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The fine Montreal art of being happy with what you have


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The fine Montreal art of being happy with what you have

 

 

ARTHUR KAPTAINIS, The Gazette

 

Published: Saturday, August 18

Almost everything was wonderful last Saturday - the weather, the music, the charity, the skyline. The sound? Well, what do you want? Percival Molson Stadium was built for football, not for music.

 

There might be room for sonic improvement next summer, if I may jump to the reasonable conclusion that a concert by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under the auspices of the Montreal Alouettes, with or without Kent Nagano, is now an annual event. One point of departure would be a shell that projects sound rather than a tent that contains it.

 

Of course, there are certain sonic variables beyond the control of the MSO or the Als. The Royal Victoria Hospital is nearby, with its mamoth ventilation units. A two-hour shutdown of hospital air conditioning would be very nice, but perhaps too much to ask.

 

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Imperfect Acoustics: Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in last weekend's charity concert in Molson Stadium.

 

While I mused over the problems and possible solutions it occurred to me that Montreal does not have a good, permanent outdoor summer concert facility. It is an odd situation considering that the city appears to experience more outdoor summer concerts than any other city on Earth.

 

Where to install it? There is a mountain and a Chalet, the esplanade of which is haunted by ghosts as formidable as Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the MSO there in 1944 and 1945. In the 1950s Alexander Brott developed a rival operation called Dominion Concerts under the Stars.

 

To build an amphitheatre anywhere on the mountain, however, would likely involve the felling of trees, an idea that now creates fierce opposition regardless of the benefit.

 

Furthermore, the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Les Francofolies are strongly integrated into the centre of the city and Place des Arts. There are idle lots in that neighbourhood, some formerly earmarked for the development of a Place du Festival. But as the destruction of the Spectrum suggests, few downtown developers view the performing arts as a priority. And even a radical arts freak would have to concede the essential oddness of a deep-downtown outdoor concert venue that is vacant nine months a year.

 

To build something as fine as the Lanaudière Amphitheatre within the city limits would also have the regrettable effect of siphoning off thousands of listeners from Lanaudière itself. Perhaps the solution to this problem, among others, is not to worry about it.

 

Russell Johnson, the American acoustician who died last week, was an international figure famed for his concert halls in Birmingham, Lucerne and Dallas. But his Artec Consultants firm had a disproportionate influence in Canada. The Domaine Forget in Charlevoix - frequently used as a recording facility - is an Artec design, as is Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary, the Chan Cultural Centre on the campus of the University of British Columbia, the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium, the Weston Recital Hall in Toronto, the hall of the Festival of the Sound in Ontario cottage country and the Bayreuth copy that is the Raffi Armenian Theatre of the Centre in the Square in Kitchener.

 

The Francis Winspear Centre in Edmonton is thought by many to be the best of all modern Canadian concert spaces. But perhaps Johnson's most astounding contribution to the cause of good acoustics in Canada was his transformation of the notorious dead space of Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto into a vibrant home for the long-suffering Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

 

"That was easy," I remember his telling me at the 2002 reopening, with a shrug. The essense of the solution was reducing the interior volume with bulkheads. Sure it was easy - for someone with Johnsons's mix of spatial instinct, musical perception and pure science.

 

Johnson long harboured a desire to build a new hall for the MSO. It appears he will realize it posthumously. The Quebec government chose Artec as the acoustical consultant for the project even before launching the competition to seek an architect.

 

Diamond Schmitt Architects, one of the firms in the running for the MSO hall design, has won a "Good Design is Good Business" citation from BusinessWeek and Architectural Record magazines for the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, a facility often referred to simply as the opera house. It was one of 10 projects cited from a competitive pool of 96 projects from nine countries.

 

 

This common-sense award honours "architects and clients who best utilize design to achieve strategic objectives," according to Helen Walters, editor of innovation and design for BusinessWeek.com. My sense is that it serves as a counterweight to the ultraflamboyant designs that tend to capture headlines.

 

The CAMMAC music centre in the Laurentians has also received an honourable mention from the Prix de l'Ordre des architectes du Québec 2007 for its new music pavillion. There will be a celebration at the site on Sept. 5.

 

Love it or not, Place des Arts is active during the summer. Carnegie Hall - despite its prestige and air-conditioned presence at Seventh Ave. and 57th St. - is completely dark through the summer of 2007 and much of September. By October, however, the place is humming.

 

The MSO used to occupy an October weekend under Charles Dutoit. During the coming season the orchestra will give one performance in the New York temple, on Saturday, March 8. Nagano conducts a program of Debussy (Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien: Symphonic Fragments), Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto), Unsuk Chin (a new work) and Scriabin (The Poem of Ecstasy). All these selections are in keeping with the orchestra's former Franco-Russian reputation.

 

If you wait six days you can then hear the Philadelphia Orchestra under its chief conductor - Charles Dutoit - in an even more MSO-ish program of Bartok (The Miraculous Mandarin Suite), Debussy (Nocturnes) and Holst (The Planets).

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