CityMusic Cleveland strives for more as it approaches its 15th season

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

On a sweltering and stormy evening in mid-May, the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus presented a special Saturday night service, of sorts.

It was a program that typically takes place only four times a year at the Catholic parish in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood. What set it apart is that its central discourse came not from a priest’s homily but from a conductor’s baton, the congregation rose from pews not to celebrate the mass but to deliver standing ovations, and the music was taken not from a hymnal but from the catalog of Ludwig van Beethoven.

On this night, CityMusic Cleveland, the distinguished chamber orchestra that nomadically – and notably – plays free of charge at churches and synagogues across Northeast Ohio, performed to the delight of everyone assembled.

In October, CityMusic Cleveland will begin its 15th season – an accomplishment executive director Eugenia Strauss says is worth noting.

“The 15th anniversary season is a big milestone for us,” she says. “You have to remember that all of our concerts are free and we have to raise every penny. So, we’re amazed we’re still standing.”

CityMusic Cleveland musicians perform at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.

CityMusic Cleveland musicians perform at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.

CityMusic Cleveland is, in fact, doing much more than just standing. In recent years, it’s expanded its offerings beyond its main series – four programs a year, each consisting of five nightly performances at five different venues – to include a musician-led chamber music series as well as the Clurie Bennis Children’s Outreach Program in collaboration with the Children’s Museum of Cleveland.

Still, even with robust options and years’ worth of performances, the orchestra struggles, surprisingly, with recognizability.

“In the music world, we’re much better known than in our own city. We’ve built a reputation of excellence,” Strauss says. “I’m amazed every time I meet somebody who says, ‘A friend of mine dragged me to this concert, and wow, this is amazing! Where have I been all of these years?’ That is a standard expression, time after time.

“We are, to our surprise, still very unknown in this city.”

Community experience

Those in the know, however, are devoted to CityMusic Cleveland. Judging from the manner in which audience members tap their fingers on the backs of pews and sway their heads – all in accordance with the peaks and valleys of the music – they’re also highly engaged in the performances.

That Season 14-ending concert drew listeners of all ages, from young children being introduced to classical music to older adults using the occasion as a date night.

CityMusic Cleveland concerts are almost familial experiences. Venues are nearly full, but given their scale, audiences are smaller and more intimate. And at St. Stanislaus, there’s almost always a bake sale, and everyone knows that if you want to buy a nut roll made by Vickie Mathis, you better do so early because they run out fast.

It’s not the type of atmosphere one might typically associate with classical music performances, but welcoming music enthusiasts of all kinds by performing for free and eliminating any cost barriers and taking the music to them rather than requiring them to travel to a performance hall, are both central to CityMusic Cleveland’s mission.

“There are very few chamber orchestras in the United States, and only three or four of our caliber, that do what we do in terms of giving free concerts, playing in churches and neighborhoods,” says Strauss, citing the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra as another example. “We always try to be on the cutting edge of programming in terms of attracting big audiences. We are very conscious of developing audiences, especially younger audiences.”

In addition to playing in Slavic Village, CityMusic Cleveland regularly performs in the city’s North Collinwood and St. Clair-Superior neighborhoods as well as suburbs like Beachwood, Elyria, Lakewood, Rocky River, Willoughby and Willoughby Hills.

CityMusic Cleveland violinist Masha Andreini, who’s also the director of the orchestra’s chamber music series, says connecting with audiences is one of the highlights for her as a performer.

“Every time going to these churches or performance centers, we establish a friendship with the audience,” she says. “Each location has its own audience, and sometimes the audience will come to several performances in the same series. We look forward to seeing those people, and if they’re not at some performances, we wonder what happened to them.

“I live in Shaker Heights, and often when I go to market or the grocery store, people will recognize me. It’s a great feeling to be able to go to different communities to perform and have this gratitude from people who really appreciate what we do.”

Season 15 highlights

In the upcoming season, those audiences will see CityMusic Cleveland welcome its first female conductor: Mélisse Brunet, a Cleveland Institute of Music graduate who was recently named the interim music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic for its 2018-19 season. She’ll conduct during the May 2019 series, which will feature Israeli cellist Amit Peled as the soloist.

The March 2019 series will feature the world premiere of a new violin concerto from longtime CityMusic Cleveland music director Avner Dorman. The series will also include the orchestra’s first performance at the Maltz Performing Arts Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The series this December will feature The Cleveland Orchestra’s principal oboist, Frank Rosenwein, as soloist. The season-opening series this October will feature two soloists: cellist Edward Aaron and violinist Tessa Lark.

Violinist Tessa Lark was the soloist during CityMusic Cleveland’s all-Beethoven show in May at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus.

Violinist Tessa Lark was the soloist during CityMusic Cleveland’s all-Beethoven show in May at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus.

