By Brian Wise
In February 1921, the Cleveland Orchestra made its New York debut at the Hippodrome, an enormous, Moorish-style venue on Sixth Avenue that hosted circuses and other spectacles. A New York Times critic took note of the ensemble’s gender balance, writing, “of interest to New Yorkers was the presence of one woman violinist and another as flutist among Cleveland’s 95 players.”
The next year, Cleveland debuted at Carnegie Hall and this time, the Times reported on the presence of three women—“besides the inevitable harpist, though only two of them seemed to be in evidence this evening.”
In those solidly patriarchal times, Cleveland was notable in its hiring of women, with seven on the roster during its first season. They had all been freshly selected by Nikolai Sokoloff, who served as principal conductor from the orchestra’s inception, in 1918. But even more pathbreaking developments were happening offstage. Its founding manager was Adella Prentiss Hughes, a fiercely tenacious impresario who is widely believed to be the first woman in the United States to establish and manage a major symphony orchestra.
“Women in society technically did not have careers then,” notes Cleveland Orchestra archivist Andria Hoy. “That was not a normal thing to do. Her belief in the orchestra and her day-to-day working as a general manager were extremely important.”
Though frequently overshadowed by later, more colorful music directors including George Szell, Erich Leinsdorf, and Lorin Maazel, the Cleveland Orchestra’s founding figures built a musical institution where many before them had failed. In this, the orchestra’s 100th anniversary year, Hughes and Sokoloff serve as a reminder of the orchestra’s founding mission—and of present-day gender battles in classical music.
Born on November 29, 1869 to a Cleveland Heights family with connections to the city’s social and political elite, Hughes attended Rockwell, the city’s first public school. While studying music at Vassar College, she planned tours for the glee club, sang in operettas, and founded a banjo club. Among her classmates was Bessie Rockefeller, a daughter of Cleveland industrialist John D. Rockefeller.
Upon graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1890, Hughes traveled to Europe, where she studied piano in Berlin and routinely heard the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Hans von Bulöw. In her vivid, if selective, autobiography, Music Is My Life, Hughes recalls sitting behind the percussion when only chorus seating was available. “The noise was overwhelming,” she writes, “but I learned that night what the conductor of a symphony orchestra has the power to do with his players.”
Returning to Cleveland in 1891, Hughes found work as an accompanist and a pianist in chamber-music ensembles but increasingly began to focus on concert production. When, in 1894, a group of wealthy Cleveland women formed the Fortnightly Music Club to promote music in the community, she joined as a charter member. In her breakthrough as an impresario, she organized a concert production of “In a Persian Garden,” a song cycle by English composer Liza Lehmann and featuring four singers. With a donation from John D. Rockefeller, she brought it to Vassar in 1898.
“Many of the Cleveland Orchestra’s overarching struggles—and solutions—from its first decade seem torn from today’s headlines.”
Hughes soon became manager of the Fortnightly series and over the next 15 years, booked touring soloists, choruses, and operas in venues including the 3,500-seat Grays Armory. Among her “gets” were the New York Philharmonic, led by Gustav Mahler, the Pittsburgh Orchestra with Richard Strauss, and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She also presented Wagner’s Siegfried at Cleveland’s League Park (the first home of the Cleveland Indians) before 1,500 people. Her show-must-go-on tenacity was crucial when World War I limited global travel and smaller difficulties arose, such as a double-booking with a poultry show (“Grand Orchestra Ousted by Hens,” read the Cleveland Leader headline).
In 1915, Hughes helped to establish the Musical Arts Association, a for-profit concert society and a forerunner of the Cleveland Orchestra. Clevelanders had seen a string of failed orchestras including the Philharmonic Orchestra (which folded in 1899), the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (1900–01), and the Cleveland Grand Orchestra (1905–15). Hughes sat on a committee tasked with fundraising and improving the standards of the latter group, but it too collapsed, unable to impress audiences. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s industries were booming and its population growing; by 1910, it was the sixth largest city in the US, up from 15th, 30 years earlier.
“By 1915, Hughes had been a survivor of Cleveland’s symphony wars for almost two decades,” writes Donald Rosenberg in The Cleveland Orchestra Story, a sweeping history published in 2000. “The indomitable woman who so zealously spread appreciation for great music—in an environment dominated by high-powered men—was about to lead the city to a cultural milestone.”
