Peter Simon's first day as president of the Royal Conservatory of Music was grim. It rained. "The water just poured down the walls of my office. Everything had been covered in linoleum and painted yellow, [there were]neon lights, plumbing on the walls.
"In some ways I'd have to say the state of the building reflected the state of the conservatory," he says. "It needed revitalization in the most desperate way."
Seventeen years later, a modern glass and stone structure has risen on the Bloor Street site, marrying the 19th-century red-brick Baptist Theological College with a plethora of new, state-of-the-art classrooms and rehearsal studios.
The facility, designed by Marianne McKenna and KPMB architects, now puts the centre on par with two great musical-training schools, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York.
As Dr. Simon signs on for a new 10-year term, his relief at seeing the end of the construction comes through in the 59-year-old's weary but warm smile. He is alternately exuberant and pensive, and tempers a confident stride with a soft-spoken manner.
For a man whose ambition is to fundamentally change the way a country thinks and learns, he appears almost self-conscious about the child-like wonder with which he reveals his passions for music - and sports too.
He is a self-described football fanatic, an "utterly rabid Michigan Wolverines fan" who loves to watch his 17-year-old son Justin quarterback his old high-school team at Lawrence Park. Sports come second only to music, something Dr. Simon has been striving to share with a wider audience since his days as a performance pianist.
That's why the new Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, which will welcome faculty and students for the first time this weekend, is not a closed temple of artistry. Dr. Simon's great gift to Canada is his cherished belief that the conservatory should reach out to the community.
"I had always been frustrated ... by the marginalization or the categorization of the arts as purely a noble endeavour," he said.
Dr. Simon cannot pass a piano without sitting down to play a few notes, and still performs a newly learned piece each year for guests at his birthday party. One of his great wishes, he says, is that every person could "just come home, sit down for 15 minutes and have that tranquillity and repose, and that dialogue with the inner self. That would be an extraordinary dream to achieve."
There is no doubt he has given that gift to a great many. The RCM now reaches about 500,000 people each year, up from an estimated 150,000 when he took over. His prize creation, Learning Through the Arts, is an integrated education program used across Canada and in the United Kingdom to teach 100,000 students each year in more than 300 public schools.
Dr. Simon's attention to music's role in shaping minds is his signature among his peers.
"He's redefined music as an intellectual gymnasium where you go and get a workout for your head," said Royal Ontario Museum chief executive officer William Thorsell. "He's really emphasizing music as a pleasure and a discipline, but also as an exercise."
But even as the accolades will roll in for the new Telus Centre, he still has his work cut out for him.
Ontario Arts Council executive director John Brotman said there is no denying that Dr. Simon has reinvented an institution, but also points out that his task is far from complete.
"The aspiration he has is that the conservatory is a player on the world stage, so it's seen to be in the same league as Juilliard, for example. ... " said Mr. Brotman.
"The building has been built and it's going to have a lovely design ... what it now needs is programs and training that match that architectural vision, and we're all waiting expectantly to see how that's fulfilled."
First, piano training
Dr. Simon is one of the remarkable class of Hungarians, driven out of their homeland by the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, who have had such influence in Toronto.
At age 7 he arrived here with his parents, who settled in the Lawrence Park area. His upbringing resounded with music, his father Paul a miningengineer and his mother Clara at home immersing her two sons in her interests: "literature, music, literature, music." He said his mother had hoped he would be a musician and his elder brother Paul would be an actor, but Paul became a lawyer instead -"not so different," Dr. Simon quipped.
His two major influences were the revered RCM piano teacher Boris Berlin, whom he studied with through his early 20s, and Leon Fleisher, the American pianist, conductor and teacher under whom he studied at the University of Michigan from 1981 to 1983.
"There's a real sense of purity with [Mr. Fleisher]about the art form, no ego associated with it ... " Dr. Simon said.
By his early 30s, Dr. Simon was teaching at the University of Western Ontario and trying to build a career as a pianist, playing perhaps 20 concerts a year. But his concern for the arts as a social issue was growing and "a series of coincidences and accidents" led him from temporary work at the conservatory to the president's position at the Manhattan School of Music in 1989.
When the RCM came knocking in 1991, he made the difficult decision to move his family to Toronto to the Mount Pleasant and St. Clair-area home he shares with his wife, pianist Dianne Werner, 20-year-old daughter Nicole and son Justin. He arrived just as a seven-year separation process ended the conservatory's long-time affiliation with the University of Toronto, something many thought had crippled it.
Initially, Dr. Simon struggled to devise a business model to stabilize the conservatory and pay for essential repairs. He was widely criticized in the press for some cutbacks, such as downsizing the community school, but he insists they were necessary.
With considerable help from his "tireless and wonderful" board chair Florence Minz, he upgraded and expanded the school's defining programs and began a relentless campaign of fundraising, bringing onside major donors such as Galen Weston, Leslie Dan and Michael and Sonja Koerner. The conservatory reached its first goal of $60-million, which has been extended to $110-million under a new 50-person campaign cabinet led by Tony and Elizabeth Comper.
But his greatest accomplishment at RCM may be the series of outreach projects aimed at children and adults. Dr. Simon is an amateur but avid student of neuroscience and believes the cognitive benefits of arts education have been proven, with arts training leading students to higher marks in distant subjects such as math.
"We're probably at the forefront of organizations now in making these neuroscience findings into practical programs that achieve quantifiable benefits," he said.
He thinks the new building, with the prestige and technological capabilities it brings, can help them reach a million, which could have tremendous benefits for the next generation.
"It's your imagination and your creativity that can see the things that haven't yet existed. And it's that applied to severe discipline that creates innovation. And it's innovation that this nation is going to rely upon for our future."
At a glance
Peter Simon attended Lawrence Park Collegiate and De La Salle College in Toronto.
Studied piano and theory at the Royal Conservatory of Music in his 20s, dropped out to study at Juilliard for a year in 1973, then moved to London to study under Louis Kentner. Returned to complete his B.Mus. in Toronto in 1977, earned his M.Mus. from the University of Western Ontario in 1981, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Michigan in 1983.
Was a performing pianist while teaching at the University of Western Ontario, helped revamp the RCM's Professional Program in 1986, and was named president of the Manhattan School of Music in 1989.
Telus Centre for Performance and Learning is wrapped around the Royal Conservatory of Music's McMaster Hall. It borders on the University of Toronto's Philosopher's Walk and Varsity Stadium, as well as the Royal Ontario Museum.
Koerner Hall: The city's first mid-size concert hall, seating 1,140. Opens late 2009.
Conservatory Theatre: A 900-square-foot performance and rehearsal space designed to acoustically mimic Koerner Hall.
Sixty new studios and five new classrooms.
Technology and new-media lab features cutting-edge equipment and distance-learning capabilities.
Rupert Edwards Library, specially designed for conservatory students.