The Town’s Hall


If Music Hall is not the most beloved building in Cincinnati, it is hard to know what is. In posters and collages of the city’s landmarks, it always figures prominently; in photos of the basin, with Music Hall in the foreground and Union Terminal in the rear, we feel the character of the city revealed. The architecture, variously called eclectic, high Victorian Gothic, and sauerbraten Byzantine, is both distinguished and beautiful. Its corbelled arches, the wood tracery of the great circular window, and the variegated brick facade are marvels of their time and historic treasures in ours.

Photograph courtesy of and the Cincinnati Arts Association

The founding of Music Hall in 1875, with city father Reuben Springer putting up $125,000 that was then matched by the public (local schoolchildren raised $3,000 in pennies—real money back then), is the stuff of municipal legend. The history of its uses—first as an exposition hall and convention center (the 1880 Democratic National Convention nominated Winfield Scott Hancock for the Presidency there) and later as a venue for boxing, wrestling, and roller derbies, as well as choral festivals and symphonic music—is astonishing. Somewhere in the offices of Music Hall’s present-day keepers is an outsized black-and-white photograph, taken in the 1950s, of a civic dinner in the Topper Ballroom. Dozens of tables pack the vast space, each surrounded by men and women in fine attire, a mid-century tableau of pleasure and prosperity in a palace designed to celebrate both. How many Cincinnatians remember proms and graduations in those same spaces! How many remember their first exposure to serious music at a Young People’s Concert in Springer Auditorium, the heart of the complex today.

James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is one of those people. At the time of Music Hall’s centennial anniversary, he said, “Cincinnati is fortunate to have one of the very greatest concert halls in the world. The hall has special meaning for me, having heard most of my first performances of the symphonic repertoire there when I was growing up in Cincinnati. . . . The only venerable halls in America that compare in acoustical quality are Boston’s Symphony Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall—a most select company indeed.”

Fittingly, the symphony orchestra that calls Music Hall home is of the first rank. “People throw around the term ‘world class’ loosely. I don’t,” says Trey Devey, president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “It means you’ve been invited to Carnegie Hall 47 times, as we have, and that we’re going again in February. It means you win Grammys and that PBS thinks enough of you that they broadcast you regularly. It means that you’re regularly invited around the world, that you perform at the Beijing Olympics, and that you attract musicians from every corner of the globe.” That’s the kind of evidence, Devey says, that justifies its claim as one of the world’s great orchestras. “We get invited to Paris,” he adds. “We also sell out in Paris.”

It is important to know all of this before entering into any discussion of Music Hall. Its history, its prominence, and the prominence of the symphony orchestra it houses, are at the emotional heart of Cincinnati’s cultural life. To see it diminished—or worse, disabled—would be unthinkable. Yet unless some critical things are done, and done soon, to rehabilitate Music Hall’s deteriorating physical plant, either one is possible. That is not said to be alarmist. It is to recognize the importance of what’s at stake.

First, some basics. Music Hall is a building in three parts—Springer Auditorium, where the CSO plays, plus two adjoining wings, one north and one south. The wings (sometimes called North Hall and South Hall) are actually independent buildings that, over the years, were connected to the auditorium. The grand foyer, the escalators and concession stands on the south side, and the three tiers of lobbies leading into the auditorium on all sides, comprise most of the performance-related space.

The buildings that form the two wings were originally used for expositions. Now set construction and the recently (and handsomely) renovated offices of the Cincinnati Opera fill much of the north wing. The rehearsal hall for the May Festival is in the rear. The Critics Club, a paneled, rathskeller-like room created in the 1980s for well-heeled patrons, also sits in the North Hall. But because it is out of the way, its usage is sporadic. Prominent within the South Hall is the Music Hall Ballroom (known throughout much of the 20th century as the Topper Ballroom). The CSO offices (not renovated and not handsome) are on the first floor, as is the musicians’ dressing room and the Green Room lounge for visiting performers. Corbett Tower, a spacious dining facility where catered events often precede musical performances, is on the auditorium’s third floor.

Here’s something you may not know: Music Hall is owned by the city of Cincinnati. The city contracts with the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA)—the successor to the Music Hall Association, which operated the facility until construction of the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts was announced in the early 1990s—to manage the hall. The CAA also manages the Aronoff. In the spring of 2006, a group of people with responsibility for the stewardship of Music Hall gathered to talk about the need for renovations. The historic structure had not undergone a major upgrade since the early 1970s, when money from Ralph and Patricia Corbett enabled an extensive refurbishing.

