On paper, Joshua Smith and Sean Watterson don't have much in common. Smith plays principal flute with the Cleveland Orchestra and Watterson runs the West side club the Happy Dog, a place known for its gourmet hot dogs, craft beers and those noisy indie rock bands that play during the late night hours. But when the two met at a fundraising event at author and journalist Charles Michener's house in 2010, they realized they had plenty in common.
"I had been thinking about getting off the Severance stage and into funky places if possible," admits Smith while sitting at the Happy Dog one recent afternoon and sharing a beer with Watterson and Cleveland Orchestra director of operations Julie Kim. "Sean told me about the place. I came to visit and have a hotdog a few weeks after that and I realized we could fit and it would work."
That gourmet hotdog must have done the trick because that summer, Smith decided to bring a stripped down version of the orchestra to the club. He and Watterson didn't know what to expect for the inaugural concert, but before the doors opened, a line of patrons stretched around the block. That doesn't even happen for the club's popular Polka happy hour.
"It was really experimental," Smith says of the program of music the group played. "We didn't know if anyone would even listen and we decided to keep it straight-up classical. We also told people that it didn't matter if they paid attention. We had three hours of material to get through and played until very late."
That event has grown into a regularly monthly gig for orchestra members. And it's become so popular that the Cleveland Orchestra has responded and will launch its first neighborhood residency in the surrounding area from May 11 to May 17. A total of 16 free events will be held in 14 different Gordon Square venues. It's unprecedented, not just for the orchestra but for any orchestra.
"The timing of this all is very serendipitous," says Kim. "Sean [Watterson] established a relationship and it was a no brainer that this should be the first residency location. The neighborhood has so much going on in terms of restaurants and arts stuff and it's very walk-able. It's a true neighborhood. It made it simple in some ways to decide on Gordon Square. We're facing challenges in terms of how we build a relationship with our community in Northeast Ohio. We're trying to break down preconceived notions of the orchestra being elitist. It's like any other genre of music — rock or country or jazz."
Orchestra musician Frank Rosenwein had a role in the residency, too. He serves on a committee called Engaging the Future.
"The notion of coming into a neighborhood and establishing a residence was in the air and we needed to grab ahold of the idea and make it into something concrete," he says. "Sean Watterson at the Happy Dog was really the impetus. We then gave the members of the orchestra the guidelines and they came up with really interesting ideas."
The week of festivities kicks off at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the coffee house Gypsy Beans & Baking Co. as Cleveland Orchestra musicians Frank Rosenwein and Jeffrey Rathbun will perform both individually and together. That same day, orchestra musicians will perform at a range of venues including a Hispanic church (La Sagrada Familia), a butcher shop (Stockyard Meats) and a theater (Cleveland Public Theatre). Battery Park Wine Bar hosts a chamber ensemble at 6 p.m. on Sunday and the Capitol Theatre will screen a film about the orchestra on at 9 a.m. on Monday.
And in case you want to see a group of musicians and administrators taken to task by a group of neighborhood kids, orchestra players and staff and neighborhood kids will square off in a soccer match at 5 p.m. on Monday at the Michael J. Zone Recreation Center
"I know the orchestra team is taking the soccer game seriously and practicing already and trying to figure out who will play what position," Smith says, adding that he's not much of a player and practically flinches when a ball is hit his way.
The festivities continue at 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday at the ice cream and candy shop Sweet Moses, where the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus Chamber Ensemble performs and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the restaurant and bar Spice where a bass quartet will perform. One of the week's biggest events will undoubtedly be the Ensemble HD record release party at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Happy Dog.
The album itself is a two-LP set that features a live performance recorded last year at the Happy Dog. The concert opens with a selection from early Beethoven and then includes pieces by Webern, Debussy and Arvo Part. Thomas Knab, a guy from the local label Telarc who has hundreds of classical album credits to his name, engineered the recording and somehow made the Happy Dog sound like a giant concert hall. Michener wrote the extensive liner notes and local photogs Frank Lanza and Jay Szabo provided the artwork for the gatefold packaging. The album was pressed locally at Gotta Groove Records.
"Ensemble HD is like [basketball icons] Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson," says Watterson of Ensemble HD, which includes Smith, Rosenwein, violinist Amy Lee, viola player Joanna Patterson Zakany, cellist Charles Bernard and pianist Christina Dahl. "It's like the all-star team."
Watterson says the orchestra's Gordon Square residency has been in the works ever since the orchestra took up roots at the Happy Dog. It just so happened that the album release date corresponds.
"This makes the story a national and international story. This happened in Cleveland for a reason. There's a reason it didn't happen in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, Detroit or St. Louis. We have world class art assets in Cleveland and that is the keystone to our hitting way above our per capita weight in terms of classical music."
Events continue through Saturday, May 17 when the orchestra will imbed itself at the 78th Street Studios where two different ensembles will perform at 6 and 9 p.m.
In exchange for the Orchestra coming to Gordon Square, Watterson says groups of residents from Gordon Square plan to make their way up to future orchestra performances on shuttle buses.
"We want people to see us there at Severance," he says. "There are biases, like there's no culture on the West side. If we come out in force, hopefully it won't be like that scene in Caddyshack when the caddies swim in the pool for the afternoon. Hopefully, it will be just bringing an energy and enthusiasm."
So does this mean you'll soon be able to get a hotdog at Severance Hall?
"We're working on that," admits Kim. "And we want to bring some of the artwork from the 78th Street Studios to Severance and display it in the public spaces. A lot of the work is so new and cutting edge and you could put it in Severance Hall, which is classic art deco and traditional, and it could be really cool."