Sunday, February 04, 2001

Book explores Cleveland Orchestra's triumphs, turbulence

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        During the George Szell years of the Cleveland Orchestra (1946-70), seats “were virtually impossible to obtain,” writes Donald Rosenberg, music critic of The Plain Dealer. “Patrons began to cling to their tickets, keeping subscriptions in the family by handing them down in their wills.”

        So begins Chapter 22 of Mr. Rosenberg's The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None. The impressive book traces the orchestra's path from its beginnings until January 2000, when it moved back into its home following the stunning renovation of Severance Hall.

        The author meticulously documents each detail through the orchestra's illustrious — and sometimes bumpy — history.

        It is ambitious, but Mr. Rosenberg, an engaging and often eloquent writer, succeeds in making this a human story. The result is a readable, colorful and fascinating chronicle that is an indispensable addition to any orchestra lover's library.

One woman's crusade

        Cleveland was one of the last of the major orchestras to be founded in the United States, when impresario Adella Prentiss Hughes succeeded in presenting her home town with its own orchestra in 1918, and was its manager until 1933. The gestation period had taken years.

        The young Adella Prentiss began presenting touring orchestras and artists before the turn of the century, soon becoming “the galvanizing force behind the city's immersion in great music,” Mr. Rosenberg writes. (Among her visiting orchestras was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in 1910.)

        The impetus was to help Cleveland's Board of Education improve its school instrumental music programs. For the first maestro, she hired the Russian-born Nikolai Sokoloff, who quickly put together a 54-piece orchestra.

"Cleveland plan'

        In the early years, the orchestra began recording in 1924 and helped revolutionize music education in America with “the Cleveland plan.” Up to 50,000 children annually were prepared for children's concerts and their parents were offered music appreciation classes.

        With the expansion of the orchestra's concert schedule, the orchestra needed a permanent home. In 1929, with the country plunging into a Depression, the orchestra broke ground on Severance Hall. Although industrialist John L. Severance had lost much of his fortune on “Black Tuesday,” he contributed more than $2.6 million.

        Artur Rodzinski followed as music director, while musician salaries were cut to weather the recession.

        Erich Leinsdorf had perhaps the shortest tenure in history, when, months after his opening night in the 1943-44 season, he was drafted into the Army. (Among those helping out the orchestra in the interim was the CSO's Eugene Goossens.)

        While Mr. Leinsdorf was at war, another conductor began to vy for his post: George Szell. Mr. Rosenberg relates dramatically how letters poured into the Musical Arts Association demanding that Mr. Szell be hired. The chairman of the board compelled Mr. Leinsdorf to compose a letter of resignation — even before Mr. Szell was offered the job.

Brilliant and turbulent

        Mr. Szell built his orchestra with an iron will and a glare that could wither musicians, while critics “reached dizzying heights in their praise for the Cleveland Orchestra.”

        From 1964-70, Mr. Rosenberg reports, Mr. Szell helped develop the conducting gifts of a Cincinnati prodigy: James Levine, who arrived as a 20-year-old apprentice.

        The Szell years were brilliant and turbulent. They included international tours, hailed recordings, musician contract disputes, the 1967 ground-breaking for Blossom Music Center (an outdoor concert venue) and mounting deficits. In 1970, with Mr. Szell's health deteriorating — from exhaustion, fever and his first heart attack — the board was grappling with a $1.05 million operating deficit.

        After Mr. Szell's death in July 1970, the orchestra flirted for a decade (1972-82) with the flamboyant Lorin Maazel before settling on the distinguished, old-world musicianship of Christoph von Dohnanyi.

        In 1996, considered by many to be the best orchestra in the country, board president Richard J. Bogomolny cited a new threat: “We face the serious threat of complacency,” he told trustees. He launched a $100 million fund-raising campaign that would reap $115 million for the Severance Hall renovation, the endowment and operating support.

        Mr. Rosenberg completed his book just as the Cleveland Orchestra became the first of a dozen American orchestras to announce a music director in an unprecedented period of vacancies. Whether the Franz Welser-Most era will be recorded with the same wit and care will be the challenge of some future writer.

        The book includes wonderful photos, orchestra personnel lists (1918-2000), a list of premieres, a discography, extensive notes and a bibliography.

        To purchase The Cleveland Orchestra Story, call (800) 915-3609 or order online at or


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