Cleveland in Nashville: The Performance Review

Four months after opening, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s Laura Turner Concert Hall continues to impress as it proved to be an excellent acoustical canvas for the Cleveland Orchestra…

Back in September, 2006 I published an article which details my initial impressions of how the hall responded to the Nashville Symphony musicians during the gala opening concert events. I’m pleased to say that the hall responded with all of the same positive attributes during Cleveland’s performance.

For the Monday evening concert, I was seated in one of the box seats located on the east side of the shoebox shaped concert hall, click the picture to your left for a larger view (kudos to the Nashville Symphony website for being able to generate such fantastic virtual seating charts and sightlines). The orchestra utilized a string setup that placed the violas on the outside of the string section opposite the first violins with the string basses directly behind them and to the left.

This configuration resulted in those sections having their sound projected directly toward my seat location. I initially thought this might create some balance issues between the violas/basses and both violin sections but the hall managed to do a very good job at blending the sound between all of the string sections even though I was sitting approximately 30 feet from the stage. As anticipated, the violas and basses projected wonderfully, but they never overpowered the cellos or violins, all of which contributed to a very pleasant listening experience.

As detailed in my review from last September, the concert hall does a wonderful job at projecting everything that happens on stage, and I mean everything. Depending on the individual musician, this quality can be a real ego boost or not so flattering. Regardless, every player on this stage needs give their all during each step of a concert, otherwise, any early entrance, uneven release, or imperfect attack will be noticed. Since the Cleveland Orchestra’s travel schedule only permitted time for a 30 minute sound check rehearsal, I was curious to hear how they would perform in such an active acoustic environment.

With the exception of some overly cautious entrances in the French Horn section that produced problematic attacks, the entire orchestra seemed to adjust to the space with little or no trouble. After the concert, I was able to talk to several of the Cleveland players and a number of them said the sound on stage was very similar to what they experience at Severance (their home venue). When asked if they had any trouble hearing one another, most of them responded with a casual shoulder shrug and said they could hear each other just fine.

Another interesting component of the concert was that a large percentage of the Nashville Symphony musicians were in attendance. The Cleveland Orchestra is the first professional symphonic size orchestra to perform in the hall besides the NSO so this was the first opportunity the Nashville players had to hear how their hall sounds in a full blown concert setting. I spoke to several of the Nashville musicians and they all said hearing an orchestra like Cleveland (which maintains more than 20 additional full time musicians than Nashville) would be helpful in their artistic development from an ensemble perspective.

The only difference I noticed in how the hall sounded from last September to this January was positive. The sound coming from the stage had decidedly more impact, especially throughout the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise since Cleveland put more musicians on stage than Nashville did during most of selections for the gala concerts. At the same time, it was good to experience that the hall could handle the added presence without losing the crisp, clear warm sound it produces during the most delicate of passages.

In tomorrow’s article, we’ll examine some of the operational changes instituted by the staff since opening in September and see if those changes have improved some of the problems I noticed during the gala. We’ll also poke into some of the nooks and crannies that were not available for inspection last September and see how the kitchen and wait staffs execute the dinner service which precedes many of their regular concert events.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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