Ode to My Cleveland: You Can Go Home Again

The extent to which a symphony orchestra gains its identity from the qualities of its hall has always been a fascinating question. Did the Philadelphia Orchestra develop its plush sound to compensate for the dryness of the Academy of Music? Has the complacency that sometimes seems to have settled over the Boston Symphony been encouraged, perversely, by the exceptional natural resonance of Symphony Hall? Would the New York Philharmonic sound more consistently lustrous in a hall less cold than Avery Fisher?

One reason why the Cleveland Orchestra has developed the finest ensemble sense of balance and precision among American orchestras is undoubtedly the intimacy, clarity and elegance of Severance Hall, which it has occupied since 1931. My first concertgoing experience, back in the 1940′s, was hearing George Szell and the Cleveland in this jewel box of an auditorium, and my musical ideals were forever set by listening to Mozart, Brahms and Prokofiev played with such luminous transparency that you felt you were holding the sound in your hands, like a crystal ball.

The brilliance of Severance’s acoustics was matched by its appearance. Behind a classical Georgian facade chosen to complement the neighboring Cleveland Museum of Art was an interior that sumptuously mixed Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Egyptian Revival and Modernism. From its beginning, the Cleveland Orchestra has had a strong educational mission, and as a child I marveled over the “story” of music’s origins in ancient times as depicted in a haunting series of murals that lined the richly marbled main foyer.

The auditorium itself was Mozartian in feeling: “masculine” blue velvet furniture and soaring vertical pilasters softened by “feminine” rounded corners and a wonderful leaf-patterned ceiling taken from the wedding dress of the wife of the hall’s principal donor John Long Severance. In 1958, George Szell, that arch-perfectionist among conductors, ordered the construction of a new, blandly modernistic stage shell. The acoustics were vastly improved, but the hall’s visual harmony was destroyed.

Four decades later, the orchestra had become one of the world’s three or four most admired symphony ensembles, but Severance Hall was badly in need of a face lift, as well as enlarged administrative space and facilities for its fanatically loyal patrons. Spurring the need for a major renovation and expansion was a long-held desire of the current music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, to restore and relocate the hall’s immense organ, which had resided, unused, high above the stage. Maestro Dohnanyi wanted to install the instrument at the rear of the stage, such that the most splendid of its 6,025 pipes would form a backdrop to the orchestra, as is the case in so many traditional European concert halls.

I hate even to imagine the Sturm und Drang that such an undertaking would have provoked in one of our major concert halls, but in Cleveland, where the orchestra is as central to the city’s self-esteem as its baseball and football teams, the necessary $36 million was raised with the flick of a finger, and the whole project was completed on time-within two years-and on budget. I went out to see the results at the reopening celebration a couple of weekends ago, and came away feeling prouder than I would have felt if the Indians had won the World Series, and cheered by the discovery that, at least in this much revived metropolis on Lake Erie, municipal “improvement” does not necessarily spell esthetic disaster.

In the course of a dinner for visiting journalists at the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (which struck me as more a monument to civic chutzpah than to the museum-resistant legacies of Elvis, Dylan et al.), the principal players in the renovation spoke eloquently about the rather mystifying, but very real hocus-pocus involved in such an undertaking. The orchestra’s executive director, Thomas W. Morris, expressed his old-fashioned-and utterly correct-belief in the elusive connection between what you hear in a concert hall and what you see. The project’s architect, David M. Schwarz, talked about the challenge of creating a new stage shell that would look seamlessly continuous with the rest of the auditorium-”like an alcove off a room.” And the chief acoustician, Christopher Jaffe, discussed the delicate business of how he lengthened the hall’s reverberation time for greater warmth, while trying to preserve the nearly 70 years of “musical memory” stored within its walls.

The proof of their efforts arrived at a gala concert the following night when a crowd of exceedingly well-heeled Clevelanders in evening dress took their places in the 2,200-seat auditorium in relative darkness. Suddenly, all the interior lights were turned on, and a collective gasp of astonishment filled the hall. It was, indeed, all of a piece-the stage a dazzling Art Deco extension of the room we were sitting in, with a billowing, bejeweled canopy of an acoustical ceiling such as Fabergé himself might have contrived. The program, under Maestro Dohnanyi’s baton, was a motley assortment devised to show off the hall’s range of resources-from a mercifully brief fanfare, “Sonance Severance 2000,” by the cacophony-crazed British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to a blood-stirring warm bath, Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger , Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” in which the violin soloist, concertmaster William Preucil, successfully tested the hall’s capacity for ethereal pianissimos, György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” a showpiece of glacial modulations by 56 strings, and Ravel’s kaleidoscopic “Suite No. 2 From Daphnis and Chloé,” which demonstrated the dawn-shattering clarity of the woodwind section and, in particular, the breathtaking lyricism of the young principal flutist, Joshua Smith. Earlier that day, Maestro Dohnanyi had told me that it would be some time before he and the orchestra could achieve a “full tuning” of the hall, especially since the great organ was still being refurbished by its manufacturer, the renowned Ohio firm of E.M. Skinner. But there was no question that, whatever else had been enhanced by the renovation, the sheer, almost strobe-lit presence of this orchestra in its venerable home was as overwhelming as ever.

For me, the highlight of the evening came when the Clevelanders launched into a piece so familiar that I cringed when I saw it listed on the program. Unless my memory is playing tricks, I first heard the orchestra in Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, No. 1, Op. 25, during my very first visit to Severance Hall back in 1948 or thereabouts. Still in short pants, I had sat there somewhere in the balcony, delighted with my ability to pick out which instruments were playing what, as they joined the courtly chase. For the first time in my life, I had that sense of having entered a new, magically whole universe which only music can induce. Now, more than 50 years later, I was having the same experience all over again-the experience of feeling blessed.