8 perspectives on the revitalization
with MUSIC HALL photos by Matthew Zory
The Oct. 6 reopening of a reconfigured and revitalized Music Hall is among the most important arts and culture events in our city’s history.
Home to the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera, and of course, the May Festival – for which it was constructed nearly 140 years ago – this massive structure will become even more the epicenter for classical music, opera and ballet in our region.
The performance space will definitely be more intimate, by about one-third. But will that be better? For performers? For audience members? We will soon find out.
One thing is certain: This undertaking has been enormous and complex, involving hundreds of people working from myriad perspectives. These are stories from a few of them about what it has been like to be on the front lines.
See profile on photographer and assistant principal bassist Matthew Zory here.
– By Thomas Consolo
The structural improvements are welcome and the behind-the-scenes systems necessary, but the $135 million renovation of Cincinnati’s iconic Music Hall will be for naught if, in the end, it doesn’t sound great.
The man who has borne perhaps the heaviest responsibility for making sure it sounds great is Paul Scarbrough, principal at Norwalk, Connecticut-based Akustiks. The acoustical consulting company was hired to ensure that Music Hall’s sonic strengths were preserved and its deficiencies improved.
“The opportunity to work on such an incredible, historic place was a challenge and a tremendous honor,” Scarbrough said by phone from Akustiks’ home office. He’s had his share of experience in historic spaces: the widely praised refurbishment of Cleveland’s Severance Hall and Eastman Hall in Rochester, New York.
“You want to respect the history,” he said.
Halls and orchestras work together to create a unique identity. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between orchestras and their halls,” Scarbrough said.
It’s a lesson he learned early. The Philadelphia native spent his youth listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music, the landmark that served as its home for a century. The legendary “Philadelphia sound” developed in response to that hall, with lush strings compensating for the Academy’s dry acoustics.
And what about Music Hall? “It has a wonderful sense of resonance, a golden glow to the sound,” he said. “We wanted to be very careful to retain that in our work.”
Akustiks had two goals with Music Hall, one for audiences and one for performers – and the solutions were interrelated.
Generations of Cincinnati concert- and opera-goers know Music Hall’s sound, and Scarbrough and his colleagues didn’t want to mess it up. “We believe very firmly in the idea of musical memory … the sound of an orchestra in a particular hall.”
He believes (along with the hall’s performing tenants) that Music Hall’s scale – with nearly 1,000 seats more than any other orchestral hall in use – put a physical and artistic divide between audience and stage.
The conclusion was to make the hall more intimate. “New” Music Hall will have nearly a third fewer seats, and they’ll be closer to the stage, thanks to new walls in the back of Springer Auditorium.
“It’s important because it’s a two-way experience,” Scarbrough said of performances. “We’re really hoping to create a more participatory experience.”
Simultaneously, he said, intense pre-construction work confirmed that performers needed to be able to hear better across the stage as well as upstage to downstage. The solution was to thrust the front of the stage into the auditorium space in front of the proscenium arch.
For listeners headed to the redesigned space for the first time, Scarbrough said, “It’s going to be a really interesting experience of, ‘What did they change?’ It’ll be the Music Hall they remember, but it’s a more intimate room.”
And, of course, there will be the hall’s renewed public spaces. “The architects did a wonderful job of retaining the character” of the building. Don’t miss the restored stenciling in Corbett Tower.
The renovation’s scale “says a tremendous amount about the city and the strength of the arts there,” said Scarbrough. “That it has in the last 25 years built the Aronoff, built a major expansion to CCM, all the things in Over-the-Rhine, the new trolley line … all those things speak to a vibrant community. This project in a way is a kind of capstone to those efforts. That people recognize the importance of upgrading (Music Hall) so it can serve another hundred years says a lot about the city’s values.”
– By Cindy Starr
Peter Koenig has always loved the view.
As a child growing up in Clifton, he was among thousands of grade-schoolers bused to Music Hall for matinee concerts.
