Where can we expect to hear performances of classical music these days? In a concert hall, most likely – a gleaming culture palace with cushy seats and finely calibrated acoustics. Or maybe in a church, especially if the music is sacred in nature.
Marketing ploys and publicity stunts? Yes, some of these performances are exactly that. But often they’re expressions of a growing sense in the classical music world that the art form needs to renovate its stuffy, old-fashioned image and reach out to new audiences. It’s an engagement strategy based on the idea that context matters – that an arrestingly unusual venue can alter the way a classical concert is perceived.
Which brings us to the Hearn Generating Station: a massive structure on a remote patch of Toronto’s port lands. Opened in 1951 as a coal-burning power-plant, it was shut down in 1983. Today, its scarred and gutted interior is an empty shell of iron, concrete and brick.
This year, Luminato – Toronto’s annual arts festival – decided to use the Hearn as its performance venue. And that’s how the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which puts together a concert for Luminato every year, found itself playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 inside a former power generating station on Tuesday evening (June 21).
There are some people in the classical music business who hope that performing in a funky place like the Hearn will attract a new and different kind of audience. Looking around at the crowd who showed up for the concert, that seems as though it’s an iffy proposition. And there are others who hope that once new audiences take a liking to what they hear, they’ll become regular attendees at classical concerts. That seems to be an even iffier proposition.
But the TSO’s performance made a strong case for the idea that context can have a profound impact on an artistic experience. When you put something as rich in symbolism as Beethoven’s Fifth inside a strange space with its own powerful symbolism, something will surely happen.
Beethoven symphonies are a “core competency” for professional orchestras like the TSO: it’s what they do best. And under music director Peter Oundjian, the ensemble gave as fine a performance as you might hope to hear at Roy Thomson Hall, the orchestra’s home.
Yet, it didn’t feel the same. And that was a good thing.
The Hearn seemed to generate an energy that illuminated Beethoven’s iconic symphony. The performance sizzled with electricity, transformed and transmitted by its surroundings. As well, the sheer size of the building – it’s large enough to contain a dozen Parthenons – reinforced the architectural grandeur of Beethoven’s masterpiece.
The Hearn is a ruin, but its dilapidated state only enhanced the glories of the music. Surrounded by decay, Beethoven’s Fifth unfolded like a graceful lotus in a muddy pond.
It would be wonderful if this sort of thing always worked – if placing classical music in a strikingly novel venue invariably led to an enhanced experience. However, the other piece the TSO played demonstrated that an unlikely venue doesn’t always help.
The orchestra’s performance of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris was almost entirely unaffected by the Hearn. Although Oundian injected the TSO’s performance with a jazzy swagger, there was no special chemistry between the venue and the music. Indeed, the only apparent difference the building made was that some of subtler touches of the orchestration got lost in the cavernous space above the stage.
The Hearn is nobody’s concert hall: it’s in an impossible location, it’s sorely lacking in amenities, and it’s unclear if Luminato and the TSO will return to it in coming years.
But the symbiosis between the Hearn and Beethoven was a vivid and palpable force. For the Fifth Symphony, the mothballed power station went back on line.
© Colin Eatock 2016