Principal clarinet: How I left the Cleveland Orchestra

Franklin Cohen, a gentle genius, was the heart and soul of the Cleveland Orchestra for 39 years. When he stepped down last year, there were murmurings about the circumstances of his departure. Frank was – still is – playing at the top of his game.

So what happened? ‘I’m a good team player,’ he maintains.

‘And what happens when you don’t get along with a conductor?’ he’s asked.

Frank addresses his life in the orchestra and, more elliptically, his departure in an interview with our video partners at Zsolt Bognar’s Living the Classical Life.

Not to be missed.

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  • Can anyone elaborate on NL’s allusions (“mutterings”) as to why Franklin Cohen chose (if he did “choose”) to leave the Cleveland Orchestra? I heard him for years and thought he was a beautiful player, and the various articles I looked at concerning his retirement contain encomiums of his work with the Cleveland Orchestra from nearly everyone, save for the Orchestra’s current Music Director, Franz Welser-Most. Smoke? Fire?

  • Unless I missed it, he never said in the interview why he left/retired. “Good team player” pertained generally to his playing in an orchestra.

    The speculation here and perhaps elsewhere is that he was pressured to retire by FWM. Whether the Cleveland music director has the power to actually remove a principal player, I don’t know; would need to look up the master agreement.

    In any case, a pretty interesting interview.

    • Surely any Music Director should have the ability to remove a principal player if said player is not playing well enough (following due contractual and union processes etc)? What else is a Music Director for if not to mould the artistic evolution of an orchestra?

      • But the clear evidence, at least from the conclusion of the video, is that Franklin Cohen is not merely playing “well enough”. He is playing extraordinarily well. So my question still obtains: what are the “mutterings,” to which Norman Lebrecht refers, all about? What actually happened in Cleveland? And, for that matter, why did Franklin Cohen not talk about these “mutterings” and why was he not asked about them?

      • I have not the master agreement of every single orchestra in the country, but it is normal for there to be a procedure in place for the conductor to remove a musician from the orchestra. It usually goes something like this:

        1) Conductor contacts musician and says “there are issues in your playing that I want you to fix.” The conductor lists what the problems are (usually with examples from specific concerts); normally there is a deadline set up by which the problems must be resolved or the conductor must be satisfied with the musician’s progress.

        2) If the deadline arrives and the conductor is not satisfied, then there is normally a next step, some kind of appeals process. A peer review committee may be convened, where musicians from the orchestra meet with the conductor and come to a decision about their colleague’s fitness to continue playing; or the player may ask for an extension so they can have more time to satisfy the conductor’s requirements; or the case may go to mediation or arbitration.

        There may be more or fewer steps in this process, depending on the particular orchestra’s master agreement.

        3) The final decision is always left in the hands of the conductor. At each stage, if the conductor simply wants to get rid of the musician, all s/he has to do is continue saying “I am not satisfied.” Eventually there are no more steps left in the process, and the musician is terminated.

        The process can take a year or more, depending on the musician’s willingness to fight for their job; but a conductor who is patient and follows the contract (and doesn’t mind looking like a jerk) can just about always get rid of a musician eventually.

        No idea what happened with Frank Cohen, but this is a general description of how things usually work in US orchestras.

        • It is more likely, given Franklin Cohen’s eminence and given that the “mutterings” NL refers to have their source in the kind of conflict you assume, that he put up with a subtle form of hectoring from the music director over a pretty long period of time, and then decided “no mas.” Cohen strikes me (from the interview) as the kind of person who would try to be conciliating and to compromise whenever he could but who also has a firm line in the sand. Eventually he must have felt the music director was crossing that line.

          • Yes, I thought of that too. I’ve seen it happen: music director rolls his eyes every time the player plays a solo, makes an “Oh no, you ruined the whole thing… AGAIN” face any time they miss a note, says things in rehearsal like “I don’t know what recording you listened to, but that is NOT how this should be played.” And so on, until the person quits (or the conductor leaves).

            It’s much more common than going through the process, I think because the conductor doesn’t need as much self-discipline this way.

        • Most conductors are wily political animals. They usually don’t attempt the termination process unless they know they have sufficient musician support.

  • Why the Musical Arts Association (meaning the MAA Board of Directors who operate the Cleveland Orchestra) continue to back Franz Welser Most to the hilt and will do anything, it seems, to silence those who are opposed to Welser Most, is beyond comprehension. Certainly the Donald Rosenberg affair was an ugly bit of bullying. And what has seemed at times to be considerable dissatisfaction among orchestra members with the music director has been silenced. I’m reluctant to think that the orchestra has been won over. Did Franklin Cohen dare to refuse to toe the line?

    Both audience and orchestra members, it seems, were endlessly delighted by Christoph von Dohnanyi’s good will, as well as his music making, during what was a charmed period for the Orchestra. The dark days of Franz Welser Most are certainly a disappointment in comparison. Yet the orchestra thrives and perhaps this will continue until the day comes when a music director that enjoys the confidence of musicians, audience and critics alike will again take the podium.