“I remember sitting in the balcony with my classmates, wide-eyed, astonished at how massive and glorious it was,” Koenig recalls. Later, he attended concerts with his parents, and as an adult he began subscribing.
Most recently, as president of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall and a board member of the Music Hall Revitalization Company, Koenig acquired a more expansive view as he watched Music Hall’s rebirth unfold in a symphony of moving parts.
That big-picture view crystallized in one of Koenig’s many hard-hat visits during the last year. Cleaning and restoring the mural was one of the projects that SPMH funded. To check on the progress of the work, Koenig climbed scaffolding in Springer Auditorium, “going all the way to the top and nearly touching the Allegory of Music.”
SPMH has an all-volunteer board of trustees. “Everyone who serves on the board loves Music Hall and is passionate about maintaining it as one of best and most beautiful performing arts venues in the world,” said Koenig, an attorney with Buechner Haffer Meyers & Koenig. One of his primary tasks has been to oversee funding requests from MHRC.
Helping lead the revitalization has involved multiple challenges.
“It’s a complicated project,” said Koenig. “The No. 1 challenge was getting it started. Initially, it was going to be a $200 million project. We worked on that quite a while, but it didn’t come to fruition. But what we have now is a wonderful project that everyone is excited about.”
The second major challenge involved raising money after Music Hall was eliminated from the “Icon” tax levy funding the reconstruction of Union Terminal.
“But once Otto Budig and others put the MHRC together and major donors made early pledges – including SPMH, which is donating well over $4 million – the project came together,” Koenig said. The final construction costs are $135 million.
A third challenge involved getting the resident arts organizations to embrace a project that involved seat reduction as well as individual organizational needs.
Ultimately, Koenig said, the project is on time and on budget, and fundraising is “on track to provide virtually everything we wanted for Music Hall.”
The triumph will be in the views: of world-class performances from comfortable, roomy seats in Springer Auditorium, and of Washington Park, Mount Adams and beyond from the unbricked windows in the glistening, chandeliered J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett Tower.
– By Thomas Consolo
When Ted Nelson headed back to work in late August, it ticked off a handful of milestones. For starters, it was the beginning of his 20th season as a professional cellist.
It also started his 13th season in the cello section of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and his first in what – for him, his colleagues and their audience – will be a new Music Hall.
Nelson also heads the CSO’s players committee. As such, he was among representatives of the CSO, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Ballet and the May Festival to define the course of the massive project.
“We worked to put together a special acoustics committee,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s first experience with Music Hall wasn’t quite a happy one. It was his CSO audition.
Like most career performers, “I took lots of auditions,” he said. “Music Hall was uniquely terrifying because it’s huge. I’d taken auditions in Cleveland and Washington and Philadelphia – lots of major halls. None of them gave that impression of space.”
Cutting the hall down to size became a top objective for the overhaul. “We wanted to get rid of that space that’s not serving any acoustic function,” Nelson said.
In his years with the CSO, Nelson has listened to the orchestra in concert and rehearsal from all over the hall. “It’s interesting because it takes a long time to get to know a hall,” he said. “There are places you could go that sounded good, but there were a lot of places that wouldn’t.”
Music Hall stands out for more than its size. “It’s clearly an unusual, if not a unique, hall for an orchestra to play in,” he said. “Not really a shoebox, not really a horseshoe.”
The new configuration probably will be closer to others he’s played in, he said.
“The two things that will really change, at least from my understanding, are that the shape of the back wall has changed and the fact that the front of the orchestra will be in front of the proscenium,” he said. “We’re going to freak out because it’s so much closer.”
That’s going to make a world of difference to the orchestra, Nelson said, but other than a greater sense of intimacy, “I don’t think the audience’s experience is going to be jarringly different. It’s going to look pretty much the same.”
He hadn’t played in the remodeled hall before this interview, but he had plucked a few strings on stage during shooting of a promotional video. “It was a much more interesting (sonic) reflection,” he said.
Other evidence points to good results, too: “The acoustician was in the hall recently, and he was really excited about how a nail gun sounded.”
