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Art Deco plus acoustics: Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra (photo: James G. Milles via Flickr)

America got its first orchestra in 1842 and waited almost 40 years for another. The New York Philharmonic, a players’ cooperative, struggled to cope with capitalism in the raw and a flood of unchecked immigration. It did not begin to thrive until Andrew Carnegie opened his glittering hall.

America’s fourth-largest city was next, in 1880. The St Louis Symphony, rolling in Mississippi river profits, really got things going. It was swiftly followed by the Boston Symphony (1881), Detroit (1887), Chicago (1891), Cincinnati (1895) and Philadelphia (1900) — by which time St Louis, preparing to host the Olympic Games, had proved that an orchestra was a prime emblem of civic prosperity, ambition and civilisation. Soon, every town wanted one.

By the middle of the 20th century, the US accounted for half the world’s symphony orchestras, decked out in more flavours than Heinz (who paid for Pittsburgh’s). There was shameless razzmatazz from “the fabulous Philadelphians”, surgical precision at George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra, modern music commissioned by Boston and Louisville, rampant charisma from Bernstein’s New York and naked power from Solti’s Chicago. On tour, American orchestras took Europe by storm.

But by the end of the century the boom went bust. The subscription audience greyed and died; the next generation found other distractions. America’s growing minorities resented European culture and shunned the concert hall. Programming got safe and stale, managers were stubbornly white, and musicians, fearful of a shrinking future, demanded greater security. In 2000, the Chicago Symphony broke the bank with a $100,000 starting wage for new players, fresh out of college. The writing could be read on my wall (though hardly at all in US media).

The crash of 2008 drove several orchestras out of business and prompted others to resort to the raw capitalist remedy of locking out musicians without wages or health insurance until they accepted lower compensation. In the worst collision, the Minnesota Orchestra starved its musicians for 16 months until local worthies and a loyal conductor, Osmo Vänskä, forced a board retreat and the sacrifice of a meek English president, Michael Henson (the meeker the manager the more presidential his title).

So when the League of American Orchestras (LAO) went into its annual convention in Cleveland this spring it was in subdued and introspective mood, concerned not to rock a listing boat, exercising a flummery of euphemisms by which every problem is a challenge, every steep decline a temporary setback.

As a guest speaker, I was struck by the forced smiles of wilful denial — and even more struck by the absence of musicians. Not one conductor, not one principal player, was invited (or agreed) to address the heads of their industry. Like Britain in the 1970s American orchestras exist in a collective mindset of them and us. The realism that I offered was respectfully received and politely declined.

At night, I attended the Cleveland Orchestra, an irrational extravagance. Cleveland, a rustbelt town deserted by one-fifth of its population in the past decade, sinking below 400,000, has no right to own an orchestra of world quality and renown — or so the industry wisdom goes. After 2008, insiders foretold its demise. Since then, the orchestra has gone from strength to strength, with winter residencies in Miami and summers at Europe’s elite festivals. Abroad, Cleveland has outshone every other US orchestra, bar perhaps the LA Phil.

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Robert Howe
July 18th, 2015
11:07 PM
Mr Robert Levine, the opinions of acousticians as to the finest halls are irrelevant. A hall exists for musicians and audiences. By dint of fabulous luck I have had the great fortune in the space of two years to hear major orchestras at Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Carnegie New York, La Scala Milan, Mechanic Hall in Worcester MA, Boston's Symphony Hall, Avery Fisher in NYC and Severance in Cleveland. I have heard multiple concerts at all except La Scala. I would rank them as La Scala, Mechanic, Symphony Hall, Concertgebouw, Severance, Carnegie, Fisher. I base this on overall quality of orchestral sound, ability to hear inner voices clearly, ability to be transported by the beauty of sound and effect. How fortunate is the Boston Symphony, whose members get to play regularly in thier own home and in Carnegie!