In the intervening years, a policy of “patch and fill” has had to suffice. In the late ’80s, $10 million was raised to re-seat the orchestra section for greater comfort, to make cosmetic changes to the foyer, and to ameliorate certain problems with heating, air-conditioning, and staging. But with operations and maintenance costs of about $1.2 million annually (recouped through space rentals from the resident performing companies, the ballroom, Corbett Tower, and offices, as well as concession sales and commissions), precious little is left over each year for capital investment.

As the owner of the building, the city contributes roughly $250,000 a year for tuck-pointing and roofing—a laborious project that has been going on for 15 years. Thanks to some extra cash from the municipal coffers a couple of years ago, we have new chillers for the air-conditioning, too. And thanks to $1.8 million in bonds, we also have a renovated ballroom, into which the venerable Wurlitzer organ from the Albee Theater was recently installed.

These various improvements have been sufficient to keep things functioning, but not thriving. Present at that first meeting four years ago was Dudley Taft, chairman of the board of trustees of the CAA (full disclosure: I once worked under Taft at Taft Broadcasting and have maintained a friendship with him since); Stephen A. Loftin, CAA president and executive director; and the executive directors and heads of the boards of the two most significant tenants: the CSO and the Cincinnati Opera. Over time, these few, plus representatives of the hall’s two other primary tenants, the Pops and the May Festival, and a very few others, came to be known as the “Working Group,” and it is this body that will determine what happens to Music Hall.

The catalyst for their getting together was only in part the need for renovation throughout the building—backstage, in the seating, in the various systems, and throughout the public spaces. The other major motivating factor was the CSO’s concern that Music Hall, in its current configuration, is not the right venue for the orchestra.

With just over 3,400 seats, Music Hall is one of the largest concert halls in the world. Compare: New York City’s Carnegie Hall has 2,804 seats. Symphony Hall in Boston has 2,625. Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles has 2,265. Two of Europe’s most famous concert halls, the Musikverein in Vienna and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, contain 1,744 seats and 2,037 seats, respectively. And all of these are far larger communities than Cincinnati. Think of it this way: a sellout crowd in L.A. would leave every third seat empty in Cincinnati. Regular CSO programs generally fill only about half the house, which can be discouraging for musicians and concertgoers alike. As CSO Music Director Paavo Järvi puts it: “People like to support a winning house, and if we have 2,000 people here, we don’t look like a winning house.”

Size is a crucial element, Järvi notes. “Playing every week for what practically is an empty hall raises so many negative side effects that it translates into many issues,” he says. “You feel like you are constantly underachieving. We spend our life thinking: How do we get more people into the hall? And that always comes back to bringing in popular soloists and doing well-known symphonic pieces. But we are not here to compete with the Pops. This is a place where one needs to create art.”

Three years ago, in this magazine, Järvi expressed unhappiness over conditions at Music Hall—a musicians’ dressing room that looks like a 1960s high school locker room, the lack of leg room between seats, the physical distance between orchestra and audience, the embarrassing excuses for offices. Yet when he looks at the big picture now, he takes the high road: “This is an historic building. I’m the last person to want it to be damaged. But everything old needs to be updated. A violin is always quietly and delicately improved, so the old instrument doesn’t fall apart.” Message: The building is falling apart.

“It is not the way a great American orchestra should have to come to work every day,” says Järvi.

By the time the Working Group first met in the spring of 2006, it had become clear that audience perceptions of what constitutes a satisfactory concert-going experience had changed. Pointing to the recent proliferation of sleek, new performing arts centers across the nation, Stephen Loftin acknowledges that “patrons’ expectations of live performances are different than what they were 50 years ago. The enhancements that they find when they come to newer or improved facilities become a part of those expectations. At Music Hall, the quality of what we offer needs to be elevated to match the impact of the grandness of the building.”

Loftin chooses his words carefully for good reason: Forming a consensus as to how to move forward has not been simple. The four primary tenants all have wish lists, which they’ve lobbied hard for since that first meeting. Other interested parties include the city; the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (a vociferous support group); the building’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood itself; the new School for the Creative and Performing Arts; audience members; donors; and potential funders of the renovation. Maneuvering between these constituencies requires unusual tact, which Loftin has in large doses. Notes Ed Marks, longtime CAA board member, “When Steve throws a water balloon in the air, he knows where everyone is standing before it falls.”

