Concert hall architect is open minded

 
September 3, 2011
Every work week at Diamond and Schmitt Architects ends with an internal presentation of a project, which is then opened to general discussion by the team.

"They wanted the hall to be completely transparent," Jack Diamond said of the younger associates in the firm. "I had to tell them that certain practicalities - such as dressing rooms - forbid this."

So the new facility that opens Wednesday after a wait of more than 30 years will not offer passersby the spectacle of Kent Nagano and the musicians of the MSO changing from their civvies into concert tails. But all that democratic input from the youth wing of his company persuaded Diamond to make the substantially glass-clad east wall even more visually open to pedestrians on St. Urbain St. and the adjacent square.

"We were at pains to put the arts on the street," Diamond recently explained in his Toronto office. "Street life, to me, is the essence of urban life."

At 78, this South-African-born Canadian has acquired an enviable reputation for adapting his ideals to the demands of reality, or, more precisely, finding an ideal fulfilment of the practical need.

"The approach of ideologues and amateurs is substantially the same," Diamond says, not scrupling to mention such celebrities as Daniel Liebeskind among the former.

"The amateur will see a château in Europe and say, 'I'd like that,' regardless of the site. The ideologue will say: 'I want to do this. I have this idea.'

"Neither takes into account the real purpose of the project."

The fact of the matter is that the new home of the MSO - and other Montreal ensembles - was destined to be wedged into a distinctly rectangular plot at the northeast corner of Place des Arts. It would have been folly to lift the structure above the street onto an aristocratic pedestal of the sort that supports the Théâtre Maisonneuve to the south.

As for that partly transparent east wall, its array of interior pillars, walkways (and, eventually, a hanging tubular sculpture) will not only make a democratic statement but create an animated visual terminus for pedestrians and motorists gazing down de Maisonneuve Blvd. Diamond was mortified by the prospect of an opaque, exclusionary wall at the end of this vista.

To discuss the concert hall with Diamond - locked in a triumvirate with Artec Consults, the acoustical and theatrical designers, and the engineering firm SNC Lavalin - is to toggle between the workaday and the sublime.

He is passionate about the lofty, open lobby, a kind of theatre in its own right. The space does not discriminate between patrons who pay more or less for their tickets, as do the segregated balconies and closed intermission chambers of Salle Wilfrid Pelletier and most classic halls.

"You can wander from level to level," Diamond said. "There is no hierarchy based on the price of the seats."

Inside, the spectator is likely to be struck by the asymmetrical array of organ pipes above the choir loft, a precursor of the real thing, which probably will be installed by the MSO sometime in the 2013-14 season. The hardwood interior walls are visually soothing yet animated by a pattern of horizontal slats.

"It's fantastically regional in its materiality," Diamond says, referring to the Quebec beech within and Quebec granite without.

Yet the architect appears to take equal pride in details as industrial as his decision to reduce the insulating acoustic buffer zone beneath the stage from the project-specified depth of three metres to one metre, thus aligning the loading bay with the street.

"Do you know how much easier this makes things, how much time that saves?" he asks.

Air will circulate slowly and silently in the interior from vents beneath the ergonomically correct seats. Air quality, Diamond points out, has a little-acknowledged influence on concentration and the concert experience. At the very least, patrons will be grateful for the absence of the hair-dryer whooshing that periodically infiltrates the Corbeille level of Salle Wilfrid Pelletier.

In this respect and a few others, the New Concert Hall (so called until Quebec's Commission de toponymie approves an alternative) resembles the Four Seasons Centre opera house opened in 2006 in Toronto. Some commentators initially complained that this sleek structure (like the New Concert Hall, tightly fitted into its downtown footprint and visually open) was not a curvy signature building to compare with Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Soon enough it was apparent that this place, with its superb sightlines, clear acoustics and coolly elegant lobby, was exactly what it needed to be: an excellent venue for the Canadian Opera Company. Valery Gergiev, the director of the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, was so impressed by it that he personally invited Diamond to enter the competition for the company's new opera house.

