Sunday, November 28, 1999

Curtain rises on a new CCM

$93.2 million campus opening this week transforms arts school

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Lobby at the new Corbett Center for the Performing Arts.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        The words they sing have a special significance: “Down to the gutter, up to the glitter ... Where do I go? Follow my passion. Where do I go? Follow my heart.”

        It's 10 a.m. in the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts. Musical theater students Aaron Lazar, 23, and Joe Levesque, 27, have worked up enough passion and energy to enthrall an impromptu audience of two acting classes. They are trying out a cabaret — a witty collection of songs set to their own story line — at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

        “I did musicals in high school, and tried to get away from it — but I couldn't,” said Mr. Lazar, of Cherry Hill, N.J. “I decided I was going to give it a shot. I had the application (to medical school) sitting on my desk, and convinced my parents that this was the right thing to do.”

        CCM has always been about the dreams of its talented musicians, singers, actors, dancers and scholars. But a few years ago, 1,400 students were pursuing those dreams in a grim 1960s-era building designed for 650.

The six phases of renovation
CCM opening events
Q & A with architect, dean
Growing prominence marks school's history
        Next weekend, after seven years of displacement during construction, CCM will officially unwrap its gleaming $93.2 million campus — CCM Village — in a gala celebration showcasing its students. The weekend will include public tours of the new complex designed by Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners of New York.

        With studies as wide-ranging as music history and jazz, CCM is a veritable cultural community within walls. Its students present nearly 1,000 performances a year; 100,000 people annually attend concerts in Corbett Auditorium.

        CCM's graduates populate local orchestras — including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — universities, radio and TV stations. Some have found fame elsewhere, and return to star in Broadway shows at the Aronoff Center, or to perform with Cincinnati Opera, May Festival or CSO.

Chuan Yun Li plays violin in the balcony of the new Robert J. Werner Recital Hall.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Today, a sleek new Mary Emery Hall has risen phoenix-like on the site of the old hall. Outside, 62-foot high pyramidal skylightspeak over the roofline like sails on a horizon. Inside are “smart” classrooms, a studio theater for opera and musical theater workshops, a state-of-the-art electronic media center and a master class room that would make opera diva Maria Callas envious. The hall is flanked by the elegant new Robert J. Werner Recital Hall and the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts.

        Completing the village, which surrounds a new courtyard, are the Dieterle Vocal Arts Center, (formerly Schmidlapp Hall, a gymnasium) and Memorial Hall, formerly a dormitory.

        The school has built its foundation on an illustrious history going back to 1867. It has the oldest ballet program in a music school, and was the first to offer a degree in radio. It was one of the earliest to have a quartet-in-residence when the esteemed LaSalle Quartet came in 1953.

        “When I came, it seemed to have a sense of history, like divas once walked through those halls,” said Sinclair Mitchell, 22, a musical theater student from Orlando, Fla. “Now it seems like a place for new talent to grow and spring out.”

Electronic media
        Inside Mary Emery Hall, where jeans-clad students mingle with backpacks and violin cases, four pyramidal skylights create their own rhythm and add a light, airy atmosphere.

        “This is the writing lab,” said Marcy Fisk, 20, of Hyde Park, tossing her bag next to one of 12 new computers in the Electronic Media Division. The lab is part of a professional-quality computerized news system that allows students to film, write and produce their own TV shows and documentaries.

        Ms. Fisk is working on a story for the news show, Uptown, where students play realistic roles as reporters, anchors, videographers, directors and producers.

        “When I was younger, I wanted to act,” said Ms. Fisk, a graduate of St. Ursula Academy. She became interested in production when she worked as an extra in Milk Money, a movie filmed locally. Because her goal is to be a producer, she likes the hands-on approach at CCM.

        Ms. Fisk moves to the editing room — a cubicle with a professional digital editing machine — to work on her feature story about Cincinnati-born Hollywood makeup artist Kenny Niederbaumer.

        “Our show is 16 minutes long. I have two minutes to tell this story,” she said. “It's tough, because you have to learn how to be creative.”

        Ms. Fisk is one reason for CCM's population boom. With 200 majors, electronic media is the largest division in the college.

        Founded in 1936, it's also one of the oldest. It was the first college program in the nation to offer a degree in radio, and was created at the College of Music to complement Cincinnati's strong radio presence. It soon became an important player in WLW radio broadcasts.

        Electronic media will now lead the school into the 21st century. All of CCM's performance venues are wired for sound and video. Signals go to the master control room, and are distributed to editing and post-production suites. A string quartet can make a CD; an opera can be videotaped.

        “A program like this can thrive in a performing arts environment,” said Manfred K. Wolfram, head of the division. “Nobody can compete with anything like this, anywhere.”

        Clarinetist Kazem Abdullah, 20, of Indianapolis, dreams of a professional orchestra job. A superb clarinetist who has already performed as a soloist with the CSO, he plays a few licks of Mozart in the November sun behind Memorial Hall.

        Once an old dorm, Memorial Hall is now a small city of studios and practice rooms that sing with the music of tubas, violins and budding opera stars.

        “I knew they would work me hard, and that's one reason why I came here,” said Mr. Abdullah, who studies with CCM's Ronald de Kant and CSO principal clarinetist Richard Hawley.

        He knows his field is competitive. “I also have other goals,” he said. “I have a strong interest in conducting. Right now I'm going to focus on becoming the best musician possible.”

