By Janelle Gelfand
CINCINNATI – The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra members walked onto Music Hall’s stage with their instruments – European style – on Oct. 6 and took their seats on new risers on a new stage. They earned a standing ovation before a note had been played.
A celebratory concert led by music director Louis Langrée signaled the orchestra’s return to its longtime home in the historic Music Hall following a 16-month, $143-million renovation. After a season at the Taft Theatre, a beaming Langrée remarked to the sold-out opening-night audience, “Isn’t it wonderful to be back home?”
The weekend included a pair of symphony concerts and, on Oct. 7, a free community open house, as well as the expected pomp-filled ribbon-cuttings, speeches, and dinners.
The civic pride was well earned, for the complex project has saved and beautifully updated a National Historic Landmark. The massive 1878 building designed by Cincinnati’s most distinguished architect of the era, Samuel Hannaford, underwent the most ambitious renovation since its proscenium arch was added in 1895. Furthermore, within the decade that the rehab has been in the planning, the building’s neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine has experienced its own extraordinary renaissance.
Music Hall is a multi-purpose venue, home to the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati May Festival, and Cincinnati Ballet. Visually, Springer Auditorium, which is named for Music Hall’s founder, Reuben Springer, is still reassuringly familiar. Its ornate proscenium arch and balcony fronts were preserved in the plans in order to receive historic tax credits for the project. Its jewel-like Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier, saved by local demand even though it dates from the last renovation, in 1969, funded by philanthropists J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett, adds sparkle to a new color scheme of taupe walls and dusty-rose seats.
On opening night, listeners were still taking in the elegant new décor and patron-friendly amenities, which include cup holders for the first time on new, wider seats. Now, however, there are about 1,000 fewer seats in a hall that formerly seated more than 3,400; the audience for this gala re-opening was 2,282. Springer Auditorium is also physically smaller. Its walls on the orchestra and first balcony levels, newly constructed of layered cement board, have been moved inward. Consequently, the room’s spacious volume of 1 million cubic feet has been reduced by about 20 percent.
A new, more modern seating configuration on the orchestra level includes a rear “parterre” seating area. There are sloped boxes on the side walls, and the building’s center aisle has been removed. The former wooden floor was reconstructed of poured concrete and a wood veneer overlay, and the orchestra level now has gradual steps from the rear.
All three levels were re-raked to allow for sightlines affected by the new “thrust” stage. The orchestra, now on risers in front of the arch, is playing about 12 feet closer to and in the same space as its audience. The Artec-designed orchestra shell from the ’90s forms a flat wall behind the players. New glass-and-steel acoustical clouds float overhead.
With all of those changes, the weekend’s concerts were as much a test of the acoustics as a welcome back to the hall. Paul Scarbrough and Chris Blair of the Connecticut-based firm Akustiks were consultants on the acoustical design. (The firm is also consulting on Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, though that project is now in limbo.) They were tasked with retaining the room’s historic warmth and character, while correcting onstage problems for the players and providing a more intimate experience for listeners.
Judging only from my seat near the front of the balcony, it is still a work in progress. (However, I plan to try out several other areas in the coming weeks.) The designers have succeeded in creating better “presence” of sound, now that the orchestra is closer. But there were problems with balance, lack of warmth, and at times even clarity on opening night.
Langrée’s eclectic program included Scriabin’s atmospheric Le Poème de l’Extase (The Poem of Ecstasy), Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, featuring Kit Armstrong making his debut as soloist, and the world premiere of Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Stories of Home. For a splashy encore, there was Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. The French conductor opened with John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, adding some extra jolts of adrenaline to the exuberant piece. The sound was bright and clear, and the persistent beat of the woodblock (in the percussion section on the highest riser) was noticeably louder than usual.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 offered a chance to hear the orchestra in a smaller, classically sized configuration. Langrée led with his usual lightness, attention to detail, and joie de vivre. In the orchestra, the string sound was thin, yet every nuance of phrasing was clear. There were also some uncharacteristic ensemble problems – once where piano and orchestra were dangerously out of sync. The piano sound sometimes overpowered the orchestra, and I couldn’t hear the cello section.
Armstrong, a dynamic young American pianist with an impressive technique, tackled Beethoven’s runs with clear articulation and more than a little showmanship. The slow movement, one of Beethoven’s most gorgeous, was deeply felt. His encore was a supercharged Fantasia by early 17th-century composer John Bull.
With his new commission, Stories of Home, Flint, MI-born composer Jonathan Bailey Holland said he aimed to pay homage to those who have called Music Hall’s land home. In the property’s history, it has been an orphanage and a pauper’s grave. Scored for large orchestra, his well-crafted work was not celebratory but rather atmospheric, serene, and introspective, with long-breathed phrases and dissonant harmonies.
At times, the piece seemed to be conjuring the ghosts of Music Hall with other-worldly effects, such as whispering voices coming from within the orchestra. After its waves of sound soared and subsided, the piece ended unexpectedly on a jazz-like chord. The composer took a bow to an enthusiastic reception.
Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was the ultimate test for the hall and its players. Langrée, who was in his element, caught the sweep and sensuous quality of this ravishing music. Orchestral soloists, including newly appointed principal trumpet Robert Sullivan (who had previously held the post from 2008 to 2013) and returning concertmaster Timothy Lees were a joy to hear.
The Scriabin fared the best in the new acoustics, but it also had oddities. For instance, the nine French horns should have sounded with more presence.
Still, there was much to love about this performance, from the opening richness of the strings to the final, thrilling summation with the full power of the orchestra and organ in all their sonic glory.
The acousticians say they will continue making adjustments during much of the season. Clearly, it still needs tweaking to reclaim the warmth that has made Music Hall legendary.
At the concert’s opening, Jonathan Martin made his first public appearance as the Cincinnati Symphony’s new president, barely four weeks into his job. He succeeds Trey Devey, who left last year to head Interlochen.
Janelle Gelfand, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, was classical music critic and arts writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 26 years. She is now a freelance arts writer, based in Cincinnati.