Monday, November 27, 2006

Acoustics, character of Music Hall make renovation no easy feat

Acoustics, character of Music Hall make renovation no easy feat
By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, November 27, 2006

Music Hall is headed for a makeover, and renovating a National Historic Landmark is a tricky business.

But the theater and acoustical consultants, who have worked on high-profile projects such as Cleveland's 1931 Severance Hall, are confident.

"There's a concern that what you do doesn't destroy in some way the historical character of a building," says Joshua Dachs, principal of Fisher Dachs Theatre Planning and Design in New York.

"You're not starting with a clean sheet of paper. You have to come up with inventive solutions that work within or take advantage of the unique situation that exists. That's an interesting puzzle sometimes."

On Monday, officials announced that the first phase to study a remodeling of the 128-year-old hall was complete.

In coming months, the Music Hall Working Group representing the main tenants will receive a menu of architectural solutions and their costs, and begin to hammer out a workable plan.

If all issues are tackled - somehow "downsizing" the 3,400-seat hall for symphony concerts, adding an upscale restaurant, gift shop, bar or donor lounge, beefing up backstage technology, building better staff offices and building an entry from a planned new parking garage - the price tag could soar above $35 million.

And no one knows where the city's main performing arts groups will move while Music Hall is a construction zone.

MAINTAINING ACOUSTICS

Perhaps more critical than cost, though, is the charge of maintaining the auditorium's fine acoustics, where Telarc records the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops CDs.

The mission is to create more intimacy between the players and the audience while preserving Music Hall's legendary sound, says Mark Holden, chairman of Jaffe Holden Acoustics, Inc., a Connecticut-based firm that recently designed the acoustics of Dayton's widely praised Schuster Center.

"Music Hall has a mellow and well-balanced sound. But the concerns relate to the fact that it's not as intimate a room for a smaller audience," Holden says. "You don't want to ruin the beautiful sound that's there. Yet you want to improve the presence, the proximity."

Holden and Dachs were part of the team that successfully remodeled the Cleveland Orchestra's home, Severance Hall, in 2000. The two-year, $36 million makeover - which included a restaurant, gift shop, expanded backstage facilities and improved access from the garage - required the Cleveland Orchestra to decamp to an old movie theater for part of two seasons.

Even though the entire stage area was rebuilt, the team succeeded in preserving - and even enhancing - Severance Hall's acoustics.

Last year, the same team created a more intimate environment for the large (2,800-seat) Avery Fisher Hall in New York, for its "Mostly Mozart Festival." The orchestra was placed on a platform jutting 30 feet into the hall, with seating on all sides.

"You could sit onstage and read music over the shoulders of the violinists," says Dachs, also a classically trained violinist who played in Carnegie Hall as a student. "It broke down the formality of the relationship between performers and audience in a wonderful way and created a more intimate setting and a more powerful acoustical setting."

A "thrust stage" was briefly considered for Music Hall in the '90s.

"It really changes the dynamic in an exciting way," says Dachs. "There's no more exciting place to watch the conductor than as the orchestra sees them. When you're that close, you feel as though you're in the middle of the orchestra."


A LOOK AT HISTORY

Coming back with recommendations has been slow because Music Hall lacks good architectural drawings. But Bob Howes, Cincinnati Symphony violist and historian for the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, a volunteer arm, has been digging through archives.

A little known fact is that Music Hall has a double proscenium arch - one for opera, one for orchestra. The orchestra has been sitting too far back for decades, Howes believes. Placing it in front of the gilded arch would coincide with Music Hall architect Samuel Hannaford's original intentions.

Last season, the orchestra moved forward for two concerts. The musicians were pleased, and there was a better connection with the audience, Howes says.

"Look at history. The hall was designed for a specific purpose and everybody needs to know what it is."


REACTION TO REMODELING

Originally built for the choral concerts of Cincinnati May Festival in 1878, Music Hall is a multipurpose hall. A reconfiguring of Springer Auditorium could be a flexible solution that would change according to the needs of the tenants - the Cincinnati Symphony, May Festival and Cincinnati Opera. It may - or may not - mean making the hall smaller, says Steven Monder, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra president.

"Our consultants have five or six concepts in mind," he says.

Karen McKim, executive director of the Corbett Foundation, wonders if the orchestra has explored enough options before planning a redo of the auditorium.

"I wonder if they've looked at all the questions - why is it not full?" says McKim, noting that the Corbett Foundation paid $400,000 for new seating about 15 years ago.

If plans call for reduced seating, how would that affect the opera, which typically has crowds of 3,000 for opera chestnuts like "Aida"?

"We're not going to shut the door on anything," says Cincinnati Opera CEO and general director Patricia Beggs, adding that fewer seats would mean more performances.

Everyone wants to see the grande dame of Elm Street remain the city's premiere arts destination.

The acoustical consultant Holden feels "very positive."

"There seems to be a great sense of moving forward, of 'we can do this' and this is the time," he says. "A lot of things are coming into alignment, in terms of will of the city and trying to improve the area. There seems to be a real gathering of momentum, which is very exciting and rewarding to have been entrusted with this."

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