Such authorities are apt to judge performance spaces primarily with their ears. To find an acoustically satisfactory home for the MSO was, of course, the core rationale of the project.

That is why the provincial corporation overseeing what is certainly Quebec's most glamorous publicprivate-partnership retained Artec as a kind of acoustical supervisor even before making a call for tenders. Founded by the late Russell Johnson, this New-York-based firm takes credit for such success stories as the Lucerne concert hall, the Harpa hall in Reykjavik, the Winspear Centre in Edmonton and Domaine Forget in Charlevoix. Torontonians also revere Artec for its acoustical upgrade of the formerly deadly Roy Thomson Hall.

A traditional shoebox design was decreed from the beginning for Montreal. Diamond had no quarrel with this: The shoebox communicated classic structure, an excellent platform for modernist elaboration. Indeed, his colleague Matthew Lella, the hands-on project architect, argues that an abundance of curves has turned the shoebox into a racing car.

Artec halls usually have an array of adjustable sonic reflectors hanging from the ceiling. The new hall is no exception. These canopies can be lifted for big orchestral nights or lowered for intimate chamber evenings. Either way, Artec managing partner Tateo Nakajima expects the results to be excellent.

"One signature of an Artec room is an environment with clarity and reverberance," he said from New York. "Most rooms tend to have one quality or the other: Clarity comes from cutting down the reverberance. We try to get both."

One means of pursuing this double major was to alternate smooth and textured surfaces on the interior wall. Polished beech slats are mixed with plaster that is rough to the touch.

"We're shaping a balance of flat surfaces that allow reflection of complete information," Nakajima explained from New York, "along with bumpy surfaces that break up the sound and allow it to blend."

Diamond and Nakajima have not seen eye to eye on everything. Diamond even engaged Bob Essert, a former Artec acoustician who founded his own company, Sound Space Design, to make some recommendations of his own.

Seating was one battleground. The architect wanted traditional aisles that facilitate socializing as patrons enter and exit the hall. Nakajima held out for the uninterrupted "continental" layout that places the maximum number of seats in premium position.

Nakajima won that tussle. (He reminds MSO subscribers with unhappy memories of the long sideways shuffle to the middle of the parterre of Salle Wilfrid Pelletier that the new hall is much less wide.)

While the MSO is designated the principal tenant of the hall and given 240 days to play with, it is by no means the only one. The Orchestre Métropolitain, which for years was difficult to compare directly to the MSO because it performed more often in Théâtre Maisonneuve than Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, will now be housed in the same allrevealing room. Show One, an independent impresario with links to the Russian expatriate community in Montreal, will present a Tchai-kovsky program by the Maryinsky Orchestra under Gergiev on Oct. 22.

Even Les Violons du Roy and the McGill Chamber Orchestra are moving into the new hall (although they will also perform concerts in the fledgling 444-seat Bourgie Hall next to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). Pro Musica, a venerable presenter of solo and chamber programs that have generally attracted mid-three-figures to the Théâtre Maisonneuve, will see how the new hall enhances its subscriber base.

The first Pro Musica concert on Oct. 10 features a headline artist, violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who does not come cheap.

"Our subscriptions are more expensive this year," Pro Musica managing director Monique Dubé confessed. "But we believe that the ambience and the acoustics will be such a treat that people will be pleased to pay more."

Only the 800 seats of the parterre will normally be available for chamber concerts, although the upper levels could be opened if demand permits.

The Ladies' Morning Musical Club is staying put in Pollack Hall. We shall see if any of its famously loyal subscribers drift to the new hall on the afternoon of Sept. 11 for an MSO-presented chamber concert by the Borodin String Quartet.

With all the euphoria attending the opening, it is hard to perceive any concert presented in the new hall as a risk. Initial word of mouth concerning its acoustical qualities is excellent. The likelihood of a flop on Wednesday is low.

Briefly abandoning his characteristic reserve, Nagano sums up the prospect succinctly: "This is a dream come true."




Concert hall architect is open minded

By Arthur Kaptainis - Montreal Gazette