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Neighborhood Watch
by Donald Rosenberg - Symphony Magazine, March/April 2010

CityMusic Cleveland’s free concerts have become part of the fabric of northeast Ohio. Working with community leaders is just part of this chamber orchestra’s formula for success.

Behold a tale of two kitchens and one newfangled orchestra. Amid simmering stews and whistling kettles, Eugenia Strauss and Beverly Simmons teamed up in 2004 to cultivate an organization unlike any they’d ever known. They set out to create a professional chamber orchestra that would perform in small communities for people who may never have stepped into a concert hall or heard a note of classical music. The programs would comprise beloved and contemporary fare and feature admired soloists.

Oh, and the concerts would be free.

From modest beginnings, CityMusic Cleveland has become a potent force on the artistic scene in northeast Ohio, where it’s in its sixth season. The 40-member ensemble presents five programs per season, playing up to six performances of each program per week in churches and civic centers. The players and Music Director James Gaffigan, a 2008 co-recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Helen M. Thompson Award for emerging music directors, have expanded their concerts into more communities as word has spread about the group’s quality, informality, and terrific admission price. And the organization is starting to make inroads in bringing music education to elementary-school children.

Audiences have grown quickly and donors have responded in kind. Over the past three seasons, the orchestra’s budget has more than doubled, to almost $500,000. Foundation and government support also has doubled, corporate contributions have soared, and income from individual donations has gone from $99,000 to a projected $155,000. Simmons wrote the various grants in—where else?—her kitchen.

“For us, what’s appealing is that high quality music can be used for community building,” says Jill Paulsen, program director at the Cleveland Foundation, which has awarded CityMusic project grants since 2007. “The real interest is how they’ve tended to build relationships with neighborhoods and civic leaders. Over time, we’d like to get a sense that local neighborhoods feel CityMusic is their own.”

CityMusic’s communal approach indeed has found a welcome home in small cities and areas where audience members— including many without the resources or inclination to travel to a concert mecca such as Cleveland’s Severance Hall—have become faithful followers. The musicians look forward to reunions with listeners who’ve discovered the orchestra as a fresh means of social and cultural connection. The impact of the music has been encouraging and surprising. During one program, notes Strauss, people who thought they didn’t like classical music sat raptly through György Ligeti’s challenging Violin Concerto, with Jennifer Koh as eloquent soloist. “Some said it was interesting. Just don’t do it again,” says Strauss, who is proud of the fact that listeners at least gave contemporary music the chance to have its daring say.

A spirit of seat-of the-pants experimentation and dedication pervades City- Music Cleveland, which is operated by a largely volunteer board and staff—only Strauss is paid, as executive director, after having donated her services during the first four seasons. None of these supporters had any experience running an orchestra until they decided to test the musical waters. Things occasionally may be chaotic in the scheduling and personnel departments, but the vibrant performances and community enrichment make up for the administrative learning curve happening back in the kitchen. “I didn’t go to any CityMusic concerts until 2007,” says Julie Frazier, a retired social worker who volunteers for the orchestra. “It’s so unique and amazing in its mission. When I first learned about it, I threw myself at Eugenie and said, ‘Take me. I’m yours.’ ” Coming from a historically musical family, Frazier certainly knew that the product was first-rate. Her father, Maurice “Mo” Sharp, was principal flute of the Cleveland Orchestra for 50 years.

The inspiration for CityMusic was sparked by another distinguished musician, Jeannette Sorrell, music director of the Cleveland-based baroque orchestra Apollo’s Fire. Sorrell initially hoped her own ensemble could help expand audiences for classical music by giving free concerts in underserved communities. She also had other motivations. As she watched a number of Apollo’s Fire players lose jobs in Cleveland ensembles felled by economic woes during the period after 9/11, she concluded that a new kind of orchestra might keep the classical-music flame ablaze. Sorrell also knew that top-flight musicians who had come to town for their spouses to take up positions in the Cleveland Orchestra needed their own musical outlets. Why not create jobs for these players and others, and head to neighborhoods that had little or no access to great music?

Inspiration: A Brief History

The moment Sorrell outlined her brainstorm for Simmons, an early-music singer and presenter, and Strauss, an arts activist and former chairman of the board of Pilobolus Dance Theater, the water began to boil. Strauss and husband Ron, an allergist and ardent amateur violinist, put together a board of like-minded individuals. Sorrell, who never intended to be the group’s music director, chose the musicians, conductor (Andrea Raffanini), soloist (violinist Kyung Sun Lee), and repertoire (Mozart and Gershwin) for CityMusic’s inaugural concert in October 2004—and then went back to her Apollo’s Fire duties. Gaffigan, then an assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, was named music director soon thereafter and immersed himself in CityMusic activities. (He’s on sabbatical this season to fulfill commitments conducting major opera companies and orchestras in the U.S. and Europe.)

