The new issue of Canadian Architect magazine has a dynamite article about a jewel I’ve been dying to visit since it (re-) opened in March 2007, the Palais Montcalm concert hall in Quebec City. An ambitious four-year renovation — they sunk the floor so the room could be taller, the seats sloped and the airspace more resonant — has produced a 979-seat main hall that, I’m told, is aesthetically gorgeous; sounds superb; serves as a fitting headquarters for the city’s world-renowned chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy; and consolidates Place d’Youville, just outside the St. Jean Gate to the Old City, as Quebec City’s main public square after too many years of neglect.
I thought a lot about the Palais Montcalm last week as I traipsed from venue to venue at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, which features dozens of concerts by first-rate ensembles in second-rate settings (essentially, most of the downtown core’s larger churches). Among the festival’s other delights, I got to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet three times in two days. It was a genuine pleasure to hear a band so full of skill and passion with such a broad repertoire, and it almost made up for having to line up outside, sometimes in rain, for 45 minutes before each concert to scurry toward a pew for the pleasure of uncertain sight lines and butt-numbing discomfort.
Similar experiences must have been what prompted Anthony Tommasini to write, in the New York Times last week, that “a true chamber music festival can be only as good as the performance space it occupies.”
Tommasini was referring to the Santa Fe festival, which is anchored by a really good hall. The same thought has, of course, occurred to organizers of the Ottawa festival, and to Ottawans in general who wish the city had a purpose-built concert hall that could compare with Quebec City’s Palais Montcalm or, say, Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall. (There’s the National Arts Centre, but whatever the merits of its Southam Hall, intimacy and great acoustics aren’t on the list. That’s why in cities Ottawa’s size around the world, smaller, better halls have started springing up to supplement or supplant the great big 40-year-old halls.)
That’s why a hardy band of enthusiasts, led by cellist and one-man whirlwind Julian Armour, have spent a few years trying to get a proper hall built in downtown Ottawa. They met a lot of success, lining up a venue, a private developer, an architect, and funding from all three levels of government. What didn’t work, after the Chamberfest brass and Armour had a falling out, was their attempts to get private-sector funding. Ottawa isn’t Calgary or Kitchener-Waterloo; cultural philanthropy hasn’t been popular among the city’s more affluent locals.
The Chamberfest brass having failed to line up donors on the scale they needed to make the concert-hall project real, Julian Armour has decided to try again. This autumn, with some prominent Ottawans, Julian will launch a private-sector funding drive to get a truly excellent concert hall made in Ottawa. (The project still depends on previously-announced government funding as well.) So far they have a website. I plan to be one of the Ottawa residents pitching in, as a volunteer, to help make this project happen.