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Classical Roots: Under One Roof


Since its construction in 1878, Music Hall has known a rich history of being the gathering place for singers, musicians, scientists, artisans and athletes, all under one roof. It was Cincinnati’s original convention center, hosting everything from trade shows to political conventions to sporting events. While many Cincinnatians are familiar with the story behind Springer Auditorium and the great artists who graced its stage over the last 140 years, less is known about many of the greatest musicians of the 20th century who performed in Music Hall’s southernmost building in the Greystone Ballroom—what we know today as the Music Hall Ballroom.

When the Ballroom was constructed within Music Hall’s old agricultural exhibition hall in 1928, it quickly became a sought-after place to socialize and celebratein the Queen City. The venue was widely regarded as elegant, and the polished maple floors made it ideal for dancing. Between 1937 and 1956 on the evenings when African-American artists performed, this space was called the Greystone Ballroom and was open to a diverse audience. These performances by African- American artists shaped the soundscape of Cincinnati and paved the way for groundbreaking performances by Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, the first African-American artists to perform on stage in Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium.

Thanks to the Greystone, Music Hall hosted such legendary artists as Billie Holliday, Cab Callaway, Sarah Vaughan, Fats Domino and Duke Ellington, among many other luminaries of American music. Celebrating this largely untold story was the inspiration behind the 2018 Classical Roots concert program, “Under One Roof.” 

“Music Hall has undergone an amazing renovation over the past two years,” said Cincinnati Pops Conductor John Morris Russell, who helped to found Classical Roots and leads this year’s program. “It is not only about the physical changes of the stage, the hallways or the new lights. Classical Roots allows us an opportunity to showcase a much larger renovation which contributed to the history of Music Hall. We look back at the groundbreaking influence of African- American artists and what has happened within these walls, under its roof.”

On Friday, April 20, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) presents the popular annual Classical Roots concert celebrating African-American culture and heritage through music at Music Hall. With the “Under One Roof” theme, there is a focus on iconic artists who performed at the Greystone and other parts of Music Hall. This year’s program also features music by African-American composers including Eubie Blake and James Reese Europe, and the CSO will recognize the enormous contributions of legendary singer Marian Anderson.

The CSO is committed to serving the entire Greater Cincinnati community and initiated the Classical Roots program in order to establish and strengthen relationships, particularly with the region’s African-American community. The outreach began with performances by the CSO in area churches to engage the community, and in 2011 continued with a large annual concert featuring the CSO and the Classical Roots Community Mass Choir.

The Mass Choir is composed of more than 150 volunteer singers representing dozens of area churches. This distinguished group is led by William Henry Caldwell in collaboration with local church music ministers. In 2013, Mr. Caldwell planned to retire as a professor and Chairman of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts as well as director of Vocal
and Choral Activities at Central State University. He had served as conductor for the Grammy-nominated Central State University Chorus and enjoyed a very long and distinguished collaboration with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops.

As fate would have it, the year before he retired, Mr. Caldwell attended a Classical Roots performance that inspired him. He said, “During that concert, I
heard wonderful voices emanating from the choir that I believed could be challenged to sing music of all periods and styles if given the opportunity. Most community choirs with a vast number of African- Americans perform a repertoire that is dominated by gospel music. I know there are some exceptions, but the vast majority are 'Gospel Choirs.'"

The potential Mr. Caldwell observed as he listened that day was confirmed when he took over as one of  the music leaders. The group demonstrated it could handle the challenge of performing music of all periods and styles and appreciated the broader repertoire. Mr. Caldwell added, “This year we are singing
'Hallelujah' from Christ on the Mount of Olives by Beethoven, 'Come Sunday' by Duke Ellington, selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and one of the most challenging African-American spirituals ever arranged, 'Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,' which was for a long time the standard for its level of difficulty.  Classical Roots is important because it maintains the great choral tradition associated with Cincinnati and the great African-American choral diaspora."

Classical Roots 2018 also features the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra (CSYO) Nouveau Chamber Players. This celebrated string ensemble is composed of talented African-American and Latino student musicians, as well as seven CSO and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Fellows, who will perform together on stage for the first time since Music Hall's grand reopening in October. The CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship, supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a groundbreaking, nationally recognized program in which these string players work on
graduate degrees at CCM while receiving specialized training with CSO musicians and performance opportunities with the full Orchestra.

The CSO is proud to announce the inaugural Classical Roots Artist-in-Residence, Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who was named “2017 New Yorker of the Year" by The New York Times. Ms. Hall-Tompkins will collaborate with CSO musicians and work with local students and members of the community in the weeks leading up to the concert, sharing her experiences and insight as an African-American classical musician.

Classical Roots provides and demonstrates an experience where local music leaders and singers can work together to support each other in producing a fantastic choral experience. Anyone interested in volunteering without singing can participate in this group to help coordinate rehearsals and develop materials as needed.