‘New’ Music Hall Is Ready for Its Close-up

Renovated historic venue looks great, so how will it sound?

click to enlarge ‘New’ Music Hall Is Ready for Its Close-up
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

When Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s music director Louis Langrée raises his baton at 8 p.m. on Friday, Music Hall will officially be back in business. At a cost of $143 million, the renovation of the historic, 139-year-old building is one of the region’s largest such projects — and the work has been completed on schedule.

Your first chance to see and hear it for yourself occurs Friday and Saturday as the CSO opens its season with a program that includes works by John Adams, Beethoven and Scriabin and a world premiere by Jonathan Bailey Holland.

Upon entering the building, there’s no doubt you’re still in Music Hall. Only it’s different — very different. Inside Springer Auditorium, which is where the CSO and Cincinnati Pops will perform (as will the Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Ballet and May Festival, for at least some performances), lifts extend the stage so that the orchestra is seated forward and closer to the audience — a critical factor for the acoustic changes.

To accommodate the acoustic upgrades and more comfortable seating, Springer Auditorium’s seating capacity is down markedly, from 3,417 to 2,269 for the CSO/Pops and up to 2,500 for the Cincinnati Opera.

“The hall was narrowed down and the rear wall moved forward in the orchestra and first balcony to enhance the sound’s return to the audience and to the musicians onstage,” says Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks, the acoustic design firm that oversaw sound renovations.

The seats are the people’s choice, determined by the voting of Music Hall audiences. The light wood-framed seats are one inch wider than they were previously and there are two more inches of legroom per seat. On the orchestra floor, the box seats have been eliminated and there is no center aisle. But orchestra seats do have cup holders, as do select balcony seats.

There are still pillars in the orchestra and balcony sections, but Chris Pinelo, vice president of communications for the CSO, assures that the sound has not been compromised. New steps with a center railing make it easier to get to third-floor gallery seats.

Springer’s big chandelier is still in place, every crystal cleaned and the lighting replaced with LED bulbs that can be operated from an iPad. The ceiling’s central oil painting glows after a thorough cleaning.

In addition to downsizing Springer, an acoustic “cloud” above the stage, made up of adjustable glass panels, should help musicians onstage hear each other.

Scarbrough says he’s pleased with the initial results and hopes audiences will be, too. “We’re all very excited by what we’re hearing,” he says. “We wanted to preserve that warm, embracing sound and enhance it so that everyone hears it.”

Overall for Music Hall, differences are immediately apparent, even before coming through the Elm Street main entrance. (For the foreseeable future, there is no longer a Central Parkway entrance.) In addition to some banks of windows, the overhang over the front doors is gone. The new interior box office is just south of the entrance doors.

And there’s greater accessibility on the inside, from the relocation of the box office to the high-speed elevators. The number of bathrooms has increased by 60 percent. Seats are more comfortable, especially in the gallery. The Edyth B. Lindner Grand Foyer itself is brighter, thanks to restored windows on the front façade.

The Grand Foyer’s red slate and white marble checkered floor has been cleaned and the space’s overall color scheme softened to warm taupe. The three chandeliers that used to be in the Grand Foyer have been moved to their original location in Corbett Tower; new Grand Foyer lighting is provided by fixtures on the balcony railings.

One of the most dramatic changes is Corbett Tower, where removing the dropped ceiling revealed an additional 14 feet in height and the remains of a stenciled ceiling, which has been beautifully recreated. The original windows were uncovered, providing natural light and a breathtaking view eastward of Washington Park, Over-the-Rhine and the hillsides beyond. Corbett Tower will become the home of the Cincinnati Chamber Players’ four-concert series, beginning Dec. 1.

Other changes aren’t as visible. Project architects from PWWG, a leading firm in historic renovation and adaptive reuse, added 31,000 square feet to the building by incorporating space that had previously been covered up or filled in.

Space that long ago once accommodated wrestling matches now incorporates the Wilks Studio, a combination rehearsal hall and event space. The Critic’s Club has been eliminated and its former site now houses offices for the Cincinnati Arts Association and the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. The CSO’s music library also has expanded, high-density storage.

Technological improvements abound, beginning with an abundance of LED screens to watch a performance, get previews of upcoming events or check out the bar menu. All operational and mechanical systems are updated, including a state-of-the-art lighting system controlled in an enclosed booth at the rear of the balcony. The entire building has public WiFi.

A final aspect that may not be obvious is the sheer scale of this collaboration involving the resident companies, architects, historic preservation experts, consultants and construction crews. Opening on schedule is a tribute to the shared sense of responsibility.
“It’s been a solid team effort,” says Jeff Martin, who oversaw the renovation on behalf of 3CDC. “There are hundreds of people working here and there’s no room for error. The amount of work that’s gotten done is just mind-boggling when you consider the parties involved. The support from everyone involved and especially the Cincinnati community has been tremendous.”

Akustiks’ Scarbrough adds, “We’re hoping that audiences will say, ‘Wow, this is the Music Hall I remember. I can’t tell what they changed.’ We all will feel a certain sense that we’ve done our job well if that’s how people respond.”

MUSIC HALL’s grand opening weekend takes place Friday and Saturday. Tickets/more information: cincinnatisymphony.org.

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