Hitting the High Notes in a Century of the Cleveland Orchestra

Nov 17, 2017

As the Cleveland Orchestra celebrates its 100th season this year, we take a look back at where the orchestra started and how it evolved into one of the finest in the country.

From the ground up
Later in life, Adella Prentiss Hughes was  referred to as the Mother of the Cleveland Orchestra. An apt title since the local impresario founded the Musical Arts Association in 1915, an organization with one goal:  form a permanent musical ensemble in Cleveland.

'Mr. Severance kind of ended up building a monument to her after she passed away.'

In 1918, Hughes and the association officially formed the Cleveland Orchestra, hiring Nikolai Sokoloff as music director. 

"The first season they played at Grays Armory and then the next, basically, 10 seasons they played at Masonic Auditorium downtown," said Cleveland Orchestra archivist Andria Hoy.

"And they were renting all these places. They didn’t have a consistent place to rehearse, to perform, to record."

A place to grow
In 1928, John L. Severance and his wife, Elisabeth, announced they would donate $1 million, matched by the city of Cleveland, to build a permanent hall for the orchestra.

“Mrs. Severance died very shortly after the announcement, but the little bit of planning that she was involved with building the hall is very evident today," Hoy said, "She was very concerned our audience was going to be comfortable while listening to the orchestra, which is why we have the very plush blue velvet seats."

Nikolai Sokoloff served as the Orchestra's first music director from 1918-33.
Credit Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

"Her design elements throughout the building are the lotus blossom, which was her favorite flower, and the ceiling of the main hall which is said to be patterned after the lace on her wedding dress. These elements are everywhere because Mr. Severance kind of ended up building a monument to her after she passed away."

Construction of Severance Hall, named in honor of John and Elisabeth, was completed in 1931, with an inaugural performance of  Wagner's Prelude and Love-Death from Tristan and Isolde.

The modern Cleveland Orchestra
Music directors Artur Rodziński (1933-43) and Erich Leinsdorf (1943-46) helmed the orchestra through World War II, with Leinsdorf actually being drafted into the Army. Pierre Boulez (1970-72) served briefly as musical advisor and principal guest conductor, but was never officially named as music director.

Music Director George Szell (1946-70) ushered the Orchestra into one of America's finest.
Credit Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

It was under the direction of George Szell (1946-70) where the orchestra really hit its stride, Hoy said. It stared touring Europe, performing for television broadcasts and staging mini-concerts at Indians home baseball games.  

"By the time we get to 1963, when (Szell) is on the cover of Time Magazine, the Orchestra was being regarded very, very highly. We are the youngest orchestra of the Big Five ... Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Cleveland,” Hoy said.

"The trajectory of the orchestra, with George Szell, with the foundation we had with the first three music directors, it just really took off with him and it just launched us pretty much to where we are today." 

Principle violist Robert Vernon played 40 seasons with the orchestra under Lorin Maazel (1972-82), Christoph von Dohnányi (1984-02) and Franz Welser-Möst (2002-present).  

'It's great for Cleveland, it's great for people outside Cleveland. It's a marvelous thing.'

"I’m now principal viola emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra,” Vernon said. “I was a soloist about 120, 130 times."  

"This is said a lot, but it’s really true: The Cleveland Orchestra is really in a class by itself in so many ways. And I understand that there are other great orchestras, but it’s a special group of people and it’s a special group of musicians."  

The Orchestra has toured outside North America since 1957.
Credit Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

During Vernon's 40 seasons, the orchestra started its annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. concerts, founded  the Center for Future Audiences and restored an aging Severance Hall, actually improving the acoustics, Vernon said.   

In 2015, the New York Times declared the Cleveland Orchestra could be the finest in America.

“For the city itself, that we are able to sustain an orchestra of this caliber, with a very small audience base and a relatively small industrial base, it’s great for Cleveland, it’s great for people outside Cleveland. It’s a marvelous thing," Vernon said. 

The Cleveland Orchestra continues its 100th season with Holiday Festival concerts, a full opera of Tristan and Isolde and the Prometheus Project, an overview of all nine of Beethoven's symphonies.

Editor's note: The following corrections have been made. Bob Vernon is the orchestra's longest-tenured string principal, not musician. The orchestra toured Cuba and Canada before making its first trip to Europe in 1957. Severance Hall is named in honor of both John and Elisabeth Severance.