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.

Adella Prentiss Hughes

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The link is here

HUGHES, ADELLA PRENTISS (29 Nov. 1869-23 Aug. 1950), best known as the founder of the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA, was born in Cleveland to Loren and Ellen Rouse Prentiss, graduated from Miss Fisher’s School for Girls in 1886, and from Vassar College in 1890 with a degree in music. After a grand tour of Europe, returning to Cleveland in 1891, she became a professional accompanist. Though successful in this role, Prentiss became interested in the broader aspects of musical promotion in Cleveland, and in 1898 began bringing various performers and orchestras to the city. By 1901, she was one of Cleveland’s major impresarios, regularly engaging orchestras to perform at GRAYS ARMORY. During the next 17 years she supplied the city with a series of musical attractions, including orchestras, opera, ballet, and chamber music. Seeing the need for a permanent orchestra, Hughes created the MUSICAL ARTS ASSN.. in 1915 from a nucleus of business and professional men to furnish support for her projects. It was through her influence that NIKOLAI SOKOLOFF† came to Cleveland. In 1918, she, Sokoloff, and the Musical Arts Assoc. joined forces to create the Cleveland Orchestra. She served as its first manager, holding that position for 15 years. She also held administrative positions in the Musical Arts Assoc. for 30 years, retiring in 1945 only to continue her philanthropic work. Adella Prentiss married Felix Hughes in 1904. The couple divorced in 1923.

The Cleveland Orchestra History (from Telarc)

Another brief history of the Cleveland Orchestra from Telarc, long a recording company for the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra

Long considered one of this country’s best symphony orchestras, The Cleveland Orchestra celebrated its 75th anniversary during the 1993-94 season. Under the leadership of its music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, it has won unanimous acclaim from music lovers and critics throughout the world. Its performances at home, on tour, and on recordings continually demonstrate the orchestra’s ranking among the handful of great international orchestras. In its artistic, educational and community programming, The Cleveland Orchestra consistently shows its commitment to the people of the city for which it is named.

Among the last of America’s major symphony orchestras to be created, The Cleveland Orchestra was founded in 1918 by Cleveland music patron Adella Prentiss Hughes. The new orchestra soon became the primary concern of the Musical Arts Association, a non-profit community organization that had been incorporated three years earlier to help facilitate the ongoing presentation of concerts by visiting ensembles.

The orchestra’s first concerts were given at Grays’ Armory in downtown Cleveland during the opening 1918-19 season, after which they were moved to Cleveland’s Masonic Auditorium. In 1931, Severance Hall opened as The Cleveland Orchestra’s permanent concert home. Located five miles east of downtown in Cleveland’s “University Circle” area, Severance Hall was built for the orchestra by industrialist/philanthropist John Long Severance. It is today considered one of the world’s finer music halls.

Russian-American Nikolai Sokoloff served as The Cleveland Orchestra’s first conductor and music director. During his tenure, Sokoloff initiated an extensive domestic touring schedule that included annual trips throughout the Midwest and special tours to Canada and Cuba. In January 1922, Sokoloff and the orchestra made their first concert appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Over the following decade, they appeared together annually there in the nation’s music capital, garnering favorable press for themselves and for their hometown of Cleveland.

Among early mandates handed to Sokoloff from Mrs. Hughes was the creation of a series of educational concerts for young people. These matinee concerts have continued up to the present day as an integral part of the orchestra’s music-making each season, and, to date, have helped to introduce nearly 3 million children to classical orchestral music.

Sokoloff also led the orchestra’s first commercial disc recording of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture and first radio broadcasts. By 1930, the orchestra’s recordings, radio broadcasts and tours were carrying the name of the city of Cleveland throughout the United States and Canada.

In 1933, Sokoloff was succeeded by Artur Rodzinski. Rodzinski remained with the orchestra for ten seasons and, amid many recordings and radio broadcasts, polished Sokoloff’s ensemble into one of America’s best symphony orchestras. Among highlights of his tenure was the presentation of 15 fully-staged opera productions at Severance Hall. Erich Leinsdorf served as music director from 1943 to 1946 although largely in absentia while serving in the United State armed forces during World War II.

In 1946, George Szell was named the orchestra’s fourth music director. Under Szell, the orchestra entered a new period of dramatic and sustained growth. The orchestra’s personnel was enlarged, eventually reaching 105 members, and the length of the season gradually grew from 30 to 52 weeks.

In 1948 Szell reinstituted annual Cleveland Orchestra performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and, in 1958, inaugurated the orchestra’s own yearly subscription series there. These annual appearances quickly helped to establish and then to confirm the ensemble’s place at the forefront of the musical world.

With Szell, the orchestra made its first international tours – to Europe (1957, 1965, 1967), and to Eastern Asia (1970) – and was widely acknowledged to be not only among America’s best but – for the first time – to be among the world’s handful of top orchestral ensembles. New series were also inaugurated or expanded to meet audience demand, and popular family programs and summer pops concerts were produced. In addition, the orchestra and Szell made numerous recordings of both classic and contemporary repertoire – recordings that today are regarded as “classic” of the LP era.

In 1952, Szell founded The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus to serve as the orchestra’s performing companion for choral works. This 170-voice volunteer choir was brought to early brilliance by Robert Shaw, the orchestra’s associate conductor from 1956-67, and has continued to join the orchestra in critically acclaimed concerts at home in Cleveland, on recordings and on tour.

