In the summer, while the Cleveland Orchestra is busy with its Blossom concert series, Rose Breckenridge hunkers down deep inside next season's music.
"Summer is hibernation time," Breckenridge says. "Don't call me."
As the instructor and administrator for the Cleveland Orchestra's Music Study Groups, Breckenridge is currently writing her lectures for the 2017-2018 season, which also just happens to be the 100th anniversary of the outfit. Writing the lectures means breaking down Beethoven and Mahler and more to make it comprehensible and accessible to all. The hibernation occurs in her home office, piled with scores and books, while recordings of the works she'll be discussing repeat constantly on her CD player.
Earlier this month, Breckenridge was at Severance Hall, a place she's known intimately for three decades, for a proof meeting of the study group listening guide – the 100-page manuscript given to each series attendee. It will feature past program notes and score excerpts, which aid attendees through Breckenridge's daytime lectures at libraries and churches throughout the year.
"My approach is to find the drama in every piece. Everyone understands drama, and most music is drama," she says. "Not everyone understands the technical terms in music, so I use a lot of metaphors."
Breckenridge, who moved from Chicago to earn her doctorate at Case Western Reserve University, has taught these classes since the 1980s, when the program was run by the Women's Committee of the Cleveland Orchestra (which, as of last month, has changed its name to Friends of the Cleveland Orchestra to be more inclusive). Since 1994, the Orchestra has taken the reins, putting Breckenridge officially in charge.
And it makes sense that she's the one still running the show. When Breckenridge speaks about classical music, her eyes light up. She wants you to understand that the more you learn about the music, the more fascinating it becomes.
"Classical music, it's beyond words," the pianist says. "If you could put it in words, you wouldn't need it. To me, it's like part of the air: I need rest and food and joy and music. I can give you a musical tour of what's happening in the artwork, but the beauty of music is you can't say what it means. I can only offer you an interpretation."
Breckenridge acknowledges that you don't have to like every piece of music, but she counters that the more you learn about the work, the more it may grow on you. She says she's afraid that to a new generation, classical music may all sound like elevator music.
"There's a lot more entertainment choices these days, and the future of any orchestra is all about cultural heritage," she says. "My whole life I've been devoted to finding meaning in the arts, and the spiritual power of the arts, and every thinking person has to examine their life and decide what is important."
Knowing so much about composers and their signature styles can even come in handy on the home scene. Sometimes, when Breckenridge is in the car with her husband listening to the classical music station, he'll ask her to guess which composer wrote the piece. It's a little game, one she often wins.
"My ultimate goal really is to share the joy of music with everybody," says Breckenridge, who also gives concert preview lectures when called upon. "So when people do go to a concert, they can experience it more deeply."
During the summer's busiest writing points, Breckenridge will set aside at least one hour of the day for peace and quiet. She likes to take walks and meditate on the music and hammer out what she wants to say.
"But at some point you have to say 'that's it,' you have to write the lecture, and turn it in," she says. "But sometimes you wish you had more time." —Laura Morrison