A Strong Will Gave Birth to Cleveland Orchestra

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on April 28, 1991



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, April 28, 1996
Author: BOB RICH

Everything was up to date in Cleveland when the Cleveland Orchestra gave its first performance at Grays Armory on Dec. 11, 1918, under the baton of Nikolai Sokoloff – exactly one month after the armistice ending World War I. 

According to the local papers, you could buy a Cadillac that could make it to the West Coast in 11 days. No price was mentioned – after all, Cadillac buyers shouldn’t ask. Men’s madras shirts at the May Co. were $1.85, flannel shirts $5. The Winton Hotel’s Rainbow Room and the Statler Hotel were advertising for New Year’s Eve parties. Shubert’s Colonial Theater was staging David Belasco’s “The Wanderer,” with a company of 125, a ballet of 50, and a flock of sheep! 

But if you could afford the 25-cent admission price, the young, Russian-born conductor gave you a little shot of everything, opening with Victor Herbert, going on to Bizet, Tchaikovsky and Liadov, and closing with Liszt. 

The gods and the critics were smiling on the orchestra that night. James Rogers, The Plain Dealer critic, found it “of excellent quality,” and Sokoloff “a leader of capacity and resources. He hitches his chariot to a star.” Wilson Smith of the Cleveland Press said delightedly, “Cleveland has at last a symphony orchestra.” 

It hadn’t been an easy start-up. Only the determination of a very strong-willed lady, Adella Prentiss Hughes, would be able to take a grimy, brawling industrial town and turn it into a city that would someday be renowned as a music center. 

Her timing was good – the conservative Euclid Ave. industrial elite were ready to pour their money back into the community. Cleveland had overtaken Cincinnati to become the largest city in Ohio, but it wasn’t in the same class, culturally speaking. The Queen City had been manufacturing pianos as far back as 1820, had established a Conservatory of Music in 1867 and founded its symphony in 1895. 

By contrast, the most important building in Cleveland was the Standard Oil Co.’s Refinery No. 1. 

It took Hughes many years of fund-raising, of booking subscription concerts with the help of her philanthropist friends, of hiring a talented young conductor and local musicians. And then, when all was finally ready by September of 1918, everything fell apart when a killer flu struck. 

“What war with all its terrors could not accomplish has yet been brought to pass,” wrote The Plain Dealer. “Not Germans, but microbes have put the music-makers to flight.” Schools and colleges shut their doors; public gatherings were forbidden. But the plague lifted, and so did Cleveland’s spirits that December night in 1918. 

Then the promotion started; Hughes and Sokoloff wanted to reach the whole family, children and businessmen. The string quartet went to public concerts and private musicales; recordings were made on the Brunswick label and broadcast on WTAM Radio. They held music memory contests for schoolchildren, pioneered in public school concerts. The orchestra was proclaimed a force for Americanization, and a women’s committee was organized that went after the suburbs; the audiences grew. 

Hard-sell ads were run: “If you have civic pride, patronize our Cleveland Orchestra.” Popular programs were described in a 1923 ad as “pre-eminently concerts for the businessman.” Another said, “Next Sunday at Masonic Hall you can hear 90 artists for the price of a ticket to a movie. Don’t you want to hear a Strauss waltz, familiar opera selections, a lovely soloist, and a gorgeous orchestral piece that describes a battle? … All this for 50 cents?” 

By the time the orchestra’s brand-new Severance Hall opened its doors in February 1931, musical director Sokoloff was becoming an increasingly lonely figure up on his new podium. The maestro was caught between pleasing established conservative tastes and trying to showcase new American and European composers. And then he was a little old-fashioned with his high collars, his flamboyant, theatrical method of conducting. 

One glimpse into his character: In 1930 he had contributed $100 to the cause of repealing Prohibition, whereupon Billy Sunday denounced him from the pulpit of the Euclid Ave. Baptist Church as a “dirty foreigner” for attempting to overthrow Prohibition. Sokoloff promptly doubled his contribution. But the old optimism was gone from this workingman’s city, where the Depression had thrown many thousands out of work. 

The plaintive tune, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” said more about Cleveland’s musical tastes than anything the maestro could whip up on the stage. When his contract wasn’t renewed in 1932, the loyal Hughes stepped down as orchestra manager, but stayed with the Musical Arts Association, which runs the orchestra, until she died in 1950. 

The man who took over the baton was Artur Rodzinski, who came to Cleveland at the peak of his career. He was 41, charming, sophisticated, and had more talent than he had the self-discipline to control. But for all the uproar the maestro created during his 10-year stay, he brought national artistic stature to the orchestra and city.


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