At 100, the Cleveland Orchestra May (Quietly) Be America’s Best

At 100, the Cleveland Orchestra May (Quietly) Be America’s Best

The Carnegie repertory this week is substantial but low-key: on Tuesday, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the New York premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, “Stromab,” by the Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud; and on Wednesday Haydn’s oratorio “The Seasons,” with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

The orchestra has long been renowned for its sound — precise, lithe and transparent, yet not lacking in power or color — and its disciplined work ethic, both honed by a series of strong maestros in the modern era. Much of the credit invariably goes to George Szell, the legendarily authoritarian music director from 1946 to his death in 1970. Christoph von Dohnanyi, Szell’s elegant and punctilious successor from 1984 to 2002, liked to say, “We give a great performance, and George Szell gets a great review.” (Pierre Boulez was the orchestra’s musical adviser from 1970 to 1972; Lorin Maazel, its music director from 1972 to 1982.)

In truth, Szell’s legacy, at least when it came to sound, was mixed. In search of a dry, clear, immediate acoustic, he had the great Skinner organ in Severance Hall, the orchestra’s classic Art Deco home of 1931, walled off by an acoustical shell filled with sand. The hall, magnificently restored, reopened in 2000 (complete with organ) and it continues to shape the orchestra’s sound.


Severance Hall, the orchestra’s classic Art Deco home of 1931, was magnificently restored and reopened in 2000.

Dustin Franz for The New York Times

“Severance Hall gives us wonderful feedback,” Mr. Welser-Möst said, “in colors, pliancy and intonation.”

As for the institutional ethos, the terrors of the Szell era left behind an enduring pride and sense of unified purpose. Morale remains strong.

“In general, people are on the same page,” said Mark Kosower, the principal cellist (one of eight principal players hired by Mr. Welser-Möst, of 17 total). Mr. Kosower describes a self-regenerating tradition in which “the musicians check their egos at the door and give what’s best for the orchestra.”

Where other symphony orchestra may complain about rehearsals that run too long or conductors who talk too much, Cleveland players tend to complain if they feel they have not had enough rehearsal or enough direction from the maestro.

Two incidents leading up to the Carnegie concerts spoke volumes about the ensemble’s seriousness and adaptability. On Jan. 13, after performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on the two nights before, Mr. Welser-Möst led the orchestra in a superb third reading. If it did not have the warmth of, say, the Bruno Walter recording that long ago introduced me to the work, it was superbly played and full of the requisite tension. I detected no need for further rehearsal.


The South African soprano Golda Schultz sang in “The Seasons” in Cleveland, and will appear at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday.

Dustin Franz for The New York Times

Mr. Welser-Möst and the players felt differently. Some requested more work on the second movement. So half an hour of intensive work on that movement was wedged into a rehearsal on Friday earmarked for a Beethoven concert that night.

This was no small matter. Players needed for the Mahler but not the Beethoven, who would otherwise have had the morning off, had to report for duty, and the orchestra’s contract requires that any such change be approved by a secret ballot of all members. The vote was taken, and permission was granted.

And last Thursday, the first presentation of “The Seasons” foundered when two of the three vocal soloists fell ill just hours beforehand. Replacements could not quickly be found. Mr. Welser-Möst decided in the late afternoon that the performance would go on in a much-abridged form (75 minutes of the two-hour piece), featuring the chorus and the last soloist standing, the brilliant South African soprano Golda Schultz.

Ordinarily, the orchestra’s librarians would have put scores on the musicians’ stands detailing cuts and the order of play, but there was no time for that. Instead, Mr. Welser-Most himself hastily drew up a road map to be placed on each stand, with notes like “No. 29 (up to measure 32 then cut to measure 55, letter B).”

“In this orchestra,” he said later, “everyone takes responsibility for what they do.”

Mr. Welser-Möst, no fan of the early-music movement, led a robust, full-bodied account of what remained. And between movements, he delivered amusing commentary off the cuff. The orchestral introduction to “Winter,” he said, characterized “the weather here in Cleveland in November.”

It was all a model of professionalism, leaving the audience obviously entertained and feeling in no way shortchanged. The tenor and bass-baritone soloists sang in the second performance, on Saturday, and are expected to appear on Wednesday. Despite the shortened rehearsal time, the Beethoven concert on Friday was excellent, as was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration the Sunday before.

Skeptics say that touring orchestras are steeled and on their mettle when they visit Carnegie Hall, adding, “They don’t play that way every week at home.” The Cleveland Orchestra, as I learned during a season (1988-89) spent as its program annotator and editor, plays that way every week, no matter what or where.

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