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Music Hall Continues to Evolve

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 23, 2011 - 9:57:39 AM in news_2011

Preliminary concept for revitalized Music Hall (Ennead Architects)

(first published in Music Hall Marks, November, 2011)

Cincinnati’s Music Hall has been evolving to meet the needs of the community since it was built in 1878.

Privately funded in what is believed to have been the nation’s first matching grant campaign, it was built to replace of the old Saengerhalle, where German-American singing societies held their popular song festivals.

“It was originally just an enormous room,” said Duncan Hazard, founding partner and management principal of Ennead Architects of New York, chief architect of the Music Hall Revitalization Project, currently underway under the aegis of the Music Hall Revitalization Company.  “There was no stage, no proscenium.  It was originally built for the May Festival.  It held 6,000 people and remained in that configuration until 1895.”

Hazard recalled the history of Music Hall as he revealed plans for its “revitalization” at the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall Sept. 26 in the Music Hall Ballroom. Plans include moving the stage out into the hall, reducing seating to between 1,900 and 2,300, creating a unified entrance on Elm Street with a café and retail space, bringing in the side and back walls to Springer Auditorium and reopening the old carriage ways between the main hall and the north and south wings.

Music Hall became three buildings in one in 1879, with the addition of the north and south wings, said Hazard.  In addition to the May Festival, it was intended to be used for industrial expositions, trade shows -- even the 1880 Democratic National Convention was held there.  In effect, it was Cincinnati’s convention center.

“In 1888 a traveling opera company came and settled in for about six months.  While they were here, they built a temporary proscenium in Music Hall (Springer Auditorium).  It must have been quite a success, because almost immediately Music Hall started holding a competition for architects to build a permanent proscenium.  Samuel Hannaford, the original architect for the building, won the competition, and in 1896, he built what you have now.”

With the addition of a stage and a proscenium, Music Hall became a concert hall and home to the Cincinnati Symphony (founded in 1895), Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet.  (Sadly, this also led to the demise of the magnificent Hook and Hastings pipe organ, which was trapped behind the proscenium.)  The CSO performed at Music Hall until 1912, when it moved to Emery Auditorium, a more intimate concert hall custom built for it under music director Leopold Stokowski.  In 1935, the CSO returned to Music Hall and became its anchor tenant.  (The city acquired title to Music Hall in 1941.)

 Cincinnati Opera moved to Music Hall from the Cincinnati Zoo in 1972 (when the Music Hall organ was finally demolished). The Ballet performed its first “Nutcracker” at Music Hall in 1974 and began using in regularly in 1978.  In 1975, Music Hall was named a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior.

Over time, acoustics, audience comfort and the sheer size of Music Hall became issues.  With 3,516 seats, Springer Auditorium is the largest concert hall in North America (not counting venues which are not, in fact, concert halls).  The logistics of the CSO, seated partly in front of the proscenium and partly behind it, created acoustical problems for the musicians, and the overabundance of seats made the hall look empty much of the time.  All this came to a head during the tenure of former CSO music director Paavo Järvi, who spurred the revitalization, citing the effect of what looked like small attendance on CSO morale, lack of intimacy between the CSO and the audience and continuing acoustical needs.

A Working Group of Music Hall tenants – the CSO, Opera, May Festival, Ballet and Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages the hall for the city -- was created to study the issues.  In 2010, the Music Hall Revitalization Company was formed.  A lead architect (Ennead) was named, needs were identified, feasibility studies done and a timeline established.

 As announced last spring, Music Hall will close for construction in May, 2013 and reopen in October, 2014.  During that time, tenants will utilize the newly renovated Taft Theatre and the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts.  (Music Hall will be available for the World Choir Games, which will take place in Cincinnati in the summer of 2012.)

“The clear intention of the architect (Hannaford) was that this was to be a destination,” said Hazard.  Pursuant to that, the hall will be “opened up,” he said.  The many bricked-up windows will be uncovered and the lobby of Music Hall will be restored to a single level.  “Our plan is to raise the floor of the north and south wings to the same level as the main lobby.  We want to remove the existing glass and metal walls, which separate the main lobby from the stair halls on each side, to make them function as one space.”  The escalator in the south wing will be replaced by a grand staircase as per the original design, he said.  “We want to return the whole front to a public space facing the (Washington) park.”

