Sunday, January 09, 2000

Severance makes triumphant return

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CLEVELAND — It is the most visually stunning setting for an orchestra this side of Vienna's Musikverein. Even better, its pristine acoustics — the quality responsible for “the Cleveland sound” — have been preserved and even slightly enhanced.

        After two years of construction, one year in exile at a downtown theater and $36.7 million in restoration and expansion, cheers and celebration greeted the Cleveland Orchestra's return Saturday night to its home since 1931, Severance Hall.

        The question of whether the hall's legendary acoustics would be affected was answered by a program that dazzled for its ability to showcase the orchestra's gleaming home as much as the virtuosity of its distinguished occupants.

        Preceding the gala concert conducted by music director Christoph von Dohnanyi (televised live statewide on PBS and taped for later broadcast nationwide), a well-heeled, sold-out audience of 2,000 sat with anticipation in the dark for the ceremonial lighting of the hall. .

        When the house lights went up, Severance Hall shone like an iridescent jewel, outshining even the parade of glittery gowns worn by patrons, some of whom had attended a $1,000-a-plate dinner beforehand.

        “What has been done to this building is beyond belief,” says Felix Kraus, English hornist and 37-year veteran of the orchestra. "The transformation is magical. The concern was when we returned home that our home would be as it has been. It's with a huge sigh of relief that that's how it turned out. It's a first class concert hall.”

        So seamless are the renovations, it is nearly impossible for the casual observer to tell where the old building ends and the new begins. Architect David M. Schwarz, of David M. Schwarz Architectural Services (Washington D.C.), Christopher Jaffe of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough (Norwalk, Conn.) formed the dream team executing the changes.

        A new, 39,000-square-foot addition vastly improves circulation for concertgoers. An elegant new restaurant will soon be open seven days a week, and the musicians are reveling in better backstage facilities.

        “Getting around this building for a patron was a nightmare, and not much better for musicians,” Mr. Schwarz told the international press that assembled for a tour.

        A new concert shell built into the end of the room replaces the 1958-era shell installed by music director George Szell. While the old shell helped create the precision of the orchestra, it was a modern mismatch to the jewelbox-like art deco interior.

        The pipes of the historic E.M. Skinner organ — formerly entombed behind the old shell — now grace the back of the stage center, while the organ awaits reinstallation next year. The ceiling over the stage flows like ribbon, and the proscenium, formerly hidden, echoes the lavish interiors.

        “We wanted the two volumes (the stage and the hall) to work together,” says Mr. Jaffe, the acoustician. The volume of the auditorium has not been changed. And because Mr. Dohnanyi prefers a tight ensemble, the area of the new stage is the same square footage as before.

        One third of the project involved a faithful restoration of the interior to its original splendor. The aluminum leaf of the auditorium ceiling shimmers against a pinkish-tan pattern. The Grand Lobby makes a dazzling first impression, with its terrazzo floors, pink marble wainscoting, gold leaf touches and brilliantly restored murals.

        In Saturday's program, the orchestra hailed its reopening with a world premiere fanfare, “Sonance Severance 2000,” by Sir Harrison Birwistle. Its churning textures erupted into a brilliant brass fanfare which maintained clarity and did not overwhelm the hall despite its dissonance.

        In a contrast, concertmaster William Preucil performed Vaughan Williams' “The Lark Ascending” with affection and breathtaking intonation, illustrating that Severance's intimacy is still intact.

        The richly varied program showcased the orchestra as well as the musicianship and masterful ear of its conductor. The offerings included a vigorous Prelude to Die Meistersinger by Wagner, its grandeur magnificently matching the occasion. Prokofiev's “Classical” Symphony No. 1 crackled with clean articulation and witty character; Ravel's Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe created a magical atmosphere, with its fleetness, transparency and a beautifully-shaped solo by principal flutist Joshua Smith. The orchestra pushed the limits of instrumental range in Ligeti's Atmospheres, a seamless soundscape of chord masses moving slowly over time.

        Mozart's Overture to the Marriage of Figaro was a buoyant, celebratory encore which brought the audience to its feet for the third time.

        Part of the credit goes to the Cleveland community, for supporting such an undertaking for its orchestra.

        “Our city is the smallest of any city in the world to support a world class orchestra,” says Richard Bogomolny, president of the Musical Arts Association. The board is about to announce the result of a campaign which has raised more than $100 million for the project, operations and endowment.

        An obviously pleased Maestro Dohnanyi, who was the catalyst for it all, summed up his feelings. “We feel so good to be home, and to be in an historic home and an enriched home,” said Mr. Dohnanyi, following a rehearsal on Saturday. “We are enjoying it very much. Already in the first three days, we have seen that this has a great future as a hall.”


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- Severance makes triumphant return