The Great Culture Count-Down

29 September 2014 — Five minutes on the clock, from the moment you start to play or sing. Choose a work of appropriate length because, if you are still performing when the clock reads 0:00 …  you will be gonged. Literally. One is right there on the stage, as part of the supplied battery of percussive instruments.

Culture Days clock, Koerner Hall


Sounds like a reprieve of a long-ago American TV show, The Gong Show, in which hapless contestants could be gonged off-stage for being bloody awful, rather than lengthy.

But it isn’t. This event is something much more warm-hearted — and with much better artistry — than that.

It is early Saturday afternoon & I am seated in Koerner Hall. This concert venue has been the performance jewel of the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) since 2009,  when an inspired restoration/expansion project united heritage & new architecture in one teaching/rehearsal/performance complex.

Not only that, I am sitting here free of charge — me & everyone else in the audience — compliments of the RCM’s involvement in this weekend’s Culture Days.

How neat is this? All sorts of events around town, and I zeroed in on this one. Noon to 3 p.m., says the promo, a stream of 5-minute acoustic performances of all types will take place, so come on in, plunk yourself down, & listen up.

The RCM, for all its Victorian heritage, had invited musicians via the latest social media — first come / first registered was the deal, no auditions, and yes they could also just turn up and hope to substitute for someone whose cold feet left a hole in the line-up.

I love Koerner Hall. I love the architecture, I love the sound, I love the experience, I cannot think of a better focus for my Saturday walk, and if it means more blissful sitting & listening than blissful walking — so what? Do you, Gentle Reader, care? Will you slap my wrist? Confiscate my boot laces? I think not.

I walk north & west, through Queen’s Park (park), then across Queen’s Park (road) onto Hoskin, then north on Philosopher’s Walk. Yes — headed for the Alexandra Gates at Bloor, where I watched that man practise inukshuk-building during my Bye-Bye Summer walk. West on Bloor, and there it is, the front-entrance façade of the RCM: solid old Victorian pile plus its 21st-c. addition at the far (west) end.

Royal Conservatory of Music, 273 Bloor St. West

Some of the city’s old/new architecture combinations work really well, and this is one of them. Toronto-based KPMB Architects didn’t try to ape Victoriana, they created a wholly contemporary, & complementary, L-shaped addition along the west and south sides of the heritage building.

You see the south side from Philosopher’s Walk — most notably the glass walls of the Koerner Hall lobby & its glass balcony stretching out to the Walk below.

Koerner Hall balcony from Philosopher's Walk, RCM

From Philosopher’s Walk you can also see how the new structure joins the old, in a 3-storey wrap that transforms the old external wall into one side of a new enclosed space.

RCM side entrance, from Philosopher's Walk

At the lowest level, it becomes a skylit pedestrian courtyard, complete with a “sidewalk” café.

interior courtyard, RCM

Look up for the equally skylit walkways between old building & new. They always put me in mind of the bridges over Venetian canals, maybe it’s the shimmer of the glass, of light upon the glass.

the RCM walkways, old building to new

I make a silent “Later” promise to the café, and instead follow the ramp upward, past cases of heritage instruments, to Koerner Hall itself.

ramp to Koerner Hall lobby, in RCM

My camera, as you will shortly discover, cannot do justice to the Hall’s interior. Since it is a space that deserves justice, I grabbed these twinned shots from the KPMB site, photo credit Tom Arban.

Koerner Hall, photo credit Tom Arban

Yes. Here I am, all tucked up in such beauty, open to whatever music may come my way.

The MC — a Conservatory staffer, by the sounds of it — is good: friendly without being gooey, informed without being stuffy, able to welcome each participant with encouraging words while also making sure those 5-minute performances keep right on rolling along.

What a mix, from music students to various levels & types of performers, amateur and professional; jazz & folk & classical & baroque & even nursery rhyme; solo & group; a cappella & accompanied; clarinet & piano & cello & violin & voice & guitar.

One performer is, but so gently, gonged.

Culture Days, in Koerner Hall

No, not this one. This shot just shows you how the process works. (And now you know my camera’s inadequacy, in such circumstances. Note, too, that cameras are permitted today only, as part of Culture Days.)

Some moments stick in mind. This introduction, for example: after welcoming two pianists about to play a four-handed selection on one piano, and asking the young woman which piece (part of Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody), the MC turns to the young man and asks, “And what are you going to play?” Poor young man! Took him a beat to recognize the joke.

Then there’s the audience participation after a jazz musician announces she will play something by Oscar Peterson (an RCM grad, by the way). Her choice provokes the MC to ask us: “In what neighbourhood, of what city, did Oscar Peterson grow up?” Do you know? Were you here beside me, could you shout, “St. Henri, Montreal!” ? If so, you might win the concert tickets. Well, you’re not here, but it turns out that quite a few people who are, also know the answer.  The prize goes to the loudest set of lungs among them.

Two more moments, each involving a last-minute substitute for a no-show. First, an extraordinarily self-possessed little girl, her party dress ruffles bouncing gently as she walks on stage, clutching her child-sized cello. “I will play two variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” she announces, and she does. We melt.

The other last-minute substitute is a young man who says he will sing a work by the bel canto composer, Vincenzo Bellini. His pianist begins, the young man begins — and we all snap upright in our chairs. He is a powerhouse, his voice soars to fill the 1,135-seat venue in a way that not even the day’s choirs have been able to achieve.

Not only that, he is singing … what is he singing? What is that range?

A standing ovation follows, the only one of the day. The MC calls him over for a few post-performance words — not part of the routine, but called for. We learn that he sings Male Soprano (“Close to Counter-Tenor, but there is a distinction”); we also learn about his specialized training. “Where did you study? Are you a Conservatory grad?” asks the MC. “Actually,” replies the young man, “I graduated in Commerce from U of T.”

His music has already brought down the house. This answer does it all over again.

Finally, finally, I pull myself out of that chair and start downstairs toward the café & the Philosopher’s Walk exit.

pedestrian courtyard, looking toward Philosopher's Walk exit

Late-lunch time, I decide, and stop long enough for a bowl of black bean chipotle soup.

And then out.

side patio, RCM, on Philosopher's Walk

Past a performer’s music case, propped up here while she buys her espresso; past the father corralling his helmeted daughter onto the back of their tandem bike. Back down Philosopher’s Walk, and home.

Not much walking — but a great afternoon.


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  1. A great post! What a special gift to the community to offer a free concert at the RCM…and I must visit the building you described so eloquently. The story of the young singer at the end was delightful – thanks.

    • What’s that a great idea? Koerner Hall, always such a treat. I think I’d watch performing fleas there, if they handed me a ticket

  2. Wow Penny, what a wonderful building……the new perfectly complimenting and enhancing the old. That’s stunning work, and the long cafe under the gleaming white bridges is marvellous. I’m not a big fan of much modern architecture, but this is really beautiful.

    • What I like here is the successful combination of old with new. It doesn’t always work (and I’m thinking of a local example I truly hate), but when it does, I am always delighted.

  3. As always your post is so readable – would have loved to hear the young man sing – what a gift. The old and new works well – I agree.

    • He was electrifying, that’s just what I was hoping to convey — the audience otherwise relaxed and very generous, given the nature of the day & the range of performers, and then suddenly this! we did indeed snap upright in our seats

  1. The Great Culture Count-Down | Effervescent Francois!

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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

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