Naomi Lewin, WQXR Host
Naomi Lewin is the weekend host on WQXR, and host of the weekly podcast Conducting Business.
I’m guessing that there weren’t acrobats involved when Avery Fisher Hall was inaugurated (as Philharmonic Hall), or at the inauguration of Helsinki’s new Music Center last week. But Montreal is home to several world-famous acrobatic ensembles, so when the Montreal Symphony opened its new home to the public, the festivities included acrobats from the Cirque Éloize. Officially, the hall is known as the Maison Symphonique de Montréal – even English-speaking broadcasters in the largest city in the francophone Canadian province of Quebec refer to it as the “Maison Symphonique.”
Creating the new hall involved both a global village, and an eye (or should that be ear?) to “locavore” construction. Chief architect Jack Diamond, of Toronto, wanted to integrate the building fully into the city, accessible by foot, subway, and car. Artec Consultants of New York (assisted by Robert Essert, a sound consultant based in London) were in charge of ensuring a warm and inviting aural experience for every seat. And the Montreal Symphony’s music director, Kent Nagano, who grew up in California as the son of an architectural engineer, wanted the hall to “sound like Quebec.”
So the walls inside the Maison Symphonique are lined with luminous Quebec beech, the matching light-toned seats were manufactured in Quebec, and come 2014, there will be a magnificent new organ by Cassavant Frères, a world-famous Quebec organ builder. The hall seats 1,900, with room for 200 more paying customers behind the orchestra, when the program doesn’t call for a chorus – which it did on opening night.
For that program, Kent Nagano also went local – and global, starting with three pieces by Quebec composers. Each one demonstrated a different aspect of the hall: Claude Vivier’s Jesus Erbarme Dich, was for chorus and soprano solo; Gilles Tremblay’s Envol: Alléluia, was for solo flute; and finally – when everyone was bursting to hear how an orchestra sounded in the place, the Montreal Symphony let loose with the world premiere of Qu’un Cri Élève Nos Chants, commissioned for the occasion from Julien Bilodeau. And after that: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
So how does the Maison Symphonique sound? Reviews in the papers were mixed: La Presse proclaimed “even the silences are beautiful,” while Le Devoir complained that “at this point, the sound lacks attack, presence, clarity, warmth and life.” “At this point” are the operative words – the ceiling is made up of adjustable panels, and they’re still experimenting with them to achieve the right balance. And at this point, the hall is also so live that every single sound coming from the audience (a cough, a chair scrape, and yes – even a cell phone) is amplified.
After the concert, I spoke with some members of the orchestra. First and foremost, they were thrilled that they could finally hear each other onstage, which was definitely not the case in the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, where they used to perform. And when I complimented Marie-André Chevrette, the associate principal second violinist, on the glowing sound she and her section achieved in third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, she said that it will probably be another year before they’ve figured out how to adjust all the acoustic ceiling panels to achieve sonic Nirvana for all. She confirmed that the hall is now kinder to some players than others, which I had heard. Low strings gain added warmth, while higher-pitched instruments like flutes and oboes lose some of the roundness in their tone.
So where did the acrobats come in? Well, immediately after the inaugural concert in the Maison Symphonique (where “le tout” Quebec had assembled, dressed to the neufs), out on the plaza next door, “le reste” of Montreal, from university students to senior citizens, enjoyed a multi-screen broadcast of the program. When they got to Beethoven’s Ninth, out came the acrobats: trapeze, trampoline, jugglers – who for the grand finale, even juggled fire. Götterfunken, indeed.
Kent Nagano on what he sought in a new hall:
Photos: 1) Acrobats from the Cirque Éloize; 2) Kent Nagano leads the Montreal Symphony (LuceTG.com)