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On The Cleveland Orchestra

// Mar 12,2013

| by Tonu Kalam |

Growing up and attending school in the Boston area, I was fortunate to be part of the musical environment of one of the premier cultural centers of the United States. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has long been considered one of the top ensembles of its kind, and, while in college, I attended their Friday afternoon performances every week, purchasing 50-cent rush ticket seats in the second balcony of Symphony Hall. Yet, in spite of the quality and prestige of the BSO, there was always a yearly event that I anticipated more than any other concert – The Cleveland Orchestra on its annual tour to the East Coast, under its legendary music director George Szell, usually performing in Symphony Hall on the second Wednesday in February.

The Clevelanders set the standard for polished and brilliant ensemble playing, and Szell was one of the great conductors of the 20th century, especially as an interpreter of the core Austro-Germanic repertoire. I still remember vividly the perfectly paced hair-raising climax near the end of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration on one of those concerts. And it was always a revelation to hear them in person, for the engineering on their recordings by the Epic and Columbia labels did not do justice to the depth of their expressive sound or their powerful dynamic range.

In many ways, George Szell and his work in Cleveland served as an inspiration and role model for me when I was aspiring to become a conductor. His musical philosophy, tradition and integrity were shared by his close friend and long-time colleague Max Rudolf, then Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, who was later my conducting teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, and who passed on that tradition in a profound and lasting manner.

For many decades, the highest tier of American orchestras was known as the “big five” – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. For me, however, Cleveland was in a class by itself at the top, followed by the other four.  During his 24-year tenure with the orchestra, George Szell single-handedly transformed the ensemble from a solid regional group into a world-class one comparable to the best orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam and London. Though today’s Cleveland Orchestra personnel is virtually completely changed from Szell’s time, his legacy lives on in the chamber-musical unanimity of purpose in the orchestra’s playing, which combines discipline, flexibility, rhythmic precision, refined musicality, and beautiful sound. One cannot ask for anything more from a superb ensemble steeped in a great tradition.


Tonu Kalam is a professor of music at UNC-Chapel Hill and serves as Music Director and Conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra. He is also Music Director and Conductor of the Longview Symphony Orchestra in Texas, and performs regularly as a pianist and chamber musician.

This essay is part of a series of reflections included in our program books, written by members of the University and surrounding community. To view the program book, click here.