On many issues, there was agreement from the get-go. Heating, plumbing, and electrical systems all need overhauls. The south lobby escalators, installed nearly 40 years ago, are now a maintenance problem. Bathrooms throughout the hall are inadequate—too few, too small, and not always functional. The box office is poorly located and undersized. Right now, the resident companies at Music Hall all have different ticketing systems; insiders would like to see them consolidated, with a more spacious box office that could handle the combination.

Concessions could be an important source of income, but as it is, concession stands are spare. Many would like to see a restaurant in the building; as it stands, there’s not even a service kitchen for catering companies that serve at galas and special events. The makeshift retail outlets in the foyer, including a chocolate candy vendor in one corner and CD and T-shirt sales in the center, turn a fundamentally elegant space into something more like an Arab souk during intermissions. Exacerbating the clutter are walkers belonging to elderly patrons, which get lined up in the space between the main doors to Springer Auditorium during performances because there’s no other place to put them. Taft and Loftin note the desire for a Patrons’ Lounge, where loyal and big-ticket concertgoers could congregate between acts. Ideally it would overlook Washington Park, where Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) is planning a spectacular renovation.

“I think it is fair to say that Music Hall is tired,” says Scott Santangelo, director of operations, reluctantly. Four years into the job, Santangelo is proud of what he oversees—“When something is wrong, we get it fixed”—and he is mindful of its virtually sacred heritage. “I grew up with Music Hall. This is a fabulous remnant of Cincinnati history,” he says. But, he quickly notes, “it is also a working theater for hundreds of people.”

To demonstrate, Santangelo recently took me on an eye-opening tour of his domain. Through a door next to the May Festival rehearsal hall, he revealed the small, shabby restrooms that serve the entire 135-member chorus. He pointed out the cramped loading dock for the Opera—“I’ve seen trucks jammed in this space that had to be towed away”—and the changing room for the CSO musicians, with 40-year-old lockers, chipped tables, black walls, and fluorescent lighting. He summed up my tour noting one final indignity. “Depending on the season, spaces get swapped off,” he said. “The Music Hall library uses the Opera’s dressing rooms, then the Opera needs the dressing rooms, and the library moves. When opera season is over, it comes back.”

None of this is what he wants to be telling, or showing, anybody. But at least everybody agrees it all needs attention.

On other issues, however, agreement has been harder to come by. That it now may be at hand is a tribute to several factors, among them the intense deliberations of the Working Group and the relentless quest for “consensus” that Loftin stresses: “We are all trying very hard to pay attention to each others’ needs. It’s a very complex process, evaluating the needs of different users of the same facility.”

In a nutshell, the CSO would like to have a much smaller hall with a more intimate connection between its musicians and the audience. Rather than the traditional elevated proscenium, the CSO favors a stage that would extend into the auditorium, with “terraced” seating for audience members at the rear of the orchestra, thus surrounding the musicians. Both the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (almost seven years old) and the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco (almost 30 years old) offer this arrangement.

The Opera (along with the Pops and the May Festival), which gives many fewer performances than the orchestra, prefers more seats than fewer because it can sell them. The opposing needs have created different “wish-lists” that are, on certain points, at odds with one another. “It’s analogous to Riverfront Stadium,” says Peter Koenig, lawyer for the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH). “It was built to serve two masters, and it ended up serving neither one very well. While not as diverse as baseball and football, the orchestra and the opera require, to the trained eye, different halls.”

Glen Plott, director of production for Cincinnati Opera, possesses that trained eye. He says that while the “similarities outweigh the differences,” opera tends to have expansive needs for things such as scenery, props, rolling platforms, and overhead rigging. “We put more equipment both on stage and overhead, plus we always have three or four pieces waiting in the wings,” he says. “Our lighting is more involved; because it requires more effects, it requires more changes. CSO musicians need a white light beaming down so they can see their score and the conductor. We have to be able to do a variety of things that you wouldn’t do during a concert. We also need space to build and paint. We need an adequate loading dock.”

While Music Hall’s acoustics are often lauded, the stage and auditorium acoustics aren’t the same. Onstage, musicians sometimes struggle to hear themselves and other sections of the orchestra simultaneously, even with the help of sophisticated acoustic enclosures and baffles. Further, audience members seated under balconies do not hear the same sound as audience members “out in the open,” and sightlines in the hall are impeded for about 550 seats.

