Founded in 1918, the Cleveland Orchestra has become one of the most sought-after performing ensembles in the world and has long been numbered among the “Big Five” American orchestras. “In its self-effacing virtuosity and variety of colors, its refinement and chamber-style cohesion,” writes Zachary Woolfe in the July 9, 2015 edition of the New York Times, the Cleveland Orchestra “has a plausible claim to being the best in America.”
Venerable arts organizations like the magnificent Cleveland Orchestra don’t tend to change often or lightly – at least not in major ways – but they are capable of accomplishing strategically significant innovation, as the Orchestra’s Executive Director, Gary Hanson, observes in the fascinating podcast he recently recorded for this blog. Gary describes how the Cleveland Orchestra successfully launched a major, growth-focused change initiative in January 2007, Cleveland Orchestra Miami. During its annual residency in Miami, the Cleveland Orchestra serves Miami-Dade County with an array of musical presentations, including a series of subscription concerts at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and a wide variety of educational programs. Although still a work in progress, Cleveland Orchestra Miami has over the course of its first decade successfully translated the Cleveland Orchestra’s vision into reality, becoming a cultural mainstay in South Florida.
As Gary explains in his podcast, Cleveland Orchestra Miami – like many ambitious nonprofit change initiatives over the years – was born in a time of fiscal distress, if not crisis. A succession of budget deficits had left the Cleveland Orchestra in a precarious financial condition. It was clear to Gary and the Board of the Musical Arts Association, which governs the Cleveland Orchestra, that action had to be taken to ensure a secure financial future for this world-class musical treasure on the shore of Lake Erie. The strategic course the Orchestra’s leadership chose – expanding geographically to the vibrant Miami-Dade metropolitan area – involved risk, as does all important change, but inaction would have come at a prohibitive price. As Gary also explains, one very sensible tactic the Orchestra employed to contain the risk was to foster strong ownership of Cleveland Orchestra Miami in South Florida, most notably by creating a full-fledged nonprofit corporation to oversee the innovation initiative, the Miami Music Association, which is governed by a distinguished Board of Directors. The Orchestra also fostered local ownership by building a network of such important community partners (“stakeholders” in nonprofit management parlance) as the Adrienne Arsht Center, the University of Miami Frost School of Music, the New World Symphony, and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, among many others.
On a personal note, working with Gary to produce this podcast was a labor of love because of my long-standing emotional connection to the Cleveland Orchestra. Growing up in a small farm town in Southern Illinois, I’d never heard, much less seen, a symphony orchestra until the summer of my fourteenth year. Working in Dad’s bakery that summer, I used the money I saved to buy a record player and, for some reason I don’t recall, joined the classical division of the Columbia Record Club. As the records arrived, month after month, I was introduced to the beauty of classical music by what at that time was the most-recorded orchestra in the world: the Cleveland Orchestra under Music Director George Szell. That summer, I decided that classical music had to be part of my life from that point on. Scrolling ahead eleven years, when I arrived in Cleveland for graduate school at Case Western Reserve University, after my three years as a Peace Corps teacher in Ethiopia, one of the first things I did after settling into my apartment in the University Circle area of Cleveland was walk the four or five blocks to Severance Hall to buy a ticket for an upcoming Cleveland Orchestra Concert (way, way high up in the least expensive seats). It felt like a dream come true to see Maestro Szell, not long before his death, conduct the magnificent ensemble that had introduced me to the wonderful world of classical music that summer in Vandalia, Illinois.