September 11 was the inaugural children's concert for Montreal's newest concert hall. Five years after the project was approved, and 266 million dollars later, La Maison Symphonique is open for business! I bought our tickets in June, some of the last available in the balcony, and waited all summer in anticipation of the opening. I read the less-than-stellar reviews of the grand opening first show and Beethoven's ninth, but was not discouraged, and on the Sunday I got everyone dressed up and we headed downtown. By the time we got there, the kids and I were pretty excited. There was a lot of activity around the area with the Marathon des Arts festival happening at Quartier des Spectacles, with free tours of the hall being held to draw people in.
Approaching the hall, it is obvious that the building is not finished. Bare plywood and make-shift ramps are everywhere and the windows at the back reveal insulation, ducts, pipes, and general construction. Inside, the reception areas are sparsely furnished and airy. The spaces do not appear as large as Salle Willfrid Pelletier though, which makes me wonder how the traffic around the bars during intermissions will fair. Narrower stairs and escalators reside where I think that a wide staircase should have been. Elevators are also present, and the design seems beautifully thought out for wheelchair accessibility. I also spied some back stairs which will be no doubt ugly but will afford an easier escape. Both kids were delighted with the open space, running around an empty top reception level before heading into the concert hall. The glass walls made the space during a matinee bright and the hanging wooden sculptures are charming and set the tone for inside. The inside of the concert hall is finished, and is beautiful despite the outgassing of wood and upholstery. The light beech wood contrasted with the metal is clean and modern and a dramatic change from the weight and dark of the older Place des Arts halls, although I question the creamy white seat fabric which may be overly hopeful and ill-though-out by the designers.
We found our seats and settled near the middle at the top of the shoebox. Even on the balcony, the stage does not seem as distant. And the view is impressive indeed: 1900 seats and room for 120 musicians and 200 singers. The choir area can also be used for spectators, and being able to surround the performers allows for more seating and makes the music more of a community event. Everything about the new design seems more relaxed and casual and inviting.
The concert began without a lot of ceremony and Nagano appeared with two young female pianists, one his daughter, for Saint-Saen's Carnival of the Animals. Naomi's attention was very short-lived, and I had to start hissing at her almost immediately, but Ben and I were entranced and I tried as much as possible to point out which animals were being imitated so they could follow along. Peter and the Wolf was next and Naomi was constantly asking what was happening, sometimes quite loudly as I tried to quietly translate the narration for her. The last was a ballet by Debussy which was performed by École supérieure de ballet du Québec students and which was simply too long to hold the attention of children, or adults for that matter. In addition to the restless youngsters, I saw more than one parent checking their smartphones. I think opting for a shorter excerpt from a ballet and finishing with a more dramatic musical selection would have been more appropriate for the audience. I still remember the thrill my children got from the Queen of the Night's aria last year and going back many years to another children's concert, the Star Wars theme which left small boys humming down the stairs enthusiastically and perhaps considering a career in music.
Now, the sound. Yes, it is not life changing. In my opinion, it will take about a year to tune the room completely. I don't think that this is a failure, it is a process. There is simply no way to perfect a sound for every size orchestra and every type of music and different audience sizes without playing in the hall and tweeking. The sound baffles (nine motorized canopies that move individually) are designed to be adjusted and the hall was acoustically well planned, so even though there will have to be some changes made, eventually the sound will evolve to meet the expectations of the conductors and the audience members. I didn't find the sound muddy, but from the balcony it was dulled, and didn't seem to hit the audience with enough resonance. I want to sit in different areas and see what else is happening on lower levels of the room. Luckily, I think that the initial reviews may mean that tickets will be readily available this season, hopefully at discounts.