  • Frank and his family are wonderful people. Brava to his children for supporting their father so much after their mother passed away. Wonderful story. Hope they continue to have much success with their chamber music festival. They deserve it.

  • I have little doubt that Mr. Cohen and FWM were in synch. Personally I find this conductor more often than not to be unconvincing, and as a result have discontinued my donations to the Cleveland Orchestra. However, great principal players have to be replaced at some point. It is not like Mt. Cohen had to leave at a young age. So kudos to him for retiring on a high note and for a great career, for which he appears very thankful to the late Lorin Maazel.

  • Wonderful interview, and equally wonderful Schubert at the end of the video (very sensitive accompaniment by Mr. Bognar, too!)

  • A good friend of mine,a former student of a Cleveland Orchestra member told me there had been a huge clash between FWM and Mr.Cohen,and FWM subsequently banned Mr.Cohen from playing in his concerts and recordings and on tours…Under these circumstances Mr.Cohen seemingly didn’t want to go on…Just by the way,I find FWM’s conducting often disappointingly detached and uninvolved,the recent Brahms DVD set being a case in point…

    • “A huge clash?” I’m at a loss as to how so gentle and reasonable a personality as Franklin Cohen could have a huge clash with anyone, and am even more at a loss as to how anyone proficient enough at conducting to have become the MD of the Cleveland Orchestra could find Mr.Cohen’s exemplary playing so at variance from a high standard that he would insist that he not perform. Was it, then, a strictly “personal” clash?

      • I don’t know much about the fallout between Mr. Cohen and FWM and even less about Mr. Cohen’s personality, but from reading some of the articles and comments, one gets the impression that neither of the two were all that saintly towards the end of Mr. Cohen’s tenure.
        From the comment section of one article (July 2015), a Cleveland concertgoer posted this about Mr. Cohen’s departure:

        “I hate to say this but – It’s about time. I had been a fan of Frank and the orchestra my whole life. We have all heard the rumors about him being difficult – but you can sometimes look past those things when you are dealing with an amazing musician. A group of us attended the Dvorak 9 performance last season and were shocked by his actions. When Franz signaled Frank to come to the podium – the request was ignored. When Franz went to Frank to acknowledge his years of service – he childishly ignored him again. It was horribly awkward for the audience. When you are an aging musician and not performing to the level the audience has become accustomed to hearing….you need to bow out gracefully.
        I’m personally glad the bad apple is leaving – now we can get past the childish drama and create wonderful music once again.”

        http://www.cleveland.com/musicdance/index.ssf/2015/07/cleveland_orchestra_principal_5.html

        Obviously, third party accounts are best enjoyed with a pinch of salt…

        • As a music lover in Cleveland for many years I’m inclined to agree with Max’s assessment. Indeed, I saw a performance with Cohen and Mr. Bognar at CIM not too long ago. In one of the works, Cohen got lost for a moment and shot Bognar a look that seemed to imply it was Bognar’s fault. If this is how Cohen treats his friends…

      • I read a profile of FWM in the New Yorker where he laughed off the London Philharmonic’s “Frankly Worse Than Most” nickname, saying “Well, they called Solti the Screaming Skull.”

  • You people need to stop making declarative statements when you have no idea what the reality behind the scenes is. Frank Cohen was principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra for nearly forty years. He joined the group in 1968 at the age of 22. He’s now 70 years old. Anyone who thinks a 70-year-old orchestra musician is performing at the very top of his ability doesn’t understand orchestral performance. Should he rather stay another five or ten years, to the point where the inevitable decline in physical ability would be detrimental to the group as a whole? No. This is the right thing. The musicians who retire before everyone wishes they were gone–and not the opposite–show true dedication and respect for the group.

    • It’s of little moment, Mr. Anonymous, but all of the info about Mr.Cohen, including Mr.Cohen in the interview on this site, give 1976 as the year he joined the Cleveland Orchestra. Mr. Drucker, who I think was close to 80 and still playing reasonably well, was treated with deserving dignity in New York, but then the MD in his case did not hail from Herr Welzer-Most’s part of the world.

      • – “…but then the MD in his case did not hail from Herr Welzer-Most’s part of the world.

        Interesting, I wasn’t aware that a person’s pleasantness was based on geographical origin (out of curiosity, does Herr [Welser-Möst]’s part of the world” comstitute Austria, Central Europe or Europe?).
        I myself have managed to find cordial and likable, as well as unpleasant individuals on every continent, in every country and every city I’ve ever been to.

      • I’m a great admirer of Frank Cohen, especially because he seemed so individualistic in an orchestra that seemed more conformist than most. But I agree with Anonymous: at age 70 you’re simply not going to be playing as well as when you were younger, and the younger people have in the meantime raised the technical standard.

        As for Stanley Drucker, I’m a big fan of his, too, but IMHO he stayed way past the time he should have retired. I heard him play the Copland Concerto a decade before he retired and even then it was clear that his best days, at least on a technical level, were somewhere behind him.

