For Montreal Symphony, Shoebox Is a Grand Home
by Daniel J. Wakin | The New York Times | April 18, 2011
MONTREAL — The Montreal Symphony Orchestra, once a storied ensemble that gave blazing performances with the international maestro Charles Dutoit, lost some luster when he left amid acrimony with the players. A bitter five-month strike several years later, in 2005, took a further toll.
But now, a month before it makes a rare trip to Carnegie Hall, the orchestra is producing sounds of resurgence. Under its music director, Kent Nagano, the symphony has released a handful of recordings and gone on several tours to Europe, Asia and other sites in Canada (Hello, Nunavik!). With the orchestra’s promotion and his own energies, Mr. Nagano has built a high profile in the province of Quebec.
Now, the Montreal Symphony is ready for its next big prize: a new concert hall.
Since the early 1980s, projects to build one have come and gone, victims of changing political power, of lack of financing, of lack of will. Ground was even once broken — the ceremonial shovel remains in the basement of the orchestra’s offices. “Government after government couldn’t find the money or didn’t have the guts,” said Christine St-Pierre, Quebec’s culture minister.
But a hall is finally rising, and while work was behind schedule — much of the space looked like a raw construction site, with a forest of scaffolding filling the interior and pallets of materials lying about during a visit in early April — orchestra and Quebec government officials promise it will be ready for inaugural concerts in September.
Mr. Nagano called it “the fulfillment of a dream that the orchestra has been waiting for through its 77-year history.”
The hall’s backers say it is only right for a major city with a major orchestra to have a dedicated concert hall. Since 1963 the symphony has been playing at the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier in the city’s Place des Arts complex. The Pelletier hall is a busy 3,000-seat multipurpose auditorium — deemed too large and acoustically inadequate for an orchestra. The Montreal Symphony competes with comedians, musicals, pop acts and other shows and must hold its rehearsals in a downstairs room. It sells, on average, only two-thirds of the seats to its concerts, though many are sold out.
“It’s too big and too vast for the sound to really project well,” said Marc Béliveau, a violinist in the orchestra.
The new hall will have at most 2,100 seats, and fewer with a chorus performing. It is in shoebox form, built as an independent shell inside the surrounding buildings of the arts center and resting on rubber pads, all to reduce outside sounds from the nearby subway and traffic. Heating and air will emanate from under each seat to create more comfort and less noise.
The space from the stage to the last row of seats is a relatively intimate 75 feet, far more congenial to Haydn, Mozart and Bach. The walls will be lined with beech wood, and space in front of the stage can descend on elevators to create a pit.
It is by no means perfect. The orchestra, while the main tenant, must share programming with the Place des Arts management, although it will have the majority of nights at its disposal. The ensemble’s chief executive, Madeleine Careau, said that an agreement with the government required the Montreal Symphony to make sure attractive dates would be available to other groups in the province’s vibrant musical scene, among them the Orchestre Métropolitain, Les Violons du Roy (an early-music ensemble) and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.
Other features did not make the orchestra’s wish list: a video-camera system, a downstairs rehearsal room, a lobby boutique and an organ, though the ensemble is promising to pay for its own instrument.
As usual in Quebec, more than mere civic pride is at stake. Many here see the hall as an expression of the province’s Francophone identity and the nationalist pride Québécois take in culture. Local authorities put an emphasis on culture after many businesses fled Montreal in the wake of separatist fervor.
“There is no doubt that being a minority in a North American English environment, the Québécois are very proud of the cultural aspect,” said Monique Jérôme-Forget, a former provincial finance minister.
Culture, according to Ms. St-Pierre, the culture minister, provides “a sense of protecting our identity and language.” That identity is also making inroads in the large nation to the south. French Canadians are now or will soon be music directors at the New Jersey Symphony (Jacques Lacombe) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Another, Robert Lepage, stages shows for Cirque du Soleil (another Quebec import) and is creating the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Ring” cycle.
The Montrealers will be at Carnegie on May 14 as part of a weeklong orchestra festival — less prestigious than direct presentation by the hall, but perhaps more interesting.
The Montreal Symphony and its hall are also examples of an anomaly in the arts in North America, where private donors generally pay the bills. Quebec is the largest provider of money to the orchestra, accounting for a third of its budget of 24 million Canadian dollars (about $24.9 million). In all, public financing accounts for 11 million Canadian dollars (about $11.4 million). The province is also paying for the hall, but in a public-private partnership that is more common for public works.
SNC-Lavalin Group, a Montreal-based multinational engineering and construction firm, is in charge of financing, design, building, operation and maintenance for the hall, with the help of subcontractors, said Charles Chebl, a senior vice president for construction. Quebec will pay 75 million Canadian dollars (nearly $78 million) on completion and then yearly fees until 2038, when ownership will revert to the province. Its total outlay is expected to be 259 million Canadian dollars (about $269 million), which includes undisclosed profit for SNC-Lavalin. The architects are Diamond & Schmitt and Aedifica; Artec Consultants is handling the acoustics.
A major driving force behind the hall was Ms. Jérôme-Forget, who in 2003 became president of the provincial treasury board — which has powerful influence over financing — and later finance minister.
“It’s been a passion of mine, music,” Ms. Jérôme-Forget said in a telephone interview from her winter home in Mérida, Mexico. “Music makes society better.” As soon as she took the treasury post, “and I was holding the money, that minute I decided to go ahead with the hall,” she said.
Some fellow cabinet members objected, preferring their own pet projects, she said. “Only because I was in a position that controlled all the money, I could impose this thing.”
Ms. Jérôme-Forget said she retired in 2009, waiting until after the deal for the hall was signed. She said she plans to be at Carnegie next month.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 21, 2011
An article on Tuesday about the construction of a new concert hall for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra misspelled the name of the company handling acoustics for the space. It is Artec Consultants, not Artek.
Copyright The New York Times.
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/arts/music/for-montreal-symphony-a-new-concert-hall.html