NEW YORK — THE Cleveland Orchestra has never been the showiest of American ensembles. Even under the direction of the legendary George Szell, it never had the robust cachet of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner or the New York Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein.
What set the Cleveland Orchestra apart, beginning with the Szell years, was its ability to perform as a huge chamber-music ensemble, with the sense that every player was listening to, and reacting to, every other player in the group. For that reason, the Cleveland was always the preferred orchestra in the United States among musicians.
Also, it has always had a deep-rooted caring for excellence and a firm belief that by serving its community first and foremost, it would be fulfilling its function in the highest possible manner.
And as the institution celebrates its 75th season (the final concert is on June 5), it has been business as usual, without particular fanfare, without a string of special added commissions and high-profile tours.
In fact, the only event that could be construed as unique was the inauguration of a four-year presentation of Wagner's epic four-opera "Ring" cycle in concert performances in the orchestra's own Severance Hall, and for recording by London Records, all under the baton of its music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi.
The Cleveland Orchestra is unique in my experience, both as an ensemble and as an institution that serves its community and is supported, even adored, by that community. Not unexpectedly, the question always asked is, "Why Cleveland?"
The orchestra's executive director, Thomas W. Morris, has even asked it himself. "I have struggled to understand the situation here. Why is it that a city of this size, and of this location, has an orchestra and an art museum like this, for starters? The odd thing is that for all the reasons that that shouldn't be possible - the size of the city, the look of the city, all those things - those are all precisely the reasons that it is possible, because there is a community desire and need to have great ins titutions here. The orchestra is clearly at the center of the community psyche. It needs it. And it also pays for it, it demands excellence of it...."
MR. MORRIS is also quick to point out that the orchestra had an important history before the redoubtable George Szell brought the ensemble into international renown.
"I don't think it's totally correct to say that this is simply the orchestra that Szell built," Mr. Morris says. "It's basically, again, the community and the board that decided at some point it wanted a world-class international orchestra, and ... it hired the people to do it and held them accountable, and supported them, wooed them, and financed them. And of course the one that is clearly the embodiment of that major thrust forward was Szell. What people tend to forget is that Szell was here 25 years, and it really wasn't until the last five years of that tenure that it all really emerged. It took a long time building, nurturing, training."
It's vital to make this distinction, Morris says, because, "It goes to that point that the community has to want it, and if the community doesn't want it, George Szell or Christoph von Dohnanyi can't demand it."
Mr. Dohnanyi succeeded Lorin Maazel, who had been given the title of music director in the interim years following Szell's death, during which the orchestra was led by musical adviser Pierre Boulez. Mr. Maazel kept the spirit of Szell's unusually flexible orchestra alive during his decade at the helm, and Dohnanyi manifestly understands that this sense of a huge chamber ensemble with each player listening to everybody else, is what makes the Cleveland unique. This can be heard in the recordings [see acco mpanying story, below] but is most obvious in concert.
I FINALLY had a chance to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in its home hall this season, and the impact was unexpectedly brilliant for one used to concerts in New York's Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls.
The work was the last of two performances of Wagner's "Die Walkure" prior to a week of recording sessions for London Records. The added dimension of the players listening to the singers as well as themselves, all under the guidance of a conductor with a refreshingly direct, propulsive, viscerally dramatic, yet touchingly tender view of the score, made for some of the most invigorating Wagner I have heard in years. And with the haunting and vocally sumptuous Sieglinde of Alessandra Marc, the fiery Fricka of Anja Silja, and the unflaggingly firm Wotan of Robert Hale (all three will be on the recording), this "Walkure" promises to give all current recordings a serious challenge.
Recordings have featured prominently in the orchestra's plans since the Szell days. Right now, Morris notes, there are some 20 records "in the can" waiting to be released, including recordings of Mozart, Bruckner, Mahler, Ives, Varese, Messiaen, and Rachmaninoff, many of which have unusual fillers.
The orchestra records with Dohnanyi and principal guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy for London, Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon, and a few special projects like Kurt Sanderling's recording for Erato of Shostakovich's Fifteenth.
"We're trying to build a repertoire. And basically our plan has been, as a very European classical orchestra, to cover the center of the repertoire, in addition to doing a lot of 20th-century things and some showpiece works, and opera," says Morris.
The Cleveland tours the US regularly (this year, all in the Eastern US) and now has a summer residency at the Salzburg Festival (though it will skip this summer and return there in 1994). And it has its annual summer season at the Blossom Festival, now under the direction of Leonard Slatkin.
Dohnanyi is known to be a good friend of 20th-century music, and there was some concern as to how the Cleveland public would take to his sometimes astringent tastes. As Morris notes, "Dohnanyi is the most fascinating programmer I've ever worked with, because he's as interested in the first piece on the program as he is with the one at the end."
He cites a program of Webern, Mozart, and Bartok, for which the entire audience stayed and cheered. "It just reminded me again that commanding the attention of an audience has nothing whatsoever to do really with the difficulty of the music, it's how you present it.... You don't have to surround things with `Bolero'!"