The expansion of The Cleveland Orchestra’s performing schedule to a 52-week, year-round season was made possible in 1968 with the opening of Blossom Music Center. Located 25 miles south of Cleveland on 800 acres in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Blossom was conceived as both a summer home for the orchestra and as a regional performing arts center. Presentations at Blossom have included fully-staged ballet, musical and opera productions, as well as concerts by rock, pop and jazz artists.

Following George Szell’s death in 1970, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was appointed the orchestra’s musical advisor, a post he held through the end of the 1971-72 season. He and the orchestra made several prize-winning recordings during this time. In the fall of 1971, Lorin Maazel was appointed the orchestra’s fifth music director. His tenure began at the start of the 1972-73 season. Maazel continued The Cleveland Orchestra’s tradition of regular domestic and international touring, as well as recording activities with CBS, Decca/London and Telarc Records. Following a decade of achievement with The Cleveland Orchestra, Maazel resigned to accept the post of general manager and artistic director of the Vienna State Opera.

In March 1982, Christoph von Dohnanyi was named music director-designate and subsequently assumed his full-time duties with The Cleveland orchestra with the 1984-85 season. His contract was recently extended through the 1999-2000 season.

At home and on tour in the United States and abroad, the orchestra and Dohnanyi are today widely hailed as one of the world’s premier orchestra-conductor partnerships. Under Dohnanyi, The Cleveland Orchestra has become the most recorded orchestra in America.

The orchestra and Dohnanyi have made three concert tours to Eastern Asia (1987, 1990 and 1993) and four to Europe (1986, 1989, 1990 and 1992). The last two included performances at Austria’s prestigious Salzburg Festival, to which they returned in 1994 and will again in 1995. Their most recent Asian tour included performances of all nine Beethoven symphonies at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall.


Szell Was Musical Turning Point For City

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on May 5, 1996



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, May 5, 1996
Author: BOB RICH

Vienna-born Erich Leinsdorf was 31 when he replaced the dynamic Artur Rodzinski as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1943. He had been the boy wonder of the New York Metropolitan Opera when he caught the eye of Adella Prentiss Hughes, at 73 still a dominant force in Cleveland music.

The Cleveland Press stated that his appointment was a gamble “on talent, intelligence and youth rather than an established symphonic experience. …”

And Rodzinski was a tough act to follow. He had a loyal following and a national reputation. Board members who found Leinsdorf aloof or just plain brash were able to put off worrying about him when he was drafted into the Army in January 1944. By the time Leinsdorf was discharged and returned to Severance in the autumn of ’45, his musical world had turned upside down. Orchestral standards had dropped because of the effects of the draft, and this was blamed on the conductor – not the war.

There had been a great parade of guest conductors in Cleveland during those war years, but the turning point was Nov. 2, 1944, when a conductor named George Szell walked on stage and electrified the audience with a performance the likes of which no Clevelander had ever heard before.

In December, a second series of concerts of Beethoven, French and Russian music, followed by Brahms and Bartok, swept the audience, musicians and critics completely away.

One critic said, “This was surely not the same orchestra we have been listening to all season.” The Cleveland Press said, “Cleveland probably can have Mr. Szell, but on his terms and his terms only – absolute power!” Exactly. And when George Szell was made orchestra director in 1946, Cleveland’s whole musical world was changed forever.

Actually, the Szell legend had been forming earlier. He was born in Budapest in 1897 of Czech background, was a child prodigy who appeared in a public concert at the age of 11, and at 16 led the Vienna Philharmonic when the regular conductor fell ill. Szell was a conductor of a type that no longer exists: Philadelphia’s Ormandy, Boston’s Koussevitsky, NBC’s Arturo Toscanini – men with a commitment to their orchestras.

Szell was a pefectionist, a taskmaster who some feared, dictatorial, as demanding in rehearsal as on the concert stage – but just as demanding of himself. Legend has it that he transformed the orchestra with one rehearsal, saying. “There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors.” True or not, he definitely did say, “where others stop playing, we begin to rehearse.”

Somebody once said that “the Cleveland Orchestra plays six concerts a week and admits the public to the final two.”

His repertoire emphasized the classic and romantic periods, but he did the “modern classics” also, and was hardly the Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann captive that legend would have him.

It was once said he was his own worst enemy – until the Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing retorted, “Not as long as I’m alive!”

He would tell the musicians what color socks to wear, how to have their glasses adjusted, how to take a nap. He once fired a musician for driving too good a car and not spending enough on his violin. He ordered the stationery, approved record jackets, and checked the box-office receipts every morning, arriving ahead of the orchestra. He would rehearse the national anthem, “Happy Birthday,” a comedy routine with Jack Benny – all with equal intensity.

Szell lived to see the realization of his dream of a summer home for his orchestra when Blossom Music Center opened in 1968, built on 500 acres in the Cuyahoga River Valley halfway between Cleveland and Akron. He died July 30, 1970, when the orchestra under Pierre Boulez was playing a concert there, leaving a city stunned.

Harold Schonberg of the New York Times said, “The world of music will miss the authoritarian, profound George Szell, he of the perfect ear and flawless technique, the master of rhythm, balances, and textures, the creator of structure in sound. …” Time magazine said, “He demonstrated an unswerving aural vision of how music should sound … and the almost psychic power of leadership to make it sound that way. …”

Szell would say with pride of his Cleveland Orchestra, “That is how we make music in Cleveland!” To cities all over the world, Cleveland was known because of how the “Szell orchestra” made music.

Teaching Cleveland Digital