Saturday, November 21, 2015

I love the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. But...

It has been a week since the splashy opening concert with Serena Ryder followed by the Community Open House at our new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, so I thought I would offer up my impressions on the new facility this weekend.

First of all, I think a tremendous round of applause is very much in order for everyone connected to making this a reality.  From former St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan and his council colleagues past and present to present Mayor Walter Sendzik and the current council, to workers, dreamers, planners, doers and general make-it-happeners, I thank you all for your dedication to a worthy cause.

There were doubters from the very beginning, I know.  But there were far more believers, all of whom were more vocal than the doubters, and collectively they made it clear this project simply had to be completed.  And you know what?  I hear far more believers than doubters now that the PAC is open for business.

Okay, the short review is I love the place.  Who wouldn't?  The longer review to follow here reveals some nit-picking because, well, my esteemed colleague Doug Herod can't carry that onerous load all by himself...

From the street, the new PAC looks impressive, even though all the finishing touches to the exterior still have to be completed.  The huge expanse of glass both front and back is what really sets the building apart, in my mind.  From behind, if you are travelling along Westchester or on the northbound 406 you cannot help but glance over at the graceful lines of the building, especially when lit up at night.

Inside, I love the clean, modern look and clearly marked signage.  Going from theatre to theatre last week at the Open House, the excitement over the design was palpable.  The use of wood, concrete and other materials is both creative and functional to provide an ideal acoustic ambience.

I love seeing the local art displayed throughout the PAC.  I love the view out into the valley from Robertson Hall.  I even love the idea of the drink transfer station, so you can transfer your beverage from a glass served at the bar to a plastic cup to take into the theatre with you.  That's assuming you don't finish your beverage before intermission ends, of course.

The overall impression is even with the scaling back to trim $10 million from the construction bid that resulted in a redesign, the facility just looks right.  I heard from one or two people who have said yes, the public areas are great, but the cost savings came in the back of house areas which are not nearly as well laid out as originally planned.

The cost savings had to come from somewhere, and this way although not perfect, means the public won't really be aware of the scaling back that was done.

Last evening, I finally had a chance to actually hear what Partridge Hall sounds like, as I attended the very first concert in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts ENCORE! Professional Concert Series.  The concert featured Southern Exposure, featuring local musicians Timothy Phelan, Gordon Cleland, Patricia Dydnansky and Niagara Symphony violist Andree Simard.

The concert featured music of South American composers such as Piazzolla, Pujol, Villa-Lobos and Antonio Carlos Jobim, all arranged for guitar in combination with flute, viola and cello.  The music was inventive and beautifully played, and I especially enjoyed the North American premiere of Maximo Diego Pujol's Buenos Aires color pastel.  More, please...

Timothy's informative introductions heightened the enjoyment level considerably, making the music even more accessible for many in the audience there as part of their music courses at Brock University.

It was nice to see a good-sized crowd out for this performance, as I have lamented in the past up at Brock, few members of the public attended or even knew of these concert performances.  Now with more advertising and the highly-visible new venue downtown, hopefully that will change.  I didn't see
anyone in the upper balcony last evening, but since there was only general admission seating, there was really no reason to go up that far if you didn't want to.

The sound, in short, is impressive.  Every note, every word, every detailed musical passage can be clearly heard in Partridge Hall, which is exactly why we spent the money we did on the place.  This hall, along with the smaller Cairns Recital Hall, Robertson Hall and the still unnamed film studio all have their own unique qualities to contend with when it comes to acoustic tuning, and from what I have heard so far, the designers got it right in all the venues.

There are still some details inside the PAC that need to be finished before the end of the year including some doors and other details, but overall, the inside is as impressive as the outside.

Okay, so what's my nit-picking about?  Well, I found the steps leading down into Partridge Hall already look a little shabby, although that could be part of the detailing yet to come.  I felt last night someone forgot to turn the heat on.  It was so cool inside I almost reached for my overcoat, and for a $60 million facility that shouldn't happen.  Oh, I've been to many theatres where cooler temperatures are required because ballet dancers were performing for example, but here, I could not see the justification for the cool climate indoors last evening.

I thought at intermission I would warm myself up with a warm beverage at the bar.  That's when the grim reality of the drink list reared its ugly head.  There, I saw coffee...but no tea.  Yikes!  No tea?!  What year is this?  According to our new Prime Minister it is 2015.  But in this day and age, you can only get coffee at the bar, not tea?

As a die-hard tea drinker, I find this deplorable.  Even discounting the questionable quality of commercially-produced tea just about anywhere short of Tim Hortons, I still would like to make that choice.

No tea in the PAC.  The mind boggles...

But then, considering the details they got right, I think I can wait for saner heads to prevail on this one point.  After all, if the only casualty is my not being able to order tea at intermission, I would say the cost of such a fine new performance venue was justified and, I might add, well spent.

The busy weekend continues at the PAC of course, with a Guitar Extravaganza concert this evening in the Cairns Recital Hall, while the Niagara Symphony opens their new Pops! concert season in Partridge Hall with a musical tribute to the Beatles.  The symphony repeats the Beatles concert again tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, by the way.  In Robertson Hall, Essential Collective Theatre presents their season opener, the play Falling:  A Wake.  That play continues until November 29th, so there is still plenty of time to catch a performance.

That's what makes this new venue so special and vital to the rebuilding of our downtown:  three of the four theatres are in use tonight, and that translates into hundreds of people coming downtown for a performance.  It wasn't that long ago you had no reason to do that.  Get the picture?

Now, if they only served tea at intermission...

Have a great weekend!

November 21st, 2015.

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