As audiences and performers get acquainted with their new digs, “there’ll be a learning curve, and I’m sure there will be some growing pains,” Nelson said. “But overall, I’m very excited about the backstage, but really about the interior of the auditorium. It’ll be a really improved concert experience.”
Like most stakeholders in the facility, Nelson said Music Hall’s makeover speaks well of the region’s priorities. “When we look at budget size and the fact that we’re a 52-week orchestra,” he said, “it’s pretty unusual for a city this size, but we’re stable and sustainable.”
BEYOND THE SCOPE
– By Cindy Starr
While the Music Hall revitalization is the work of legions, one preservationist has parlayed her love of historic buildings into a quest to see the effort go beyond function and into the realm of magic.
Thea Tjepkema (pronounced TAY-uh JEP-keh-muh) developed her “preservation passion” for Music Hall after she and husband John Morris Russell, now Cincinnati Pops conductor, first moved to Cincinnati in 1996.
When they returned in 2011, Tjepkema joined the board of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. With perfect timing, she immersed herself in two committees: one to develop a tour of historic Music Hall, the other to conduct research related to its impending revitalization.
Her research proved synergistic, informing not only the new outdoor tour, “Beyond the Bricks,” but also leading to discoveries of hidden beauty she felt must be restored and preserved. Her knowledge of everything from bricks to tracery to stenciling helped inspire SPMH’s commitment of more than $4 million to fund 10 major restorations.
While poring over files, photographs and rare book collections, Tjepkema discovered aspects of Music Hall she had never seen. First came the black bricks on the front of the building. “They were there, but faint because of sandblasting, which was how they cleaned the building in the ’70s,” Tjepkema said. “Probably right after they were sandblasted, everybody said, ‘Oh, there are black bricks!’ because you could see them again without the dirt and grime. But they had lost the protective patina, and over time they faded more and more.”
When Tjepkema learned that restoration of the black bricks was “beyond the scope” of the revitalization plan, much of which was devoted to infrastructure improvements, she went back to SPMH, which “wholeheartedly agreed” to fund their restoration.
Tjepkema also learned the three arched windows under the glorious rose window would be opened and would feature a pretty but simple design. Unsatisfied, Tjepkema pointed out that the original windows featured an intricate geometric tracery. This, too, was deemed “beyond the scope” of the revitalization but meshed perfectly with SPMH’s mission. “We have a wonderful committee, and we all went, ‘Yes! That’s our mission, too.’ So we paid to have that beautiful tracery restored.”
Then there is Corbett Tower, where original late-Victorian stenciling on the ceiling was revealed when the 12-foot drop ceiling (installed to allow for air conditioning) was removed. SPMH is paying for its restoration as well. “Those three arch tracery windows are now streaming light back into this room with the 30-foot-high coved ceiling,” Tjepkema said. “And when people go inside and go up to Corbett Tower, that will be the place that can transport you back to the late 1800s, because you’re going to look up and see this amazing classical stenciling in those great Victorian colors.”
“The whole facade is singing again,” Tjepkema said. “Even though Music Hall is a beautiful, monumental structure with those big towers that are like fortifications, the black brick patterning and tracery windows is the part that makes it dance, that gives it movement, and makes it alive.”
Beyond the Bricks Tours: Thursdays, 4-5:30 p.m. & Saturdays, 10-11:30 a.m., through Oct. spmhcincinnati.org
Glenn Plott isn’t one to get sentimental about a building. But when he saw people in Cincinnati come together to revitalize Music Hall, he realized he was in the minority.
“I’ve only been here 20 years. I’m kind of the new kid in Cincinnati terms,” said Plott, director of production for Cincinnati Opera. “I’ve been surprised by the genuine passion people have for a building. That took some getting used to.”
Until Music Hall reopens in October, his temporary office has been at Garfield Place. Dozens of white two-inch binders line a bookshelf next to his desk. They hold the day-to-day details of a revitalization project that has been in the works more than a decade. Plott pulled one out and flipped it open: Volume 20.
