Sounds and Reflections from The Cleveland Orchestra's First Rehearsal in 16 Months
Classical music has returned to Northeast Ohio after more than a year of silence.
The Cleveland Orchestra held its first live, in-person performances Independence Day weekend, with two evening concerts on July 3 and 4.
The summer concert series started with a bang, as the patriotic music was accompanied by fireworks.
The orchestra was forced to cancel its planned concert seasons at Severance Hall in 2020 and early 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many performers, the organization embraced technology and kept classical music lovers engaged with its “In Focus” digital concert series last year.
But it had been months since its 100-plus members performed for a public audience.
Earlier this year, the orchestra announced it would return to the stage for outdoor concerts at its summer home, Blossom Music Center.
The Cleveland Orchestra will continue the summer concerts weekly with its next program, “The Great American Songbook,” July 18.
Picking up where they left off
The first time the world-renowned orchestra was back together to rehearse for its July 4 weekend concerts.
Former Cleveland Orchestra associate conductor Brett Mitchell led the program, serving as guest conductor.
At the opening of its first rehearsal, Mitchell addressed the orchestra as it prepared to play “Soul of Remembrance” by Mary D. Watkins.
“Do we want to do nothing but ‘sis boom bah’ right now, or do we want to acknowledge why we have not been together for the last 16 months? So, that’s why we’re going to do this piece,” Mitchell said.
He addressed the orchestra, stating that it would play in commemoration of the 600,000 Americans who died from the coronavirus and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020.
“The whole piece is called ‘Five Movements in Color,’” he said. “It’s supposed to be a statement about the African-American experience. And this is the second movement.”
He said the piece is bittersweet is and nostalgic. It’s a song of sorrow and hope.
"What I’ve really thought about is not primarily making music. It’s primarily everybody being together again and what that feels like."
Mitchell said although so much has happened in the last year and the orchestra had not joined together to play music in some time, it was able to pick back up right where it left off for the rehearsal.
“Have they not played together, all of them, for 16 months? Yes, that’s true. And how long did it take before everything locked back in? I don’t know, 90 seconds or something like that,” he said.
Mitchell said seeing the clarinet players sitting together in a row, without social distancing, was a big change.
During the pandemic, he recorded videos of himself playing piano at home and uploaded them to YouTube.
“But that’s not what I wanted to spend my career doing,” Mitchell said. “I want to be with people. I want to make music with people. As a conductor, I really can’t do what I do without other people.”
Mitchell was on the conducting staff of the Cleveland Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, serving as assistant conductor and then associate conductor. In 2017, he became the music director of the Colorado Symphony.
When he was asked to guest conduct the Cleveland Orchestra for the July 4 concerts, he led the group in performing songs by American composers, including Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.
“What I’ve really thought about is not primarily making music. It’s primarily everybody being together again and what that feels like,” he said.
Joshua Smith, Principal Flute for The Cleveland Orchestra, has been performing with the organization for 31 years.
Smith said the time away from performing in public made him appreciate what he’s doing so much more. He was happy to return to the stage to rehearse and play with the orchestra again.
“It felt strangely familiar and homey and like almost no time had gone by, even though it’s been basically two years since I’ve been here at Blossom,” Smith said.
Smith picked up baking during the pandemic but felt depressed since he was used to structure in his daily routine.
He leads the chamber group Ensemble HD and was used to performing throughout the United States, in concert halls and nontraditional classic music venues like The Happy Dog.
“I know pretty much where I’m going to be traveling and when I’m going to be going to work and when rehearsals are going to start like a year and a half out from now. And, all of the sudden, all of that stuff just disappeared,” Smith said.
He said he had never taken a long break from playing music. The longest time he’s spent away from the flute was maybe two weeks.
Before the orchestra’s first rehearsal this July, he hadn’t touched his flute since the onset of the pandemic.
“It felt really devastating for a while because there was that short period where we didn’t even know if we were going to have jobs in the next few months,” he said.
