It’s more than a day later, but Tafelmusik’s managing director Tricia Baldwin and principal oboist John Abberger are still glowing like Madonnas in a Renaissance painting. And why not. For over 10 years, the two have been the driving forces in the on-again, off-again project to renovate the look and sound of the baroque orchestra’s main performance space at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto. Although the formal inaugural concert of the hall was on Thursday, Tafelmusik members heard their new performing space for the first time in two mini-concerts they played last Sunday for some of their most dedicated subscribers.
The results of the renovations, part of a $3-million revitalization of Trinity-St. Paul’s, were astonishing, exceeding their wildest expectations. From the first note of Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba to the strains of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, it was clear Tafelmusik had entered a new artistic dimension with its renovated space. The sound was warmer, more reverberant. Bass instruments, which have long been inaudible in Trinity-St. Paul’s, were clear and focused. Inner voices jumped out of the contrapuntal texture. If a hall is the orchestra’s instrument, Tafelmusik has just traded the violin that your mom bought you for an Amati, if not a Stradivarius.
Even the orchestra was surprised. “We tried to manage our expectations,” Abberger says, “not to build things up too much for ourselves or for the public. We didn’t want to oversell the case.”
“We thought the acoustics would improve like this,” Baldwin says, spreading her fingers only centimetres apart. “Not like this,” she exclaims with her arms outstretched.
Because Tafelmusik plays in great halls all over the world, its musicians knew what they were looking for at home. A more lively, less dead acoustic, one where the bass instruments could be heard more clearly, but with more brilliance too. To help design the new space, Tafelmusik turned to master acoustician Bob Essert for help. Among other projects, the American-born, U.K.-based Essert is responsible for the sound of Koerner Hall and the Four Seasons Centre, both highly acclaimed.
Tafelmusik actually first contacted Essert in 1991, when it began planning the renovation, then again in 2003 during another attempt, and finally, for real, prior to the just-completed renovation. To start to fix the acoustic deadness problem, Essert removed the carpet that gobbled up sound in Trinity-St. Paul’s. To improve bass response, he replaced all the flimsy, thin surfaces in the building with more solid ones. There’s a new hardwood floor; gorgeous wooden cladding graces the inside walls of the hall, replacing wallboard covered with vinyl; and a new, permanent oak stage has replaced the plywood platform on which Tafelmusik members have performed for 30 years (they were always afraid a piano, or a soloist, would fall through).
For brilliance, Essert designed random patterns in the wood cladding which reflect different wavelengths of sound back to the audience, allowing more of the subtleties of the music to be heard. On the basis of one hour’s listening, all of Essert’s acoustical schemes seem to have worked beautifully.
Interestingly, now that they have a hall that is more responsive, orchestra members are having to adjust to the new surroundings. Abberger says he doesn’t know what reeds to use for his oboe anymore, a crucial decision for a wind player. And those who were used to performing forcefully to overcome the hall’s dull acoustics are going to have to rebalance their playing.
Those adjustments are all positive, says Baldwin, adding: “Jeanne Lamon told us a decade ago that a new hall was going to be the heart of the next phase of our artistic development, because, she said, your home hall defines your sound.”
As things have turned out, that new phase will not be primarily in Lamon’s hands, as this is her last season as Tafelmusik’s Music Director. And how has she reacted to the new performing space, which bears her name? “I got a very beautiful email from her last night,” Baldwin says. “She said it was beyond her dreams what had happened – she didn’t expect it to be that much better.”