Tafelmusik unveils renovations and acoustic improvements to Trinity-St Paul's Centre

By John Terauds on January 28, 2013

tspAs soon as its Toronto concert season ends in May, work will begin on long-overdue renovations to make Trinity-St Paul’s Centre into a better concert venue, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra announced at an invitation-only concert and presentation on Monday night.

The period-instrument orchestra has been based at the multipurpose building — erected in 1889 as a Methodist church — since 1981.

More than a generation ago, the ensemble was a ragtag group of people whose main ambition was to share their passion for historically-informed performances of music from the 17th and 18th centuries with as many Torontonians as possible.

Now, Tafelmusik is a $5 million-a-year institution with its own record label, recognized around the world for the quality of its musicmaking as well as programming. It has also launched an international search for a music director to replace Jeanne Lamon, who grew up with the organization.

But anyone who has set foot inside the Trinity-St Paul’s sanctuary for a concert knows there is a lot of room for improvement: the pews are uncomfortable; the old wooden floors creak, making it impossible to sneak in late or sneak out early; and the quality of sound varies depending on where one is sitting.

And the makeshift plywood stage has never been big enough for performances requiring choir, orchestra and soloists.

So the first things to go in May will be the orchestra-level pews, to be replaced by individual, numbered chairs (meaning the days of jostling for prime pew spots will soon be over). Extra leg and knee room is part of the promise, too.

In the balconies, each seating spot will get an orthopedically designed cushion to take the penance out of sitting through a concert.

The new orchestra-level seating (Rendering courtesy of ERA Architects Inc., Edwin Rowse, Principal-in-Charge)
The new orchestra-level seating (Rendering courtesy of ERA Architects Inc., Edwin Rowse, Principal-in-Charge)

The old choir risers built with the church are going to be demolished and the fixed Casavant organ console replaced with a modern version on wheels. The new stage will be designed to enhance sound and will be permanent, with an extension module for when performers need more space.

The new, permanent stage, with extension module (ERA Architects Inc., Edwin Rowse, Principal-in-Charge)
The new, permanent stage, with extension module (ERA Architects Inc., Edwin Rowse, Principal-in-Charge)

Tafelmusik managing director Tricia Baldwin walked me through the highlights of the $3 million project that makes up the first of two renovation phases.

The bulk of the work — and money — is going into dozens of little details that are supposed to add up to significantly improved acoustics.

I’ve never minded how Tafelmusik or the Toronto Consort sound at the venue, but, according to Baldwin, what Tafelmusik’s core audience has been hearing is significantly worse that what the rest of the world knows of the orchestra’s live performances.

The organization is using acoustician Bob Essert, the man responsible for the fine sound of the Four Seasons Centre and Koerner Hall. He has assured Baldwin that the acoustical rating of Trinity-St Paul’s will go from a 3.5 (out of 10) to a 7.5 with his fixes, which include wooden slat-like panels along the soft drywall ground-floor partitions between the auditorium and service hallways.

Other work includes removing all carpeting, “which will allow the sound to bloom nicely,” says Baldwin.

In the process, the venue, with total seating of 750, will lose only 12 seats — and gain the ability to accommodate eight wheelchairs

Improvements to Trinity-St Paul’s have long been on Tafelmusik’s radar. The organization has been deficit-free for 12 years, and so was in a position to consider a better venue a decade ago.

I recall a conversation about eight years ago with Baldwin. At that time, the plan was to move the bulk of concerts to the future Koerner Hall, where Tafelmusik would become an anchor tenant, along with Opera Atelier. But the final figures on renting the new space were too high, allowing the orchestra to use the Telus Centre for only a handful of dates a season.

“One of the advantages of having a low-cost venue is that we have been able to tour and record more,” Baldwin explains. When the Koerner Hall move fell through, the organization turned its sights back to Trinity-St Paul’s.

Over the last half-dozen years, the orchestra has ensured that the building is sound, has consulted widely on the most cost-effective way to make the concert experience better, has surveyed its patrons, sponsors and donors and has looked at carefully staged work, so that costs never run too far ahead of revenues.

“This is Tafelmusik, so there is always a Plan B,” Baldwin smiles.

The managing director and board, working together with the Trinity-St Paul’s United Church congregation and Toronto Consort, decided to press the Go button this month with the announcement from Heritage Canada of $500,000 in matching fundraising cash.

Baldwin talks loftily of a “cultural corridor” that stretches from the ROM to Trinity-St Paul’s, but the stolid stone building at Bloor and Robert Sts is not about culture as show (is there any other reason to build a museum that looks like an upturned garden shed?), but about culture as the soul of a community.

Trinity-St Paul’s hosts several not-for-profit organizations with social justice and cultural mandates. Christian worship will continue there, as will Alcoholics Anonymous, as will Toronto Salsa Practice, as will the Viva Youth Singers, as will all the artists who rent the space for one-off events.

Except that, when the new season starts in September, the sanctuary will also be a better concert hall, which will be as good for the musicians as the audience. “It will give the orchestra a better instrument,” says Baldwin.

John Terauds

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