The Cleveland Orchestra blossoms at its summer home

by Peggy Sexton Photos special to Hudson Monthly Published:

Built as the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1968, Blossom Music Center has drawn thousands to its pristine, 800 acres of rolling hills to bask in the strains of Beethoven and Mozart on a starry, summer evening.

Of course, sometimes it rains which poses a challenge for those with lawn seats. "We live with the weather," says Mary Ann Makee, director of facilities management and operations for the Cleveland Orchestra. "It is summer in Northeast Ohio after all."

"We've had rain coming down sideways and waterfalls off the roof of the pavilion," Makee says. Fortunately, nature has its advantages too, with the presence of Indiana brown bats flying in the night sky and other birds and wildlife around to enjoy. "It's such a dramatic, bucolic setting," Makee says. "Blossom is a real jewel."

The outdoor venue is an integral part of the Blossom experience, though it can pose a challenge for the orchestra and concert goers. Makee recalls a night at Blossom when she was walking behind the pavilion as the Orchestra played a quiet, serious program. She realized suddenly that she was walking behind a family of skunks. She held her breath and remembers thinking, "OK, skunks, you behave yourselves."

The Cleveland Orchestra opened its 46th annual Blossom Music Festival July 6, performing Dvorak's well-known "Symphony No. 9" ("From the New World") and later in July welcomed the Japanese-Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo for "A Taste of Spain" program of Bizet and Saint-Saens.

Though the summer may be half over, for fans of the Orchestra, there's still a great deal more music to be enjoyed as the Orchestra mixes pop with classical masterpieces -- from Brahms to the Beatles and Haydn to Hollywood.

And with any luck, the wildlife will cooperate.

Blossom Music Center was named in honor of Dudley Blossom, a major supporter of the orchestra and a former president of the Musical Arts Association, the orchestra's governing body. Highway access, convenience to both Akron and Cleveland and the quiet amidst the forests of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park were what drew the Orchestra to the Cuyahoga Falls location. It remains one of Ohio's largest venues for musical events.

George Szell conducted the first orchestra concert for the Blossom Music Festival in 1968, part of a six-week season of performances. Over the years, the season was stretched from July 4 to Labor Day weekend.

In the 1970s, Blossom welcomed other popular rock, jazz and country acts. Live Nation currently operates Blossom, maintaining the grounds, providing staffing and booking and promoting each season's non-orchestral attractions, which this year include One Direction, the Dave Matthews Band and James Taylor.

Until 2005, the Blossom Music Festival had its own music director. But now the orchestra's full-time music director, Franz Welser-Most, is in charge of the classical music concerts during both the regular concert season in Cleveland's Severance Hall and the summer concerts at Blossom.

Usually Blossom is the only place the orchestra plays in July and August, but this year for the first time it will play three concerts in August at Severance.

In September, after a decade's absence, the Cleveland Orchestra also returns to London's BBC Proms, one of the world's most prestigious annual summer concert series. The Proms is eight weeks of daily orchestral classical music concerts. The Cleveland Orchestra will play music by Johannes Brahms and Jorg Widmann at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Sept. 7 and 8. The concerts kick-off the orchestra's 14th International Concert Tour during which they'll perform in seven cities across Europe, Sept. 7 to Sept. 22.

Recessed into the hillscape, the pavilion at Blossom seats nearly 6,000 and another 1,200 typically sit on the lawn for an orchestra concert. A total of 120,398 people attended an orchestra concert at Blossom last summer.

In recent years, the orchestra has tried new things at Blossom as it listens to audience needs, Makee says.

"At Blossom, we really want to have a bit of something for everyone," says Julie Stapf, director of sales and marketing for the Orchestra. "This year, we're very excited to present Yo-Yo Ma who is a superstar in the classical world," Stapf says. Ma will perform Elgar's "Cello Concerto" and Dvorak's "Symphony No. 6" with Conductor Jahja Ling on Aug. 6. In the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, Ling will mark the 30th anniversary of his debut conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.

