Monday, March 31, 2014


Severance Hall
March 28

A packed house onstage and in the audience.

One of hallmarks of Cleveland’s cultural institutions is outreach. Far from the stereotype of refined music or precious art kept high in ivory towers for a privileged few, the doors are thrown open here to the broadest possible audience. One need look no further than Severance Hall for examples like the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert, or the free community concert the orchestra is giving on April 18.

On Friday night, the Cleveland Institute of Music took inclusion a step further by bringing community members on stage with the CIM Orchestra for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Severance has certainly seen better performances of the piece, but few with as much heart.

Joining the student orchestra were four professional vocalists, student singers from CIM, instrumentalists and singers from Cleveland School of the Arts, the Singer’s Club of Cleveland, and members of the Antioch Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir. That totaled about 260 people packed wall-to-wall on the stage, which looked more like a convention than a concert.

In opening remarks, CIM President Joel Smirnoff noted the diversity of the performers and how it reflected the themes of idealism and brotherhood in Beethoven’s crowning work. “Take a good look around you tonight,” he encouraged an equally jam-packed audience. “Try to savor these moments as our community gathers together to find meaning at the end of a work day in a symphony based on life’s culture, life’s tragedy and life’s joy.”

Before he took the helm at CIM, Smirnoff was a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet and an active conductor. He still picks up the baton occasionally, as he did at this concert, ducking into the wings after his speech and then reemerging to lead a sharp, authoritative start on the symphony.

The CIM Orchestra is noted for the professional caliber of its sound and fearlessness in taking on difficult pieces, qualities that were quickly evident. The music had depth and a crisp edge, with some notable bite in the brass. The second movement rolled out like thunder with powerful rhythmic intensity, and the third opened with wonderful silken violins, one of the trademark characteristics of the Cleveland Orchestra sound. By osmosis or design, the student players did a great job emulating it.

A smart dialogue between the horns and low strings opened the fourth movement, followed by the famous theme stated first by the cellos and bass in tones as rich and well-drawn as one would hear from a professional ensemble. As the theme blossomed and the voices joined in, the four soloists added color, though not much in the way of standout vocals. The choral groups were almost staggering in their power, a great burst of sound exploding from the back of the stage that captured the radiant spirit and exuberance of the finale.

Were one to apply strict critical standards to the performance, there would be much to dissect. The playing was wildly uneven, particularly in the woodwinds, which veered from sounding brilliant to nearly falling apart. Big, bold sections fared better than subtleties, and Smirnoff could never get the balance quite right, with the horns sitting on top of the strings for most of the night rather than complementing them. And for all its power and energy, the giant chorus sounded like mush by the end of the performance, a tidal wave of sound without any definition.

But it would be churlish to apply professional criteria to a community celebration, particularly one that so richly embodied the ideas of not just a piece of music, but a seminal work of Western art. The outsized gathering of disparate races, voices and skill levels on a single stage was itself an inspirational statement. That they could all come together in an emotionally rewarding experience for both the players and audience was a measure of how far enthusiasm and noble aspirations can carry a performance.

For more on the CIM Orchestra:

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