From the start, the Strausses, Simmons, and board colleagues intended their ensemble to diverge from the usual professional- orchestra modus operandi. CityMusic is a non-union ensemble with a pay scale close to union rates. In an effort to find players who fit the CityMusic mold of cohesion and camaraderie, the organization holds no auditions. Musicians are recommended by an artistic advisory committee and by principal players. Members of CityMusic must agree to play the entire season, a rule that has caused tension, especially when players are offered more lucrative gigs elsewhere at the last minute. “We’re upfront about the rules we have,” says Eugenia Strauss about severing ties with musicians. “When somebody breaks the rules, you know what will happen. There are no exceptions, even when it breaks my heart.”

There can be little argument that the commitment reaps artistic rewards, however rigorous the schedule may be. “We want the music to be well-prepared, so the musicians can really communicate with the audience,” says Simmons, who recently left CityMusic to concentrate on Quire Cleveland, a professional early-music chorus. At CityMusic, “they have time to rehearse thoroughly and perform more than once. The interpretation grows the more you perform it.” Principal Bassoon George Sakakeeny, a faculty member at Oberlin College, says the orchestra’s excellence is a result of Gaffigan’s leadership and the musicians’ willingness to endure occasionally stressful conditions. “Going to perform six different places in one week is hard,” Sakakeeny says. “The orchestra has to be very, very flexible. The ability to roll with all that stuff is part of the success.”

But the musicians benefit in other ways and here’s where the kitchens partly come in. In addition to running City Music on a computer not far from her gleaming ovens, Strauss and volunteers also cook up culinary storms for the musicians. “I try not to gain weight during the City Music week of rehearsals and concerts,” says Tracy Rowell, the orchestra’s principal bass. There are lots of opportunities to put on the pounds: the musicians take a break from the rehearsals on Mondays and Tuesdays for gourmet dinners at the Strauss abode in Cleveland Heights. Out-of-town musicians are served meals the remaining days of the week at the homes of the trustees with whom they stay. “It’s easy to gain five pounds,” says Rowell, “because [Eugenia’s] cooking is so good and it’s so much fun to hang out with the musicians and guests and members of the board.”

And some of the musicians travel far to play in CityMusic. John Boden, who is in his second season as principal horn, lives in Maine, where he taught for decades at the University of Southern Maine while freelancing in period and modern orchestras. Boden says CityMusic has “one of the best wind sections I have ever played with, and that includes the many early-music ensembles with which I’m fortunate to be associated.”

Meeting Community Needs

But fine playing and fine dining are only part of the CityMusic experience. The musicians are required to socialize with audience members during intermission to strengthen bonds between orchestra and community. “I’ve been there long enough that I actually start seeing the same familiar faces at the same places,” says Rowell. “They’ll come out and say, ‘Oh, you have a baby.’ ” (Actually, Rowell has six children with husband Henry Peyrebrune, a member of the Cleveland Orchestra’s bass section.)

Strauss and her CityMusic kitchen cabinet have nurtured their organization by reaching out to communities where musical needs exist. They contact political leaders, neighborhood activists, development corporations, civic institutions, elementary schools, and nonprofit organizations “to integrate the orchestra into the fabric of the community,” says Strauss. In other words, they sell the idea to those who can make connections, help with promotion, and provide in-kind services.

In Elyria, 30 miles west of Cleveland, Mayor William Grace was ambivalent about Strauss’s CityMusic proposal until he showed her City Hall, which was built as an opera house. “He was proud he had saved it and incorporated it into City Hall,” Strauss says. “He wanted us to perform there. When the chief justice of Elyria came in, he said the mayor’s idea was brilliant. The mayor grew ten inches. He has become one of our biggest supporters in Elyria.”

CityMusic’s involvement in other communities garners similar enthusiasm from civic leaders. The adjacent towns of Willoughby and Willoughby Hills—eighteen miles east of Cleveland—share the orchestra, which Willoughby Hills Councilman Kevin Malecek says is bolstering economic development in both cities. “It’s really evolved from a small concert series that we took a chance on to a robust partnership,” says Malecek, director of the evening and Saturday MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. “I knew it would probably take off, but it’s been astounding.”

Marie Kittredge, executive director of Slavic Village Development Corporation, was no fan of classical music when the orchestra first showed up in her Cleveland neighborhood, home to Czech and Polish immigrants starting in the late nineteenth century, which has recently been challenged by foreclosures and drugs. “I went to a concert,” she says. “Wow! It was fun. It was great.” Kittredge helped CityMusic find advertising and assistance from other organizations. A program for elementary school students at the village’s St. Stanislaus Church last year drew an audience of more than 1,000.

Elyria and Slavic Village are the two principal locations where CityMusic involvement goes well beyond concerts. In both communities, orchestra members teach youngsters to read notes, understand rhythms, and play songs on recorders free of charge. The goal is to instruct them on orchestral instruments, though the funds to do so haven’t yet been found.

