About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 5, 2015

Mahler in Cleveland

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

The Cleveland Orchestra, Mahler 3, Severance Hall, Franz Welser-Möst: my equivalent to meeting the Pope. We drove 12 turnpike hours round trip through the margins of Hurricane Joaquin, and upon arrival in Cleveland endured 30-mph winds, arctic temperatures, and "Lot Full" parking. I recognized some of the potholes I learned to avoid when I lived there 30 years ago. 

Plunging into the traffic and crowds in University Circle I suspected that very few others were heading to Severance Hall for what I believed could be a concert of a lifetime. Most probably have never set foot in one of the world's greatest temples of music. Those suspicions were confirmed by the empty seats in every section of the hall. We easily obtained prime center seats in the third row of the dress circle for $89. 

The dark lobby spaces and narrow halls seemed old and a little shabby--the lower level a bit like the bowels of Penn Station--but better than Carnegie Hall. We wanted a glass of wine at a small booth before curtain time but the server had no cork screw. At least there were no long queues like there are in Walt Disney Hall. When we asked an elderly usher, still mystified by her bar-code scanner, for directions to the "Concert Preview," she directed us to the room where Renée Fleming was finishing a master class. We finally found the preview upstairs and eventually even a glass of wine.

When we finally entered the hall, it was indeed like walking through the pearly gates. It remains the most perfect concert hall I have ever been in, perfectly-sized, comfortable, with acoustics that seem to defy the laws of physics. In every seat you can hear every note perfectly balanced as if you were sitting on the conductor's podium. Only the sound of oboe players inserting earplugs before trombone eruptions failed to reach the audience. More than 200 performers didn't seem at all crowded.

Trombonist, Massimo La Rosa, was a star of the first movement. "Robust" would be an understatement. When he was acknowledged by conductor Welser-Möst during a long standing ovation, the cheers from the audience could have drowned out a stadium full of Browns fans after a touchdown. That's not to detract from the entirety of the performance, which was a magnificent and memorable experience--maybe "transformative" is the accolade du jour, and it must have been for some of the 50 members of the Children's Chorus. It was for me when I first heard this orchestra in this hall with George Szell as a child in the late 1940's. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

Kelley O'Connor's rich mellifluous, O Mensch! Gib acht! filled the hall and the orchestra playing would have brought Mahler to tears. I can't imagine even the most rabid tea-party congressman not being humbled--OK, maybe slightly moved--by such a powerful result of human collaboration. Too bad the Pope missed it.

After the concert, the Severance Restaurant provided a comfortable place to unwind and relax with a glass of Sancerre and a lovely charcuterie after 95 intense minutes of music. While some of the players were probably relaxing up the street in a Little Italy trattoria, we conversed at the bar with a close friend and student of John Mack, the orchestra's former principal oboist and Dean of Oboes in America. As I have been, Mack's friend was a neuroscience imager, albeit micro while I was macro. Go figure.

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