In 1918, a local pastor, Father John Powers of St. Ann’s Parish, sought to give a vocal concert and approached Hughes for help. She agreed and recruited Sokoloff, who assembled a very respectable freelance ensemble of 54 musicians. The concert on December 11, 1918, in Grays Armory, was a vanity project, but Sokoloff’s conducting of Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Liszt drew high marks from music critics. Hughes quickly arranged for a repeat, with cheaper ticket prices—and without Powers. Plans for a full concert season followed.
A Kiev-born, Yale University–trained violinist, Sokoloff was a relative upstart on the podium, his chief credential being a season conducting the People’s Philharmonic Orchestra in San Francisco (where he insisted on paying female and male musicians equally). But his familiarity with Cleveland dated back to 1907, when he visited as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hughes later met Sokoloff at a music educators’ conference, where he delivered a speech about the importance of community outreach.
“Education was going to be from the start a very important part of the activities of this orchestra,” says André Gremillet, the orchestra’s executive director since 2015. He considers education central to Cleveland’s founding DNA, “unlike many other orchestras that came to education relatively late in their histories.” (Its fully endowed outreach and school programs are now said to reach 60,000 people annually.)
Indeed, many of the Cleveland Orchestra’s overarching struggles—and solutions—from its first decade seem torn from today’s headlines.
Outreach concerts, for one, were viewed as a way to build community ties and develop future audiences, starting with a 1919 concert at Cleveland’s West Technical High School. By 1921, school children were also brought to Masonic Hall, the orchestra’s rented home. In Music Is My Life, Hughes devotes a full chapter to education, and details her fledgling efforts to involve the city’s public schools. The hiring in 1929 of an education director, Lillian Baldwin, expanded this focus.
Media was another prescient concern. Hughes and Sokoloff hired a publicity firm, Henderson & Jappe, to drum up newspaper coverage of the orchestra’s first season, which included 27 concerts. They identified the promotional benefits of radio, and in 1922 Cleveland became the second US orchestra to give a national radio broadcast (only the first half of Thursday night concerts were broadcast, foreshadowing modern practices involving downloads and streaming). And even crossover debates surfaced: The conservative Hughes and Sokoloff both detested jazz, and orchestra musicians were forbidden from taking outside work in ragtime and dance bands.
Perhaps most resonant today were the efforts by Hughes and the Musical Arts Association to court donors.
After a funding shortfall during the first season, some of Cleveland’s leading industrialists stepped up to supply more than half of the anticipated $100,000 budget for the second season. “For decades, deficits would be wiped out with personal checks from one or two or more of these guarantors,” writes author Rosenberg.
Among the supporters was John L. Severance, heir to the Standard Oil fortune and himself an accomplished entrepreneur. When he and his wife, Elizabeth, gave $1 million toward the construction of the Cleveland Orchestra’s first permanent home, his gift was contingent on forming a permanent endowment and maintenance fund (philanthropists Rockefeller and William Bingham II also cut checks). Severance Hall opened on February 5, 1931, in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood.
Hughes’ successful push for a concert hall—a long and twisting story with many contemporary parallels—would stand as a crowning achievement of her tenure. Two years after Severance Hall opened, she stepped down as the orchestra’s manager, though she continued to work as a vice president and secretary for the Musical Arts Association until 1945. Hughes’ marriage to a vocal teacher in 1904 ended in divorce 20 years later and she never remarried. She died on August 23, 1950.
Cleveland’s Gremillet believes that Hughes’ legacy is reflected in the number of women today holding top managerial posts with major orchestras. When asked about the next battles in gender equality—and specifically, about the dearth of women conductors and composers on top orchestra programs—Gremillet admits “there’s a long way to go.” (Cleveland’s current season includes just one female conductor, if one counts Mitsuko Uchida leading from the keyboard.) Gremillet cites a need for a bigger pool of female candidates.
“Our job is very clear,” he said. “We have to put the very best people in front of the orchestra, whether they’re male or female. We don’t look at it from a gender perspective. We ask, does that person belong on the podium and will he or she do a good job with us? But clearly there’s a much, much smaller pool [of women] to pick from.”
The Cleveland Orchestra’s anniversary events this year include an expansion of its digital archives this spring and a series of celebratory community concerts across the region. As the season winds down in May with a (squarely traditional) Beethoven symphony cycle, one is reminded of the plainspoken words of Hughes in her memoir: “Music is a communication. It must have not only the senders—the makers of music—but the receivers—those who enjoy it.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strings magazine.