Above, the ceiling was done up in silver, beige, and blue, like frosting on a wedding cake. Below, at the lip of the stage, a tall man in a black suit and white bow tie leaned forward to offer guidance.
“This is going to be something,” said Mark Jackobs, one of the Cleveland Orchestra’s viola players. “This is a freight train.”
Jackobs, who has played in the room for 25 years, knew just how the sound would flood Severance Hall, one of North America’s most admired classical music venues.
This was my first concert in the hall, so I had plenty of questions. But before I could ask more, the lights dimmed in the 1,920-seat auditorium, and it was time to head to our seats.
Music director Franz Welser-Most raised his baton. A hundred musicians, including Jackobs, snapped to attention. The train — Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 — was leaving the station.
When orchestra leaders launched the campaign to build Severance Hall in 1928, Cleveland was on a roll. As America constructed skyscrapers, Cleveland’s steel mills were shipping vast tonnage on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.
The city’s population was about to hit 900,000. The orchestra, founded in 1918, had played New York, made its recording debut, and started on the path to worldwide acclaim.
Since then, Cleveland has shrunk, suffered, and been smirked at like few other American cities. But it also has reinvented itself and begun to bloom again.
The orchestra and its hall — in University Circle, the cultural hub about five miles west of downtown, with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the campus of Case Western Reserve University, among other institutions — have never stopped doing what they set out to do.
Compared with the art museum and the museum of natural history, Severance Hall did not quicken my pulse right away. In fact, if architecture is frozen music, the Georgian neoclassical exterior is “Pomp and Circumstance” at 23 beats a minute.
But inside, it’s “Rhapsody in Blue” meets “King Tut.” Once you step into the grand foyer, you’re swallowed by a mashup of art deco swoops and Egyptian revival details.
It was 1928, orchestra archivist Andria Hoy told me, when philanthropists John and Elisabeth Severance pledged $1 million for a project to be designed by the local architecture firm Walker & Weeks.
Despite the 1929 stock market crash and Elisabeth’s death, John moved forward. Construction began a month after the crash, and he took every opportunity to stamp the concert hall with Elisabeth’s personality, ultimately spending more than $2 million — about $29 million today. It opened in 1931.
The intricate, lacelike aluminum leaf pattern on the ceiling is said to match Elisabeth’s wedding dress. Lotus blossoms, her favorite flower, grace the grand foyer’s terrazzo floor. The building’s papyrus imagery and other Egyptian revival touches stem from the family’s having journeyed to Egypt to see King Tut’s newly uncovered tomb.
"He really turned this building into a memorial to her, which is where a lot of the opulence comes from," Hoy said.
Until recently, the intervening years have been rough on Cleveland. The city’s economy stumbled in the 1960s, population began to plummet, crime jumped, and the Cuyahoga River, profoundly polluted, caught fire more than once. The slump lasted decades.
Nowadays, the city’s population is about 390,000. On the Cuyahoga, you can see kayaks, rowers, and the Nautica Queen, a dinner cruise ship. Hotels, restaurants, and Heinen’s Grocery Store have taken over grand old bank buildings along Euclid Avenue. Condos and apartments multiply near the riverside.
And Cleveland’s orchestra? The musicians kept playing, touring, and recording, never relinquishing the reputation that spread globally under the exacting George Szell, music director from 1946 to 1970.
New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles may be bigger cities, but in January a New York Times headline proclaimed that "At 100, the Cleveland Orchestra May (Quietly) Be America’s Best."
(A later article in October noted that the orchestra had fired its concertmaster and principal trombonist over allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment.)
Severance Hall remains the orchestra’s home for about 100 performances a year in fall, winter, and spring. (Summer concerts move to the Blossom Music Center amphitheater in Cuyahoga Falls.) The hall also hosts graduations, weddings, Cleveland Pops Orchestra concerts, and other events.
On concert night, I arrived early so I could start with a meal at Severance, the venue’s fine-dining restaurant. Solicitous service, tasty sea bass special. Good omens.
The music began with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, a sprightly, sunny work despite being composed while Russia and the rest of Europe were a mess. I’m no music critic, but it sounded seamless and precise, and the rest of the room seemed to agree.
The hall was about two-thirds occupied, the crowd mostly 50 and older and white, although a couple or two sections were dominated by students. Eager to woo young and varied listeners, the orchestra offers free admission to those 18 and younger for many performances.
The next piece was Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1931 — a challenging, dense work featuring ferocious guest pianist Yefim Bronfman (a frequent guest with the Philadelphia Orchestra). In one passage, he seemed to conjure the sound of mist rising from a pond. In another, Bronfman played with such force and speed his whole body shuddered.
"He proved that the piano is a percussion instrument," usher Joette McDonald, who has worked concerts for 17 years, whispered to me later.
After intermission came the sonic assault that Jackobs had warned me about, Prokofiev’s third symphony, composed in 1928.
From the first note: shrieking strings and brass, booming tympani, curious three-note clusters ascending and descending. It was a beginning as dark and alarming as the night’s first Prokofiev piece had been bright and frisky.
From there, things calmed a bit, with plenty of delicate passages. I could relax and look around a little. But this is a symphony that began its life as an opera about demonic possession, so chaos was bound to return. At the close of the fourth movement, Prokofiev dispatched us with a pair of booming, dissonant full-orchestra chords. Utter doom, under a twinkling aluminum ceiling.
At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the amps are turned to 11 to get effects like this. In Severance Hall, they do it without amplifiers, in a suit and bow tie, just as they have for 87 years.