Sunday, May 4, 2003

125 years of great memories

By Tony Lang
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Music Hall's 125-year history is written in more than just the names of great stars who performed there, though even a partial list is stunning - Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, Toscanini, Bernstein, Leontyne Price, James Levine, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Copland, Ellington, Janis Joplin, Beverly Sills, Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, B.B. King, Springsteen, Yo-Yo Ma, Baryshnikov, Diana Ross, Sinatra, Jose Carreras.

Even before it was built, it was all about aspiring to be best. Cincinnati's powerful Board of Trade in the 1870s viewed the proposed music hall as part of larger complex of halls that would help solidify the city as a great American metropolis. Samuel Hannaford's design expressed those aspirations in High Victorian Gothic bricks and mortar. That consistent standard of excellence has preserved Music Hall down through the decades. Yet thanks partly to its origins in popular May choruses and Reuben Springer's big-hearted gift to the city, it was done without pretentiousness. To this day, Music Hall is elegant without being stuffy.

The only dissenters at its beginnings didn't say no. Some commercial leaders just wanted to make sure the three halls-in-one would have enough space for expositions and other uses. Back then, they thought big, dreamed big. It would have been inconceivable to them that some locals, however few in number, would actively work against their own city and try to hurt it financially.

That's not to say dissension hasn't threatened Music Hall. In 1907, a dispute led the symphony orchestra to stop performing there. In the year of the great flood 1937, the city almost tore down Music Hall as a fire hazard. Cities can be staggeringly stupid and fail to appreciate their treasures. Many refurbishings later, Music Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. It has hosted an amazing variety of events: boxing and wrestling matches, auto shows, political rallies, grand banquets, religious assemblies, basketball games, model home shows, along with almost any performance art you can imagine, including some of interest to the vice squad.

Music Hall belongs to the city - to us. If we take care of it, it will serve and inspire us for another 125 years.

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