Celeste Wroblewski
June 29th, 2015
3:06 PM
Thank you for the coverage of the League of American Orchestras' recent conference. I wish to correct for the record that as announced well in advance and as in years past, there were a number of musicians and conductors who led and participated in sessions, including but not limited to the opening plenary session, which featured cellist Alisa Weilerstein on the panel, and the closing plenary, which featured Daniel Bernard Roumain, composer and performer; Delta David Gier, Music Director, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra; and Joshua Smith, Principal Flute, Cleveland Orchestra, among others on the panel. Additionally, musicians and conductors led and participated in elective and constituency group sessions. Celeste Wroblewski, Vice President for Strategic Communications, League of American Orchestras

June 26th, 2015
9:06 PM
The Cleveland Orchestra has survived by a business plan which intentionally drains the resources from other communities to bolster the lack of revenue in its own community. There is no question that Cleveland is a great orchestra with a venerable history. However, it is unconscionable to enter into a community and raise funds in excess of what is needed for the "residency" to bolster the overall bottom line of the organization, and not contribute in a substantive way to the community as a whole.

June 26th, 2015
7:06 PM
Someone mentioned the acoustic of Disney Hall in LA. I agree that it sounds excellent. But LA Phil is still kind of far from refined playing. Musicians have great skills but they are often not good at controlling their volume. The way they play Mahler could remind you how great skill you need to get rid of LA 's daily messy traffic jam.

June 26th, 2015
1:06 PM
Nice writing -- terrible outcome! Many of the characteristics of Cleveland are really much better defined as attributes of North American orchestras in general. This really didn't have to be written at the expense of a long list of orchestras going through the same industry changes and meeting those changes with extremely innovative solutions. But the great hall line specifically: how about Carnegie, Disney, Dallas, University of Illinois, Kansas (wow), Boston, etc; and Europe: Lucerne, Hamburg, Berlin, etc.

Larry Tyler
June 26th, 2015
1:06 PM
So...please help me to understand. Mr. Lebrecht, attending this recent League conference really likes the Cleveland Orchestra. He doesn’t much like Chicago or Seattle however and the accuracy of Mr. Lebrecht's seemingly random Chicago and Seattle bashing is contra-indicated by both Chicago's multiple decade commitment to robustly maintaining a culture of excellence among rank and file musicians and orchestral soloists alike and also by Seattle's recent qualitative ascendance as demonstrated by their six Grammy nominations and more directly, in their keynote concert at last year's League conference, which featured not rap, but quite beautiful performances of Ravel and Dutilleux. As for the dreaded "sexist""frivolity" that occurred when Sir Mix-a-lot appeared with Gabriel Prokofiev in a bonus event at the Seattle League conference, it was clearly a risky adventure set in a cultural time and space where all endeavors are measured through a race and social justice lens. Successfully barrier-breaking or culturally abhorrent, we each may choose, but this type of concert is not one that Mr. Lebrecht will encounter when he and Mr. Hanson sit down next to enjoy the terrific music making of the Cleveland Orchestra.

June 26th, 2015
3:06 AM
And dare anyone mention the acoustics of Disney Hall in DTLA. Everyone has their own idea of an ideal acoustic, and all those mentioned are very good. And some of the orchestras that even play in them are good. But to not even mention the LA Phil in Disney Hall in these comments means no one has traversed the Mississippi River in way too long. And there is no more prideful orchestra in America than the one in LA.

Nick Georgalis
June 26th, 2015
2:06 AM
Apart from the socialist claptrap the article is an apt tribute to a great orchestra, a great hall, and good management. Also John L. Severance inherited his money from his father Louis, who worked for the greatest capitalist of all John D. Rockefeller. He was not into iron ore as this reporter erroneously states. By the way I was a student of physics professor Dr. Robert Shankland at Case Institute of Technology during the 1960's. Dr. Shankland worked with George Szell to improve the acoustics at Severance Hall. Dr. Shankland was a world renown physicist and he is the reason that Severance Hall has such great acoustics.

Robert Levine
June 25th, 2015
8:06 PM
I've been at the last few League conferences as a musician (principal player, even) and also a League board member. There have been musician speakers at general sessions at every conference I've been to, as best I can recall. I've even spoken at plenary session on a couple of occasions, and have been on panels on several others - as have other musicians, both Board members and others. All the acousticians I've read on the subject are in universal agreement that the top three halls in the world are Vienna, Amsterdam, and Boston. Severance is a wonderful hall, but none of the professionals seem to believe it's at that level.

Norman Lebrecht
June 25th, 2015
7:06 PM
Joshua, you're absolutely right: I was on the way to Chicago by then and no personnel details had been posted for the closing session. But the point I make still stand: no musician was asked to address a plenary session of the LOA - the heads of the industry - on the major issues affecting us all.

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