With all of these considerations in mind, the CSO long pushed for a facility more tailored to its specific needs. As recently as the summer of 2008, there was serious discussion of building an entirely new concert hall on Music Hall’s south parking lot, abutting Memorial Hall, thus creating a substantial performance complex with three venues of varying sizes. Rough estimates of the cost of such a hall were $120 million, and part of the reason the idea withered (“Dead on arrival,” Dudley Taft now says) is that nobody knew where the money would come from.

Steven Monder, then CSO president, advocated strongly—some say too strongly—for the orchestra’s specific needs, including the new concert hall. Although many in musical circles credit Monder’s passion for excellence with the exceptional quality of the orchestra today, others argue that he was not realistic, spent money irresponsibly, and bequeathed Cincinnati an orchestra it cannot afford. (Current CSO management will not disclose the average musician’s salary, but does say that the base is $84,500. However, an executive of one of Music Hall’s other tenants claims no one in the orchestra makes less than $100,000, and a former CSO board member says that six years ago, the average salary was $125,000.)

Monder retired in the summer of 2008, after 37 years. In an e-mail message he sent in October, he did not respond to his critics but made clear where he stood on the hall’s needs. “It is true I have strong feelings about Music Hall,” he wrote, “including concern for its need of significant repairs and improvements. There is also the need for a continuing program of proactive maintenance, a matter of critical importance and not insignificant expense in a 134-year-old building. I know these and other matters are currently being discussed by the management of Music Hall and by those who perform in it. As I am retired and do not participate in these discussions and decisions, I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment.”

In the fall of 2008, the nationwide financial meltdown dispelled any lingering illusions that a new concert hall might be feasible.

Thirty-eight-year-old Trey Devey, the new CSO president, assumed his post in January 2009 with a summa cum laude degree in music, a Wharton MBA, and experience with two orchestras, as well as the Boston Consulting Group (a management consultant group on the order of McKinsey & Co. or Booz Allen Hamilton). Of course, he had his own view of the issue of the day. “We’ve got this Ferrari of an orchestra that needs to perform in a facility that’s a bit more modernized—and new is ideal,” he says. “But let’s don’t let the perfect get in the way of the almost perfect. Music Hall is a great facility, and with a little vision, it could be spectacular.”

Devey’s team-player approach garners strong backing from Taft, Loftin, and J. Marvin Quin, the immediate past president of the CSO board, and as he continues to talk, it is easy to see why. “Going for a renovated Music Hall involves a lot of openness, listening—a shared vision,” he says. “I sense huge energy and passion around Music Hall, a sense that it should be the home of the Cincinnati Orchestra, that we, as stewards of community resources, need to lead, but we need to listen. This passion needs to be factored into our decision as to what’s best going forward. We’ll try to make the best decision we can—and hope we’re more than 51 percent right.”

That is a very different tune from what CSO management played in the past. The shift has been critical in helping to shape Music Hall’s future—a future which, Devey says, “won’t be perfect for the orchestra, for the opera, or for the May Festival, but will be a huge step forward for all of us.”

If so, no one will be more pleased than Norma Petersen, president of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. A distinguished and accomplished volunteer for many civic causes over many decades, Petersen and her organization have been outspoken in their disagreement with how CAA has cared for Music Hall. “Dudley and the CAA have a contract with the city to maintain Music Hall, but they have not lived up to it,” she said recently, referring to everything from deteriorating restrooms to frayed carpets. And then in the next breath: “It is not the responsibility of CAA to renovate the hall. They are the building managers. It is the city’s responsibility. But the maintenance is deplorable. I don’t know what [CAA’s] mission is, but ours is to preserve and enhance Music Hall.”

To do that, Petersen and her colleagues—many of them older, with genuine devotion to the building but little practical knowledge of what’s required to run it—have traditionally raised what money they could and made what contributions they were able. Over the years the SPMH has been responsible for the timeline mural in the corridor leading in from the parking garage, the renovation of a guest dressing room, commemorative plaques, drapes, and a Corbett Tower upgrade. The gifts have been welcomed and valued. But along with them have come ongoing complaints about worn carpets, dated bathrooms, and more seriously, inattention to the structural issues that, in fact, CAA is only too aware of. It’s made the SPMH a prickly player in the Working Group mix.

