Washington Park's Success Spurs a MusicNOW 'Portrait'

The recent $46 million restoration/reinvention of Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park is already reaping artistic dividends — it’s responsible for a new musical tribute to the transformative powers of landscape architecture.

click to enlarge Washington Park
Washington Park

The recent $46 million restoration/reinvention of Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park is already reaping artistic dividends — it’s responsible for a new musical tribute to the transformative powers of landscape architecture.

When the trend-setting New York composer Nico Muhly was invited to participate in the March 21-22 MusicNOW Festival — a collaboration between founder Bryce Dessner and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — he was asked to write a “portrait” for the orchestra to perform as a world premiere. The CSO has a tradition of commissioning important portraits — it gave the first performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” in 1942.

Muhly proposed a piece devoted to 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park, Buffalo’s public parks system and other great parklands throughout North America. 

“As a New Yorker, an American and someone who enjoys public spaces, I realized I spent a lot of my life in Olmsted-designed spaces,” Muhly said last week via Skype during a panel discussion before an audience at the Contemporary Arts Center.

Alas, Olmsted designed nothing in Cincinnati. But Trey Devey, the CSO’s president, could relate to Muhly’s sentiments. Washington Park, owned by Cincinnati Park Board and managed by Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., is just out the front door of the CSO’s home, Music Hall. 

Before the 2012 redesign, the deteriorating condition of the old, six-acre urban park had long made it a place for Music Hall patrons to avoid. Now, it’s an eight-acre citywide destination, a green space surrounded by historic architecture. Because of newfound pride in Washington Park, Devey gave an enthusiastic go-ahead for the Olmsted portrait. Muhly’s piece, Pleasure Ground, will debut on March 21. 

At the CAC panel, Muhly talked about his attitude toward Olmsted and mentioned what to expect in his 20-minute portrait, which will have three movements. There will be a sense of melancholy at times, reflecting how reading letters written by Olmsted during the Civil War affected Muhly. (Olmsted, a Union loyalist, provided medical care to the wounded.) 

“We’re so used to reading about Walt Whitman having his response to the Civil War,” Muhly said, referring to the great American poet who wrote about his experiences as a hospital nurse during the war. “But his contemporaries had similar terrifying responses.”

And America’s older urban parks were altruistic necessities for people who needed some space away from the horrors of their times. “Most parks in America were born on the heels of the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War,” Christopher Manning, a landscape architect with Human Nature Inc., the company that supervised the Washington Park redesign, said during the panel. “Living conditions were challenging.”

The panel discussion had one big surprise: Phil Nuxhall, historian and docent trainer at Spring Grove Cemetery, said that the cemetery was a key influence on Olmsted.

The cemetery had been doing burials for about 10 years when it hired Prussian landscape architect Adolph Strauch in 1855 to redesign the space, making it more inviting to the public. “When he first arrived here, what he saw was clutter,” Nuxhall said. “Visual clutter. He knew something was wrong — something was upsetting the beauty and calmness.”

As Nuxhall explained, Strauch opened up Spring Grove’s vistas, created lakes and highlighted the natural setting. “Strauch wanted you to forget your woes, to go to Spring Grove and get lost,” he said. He also wanted the public to use the 733-acres partially like a park and arboretum.

“When Olmsted would come to Cincinnati, he’d visit Spring Grove to get inspiration from Strauch,” Nuxhall said. (Numerous online sources also credit Strauch, who also designed several Cincinnati parks, as one influence on Olmsted.) 

Olmsted and partner Calvert Vaux’s first major landscape-design project was now-840-acre Central Park. They were selected after a competition in 1858. 

During his Skype discussion, Muhly said he loved Olmsted’s Central Park because it has a balance of wildness and organization to it. “There’s something so improbable about it,” he said. “The northwest corner is beautiful and rocky. You never get a sense of where you are. It’s like a wonderland.”

Exactly what Strauch had in mind for Spring Grove, Nuxhall said. And he invited Muhly to come take a tour while in Cincinnati and see the similarities.

For tickets to Nick Muhly’s premiere of Pleasure Ground, visit musicnowfestival.org


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