For one-night only, Aug. 24, the orchestra will join with the Beatles tribute band, Classical Mystery Tour, in playing legendary Beatles hits with the original orchestrations. "The concert is already getting a lot of buzz," Stapf says.

For those who've never had the opportunity to experience a live Beatles show, this is it -- the four musicians in the Classical Mystery Tour look and sound just like the Beatles. With the Orchestra, they'll play hits like "Penny Lane" with a live trumpet section; "Yesterday" with an acoustic guitar and string quartet; and "I Am the Walrus" in a rock/classical blend.

The tribute band has played with other orchestras this year, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

On Aug. 23, the Orchestra performs Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." "Carmina Burana" is a collection of early 13th century songs and poems that Orff set to music in 1935-36. The music has been used in countless television shows, commercials and films ever since. People may not recognize the name, but they'll know the tune, Stapf says. "I'm told it's currently being used in a Hershey's chocolate commercial," she says.

This year's Family Fun Fest, on Aug. 30, will be a fun-filled evening of children's favorites from "The Little Mermaid," "The Wizard of Oz," "Frozen" and more. The festivities will start at 4:30 when young concertgoers will be encouraged to try out some musical instruments. Radio Disney will be there as well and the evening will end with a post-concert fireworks show.

Pat Sayjak, of "Wheel of Fortune" fame, will narrate the program, including a reading of "Casey at the Bat," one of the best-known poems in American Literature.

"The Fun Fest is such a wonderful program for families with a wide range of things going on, Makee says, adding that the "Under 18s" lawn passes also makes it affordable. Designed to encourage families to attend concerts together, the "Under 18s" program allows two children under the age of 18 to be admitted free on the lawn for every regular-priced adult paid admission.

Last year, there were nearly 20,000 "Under 18s" tickets issued.

The season closes Aug. 31 when Most will make his only appearance at Blossom this summer. The European Festivals Tour send-off performance will feature the Brahms and Widmann works they'll perform in Europe.

Guest conductors making their Blossom debut this summer are Asher Fisch, John Storgards, Matthew Halls and Jeffrey Kahane. Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will also make his Blossom debut on Aug. 2 for the "Romantic Rachmaninoff" program. He was named Gramophone's "Young Artist of the Year" in 2012.

Better with age

In 2002, Blossom underwent its first major capital improvement project totaling $8 million. Additional upgrading has continued since that time, including major accessibility work funded by the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act. New restroom facilities near the pavilion are in use this summer also. Blossom serves about 400,000 visitors a year.

Orchestra concert goers can bring a picnic basket and wine onto the grounds -- not allowed for non-orchestral events -- dine at the Blossom Grille or choose from a variety of gourmet, boxed dinners from the restaurant.

Claire Frattare, the president of the state-wide Blossom Women's Committee has been a Blossom concert goer for more than 15 years. She says she's especially looking forward to Yo-Yo Ma and Jahja Ling's performance in August. "It will just be a fabulous evening. Everyone's talking about it," she says. "To have them together along with the orchestra, it just doesn't get any better than that."

The BWC has five chapters, including one in Hudson, which works to promote and financially support the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom. Every year the group sponsors Opening Night and hosts a pre-concert dinner open to the public in the Knight Grove, an outdoor covered party center on the Blossom grounds.

Frattare recalls the excitement created at last year's dinner when halfway through the meal, Most is driven up to the event in a golf cart. Not yet in his concert attire but dressed in khakis and shirtsleeves, he hopped out and addressed the dinner crowd for about ten minutes.

"The minute he arrived, everyone jumped up with their cell phones to take a picture," Frattare says, adding that only a handful of people knew he might make an appearance. "Everyone was so surprised," she says. "It really made the evening special."

Seeing Most at this year's send-off concert on Aug. 31 is another event Frattare says is a "must-see" for her this summer. "The variety of music is what's so exceptional about the Blossom Festival. You can't help but find something you'll enjoy," she says.v

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