Keeping track of details is his specialty. He oversees all aspects of production for the Opera, including how the stage looks, who works on it and when things happen. He acts as a translator, speaking the languages of producers, designers and technicians and making sure performances go smoothly.
If all goes well, audiences don’t think about the work required to fine-tune the technical elements of an opera. But that doesn’t make this behind-the-scenes maneuvering any less important. During planning meetings for the revitalization, Plott championed what he called “invisible systems,” or technical components that are easy to overlook but difficult to do without.
It wasn’t always easy for Plott to explain the importance of investing in these invisible systems. No data exists to show return on investment when a performance venue adds a second loading dock, better circuitry or a bigger stage. So instead of focusing on the bottom line, Plott talked to people about their favorite moments onstage and the technology that made them possible.
“I’d ask them, do you remember when we did ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ in 2006, and you saw the big theater wall descend down inside? Well, that required six 2-ton motors rigged from the upper grid,” he said. Plott reminded planners that with an improved rigging system and motors, they could re-create that beautiful moment onstage for a fraction of the time and money.
Better technical systems aren’t the only changes that excite Plott. More than a decade ago, he helped plan for a new studio space in Corbett Tower. Now, it will finally come about. Complete with two dressing rooms and a separate lobby, the Wilks Studio will house more intimate performances by the Opera and the CSO, including the Opera’s 2018 production of “As One,” a story about a transgender woman.
Plott worked closely with representatives from the other resident companies, MHRC, developer 3CDC and Messer Construction to decide what the revitalization should and shouldn’t entail. Their visions didn’t always align, but throughout the process, Plott said he knew they were working toward a common goal: preserving a building many people cherish. Even, he admitted, himself.
“I’m learning how to fall in love with a building,” he said, leaning back and folding his hands. “It isn’t something I’ve done before. Does that mean I’m becoming a real Cincinnatian? I don’t know.”
– By Thom Mariner
Steve Wilmes and Harry Stenger specialize in different crafts, but their history with and reactions to being part of the revitalization of Music Hall are carbon copies.
For Wilmes, 49, his only visit to Music Hall before starting the job in August 2016 was on a third-grade field trip. Stenger, 55, remembers an elementary school movie screening that took him to the Over-the-Rhine icon. But neither visited again until called to work on the project within the past year.
Both have worked for Messer Construction more than 20 years. Both are lifelong Cincinnati-area residents.
Wilmes’ contributions to Music Hall involve concrete forming: “filling in gaps, making things fit, trying to meet old and new (floors) with minimal disturbance.” One major project was the form of the front steps, on which granite slabs were then laid. Almost all his work took place beneath the surface. “Almost everything I’ve done here, and I’ve done a lot, will be covered up by someone else’s work,” he said, wistfully.
Stenger worked to install many of the replacement windows, which required a delicate balance of strength and care in dealing with brittle, 140-year-old brick and preparing the blocks to which new frames were attached.
Each of these craft workers appreciates the complexity of what Stenger called “bringing it back to the 1870s.” Both commented on the original work in the auditorium, especially considering workers then had neither electricity nor power tools. Wilmes spoke in awe about “the HUGE timbers, and how they made those fit. Very impressive.”
Wilmes also praised the workers from Brooklyn-based EverGreene Architectural Arts (evergreene.com), who restored the detailed plaster work. “They cut sections out and actually made their own molds, made their own replacements,” he explained. “Those guys have impressed the living daylights out of me.”
The modern work brought its share of challenges and changes, too. “You get halfway into something, and you have to take it down, tear it apart,” said Wilmes.
The building continues to be a beehive of activity, with workers seemingly in every corner, all trying to meet deadlines for the Oct. 6 reopening. So many people working simultaneously on so many facets of the project even creates internal traffic jams.
“Half of the struggle of my day is getting what I need to work with to where I need to work,” said Wilmes. “Everybody is everywhere. Organized chaos.”
