Year in review: Classical music made news in 2017

The orchestra is now seated on risers, shown here on the “thrust” stage.

The year 2017 was a year of big change for Cincinnati’s arts organizations. The most significant story – one that garnered a large piece in the New York Times — was about Music Hall, home to the city’s major performing arts groups, which finished up a massive, ambitious renovation costing at least $143 million.

Music Hall reopened with fanfare on Oct. 6 and 7. The weekend included a community open house that drew thousands. Opening night revelers basked in the elegant new decor and patron-friendly amenities, which include cup holders for the first time on wider seats, more bars and more restrooms.

Reuben Springer now presides over a new bar at Music Hall.

There are now more than 1,000 fewer seats and Springer Auditorium is physically smaller. The musicians sit on risers on a new “thrust” stage, 12 feet closer to the audience than before. All of that – including new materials such as concrete floors – means that the acousticians are still in the “tuning” phase of what is really a new hall-within-a-hall.

Memorial Hall’s renovation beautifully preserved the historic theater (built by Hannaford & Sons) and also enhanced the acoustics. Shown here with the Vocal Arts Ensemble. Photo by Michael T. Moore, Jr.

The renovation was just one sign of the importance of Cincinnati’s growing arts district surrounding Washington Park.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Co. moved into its first real home, the $17.5 million Otto M. Budig Theater.  And supporters of Memorial Hall, which recently had its own beautifully executed renovation, began presenting concerts in the hall. The Memorial Hall Society’s Longworth-Anderson Series last winter was nearly completely sold out.

BLINK brought 1 million people to downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Photo provided
BLINK delighted young and old

In October, BLINK was a phenomenon like nothing the city has ever seen. The four-day light show, featuring interactive art, projection mapping on iconic buildings, murals and art installations, drew an estimated 1 million visitors – the largest ever to Downtown and OTR. Costing $3 million to produce, the event sprawled across the city, from the Banks to Washington Park along the Cincinnati Connector line. It shined a light on Cincinnati, said BLINK founder and Haile Foundation president and CEO Tim Maloney, “as an innovative, inclusive and creative future city.”

During the year, the Cincinnati Symphony took the opportunity while out of its home to take, not one, but two international tours under its music director Louis Langrée, first to Asia in March (a tour that included the Pops conducted by John Morris Russell) and in August to Europe. The European tour featured important debuts at two international festivals: the Edinburgh International Festival and The Proms in Royal Albert Hall, London.

In August, the CSO made its London Proms debut, a concert beamed live internationally over BBC Radio 3

In a first for the CSO, fans in the Queen City could hear the their Proms performance performed live over BBC Radio 3 in real time. It was thrilling to hear.

And 2017 was the year that the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival were in exile at the Taft Theater while Music Hall was a hard hat area. Cincinnati Opera played two seasons at the Aronoff Center. While patrons — and artists – may have been inconvenienced, there were nevertheless many memorable performances. Stay tuned for those in another column.

Other issues and events that made the news:

Parking headaches: No sooner had Music Hall opened than concertgoers began to realize that parking for a show wasn’t what it used to be. Washington Park Garage filled up early. Many folks headed for the Town Center Garage, known as CET garage. But the renovation design team did not allow a back door for Music Hall, so those parking there had to walk a couple of blocks to get to Music Hall’s front door. To help alleviate the problem, the CSO initiated a parking shuttle, extra lighting and officers directing traffic for evening CSO and Pops concerts.

No bridge and no back door

No pedestrian bridge: For months, there was an on-again, off-again dilemma over whether to fix or demolish the city-owned, crumbling walkway spanning Central Parkway from the Town Center Garage to Music Hall. The city seemed to be holding it hostage while a group of arts lovers scrambled to raise money to save it. When estimates escalated from a $1.6 million repair to more than $8 million to replace it, the donors gave up. In addition, the broadcast cables it held to CET and Cincinnati Public Radio were cut by the construction crew, and mysteriously disappeared. The span would have led to a proposed second-floor back door of Music Hall – yes there are drawn-up plans – for those parking behind the hall.

The World Piano Competition will not return in 2018

The music ends for World Piano: In May, the troubled Cincinnati World Piano Competition announced it was ending the 60-year old event. Despite generous donors, the competition was unable to raise the $300,000 needed to continue to exist, and there were administrative conflicts behind the scenes. Founded in 1956 by Gloria G. Ackerman, the annual Cincinnati-based piano competition had a bumpy road in its last decade. New partnerships with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music briefly revived the competition.

CCM gets upgrades: While Music Hall was undergoing its construction, across town at the University of Cincinnati, the College-Conservatory of Music quietly carried out $15 million in upgrades to its own theaters.

Corbett Auditorium now has comfortable, slightly larger seats and more leg room.

Curtain rises on Sorg Opera house: A group of dedicated volunteers put lots of sweat equity into preparing the Hannaford-built Sorg Opera House in Middletown for its “soft opening” in Sept. The Butler Philharmonic under Paul Stanbery and a stellar cast of stars helped to christen the jewel-like, historic theater, while the audience sat in seats donated by Music Hall. There are still miles to go in the renovation, part of a growing renaissance in Middletown. “We call ourselves Three Older Guys and a Mess,” said project leader Chuck Miller, of Cold Spring, KY.

Comings and goings

The end of two eras in Middletown: In May, Carmon DeLeone conducted his last concert as music director of the Middletown Symphony Orchestra. The maestro, who is music director of the Cincinnati Ballet, concluded 35 years of leading music in Middletown. And the very next day – May 7, the day the orchestra was founded 75 years ago — the Middletown Symphony closed its doors.

Community Orchestra seeks a new maestro: After 35 years on the podium of the all-volunteer Cincinnati Community Orchestra, conductor Gerald R. “Gerry” Doan retired. For his swan song, his 221st program had his favorite works: Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

CSO picks new president. In June, the orchestra announced that Jonathan Martin would be its new president. The Atlanta native came from Dallas, where he served as president & CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Previous posts included general manager of the Cleveland Orchestra, including the period when that orchestra moved back into Severance Hall following a major renovation. He succeeds Trey Devey, who suddenly left to head Interlochen in Michigan.

Eckart Preu led his first season with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra
James Levine is facing accusations of sexual abuse. Photo by Naomi Vaughan

Chamber Orchestra introduces its new leader. In August, Eckart Preu took over the helm of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, leading his first season as music director.

James Levine scandal. This month, James Levine, a 74-year-old Cincinnati native who was considered one of the greatest conductors of all time, who transformed the Metropolitan Opera, has been accused of sexual misconduct. The Met has suspended him, his broadcasts and performances have been halted, and previous associations with Ravinia, the Boston Symphony and Munich Philharmonic have been severed.  It is a torrid topic, coming as Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein and myriad politicians are suddenly also being accused of sexual crimes. Some believe this news could bring down the whole Metropolitan Opera. The LA Times’ Mark Swed observes that in today’s climate, “anyone associated with Levine dare not presume him innocent until proven guilty.”

Now, the Cincinnati May Festival is seeking a replacement conductor (and probably also his favored soloists, who were announced at the same time) for Verdi’s Requiem on opening night of 2018.

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