The weather couldn't have been better in Parry Sound on Friday -- the sky was clear, the breezes light and the warm sun glistened on the blue waters of Georgian Bay. And so a full crowd assembled for the opening of the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts/Bobby Orr Hall of Fame.
Let's start with the names. Charles W. Stockey is a genial, ponytailed octogenarian -- a lover of chamber music who donated $1.7-million toward the cost of the $9.8-million centre, so the Festival of the Sound could have a proper concert hall instead of a high-school gymnasium. As the "lead donor," his name was attached to the facility (this is the Only Way in Canada these days). Bobby Orr is, well, Bobby Orr -- and it was the hockey legend himself that the crowd had come to see. Parry Sound is his home town: Folks clapped politely for Ontario Premier Ernie Eves and hooted for CBC sportscaster Don Cherry -- but when the winner of eight Norris Trophies stepped up to the podium, they poured affection on their native son.
This new building, designed by architect Keith Loffler, serves two functions: When you walk in the front door you can turn left for the concert hall or right for the hockey shrine, full of Orr memorabilia. What's up with that? In search of answers, I struggled through autograph-seekers and TSN cameramen to Orr's elbow. "Who's your favourite classical composer?" I asked. The former Boston Bruin smiled, as though the question amused him. "I'm not a real big music buff," he confessed, deftly changing the subject to the new hall. "Just listening to those who know, the acoustics are beautiful."
The gala concert that evening was an ideal opportunity to test this claim. In fine form for the opening was a quintet from Toronto's Hannaford Street Silver Band, and the Elmer Iseler Singers, augmented in several selections by a well-rehearsed local choir. Tenor Michael Burgess also made an appearance, offering heartfelt selections from musical theatre. But the all-Canadian programming was often disappointing -- especially three newly commissioned works. Eleanor Daley's Paradise: Song of Georgian Bay, sung by the combined choirs, was pleasant but innocuous. Eric Robertson's The Goal was a tribute to Orr for brass quintet and narrator (actor Colin Fox) that managed to be campy and pretentious at the same time. And Gary Kulesha's Night Watch, for the Iselers and clarinetist James Campbell, was a drawn-out, uneven affair.
But the star of the show was the hall itself. The 480-seat concert hall, with acoustic design by the renowned Artec Consultants, has an immediate and intimate sound, with perhaps more clarity than warmth. Although the outside of the building is undistinguished -- it looks like a cross between a barn and a small airport terminal -- the concert hall inside is impressive. In its shoebox proportions and flexible seating arrangements, it closely resembles the du Maurier Theatre at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. However, its Northern Ontario stone and pine interior is distinctive and handsome. An unexpected bonus was a spectacular sunset, visible at intermission from the hall's waterfront terrace.
The cause of Canadian music fared somewhat better in the Saturday afternoon concert for winds and piano, with a brief appearance by soprano Mary Lou Fallis. Patrick Cardy's Qilakitso q : The Sky Hangs Low for clarinet (James Campbell), bassoon (James McKay), horn (Derek Conrod) and piano (David Jalbert), and Harry Somers's Etching for solo flute (Suzanne Shulman) were both elegant works. Images of Nightfall: Georgian Bay, by Srul Irving Glick, prettily sung by Fallis accompanied by Campbell and Jalbert, was an evocative piece in which the clarinet provided haunting, loon-like warbles. Also picturesque was Emerge by Abigail Richardson, a gently modernist wind quintet that was alternately chirpy and reposed. But following so much finely crafted Canadian politesse, American composer John Corigliano's dramatic Etude Fantasy for piano -- played with fierce intensity by Jalbert -- was like a lightning bolt from a blue sky.
There was more Canadian content on Saturday night. This time it was light classics for brass, played by all 24 members of the Hannaford Street Silver Band. The concert hearkened back to the days of summer bandstand concerts -- although I doubt any town band ever sounded as polished as the Hannafords. Conducted with discreet authority by Canadian band institution Howard Cable, the program ranged from Cable's colourful, geographically inspired Ontario Pictures and brand-new Ranch Country to his arrangement of Louis Prima's swing-band standard Sing, Sing, Sing. And once again a hockey theme found its way into the proceedings, with Cable's Saturday's Game -- used in the CBC's hockey broadcasts from 1952 to 1955 -- and Doloris Clayman's more familiar Theme to Hockey Night in Canada played back to back.
This, of course, only further begged the questions hanging over the new facility: What has hockey to do with music -- and why are they both under the same roof? For more answers, I met on Sunday with clarinetist James Campbell, who has been the Festival of the Sound's artistic director for 19 of its 24 years. He explained that the long-cherished dream of a concert hall in Parry Sound took off about five years ago, when music enthusiasts and hockey fans got together to combine their fundraising efforts. And he waxed eloquent when rationalizing the unlikely union: "One of the reasons I'm delighted to be allied with Bobby Orr is because he was pure hockey -- he was artistry. And that's why these two things work so well. I think it's cool to have these two together -- it's inspired."
Inspired by something, no doubt. One local resident I spoke to bluntly described the whole project as a product of "small-town politics." But there's more to it than that: The building looks like the latest in a series of strange and compromising "partnerships" foisted on the arts in this country. To be sure, music lovers can head straight for the concert hall, paying no mind to the hockey museum across the foyer. Most visiting sports fans will probably be only too happy to ignore the music on the other side of the building. And perhaps, in this day and age, this really was the only way Parry Sound could have built a fine concert hall. But that doesn't change the fact that the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts/Bobby Orr Hall of Fame is a nonsensical concept.
The Festival of the Sound continues through Aug. 10. Upcoming concerts include soprano Monica Whicher with baritone Russell Braun accompanied by Parry-Sound-born pianist Carolyn Maule in songs by Hugo Wolf (July 24), and the Tokyo String Quartet playing works by Beethoven, Mozart Alexander Zemlinsky (July 28). For tickets call 1-866-364-0061.