        He is warming up for a rehearsal with the CCM Wind Symphony led by Rodney Winther, slated to perform Tuesday in Corbett Auditorium.

        A $5 million remake in 1996 transformed the 740-seat Corbett Auditorium — the performing heart of CCM since 1967 — into a luxurious theater paneled in African mahogany. Ash wood boxes stagger down its side walls, flanked by eight two-story high torchiers.

        The Wind Symphony is just one of several orchestral and choral ensembles that are widely hailed outside of CCM through their performances and recordings.

        The school's premier ensemble is the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Mark Gibson. Gerhard Samuel, director for 21 years until 1997, built it from a struggling group that couldn't afford to rent the music for performances to one of international stature. The Philharmonia has performed in Carnegie Hall, toured to Paris and Lisbon, performed countless premieres and won programming awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

        At noon in his teacher's studio in Memorial Hall, CCM freshman Chuan Yun Li, 19, is practicing violin for his upcoming solo with the Starling Chamber Orchestra. His brow is damp with sweat as his bow flies off the strings; his daredevil feats show an ability beyond his years.

        “I started when I was 3 years old. I was taught by my parents first,” the Hong Kong native said, struggling to find the words in English. “Of course, my destination is a soloist. But I do not put too much hope there. I will just try to do my best.”

        CCM is widely recognized for its string program. Locally, 15 CCM graduates perform in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

        “If you go to the major music schools around the world and mention Cincinnati, it is considered one of the top conservatories,” said Kurt Sassmannshaus, who heads the division.

        Aspiring young stars play for master teacher Dorothy DeLay, 83, who commutes monthly from New York's Juilliard School. Also on the faculty are the distinguished Tokyo String Quartet and the upcoming Amernet Quartet.

        In 1987, Mr. Sassmannshaus started the Starling Preparatory String Project, a training program for talented young players in CCM's pre-college division, CCM Prep. The Starling Foundation of Houston, which funds the project, also provides scholarships for college study.

        “You have to realize, that we're in international competition for students, and many other countries don't charge tuition,” he said.

        He and the other faculty members are anticipating the opening of the Robert J. Werner Recital Hall, which was behind schedule and undergoing finishing touches. At 300 seats, it is a much-needed smaller venue.

        “It has beautiful acoustics and it's going to be a gem for the city as a smaller concert hall, where some of the most exciting things are going to happen,” Mr. Sassmannshaus said.

        “We are still pinching ourselves.”

        In the ballet wing of the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts, 12 dancers are working on “Hours” — representing the 12 hours in the day — from Coppelia. As the music starts, Laura Strawbridge, of Indianapolis, takes her place at the back of the ensemble. It is intense, serious work. Soon she and the others are flushed; many are sweating.

        “I just love the whole art form,” Ms. Strawbridge said before class, as she tied her ballet slippers. “This program was perfect for me, because I wanted to major in it, but also take classes around the university.”

        At 20, she realizes a dancer's career may be early and short — Suzanne Farrell was just a teen when she was swept out of CCM's preparatory school by the New York City Ballet. Most retire by their thirties.

        “My body is just starting to give out on me,” she said, mentioning a stress injury in her foot.

        “You have to have the dream in order to excel in any art form, but you also have to be realistic and have a backup plan, in case you don't make it as an artist in your chosen profession.”

        Her backup plan is to work in arts administration for a ballet company. But she worries about getting into the program of her first choice — at CCM. “The program here is one of the top in the country, but they take only 15 a year,” she said.

        In 1927, CCM became the first music school to offer classes in classical ballet; dance became a division of CCM in 1970. Its history includes David McLain, former artistic director of Joffrey Ballet, Dame Alicia Markova and and famed dance historian P.W. Manchester.

        Despite the tradition of artistic excellence, the school was deteriorating when division head Carol Iwasaki came 10 years ago.

        “It leaked badly. Down the hallway, it was known as the wind tunnel, where the kids would freeze to death. We never had a place for them to warm up, no lounge area, no classroom, no carpet,” Ms. Iwasaki said.

        Now, students can stretch on carpeted floors and learn dance history in a classroom sporting six computers. Ms. Iwasaki's pride and joy is an equipped therapy room.

        “I don't know if it hurt recruitment to have ceiling tiles falling down, things falling apart,” she said. “Now, nationally, we can match anyone up there.”

        It's 9 a.m. on a Friday. Pianist Eliana Corredor, 27, of Venezuela, is practicing the Ravel Piano Concerto. Her hope is to win the CCM Concerto Competition and perform with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Her dream, though, is to have a career as a duo-pianist with her sister. She came to study with the duo-piano team, Eugene and Elizabeth Pridonoff.

        “I feel so lucky, being here in the United States,” she said, pushing a stray lock of hair away. “In my country, we don't have many facilities for practicing. Conservatories still have a lot of financial problems.”

        Still, she is homesick. “It is difficult to come to a foreign country,” she said, looking down at the keyboard. “You have to have this passion for it.”

        Indeed, it is this passion that links everyone at CCM. But never before was there a sense of community, of sharing dreams. On the courtyard, students are arriving for morning classes; professors with coffee cups huddle in groups.

        “This grand plaza links the village and literally draws us outside — faculty, students and staff,” said choral conductor Earl Rivers, head of ensembles and conducting, heading over to teach in Dieterle Vocal Arts Center.

        “It's a new way of communicating here.”

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Q & A with architect, dean

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