Mehta, Mahler and the Maison Symphonique de Montréal

Not Mehta or the OSM, but Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Close enough…

Confession: I was neither familiar with Mahler’s Third Symphony, nor the city’s new concert hall, until last night. I know… for shame.*

First off, seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was a treat in and of itself (read Claude Gingras’ spot-on review in La Presse). Mehta was the conductor of the OSM from 1960 to 1967, at the time a major step in his early career and a coup for our city. Mehta then went on to become the musical director and chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later became Musical Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic. He is one of the greatest and most renown living conductors, and the thrill of the experience was palpable amongst concert-goers and musicians alike.

Second, the OSM, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the OSM’s women’s choir and Montreal and McGill children’s choirs did a superb job performing such a demanding and complex piece. The choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony was brilliant, especially given that this was a benefit concert, as (in my opinion) it allowed the OSM to demonstrate its versatility, not to mention the excellent acoustic qualities of the new concert hall. Further, as The Gazette’s Arthur Kaptainis points out, it’s the kind of piece that will appeal to the critical and impress the unfamiliar. I fall in the latter category, though I’ve been developing a greater appreciation for classical music of late.

Third, if the purpose of Tuesday night’s performance was to encourage locals to go to the symphony more often, mission accomplished… you won’t have to tell me twice. What I saw was a world-class orchestra eager to impress a living legend, and in so doing brought the house to its feet. The performance concluded with what felt like a ten minute standing ovation.

That said…

This was my first experience with the new concert hall and I’m feeling a bit let down.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine building; it’s comfortable, modern, well-lit and sounds fantastic too.

However, on the outside it’s dull to the point of being insulting to the OSM and citizens alike. Put it another way, the building’s overall aesthetic qualities don’t match the quality of the orchestra performing within. To me it looks more like Place des Arts’ music school, or a UQAM pavilion, than the home of a major symphony orchestra.

The interior of the concert hall is elegant though the ornamentation seems to me to be trying too hard to be postmodern and ‘fun’. The general aesthetic of the whole construction is of stripped down minimalism common to most projects involving Quebec government funding of late, and while it fits within the greater scheme of both Place des Arts and the Quartier des Spectacles, I still feel it’s too much of the same thing.

Perhaps my discomfort with the new concert hall is in the vein of medium and message being less than congruent; I can’t imagine a tourist would happen upon the concert hall without prompting (i.e. the location isn’t evident, being somewhat on the backside of Place des Arts) and there’s little about the building which says unequivocally what purpose it serves. It doesn’t invite the spontaneous engagement with the city’s culture, and doesn’t say anything about our own cultural values either. This is not to say that all buildings should necessarily be so explicit, but I don’t think it would hurt in this particular case.

After all, we want the OSM (and the other classical music ensembles who makes use of the space) to be cherished by the citizenry and further want a concert hall that is both distinct and recognizable for citizens and tourists alike.

It would also be nice for the most successful elements of Place des Arts to be eventually ‘unpackaged’ and re-distributed elsewhere in the city. The Quartier des Spectacles is without a doubt a successful (though somewhat contrived) urban branding initiative, but it would be unwise to distinguish one particular neighbourhood as cultural nucleus. Disingenuous too. Most of the housing within immediate proximity of Place des Arts isn’t exactly within the price range of most local artists.

In any event, I think it’s just a matter of time before the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal seeks out a new location, and there’s been talk of building an opera house since the Drapeau Era. Perhaps a larger and more distinct concert hall would follow. Were this to happen, new venues should go up outside the Quartier des Spectacles, though not outside the central core of the city.

Incidentally, I think the old Forum site at Atwater would be a great location for a large performance venue… although you’d run into the same problem trying to balance out the various requirements of what would need to be a multi-faceted, somewhat multi-purpose facility. But I don’t know enough to argue whether an opera hall could easily double as home to the OSM and serve the needs of touring Broadway productions simultaneously.

Closing notes: the interior aesthetic of the concert hall, from the audience’s perspective, is marred by the red neon emergency exit signs. It clashes with the woodwork and seems almost like an afterthought designed and installed by hurried bureaucrats. I know it’s absolutely necessary to have emergency signage, but surely it could have been a bit more subtle?

On the other side of the spectrum, the artist’s entrance at the corner of Boul. de Maisonneuve and St. Urbain has all the charm and intimacy of a loading dock office at a pharmaceutical company’s distribution warehouse. This is where the stars of the show enter the building, yet again, their entrance seems like an afterthought, far removed from the main entrance and wholly inappropriate in context given just how unimaginative it actually is.

* (In truth, now that I think about it, I had heard the symphony before, though had forgotten. I won’t forget it now and encourage you to take a listen. It’s well worth it.)

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