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Resonant and reflective

The Vancouver Sun

by Lloyd Dykk

Can you imagine walking out into this at intermission on a summer night?” says Michael Noon, pointing at the mountains, the trees and the rose garden.

Long-used to those, l’m trying to imagine walking into it: a brand-new alien architectural landmark, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

A few weeks before Thursday’s official press tour, I get a hard-hat construction-site preview of what many people in the local music community consider a godsend: a state-of-the-art mid-sized arts complex. Noon, its director, is the tour guide.

“It’s made of zinc – self-cleaning, self-weathering,” he says as we look at the gleaming quilted exterior of the oval cylinder projecting from its ground-tier, just off Crescent Road. Some people, including me, consider its simple geometry beautiful; others have described it as looking like a nuclear stack.

Fittingly, advance interest in the music community is already quasi-atomic. They all want in here. “It’s a  $25-million building,” Noon says. The same cost as the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, but we’re getting three venues (a 1,400-seat concert hall, a 250-seat studio theatre and a 160-seat cinema) for the same price.”

Scheduled for completion on Feb. 28 (with an advance opening in March as a gesture of courtesy to UBC and patrons), it opens officially to the public May 11.

With capital costs raised by the university’s $260-million World of Opportunity campaign, funding was split 50-50 between private and public sectors with an outstanding $10-million gift coming from the title benefactor, the Chan family of Vancouver, notably 50-year-old Tom Chan who in his 20s took over the chair of his family’s Hong Kong garment business. Chan moved here in the late ’80s. Grateful for a life on the West Coast and its year-round golfability, he has made this gift his expression of thanks.

“Without Tom Chan’s contribution.” says Noon, “this would have been a very different building.” But it goes beyond that. Though the three-component facility’s main designation is for UBC’s music, theatre and film departments, the Chan family stipulated that emphasis be placed on community programming. Noon, the affable former director of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre, is the diplomat who will navigate those straits between the zinc tower and the ivory tower of academe.

The building was designed by Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver and Theatre Projects Consultants, proceeding from the acoustical designs drawn up by the leger-de-computer of New York’s Artec Consultants. Artec has designed some of the finest, most naturally resonant concert halls in the world.


These include Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the Meyerson Symphony Centre in Dallas and the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary. For once you trusted advertising, reading the massive p.r. book that came in the mail from Artec. Even Harold Schonberg, music critic emeritus of The New York Times, raved about the acoustics of Calgary’s Jack Singer.

“It’s like being inside a cello,” Noon says as we step over power leads into the architectural curves of the main facility, the Chan Shun Concert Hall. The room with its 1,400 seats is arranged in a reverse-fan configuration so that sound can’t accumulate at the back. To go by the stainless steel struts at ceiling level, it seems more like a guitar.

Every light-white-maple, plum-velour seat is close to the stage (none farther away than 95 feet), suggesting that there’s not a bad one in the house.

All surfaces are reflective, with concrete flooring instead of carpet, which would be too sound absorbent. The main acoustic control is the huge Star Wars sound-reflecting canopy that hovers over the stage: a 37-tonne disc so delicately counterbalanced by 37 tonnes of concrete that only a small motor is needed to raise of lower it, in accordance with the number of musicians beneath it. For a full orchestra it zooms up, developing the sonority: for the intimate acoustic needed by a solo guitar, for example, it will be lowered.

For everything else, from string quartet to brass quintet to spoken word, it can be calibrated to zoom in-between. It is illuminated by more than 400 lightbulbs.

Similarly adjustable is the sound-absorbing drapery that will line the walls.

The canopy and the drapery are sonic co-stars in replicating the perfection of the great 19th-century European concert halls.

These were usually rectangular boxes encrusted with cherubim and gilt. Acoustical miracles, like Vienna’s music hall, these spaces, such as survive, remain perfect to this day.

But eager to cram in as many people as possible, architects of the post-war boom created all-purpose civic crates like the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which were usually much too large, serving everybody passably and nobody well.

Vast spaces like the QET and the Orpheum Theatre are, as well, often financially disastrous to presenters, who will tell you that you can lose your shirt on even such magnificent artists as the singer Anne Sofie Von Otter of the pianist Andras Schiff. These venues are often too big to sell out.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that many local companies should have their eyes on the medium-sized Chan Centre, including Vancouver Early Music, New Music Vancouver, the Vancouver Chamber and Bach Choirs, the Vancouver Recital Society and many other organizations.

But everyone who plays here will have to play well.

According to Artec, the Chan Centre’s acoustics are not inclined to forgive sloppy technique. Among the prime promises of the Chan’s canopy is that musicians will at least be able to hear one another play.

In a three-week spring festival from May 11 to 25, the acoustics will be tested to the maximum in a program that ranges from solo guitar (Christopher Parkening) to full orchestra (the VSO performing one of the biggest noise-makers in the classical rep: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Pictures From an Exhibition) to the premiere of the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ oratorio Job with the Vancouver Bach Choir (the latter event of May 11 will be the first public concert in the Chan Centre),

Far from restricting itself to the classical, the festival includes Quartetto Gelato, Spirit of the West, Marion McPartland, Inti-Illimani, Joe Sealy, Sylvia Tyson, soprano Nancy Hermiston’s Naughty Ladies of the Night and other jazz, pop, rock and world-music events.

While deferring to the UBC’s arts departments, the idea is that the Chan Centre sustain itself through box-office and even present its own events, says Noon.

“The idea is to bring in as many things as possible.”

And interest in the Chan Centre is not restricted to the local and national, Noon adds. “New York agents are salivating.”

There may be a few problems to iron out, however. Leila Getz, who runs Vancouver Recital Society, is all for the Chan Centre, but worries about UBC’s relative remoteness and evening bus services.

Noon is looking into not only that but into restaurants. Voicing a question you may have long-asked yourself, he says, “Why should UBC be so different from the down-town experience?”

Sat Jan 18, 1997