Lark performed with CityMusic during its Season 14-ending series, including that night at St. Stanislaus. Her talent – as well as the authoritative flourishes she uses to punctuate her performances – resonated with the audience. Strauss calls Lark a “fan favorite.”

“She’s a beautiful player, first of all. She’s pretty amazing,” she says. “She has a way of connecting to audiences that makes them really excited to see her. We get the greatest response from our audiences when she plays.”

Two additional Season 15 highlights will occur mostly off the stage. CityMusic Cleveland is in the process of creating a fellowship for African-American and Latino musicians in which the recipient will learn all facets of the organization, from performing to program development. The orchestra also hopes to release two new albums during the course of the upcoming season.

CityMusic Cleveland musicians perform at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.

CityMusic Cleveland musicians perform at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.

Passing the plate

The biggest challenge of CityMusic Cleveland’s 15-year existence, Strauss says, has been funding.

“It’s very hard to raise money for something that’s free. We have to constantly overcome the idea of, ‘If it’s free, how can it be good?’ – even though we prove time after time it’s amazing.”

That isn’t the only funding misconception – or obstacle – affecting the orchestra.

“A lot of people think the musicians play for free,” says Strauss, noting the size of the orchestra fluctuates between 34 and 54 musicians depending on the performance. “Every concert, we have to explain to the audience that our musicians aren’t volunteering. They’re professional musicians, highly qualified, and have their families (to support).”

CityMusic Cleveland receives grants but its biggest funding sources are donations made by audience members during concerts – at churches in which the orchestra performs, donations are made via collection plates or baskets – and donations from its boa       rd trustees.

“We occasionally have a benefit, but we’re such a tiny operation that we can’t do it every year,” Strauss explains. “There are eight board members and two people on the staff to manage all of this.”

CityMusic Cleveland also relies on relationships forged with the communities in which it plays. The orchestra touts those locales on its website, offering concertgoers suggestions for places to eat and providing them with a history on the community, in exchange for help laying the groundwork for their appearances. In Slavic Village, Strauss counts City Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, Slavic Village Development and David Krakowski, director of liturgy and music at St. Stanislaus, as the orchestra’s biggest supporters.

Another way the orchestra gives back is through ambitious programming that attempts to tackle social issues such as raising awareness for international refugees in Northeast Ohio, bullying, genocide and oppression, and Jewish-Muslim relations.

“Social issues are very close to my heart, and I figured there’s a way for the orchestra to very gently bring attention to issues that exist in this city,” Strauss says. “It was also a great way to connect to social services and other nonprofits that deal with an array of issues. In establishing relationships and collaborations, it gave us a way to dig deeper into the community and become better known.”

A lot has changed for the orchestra since it began. Strauss feels the biggest change has been the quality of its performances.

“Each season, we’ve gotten better and better,” she says. “We have a reputation now in the music world that we can attract great soloists, conductors and composers, which is really important.”

Looking ahead, Strauss feels the orchestra will continue to heed advice once given to it by an esteemed former president of the Cleveland Institute of Music.

“As Joel Smirnoff told us, our task is to maintain the excellence of the orchestra,” she says. “He considers us one of the top chamber orchestras in the United States, which is a wonderful achievement for the musicians.” cv

CityMusic Cleveland Season 15

Series 1
When: Oct. 24-28
Where: Beachwood, Cleveland’s North Collinwood and Slavic Village neighborhoods, Lakewood, Willoughby Hills
Conductor: Avner Dorman
Soloists: Tessa Lark, violin; Edward Aaron, cello
Program: Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op.102; Brahms Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op.73

Series 2
When: Dec. 12-16
Where: Beachwood, Cleveland’s North Collinwood and Slavic Village neighborhoods, Lakewood, Willoughby Hills
Conductor: Stefan Willich
Soloist: Frank Rosenwein, oboe
Program: Mozart Magic Flute Overture K620; Strauss Oboe Concerto in D Major; Mozart Symphony No. 39 in E Major K543

Series 3
When: March 13-17, 2019
Where: Cleveland’s North Collinwood, Slavic Village and University Circle neighborhoods, Lakewood, Willoughby Hills
Conductor: Avner Dorman
Soloist: Sayaka Shoji, violin
Program: Takemitzu Waltz; Dorman Violin Concerto No.3 (world premiere); Poulenc Sinfonietta

Series 4
When: May 15-19, 2019
Where: Beachwood, Cleveland’s North Collinwood and Slavic Village neighborhoods, Lakewood, Willoughby Hills
Conductor: Mélisse Brunet
Soloist: Amit Peled, cello
Program: Mendelssohn Overture in C Major; Saint-Saëns Symphony in A Minor, Op.55; Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op.33; Kodály Dances of Galánta

For more information, visit

Lead Image: CityMusic Cleveland music director Avner Dorman conducts a performance that included Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, a Beethoven Violin Concerto and Beethoven Symphony No. 8.