by Daniel Hathaway
Following the unexpected passing at the beginning of the season of its longtime conductor Robert Cronquist (left) — only the second person in its history to lead the ensemble — the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra found itself scrambling for podium leadership. Guest conductor John Thomas Dodson has stepped into that role for the ensemble’s 84th annual concert at Severance Hall on Sunday, April 7 at 3:30 pm, and violinist Jinjoo Cho will be the featured soloist.
Founded in 1935 by Cleveland Orchestra violinist Hyman Schandler at a time when symphony orchestras were the exclusive province of male musicians, the Cleveland ensemble is the oldest women’s orchestra in the United States. After Schandler’s death in 1990, Cronquist took over the podium in addition to his posts as music director of the Mansfield Symphony and the summertime Lakeside Festival Orchestra. During his tenure, he established an endowment to sustain the ensemble as it moved into the 21st century.
Sunday’s program, presented in Cronquist’s memory and performed in the hall where the Orchestra made its debut in November of 1936, includes “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Sibelius’ Finlandia, Nicolai’s Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor, and Dvořák’s Violin Concerto.
“Trying to create a concert that remembered Bob meant looking at a lot of old programs,” Dodson said in a recent telephone conversation. “The only piece on Sunday’s program he never conducted with the orchestra was the Dvořák concerto, but he had programmed a lot of Dvořák, and Jinjoo had performed with him many times. She has had a long history with the ensemble, and she was the right person for this.”
Cho’s appearance continues a long line of women musicians who have appeared as soloists with the Orchestra. She first performed with the ensemble when she was still a teenager, and has returned so frequently over the years that she nearly lost track. In a 2016 interview with this publication before she played Wieniawski’s Second Concerto, she counted them up: “We’ve played Mendelssohn, Beethoven, the Waxman Carmen Fantasy — so this must be the fifth time at least.” That would make the Dvořák work her sixth solo appearance with her colleagues at Severance Hall.
John Thomas Dodson said that although he had once heard one of Cronquist’s concerts at Lakeside, he had never met the late conductor. He was recommended to the Women’s Orchestra by a mutual friend, and had led four or five rehearsals by the time we talked. “They’re very responsive and gracious, and they’ve taken my musical ideas very seriously,” he said. “I’ve been a guest in a musician’s home where I have a whole floor to myself, and one of the players even knitted me a long, colorful scarf!”
Dodson, who has held a number of music directorships including the Birmingham Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Symphony Orchestra, Bryan Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra New York, Coronado Music Festival and Philharmonia Orchestra of Tucson, currently conducts the Lexington (Michigan) Bach Festival and Conciertos de la Villa de Santo Domingo, a music festival in the Colonial City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the capital of the Dominican Republic.
Luckily for the Women’s Orchestra, Dodson was enjoying some down time just when his services were needed. He’s in the process of moving to Atlanta to put down new roots with his Dominican partner. “For the last 35 years, every move I’ve made has been because of a job, but this one is to be with friends we both know. We’ve found a loft we like, and I’m about to fly back to work with movers before returning to Cleveland for the last rehearsals.” Dodson has also moved into a second career as a consultant with a special concentration on mindfulness. “I can do that anywhere.”
In addition to its musical dimensions, the Cleveland gig has given Dodson the opportunities to re-establish a number of personal connections. “I know a lot of people in The Cleveland Orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, and at Oberlin, and I’ve had a lot of time here to see and enjoy people, and visit restaurants and museums.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 3, 2019.
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