André Gremillet’s first taste of the Severance Music Center and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Concert Hall came in 2015. At some point over a three-day League of American Orchestras conference in May 2015, Gremillet walked into Severance Music Center and took in a concert from the hall’s upper section. Seven months later, Gremillet came back into the hall in a completely different capacity — president and CEO.
On Jan. 4, 2016, Gremillet celebrated his first day as the CEO of the Cleveland Orchestra by sitting with Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst for cellist auditions. With only 10 people in the hall at a given time, Gremillet was able to truly appreciate both the sound and architecture of the historic venue, which has been a University Circle mainstay since it was built in 1930 and opened in 1931.
As Gremillet enters the heart of his sixth season at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra, he spoke with us about Severance Music Center, the orchestra’s future and what’s next after 2020’s shutdown.
Q. What’s your favorite part of Severance Music Center?
A. “This space has a unique combination of sheer physical beauty along with an incredible sound. When you hear the orchestra, there’s a complete fusion of those two things. The top level of the hall is a 10-second walk from my office, so I come here a lot during the day to hear some of the rehearsals, or sometimes I’ll come here during the day when there’s no one else here to just kind of recharge my batteries. There’s something incredibly uplifting about being in this hall and feeling its tradition. It’s a reminder of the accountability of what I do and the importance of what I do while also reminding me that I’m just one small piece of a great history. My job is to make sure that the people after me can have this same experience.”
Q. What’s the stage experience like when this place is filled?
As someone who goes on the stage occasionally to greet the audience, it’s a completely different experience than sitting in the box. As we recorded music during the pandemic, a lot of the musicians told us how much they miss the audience. When you see the audience, you get this incredible energy and sense that they are part of the performance and experience, and that has a big impact on the musicians. As a performer, it’s incredibly inspiring. When I speak on the stage and see everyone, it reminds me what an incredible responsibility and privilege it is to keep bringing these experiences to people. We got so many notes during the pandemic about how much people were missing us. It’s not a luxury, it’s something that people really need as a part of their lives.”
Q. How does Severance Music Center tie into the mission of Cleveland’s arts scene?
A. “Things have changed over the last century. Before, I think there was a sense that these massive buildings were meant to be a world, and because of that it was kind of isolated. I think we view things very differently now. We’re trying to build to be in the community and be open to the world. What we’re really trying to do is do everything we can do to keep opening because this can be an intimating place to walk around in. This building was built for the community, and this community has really evolved and changed over the past couple years, which is wonderful. We want it to be as accessible as possible.”
Q. How tough is it to keep the history of this space alive while also making the necessary changes to make sure it’s built for the future?
A. “Tradition is tricky, because sometimes tradition can be used as a guise for not wanting to change. For us, it’s all about focusing on what’s essential for us, and right now the music and access to music is essential for us. Adella Prentiss Hughes, who founded the orchestra, made it part of the orchestra’s mission to go into schools and play music for students. That was 100 years ago; how you do that now is very different from how it was done before. We’re trying to evolve with society. We’re going digital and streaming concerts but it’s all part of the same mission. We’re trying to make our music as accessible as possible to as many people as possible while also reflecting on how the community has changed over the years. It’s all about expanding the reach.”
Q. How does this space help the orchestra?“
A. very important reason why the Cleveland Orchestra has become one of the greatest orchestras in the world is because of this hall, and part of that is because the hall itself is an instrument. When you have an orchestra on this stage, musicians are able to hear each other, and with that, they develop a refinement and excellence. You take that with you where you go; if you haven’t heard that you can’t reproduce that. There’s a correlation between the great orchestras in the world being able to do so because they have a great venue they play in. They first developed a great orchestra then they developed a great hall. They got it right from the start. It’s quite amazing.”