Massey Hall: Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre turns into big stage for world-class artistry

Written by Neil Scott

Editor at large for CNN

Memories of fallen musicians, the last victim of a mysterious illness, such as Jimi Hendrix’s ‘armed suicide’ on May 25 1970, have vanished. But one familiar experience persists: the shriek of an a capella chorus, inviting the audience to join in on the chorus with a mix of voices, drums and keyboard in its frenzied assault. But that’s not always the sound emanating from Massey Hall in Toronto.

Often, it’s the greats of our contemporary musical history facing the annual revue.

The American singer Stile Antico, celebrating his 75th birthday this year, faced it in October, singing the rousing “Simple Song of Salvation” and “Papa Noel.” Less well known was the appearance of the Chinese pianist Lang Lang , who frequently appears in Toronto to perform classical works. In December, the world’s most famous Greek composer, George Fokine, appears as an interpreter.

Special guest artist Lang Lang plays piano at Massey Hall

The synthpop label known as 4AD Records played its part. In October, the label, now renamed Hypernova, organized a gala with a trio of gregarious Sinead O’Connor, and members of the critically lauded lo-fi indie rock band Temples.

“Papa Noel,” one of Fokine’s works from 1944, was its soundtrack. The address for which a version of the work includes on the label’s website — 1 Hanover Square — is close to where Massey Hall is located.

Massey Hall was not always so commonly used.

RBC Plaza at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is named after actor and director John Massey. Toronto has, over the past few decades, rediscovered and reinvigorated its performing arts scene and Massey Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the city’s Pearson International Airport have emerged as key location for arts organizations and stars to cross-promote. The Globe and Mail, published by the BMO Financial Group, writes: “It seems as if Toronto and the world is coming to Massey Hall.”

The Toronto Opera Company’s new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” was lauded for its business savvy at the 2018 Fringe Festival in May. The country’s Royal Conservatory of Music runs interactive workshops to cultivate the talent for their classical music and jazz training, and video streaming is a new resource for other arts groups.

Lang Lang, who picked up the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition at Carnegie Hall this year, is a musician steeped in Toronto’s musical history and someone whose international profile has increased in tandem with the city’s economic boom.

Toronto Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Massey Hall was built in 1922 as a concert hall for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It is now part of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex, which is home to more than 170 arts and entertainment events annually, plus a culinary academy.

Isobel Mackenzie, the director of the Royal Conservatory’s operatic training program says: “While certainly changing along with the city and its economy, it’s also a space that’s been iconic. It’s a site that gives people a chance to be in a different space. It gives people a chance to see and hear different music.”

Willo Perron, who co-founded Compagnie Meursault in Toronto and appeared at Massey Hall in January, where he performed his first overture, offers a personal perspective.

Willo Perron, co-founder of Compagnie Meursault

“Because of Massey Hall, Toronto has a certain notoriety as the place to find music of any kind,” he says.

“I heard the very first piece that I ever wrote for all four of my children. It was for them to hear. I never even wrote it for myself, I just wrote it for them so they could listen to it. That was right there in front of me. That’s what I do with my children.”

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