Smith is a Grammy Award nominee and was named The Cleveland Orchestra’s principal flutist when he was 20 years old.
He said the nonverbal communication created through music is what he loves most about performing.
“I didn’t feel like the idea of making YouTube videos or just practicing for myself was fulfilling because there was no collaboration, and there was no interaction,” Smith said.
The Cleveland Orchestra began live-streaming and created the app, Adella, during the pandemic.
This foray into the digital space will continue as the group eases back into live performance.
Ilya Gidalevich, the Artistic Administrator for the orchestra, said some ways it will operate will change going forward.
“I think what’s important is that we use the lessons that we learned in the last year and a half, and we learn from them,” he said. “And we take the good things out of that, and we incorporate in what we do in the future.”
Gidalevich was brought on in 2015 to help lead the conception and execution of the orchestra’s programs at Severance Hall, Blossom Music Center and other venues outside of Northeast Ohio.
The orchestra’s summer concert series at Blossom will be shorter in 2021 than in previous years.
“This audience has not heard a lot of classical music live—if any classical music live—for a year and a half,” Gidalevich said. “Our musicians haven’t played it for a year and a half. Things we would normally take for granted, 'Oh, another Beethoven symphony. Oh, another Mozart' … acquire new meaning.”
Daniel Hathaway is the founder and author of ClevelandClassical.com and has been closely following the return of live classical music to Northeast Ohio during the pandemic.
Hathaway said The Cleveland Orchestra’s scaled-back summer season won’t be lacking, as it will include some surprises and special guests.
“There are some classic appearances by people who have been there a million times, like Beethoven 7th Symphony on Aug. 1 with Garrick Ohlsson, well-known pianist,” Hathaway said. “But Herbert Blomstedt is the conductor for that, who’s 90-I-don’t-know-how-many-years-old now but is just going strong. He’s just like the Energizer Bunny and will also be back for the Severance Hall season.”
He said audiences will find more Black composers and female conductors in upcoming classical programs.
“I think they’ve taken a lot of initiatives to heart,” he said.
A modified schedule
Hathaway said the orchestra is settling in gently to a full schedule for 2022.
"Things we would normally take for granted, 'Oh, another Beethoven symphony. Oh, another Mozart' … acquire new meaning."
The past 16 months deprived the region of a “core” performing organization.
“Almost everything in Northeast Ohio precedes in one way or another from The Cleveland Orchestra, radiating out like a hub,” Hathaway said.
He reviewed and previewed virtual classical concerts in March 2020 as many area performers and organizations turned to live-streaming.
Although The Cleveland Orchestra’s “In Focus” digital series was well produced, Hathaway said it just wasn’t the same as experiencing the music in person.
“There’s something kind of odd about musicians who trade so many facial cues just looking at each other when they play, and when you have an entire stage full of masked performers, how are they communicating? It can’t be easy,” he said.
Although in-person, classical concerts are returning to the area, challenges remain.
Hathaway said some performers experienced travel restrictions or limitations and had to be replaced as groups ease back into their summer programs.
Hathaway said orchestras across the country are “making up as they go along,” with groups returning with a reduced schedule through the rest of summer and fall, and some only scheduling a handful of smaller chamber concerts.
He said 2022 looks promising for a full-blown return of orchestral performances.
Classical music fans can stay up-to-date with the region’s 2021-2022 concert schedule on Hathaway’s website. Concert listings are updated every Tuesday.
Attendees are permitted to pack a picnic and bring chairs and blankets for Lawn seating.
The full schedule is below.
July 18 - The Great American Songbook with Lucas Waldin and Carpathia Jenkins
July 25 - From the New World with Rafael Payare
Aug. 1 - Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with Herbert Blomstedt
Aug. 8 - Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute To The Beatles with Martin Herman
Aug. 15 - Tchaikovsky's Fourth with Karina Canellakis
Aug. 22 - Romantic Brahms with Jahja Ling
Aug. 28 - Enigma Variations with Elim Chan