The head of CityMusic’s education program is Rebecca Schweigert, the orchestra’s principal oboe, who played in the Miami Beach-based New World Symphony until she moved to Cleveland with her husband, Michael Mayhew, associate principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra. Schweigert has created a curriculum for children in grades two through four. “By fifth grade, they’re so not interested,” she says. “We can get them interested before that. We make it fun andlight-hearted.”

Schweigert and company have begunmodeling their curriculum on El Sistema,the revolutionary Venezuelan music-education program that provides instrumental training for hundreds of thousands of children from poor neighborhoods. In Venezuela, the students have private instruction and play in orchestra after school every day and all day Saturday.

With an infusion of money and a bit of serendipity, CityMusic might inch closer to El Sistema. During a concert last year, Schweigert met a woman in the audience, Regina Giraldo, who like Schweigert, is an oboist; she hails from Venezuela, where she taught in El Sistema, and is now pursuing a master’s in education at Cleveland State University. Schweigert is hoping Giraldo will teach in CityMusic’s program, “after her visa is worked out.”

The musical magic also happens with CityMusic itself. In the short space of fiveyears, the orchestra and Gaffigan have put animated and elegant stamps on favorite classics and contemporary scores, includingthe Ligeti concerto and the 2007 world premiere of Margaret Brouwer’s Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra. They recorded the latter with Michi Wiancko, their concertmaster at the time and a winner of the 2002 Concert Artists Guild International Competition.

CityMusic’s allure has proved magnetic to other prominent soloists, such as cellists Edward Arron and Matt Haimovitz. Arron first encountered the organization when he was recommended to be a soloist in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. He was so taken with the music-making—and became fast friends with his colleagues, violinist Kyung Sun Lee and pianist Daniel Shapiro— that he returned to play the Brahms Double Concerto (with Lee), a program of chamber music, and several benefit concerts in private homes. Arron didn’t want to leave after his first collaboration with CityMusic, which he calls “one of the fullest weeks of my life. At the end of the week, I was completely heartbroken.” As part of a new venue experiment, this February Haimovitz played Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto with CityMusic in a late-night public jam session at Anatolia, a popular Turkish restaurant in Cleveland, while in town to perform three concerts with the ensemble.

Another new CityMusic champion is Christos Hatzis, the Greek-born Canadian composer whom the orchestra commissioned to write a work featuring the Pacifica Quartet. The piece, Redemption: Book I, had its premiere on October 14, 2009. Hatzis was introduced to Strauss by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which knew her through Pilobolus. The St. Lawrence Quartet sent Strauss a pile of Hatzis’s music, and a relationship was born. “I was from the first time just blown away,” Hatzis says of Strauss. “She was a tour de force. She became a trailblazer for me.” After hearing soloist Jennifer Koh and the ensemble perform the Ligeti concerto, the composer was hooked. “I started understanding how this orchestra was becoming a paradigm of things to come,” he says.

Whether that’s true remains to be seen. CityMusic is making a mark through musical intelligence and sheer force of will on the part of its many advocates. “The emergence of a new orchestra is always a cause for celebration,” says Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. “But CityMusic is not only new and going strong, it is also successfully demonstrating a new business model, a new pricing model, and a new relationship to community, all while giving sensational concerts of the highest quality. It may not be the prototype for every community, but every orchestra can learn from the spirit of adventure embodied in CityMusic.”

The Strausses so far have lived up to their vow never to run a deficit. But can CityMusic continue to ascend, given the shaky global economy and unorthodox nature of the organization? Eugenia Strauss is optimistic that CityMusic will continue to forge an independent path and gain the support of individual, foundation, and corporate donors.

The orchestra is doing so this season despite the absence of Gaffigan, its galvanizing musical force. While he is gone, CityMusic is being led by guest conductors David Alan Miller, Joel Smirnoff (former first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet and now president of the Cleveland Institute of Music), Danail Rachev, Gregory Vajda, and Damon Gupton.

Although his international schedule is likely to expand, Gaffigan still hopes to return to his Cleveland ensemble next season. “I love coming to CityMusic,” he says. “I know these people. I don’t have to edit myself. I can be myself. The more I travel, the more I realize Eugenie really has it. She goes by her instinct.”

Gaffigan says Strauss has never nixed even the most radical programming idea he’s proposed. For the Ligeti concerto, he started rehearsals six months ahead of time with the winds and strings—in the Strausses’ living room. Earlier, he had balked at the orchestra’s exacting schedule of up to six concerts on consecutive days. “I said it’s too much for me and the musicians, but it’s not,” he says. “Every night, it’s a different group of people [in the audience]. Every night, you have to give 100 percent.”

And what about the future of a group such as CityMusic Cleveland? “I used to say this should be a prototype for every city,” Gaffigan says. “Now I don’t know, but it works in Cleveland.”