The backstage area is still mostly raw concrete, and sheets of bright green insulation are visible on the exterior. But the essential part of Montreal's new symphony building – the hall itself – is ready for its public debut this week.
Like many projects that take decades to get started, this one is finishing at a gallop. Workmen were still prowling around as the musicians of l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal had their first chance to play in their new principal home at Place des Arts last week, and the word is that they liked what they heard.
The new 1,900 seat-auditorium is a very shapely container. Toronto architects Diamond + Schmitt and a pair of acoustical consultants (Sound Space Design's Bob Essert, working under contract to the architects; and Artec's Tateo Nakajima, reporting to the Quebec government) have left almost no surface without some kind of curve. Sounds reflecting off a curved surface spray off in many more directions than if they meet a flat wall. More reflections mean a richer, more involving sound, enhanced down to a fine level by roughening the finish of some surfaces. Three balconies, extending all the way to the back of the stage, bring the seats closer to the music. The ideal is that the music will reach the audience sooner, from more directions, and with more impact and clarity than it ever did at the 2,900-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier next door.
The promise of better acoustics is the whole raison d'être for l'Adresse symphonique, the first cultural building to be raised under the province's recent legislation governing private-public partnerships. Everything outside the auditorium – backstage and front-of-house areas, foyers and delivery spaces – have been fit into a tight footprint at Place des Arts, with not much in the way of optional amenities.
The auditorium is acoustically isolated from the city, and equipped with noiseless heating and cooling systems. It's the same set-up as at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, another Diamond performance space, with which l'Adresse symphonique has much else in common. As in Toronto, it will take some time for Montreal ensembles (including l'Orchestre métropolitain and Les Violons du Roy) and their audiences, accustomed to the acoustical blurriness of Wilfrid-Pelletier, to adjust to a space in which every sound is exposed.
Visually, the watchword from Jack Diamond is "calmness." The interior is lined with light-toned Quebec beech, the seats are a wheat colour. The lobbies on three levels, visible from the street and also partially to each other, will express a "minimalist calmness and simplicity," says Diamond. "The architecture should be present but not overwhelming." He believes it should also invite people in, which is why he was determined to put the big glass front on Rue Saint-Urbain, and not have the eyes of the building turned in toward the rest of Place des Arts.
In the end, the overwhelming part of this adventure should happen once the concerts begin. Will the sound electrify the public, send it away wanting more, make l'Adresse symphonique one of Montreal's cultural hot spots? The beginning of the answer happens on Wednesday.