Unseen City: Roy Thomson Hall
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Unseen City: Roy Thomson Hall

Behind the stage of one of Toronto's most loved music venues.

Unseen City goes where the public can’t.

Roy Thomson Hall as viewed from the seating area.

When modifications to Roy Thomson Hall’s interior were announced in 2000, Arthur Erickson, the building’s original architect, was incensed with an intensity particular to misunderstood artists—and screaming infants.

“I am deeply grieved that this could happen while I am still in practice and known to have the flexibility to respond to modifications demanded by the passage of time,” he wrote in a letter to the Globe. (The renovation was to be overseen by KPMB Architects in consultation with acoustical-design consultant Artec, rather than by Erickson.)

Erickson’s letter continues: “I question the wisdom of proceeding on a course that contradicts the whole concept on which the hall was based. I question the wisdom of spending so much money, since, in 10 or 20 years, the cognoscente will clamour to restore the original hall…”

It has now been nearly 10 years since Roy Thomson Hall reopened, with new wooden panels to solve the acoustic issues allegedly caused by its concrete construction and unusual round shape, and a wooden “sunburst” chandelier to replace its original lighting fixture, a hanging arrangement of wool tubes. The cognoscente aren’t complaining yet.

The hall, which first opened in 1982, is home to two of Toronto’s major musical institutions: the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1922, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, founded in 1894. When we visited on a recent weeknight, members of the two groups had gathered for a final rehearsal of Handel’s “Messiah,” their biggest collaborative performance of the year. Singing and orchestral music could be heard throughout the building, piping through speakers.

Backstage at Roy Thomson Hall isn’t quite the sleek, smart-looking area one might expect, judging solely by the gray-concrete minimalism of the front-of-house, but there are small pockets of chic. The musicians’ break room was recently redecorated. It has plush, rectangular couches that look as though they must have come from a high-end design store. (There were PR people in there with us, and it would have been maybe a little impolite to check the tags.) And yet the room felt very lived-in: the air was sour with the unmistakable scent of bag lunches, left on the counter an hour or two too long.

Performers can do their pre-show warmups in a vast vestibule just behind and to the left of the stage. Waist-high shelves run the perimeter of the area, to accommodate instrument cases and other items. There are also numbered cubbies everywhere, with locks, for long-term storage of personal effects. Musicians sometimes stay with the symphony for decades before retiring. The area gives the distinct impression of being a home-away-from-home.

Chris Walroth, TSO’s production manager, is a fixture back there, with a desk wedged up against a wall, next to some tympani and a box of disposable earplugs. He handles technical logistics for the orchestra, including lighting and sound. His baritone voice is the one that tells musicians when to take to the stage before a performance.

After 14 years on the job, he knows the back of Roy Thomson Hall better, possibly, than anyone else, but when he walks in the front door, he’s lost. “I can’t find a seat to save my life from the lobby side of things,” he said.

Down a narrow passageway to the right of Walroth’s desk is a table hockey game that’s primarily used by the TSO’s bass players. They have a running competition.

TSO and Mendelssohn both have offices at Roy Thomson Hall, and both organizations also maintain libraries. Mendelssohn’s library is the smaller of the two. It occupies a cramped room where the air is slightly chilly—not for materials-preservation reasons, said librarian Lorraine Spragg, but just because it’s chilly.

There, Spragg maintains a collection of 913 sets of scores. It’s a working collection, and so it contains very few ancient treasures. But it’s a significant resource nevertheless: Mendelssohn lends out materials to groups all over Ontario. This is a needed service, because restrictive copyright in many cases prevents choirs from simply using photocopies. Many of them prefer originals, anyhow, because the sheets are larger and more legible.

TSO keeps its music library in a separate room. It’s a little more luxurious. The shelves only take up about half the space. The rest is work area for Gary Corrin, principal librarian. He’s a tall, talkative guy—a former clarinet player, who took his current job 20 years ago. He applied for it while living in Florida, after seeing a want ad in a union magazine.

Part of Corrin’s job, as he explains it, is to work out precisely what will be required, as far as equipment and personnel, to carry off every piece of music the TSO wants to perform. “If for some reason it’s not clear on the page,” he said, “then the whole rehearsal stops and they start discussing it. And that’s wasted time. So my job is to figure out what all the issues are with pieces so we can talk about them before we get in front of a hundred people.”

This might mean asking a visiting conductor whether or not he’s willing to compromise on logistically impractical parts of scores. Corrin said he’d had just such a conversation earlier that day. “You’ve gotta tell us how many string players do you want to play this,” Corrin recalled telling the conductor. “And do you want the string players in the balcony, and do you really need flugelhorns? All these technical questions.”

(A flugelhorn is like a trumpet, but slightly larger and with a much better name.)

Because Roy Thomson Hall is an office space for both TSO and Mendelssohn, it also has some pretty forbidding file-storage areas that the public almost never gets to see. In the company of a guide from Mendelssohn’s marketing department, we went into the building’s subterranean parking garage and through a gray (but otherwise featureless) door there labeled A 116. Staff refer to this room as “the bunker.”

Inside is an unfinished space with concrete walls, floors, and ceilings. It’s full of shelves that rise nearly to the ceiling, all stacked with cardboard banker’s boxes. The boxes are full of old records, most of them related to past TSO business. TSO and Mendelssohn brought things with them when they first moved into Roy Thomson Hall, and so some of the items in the bunker predate the building.

By far the most comfortable of Roy Thomson Hall’s backstage areas is the room where TSO director Peter Oundjian keeps his studio. The major piece of furniture is a brand new shiny-black Steinway piano, donated by the Toronto Symphony Volunteer Committee. A kneehole desk and a soft, worn-in sectional couch complete the picture of artistic repose.

Whether or not one likes what has become of Roy Thomson Hall’s austere public face, it has to be admitted that the venue’s private spaces are as affable and as humane as can be.