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.