During the early part of this century, opportunities for women musicians were few. For the most part, membership in symphonies was open only to men, which led to the formation of numerous women’s orchestras in cities across the country. As the last of the many women’s orchestras that flourished during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the historic Cleveland Women’s Orchestra is the oldest women’s orchestra in the country.
In Cleveland in 1935, Hyman Schandler, a Cleveland Orchestra member and violin teacher, took on the task of creating a women’s orchestra. He had many talented women students who had no opportunity to play once they were out of school. He discussed the need for such an orchestra with many other musicians and friends, and found a great deal of support for this venture. In 1935, he sent out audition notices and was overwhelmed by the response. He brought together a core group of 80 women of all ages and occupations who shared a love of playing fine music. On November 17, 1936, the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra made its debut at Severance Hall. In attendance were most of the musicians and music lovers in Cleveland. The concert was well received with good reviews by all three Cleveland newspapers. The city was filled with excitement about this new orchestra.
The Cleveland Women’s Orchestra had a number of specific goals: to provide talented women musicians with performance opportunities; to showcase gifted young soloists, often giving them their first performance opportunity with a full symphony; to join forces with other organizations to perform special-event programs; to develop and perpetuate a series of free Gift of Music outreach concerts; and to return each Spring to Severance Hall for an Annual Concert.
During these many years, the goals of the orchestra have remained the same. It has performed over 500 free outreach concerts — a record unmatched by any other orchestra in the area. It is an important part of Cleveland’s rich music scene.
Hyman Schandler conducted the orchestra for 55 years until his death, at the age of 90, in 1990. During those 55 years, he guided the Orchestra as it developed into a vital part of Cleveland’s music community. The list of soloists who have performed with the Orchestra is long and impressive. In 1946, an Advisory Board of civic-minded music lovers was founded, which contributed greatly to the orchestra’s success. Perhaps the most important orchestra booster was Mr. Schandler’s devoted wife, Rebecca, who worked endlessly to help the orchestra prosper.
In 1990, after the death of Mr. Schandler, Robert L. Cronquist was named Music Director. Mr. Cronquist, a lifelong friend of Mr. Schandler, continues the traditions of the orchestra and is building an Endowment to ensure the continuation of this historic orchestra into the 21st Century.
Hyman Schandler was born in Latvia in 1900 and came to Cleveland at the age of 3 with his mother and three sisters. His father had preceded them by two years.
He began playing the violin at the age of nine, taking lessons at Bailey’s Music School, the forerunner of the Cleveland Music School Settlement. He studied at the Settlement for eight years, and began teaching there at age eighteen. In 1926, in a ceremony performed at the Settlement, he married a faculty colleague, Rebecca White. He continued teaching there and, when he died in 1990, he had been teaching at the Settlement for more than 70 years.
He studied with Theodore Mueller in Salzburg, Austria, and performed with the Salzburg Festival Orchestra and Salzburg Mozarteum. He also studied conducting under the world-famous conductor, Herbert von Karajan. In 1927, he auditioned for conductor Nikolai Sokoloff and was accepted into the Cleveland Orchestra. He soon became principal second violin, a position that he held for 35 years. In 1935, he organized the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, the city’s first full symphony orchestra for women. The Orchestra made its debut in November of 1935 at Severance Hall. Mr. Schandler conducted the Orchestra until his death in 1990.
Mr. Schandler also conducted other orchestras in the area including the Lorain Symphony Orchestra and the Temple Men’s Club Orchestra. When he retired from the Cleveland Orchestra in 1975, his tenure of 48 1/2 years was a record. In 1976, he was invited to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra where he played until 1978. During this time he commuted back to Cleveland to continue conducting his beloved Cleveland Women’s Orchestra.
Hyman Schandler was a fixture on Cleveland’s musical scene since the 1920s. He was an outstanding musician, teacher and advisor to generations of music groups and musicians in Cleveland. But he probably will be remembered most for his “forward thinking” in founding the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, and certainly will be remembered for his 55 years of conducting it.