Cincinnati Music Hall Poised For Major Renovation

Architects' rendering of proposed renovations to Cincinnati's historic Music Hall show orchestra on new thirst stage in front of the proscenium. Illustration: Music Hall Revitalization Co.
Architects’ rendering of proposed renovations to Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall show orchestra on new thrust stage.
(Illustrations: Music Hall Revitalization Co.)


By Janelle Gelfand

CINCINNATI — On May 28 in historic Music Hall, James Conlon will lead the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and 3,000 concertgoers in Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus. There is special significance to that traditional close to Cincinnati’s May Festival this year, because it will mark the end of two eras. Conlon will be concluding his 37th season as music director and his acclaimed tenure as head of the unique choral festival. Days later, Music Hall, which was built for the May Festival in 1878, will officially close its doors for its first major renovation in more than four decades.

At last count, Music Hall’s makeover — originally estimated to cost $135 million — will displace its resident performing arts companies for at least 16 months. But as the June 1 deadline looms, with permits still to be obtained, construction contracts to be signed and at least $5 million left to be raised from the citizens of Cincinnati, the estimated cost appears to be fluid, as may be typical of such large civic undertakings.

Music Hall was Built in 1878. Photo: Liz Dufour, The Cincinnati Enquirer
Music Hall was built in 1878. (Liz Dufour, The Cincinnati Enquirer)

It is Music Hall’s first major overhaul since prominent Cincinnati philanthropists J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett led a successful renovation in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Getting to this point has taken most of the last decade, and the project’s funding and planning have been complicated, to say the least. Music Hall, a National Historic Landmark, is owned by the city of Cincinnati, which contributes annually to its upkeep. A private nonprofit group, the Music Hall Revitalization Company (MHRC), obtained a long-term lease in order to carry out the renovation. The project is funded by a complex cocktail of city, state, and private money together with state and federal historic tax credits.

The complexity is multiplied because it is a multi-purpose hall. It is home to the nation’s fifth-oldest orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony (founded in 1895), the Cincinnati Pops (essentially the same personnel in red blazers), and the Cincinnati May Festival. It is also home to America’s second-oldest opera company, Cincinnati Opera, which moved from its colorful summertime venue at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in 1972. When Music Hall reopens, which is expected to be in October 2017, it will also house the Cincinnati Ballet.

Music Hall is essentially three buildings. At its center is Reuben R. Springer Auditorium, named for its first philanthropist, who succeeded in getting it built by devising the nation’s first matching grant scheme. There are also large North and South Halls that currently house offices, rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, the music library (deemed to be the world’s largest), and the opera’s scene shop. Its spaces have hosted weddings, balls, nightclubs, University of Cincinnati basketball games, boxing matches, the nation’s first licensed educational TV station (WCET), and even the Democratic National Convention of 1880.

Outside Music Hall, bricked-up windows would be re-opened.
Outside Music Hall, bricked-up windows would be re-opened.

The hall has undergone several renovations over its 138-year lifetime. Perhaps the most critical was the addition of a lavishly-decorated proscenium arch in 1896 to allow opera or ballet to be mounted on its stage. That addition permanently transformed it into a multi-purpose hall.

With aging systems, drab backstage areas, and not many audience amenities by today’s standards, it is due for an update. But because of its age, historic importance to the city, and multi-purpose use, it is also one of the most complex renovations that the appointed design team has ever attempted. At 3,417 seats, it is also one of the largest concert halls in use.

“This is probably one of the most prominent renovation/restoration projects of a performing arts facility in the country right now,” said Alan Weiskopf, lead architect of the project and managing principal of Pittsburgh-based architecture firm Perfido, Weiskopf, Wagstaff + Goettel. “It’s a significant piece of architecture, by a prominent local architect, and it’s a massive edifice that fronts a beautiful park.”

The view toward the stage, as it exists now.
The view toward the stage, as it exists now.

Acoustically, Music Hall’s auditorium is a remarkable place to hear music, with the kind of clarity, warmth, and romantic sound that one only finds in concert halls of this era. In the more than 40 years I have heard performances in this hall, it has proven to be ideal for the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner, Nielsen, and Beethoven, the oratorios of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Haydn, and the operas of Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi. Aaron Copland, who often guest-conducted the CSO, likely wrote his Fanfare for the Common Man with Music Hall’s spacious acoustics in mind when he was commissioned during World War II by former music director Eugene Goossens.

And that sound is world-renowned: Cincinnati Pops and Cincinnati Symphony albums recorded there have sold more than 10 million copies. The CSO, May Festival, and Cincinnati Opera are heard regularly over local radio WGUC, as well as on National Public Radio. Hit radio shows A Prairie Home Companion and From the Top have broadcast live from Music Hall.