        Andreas Blau retired at 66 from Berlin last year, and it was kind of sad, because he actually was playing really well; but better to go too soon. He was due to retire a year earlier (BPO has a 65 retirement age – equal injustice for all, I believe they call it), but stayed on as a retiree while they waited for Mathieu Dufour to start.

    • Frank Cohen joined the C.O. in the fall of 1976.He was preceded in that chair by David Shifrin, who joined the ensemble in 1974 when his predecessor, the late Robert Marcellus, had retired because of diabetes related eye problems ( that later caused R.M.’s blindness ).

    • The desire to continue playing principal until well into your 70s seems to be a peculiarly American thing. In UK, and Europe as a whole, players like Cohen would have retired in their early to mid 60s, enjoying effusive eulogies when they do so (e.g. Andreas Blau at the BPO). They don’t hang on, denying anno domini (see also Dale Clevenger), thereby taking some of the gloss off their reputation. As Darcy Bussell said ‘ I want to retire before people start saying I ought to’.

      • In the US age discrimination is illegal, which makes a mandatory retirement age impossible, quite in opposite to European rules. This is why there are no players above the legal retirement age in orchestras there. Of course both systems have their up and down sides. But the mandatory retirement age anyway only applies to people in an employment. While the principal clarinetist in your orchestra will be forced to retire, your cardiologist is allowed to hang on for as long as the wishes. Mandatory retirement not only doesn’t make for individual considerations, but is with very few exceptions like pilots the same for all employed people regardless of their profession. Leaving earlier is penalized by severe cuts of the pension payments, while leaving later is simply not possible. So the time comes too early for some, too late for many, and hardly ever at the right moment.

  • Actually Maestro Cohen, the Turtle Bay Music School is one of the most important community music schools in New York City. It plays host to musicians young and old and your interview, while engaging and lovely as has been your amazing career, it neglects to give respect to this school by being so dismissive. The interviewer as well should have been more interested in this as well. Music is not just for the finest musicians in the finest orchestras and as an educator I take issue with this dismissal.

  • Blame Frank’s premature departure from the Cleveland on Leopold Anthony Stokowski (LAS), i.e., Frank’s first symphonic experience as he relates in the video. After the first rehearsal, LAS said something like “Frank, just do what you showed me in your audition and don’t worry about me in your solo parts”.
    [redacted: mistaken identity]

    Maurice L. Adams
    Chagrin Falls, Ohio

    • Stoki’s coaching as recounted by Frank is masterful and what an inspiration to a very young musician playing first clarinet in an orchestra for the first time. Like all great conductors, Stokowski was interested in what the solo players can bring to the performance, was willing to be surprised by what’s “in the player’s heart” – he would follow the wind player rather than the other way around. No wonder his recordings and performances continue to deliver immense delight, at least to this listener.

  • Listening to Mr. Cohen’s playing at the end, I am with FWM. People need to retire before creating an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved.

    • Franklin Cohen’s energy in his playing has surely not lessened over his many years with the CO, a valuable example to the younger players who may still be striving to achieve the energy level that Franklin still has. At a recent CIM recital, I heard him perform the challenging Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Poulenc, which I did myself a couple of years ago. His technique was flawless. Frank is surely still on top of his game, and in fact now focusing on his first love, solo performances, appearing last month in Indonesia with Yo-Yo Ma, doing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the orchestra there. FWM can only dream of being that much on top of his game.

      • I don’t know the story behind Franklin Cohen’s departure, but his replacement is nowhere near as good in my opinion. While I’m sure the new person in the clarinet chair is competent, to my ears he does not sound like he’s on the same level as Cohen. The orchestra in general does not sound as refined and mesmerizing as they did under Dohnanyi either thinking back on concerts I’ve been to in the past and comparing to those I’ve attended more recently. All good things must come to an end unfortunately. I still love the orchestra, but they are not what they used to be and I think FWM has had a part in that.

  • I was at a Cleveland Orchestra concert a few years ago where Frank Cohen “lost” his music. Order of the music being performed was flipped so the librarians could find FC’s music. As a subscriber to the TCO, I can attest that FC’s playing was still at a high level. Nevertheless, at age 70 it’s time to retire. Today FC runs a very successful chamber music concert cycle in CLE with his daughter.
    As for Franz, I love his conducting and his approach. The orchestral playing is unbelievably good and the sound produced is very warm. By the way the orchestra is looking for a new principal clarinet. Frank Cohen’s chair has not been filled.

  • Wonderful interview. An equally important part of the Cleveland Orchestra clarinet section “sound” over the years, however, was that of longtime (1959-1995) 2nd and Eb clarinet Theodore Johnson, who played next to Robert Marcellus (arguably the best principal clarinet the Orchestra ever had) under Szell. I believe that sitting next to Johnson for many years made Mr. Cohen a better player. An interview of Mr. Johnson is in the March 2016 issue of The Clarinet http://www.clarinet.org/TheClarinet_Mar16.pdf. You can also hear examples of his playing here: http://www.johnsonclarinetmp.com/resume.html He had an incredibly warm sound.

    Ted Johnson was also an incredible teacher during and for many years after his orchestra career.

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