Severance Payoff

Cleveland's great music hall gets an update

A noteworthy project.
A noteworthy project.
One evening in 1983, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was performing on the intimate stage of Severance Hall. At intermission, John Mack, the Cleveland Orchestra's principal oboe player, walked onstage to greet the visiting musicians.

"One of them turned to me and said, "How do you guys play in this place?'" recalls Mack, explaining that the hall's acoustics left no room for mistakes.

"I said, "We play quite well, thank you.'"

Mack, who was born in 1927, has been a member of the Cleveland Orchestra since 1965, and he passionately hails Severance Hall as one of the world's greatest venues for live music. "It's really a lovely hall and has a degree of intimacy that a lot of halls don't have," says Mack, who has played in hundreds of venues around the world.

The hall, whose neoclassical edifice served as a Kazakhstani palace in the movie Air Force One, will reopen on January 8 after a two-year, $36 million renovation and expansion project. "The orchestra is so anxious to get back in there," Mack says longingly. "We miss our home dreadfully."

But as the old saying goes, you can never really go home again. Waiting in their old digs is a new stage, and no one knows for certain what effect it will have on the hall's superior acoustics, which have long fostered the orchestra's precise sound.

One secret to the hall's outstanding acoustics is the virtual beach that's surrounded the musicians for decades. During the 1958 acoustic renovation, nine feet of sand were poured around the floor of the stage shell (the area surrounding the musicians). "It bolsters the reflective nature of the surface and helps project the sound out into the auditorium," explains Mack, who also serves on the orchestra's acoustics and organ subcommittee.

The hope is that the audience will notice no aural difference in the orchestra's performance. The new shell will still have nine feet of sand, plus a nostalgic scoop from the old shell, but Mack admits, "We won't know what it sounds like until we go back."

Another planned change to the orchestra's stage shell is the relocation of the 6,025-pipe E.M. Skinner organ, which was sealed off from the hall during the 1958 renovation. In June, the organ will be moved to stage level behind the orchestra, but it won't make its musical debut until January 2001.

Other changes will be less subtle. The Egyptian-style murals and exquisite bronze work in the Grand Foyer now revel in their original 1931 grandeur, and the marble floors on the winding staircases, once covered by carpet, are now exposed, complementing the foyer's red jasper marble columns.

There's also a 39,000-square-foot addition to the building, which includes new backstage facilities, loading docks, a retail gift shop, and a "Garden Lobby" adorned with skylights and Italian marble, as well as a full-service sit-down dining room -- called Severance: The Restaurant -- with windows overlooking East Boulevard and the Wade Oval Lagoon. The eatery is run by Catering Associates, the blue-chip company that slings the hash at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

But perhaps the most welcome change for visitors will be the addition of 150 percent more restrooms -- all of them women's -- a response to the number-one request of patrons when the orchestra asked for input on the new addition.

While the highfalutin opening-night gala may blow your 2000 entertainment budget -- with tickets at $300 a pop -- there will be several affordable reopening performances to follow. Among them are a free Martin Luther King Celebration Concert on January 16 and an open house on January 17.

"Anyone who hasn't been there should give it a try, that's for sure," Mack says with contagious enthusiasm. "It's like tasting a new cuisine that you've never had."

On that note, bravo and bon appétit to a new era for the Cleveland Orchestra