When native son James Levine returned in 2005 to conduct Berlioz’s Requiem at the May Festival, which he had led as music director from 1974 to 1978, he praised Music Hall and its glowing acoustics. “I can think of maybe two or three halls in the world that are better. This is a great hall,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer and other local press.

New thrust stage would push the full orchestra ahead of the proscenium.
New thrust stage would push most of the Cincinnati Symphony ahead of the proscenium.

Cincinnati’s culture is still influenced by German immigrants who settled the Ohio River Valley town in the mid-19th century. Music Hall is the last remaining 19th-century concert hall that is home to a major American orchestra. About 250,000 people buy tickets to events at Music Hall annually. The design by Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford is a symphony of turrets and gingerbread dubbed by the locals “sauerbraten byzantine.”

On Feb. 28, officials showed the project’s designs and renderings to the public for the first time. The information revealed that the overhaul of the complex will result in a much smaller concert hall — Springer Auditorium — with about 1,000 fewer seats. However, the new seats will be wider, with an inch or two more leg room. New permanent walls will be constructed of cement board inside the historic walls on two floors, aimed at giving patrons a more intimate concert experience while reducing the cubic volume of the space.

The orchestra floor is being reconstructed with concrete, and a new heating and cooling system will be installed under the seating area. The floor’s surface will be covered with wood, consistent with Music Hall’s past, architects said. The already steep balconies will be made steeper, intended to correct sightlines that will be affected by a new “thrust stage” on which the orchestra will sit.

Acoustician Paul Scarbrough plans to design new glass canopy over the orchestra.
Acoustician Paul Scarbrough plans to design new glass canopy over the orchestra.

Because the musicians play partly behind and in front of the proscenium arch, in essentially two acoustical spaces, officials hope to rectify the situation by moving them about nine feet farther out. However, the chief reason for downsizing the hall seems to be driven by attendance. Despite a number of sell-outs — and not just when Lang Lang is in town — the hall is half empty on many subscription concert nights. The new seat count will reduce the hall to a range of about 2,200 to 2,500, depending upon the event being presented.

“With the proposed capacity, 90 percent of our performances would be unaffected,” said CSO president Trey Devey. “Most are performed to 2,200 audience members or fewer. There are occasions where we have sold out Music Hall. In that case, we can add a performance. In some cases, we won’t have the flexibility to add another performance, and we will sell out, usually five or six times a year. So as we consider the trade-offs, when you have audience members in the balcony and gallery who are squeezed into 19-inch wide seats, with 33-inch row-to-row length, from a revenue perspective, I would rather have everyone coming to our performances have a comfortable experience.”

Music Hall holds 3,417 narrow seats. Photo: Patrick Reddy, The Cincinnati Enquirer
Music Hall holds 3,417 narrow seats. (Patrick Reddy, The Cincinnati Enquirer)

The appointed acoustical consultant, Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks (who also will be consulting for the David Geffen Hall renovation at Lincoln Center) is confident that the acoustics of Springer Auditorium won’t be adversely affected by the addition of new materials, such as concrete, or by the reconfiguring of the hall with a thrust stage and new cement board walls. He is planning to design a glass canopy over the orchestra. Should the side reflections prove to be too bright, there will likely be adjustable draperies on the third floor, he said.

The gallery level, or third floor, will remain the same size so that sound may resonate in what Scarbrough calls “the acoustic saddlebag.”

“We’re using a construction technique that we’ve used successfully in concert halls and opera houses throughout the United States, Europe, and North and South America,” Scarbrough said.

Scarbrough, who has worked on several prominent projects, including Cleveland’s Severance Hall, said he starts with “musical memory.” “People have a very strong memory for how the CSO, Pops, May Festival Chorus, or Cincinnati Opera sound in Music Hall today. So we want to keep that musical memory in the forefront of our minds, so we’re building on that memory, not replacing it with something different,” he said.

A goal is to increase the sense of connection between the audience and the performer by having the orchestra playing on a stage extension in a smaller “hall within a hall.”

Renovation would bring fewer, wider seats.
Renovation would bring fewer, wider seats.

“To address the connection between audience and performer, and to increase the impact in the room, we wanted to narrow the room, acoustically speaking, so that the reflections from the side walls arrived to the listeners, particularly to those seated in the center of the orchestra floor, more quickly and with greater strength,” Scarbrough said. “We also wanted to remove some cubic volume, which is currently about 1 million cubic feet. The impact a performer can have is reduced by that large cubic volume.”

There will also be a freshened lobby (renamed the Edyth B. Lindner Grand Foyer in honor of a $10 million gift from Cincinnati’s Lindner family) with torchiere lighting replacing Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers that were added in the 1970s redo. (However, the auditorium’s signature, two-ton chandelier will stay, thanks to a public outcry when a previous design team proposed ditching it.)

