skyline of Cleveland, Ohio.
— 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.
going to be something,” said Mark Jackobs, one of the
Cleveland Orchestra’s viola players. “This is a
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.
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
orchestra’s leaders launched the campaign to build
Severance Hall in 1928, Cleveland was on a roll. As
America constructed skyscrapers, Cleveland’s steel mills
were shipping vast tonnage on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga
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
Cleveland has shrunk, suffered and been smirked at like
few other American cities. But it also has reinvented
itself and begun to bloom again.
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.
before I heard the orchestra, Andria Hoy, its archivist,
gave me a tour of the hall.
found my way to University Circle, the cultural hub about
five miles west of downtown, where the hall, the Cleveland
Museum of Art and the campus of Case Western Reserve
University sprawl alongside the grassy expanses of Wade
museum was terrific, from the Egyptian mummy cases to the
gritty canvases of New York’s Ashcan School. At the
Cleveland Museum of Natural History, I got to look a live
eagle in the eyes.
hall, however, did not 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.
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.
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.
Elisabeth died at the family winter home in Pasadena,
Calif., followed by the stock market crash in late 1929.
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.
intricate, lacelike aluminum leaf pattern on the ceiling
is said to match Elisabeth’s wedding dress. Thus, also,
the lotus blossoms (her favorite flower) in the grand
foyer’s terrazzo floor.
As for the
building’s papyrus imagery and other Egyptian Revival
touches, John Severance and his family were among the
legions of wealthy Americans who journeyed to Egypt in the
1920s to see King Tut’s newly uncovered tomb.
really turned this building into a memorial to her, which
is where a lot of the opulence comes from,” Hoy told me.
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.
The last 50
years have been rough on Cleveland. The city’s economy
stumbled in the 1960s, population began to plummet, crime
jumped, and the Cuyahoga River, profoundly polluted,
caught fire more than once. The slump lasted decades. A
wicked nickname emerged: the Mistake by the Lake.
the city’s population is about 390,000; one steel mill
remains. But Cleveland — the town that gave us Drew
Carey, Halle Berry and Molly Shannon and great sports
performances from running back Jim Brown of the Cleveland
Browns and pitcher Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians —
Cuyahoga (no flames since 1969, thank you), you can see
kayaks, rowers and the Nautica Queen, a dinner cruise
reinvents itself, hotels, restaurants and Heinen’s
Grocery Store have taken over grand old bank buildings
along Euclid Avenue. Condos and apartments are multiplying
near the riverside. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and
Playhouse Square theater district have helped push tourism
up by about 25 percent in the last six years.
Cleveland’s orchestra? The musicians kept playing,
touring and recording, never relinquishing the reputation
that spread globally under the exacting George Szell,
music director from 1946 to 1970.
Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles may be
bigger cities, but in January 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.)
Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman, Wynton Marsalis, Yehudi
Menuhin, Leontyne Price, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Mstislav
Rostropovich — all have stood on the Severance Hall
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.
night, I arrived early so I could start with a meal at
Severance, the venue’s fine-dining restaurant.
Solicitous service, tasty sea bass special. Good omens.
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.
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.
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
proved that the piano is a percussion instrument,” usher
Joette McDonald whispered to me later. She’s been
working concerts for 17 years “because I’m never
disappointed,” she said. “It never gets old. I do. But
intermission was the sonic assault that Jackobs had warned
me about, Prokofiev’s third symphony, composed in 1928.
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.”
the first note: shrieking strings and brass, booming
tympani, curious three-note clusters ascending and
descending — a beginning as dark and alarming as the
night’s first Prokofiev piece had been bright and
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.
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 the 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