In its 10-year run, Toronto's Luminato Festival has had lots of Whats – celebrated events such as last year's Apocalypsis, the Joni Mitchell tribute of a few years past, shows by performance artist Marina Abramovic and many other first-rate attractions. But it's always lacked a Why – a central idea or theme that has been able to knit together its varied and heterodox concerts, art installations, theatrical works and all-around happenings.
This year, the festival has added another element to its mix. It now has a Where.
The Richard L. Hearn Generating Station, built in 1951 and decommissioned in 1995, at one time the largest enclosed space in Canada, has become the hulking, ruined, fascinating beating heart of Luminato 2016 – a single venue where all of its varied offerings can take place. It is a Where hoping to morph into a Why – a space that the festival hopes will serve as the unifying focus it has seemed to lack before now.
And it is an amazing venue, at once attractive and overwhelming, dimly lit, a modern ruin, with its 45-metre-high ceilings dwarfing the activities below, an industrial corpse, stripped of its original function, tantalizing and threatening at the same time.
Three times over this past week, the Hearn's stages have been the site of musical offerings. On Sunday, the TSO Chamber Soloists presented a reading of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat, for seven instrumentalists and a narrator. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra ventured to showcase its 18th-century sound in the middle of this 20th-century behemoth on Sunday. And on Tuesday, the full Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented an abbreviated concert of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Gershwin's An American in Paris.
First things first. Can you hear anything at all in a space that could be echoey and boomy, with its wall-less Music Stage under 30-metre-plus ceilings? Does the music echo through the Hearn or get lost in its vastness?
Well, neither, actually. The acoustics are surprisingly good around the Music Stage, the main musical venue in the facility. (The Side Room, where the Chamber Players performed, wasn't bad, either.) It's true that the small sound of Tafelmusik, normally heard in the confines of a downtown church, did get a bit lost in the vast, cathedral-like Hearn, but the ear got used to it. The Toronto Symphony, however, sounded surprisingly good.
If the TSO was hoping to finally find a performing venue where the acoustics are worse than Roy Thomson Hall, they need to keep looking. The sound coming off the Music Stage was balanced, you could hear the softest of pianissimos relatively clearly (admittedly, I was sitting within 10 rows of the stage), and the echoey, boomy sound one assumed you'd hear in a space so vast just didn't materialize.
The 400 or 500 patrons of the Tafelmusik concert (a third of whom noted they had never attended a Tafelmusik concert before) and the close to 1,000 people listening to Peter Oundjian and the TSO all were treated to fine, if abbreviated concerts. L'Histoire du soldat and the TSO concert each lasted about an hour; Tafelmusik played for about 40 minutes.
And if the sound in the venue, and the venue itself, were pluses in the concerts (as well as the fine playing, which almost goes without saying these days in Toronto's classical institutions), the weaknesses were the programs themselves. There seemed to be no co-ordination at all between the various groups, or between them, and Luminato in the choice of repertoire. It felt as though Tafelmusik and the TSO just put together a program that would serve as a sampler for their respective organizations. And that's all. And L'Histoire du soldat, this anti-war piece written by a horrified Stravinsky at the end of the First World War – shouldn't that have been tied to Situation Rooms, the gaming/art installation featuring intelligence operations, or even the featured James Plays Trilogy, the central theatrical attraction of this year's Luminato?
Perhaps in future years, these correspondences and connections will occur, with a single venue making these sparks fly with greater frequency and accuracy. That is the promise of Luminato and the promise of the Hearn. Perhaps a Where can be turned into a Why. If not, the Hearn, with its overpowering presence, its mangled beauty and insidious sense of entropy, might swallow Luminato up, rather than give it new life.
If it were my call, I'd suggest the new life. The Hearn as a cultural venue is new – its promise is vast. As I watched the patrons leaving the TSO concert, excited to be doing something new, making their way through the mangled concrete and navigating the uneven floors, the promise of the place seemed very real. The challenges to making the space work, rather than be a novelty, are great – but so might be the results.
Luminato continues in Toronto through June 26 (luminatofestival.com).