CityMusic Cleveland tunes up for the future while reflecting on 15th anniversary

April 30th, 2019

Posted Apr 25, 2019

By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio – No matter that most concerts are jam-packed. CityMusic Cleveland co-founder Eugenia Strauss still gets nervous at the start of every program.

“We never really know if we’re reaching an audience,” Strauss said.

She needn’t worry. As the second half of the orchestra’s 15th anniversary season kicks off with Verdi’s Requiem, the evidence of the group’s health and effectiveness could hardly be any clearer.

East side. West side. Other areas of Northeast Ohio. Doesn’t matter. Wherever CityMusic Cleveland plays, whatever school or community center it visits, the audiences are large, growing, and grateful. Simply put: people love CityMusic.

“There are people who arrange their schedules around our weeks,” said Mark Andreini, a longtime CityMusic trustee. “I think what we’re doing is terrific.”

Insiders like Andreini attribute the group’s vitality to three factors: price, quality, and community. Indeed, what fuels the group today is exactly what inspired Strauss and others over 15 years ago to fill what they saw as a gap in the Cleveland music scene.

The Cleveland Orchestra and Apollo’s Fire are major assets and address significant artistic needs, Andreini said. Neither, though, is committed to giving free concerts in local communities or concerns itself exclusively with chamber orchestra music.

“That combination of high quality and outreach, and the fact that it’s free – that’s an extraordinary thing,” said music director Avner Dorman, the group’s second maestro after James Gaffigan (who will return to conduct the Verdi). “Especially here in the U.S., that particular combination…People are just blown away by it.”

The road hasn’t been easy, of course. Just because its mission resonates with Northeast Ohio doesn’t mean CityMusic has led a carefree existence these past 15 years.

In the early years, Strauss had some reason to worry. Audiences at that time were smaller than they are today, when pew space can come at a premium.

Staffing, too, has been an issue. Because CityMusic isn’t a full-time orchestra and appoints musicians by referral, the group has struggled at times to maintain a consistent roster.

“We went into this completely blind,” Strauss said. “We assembled a group of families, and just started. We had no idea it would continue the way it has.”

Funding has been a longer-lasting concern. After getting off the ground with support from family foundations, CityMusic, like most other arts organizations, was hit by the Great Recession, forcing it to modify its ambitions and seek additional sources of income. Today, the group has a budget between $300,000 and $450,000 and a solid record of staying in the black.

“We’ve had to adjust our goals in relation to that,” Andreini said. “But we’ve always wanted to preserve the quality that would make sure people like us.”

That they’ve done. Through the ups and downs, CityMusic has managed not only to survive, but to thrive. Ask anyone involved with CityMusic to create a highlight reel and you’ll get a list that’s both long and unique.

Andreini points to the social gatherings that follow each concert and the list of guest artists. He’s proud of the fact that violinists Gil Shaham, Rachel Barton Pine, Tessa Lark, and Sayaka Shoji, among many others, have appeared with group, and that a few have even become regulars.

Strauss, meanwhile, recalls with fondness a program for local refugees, a performance of the children’s opera “Brundibar,” and an early tackling of the Ligeti Violin Concerto. She’s also proud of the group’s many commissions and premieres.

Gaffigan, she recalled, “put in our minds what an orchestra is and what it can be,” while Dorman, a composer, has been “an interesting choice…that has paid off.”

Dorman, for his part, takes a more personal view. He’ll never forget conducting Schubert’s Mass No. 6 or performing Corigliano’s “The Red Violin” with the composer present. But the real treasure for him has been the “gratifying” opportunity to hear his own music and develop a relationship with a professional orchestra.

“Every time we do a concert,” he said, “it’s easier to be focused and trust the musicians. I trust the musicians more and more, and I can allow them now to take up more and more responsibility.”

Still more responsibility lies ahead. Even as it prepares Verdi’s Requiem and a season finale in mid-May, CityMusic is looking at how to grow next year and beyond.

In addition to premiering a new work by jazz composer John Clayton, the orchestra next year will begin preparing a leadership transition plan. Strauss said she’ll be happy at some point to let “new blood” lead the organization into a new era of touring, recording, and serving Northeast Ohio.

After all, she said, she never imagined she’d be as busy as she is, that the little orchestra she helped found would turn into the bustling organization it is today.

“We had no idea we’d still be here 15 years later, having great audiences,” Strauss said. “We feel very good about that. But we’ve laid the foundation, and now we’re ready to go on to the next step.”



CityMusic Cleveland

What: James Gaffigan conducts Verdi’s Requiem

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, May 2

Where: Maltz Performing Arts Center, 1855 Ansel Rd., Cleveland.

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CityMusic Cleveland

CityMusic Cleveland is a professional chamber orchestra that performs free concerts throughout Northeast Ohio,often accompanied by exhibits of local artwork.

Since exploding onto the scene in 2004, CityMusic Cleveland has won cheering audiences with beautiful music, brilliantly performed in familiar neighborhood settings.
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