The origin of the society helps explain why. In 1992, just before construction of the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts began, the Cincinnati Music Hall Association was to be charged with running it as well, and its name would change to Cincinnati Arts Association. Patricia Corbett, forever Music Hall’s angel (two portraits of her are displayed in various places in the complex), worried that the new facility would siphon resources from the older one. (In fact, the opposite happened. The Aronoff now generates enough profit to contribute about $250,000 annually to the upkeep of Music Hall, says Taft.) To help insure the viability of Music Hall, two friends of Mrs. Corbett—Joyce VanWye, a longtime activist in the city’s musical community, and Jean Reis, then the executive director of the Corbett Foundation—founded the SPMH. Without real funding, it had to live on donations. And until Mrs. Corbett died, it did. With her death in early 2008, the Society inherited approximately $3 million—money that several people hope to have directed, at least in part, to the proposed renovations.

Not surprisingly, the SPMH has not seen it quite the same way; it has made no such commitment.

“The Society has not decided what should be done,” says its lawyer, Peter Koenig. “We’ve been steering through this Scylla and Charybdis as delicately as possible. Music Hall is beyond shabby elegant. It needs substantial refurbishment. Yet there’s a stalemate because not all the competing interests are coming together to ascertain what’s best for it. No one has the force of personality to step forward and say, ‘This is what it needs to be.’ ”

Apparently the time for that step is nearly at hand. In September, The Cincinnati Enquirer announced that an extensive renovation of Music Hall is imminent. Loftin allowed that to accommodate the work, the hall would probably be closed from May 2011 until the fall of 2012. Beyond that, details were scarce.

The fact is, the Working Group has for years been consulting with Theatre Projects Consultants, an international design firm that specializes in the renovation of old facilities, and whose clients have included everyone from the Aronoff itself to the National Theatre of Bahrain.

By the end of April 2009, documents circulating within the Working Group reflected TPC’s exploration of several scenarios for what might be done to achieve the agreed-upon goals for Springer Auditorium: to enable a more intimate experience by accommodating smaller audience sizes; to improve sightlines; to maintain acoustics where they are good and improve them where they are not; to improve audience seating and comfort; to create a patrons’ lounge; and to maintain and restore the historic character of the space.

The proposal under scrutiny included substantially fewer seats in the hall—more than the CSO would like, but fewer than the Opera could sell—and a combination of lifts that would permit the orchestra to play in a space surrounded on all sides by seating, space now occupied by the first several rows in the orchestra section. To accommodate seats where the stage is now, platform risers would be added. In addition, a custom, removable canopy would float over the orchestra in its new space, bolstering the desired effect of an intimate experience. Seating throughout the auditorium would be “re-raked,” meaning the auditorium floor would rise more steeply than it does currently, creating more space between rows for better leg room. A donors’ lounge is planned at the back of the first floor of the auditorium, eliminating the seats that are now under the balcony overhang; a control booth would sit at the back of the first balcony.

“All of it is very preliminary,” Loftin stressed when we spoke in the fall. “Since that proposal, we have met a couple more times looking at the back-of-the-house issues; the goal now is to wrap up this phase of ‘conceptual’ design and then move into schematics.”

With schematics, the consultants can begin to assign real costs to the overall proposal. Before then, the numbers tossed about are anybody’s guess. But, that said, the costs under discussion during the summer were between $55 million and $60 million for the whole project.

Where would that come from? At a time when the Art Museum has shelved a proposed multimillion dollar addition because sources for the funding aren’t visible, when the Playhouse in the Park has tabled its fervent interest in relocating downtown for the same reason, when the Taft Museum has closed an extra day each week, and when the Museum Center at Union Terminal backed off from seeking $98 million in a tax levy for vital infrastructure repair (Hamilton County Commissioners did not approve it for the ballot), how can CAA expect to raise anything like $60 million?

Dudley Taft, who has been a volunteer on behalf of the musical performing arts of this city for most of his adult life—he is now 69—feels the pressure. “It’s a little bit of a dance,” he says, “but if things work out, we’ll get about a third of it from the city and the state, another third from private donors [individual and corporate], and possibly another third from the sale of historic tax credits”—a financing device whereby a corporation, say, buys millions of dollars worth of tax credits and then gets tax relief, while the beneficiary organization gets the money. “The next step is a more detailed plan from the consultants. When we get that, we’ll get started with the state and the city.”

So nothing is for sure, yet. Except that Music Hall needs help, and soon. Given that, maybe Paavo Järvi should have the last word.

“A concert hall is a holy place, and letting it fall down is nothing short of tragic,” he says. “But that is what will happen to this hall if the CSO goes out of business. The orchestra is too significant in our cultural landscape to make it into the Pops. This is probably the most pressing issue for us, and maybe for Cincinnati acting as a community as well.”

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