A $143 million renovation is the latest step in a journey that began in 1878.
Jeff Suess/The Enquirer
If it wasn’t for a stormy day and a tin roof, would Cincinnati have Music Hall?
For the finale of the five-weekend celebration of the $143 million restoration of the building, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is turning to the venerable hall’s genesis.
The CSO and May Festival Chorus, under the direction of Louis Langrée, will perform the concert program “The Storm that Built Music Hall” next weekend (Nov. 4 and 5) in honor of the fateful tempest that inspired philanthropist Reuben R. Springer to propose building a permanent hall.
“Music Hall was made for the May Festival in 1878,” says Chris Pinelo, vice president of communications for the CSO. “The thinking behind the concert was to have a real celebratory finale with the May Festival, looking back at how Music Hall came to be.”
It all started with the May Festival, which was borne out of the Saengerfests, or singing festivals, in Europe.
George Ward Nichols and his wife, Maria Longworth Nichols of Rookwood Pottery renown, led the Cincinnati Musical Festival Association. The idea, formulated at a dinner held at the Nichols home in 1872, was to bring together the local singing societies, mostly German groups, into a choral festival. Nichols’ wife persuaded Theodore Thomas, the most celebrated American conductor of his day, to be musical director.
The first May Festival was held in May 1873 at Saengerfest Halle on the current site of Music Hall. Saengerfest Halle, which was known as Exposition Hall when it hosted industrial expositions, was an enormous wooden structure built about 1870 for such occasions, spacious and attractive with two stately towers. It had a tin roof.
The inadequacy of the venue was exposed during the 1875 May Festival.
“There were a series of bad weather events during the May Festival that year, frequent disruptions, so when rain or even hail hit the tin roof, that would drown out anything musical happening,” Pinelo says.
On May 11, during the first concert of the 1875 festival, a springtime storm struck just after intermission, sounding like a timpani-roll of thunder.
“The rain began to patter on the great roof so as to preclude the continuance of the concert satisfactorily,” The Enquirer reported the next day. “Indeed, when the first few and faint bars of the ‘Vorspiel’ (Prelude) had been played there was a rush of storm along the roof that caused Mr. Thomas to throw up his hands in despair, and to leave the stand amid a good-humored round of applause.”
After waiting 15 minutes, Thomas tried to start again, and then asked the audience if he should continue or wait. They cried, “Wait!” and waited 15 minutes more, according to The Enquirer.
“It had not quite ceased raining when the work resumed, being taken up where it had been left off, but after the first strains even the elements seemed to pause to listen,” The Enquirer reported.
That storm had a profound impact long after the clouds parted.
“Reuben Springer, the man who took it upon himself to have Music Hall built, was in the audience during these storms and was frustrated that the performances had to stop,” Pinelo says. “He thought it was important that a proper concert venue be built.”
Later that month, Springer wrote a letter to festival trustee John Shillito with an astounding proposal to build a permanent auditorium to be called the Cincinnati Music Hall, according to “Reuben Springer, Cincinnatian; Business Man, Philanthropist” by Edward J. McGrath in “Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio.”
Springer offered to pay $125,000, half of the projected cost, on two conditions: that the city would give use of the lot at 14th and Elm streets for nominal rent in perpetuity, and that the citizens of Cincinnati raise the other half of the funds.
The May Festival trustees jumped at the offer, but other voices complained of the focus on music rather than the site’s use for expositions that showcased the achievements of mechanics and craftsmen. Springer mollified the critics by offering another $50,000 with the stipulation that two wings be added for use as exhibition halls.
It took some prodding, but the citizens came through with their share. Even schoolchildren pitched in, collecting pennies to the tune of $3,000. Springer ended up paying about half the total cost of $446,000. (That’s roughly $13 million in 2016 dollars, putting the total building at $26 million.)
Music Hall opened in time for the 1878 May Festival. At the dedication on May 14, 1878, Springer stepped out on the stage.
“The moment Mr. Springer’s form appeared a scene of the wildest excitement ensued,” The Enquirer reported. “The immense audience of 8,000 people rose to its feet, and the house rang with deafening cheers. Hats were tossed in the air, handkerchiefs and shawls and wraps of all kinds were waved, and hundreds of bouquets were showered upon the venerable and modest man as he stood upon the stage before the audience. … It was fully 15 minutes before the excited audience subsided.”
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This weekend’s CSO program will feature two works, Bach’s “Magnificat” and Brahms’ “Triumphlied,” that had their American premieres during the 1875 May Festival. A third work, “Equinox” for chorus by Julia Adolphe, is a world premiere.
“We really wanted to finish this five-week celebration acknowledging Springer’s role,” Pinelo says, noting that Springer – for whom the hall’s main auditorium is named – not only put up the money but involved the people as well. “That’s what happened here,” he adds. “The community rallied together to restore Music Hall.”
IF YOU GO
What: “The Storm that Built Music Hall,” Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Louis Langrée, featuring May Festival Chorus
When: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m.
Where: Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine.
Information: 513-381-3300; www.cincinnatisymphony.org
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