New amenities include a lounge just behind the concert hall, bars, and concession areas, and LED screens, in addition to major overhauls to the box office, gift shop, and backstage areas. The public will be able to enjoy 62 percent more restroom facilities.

New walls at first two levels would narrow the hall.
New walls at first two levels would narrow the hall.

On the exterior, the currently bricked-up windows will be restored to allow more light inside. And there will be improved access for people with mobility issues, with two new elevators reaching all levels of the building. A controversial plan to take out the hall’s dual escalators has been changed. Now patrons will ascend on one “efficient” escalator that will change directions at the end of the show. And not least, aging systems will be updated.

One element has proven unpopular with the citizens. At the building’s rear, a public entrance leading to a city-owned parking garage is eliminated in the plan. Because the city’s future plans for the garage are unclear, Music Hall officials are now facing public questions about sufficient parking as well as building access. After realizing that many symphony subscribers use the rear entrance, MHRC head Otto M. Budig Jr. announced in an editorial in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 11 that the design team will create an accessible public entrance at the building’s rear through the Ballroom.

February’s news was the first release of any official plans or drawings since July 2012.  Since then, the renovation project has been a roller coaster of highs and lows. The price tag has fluctuated from a low of $90 million to estimates as high as $200 million. Deadlines have come and gone. Public forums in 2012 drew throngs of concerned patrons, horrified that the escalators and chandeliers were slated for the demolition bin.

There was a contentious public battle between the city and MHRC — first in a failed attempt by the group to purchase the building from the city, followed by a long-term lease agreement. During that time, there was also a shakeup of leadership in the group spearheading the renovation. The design team, which early in the project included Ennead (formerly Polshek Partnership Architects), Jaffe Holden Acoustics, and Theatre Projects, stopped work, and leaders focused on fund raising.

Three years ago, a local private nonprofit, Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (known as 3CDC), which has transformed Cincinnati’s historic core known as Over-the-Rhine, was named project manager for Music Hall, which is in the same neighborhood. Then, with a funding plan calling for both private and public money, the revitalization group campaigned to get Music Hall onto a sales tax ballot along with Cincinnati Union Terminal as part of what was called an “Icon Tax” — a sales tax that would fund the renovation of both historic buildings. In August 2014, they hit a roadblock: County commissioners dumped Music Hall at the eleventh hour, forcing Music Hall supporters to scramble for more private money.

Lobby renovations would improve the patron experience.
Lobby renovations would improve the patron experience.

But there has been euphoria, too, such as winning a onetime, $25 million historic tax credit from the state. The Lindners’ $10 million gift proved to be a catalyst for other donors. A recent high point came with a $3 million gift from the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, made possible by the Corbett Foundation — the same family foundation that had largely underwritten the hall’s last major renovation more than 40 years ago.

In September 2015, the two entities — 3CDC and the revitalization group — announced a new design team for Music Hall. Besides Akustiks, two architecture firms — Martinez + Johnson and Perfido, Weiskopf, Wagstaff + Goettel, along with theater consultant Schuler Shook — are working on the project.

In December, the staff of the resident companies, as well as the massive music library, began moving out of the hall.

Now, after construction permits are obtained from the city — the city’s Historic Conservation Board approval in  a public hearing on April 11 will allow developers to proceed with applications — the demolition of Springer Auditorium is to begin on June 1. And with just 16 months to work before the reopening in October 2017, 3CDC’s president and CEO Stephen Leeper says his crew will be working double, possibly even triple shifts to complete the job. Meanwhile, fundraising continues to close the budget gap.

Renovation makes room for a gift shop off the lobby.
Renovation makes room for a gift shop off the lobby.

It is a massive job, and tough decisions must be made. But it is also emotional. This is a hall with deep meaning to the city. Children experienced their first concerts here and perhaps saw a musical instrument for the first time. High schoolers marched up the aisles to get diplomas. There have been first dates, marriage proposals, weddings, and memorial tributes.

Above all, even in the toughest economic times — and times when the neighborhood was edgy — audiences have never stopped going to Music Hall. The Cincinnati Symphony, currently led by music director Louis Langrée, claims to have the largest roster of longtime subscribers in the country.

The architect Alan Weiskopf noted that the team has multiple challenges.

“We have a building with tremendous character. It is a National Landmark. It is a tax-credit project that involves the state historic preservation office and the National Park Service to obtain tax credits. But we also have a building that is woefully decrepit in many areas and in its systems…

“Our job is to identify the character-defining aspects of the building, get those blessed by the state historic preservation office, and bring new life and new character to the spaces that are not historic, and be very, very careful about the spaces that are historic and blend the two together, which is what we intend to do.”

Portions of this article appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer and For Music Hall stories, see here.

Janelle Gelfand, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was named classical music critic for The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1993 and writes about arts and classical music for the paper. Find her articles and videos at