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From Rachmaninoff to Lang Lang: The Evolution of the Taft Theatre

Meghan Berneking


Sergei Rachmaninoff. George Gershwin. Katharine Hepburn. These are just a few of the stars that have graced the stage of Cincinnati’s own “downtown jewelbox”— the Taft Theatre (see more on page 7). During the just-announced 2016-17 season, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops will be regular fixtures of the Theatre, which means guest artists such as Lang Lang, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma will join the list of prestigious artists across all genres to perform there.

Built in 1928 and named for Charles Phelps Taft, the Theatre is currently home to the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati and a regular stream of touring acts. In 2011, as part of its preparation for an impending large-scale renovation of Music Hall, the CSO entered a long-term lease agreement for the building with its owner, the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. The CSO’s subsidiary, Music and Event Management, Inc. (MEMI), currently manages the Taft Theatre. At that point, the Orchestra was no stranger to the venue, as the CSO performed its spectacular “Home for the Holidays” concerts there from 1996 to 2003 under then-Associate Conductor John Morris Russell.

Located in the Central Business District, the Taft Theatre is surrounded by restaurants, bars and other Downtown hot spots for audiences to explore before and after concerts, making it a perfect location for deepening connections with the community and attracting fans to a Cincinnati neighborhood they might otherwise not have visited.

From top hats to acoustics

Prior to the Taft’s 2011 renovation, top hat hooks exposed the historic nature of the Theatre, but the seats and lack of modern amenities proved inconvenient and uncomfortable for modern audiences. The CSO’s priority for the renovation, however, for which it invested more than $3.2 million, was to maintain the building’s distinctive Art Deco character. Updates included doubling the capacity of the men’s restrooms, tripling the capacity of the women’s restrooms, installing a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly central air conditioning system, and replacing all of the seats to improve seat width and comfort. Cosmetic improvements were made as well, to better highlight the turn-of-the century details abundant in the Theatre, including hand-painted murals and a richly detailed arch over the stage.

The Theatre is also receiving a new acoustical shell and stage ceilings (known as “clouds”) in preparation for a full season of CSO and Pops concerts. Designed in consultation with the world-renowned acoustic firm Akustiks, and built and installed by the Orchestra’s Technical Director/Carpenter Joseph Hopper and the skilled craftsmen of IATSE Local 5, these additions will help to achieve an ideal space to serve as the CSO and Pops “home away from home” during the 2016-17 season. Since the CSO and Pops will share the Taft with its other primary tenants next year, great thought and care was given during the shell/ceiling concept design process to ensure partners such as the Children’s Theatre will still be able to fully produce their seasons while the Orchestra is in residence. 

And speaking of next season…

The CSO’s 2016-17 season was announced at its concerts Jan. 14-16, inciting excited chatter and applause from the audience. Three names in particular generated enthusiasm—the aforementioned Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, each of whom will perform one-night-only concerts with the CSO. The subscription season also packs a punch with legendary and in-demand artists such as Hilary Hahn, Midori, Jennifer Koh, Edo de Waart, Gil Shaham, Branford Marsalis, Emanuel Ax, Hélène Grimaud and Christian Tetzlaff making returns to the Queen City.

The CSO’s Brahms Fest continues next season, with the composer’s third and fourth symphonies, as well as his Second Piano Concerto performed by Ms. Grimaud. In the fall, the second installment of The Pélleas Trilogy, a groundbreaking collaboration with director and curator James Darrah, features spoken word and dramatic set elements offering an exploration into Fauré’s Pélleas et Mélisande. One City, One Symphony returns Thanksgiving weekend with a theme of “Home,” sure to resonate deeply with audiences and draw attention to the city-wide goal to deepen roots in the region.

The CSO is pulling out all the stops in terms of repertoire as well. Warhorses such as Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra all pepper the season. A special Baroque program consisting of Handel’s Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Orchestral Suite No. 3 (rarely performed gems in the orchestra world) is especially well-suited to the Taft Theatre.

This “home away from home” is ready and waiting for the CSO’s extraordinary 2016-17 season.

While Music Hall receives its much-needed revitalization, the CSO will continue to deliver matchless concert performances and make Cincinnati a destination for residents and visitors alike.

Do you have questions about the CSO’s season at the Taft Theatre, subscriptions or amenities? Would you like to share a favorite memory you have of the Taft Theatre? Email updates@cincinnatisymphony.org or visit cincinnatisymphony.org/musichall for a full list of Frequently Asked Questions. View more details about ticket packages, subscriber benefits and more at cincinnatisymphony.org/1617.