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
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