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November 23, 2000



Oscar Peterson Concert Hall.


by Anna Bratulic

Singers from the Concordia University Chorus, dressed in elegant black, waited backstage at the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall for their final performance of the semester to begin.

“This is not a bad crowd for a Concordia concert,” said one member, peeking out at about 150 people in the 570-seat hall. “Well, it’s a big choir. Everybody can bring at least one person.”

The idea that a low audience turnout is an expected scenario at Concert Hall events is somewhat troubling, considering that the Hall relies on outside rentals to supplement its operating budget. A reputation like that might deter prospective artists from renting the place out for live performances if they think it will be difficult to get people to travel all the way to residential Notre-Dame-de-Grace.

That was a choice that electric guitarist Tim Brady and his band Bradyworks had to make when they were deciding where to launch their CD. The band plays contemporary classical chamber music, a style that caters to a specialized market.

Although a downtown concert might mean more ticket sales for the same amount of promotion, Brady and his colleagues were willing to give the Concert Hall a try.

About 100 people attended the launch in October. The members of the band decided that the hall was good enough for another show on February 14. “We felt that it was worth the agony of having to call up everybody to attend,” Brady said.

The hall is known for its excellent acoustics. “On stage, you can hear extremely well what other people are doing. It’s a very clear and detailed sound,” Brady said. In many performance spaces, musicians just play or sing the way they practiced, hoping that by the time the sound reaches the audience, it sounds right.

“This place is designed for sound,” said Oscar Peterson stage manager John Davis. “This is an acoustically near-perfect concert hall. Any music that’s primarily acoustic sounds wonderful here.”

That’s in large part due to the presence of the moveable acoustic panels that cover the walls. One side is made of wood — good for reflecting sound. The other side is covered in a thick material — good for absorbing sound.

“We can, to some extent, fine-tune the sound of the hall to what’s happening on stage,” Davis explained. For example, during a loud concert where sound waves would be bouncing off the walls and interfering with one another, the panels would be positioned with the fabric facing the audience, for maximum absorption.

Designed by the same architects who did the Molson Centre, the Concert Hall officially opened in January 1990 and was primarily intended for use by the Music Department. It broke from the tradition of cavernous music halls that dotted the city.

“Montreal had an extremely reverberant performance tradition, probably due to the large number of churches in which people would perform,” said Mark Corwin, chair of the Music Department. “In those venues, “you get the music wallowing around in its own reverberation, whereas here, you’ll hear the music and not the hall.”

While Corwin agrees that while there might be some difficulty filling seats at some Concert Hall shows, he doesn’t think that location is necessarily the primary reason. The lack of a healthy advertising budget prevents many shows from being fully promoted.

Concert Hall director Neil Schwartzman said that some concerts, especially student ones, are always going to have difficulty drawing large crowds, but big-name shows at the Hall are often filled to capacity.

Rentals are also not usually a problem. This holiday season, for example, the Hall is booked solid, keeping it open, literally, 24 hours a day. Schwartzman also believes there are advantages to a west-end location. “Our competition is focused on downtown and the Plateau. They have their markets quite clearly defined. We, on the other hand, are right at the epicenter of some of the wealthiest cities in Canada.

“I pity those other halls that are so far from the West Island. They may have location, but we have parking!”