Looking back, both craftsmen share a strong appreciation for the opportunity to work on what Wilmes called a “once in a lifetime” job.
“It feels great to be able to say I worked on this project, such a part of Cincinnati history,” Stenger said.
“They thought enough of me and they trusted me to come to work on this project,” Wilmes said. “They trusted me to uphold Messer’s name, and for that I’m very grateful.”
– By Thom Mariner
Every project needs a shepherd and a cheerleader. For the Music Hall revitalization, Mark Luegering has been both.
From his position as senior vice president of operations for Messer, the lead contractor on this massive project, he is executive in charge and the direct point of contact with 3CDC, which represents the building’s 75-year lessee, and MHRC, which represents the resident arts organizations. The City of Cincinnati retains ownership of Music Hall.
This hierarchy gives you some idea of the complexity involved in bringing this project to completion.
Beyond his managerial duties (budgets, scheduling, meeting overall goals), Luegering sees his role as “primarily a cheerleader” for his team of craft workers. “We want to take the time to let them know the value and importance of what they’re doing here,” he said.
Another Messer contribution is helping underwrite Matt Zory’s photographic chronicle of the Music Hall revitalization that will be published later this year (See page 21). Luegering spoke of the “huge connection” Zory made with many of the workers through his photos of “workers doing the work,” not just the building itself. “Someday, the workers will be able to say, ‘Not only did I build it, but there I am building it.’ ” He sees Zory’s book as “a testament and a tribute to the people who worked on the project.”
“We’re restoring an icon in Cincinnati, something the whole community feels they own,” Luegering said. “You don’t get that opportunity too often. A new office building just doesn’t have the same meaning as something like Music Hall.”
He is familiar with Music Hall through his service on the Cincinnati Symphony board of trustees, but several aspects of the revitalization have exceeded his expectations. “The amount of light that now gets into the building as a result of opening up a lot of the blocked-up windows – that’s something you can really see and feel when you are inside,” he said.
“Corbett Tower is turning out much grander than we might have anticipated,” he said. Removal of the drop ceiling exposed intricate plaster molding and decorative stenciling. While Messer sourced most subcontract work locally, it brought in restoration specialist EverGreene – from Brooklyn – to maintain historical integrity and the historic tax credits.
And even though the performance space has shrunk by almost one-third, Luegering thinks it will “still feel grand.“ Plus, he points out that sightlines will be better and the seats bigger, more comfortable.
In addition to Music Hall, Messer just completed Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Otto M. Budig Theater and will wrap up Ensemble Theatre later this fall. It is getting ready to start at the Playhouse in the Park.
“The arts are a very important part of who Cincinnati is, so to be a part of that means a lot to us at Messer,” Luegering said.
– By Tatum Hunter
Terri Kidney didn’t like seeing a bulldozer tear through her home.
She and husband Gary don’t technically live at Music Hall, but they’ve spent a lot of time there the last 20 years. For Terri, the bulldozer wasn’t just making room for a bigger orchestra pit. It was forever changing the place where she built her career, met her husband and raised her daughter.
Terri is the rentals manager at Music Hall (she’ll be promoted to senior events manager when the building reopens), and Gary is the technical director. For more than two decades, they have been part of the team that makes the wheels turn at the venue.
“Gary and I met working there, spending countless hours together trying to make everything work and keep everybody happy. There are weeks when we spend more time there than at our house,” Terri said.
Daughter Anna, 14, grew up in the building.
“She’s been on countless tours,” Terri said with a laugh. “She’s probably even given a couple when I’ve been busy.”
Gary and Terri’s home-away-from-home will have a new look come October, and the renovations have changed the way both approach their jobs.
Gary has been present throughout the revitalization, acting as the eyes and ears of Music Hall’s team as contractors installed new components in the performance space. It’s his task to make sure every detail – from how the lights work to where the power outlets go – works to the benefit of the companies that will perform there.
