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The Cleveland Orchestra and Bruckner's Eighth Symphony

The Cleveland Orchestra musicians prepare for Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 as one of the cameras zoom in for a shot.

 

In my very first blog post, I referenced the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the most iconic symbols of Cleveland. And it’s no wonder. As 52 Weeks of Cleveland recently put it, it’s a diamond dazzling in the blue-collar-rock-and-roll grit that makes this city great, sticking out ‘not like a sore thumb but as the building that is unmistakably Cleveland.’   

However, on the other side of the musical spectrum, there’s another landmark in Cleveland that’s both a must-see and a must-hear — The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall.  Last Wednesday, Scott and I had the chance to attend the Orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony for a series of dvd recordings. The night definitely ranks up there as one of my favorite Cleveland experiences.   

Outside of Severance Hall (photo from clevelandorchestra.com)

 

Severance Hall, the winter home of the Cleveland Orchestra, has been described as ‘a temple to music’ and America’s most beautiful concert hall.  The detailing of the hall’s interior reminds me of a Faberge Egg and the acoustics are world-renowned.  From the day Severance Hall opened in 1931 through its renovations and reopening in 2000, it has helped shape The Cleveland Orchestra into one of the most sought-after performing ensembles in the world.  In concerts at Severance Hall, each summer as part of Cleveland’s Blossom Festival, in residencies from Miami to Vienna, and on tour around the world, The Cleveland Orchestra sets the standard for artistic excellence, imaginative programming, and community engagement.   

Franz Welser-Möst just completed his eighth year as the Orchestra’s Music Director – a long-term commitment which extends to the Orchestra’s centennial season in 2018.   Under his leadership, The Cleveland Orchestra has not only developed Community Music Initiatives in Cleveland, but has carried the city’s name across the world with ongoing residencies in Miami, at Vienna’s famed Musikverein hall and Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival.  Next year, they’ll also launch a biennial residency at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, featuring The Cleveland Orchestra in Vienna State Opera productions.   

In addition to making an impact through live performances in Cleveland and abroad, Welser-Möst has promoted the Orchestra’s legacy through a series of DVD and CD recordings.  Last week’s recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony was the latest installment in this endeavor.  In total, the Orchestra has recorded four Bruckner symphonies in historic, architecturally significant and acoustically acclaimed concert venues: Symphony No. 5 in Austria’s Abbey of St. Florian, Symphonies No. 7 and 8 in Severance Hall, and Symphony No. 9 in Vienna’s Musikverein. Hailing from the Austrian town of Linz – the same hometown as Bruckner, Welser-Möst developed an early love for the 19th century composer which clearly shows through his astute understanding and beautiful execution of Bruckner’s works.   

Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Möst (photo from clevelandorchestrablog.com)

 

Bruckner’s works are not always the favorite of musicians – often misunderstood due to the effect his manic need for revisions had on his compositions.  However, Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra is helping the public rediscover the beauty of these pieces by sharing the discoveries they’ve made themselves while performing. As Welser-Möst explained before the concert, Symphony No. 8 has an interesting backstory that lends itself to a deeper appreciation.  Written between 1884 and 1887, the original composition was initially criticized by Hermann Levi, a court conductor that Bruckner respected. Because of this, Bruckner spent years making substantial cuts and changes which have been considered concessions to others’ expectations and arguably weakened the piece.    

Welser-Möst cited an example of these revisions which can be found in the first movement. Towards the end of the movement, the symphony transitions into a section that represents the ticking down of one’s life.  In the original version, there was a dynamic section that signified a fighting back against the inevitabilty of death.  However, this section ended up being removed in the revised version, with the first movement instead just winding down softly. The original version of Symphony No. 8 remained unperformed until 1954 and was not published until 1972 by Leopold Nowak. It’s the longer – and arguably richer – Nowak version that The Cleveland Orchestra performed for the DVD recording.   

Audience members who arrived early had the opportunity to sit in on a concert preview.  During the preview, Dee Perry of WCPN’s Around Noon interviewed Welser-Möst and William Cosel, the Producer-Director of the DVD recording. This was a very interesting conversation, shedding more light on Bruckner’s personality as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the actual recording.    

Welser-Möst spoke about how Bruckner’s musical genius suffered from his insecurities and second-guessing.  He additionally remarked on Bruckner as a composer with one leg in the traditional, religious-inspired style of his century and the other leg in the more contemporary influences of the next generation.  Both Welser-Möst and Cosel shared a glimpse into how they prepared for the recording. Welser-Möst discussed the evolution of The Orchestra’s performance and how certain musicians admitted that it wasn’t until they performed the symphony in a particular space in Austria that they finally ‘got’ Bruckner’s style.  Cosel spoke to the months of research needed to prepare the recording, in addition to introducing the various camera crew hidden throughout the Hall.   

Norton Memorial Organ at Severance Hall

 

Bookending the interview were two performances by Joela Jones, the principal keyboardist of The Cleveland Orchestra.  Jones performed Prelude in F major and Variations on ‘America’, both by Charles Ives.  Both pieces were performed on Severance Hall’s Norton Memorial Organ. which was built specifically for the Hall by renowned organ builder Ernest M. Skinner in 1930. Welser-Möst noted that Ives was an outcast among his colleagues – much like Bruckner was during his time. This idea of outcast could be seen in his Variations on ‘America’ which took a slightly wry look at the patriotic anthem and twisted it in unexpected ways that both challenged the listener and respected the source material.  It was a nice contrast to the Bruckner piece.   

If Producer-Director Cosel’s past experience is any indication, the recording of Symphony No. 8 will be well worth the purchase. However, nothing compares to sitting in Severance Hall and not just listening to but closely watching the musicians. It always amazes me to see how artfully they interpret a composition.  And the live performance brings a certain level of drama that isn’t always seen in a recording.     

An unexpected highlight of my evening was seeing a minor incident arise when a string on Assistant Concertmaster Yoko Moore’s violin snapped. [Editor’s Note: see correction in comments section below. It was actually Concertmaster Preucil’s string who broke fixed by Moore – makes more sense in retrospect.]  In past performances, Moore has consistently been one of my favorite musicians to watch as she brings a laser focus and intensity to her performance. However, this focus was moreso evident when she had to restring and retune her instrument in the middle of a movement. I’ve never played the violin and Scott has explained to me that this happens frequently with it; regardless, I was still on the edge of my seat as it unfolded.  She impeccably restrung the violin and, in a moment of silent communication that can only come from a strong relationship with a colleague, seamlessly switched instruments with Concertmaster William Preucil who finished the retuning process.  It only took them moments, but the intense thrill of witnessing this play out while the symphony roared around them was remarkable.   

Two days after last week’s recordings, The Cleveland Orchestra set off on their summer tour of Europe. They return on August 30 after nine concerts in six cities. While they’re gone, concerts at Blossom Music Festival continue including Disney in Concert, Canadian Brass Ensemble, and The Joffrey Ballet.  And at the end of September, the Orchestra returns to start the 2010-2011 season. Subscriptions and tickets are available to experience the talents of Welser-Möst and the musicians, and I definitely recommend it.   

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