Franz Welser-Möst has seen both ends of the musical spectrum.
Speaking to a sold-out City Club audience on Friday, the Cleveland Orchestra Music Director recalled a particularly horrific violin lesson at the age of 7. “When I walked in the room, you could cut all the sweat and angst in the air from previous students,” he said. “As I started to scratch on the instrument, I began to feel more and more ill. Then suddenly I threw up in the violin!”
Many years later, after leading the orchestra in a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at John Adams High School, Welser-Möst was approached by a young African-American student who asked him, “Where can I learn to play the violin?” For the conductor, “It was a very touching moment, because we made a difference in his life.”
The arc Welser-Möst traversed fostered a commitment to music education that blossomed last week in “Make Music!,” a new initiative to involve the community in the orchestra’s ongoing efforts to develop a new generation of classical music players and fans. “My vision is that the entire city is making music,” Welser-Möst said. “We have all the components for Cleveland to be the music city of America.”
An impossible dream? After last week’s events, it seems more like a matter of time. The highlight was an historic Showcase Concert on Thursday evening featuring the Cleveland Orchestra’s fledgling groups – the Youth Orchestra, Children’s Chorus, Youth Chorus and violinist Isabel Trautwein’s El Sistema@Rainey project for youngsters 6-9. It was the first time all those ensembles had performed together with their parent organization on the Severance Hall stage, a gathering of 300-plus musicians who sounded by turns charming, disciplined and highly professional.
Even more remarkable was an Education Concert on Wednesday morning introducing students to Romeo and Juliet with scenes from the play, music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, and songs from West Side Story. Nearly 1,500 middle school students sat perfectly quiet for an hour, captivated by the performance. “That was really good!” Maria Latorres, an eighth-grader at Paul L. Dunbar Elementary, said afterward. “I liked how they put music with the acting.”
Those were only the most visible activities in a week that also saw orchestra musicians conducting classes in local schools, making adult presentations in libraries, and playing two additional Education Concerts as well as a Family Concert on Friday night. Welser-Möst set the tone for future efforts with the closing piece of the Showcase Concert, a singalong version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
“I’m very proud that we got the audience to participate, even if some of them were singing an octave lower,” the conductor said at the City Club. “But that’s okay. It’s about the experience, what it feels like to be making music. Who knows – maybe 10 years from now, we’ll all be back here, singing together.”