Sunday, March 26, 2006

Showdown at Music Hall

The Cincinnati Enquirer's Janelle Gelfand provides an update on current issues affecting Music Hall and its relationship with its majority tenant, the Cincinnati Symphony in this article:
Safety, renovation issues could affect future of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Over-the-Rhine
By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati enquirer, March 26, 2006

A concert hall that's too large.

A neighborhood that's struggling and has had its share of bad luck.

And lots of empty promises to drive out the criminals and develop Over-the-Rhine.

Now, the mayor's initiative to make the neighborhood safer, plans to develop the Washington Park area near Music Hall and a desire to make the grand venue a more exciting destination all add up to one thing: It's the last chance to keep the Cincinnati Symphony from leaving its home.

Five years into the tenure of music director Paavo Järvi, 43, he hopes - finally - "for the start of something we have been waiting for."

Although a move is not imminent, the symphony's 53-member board of trustees has quietly discussed one for years. It would take a majority board vote and "I think we would get that," trustee Jack Rouse says.

Despite international acclaim for the 111-year-old orchestra, among the top 10 of the nation's 25 big-budget orchestras, fear of crime around the historic, 128-year-old hall is one reason attendance has dropped steadily in the five years since Järvi began his tenure - three days after 9-11 and five months after the riots in Over-the-Rhine.

At the same time, Järvi wants a redo of the hall, which two decades ago was able to fill most of its 3,400 seats for symphony concerts but now is half-empty for most concerts.

"I like this building, and I see so much potential," Järvi says. "I have hope that this city will find a will to change this neighborhood into a prosperous neighborhood that retains its color, but regains its streets from the drug dealers.

"As somebody who came here five years ago with high hopes of trying to create this as the center of the city - the hall being the crown jewel of the city - I find things move too slowly, and I find the political will is lacking."

Will anything change by the time his contract expires after the 2008-09 season?

Trustees recently took their concerns to City Hall, and were encouraged by Mayor Mark Mallory's response. But promises have to be fulfilled, Rouse says:

"If (the neighborhood) isn't cleaned up, no matter what we do to the hall won't make any difference. Music Hall is the anchor of Over-the-Rhine, but it's anchoring nothing."

Yet the completion of a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts by 2009, a proposed parking garage and neighborhood condos are still years away. And music lovers are anxious about attending the concerts in Music Hall.

"Like it or not, safety is an issue in Over-the-Rhine," says symphony subscriber Judy Evans of Anderson Township. "Perception or not."

The Town Center Garage on Central Parkway and the rehabbed neighborhood to the west of Music Hall are safe, according to police statistics. Many symphony stalwarts, like Tom and Luanne Morgan of Mount Lookout, have never stopped attending. They walk in groups and park in well-lit lots or the garage.

But Princeton Middle School teacher Gary Cook says the one time in December 2003 he tried to save $5 by parking on Elm Street, he returned with his 10-year-old daughter from seeing the "Nutcracker" to find four bullet holes in their car from a drug deal gone bad. Now Cook, who still enjoys going to the symphony, always parks in the garage.

Perception of crime, rightly or wrongly, keeps some suburban classical music lovers such as Tim Fry, 44, of Montgomery from going to Music Hall.

Fry attended the symphony once in 1997 and says he'll never go back.

"I just remember the streets and kids milling around and not many police. After the riots, I thought, I don't understand the value of taking a potential risk to go to a concert. ... To me, Cincinnati is almost irrelevant. I go through there on my way to the airport. It never dawns on me that I'd want to go there."

Many issues affect attendance - from cuts in school arts programs to ticket price increases. But Järvi is alarmed at what he perceives is an increased presence of drug dealers close to Music Hall. He's discouraged that a coherent plan for the neighborhood, long beleaguered by crime and poverty, has been slow in coming from city leaders.

"I told them we would certainly find ways to be helpful, in making sure that as many people that want to experience the greatness of Music Hall are able to do that in safety," Mallory said last week about his meeting with board members.

Mallory unveiled his public safety initiative in January. The force has 25 new officers and another 25 have been reassigned to cover "hot spot" areas - areas of the highest crime activity, he says.

"Obviously we're going to be focusing on areas that need the most attention," Mallory said, adding that additional officers are in the area on performance nights.

Leaving Music Hall "has come up for years," board chair Rick Reynolds says. "My concern is the next generation, and are they going to come up? Perception is a concern, headlines are a concern."

Nevertheless, he is more hopeful than ever that, "very quietly, things have been improving."

Except for the empty seats. "The elephant in the living room for us is the huge number of seats and the emptiness for great concerts. ... The symphony has to look out for itself. That's what we the trustees are there for. Right now, our first line of defense is a renovation with reduction of seating," Reynolds says.

Music Hall, also home to Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati May Festival, is owned by the city and managed by the Cincinnati Arts Association. There must be agreement between all of these entities before the orchestra, its largest tenant, is allowed to renovate.

Board members know that now, with developers and a new city government poised to make improvements, is a unique opportunity for a turnaround. Rouse, who is also on the executive committee of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) and chair of the Port Authority, says cooperation is critical.

Developers hope that big plans to rehab the Washington Park area will result in an enhanced feeling of community that should - eventually - drive crime away. But no groundbreaking dates for these projects have been announced.

"We really have only conceptual plans at this point," says Des Bracey, project manager for 3CDC, a nonprofit corporation developing downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the Banks. And before development can take place, criminal activity in and around Washington Park is being tracked, to see if the new lights are effective, and fencing is being raised around vacant lots.

"It's really not until those vacant buildings are rehabbed and are homes with people living there, that the perception and character of the neighborhood will change," Bracey says.

Until then, Marcy Elter of Lebanon will attend the Lebanon Symphony Orchestra rather than the Cincinnati Symphony because of safety concerns.

"I am able to enjoy these performances within my own community, where I can afford the ticket, park within the hemisphere of the performance for free and not have to worry about predators on my way into or out of the venue," she says.

Police visibility during concerts is important, but it won't solve the problem, Järvi says.

"We can bring in the National Guard for every concert here, but that still doesn't make it any better for the people who live in this neighborhood, or for us," he says. "We need to address the real issue, which is that this neighborhood is not getting any better, and our empty seats are very much related to that issue.

"There are people who don't want us to move. But at the end of the day, if you are uncomfortable in your house, you call your Realtor."


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