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Rehabbed Emery Theatre Offers Sighs Over Size

By Naomi Lewin · September 5th, 2007 · Editorial
You've heard it before: Size matters. But just as in a more notorious context, when it comes to concert venues, bigger isn't necessarily better.

So much of what we call Classical music was originally intended for intimate surroundings. Orchestra concerts have evolved from home entertainment in palace chambers to entertainment for the masses in palatial halls.

America is, of course, the land of the large, where bigger is often equated with better, without taking into account scale, proportion or atmosphere.

Last fall, as a fellow in an NEA Institute in Classical Music and Opera, I spent 10 days in New York visiting concert venues with a variety of sizes and histories. Some, like Avery Fisher Hall, have acoustics so bad that they actually interfere with the music. Others, like the Metropolitan Opera, are fine acoustically but just too big for certain works.

Spaces that overwhelm or undermine a performance mar the experience for both listeners and musicians. Those most conducive to a great musical experience combine excellent acoustics with a sense of proportion. The one that does it best is Carnegie Hall.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) makes its home in Music Hall, a Victorian grande dame that was built for the May Festival and then promptly played host to the 1880 Democratic National Convention. The stage and fixed seats were installed decades later -- and there's the rub.

I love Music Hall, but its acoustics vary widely from seat to seat, and there are some 3,500 of them! Most orchestras would be thrilled to play for a crowd of 1,500, but in Music Hall 1,500 barely begins to look like a crowd.

That's bad for morale on both sides of the footlights, and the situation has engendered a new study on adjusting the size of Music Hall.

But why? Music Hall, in its current configuration, works well for the May Festival, Cincinnati Opera and when Garrison Keillor comes to town. A perfect smaller venue, in terms of size and acoustics, already exists: Emery Theatre.

When Emery Auditorium (as it was originally called) opened in 1911 and the CSO moved in, the glorious sound drew praise from the orchestra's maestro, Leopold Stokowski, who had stuck his distinguished nose into the hall's construction. Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, George Gershwin and even John Phillip Sousa performed at the Emery, which was one of a series of four orchestra halls built around the country during the period.

The others -- in Chicago, Detroit and New York -- are still going strong today. The Emery's New York sister? Carnegie Hall.

After the CSO moved back to Music Hall in 1936, the Emery fell into gradual decline and decay and eventually closed altogether. Six years ago, a renovation proposal was drawn up to lift this phoenix from the ashes and create a 1,700-seat house with outstanding acoustics and sightlines.

Given the rejuvenation currently taking place in Over-the-Rhine -- one of the largest National Historic Districts in the country -- the time is right to resurrect the Emery. The former school building above it has been converted into apartments. Know Theatre, New Stage Collective and the Art Academy of Cincinnati have moved into new homes nearby. The pioneering Ensemble Theatre is just a few blocks away. And the new Gateway garage provides ample parking.

Like Carnegie Hall, which was rescued from annihilation and restored to its full glory, Emery Theatre is a rare jewel with both the physical "right stuff" and the intriguing intangibles of history and ambience. What better way to celebrate the Emery's 100th birthday in 2011 than by reinaugurating it?

I'll never forget a concert in Carnegie Hall when, after soprano Leontyne Price soared to a high note, the entire audience exhaled an audible sigh of contentment. It was a sublime synergy of performance, listeners and venue.

Even with all the wonderful concerts and operas I've attended in Cincinnati, I haven't yet had an experience like that here, but I'd really like to. After all, sighs matter.

NAOMI LEWIN is the midday annoucer at WGUC (90.9 FM) and host of Classics for Kids and Met Cameos, which air on public radio stations around the country. A version of this essay aired on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition last November.


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