Hard times have often been good times for building concert rooms in Toronto. Massey Hall went up during an economic crisis in the early 1890s, the Eaton Auditorium (Glenn Gould's favourite hall, now called the Carlu) opened during the Great Depression, and the Royal Conservatory of Music's new Koerner Hall was finished in the wake of last year's stock-market crash.
After hearing Friday's inaugural public concert, I think Koerner Hall could have as big an effect on the city's cultural life as those other two buildings did in their heyday. It's a beautiful space for music, in every way.
I heard a little impromptu music in the empty room several weeks ago, when workmen were still roaming the building in hard hats. Most of the resonant glow of that sneak preview was still apparent when over a thousand people filled architect Marianne McKenna's fluid, oak-trimmed hall for the opening night of performances and speeches.
The music ranged from pieces for solo piano to Beethoven's large-scale Choral Fant asy, Op. 80. Whatever the size of the music, the hall delivered the sound to the auditorium with clarity and warmth.
Bass tones sounded gutsy and focused, and the highest, boldest clarinet notes had a lovely amber sheen.
The most impressive single sound in the whole show came at the end of Gyorgy Ligeti's L'escalier du Diable (one of two Ligeti etudes given a superb performance by Todd Yaniw), in the long dissolution of the last widely-spaced chord. You could hear the many components of that complex sound fade out almost one by one, which showed just how faithful the room's acoustics (designed by Bob Essert of Sound Space Design) are to the full range of natural sound.
The concert began with a commissioned work by R. Murray Schafer called Spirits of the House, a creative repositioning of snippets of music by Sir Ernest Macmillan, Healey Willan, John Weinzweig and several lesser-known composers active at the Conservatory during its 123 years. The diaphanous fairy sounds at the start of the piece, and the more ominous theme that growled through the brasses, seemed to suggest that spirits can both protect and haunt. Players and singers performed from all parts of the hall, satisfying Schafer's habitual restlessness in conventional concert spaces, and showing off the room's ability to enhance sounds from almost any location. Even the choristers standing on a catwalk high above the stage sounded good.
Spirits of the House was the kind of tribute I would sooner expect from John Beckwith, who has shown far more interest than Schafer in Canada's compositional past. I got the feeling that Schafer was making his own peace with the musical remains of the days when (as he once put it) "the pommies" controlled Toronto's cultural life.
The ARC (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) Ensemble appeared for a nimble performance of the presto movement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Piano Quintet, Op. 18, which showed how friendly this hall is to fine-textured chamber music. The many two-handed staccato passages in David Louie's piano rang out crisply, yet were full of colour. A movement from Leonard Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (played by Joaquin Valdepenas and Dianne Werner) sounded equally inviting in the lyrical section and in the peppery vivace.
The Choral Fantasy started with an impassioned piano solo by Anton Kuerti, who then launched a set of variations for piano, orchestra and voices on a tune that obviously prefigures the Ode to Joy. Unfortunately the first entry of the solo vocal quartet lagged the piano by a few beats, making for what conductor Jean-Philippe Tremblay would probably agree were the longest 15 seconds of the whole show. The piece's grandiose finale proved that it's just as possible to overplay at the Koerner as anywhere else.
There were a lot of words spoken from the stage, including full-blown speeches by Conservatory president Peter Simon and philanthropist Michael Koerner, and a promise of $5-million in one-time provincial funding from Ontario Culture Minister Aileen Carroll. That money won't go to the building fund, but to the Conservatory's curriculum development and exam programs.
Simon still needs to find over $30-million to finish paying for the Conservatory's building project (which includes the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning), and maybe more to satisfy the demands of his teaching staff, who greeted audience members outside the building with the news that their last collective agreement expired in 2006.
Now that Koerner Hall is finished and ready for a 10-day opening festival, it may be time for Simon to bring some harmony into the school as a whole.