The old carriage ways and garden courts, areas between the buildings that once served as drop-off points for Music Hall, will be re-opened.  Now completely hidden, the garden courts would be accessible so that Music Hall attendees could visit them during intermissions, Hazard said.  In the north lobby (the wing bordered by 14th St.) “we will be creating a consolidated box office operation, a consolidated retail operation and a café which will be open all day (closed during the evening).  Here we will also have what we call the second rehearsal hall, which we are hoping will double as a smaller performance venue, perhaps for more experimental, smaller scale works.”  The exterior doors in the main lobby will be returned to their former height and some original light fixtures will be restored, he said

Mark Holden of Jaffe Holden Acoustics (Norwalk, Connecticut) has done an acoustical analysis of Springer Auditorium, said Hazard, with some perhaps surprising results.  “Everybody knows that Music Hall has this wonderful, mellow open sound, but there are areas where the sound falls off (under the balcony on the orchestra level and under the gallery in the back).  Also, there are some hot spots on the orchestra level.  He asked us to look at some architectural means to adjust these two extremes.”

One way is by decreasing the width of the hall, said Hazard.  “If you look at the great halls -- Musikverein in Vienna (65 ft. wide), Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (88 ft.), Symphony Hall in Boston (75 ft.) -- Music Hall is wider (110 ft.) than what seems to be the ideal dimension of a concert hall.  Mark Holden asked us to look at bringing in the side and back walls.  In effect, they would reflect the sound faster and distribute the sound better across the orchestra and across the balcony.”

The orchestra pit also has problems, said Hazard.  “There have been complaints that when the pit is in place and the CSO is in opera mode, they played so loudly that they drowned out some of the performers.  On the other hand, the musicians say, ‘we have trouble hearing ourselves.’”  The solution is apparently a matter of degree.  “If you look, you will see that the proscenium surround is slanted.  When the sound comes out of the pit, it hits that angle and all the sound is sent out into the house.  If you look at the great opera houses -- Covent Garden (London), Staatsoper (Berlin) -- in virtually all of them, the ceiling area over the pit is flat.  We looked back at some of the old Hannaford drawings, and one of his studies included squaring off the proscenium crown.  We have suggested as part of our design to take the existing proscenium, but adjust it at the top, flat.”

Seating capacity in a refurbished Music Hall will be variable, said Hazard.  The stage will be extended 39 ft. out into the hall and a system of hydraulic lifts installed in the floor.  “There are three separate lifts and a configuration up or down depending on the use of the hall.  In concert mode (CSO, Pops, May Festival), all of the lifts are up.  For the first time, the orchestra will be right there in the room with you.  They will not be back in the stage house.  They will be sitting on these lifts in front of the proscenium, and the acoustical towers will be placed at the proscenium arch instead of the back wall.  Your acoustic connection to them will have an immediacy that never happens.

“In theater mode (Opera, Ballet), two lifts will be down.  In touring group mode, all of the lifts would be down and seating would continue across the floor.”

“Concert mode would have the fewest seats,” about 1,900, Hazard said.  Opera and ballet would have 2,200 and touring groups that do not need an orchestra pit 2,300.

There are many concerns yet to be addressed in revitalizing Music Hall, Hazard said.  One of them is the two-ton crystal chandelier that hangs above the center of Springer Auditorium.  Installed in 1969 as part of a major Corbett Foundation renovation, it obscures the ceiling mural, “Allegory of the Arts” by Conrad Arthur Thomas.  “Great concert halls have these (murals),” said Hazard.  “It’s quite beautiful, but a little difficult to see with the big chandelier.”

“There are millions of details yet to come,” said Jack Rouse, president of the Music Hall Revitalization Company.  “It’s the largest arts and culture project that’s ever been undertaken in this town, truly a community project.  Music Hall was a public palace, a place where people came together for all kinds of arts and culture and entertainment.  We are committed above everything else to making sure that’s what it is going forward.”

Members of the MHRC and SPMH are mum on the projected cost of the revitalization, though rumors in excess of $130 million have been floated.  “There’s over $40 million in infrastructure that has to be improved and up-dated -- mechanical, electrical, plumbing, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) -- before anything else could be done,” Rouse said.