CLEVELAND, OH – When I visited Cleveland for the first time this past January, I wanted to figure out just how the Cleveland Orchestra - widely regarded as one of the best orchestras in the world - was able to subsist in this mid-tier Rust Belt city on the shores of Lake Erie. What I discovered was a community fiercely proud of it's world-class ensemble, and fully aware of its role as Cleveland's leading cultural ambassador. And the orchestra, far from languishing in obscurity, seemed to feed off of the attention. "There's something particular about this city," I said at the time, "without which the Cleveland Orchestra wouldn't be who they are. Call it pride, call it warmth, call it being a big fish in a small pond–whatever it is, it's for real."
I based that assessment primarily on a pair of concerts I heard at Severance Hall, the orchestra's historic 1931 home often acclaimed as "America's most beautiful concert hall." But in reality, Severance's beauty is decidedly old school, with an art deco motif that features powder blue seats, gilded ceilings and a marble-lined foyer. Not to mention the hall's location five miles east of downtown makes it difficult to get to in a city without reliable public transportation. Even if you have a car, nearby parking is grossly inadequate.
In spite of these challenges, the orchestra has managed to significantly increase its percentage of young concertgoers in recent years thanks to the Center for Future Audiences, which since 2010 has provided cheap and even free tickets to patrons under the age of 40. But, perhaps realizing that Severance Hall still feels out of reach for many Clevelanders, the orchestra took things a step further last season with their inaugural "At Home" program, performing in community centers and bars in the west side neighborhood of Gordon Square; the BBC broadcast a feature about the initiative last year.
While New Yorkers have been able to experience chamber music in bars for years now, the concept would seem to be a tougher sell in a place like Cleveland, where the watering holes are generally gritty, unassuming and the antithesis of trendy. Enter Sean Hatterson, owner of Gordon Square's Happy Dog bar and a driving force behind last year's "At Home" residency.
"The first couple of times we did this," Hatterson says, "our regular clientele would walk in and they'd have this startled look on their face. But, what we found is: it's great music, and these are some of the best in the world at doing it. And you don't have to know anything about classical music to form that connection. Great music is great music, and it just resonates."
So, when I heard that the Cleveland Orchestra would be repeating the "At Home" program this season in Lakewood - a quaint, middle class town about eight miles west of downtown - I decided to fly back to Cleveland to check it out for myself. I arrived in town late afternoon last Friday and drove straight to Vosh, a nightclub set amidst picture-perfect Craftsman houses and hardware stores on the western edge of Lakewood. Inside, the bar was packed with what looked to be a blend of typical concertgoers and curious happy hour patrons who were there to enjoy a little Brahms with their $3 pints of Burning River Pale Ale. Violinist Isabel Trautwein, cellist Tanya Ell, and pianist Carolyn Gadiel Warner played music by Brahms and Handel with warmth and crispness, followed by a trio of tangos by Astor Piazzolla. The crowd, which was so quiet you could hear your beer foam dissolving, exploded at the end in cheers and applause.
"It's survival for us," says Trautwein, who organized both the program and performance. "But, survival in a very happy way: to be going out where people are and playing our music." An hour later, the musicians - and many of the listeners - migrated over to Mahall's, a bowling alley-cum-music venue where the stage was located at the far end of a converted garage. There, Trautwein and Ell were joined by violinist Katherine Bormann and violist Sonja Braaten Molloy for quartets by Bach and others, interspersed with transcriptions of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and "Here Comes the Sun." In between, Trautwein kept things fun by asking the massive crowd dorky-but-cute trivia questions about the orchestra in exchange for T-shirts and concert tickets. As someone who enjoys chamber music, craft beer and sawdust on the floor - though rarely all at once - I was starting to feel right at home in Lakewood.
