The Cleveland Orchestra is reaching out

Franz Welser-Möst, the music director of The Cleveland Orchestra, has a perspective that’s different from most music directors with his accomplishments, experience and reputation.

An eminent maestro who has conducted in virtually all of the world’s great opera houses and concert halls, Welser-Möst is also passionate about conducting in Cleveland’s not-so-great high school gymnasiums in an effort to reach younger audiences.

“If we don’t do it, we’ll die,” said Welser-Möst, speaking on the phone from his office at the Vienna State Opera, where he is also music director. “I think it’s highly important we get out of our ivory tower.”

There are few orchestras that engage in as extensive outreach as the Cleveland Orchestra, which the La Jolla Music Society brings to Copley Symphony Hall on April 20 for a program of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with violinist Nikolaj Znaider), Smetana’s Selections from “Má Vlast,” and Thomas Adès’s Selections from “Powder Her Face.”

The ensemble has long been celebrated for its unmatched discipline and precision, but its educational, community and out-of-town residency efforts are creating a new model for symphony orchestras, which remain challenged in the critical task of renewing an increasingly aging audience.

“There’s so much competition with young people (for their attention),” said the Austrian-born conductor. “With the new social media and everything, young people are exposed to so many different things — much more than 20, 30, 50 years ago. So how do you compete? How do you reach them? You have to go out and make your case that classical music is actually something really exciting and something to go for.”

Rather than assign those educational concerts to assistant conductors, Welser-Möst insists on giving many of them his personal attention.

“I decided years ago I want to do it myself,” he said. “I want to go out to a high school and conduct the orchestra there. I’m the first music director in Cleveland, since 1921, who did that. The last one was (Nikolai) Sokoloff, who was the first music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.”

Welser-Möst recalls a concert in one of the tougher neighborhoods in Miami, where the Cleveland Orchestra has a three-week annual residency. He conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the audience of 800 students was transfixed.

“It’s so rewarding,” he said. “I explained the piece to them and I think the point with young people, like with any audience, is don’t talk down to them, challenge them and take them seriously.

“The outcome was — and it was a 95 percent African-American audience, and nearly, maybe 100 percent, maybe 98 percent, had never heard a symphony in their life — two days later 155 of them came to our concert in the arts center in Miami. It’s proof that you can actually reach them.”

The ensemble’s expanded outreach goes beyond educational concerts. Under Welser-Möst’s leadership, the Cleveland Orchestra has established residences not only in Miami, but in Vienna and Lucerne, and is exploring possibilities in New York and Paris.

“With the world as it has changed, and as the recording business has changed, it’s better to be famous, so to speak, in a few places than being sort of famous all over the world,” he said.

During the orchestra’s 2011 international tour (its 11th with Welser-Möst), it performed four concerts at the famed Musikverein in Vienna, Welser-Möst’s home base.

“We’re really famous in Vienna because that’s where we started these residences,” he said. “We come every other year, it’s always sold out, and people look forward to it. We’ve done it in Lucerne at the festival, and we are starting that with Paris, where we will try to build our own audience and simply have a fan club.”

While orchestras like Cleveland used to build fan clubs (and earn income) through recordings, Welser-Möst sees touring as a more effective and efficient means of communication.

“If you make a classical CD, and if you sell well, you sell about 10,000 copies,” Welser-Möst said. “That’s already really good, right? How many concerts do you play to reach 10,000 people? Maybe four concerts. It’s as simple as that.”

And those 10,000 copies are unlikely to generate income. Welser-Möst points to the 15 operatic DVDs he made while music director of the Zurich Opera, which didn’t make a cent.

“So we have to find different ways to reach our audiences,” he said. “We cannot just cannot say, ‘OK, that’s the way we’ve done it and that’s the way it always will be.’ ”

Tradition, however, is a powerful force in an ensemble like Cleveland, whose past greatness lies in a foundation set by the 24-year tenure of the legendary George Szell. It ended in 1970, but subsequent music directors before Welser-Möst (in particular Christoph von Dohnányi) have had trouble emerging from his shadow.

“Like we say, ‘The king is dead, long live the king,’ ” Welser-Möst said. “So one guy is gone and now we do everything different. Tradition means not standing still; tradition means you question everything which has been done, you discard everything you think should be discarded, and you carry on what you think is worth carrying on. …

“The orchestra’s transparency, its accuracy, the obsession with detail, are more than worth carrying on. At the same time, I want to change the sound of the orchestra in the sense that it becomes more singing (an inclination that comes directly from his Austrian background).

“But these are things that take time.”

Welser-Möst, who started in 2002, is prepared to spend whatever time it takes. He is committed through 2018.

“A senior member of the orchestra, a double bass player, he said at the end of my first season, ‘You know, it will take us several years to get used to you,’ ” Welser-Möst said. “And, you know, it was a very genuine and absolutely right comment.”

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Source: UTsandiego