Often, the halls where I’ve encountered the most incredible musical performances have been pretty utilitarian. Some were cramped, others had questionable acoustics or sight lines, and many were bland to the eye. Something, quite simply, was missing.
The big auditorium at Indiana University comes to mind or the related high school where the weekly Saturday night operas were presented or my hometown’s Memorial Hall and National Cash Register Company’s venue. (NCR’s back in the day before naming rights.) Even Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan, as it was known then, or Chicago’s.
Here are ten I remember quite differently, with fondness.
- Music Hall, Cincinnati. The acoustics up in the second balcony, where I usually sat, were crisp and clear. The two-tier Italianate horseshoe balcony looked timeless. And the proscenium was encased in a lacework of small golden lights. Yes, it was a large hall and still is, even after some judicious trimming. Home of the Cincinnati Symphony, as well as the opera and May Festival. My favorite of all time.
- Musical Arts Center, Bloomington, Indiana. Designed primarily as an opera house, it has some of the best technical support for creative stagecraft in the New World, and acoustics to match. It’s a small theater by American standards, a plus for the singers and audience alike, and its three-tier balcony makes you feel like you’re onstage when it comes to observing the action. The hall’s still flexible for orchestral and ballet performances by the world-acclaimed Jacobs School of Music students and faculty and guests.
- Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s like an indoor version of Shakespeare’s Globe, with plenty of glowing wood all around. It’s a small stage, although the Boston Symphony used to play there in its early days. For us, it’s the home of the Boston Revels’ Christmas productions, first and foremost.
- The Meyerhoff, Baltimore. Opened in 1982 in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, the hall is a delight that includes clean sight lines throughout the auditorium and wonderful spaces for audiences before, after, and during intermissions. When I lived just up the street, folks in the know were still lamenting the orchestra’s move from the Lyric Opera House a block away, but I never had an opportunity for comparison.
- Symphony Hall, Boston. For many, this is the ideal hall, rich in history. Two-thirds the size of Cincinnati’s, its acoustics are often praised, but I sense it’s a case of the sound onstage, where musicians can hear each other with ease, versus what’s heard in the audience. (Carnegie Hall in Manhattan is a similar situation.) I’m hoping to get back, maybe taking the train down for a Friday afternoon BSO concert.
- Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston. Having undergone an expensive restoration, it’s a jewel of a historic concert hall. Just the right size for performers and audience alike.
- Severance Hall, Cleveland. It’s like being encased in pearls, the best I can explain it. The orchestra’s summer home, the Blossom Music Center, has a similar feel, except it’s in glowing wood and open on all sides – I’ve always heard the concerts while sitting on blankets on the sloping hillside.
- The Peristyle, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. The open space is more like an Italian garden without the greens. The idea of attending concerts in an art museum leads to other memories, especially Dayton’s delightful hall with tapestries on the wall or Manchester, New Hampshire’s, before the additions.
- Akron Civic Theater, Ohio. A wonderful example of preserving an old movie house.
- Music Hall, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A small horse-shoe balcony type house built in 1878 for vaudeville and lovingly restored, it’s home to everything from live music and dance to lectures to classic movies and the Met’s Live-in-HD series.
Let me add honorable mentions to Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Faneuil Hall in Boston. I’ve been inside both and am impressed but have yet to hear a live performance in them.