Mu­si­cal Des­ti­na­tions

Jeremy Pound heads to the lively city on the banks of the Ohio, where the re-open­ing of one of Amer­ica’s most il­lus­tri­ous con­cert halls is be­ing met with great an­tic­i­pa­tion

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Jeremy Pound vis­its Cincin­nati, Ohio, where the iconic Mu­sic Hall is set for a grand re-open­ing

Cincin­nati. The Queen City. Porkopo­lis. Three names, all ap­ply­ing to the same place, and each with a lit­tle tale be­hind it. ‘Cincin­nati’ is derived from Cincin­na­tus, a Ro­man states­man of vir­tu­ous re­pute – I find a statue of him near the Pur­ple Peo­ple Bridge that stretches over the River Ohio. ‘The Queen City’ orig­i­nates from an 1819 news­pa­per ar­ti­cle. And ‘Porkopo­lis’ salutes the fact that Cincin­nati was once the US cap­i­tal of pig farm­ing – to­day, the fly­ing pig is the city’s un­of­fi­cial, but undis­puted, sym­bol.

Along the river bank from Cincin­na­tus, I’m greeted by a pink sign invit­ing vis­i­tors to ‘Sing the Queen City’. And that is ex­actly what peo­ple have been do­ing here since the 1840s when, spear­headed by a large Ger­man im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion, singing events were held on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. In 1873, the first May Fes­ti­val took place, and it re­mains a fix­ture in the calendar. Large-scale cho­ral works are its thing, and pre­vi­ous par­tic­i­pants in­clude El­gar and Bern­stein, no less.

Mu­sic Hall, Cincin­nati’s mag­nif­i­cent con­cert hall, and opera house, came about through the wish of one Reuben Singer, a lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur, for the May Fes­ti­val to have a de­cent home. He didn’t hold back. Sit­u­ated in the now-fash­ion­able Over-ther­hine district, the colos­sal 1878 build­ing boasts, among other things, an im­pres­sive chan­de­lier, one of the finest con­cert-hall acous­tics in the US and, I am told dur­ing my hard-hat tour, an ar­ray of friendly ghosts. In 2015, a ma­jor re­fur­bish­ment be­gan (hence the hard hat) that will see the Springer Au­di­to­rium’s 3,417 seats re­duced to a more in­ti­mate 2,524 and the orches­tral stage and pit en­larged. The front-of-house area is also en­joy­ing a re­vamp and, on the out­side, the red-brick fa­cade and its dis­tinc­tive ‘pi­ano key’ or­na­men­ta­tion are be­ing re­stored to their for­mer glory. When the hall re-opens with two per­for­mances by the Cincin­nati Sym­phony Orches­tra (CSO) on 6 and 7 Oc­to­ber, it should be quite some oc­ca­sion.

The CSO has been ply­ing its trade at Mu­sic Hall since 1895, pre­mier­ing works in­clud­ing Copland’s Fan­fare for the Com­mon

Man and Lin­coln Por­trait and em­ploy­ing the likes of Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner as mu­sic direc­tor along the way. Cur­rently wield­ing the ba­ton is French­man Louis Lan­grée, who re­cently con­ducted the CSO in its first ever BBC Prom. ‘The cul­tural ap­pre­ci­a­tion in Cincin­nati is amaz­ing,’ he tells me. ‘In many cities, the big build­ing at its heart is, say, a cathe­dral or the city hall, but here it is this tem­ple of mu­sic, the Mu­sic Hall. There is a real af­fec­tion from the peo­ple for their hall and their orches­tra.’

The CSO play­ers are an adapt­able lot and, when not ne­go­ti­at­ing the sub­tleties of a Si­belius sym­phony, like to swing and swag­ger as the red-jack­eted mem­bers of the Cincin­nati Pops orches­tra, the hugely suc­cess­ful sis­ter en­sem­ble launched by

‘The peo­ple here have a real af­fec­tion for their hall and orches­tra’

Erich Kun­zel (see left) in 1977. A favourite Pops venue in sum­mer is the out-of-town River­bend Mu­sic Cen­ter, where au­di­ences of up to 20,000, sit­ting on seats or grass banks, en­joy events such as the In­de­pen­dence Day spec­tac­u­lar. Also in sum­mer, those same play­ers head into the Mu­sic Hall pit for the Cincin­nati Opera sea­son. 2017’s pro­duc­tions, staged at the tem­po­rary home of the Aronoff Cen­ter for the Arts, in­cluded La bo­hème, The Magic Flute and, dur­ing my visit, Robert Xavier Ro­driquez’s oper­atic biopic Frida.

There is, though, a lot more to ex­plore in this large, vi­brant city than mu­sic alone. Don’t miss, for in­stance, the Na­tional Underground Rail­road Free­dom Cen­ter, which ex­plores the his­tory of the US slave trade and race re­la­tions, nor the ex­ploits of the Reds base­ball and Ben­gals foot­ball teams. And the beer here is sim­ply ex­cel­lent. You can thank the Ger­mans for that, too.

go with the flow: Cincin­nati hugs the Ohio River; (right) Copland’s Fan­fare for the Com­mon Man on a house near Mu­sic Hall; (be­low) artist Frida Kahlo cel­e­brated at Cincin­nati Opera

pride of place: Mu­sic Hall has en­joyed a ma­jor re­fur­bish­ment

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