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NYC hall highlights Koerner's promise
September 19, 2009 | William Littler | Toronto Star

"NEW YORK—When Alice Tully Hall threw open its doors on Lincoln Center's Upper West Side campus 40 years ago, it was the first major New York City venue designed to accommodate chamber music. This year, after a multimillion-dollar renovation, it has reopened those doors coincidentally with Toronto's acquisition of a venue similar in size and objectives.

The Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall, scheduled to open next Friday, boasts 1,137 seats compared with Alice Tully's 1,087, and Conservatory president Peter Simon states "absolutely" that it is his aim to make it, too, a venue "of international importance."

From the beginning, both halls have aspired to accommodate more than classical chamber music, the Grand Opening Festival of Koerner Hall embracing a range of events from a concert by the Conservatory's own orchestra, conducted by the Toronto Symphony's Peter Oundjian, to a program of Indian sitar music by Ravi Shankar, with his daughter Anoushka, to a jazz evening with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clark and drummer Lenny White.

Sharing the same building – now much expanded – with the Juilliard School, Alice Tully Hall was already playing host to the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, within a month of its 1969 opening, and within three seasons had hosted the world premiere of Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial Last Tango in Paris as part of the New York Film Festival.

Simon is an admirer of the renovated Alice Tully Hall, praising its acoustics and sight lines, and describing a visit as "a more pleasant experience than ever before."

It is easy to understand why. In addition to sprucing up and reshaping its interior, the architects have projected forward and sheathed in three storeys of glass its welcoming Broadway façade, adding thousands of square feet of foyer and reception space, with a new cafe/bar open to the public.

But Simon insists that, for all the similarities, he is not trying to replicate Lincoln Center's busiest venue on Bloor St. W. As his colleague, executive director of performing arts Mervon Mehta, points out, "the difference between Tully and us is that the Juilliard School does not control Tully, whereas we are part of the Conservatory's Telus Centre for Performance and Learning. Pre-concert events and lectures will be a regular feature of our presentations, with our students often involved in lobby concerts and given access to rehearsals."

Fresh from Philadelphia's imposing Kimmel Centre, Mehta has nonetheless been charged with keeping the ink in Koerner Hall's books black, which is why, in addition to accommodating student events and Royal Conservatory presentations, the hall, like Tully, will be available for rental.

If keeping the ink black in a medium-sized hall represents a challenge, the value of such a venue in a musically active city is obvious. With two and a half times as many seats, Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall are too large for many events, and with half as many seats the Jane Mallett Theatre and Walter Hall are too small.

Nor is the issue exclusively one of box-office returns. Such world-class singers as Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel made their New York debuts at Alice Tully Hall and Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen have all conducted their music there, in large measure because of its acoustical and visual dimensions. Small wonder it also gave birth to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

If Koerner Hall can even approach the impact Alice Tully Hall has had on the musical life of New York, it will have constituted an investment in which the Royal Conservatory can take lasting pride."


Toronto Star, William Littler, September 19th 2009