UpClose: Franz Welser-Möst

Mike Lawson • Features • December 9, 2014

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The Cleveland Orchestra  – Bridging the gap from the concert hall to the community


Given the widely publicized financial hardship in recent years at renowned classical music institutions across the U.S. — including orchestras and opera houses in Philadelphia,New York, San Francisco, Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville, San Diego, and a host of other locations — there is a clear imperative that these organizations must adapt in order to survive. Faced with shrinking audiences and an aging fanbase, the institutions that have remained successful are the ones that have put a renewed emphasis on their social mission: their dedication to reach out to schools, to young people, and to the communities in which they reside.

In addition to being considered among the very best orchestras in the world, The Cleveland Orchestra has exemplified this approach. Under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst, The Cleveland Orchestra has instituted an array of initiatives designed to help the organization become more accessible and more visible in the greater Cleveland area, especially among the youth. “I feel strongly that all children should participate in music and the arts, including the opportunity to experience the Cleveland Orchestra,” explains Welser-Möst. 

An Austrian native, Franz Welser-Möst has been leading elite musical organizations for nearly 25 years. His career includes appointments with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Zurich Opera House, the St. Louis Symphony, and the Vienna State Opera. And since 2002, Welser-Möst has been the music director of the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra.SBO recently caught up with Welser-Möst to discuss The Cleveland Orchestra’s outreach initiatives, the impact of those events, and his thoughts on the future of the orchestral art form. Bridging the gap from the concert hall to the community

When you first came on-board at The Cleveland Orchestra, what were your goals, in both the short and long terms? What steps did you take, or are you taking, to achieve those goals?
When I first arrived in Cleveland, I wanted to help change the culture of the institution itself and, onstage, I wanted to evolve some of the ways the orchestra worked together. A process like this is a slow and prolonged journey, with some setbacks along the way. Like any goal, it requires a vision – in this case, how the orchestra should sound, or can sound. Like on our last major tour in Europe, there was not just talk about the famous precision of this exceptional orchestra, which has long been commented on, but about its elegance and nobility, its aristocratic way of playing, the subtlety and the beauty of the sound these musicians create. We have continuously worked on these qualities, day in and day out. Each time I appoint a musician, I think of these qualities and bending the sound forward toward the future.

Where do community engagement activities fit into the overall mission of The Cleveland Orchestra?
Service to the community is an essential part of The ClevelandOrchestra’s mission, and has been since our founding in 1918. Our goal is to bring the transformative power of music to the widest possible audience throughout Northeast Ohio, and to be a relevant and indispensable educational and community resource. Today, more than ever, we must support our schools, embrace
our civic leadership role, increase access to orchestral music for all, and partner with other community and cultural organizations
to sustain the city whose name we so proudly carry throughout the world. Our aim is to serve the Cleveland community, and to make classical music an integral and lasting part of the culture here.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s website notes: “Franz Welser-Möst has taken The Cleveland Orchestra back into public schools with performances in collaboration with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.” What sparked this initiative?
Our inner city school district, especially, was struggling financially, losing students, laying off music teachers, and eliminating field trips. I feel strongly that all children should participate in music and the arts, including the opportunity to experience The Cleveland Orchestra. If they couldn’t come to us (at Severance Hall), then we would take the Orchestra to them. We have other programs in Cleveland schools (such as “PNC Grow up Great Musical Neighborhoods” for pre-school children and our “Learning Through Music” program for grades K-5). But it had been more than 40 years since the entire Orchestra performed in a school, and I was determined to change that.

Could you elaborate on how in-school performances work – who goes, how those are arranged and organized, and so on?
In-school performances by The Cleveland Orchestra are a team effort. The initial logistics are arranged by our Education & Community department in collaboration with district/school administrators who identify the school and the event date based on dates and times that are feasible within the Orchestra’s service schedule and my schedule. Our Operations staff then makes a site visit to the school to ensure there is sufficient load-in access, room for trucks and buses, and so on. We bring either a full orchestra or a split orchestra (about half the musicians) depending on the week’s schedule, and generally perform in the school gymnasium. It’s quite an operation. I make the final determination of the repertoire and the flow of the concert. We always try to include student(s) in one of our pieces (often the National Anthem or the school’s Alma Mater), and to work with students in the school’s instrumental music program leading up to the concert.

How would you describe the impact of those events?
There is nothing like seeing and hearing live orchestral music in your very own school. Even in the most disadvantaged schools, where students have had little or no exposure to classical music or to an orchestra, the students are, as the saying goes, “blown away” by the sound, the precision, and the sheer emotion of the music. We have performed pieces such as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams, as well as works by Beethoven and Mozart. Music speaks to all students, regardless of their socio-economic background.

Prior to joining the Cleveland Orchestra, you had appointments at a number of prominent music organizations in Europe. What was the transition like for you coming over to the U.S.?
It was a huge change for me. As a music director in America, you have so many more responsibilities than in Europe. It’s a very
different system. Having said that, there is one parallel between the orchestras in Europe of the very top international league, such
as Vienna, Berlin, and Amsterdam, and with Cleveland: within these cities there is an enormous pride of people of their orchestra,
even from non-concertgoers. I have not found that same passion and interest in other American cities.

How would you describe the current climate for classical music in the USA?
Not easy! And very different from city to city. But thank God there are enough entrepreneurs in Cleveland to support the orchestra. But it requires more creativity within an institution than ever. And more focus on substance!

Where do you see this idiom going in the next decadeor two?
Classical music is greater than we are. That’s why I think that – like any great art – it will continue to be of great value. There has to be in a society something like an “infrastructure of mind and soul.” We have to work to make sure that people understand and believe.

Moving forward, what would you like to see from school music teachers, in terms of their role in keeping symphonies and orchestras vibrant and thriving?
First, get kids playing music, as early as possible. Musical training will do more to increase both their brain capacity, IQ, and their interest in orchestral music than anything else you can do. Why wait until fourth grade? Foreign language training often now begins in kindergarten. Music training can and should happen at that age, as well. Also, today’s students have more access to more genres of music than we ever did at their age, and their iPhone playlists reflect that. Their ears and hearts are so open to music – take advantage of that. Expose students to as much live orchestral playing as possible, whether it is taking them to hear the older students in their school’s orchestra, or their local youth orchestra, community orchestra, or professional orchestra. It’s not about selling tickets for us – it’s about generating excitement and building the next generation of audiences.

Do you have any additional comments you would like to share with school music educators?
First and foremost, I want to say a heartfelt “thank you” to school music educators around the country. You are, in most cases, a child’s first music teacher, and your influence and expertise and passion are invaluable in starting a child on his or her musical journey. I could not do my job without the wonderful job you do with students year in and year out. Second, continue to “fight the good fight.” School music programs are constantly being cut – or being threatened with being cut – out of the budget. Partner with your local symphony orchestra to help you keep music programs in our schools. We are all eager advocates and stand willing to help. And finally, build a culture of concert-going among students and families. This is something that’s been lost in recent years. Many professional orchestras have discount student ticket programs. I hope you will make sure that your students – and families –are aware of these programs, and encourage everyone to participate. In Cleveland, we have Under 18s Free, which provides one free ticket per paid adult admission. We have a Student Advantage Program, which provides $10 or $15 tickets to members for each subscription concert (membership is free). And we have Frequent Fan Cards, which sell for $50 and allows a student to attend as many Cleveland Orchestra concerts as desired throughout the season. We never want price to be an obstacle.

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