For $261 Million Montreal Hall Has Quebec Beech, Bland Exterior

La Maison Symphonique de Montreal
The 2,100-seat auditorium at La Maison symphonique de Montreal. Architect Diamond and Schmitt lined the hall with beech wood. Nine acoustical panels over the stage can adjust the sound. Photographer: Tom Arban/Orchestre symphonique de Montreal via Bloomberg

Unfinished walls and raw-wood handrails greeted patrons at the new home of the Montreal Symphony on the evening of its inaugural concert last week. At least the auditorium was ready for its big night -- barely.

The stakes were high. Beyond the estimated $261 million cost (C$259 million), a poor opening night can be disastrous.

Think of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, which opened with a garish gala and before the complicated adjustable acoustics were ready. The misfire contributed to the image problems and financial distress of one of America’s greatest orchestras.

La Maison Symphonique de Montreal is a Kimmel descendant. The same theater-planning and acoustical firm, Manhattan-based Artec, largely dictated the shape of both venues.

Rather than collaborate with the architect, Toronto-based Diamond and Schmitt, Artec insisted on handing in a fully developed design for the room and its acoustics. Principal Jack Diamond hired his own acoustician, Robert Essert, of London-based Sound Space, who made adjustments.

It will be months before the true character of the hall reveals itself. The tunable elements comprise nine wavelike white panels hanging from the ceiling that can be raised and lowered.

That’s far fewer than Kimmel, yet there has been almost no time to fiddle with them.

The idea is for the orchestra to choose configurations appropriate to, say, a Baroque piece or Mahler.

Music Director Kent Nagano showed off the hall’s dynamics with three pieces by Quebec composers and Beethoven’s Ninth. Whispered flute notes floated in “Envol: Alleluia,” composed by Gilles Tremblay. In the burnished and enveloping grandeur of the Beethoven, the room helped the music bloom.

Restrained Informality

Gently undulating walls of honey-colored Quebec beech taper inward to wrap the broad stage of the 2,100-seat auditorium. Three rear balconies rise above the orchestra to push those seats much closer to the stage than a more conventional so-called shoebox hall, like Boston’s, does.

The side walls are scalloped with narrow balconies that bow outward, extending them along both sides of the stage.

There’s no gilt proscenium scribed with curlicues so the stage feels nestled within the audience.

Though Frank Gehry’s spectacular Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles builds anticipation in a way Montreal’s room fails to do, Diamond’s restraint pays off in an informality that invites the audience to listen. He avoids the glitzy chandeliers and lugubrious velvet that suggest elderly eras replete with fur-stoled dowagers.

Concrete Bunkers

Outside, Diamond beckons passersby with a vitrine that showcases patrons milling on four tiers of lobbies wrapped in glass. But the bland building shrinks in the face of the assertive mediocrity of its neighboring concrete bunkers, the bombastic Place des Arts collection of culture palaces.

With an unassuming entrance on St. Urbain, a side street, the hall at least opens the Place des Arts to a lively entertainment district that has grown around it. You can follow your Mozart with a jazz-club chaser.

To avoid delays and cost overruns, the Quebec government handed off most of the design and all construction, financing and management of the building to a consortium called SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

I’m skeptical of buying architectural apples and financial oranges in one big package. If the proposed cost looks good while the architecture is only so-so, guess what wins.

So I am left wondering if the building’s underpowered urban presence may be one of the tradeoffs accepted to make the whole package work. Artec was so concerned about maintaining the integrity of its design that it insisted on not being part of the consortium.

Arts organizations, starved for building-project cash, will watch this privatized-management idea closely.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Island Press recently pubblished his book, “The Agile City.”)

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