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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 5

Edmontonís New Winspear Centre

by Martin Kamela / February 1, 1998

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A Christmas performance of Handel's Messiah gave me a chance to evaluate the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's new permanent home in the $50 million Winspear Centre.

For years the Edmonton Symphony, like the Montreal Symphony, had suffered from performing in a large multi-purpose space, the 2600-seat Jubilee Auditorium, with many of the same negative characteristics as Montreal's Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, including relatively dead, uneven acoustics and serious sound dispersion. Under such conditions, even a fabulous performance can make for an acoustically dull listening experience, with the resultant loss of audiences and a decline in musiciansí morale.

Edmonton's new Winspear Centre is a vast improvement over the previous facitilities. From the first notes I was struck by the excellent sound projection: even the reduced orchestra of 40 musicians amply filled the hall with reverberant, warm sound. From my seat at the very back of the first balcony the sound of four cellos and two double basses easily matched the intensity and volume of the entire Montreal Symphony string sections in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. The Winspear Centre's sound is clear and moist, with a slow decay time which I found almost too long. However, according to ESO publicist Ms. Dana McKort, the textured concrete walls can easily be covered by banners to reduce reverberance. The features of the hall which are primarily responsible for the good acoustics are the shoe-box shape ó it is as high as it is wide ó and the modest seating capacity of 1900, including 200 in the choir lofts. The New York firm Artec consultants, also involved in the recent concert hall projects in Kitchener-Waterloo and Calgary, were responsible for the admirable acoustics.

The funding and building of the new centre raised public consciousness of the Edmonton Symphony and brought the city out in full support of its premiere ensemble. The Winspear Centre's good acoustics have attracted a new public to the orchestra. Subscriptions are up, many ESO performances sell out and, as in the case of the Messiah, additional performances are scheduled to meet demand.

The lesson Montreal can learn from the Winspear Centre is obvious: if Edmonton, with fewer than a million inhabitants, can give its orchestra a new home, surely Montreal can provide its world-class orchestra with the performing space it deserves.

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