemplated that history in the aftermath of the orchestra’s announcement of its 100th season.  I was invited to the official announcement and mixer at Severance, which took place this past St. Patrick’s Day.  The mixer was a typical meet & greet where orchestra members schmoozed with donors and patrons – who were overwhelmingly white and elderly.  Then we took our seats in the auditorium for the congratulatory announcements and videos. 

Most of what was said by the board members was eminently forgettable – and I wouldn’t remember a word of it if not for the video linked above.  But Welser-Möst spoke with eloquence of his goals with the orchestra, what he has learned in Cleveland, his desire to avoid musical populism, and the wider importance of music in society.  He also referenced three seminal works in musical history: Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – all works, he said, which would be performed in the upcoming season.  Welser-Möst’s comments were thought provoking and hopeful. But what counts is what happens when the rubber meets the road.  My heart sank later that evening as I looked over the season’s programs: Mostly meat and potatoes, the tried and the true.  A Beethoven Symphony cycle, plus the “Emperor” Concerto – which is played nearly every season; Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart – again; some Brahms (including the First Symphony with Christoph von Dohnányi which, given the elder conductor’s health, seems unlikely); some Bruckner & Mahler, some Ravel. 

In terms of opera, there will be a reprise of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, a charming work inventively staged in 2014 that I look forward to seeing again.  But I cannot fathom why Tristan and Isolde will only being given a concert performance, i.e., no staging.  The opera can be staged very inexpensively and still hold the audience’s interest.  But a concert performance of a four hour opera, even Tristan, is frankly, not inspiring.

Worse, next season will have very little in the way of newer music: four 21st Century works, only one of which is by an American composer – Stephen Paulus, who passed away in 2014. In essence, the next season will be Classical music’s equivalent of a trip to Applebee’s. The audience will be eating, or rather hearing, what they’ve heard before – ad infinitum.


Bon appétit. 

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