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Classical: We need more than one concert hall
October 24, 2009 | Arthur Kaptainis | The Gazette

"Nice place, good concert. The concepts are easily distinguished, but also linked. Such are my thoughts after hearing a really good concert in a really nice place in Toronto.

First, the nice place: Koerner Hall, a new 1,135-seater on a central stretch of Bloor St. It functions officially as the performing space of the Royal Conservatory of Music, but puts the spectator more in mind of a high-end arts temple in Tokyo, Dubai or Berlin.

Handsomely contoured, finished with fine materials and designed acoustically to accommodate sounds great and small, Koerner Hall raises the number of excellent orchestra-worthy facilities in Toronto to at least three, the others being Massey Hall (still great if seldom used for orchestras) and Roy Thomson Hall (near-great after a 2002 renovation).

In Montreal we have no good concert halls. We will have one, for the MSO, in September 2011. It is not too early to start thinking of another to house our many other ensembles.

To review the current scene: Salle Wilfrid Pelletier in Place des Arts is bad, the Théâtre Maisonneuve is worse. Salle Claude Champagne, the hall of the Université de Montréal, seats about 1,000 and sounds all right, but it sits high on the other side of the mountain and is in serious need of a makeover.

Pollack Hall, our busiest concert facility, is okay for chamber music but is too small, at 600 seats, for a full orchestra, especially the boisterous McGill SO, which is technically a principal tenant. Pollack is also too small for the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club, which could easily sell more subscriptions.

Montreal is a city of contrasts. While the Ladies rent a room that is too small, Pro Musica, their direct competitor, uses one that is too big, the 1,458-seat Théâtre Maisonneuve. There were 339 in this hall two weeks ago to hear the octet of Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Salle Pierre Mercure, built by the late media tycoon Pierre Péladeau as an outlet for the fragmentary UQAM performance department, suggests itself, at 845 seats, as a useful place for big-chamber events. Acoustics are fine. But the cramped lobby space and Latin Quarter location make it unappealing to the Ladies, Pro Musica, Les Violons du Roy, I Musici de Montréal and other organizations supported by the affluent middle class.

Hopes ran high at the 1992 opening of this place. I noted the presence of “several producers, impresarios and radio personalities, all wondering whether this facility will be the alternative they have long sought to McGill’s drab Pollack Hall and its impossibly distant counterparts at the Université de Montréal and Concordia.”

On the hall itself: “The acoustics are unobjectionable, the dimensions are intimate, and the vaulting backdrop of maple panels behind the stage is extraordinarily handsome.”

Then the reservations: “Lobby areas are unfinished, so comfort could not be judged. The main doors to the hall, with scaffolding all around, look like a service entrance. No matter.”

No matter? In fact these apparently superficial considerations have proven decisive. Even the contemporary-music organizations now agitating for the construction of a joint home, Le Vivier, have given up on poor Salle Pierre Mercure.

But back to Toronto and Koerner Hall. Despite its glorious acoustics, premium look and ideal location, there are some unanswered questions. One is where to find the $30 million still owing on its $110-million cost. Another is where to find music to fill it. Yet another is whether Torontonians will support it.

The power of a nice place, however, should not be underestimated. The concert I heard, by the Royal Conservatory Orchestra under Toronto Symphony music director Peter Oundjian, was played unmistakably at a professional level, particularly by the strings. These “kids” sounded like European top-raters on a good day.

No doubt Conservatory admission standards are high, but I suspect the experience of wearing concert dress under brilliant lights in a hall that looks and sounds like a five-star facility adds powerfully to the impulse to play well, whether the performer is a student or a pro. To say nothing of the experience for the listener.

Pro Musica managing director Monique Dubé writes to discuss the turnout for the opening concert in the Théâtre Maisonneuve:

“We believe the construction work taking place at Place des Arts is the answer. Problems are numerous for the public, as you know. Many of our subscribers are not that young and they preferred postponing to next season the subscription they have had for many years.

“Why stay at PdA then? Concert programming is usually completed two years in advance with signed contracts, mentioning the hall. The impeccable chamber hall does not exist in Montreal. We tried all the existing halls in the past. None is perfect and we came to the conclusion that PdA is the least bad one as it offers to a mostly older public: security, accessible location, subway, parking and restaurants.

“To a chamber society like ours, it offers renting availabilities, acceptable pianos (and tuning), rehearsing halls, programs, convenient box office, reception halls, close-by hotels, advertising, helpful staff, technical facilities, etc.

“We all know that the intimate ambiance is missing, that the acoustics are not impressive. When will the beautifully suitable hall be built?”

Not in time for the next Pro Musica presentation, the pianist Dang Thai Son, on Monday. Nevertheless, Dubé is expecting a stronger turnout."

Arthur Kaptainis, Gazette Music Critic

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