Sunday, March 26, 2006

Downsizing among options considered for Music Hall

Photo: Cincinnati Enquirer
In this article, Janelle Gelfand writes of the dilemma faced by the CSO as it is faced with an increasingly high profile worldwide reputation for its exciting and emotionally moving concerts under Paavo Järvi and the loss of local listeners to appreciate them at home:
Downsizing among options considered for Music Hall
By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 26, 2006

On most nights, more than half the seats are empty in the cavernous, 3,400 seat Music Hall, the largest concert hall in the country.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Paavo Järvi says that to make it a destination, Music Hall needs updating to bring it to the 21st century - such as places where concertgoers can have a bite to eat before the concert or drinks afterward. And the size of the auditorium needs to fit the needs of a symphony orchestra.

Renovation plans could be unveiled as early as this summer.

Music Hall - a multi-purpose hall - was built in 1878 for the massive choral concerts of the Cincinnati May Festival. Because most orchestra halls seat about 2,200, Järvi and the CSO trustees are discussing ideas to make it more intimate for concerts. Ideas include temporarily closing off sections, making the hall "adjustable" depending upon its use or projecting a "thrust stage" into the hall.

"It is not a question of trying to take an easy way out and build something smaller so we don't have to look at so many empty seats," he says, "but creating an environment in which the art form that we practice is comfortable."

In the past decade, there have been successful renovations in Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Cleveland's Severance Hall and Detroit's Orchestra Hall. Just up I-75, Daytonians built the sparkling Schuster Center for the Performing Arts for the city's orchestra and opera. Although the CSO has not yet assembled a team - which would likely include theater and acoustical consultants as well as architects and a construction company - there are many possibilities, Järvi says.

"In our case, we shouldn't be stuck to something that worked before, but doesn't work for us now. Chicago has changed, Severance Hall has changed, even much smaller communities are building new halls. We need to adjust to the times."

It's premature to speculate a price tag, or how it would be paid. But a redo would need to preserve Music Hall's famed acoustics, praised last year in a guest May Festival appearance by America's most famous maestro, James Levine.

The city of Cincinnati owns Music Hall, and it is managed by the Cincinnati Arts Association. The orchestra is meeting regularly - as recently as Monday - with the other tenants, Cincinnati Opera and May Festival, as well as CAA, to assure that changes are mutually agreeable.

"We're all taking this very seriously. The future of Music Hall is so dependant on the fact that arts organizations are able to stay here and remain viable. When the symphony says they have problems, all of us are listening," says Patricia K. Beggs, general director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera.

"The fact is, there are very few amenities here for patrons. We'd all like for this to be a destination for them - for dinner, for staying afterwards, going to clubs and art galleries - and that doesn't exist here. Parking is a challenge.

"It's about getting the attention of people who can make a difference, so that they can invest in this part of town just like they have in other parts of town."

If the orchestra were to leave, it's unclear where it might go. The Aronoff Center, designed for Broadway, has no orchestra shell and no other music venue in the region is large enough or available. The orchestra's onetime home in the Emery Theater on the edge of Over-the-Rhine is crumbling in disrepair, and a move to the suburbs or to a glittering new hall downtown would take a major capital campaign.

But, Järvi says, "If there comes a point where we just simply cannot find the solution for this hall, then we're going to have to try to find another place to be."

There is precedence. Founded in 1895, the Cincinnati Symphony left its Music Hall home in 1912 for the Emery Theater on Walnut Street, where it played for 25 years before moving back to Music Hall in 1936.


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