Will the Montreal Symphony Really Get a New Hall? Canadian Media Seem Skeptical

Classic Arts News   Will the Montreal Symphony Really Get a New Hall? Canadian Media Seem Skeptical
Quebec premier Jean Charest and his colleagues announced with some fanfare last week plans for a new concert hall for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM). But local journalists have heard such promises more than once before, and reports of the announcement reflected skepticism that the project will ever be completed.

The Globe and Mail, for instance, observed that this is the seventh time in two decades that a Quebec government has promised a new hall for the OSM.

The OSM currently performs at the downtown Place des Arts complex in the multi-use Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, which has long been criticized for poor acoustics and amenities. Indeed, when Kent Nagano, who begins this fall his term as the OSM's music director, accepted the post, he publicly stressed the importance of a new purpose-built home for the orchestra.

At the June 27 press conference, according to the Globe, Charest promised that Quebec will spend C$105 million for the hall, and provincial culture minister Line Beauchamp claimed that the project will not be abandoned like its predecessors. There is a clear plan, she said, stipulating that a private developer design and construct the hall at the Place des Arts to the orchestra's specifications (1,900 seats, shoebox shape) and that the Quebec government will pay the developer $C105 million during the course of a 40-year lease, at the end of which the province will own the building.

The Globe pointed out, however, that there is as yet no private partner for the venture. While public-private partnerships for such capital projects are familiar in the U.S., they are new to Quebec.

The Montreal Gazette also said that local music lovers shouldn't hold their breath. The hall is projected to be completed in 2011, but no architect or general contractor has been selected. Acoustical development for the building has been assigned, however — to Artec, the U.S. firm headed by Russell Johnson that is responsible for the sound in such admired venues as the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and the Francis Winspear Centre in Edmonton. The firm also developed the acoustics in Verizon Hall at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center and the renovated (and greatly improved) Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.

The francophone press was similarly unconvinced. Le Devoir's report, headlined "A hypothetical hall," cited a number of unanswered questions about the project: whether the developer or the Place des Arts would be responsible for the new building's maintenance; which entity would keep the parking garage receipts; why the Charest administration should even need a private builder to keep construction timetables and costs under control when that is presumably the job of the government and the Place des Arts themselves. The paper even argued that it's not entirely clear that the OSM really needs a new performance space: "After all, even if the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier doesn't have all the characteristics of a concert hall for a symphony orchestra, it does its job well enough."

In La Presse, commentator Michel C. Auger observed, "Over 25 years, one can no longer count the plans [for a new OSM concert hall], which all have one thing in common: they were presented toward the end of one government's mandate and were immediately abandoned by the following government."

Auger sees some hope, however, that this time will be different: if the current Liberal government is re-elected, it will have ample motivation to see its own project through and thus to demonstrate the workability of the public-private partnership concept in Quebec. And if the opposition Parti Qu_b_cois should take power? The head of the OSM's board of directors is Lucien Bouchard, the former Quebec premier and by far the most popular of the PQ's recent leaders.

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