Not that long ago, Franz Welser-Möst was the new kid on the block, after his appointment at just age 38 as music director of the venerable Cleveland Orchestra. Now in his 15th season, he’s become the longest-tenured music director of any of the so-called Big Five U.S. orchestras. “We have a common goal, the orchestra and myself, and I’ve signed onto the spirit of that orchestra, which is really very special,” he said. “I’ve worked with all the major orchestras in this world, and Cleveland strikes me as unique.”

The Austrian-born maestro follows in a long line of podium titans; Cleveland’s previous music directors have been Nikolai Soko­loff, 1918-33; Artur Rodzinski, 1933-43; Erich Leins­dorf, 1943-46; George Szell, 1946-70; Lorin Maazel, 1972-82, and Christoph von Dohnányi, 1984-2002. Though Welser-Möst’s contract extends through 2021-22 season, he has weathered various storms over the years. “While Mr. Welser-Möst’s interpretations run from infuriating to revelatory, something is going right,” wrote New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe in 2015. “In its self-effacing virtuosity and variety of colors, its refinement and chamber-style cohesion, the orchestra has a plausible claim to being the best in America.”

Christoph von Dohnányi, a frequent guest conductor for the CSO, was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from xxx to 2002.

Christoph von Dohnányi, a frequent CSO guest conductor, was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1984 to 2002.

Chicago audiences will have a chance to judge for themselves, when Welser-Möst brings his orchestra here on Jan. 21 for an SCP Orchestra Series concert featuring symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven and Jean Sibelius. The orchestra tours regularly, including a trip every other year to Europe and a four-week annual residency in Miami; the maestro especially relishes stops in cities like Chicago that have their own world-class orchestras. “Of course, you want to shine,” he said. “As you say in America, there’s nothing like competition. It’s good that we try to compete.”

Under his leadership, the orchestra has become increasingly known as a kind of large-scale chamber ensemble. “Last year, the New York Times [wrote] that it sounds like there’s a string quartet on stage in the way that the orchestra interacts,” Welser-Möst said. “And we have been recognized more and more for this silvery, elegant, singing sound, which we have.” Part of this chamber-like approach, he said, results from the comparative intimacy of Severance Hall, the orchestra’s home. Built in 1931, it seats 1,920 people, compared to 2,522 in Orchestra Hall and more than 2,700 in New York’s David Geffen Hall.

This season, Welser-Möst leads performances of his arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132, for Cleveland’s full string section — something he doesn’t think many orchestras would dare to do. “It’s another piece of the puzzle in creating a chamber-music ensemble with 104 people on stage,” he said. “I had an artistic vision for the orchestra, which has nothing to do with how the other great orchestras play. When I was music director at the Vienna State Opera [in 2010-14], people asked me, ‘Will the Vienna Philharmonic [which draws its musicians from the opera’s pit orchestra] now sound like the Cleveland Orchestra?’ And I said, ‘You know, that would be really stupid of me to try that, because the Vienna Philharmonic has a different tradition than the Cleveland Orchestra has, and both orchestras have a very specific, great personality.’”

Under Franz Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra has presented a series of semi-staged and concert operas, including Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" (with soprano Katarina Dalayman as Judith) in April. | Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Under Franz Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra has presented a series of semi-staged and concert operas, including Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” (with soprano Katarina Dalayman as Judith). | Photo by Roger Mastroianni

To help achieve the kind of singing sound and interpretative flexibility that he believes is so essential to the orchestra, he added full-length concert performances of opera to the ensemble’s musical diet, starting with Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo in 2003. Performing opera requires musicians to listen especially closely and follow, he said, because singers sometimes diverge from exactly what is written in the score. “You have to keep an open ear and you have to be flexible, and we build on that,” he said. The orchestra’s next concert opera, scheduled for May 2, 4 and 6, will be Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

More than any of the other cities where the Big Five orchestras are based — Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia — Cleveland has faced significant economic hardships in recent decades due to plunges in manufacturing and shifts in technology. Though Cleveland was once one of the largest U.S. cities, it has sunk to 48th in population, according to 2014 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Such struggles have done nothing to diminish the quality of its orchestra. “Every time the city would go down economically again,” Welser-Möst said, “the community rallied behind the orchestra: ‘That’s something we really want to keep.’ And so, there is a really special relationship between the community and this orchestra.”

Along with boosting its touring schedule, the orchestra has inaugurated other initiatives to help assure its long-term viability. Among them is its innovative Center for Future Audiences, created in 2010 with a $20 million lead endowment gift from the Maltz Family Foundation. The program’s efforts include free tickets for patrons 18 years and younger and extensive outreach to those attendees via social media. It seems to be working. As of July, more than 20 percent of the orchestra’s audiences at classical-music concerts consists of attendees 25 years and younger — a sizable jump from 8 percent before 2010. “The big success is really that 90 percent of the young people who come for the first time actually come back,” Welser-Möst said. As the Cleveland Orchestra prepares to mark its centennial in 2018, it is planning more ways to build on the Center for Future Audiences’ achievements and boost its appeal across the demographic spectrum.

When Welser-Möst took over as Cleveland’s music director, he thought he would have a good run if he remained in the post for 10 years. “And now, here I am in my 15th season, and I have a contract to ’22,” he said. “Every single time I travel to Cleveland, I look forward enormously to seeing my orchestra again and trying to get even deeper into whatever great piece of music is in front of us. It has been a very exciting journey.”

Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.