Cincy Sets the Stage: Get ready to experience the "new and improved" Music Hall


If you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor, Cincinnati Music Hall will be rocking and rolling the first weekend of October.

That's when the historic building will reopen, following a $135 million revitalization project that saw architects, construction companies, acousticians, artists, historians, craftsmen and volunteers working at a brisk clip to bring the 1878 cultural icon up to 21st-century standards and make it a venue that future generations of onstage-arts lovers will enjoy for years to come.

Many changes will be immediately evident: First and foremost, Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium has been strategically reconfigured for its most frequent tenants, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops. Previously seating 3,500 concertgoers, Springer can now flexibly accommodate 2,200-2,500 with greater comfort (more legroom and seat width) and better views. Also, the entire building is now fully ADA-compliant for guests with disabilities.

The refurbished hall might feel somewhat smaller since its rear wall has been moved forward. Sub-balcony seats that once had obstructed views (due to support pillars) are now a thing of the past. Boxes have been relocated, and there is new, elevated “terrace” seating at the rear of the orchestra.

Best seat in the house

Music Hall has long been praised for its warm acoustics. Renowned acoustician Paul Scarbrough says part of his design approach in such renovations is first to understand “musical memory,” the sound an audience associates with a specific ensemble in a specific space. His consulting firm, Akustiks, has worked on such venerable orchestral facilities as Cleveland's Severance Hall and Rochester's Eastman Hall.

Acoustician Paul Scarbrough aided in strategic AV improvements to Music Hall.Listening to the CSO, Pops, the May Festival and the Cincinnati Opera, Scarbrough got a feel for what people valued in terms of the hall’s sound.

“Over and over we heard that Music Hall has a sense of resonance and warmth,” says Scarbrough. “So we are building on that, not fundamentally changing it at all.”

Some changes will enhance the listening experience. For example, moving the orchestra fully in front of the proscenium arch so it’s in the same room as the audience will improve the sense of connection, intimacy and the visceral impact on the audience. Scarbrough adds, “You’ll feel closer and, in fact, much of the audience will be closer.”

The stage extension can be lowered for more orchestra-level seating or a more accommodating orchestra pit when it comes to more visual performances — operas and ballets, for instance. A new acoustic canopy used during concerts to better distribute sound can be removed and stored during opera productions, which call for more flexibility for lighting.

Scarbrough wouldn't say which area of the improved hall is now best for sound. “That can’t be answered definitively, since everyone hears things differently and has different preferences for articulation, clarity and resonance. I like more resonance, so I might gravitate toward the front of the balcony. People who like crisper, more articulate sound will like to be in the center of the orchestra seating.”

Your first opportunity to experience the renovations is coming the first weekend in October. On Oct. 6, an Opening Night Celebration will feature a pre-concert gourmet dinner at 5:30 p.m. in the beautifully refurbished Corbett Tower. This is an elite event; tickets are $200 and include cocktails by mixologist Molly Wellmann. (Admission to the CSO performance at 8 p.m. requires a separate ticket.)

Award-winning pianist Kit Armstrong will perform Beethoven's "Fist Piano Concerto" for attendees of Music Hall's Opening Night Celebration.CSO Music Director Louis Langrée will conduct the evening’s concert. It includes John Adams’ fast-moving Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Beethoven’s "First Piano Concerto" with award-winning, 25-year-old pianist Kit Armstrong and Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’Extase (Poem of Ecstasy). There will also be a world premiere by Jonathan Bailey Holland, commissioned specifically for this re-opening concert. (This concert runs again at 8 p.m. on Oct. 7.)

Earlier on Saturday, the general public is invited to stop by Music Hall between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. for a festival produced by ArtsWave. Re(new)ed Celebration, Music Hall + More kicks off with opening ceremonies in the morning, followed by an open house featuring tours by veteran volunteer guides from the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. The day will offer brief performances, plus hands-on learning experiences and just plain fun — a hula hoop dance party, a birthday cake the size of a room, fashion displays from the Ballet and Opera costume shops and storytelling about historic rooms in Music Hall and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Capturing eternity

Of particular interest will be 85 portraits of the CSO musicians displayed throughout Music Hall, painted by artist Clara Harkavy. Her two-year volunteer project involved photo shoots with each musician and their instrument and getting to know them personally. “Every one of them is interactive, not simply headshots,” she says.

Harkavy created the portraits using a unique style she calls “drizzly paint.” She doesn’t touch the canvas, but instead drips and drizzles pigments to create the images.

Local artist Clara Harkavy created portraits of CSO players using a signature "drizzly paint" method.“Photography is a beautiful medium,” she says. “But a painting captures eternity. Portraits last for years and years.”

Following their display at Music Hall, the paintings could be used in various ways to educate and share the message of the CSO with communities where exposure to music making is minimal.