For Gary, ensuring the vitality of the building is top priority. The easier it is for companies to use the spaces, the easier it is for Music Hall to get and keep its business. Gary will have a short time to develop expertise in the new technology that comes with the revamped building so he can provide excellent service to resident companies and renters. For most of the year, his technical team consists of only two people, so he’s hoping to hire more to help in this race against the clock.
“Music Hall is the gem of Cincinnati, you know that,” Gary said during a hard-hat tour of the refurbished Springer Auditorium. “I just hope they use it enough. As long as everybody gets to come in here and use it, I think it will be great.”
Enter Terri. She has been working hard to make sure Music Hall’s spaces are booked. When the building closed for remodeling and she had few renderings to show potential renters, she handed them hard hats and walked them through the building.
“My favorite part of my job is showing off the building and how beautiful it is, then trying to make the dreams they have for their event come true,” she said.
Terri is especially eager for patrons to see a stenciled ceiling uncovered in Corbett Tower after being hidden for years. But, more than anything, she’s excited to go “home.”
“You saw a bulldozer digging up your floor, it was kind of heartbreaking. You’re watching this place your kid grew up in kind of come apart,” she said. “Now that it’s turning the corner. Every day you go in, and it’s a little bit nicer. I can’t wait to show it to everybody.”
Gary and Terri were interviewed separately. But that didn’t seem to affect their synchronicity.
“We care about the building because it’s like our second home,” Gary said, keeping one eye on the construction crew working onstage. “She books ’em and we make ’em happen. That’s how it works.”
Music Hall’s reopening festivities – something for everyone
Friday, Oct. 6
- 5:30 p.m. – CSO Opening Night Celebration. Cocktails in Music Hall foyer, followed by pre-concert dinner in Corbett Tower. Dianne Dunkelman, chair, with Barbara Hahn and Jeannine Winkelmann, host and hostess chairs. Western & Southern Financial Group is presenting sponsor. Tickets: $200. (Concert tickets sold separately.)
- 8 p.m. – Opening night concert: Louis Langrée, conductor; Kit Armstrong, piano. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Music by John Adams, Beethoven and Scriabin, with world premiere by Jonathan Bailey Holland. cincinnatisymphony.org
Saturday, Oct. 7
- 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. – ArtsWave’s “Re(new)ed Celebration, Music Hall + More.” Opening ceremonies, followed by open house, featuring ongoing free tours and performances, plus hands-on and learning experiences. New Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater and expanded Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, nearby, are also open and offering tours and performances. Plus, live performances in Washington Park. theartswave.org
- 8 p.m. – Encore of Oct. 6 CSO concert
Wednesday, Oct. 11
- 4:30-8 p.m. – The Society for the Preservation of Music Hall will host behind-the-scenes tours and share light bites, soft drinks and entertainment by the Faux Frenchmen. Tickets: $30. spmhcincinnati.org
Friday, Oct. 13
- 5:30 p.m. – CSO Parties of Note fundraiser, “Pop the Cork on Opening Night.” Cocktails in the foyer, with dinner by the bite and music by Poptet. Tickets: $100. (Concert tickets sold separately.)
- 8 p.m. – Cincinnati Pops, Music of John Williams, John Morris Russell, conductor. (Encore performances: Oct. 14, 8 p.m. and Oct. 15, 2 p.m.) cincinnatipops.org
- 8 p.m. – Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Symphony. Debussy: “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Louis Langrée, conductor; James Darrah, director. cincinnatisymphony.org
- Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Symphony Prokofiev: “Romeo and Juliet.” Victoria Morgan, choreographer; Carmon DeLeone, conductor. cballet.org
- May Festival Chorus (Robert Porco, director) and Cincinnati Symphony. “The Storm that Built Music Hall.” Louis Langrée, conductor. Concert celebrating downpour that drowned out 1875 May Festival performance in tin-roofed Saengerhalle, inspiring Reuben Springer to erect Music Hall. Music of Bach, Brahms and a world premiere by Julia Adolphe. cincinnatisymphony.org