"It's certainly quirky that the orchestra came (to Lakewood)" said one listener. "But, it's also a really good fit. Lakewood's a very diverse place, so it just makes sense that they would choose a quirky place like Mahall's to have their residency." The next morning, I made my way back to Lakewood to hear Assistant Concertmaster Alexandra Preucil and cellist David Alan Harrell perform selections from Bartòk's duos for violin and cello at the Turkish American Cultural Center, located across the street from Mahall's. While Preucil, Harrell and Education Manager Sandra Jones demonstrated various string techniques, I was struck by sight of Turkish and white families all sitting and listening together, smiling and cheering. After the 1/2 hour performance, the children were invited to play a collection of keyboards, drums and wind instruments provided by the Lakewood-based Beck Center for the Arts; others stayed behind to have their pictures taken with Preucil and Harrell.
In all, the Cleveland Orchestra staged more than a dozen events throughout Lakewood over the course of the week, including appearances at local schools, hospitals, cafes and parks. Taking advantage of Lakewood's vintage architecture, the orchestra even hosted a "PORCHestra" on May 18, inviting local residents and businesses to perform on their front porches, followed by a concert by members of the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Youth Chorus on the porch of the Lakewood Public Library.
"The first year," Preucil said after the PORCHestra performance, "we were in some coffee shops, and I think I did a program for some school children. And, that was all really great. But now if you look around, the community is out and we're at people's houses, and it just feels much more personal."
The concluding event of the Lakewood residence was a performance by the entire Cleveland Orchestra with their Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium, located on the campus of Lakewood High School. Tickets for the concert, which were free, were all distributed within minutes of their release; by curtain time, nearly all of the auditorium's 1,800 seats seemed to be filled. Beforehand, I spoke to a married couple who were newcomers to classical music but could hardly contain their excitement - or surprise - about seeing one of the world's great orchestras perform in a high school auditorium. "It's just odd to see them here," they both said to me. As it turns out, the Cleveland Orchestra has a long connection with Lakewood that goes back to its earliest days. The orchestra first performed at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium in 1920 - the orchestra's second season - and would continue performing there regularly for the next six decades. But, along a pair of student concerts in March and May, these were the orchestra's first Lakewood appearances in nearly thirty years.Given the generosity of the orchestra's gesture and the logistics involved to get them all to Lakewood, it feels petty to quibble about the auditorium's less-than-ideal acoustics, or Welser-Möst's uninspiring program, which consisted of Richard Strauss' Don Juan (featuring concertmaster William Preucil), Ferdinand David's Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra (with soloist Massimo La Rossa), and a bunch of Strauss waltzes. And, the standing ovation from the audience afterward was heartfelt and impossible to ignore. But, I couldn't help feeling the concert would have resonated even more had they performed music that was more meaningful or appropriate to the occasion, something that reflected the down-home nature of Lakewood. Copland's Appalachian Spring? Dvoràk's "New World" Symphony? Or, maybe something by an Ohio composer?Roger Mastroianni
But, I'm willing to cut them even more slack, considering this was the orchestra's second perfomance of the day. Earlier that afternoon, I ventured across town to Severance Hall to hear their startling new production of Janáček's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, in the fourth and final performance of the season. Conducted by Welser-Möst and directed by Yuval Sharon, it was one of the most astonishing blends of technology and musicianship that I've ever seen. Specifically, the combination of animation projected behind the stage (produced by L.A.'s Walter Robot Studios) and live singers proved to be a brilliant way to transpose Janáček's fantastical opera about a pair of foxes and the humans they encounter to the limitations of a concert stage. (Zach Woolfe covers the finer points of the production in his glowing Times review.)Roger Mastroianni
It remains to be seen if all of the planning and expense that went into the Cleveland Orchestra's Lakewood residency will have any lasting impact on concert attendance in Cleveland, be it at Severance Hall or the orchestra's summer residency at the Blossom Music Center. But, as much as I'm sure the Cleveland Orchestra's administration would love to demonstrate the financial benefits of these kinds of outreach programs, there are other, more lasting rewards that can't be measured on a chart or a spreadsheet, as Lakewood resident Nancy Shular reminds us in this video following the PORCHestra event.
"Maybe this will be the start of something. Maybe we can get the same thing together on another Sunday afternoon. Doesn't have to be an orchestra; you don't have to be a professional. But, maybe we have some people hiding right here on this street who can play an instrument. I don't play an instrument, but I can cook. So, if I can bake something and lure them, and we can start something, I think it would be great."