Harkavy undertook this massive project for a reason: “For the love of the city of Cincinnati and for Music Hall, which is a jewel to our city, even if you’ve never been in it.”

She adds, “I think of Music Hall as a gift from the past to today.” Her work is certainly another gift to the city.

The weekend’s  “+ More” includes other venues coming online in Over-the-Rhine’s burgeoning arts district. Tours and brief performances will be ongoing at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s recently opened new theater (1195 Elm St., one block south of Music Hall). Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati will also be open for visitors to see its expanded and renovated venue (1127 Vine St., a block east of Washington Park).

For a full description of the bounty of arts within easy walking distance, including live music performances in Washington Park, visit ArtsWave online.

Beyond opening weekend

On Oct. 11, SPMH will present Music Hall Unwrapped, a sold-out event that will focus on the lovingly restored Corbett Tower, two floors above the lobby, with a restored, stenciled ceiling that’s been raised 14 feet, with reopened windows offering spectacular views of Washington Park and OTR.

Careful restoration of a statue in Springer AuditoriumAs part of the event, SPMH tour guides will offer behind-the-scenes tours of Springer Auditorium and other new features of the hall. One tour will take visitors in the new Taft Suite, a donor lounge featuring beautifully restored cherrywood carved organ panels from Music Hall’s original massive Hook & Hastings organ. A second tour will visit the Wilks Rehearsal Hall, a new special event space in the building’s north wing.

As Music Hall reopens, special events are not limited to the opening weekend. On Oct. 13, there will be a CSO “Parties of Note” fundraiser at 5:30 p.m. “Pop the Cork on Opening Night” starts with cocktails in the foyer and includes dinner by the bite and music by Poptet, a quartet of Pops musicians. (Tickets are $100; concert tickets are sold separately.) At 8 p.m., the Pops and Maestro John Morris Russell will perform Star Wars and Beyond, music by legendary film composer and past Boston Pops Principal Conductor John Williams. (This concert repeats at 8 p.m. on Oct. 14 and 2 p.m. on Oct. 15).

The CSO partners with the Opera, a fellow Music Hall tenant, for a pair of 8 p.m. concerts on Oct. 20 & 21, offering Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Conductor Langrée says he’d take this sensuous piece with him to a desert island. It’s a tale of forbidden love told in voluptuous musical colors. (The work will be sung in French with English surtitles.) The collaboration with the Opera features staging by innovative director James Darrah, projection design by Adam Larsen, scenic design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Mattie Ullrich and lighting design by Pablo Santiago. The performances will represent the kind of spectacular, visually stimulating productions now possible at Music Hall. (After the Oct. 21 concert, young professionals can stick around for an “Encore” event, featuring an array of food trucks on Elm Street.)

A further demonstration of the collaborations made possible by Music Hall happens Oct. 26-29, when the CSO supports the Ballet's production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Artistic Director Victoria Morgan and conducted by Carmon DeLeone, the Ballet’s longtime resident conductor.

Anyone curious as to why Music Hall is so important in Cincinnati’s history should attend concerts on Nov. 4 & 5. During the May Festival’s 1875 season, a thunderstorm loudly pounded the tin roof of a temporary hall on the site of today’s Music Hall. The voices of the chorus were drowned out, inspiring philanthropist Reuben Springer to raise funds for a more permanent and substantial hall. With the CSO, today’s May Festival Chorus will perform a pair of concerts, The Storm that Built Music Hall. It features the magnificent choral works performed for that 1875 concert — J. S. Bach’s Magnificat and Johannes Brahms’ Triumphlied (“Triumphal Hymn”) — as well as a newly commissioned choral work by composer Julia Adolphe.

The Bach and Brahms pieces will be played from music archived in the CSO’s extensive library. It’s the largest such library in the world, containing roughly 750,000 pieces of music, previously housed in 11 different locations throughout Music Hall. The collection has been amassed during the 120 years of CSO history, with some markings dating back to the 1800s when Music Hall was brand new.

The library also has new digs. “In the revitalized Music Hall,” according to Associate Principal Librarian Christina Eaton, “the library will house not only the entire orchestra library of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops orchestras, but also the valuable music of our partners — the May Festival, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Ballet and the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra.”

The workspace on Music Hall’s first level is now more accessible to musicians, conductors, guest artists and staff.

Eaton adds, “Music will be stored in archival-quality boxes with color-coded labels, placed upright on high-density shelving on the next level up. This makes all music easier to find and file. Housing all collections from the arts partners under one roof makes music access and preparation much easier for the librarians. That allows us to provide materials to the orchestra more efficiently than ever before.”

Of course, the music for Adolphe’s new work will be added to the collection — as will many more works created for 21st-century performances. Essential behind-the-scenes areas, such as the music library, further demonstrate how Music Hall’s renovation and improvements will make a difference for years to come.

Support for this Cincy Sets the Stage series is provided by the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH).

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Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.