As they ushered out the ring at Symphony Hall on Monday, the 11 musicians gathered round a microphone for a casual question-and-answer session.
What do they miss the most about the band? “For some players, hearing ourselves in live performance is very special,” bassoonist Haydon Saltzberg said. For others, it’s just something that felt familiar: “It’s just a rite of passage,” percussionist Chris Mercer, 28, said.
All in all, it was a relaxed event as the Cleveland Orchestra restarts recording. It will release one record in November and a second in December on the Bay Area-based label Jagjaguwar. When their last recording was released in 2015, their following remained the same: “the iconic 60,000-seat theater,” Jagjaguwar said in an email.
The recording will be a loose exploration of music conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s music director. “Policies, thinking, aims, procedures, teaching and old friends,” Bramwell Tovey, the orchestra’s principal bassoonist, said. “That’s the way it should be.”
It may not be unusual for an orchestra to start a recording to bring in new listeners. But for the Cleveland Orchestra, this move is a bit unusual. They’ve raised nearly $11 million to ensure the recording. They have, historically, felt that recording is merely a ceremonial duty.
That changed in 2016, when Tilson Thomas announced he would go about installing new music director Franz Welser-Most at the helm of the orchestra by recording his work and making it available to casual listeners and enthusiasts.
To fund the recording, the orchestra sold more than 1,600 private tickets, raising $7.7 million, they said. And the artwork, designed by Peter Sobrino of Sobrino-Torres, created 40 portraits of principal players, including Birgit Nilsson, a conductor who will soon retire. The portraits will remain on display in the orchestra.
The current conversation in Cleveland focuses on the type of ensemble members have formed. They have sketched out a plan to beef up the orchestra’s percussion, which they believe is too dependent on tradition.
“There’s a particular mindset with the percussion section, and sometimes it goes undisturbed and unchecked,” Tovey said. “The orchestra needs percussion players who are willing to change things.”
The goal is to have the percussion section’s part in the music be more flexible, from rigid to less rigid, he said.
“We need to be able to perform at different tempos, even in less formal music,” he said. “There are certain things they can perform differently than we can.”
It may feel radical, but, to enter the next wave, Tilson Thomas said it’s necessary.
“If we want to stay out there and keep giving the people of Cleveland what they want, this is the way to go,” he said.