The CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA is one of the premier orchestras in the world, joining ensembles from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago to compose the generally acknowledged "Big Five" of American symphonic music. Debuting on 11 Dec. 1918 the Orchestra’s first concert was a benefit for St. Ann's Parish of CLEVELAND HEIGHTS at GRAY'S ARMORY. The musical personnel recruited for that concert, including NIKOLAI SOKOLOFF as conductor, went on to form the core of a permanent Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of ADELLA PRENTISS HUGHES and the MUSICAL ARTS ASSOCIATION. During the 1920s the Orchestra built a firm base of local support, performing at Gray’s Armory, Masonic Auditorium (now Masonic Temple and Performing Arts Center), PUBLIC AUDITORIUM and (the adjacent) Music Hall. The Orchestra also began to achieve broader notice through travels in Ohio, the East Coast, Canada and Cuba. It performed in New York City in 1921 and 1922 at Manhattan’s Hippodrome Theatre and Carnegie Hall, respectively. The Orchestra’s first radio broadcast also happened in 1922 and in 1924 its first recording was released: a shortened version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Substantial gifts from Mr. and Mrs. JOHN L. SEVERANCE helped the Musical Arts Assn. to build a permanent home, SEVERANCE HALL, at Euclid Ave. and E. Blvd. in UNIVERSITY CIRCLE. The Cleveland Orchestra inaugurated it in 1931. Year-round performances became a reality in 1968 with the opening of Blossom Music Center.
Succeeding Adella Prentiss Hughes, Carl Vosburgh served as general manager from 1933 to 1955 and played a significant role in establishing the Orchestra's national prominence. Vosburgh was succeeded by William McKelvey Martin who served from 1955 to 1957. A. Beverly Barksdale became general manager in 1957, during which time the Orchestra began its rise to international prominence under conductor GEORGE SZELL. Subsequent general managers were Michael Maxwell (1970-1976), Kenneth Haas (1976-1987), Thomas W. Morris (1987-2003), Gary Hanson (2004-2015) and Jennifer Barlament (2015-2016). Since 2017 Cleveland Orchestra management has been overseen by André Gremillet, president & CEO.
Current conductor Franz Welser-Möst became the Orchestra's seventh musical director at the beginning of the 2002-2003 season. Welser-Most's six predecessors were Nikolai Sokoloff (1918-1933), ARTUR RODZINSKI (1933-1943), Erich Leinsdorf (1943-1946), George Szell (1946-1970), Lorin Maazel (1972-1982) and Christoph von Dohnanyi (1984-2002). Robert Shaw served as the Orchestra's associate conductor from 1956-1967, charged by George Szell with revitalizing the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. It was under Szell's musical direction that the Orchestra undertook an extensive series of foreign tours that greatly enhanced its international reputation. Maazel and Dohnanyi continued the tours while expanding the Orchestra's commercial recording work. Under Dohnanyi, a tradition of operatic productions dating from the days of Rodzinski in the 1930s was revived, culminating in concert performances of Wagner's Die Walküre and Das Rheingold at Severance Hall in 1992 and 1993. In 1992 the Cleveland Orchestra became the first American orchestra to establish a residency at Austria's Salzburg Festival, with regular performances there from 1990-1996. The Orchestra reopened Severance Hall in 2000 after completion of a two-year, $36 million renovation and restoration project overseen by architect David Schwartz. In 2007 the Orchestra began an annual program of residency performances and educational activities in Miami, FL., arranged through the city’s Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. The program is now (2020) entering its 14th year.
Education has been a major facet of the Cleveland Orchestra's work since its inception and has involved, among other activities, hundreds of concerts for local schoolchildren. More than 4 million children have been entertained since the ensemble’s first children’s concert in 1921 (at Masonic Auditorium).
In addition to revenues from tours, local ticket sales and recordings, the Cleveland Orchestra is bolstered by a $206 million endowment (as of 2020). Large contributions have come from corporate, government and foundation grants.
After 100 years the Cleveland Orchestra continues to receive the plaudits it clearly deserves. In 1994 Time magazine called the Orchestra “The Best Band in the Land." In 2012 Gramophone Magazine ranked it number 7 on its list of the world's greatest orchestras. In 2018 The New York Times declared that Cleveland has "a plausible claim to being the best in America." In 2020 The New York Times once again proclaimed it "America's finest [orchestra], still."
Updated by Christopher Roy
Last updated: 12/28/2020
Grossman, F. Karl. A History of Music in Cleveland (1972).
Marsh, Robert. The Cleveland Orchestra (1967).
Musical Arts Assoc. Archives, Severance Hall.
Witchey, Holly Rarick. The Fine Arts in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (1994).