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A century of making music at the Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art opened its doors in 1916 with an expansive visual art collection. Just two years after opening, the Cleveland Museum of Art began another (lesser-known) legacy when the New York Philharmonic performed there in 1918.

In 1922, Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, Douglas Moore, the museum’s curator of music, asked, “Is there not a real service that a museum may render to the community by offering a musical standard as well as a pictorial one?"

So began a century of the performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The museum’s performing arts series is a companion to the visual arts collection, said Cleveland Museum of Art Director of Performing Arts Tom Welsh.

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The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Orchestra performs at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011.

In 2009, Welsh wanted to build on the museum’s musical traditions when the Cleveland Museum of Art welcomed back visitors to the then freshly-renovated East Wing galleries.

"We all knew we wanted to have a celebration, and out of this came the idea to create ‘Solstice,’ which was in fact exactly that. It was a really fun, high energy night, sort of a spasm of love and music and energy and just a ton of fun. And we knew immediately that this should be, could be, an annual event," he said.

Following the success of “Solstice” on CMA’s front lawn, the museum took the live music to the streets with another summer program in 2013.

"We added a series called 'City Stages' and that is free to all, family friendly, outdoor world-class concert programming of bands from all over the planet,” Welsh said. “And that means close the roads, put up the beer tent, put a giant stage out there and welcome bands from all over Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean and have a fun-in-the-sun summertime night."

Despite more than a century of performing arts presented by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Welsh said something was missing.

“The one thing that our predecessors had not done was commission a new work at a high level,” Welsh said. “That is to say, of all the presenting institutions around the world one aspect of being a major force in the performing arts is to commission and create, or cause to create, new compositions. And the Cleveland Foundation came to us and said, ‘We'd like to explore that idea with you.’"

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Dave DeOreo
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Ideastream Public Media
Audience members listen to performance of Cenk Ergün's "Formare" in May 2019 at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The result is the Creative Fusion: Composers Series featuring a group of international composers from Japan, Italy, Serbia, Chicago, Africa and Turkey.

"So in a partnership, we organized a plan to invite six composers from all over the world to this museum with the idea that if we turn composers loose what would we get?" Welsh said.

One of the first composers to finish the commission is Cenk Ergün, a Turkish composer who's lived in the United States and Europe.

"I totally jumped at it,” Ergün said. “Tell any artist you can do whatever you want pretty much and we're going to fund it and we're going to produce it, we're going to make it happen…So of course, I totally jumped on it.”

In May 2019, Ergün premiered his piece - "Formare" - featuring a chamber choir, a children's choir, three harpsichords and four trombones. Performers spread throughout the immense space of the atrium allowing the audience to wander among them. It was unlike anything Ergün’s ever written.

"Most of the work I've created has been for the concert stage where all the performers are in one place and the sound is coming from one place,” Ergün said. “So that was actually the most important influence on how the piece took shape was the fact that it's in this space and the performers are several feet away from each other."

The museum relaunched its performing arts season earlier this year following a hiatus due to the pandemic.

The next performance in CMA's composers series is scheduled for later this year featuring the music of Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, inspired by a Byzantine masterpiece of the Madonna and Child.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.