If you can’t smell the memory, perhaps it never really happened at all.
Speaking of her days performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) was the historic venue’s main tenant, a violinist remembers walls that could not talk but would make their presence known anyway.
“The smell of the oil paint that never quite dries is one that I will always associate with Massey Hall,” says Leslie Dawn Knowles, a fixture of the orchestra’s string section since 1975. “It wouldn’t surprise me if all those layers of paint weren’t holding the walls up.”
Knowles was with the TSO in 1982 when it moved from its ancestral home at Massey Hall to the newly constructed round mound of sound, Roy Thomson Hall. On Feb. 17, as part of the TSO’s 100th anniversary celebrations, the orchestra will give a concert in the venue it first played in 1923. Massey Hall has recently undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation – a new paint job and then some.
“It will be a nice homecoming for us to come see the hall in its full glory,” Knowles says.
The violinist is one of the few current TSO musicians who were with the orchestra when it still called Massey Hall home. Knowles uses the word “glory” generously, with a sense of reverence the venue deserves. Other adjectives use by veteran TSOers to describe the building, which opened in 1894, include “quirky” and “funky.”
Violist Gary Labovitz, with the TSO since 1973, recalls a “dungeon-like” basement with a beat-up ping pong table and an old rotary-dial wall phone. Toronto native David Kent, who joined the orchestra as its principal timpani player in 1981, distinctly remembers the aroma of salt-cured meat during Sunday morning rehearsals.
“The building superintendent had an apartment there, and we’d arrive to the smell of corned beef,” says Kent. “He obviously cooked it for his Sunday brunch.”
Knowles arrived to something even more peculiar one Sunday morning in a Massey Hall dressing room in the late 1970s. “There was this dishevelled guy sleeping there, and some of my lady colleagues were giggling and squealing with delight.”
The Los Angeles-born-and-raised violinist did not understand what was happening, and so went off to find someone to deal with the situation. Turns out it was not just any vagabond snoozing on the couch: “It was Gordon Lightfoot from the night before. I was new and young, and I had no idea.”
The TSO gave its farewell Massey Hall concert on June 4, 1982. On the program was Dvorak and Brahms, a choral arrangement of O Canada, Ernest MacMillan’s Royal Anthem, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the overture to Weber’s Der Freischutz, the premiere performance of John Cowell’s A Farewell Tribute to the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street and, with the Mendelssohn Choir, the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah.
Conductors Andrew Davis and Elmer Iseler shared the baton; television host Brian Linehan mastered the ceremonies. A capacity audience saw presentations by then Ontario lieutenant-governor John Black Aird, patron of the arts and former lieutenant-governor Pauline McGibbon, local political maestro Paul Godfrey and Toronto mayor Arthur Eggleton.
The last sound heard was the audience’s rendition of Auld Lang Syne, which preceded a cascade of balloons. More than 40 years later, auld acquaintances and an old auditorium have not been forgotten.
“If you invited someone to a concert, you could always find their face in the crowd at Massey Hall, which is something I can’t do at Roy Thomson Hall,” says violist Labovitz, who, as the TSO’s senior member, is in his 49th season with the orchestra. “It was nice and intimate at Massey.”
It was also noisy with car traffic and ambulance sirens from St. Michael’s Hospital across the street. The backstage facilities left much to be desired; the onstage acoustics were echoey. But while those problems were taken care of at Roy Thomson Hall, the new venue on Simcoe Street was neither better nor worse than the old one on Shuter, according to the musicians.
“It’s a little bit like seeing yourself in a mirror that suddenly has different lighting,” Kent says. “You look at yourself and say, ‘Oh really?’ And then you change the way you present yourself.”
The concrete walls of Roy Thomson Hall were a challenge. “Not a negative challenge,” Kent says. “The acoustics were completely different, which was a chance for me to grow as a musician, perhaps in a different way than I would have had at Massey Hall.”
Both buildings are owned by the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, a not-for-profit charitable organization. Friday’s return by the TSO to its brick birthplace is not its first revisit. In 2002, when the RTH auditorium underwent a substantial sonic renovation, the symphony used the sister venue for months.
Where the TSO’s residency at Massey Hall in 2002 was viewed as a temporary inconvenience, the upcoming concert at the venue will be a more celebratory reunion. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, presented at the send-off in 1982, is on the program.
Still, nostalgia and $10-million will buy you a Stradivarius. Beloved as Massey Hall is, it is not fit to house a world-class orchestra. Roy Thomson Hall was specifically built to accommodate a symphony.
Homecomings are odd occasions. You don’t need to be a Thomas Wolfe scholar to understand that part of the definition of home is that it is a place where you no longer belong. Violinist Knowles recalls the mixed emotions of pulling out of Massey Hall.
“When you leave home, it’s sad. But you also know it is time to move onto something else. And so that’s what we did.”