The Concert Hall as an Artistic Instrument

The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 15 Nov 1979, p. 108-115
Stern, Isaac, Speaker
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Item Type
To the performer on stage, the hall is indeed another instrument. Why this is so. The performer's respect for a hall. The responsibility of a community that takes on the adventure of building a concert hall. The need for a permanent and healthy performing fund. The issue of finances. Can and must a hall pay for itself?
Date of Original
15 Nov 1979
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Full Text
NOVEMBER 15, 1979
The Concert Hall as an Artistic Instrument
CHAIRMAN The President, John A. MacNaughton


Ladies and gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: To date this season Empire Club members have heard from speakers who have addressed themselves to very different topics but through whose remarks has run a common thread of pessimism. The purveyors of bad news have been: Canada's socialist party leader who painted a gloomy picture of our nation's economic future; our Secretary of State for External Affairs who explained how our foreign aid program has failed; the Chief Executive Officer of a petroleum company who warned how precarious supplies of foreign crude are; a Parti Quebecois cabinet minister who documented the inequities of Canada's federation; the nation's Minister of Finance who confirmed our anxieties that interest rates, inflation rates and unemployment rates will remain at historically high levels; and last week a senior executive from a multinational corporation who forewarned us that regulation of business in Canada was dissuading his company from making further investments here.

After that steady diet of pessimism we are unquestionably ready for some good news, and the good news is that we have with us today as guest speaker Isaac Stern, who has chosen to address us on the topic "The Concert Hall as an Artistic Instrument" and who has agreed to answer our questions at the conclusion of his address.

Mr. Stern is one of the greatest musicians of all time. "He belongs," said The London Times, "to that great company of virtuosi around whose names legends have grown in the course of history."

Born in Russia, Isaac Stern was brought to San Francisco by his parents when he was less than a year old. He began piano studies at six, but switched to the violin after the practising of a neighbour aroused his interest in the instrument. After studying with various instructors from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Isaac Stern made his recital debut in 1934 at the age of fourteen. His first major orchestral debut took place in 1936 when he performed with the San Francisco Symphony; this was followed by performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and other leading orchestras. By the time he made his New York debut in 1937, he was already a highly regarded violinist. His Carnegie Hall debut, on January 12, 1943, helped focus the attention that subsequently has brought him invitations to perform annually with every major orchestra and at every major festival throughout the world.

In addition to performing as a soloist, Mr. Stern plays with pianist Eugene Istomin and cellist Leonard Rose in the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, the much sought-after chamber ensemble. As anyone who has browsed in record stores knows, Mr. Stern has also been a prolific recorder of classical and contemporary violin literature.

Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century lexicographer, critic and author, once professed "Had I learned to fiddle, I should have done nothing else." The New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 14, 1979 boldly asserted that Isaac Stern has not restricted his talents to making music as Samuel Johnson claimed he would have done. The headline to the feature article read as follows: "Isaac Stern: The Power and the Glory." The sub-headline continued: "Stern describes himself as a fiddler. But he also fiddles most effectively with power in the music world, where he is an adroit mover and shaker."

As a man of his community, a community which in his case is much of this globe, our guest of honour has provided public service through such activities as serving as Chairman of the Board of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, music adviser to the Jerusalem Music Centre, Founder-Member of the National Council of the Arts, officer of the French Legion of Honour and intimate of world leaders and American presidents. Mr. Stern is renowned for his leadership in the successful fight to save New York City's Carnegie Hall from demolition in 1960, an institution which he continues to serve as President of the Carnegie Hall Foundation.

Ladies and gentlemen, this luncheon is the Empire Club's salute to the men and women of Toronto who have committed themselves to bringing a new concert hall to this city. There is no guest speaker anywhere in the world who could be more appropriate for the occasion than Isaac Stern. It is a tribute to all of the people associated with New Massey Hall that he has joined us in our salute to them today. Please welcome Isaac Stern, who will address us now on the topic "The Concert Hall as an Artistic Instrument."


Mr. MacNaughton, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen: I am somewhat overwhelmed because Arthur Gelber, in his vocal arm-twisting manner, did not tell me that this luncheon address is not only being attended by very responsible and august members of the community, but is at the same time being recorded, televised, noted, and will be gone over with a fine-toothed comb ad infinitum. As you will see, I have no notes and I will speak extemporaneously. I have exactly twenty-eight minutes in which to speak, answer questions, pick up my fiddle and run!

First, let me say that yesterday I had the privilege of seeing a rather large hole in the ground and some very wonderful plans. Aesthetically and professionally, it is one of the most imaginative concepts that I have seen anywhere. It has a flowing grace, and I think it is a possible major contribution to the idea of a hall being as pleasing to the eye as it is to the ear. From everything that I could see, the planning for the comfort of those who have to deal with it most, the working musicians, is superb. Thought has been given to the care for the disabled. The distances to be crossed from one working area to another are logical. The loading docks are well planned. The seating arrangement will cut down the number of the "Why did I get a seat where I couldn't see the stage?" kind of remark. On the whole, it can become one of the major centres of the North American continent. Given God's help and your acoustical work, may it sound as well as it looks! That, of course, is its raison d'etre and, given that, it can become a very important centre of both local and international activity.

There is not a travelling artist who cannot tell you what his or her identification with a hall is. For example, there are certain halls in which we treasure the moments when we can go there to play--Teatro Colon in Argentina, La Scala in Milan, the Great Hall of the Conservatory in Moscow, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Concert Hall in Gothenburg in Sweden, Boston's Symphony Hall. I must tell you that I have always enjoyed Massey Hall, and I have always felt a sense of intimacy, a warmth, and a kind of radiance in the sound that was always helpful.

You must understand that to the performer, on stage, the hall is indeed another instrument. It is a major necessity, because the great halls hold the performer

in their hands, lovingly caress the sound, and send it forth larger than life. That's what makes a performance. That's what a hall can do. When a hall is too clinically clean, when you feel the sound going out and suddenly dropping dead about ten feet out no matter what your efforts, then it can be--as some of the speeches you have had in the last few weeks--a very disheartening experience.

--Essentially, a hall is the place where the artist goes who has the brass, the arrogance, the necessary self certainty to stand on stage with just his bare face hanging out and dominate his audience. The real artists, the great artists, don't go out to the audience, they bring the audience to them. They invite them to join them on the stage in a moment of magic. But in order to create that magic, the hall has to give the artist the opportunity to let sound float, to let it ring, to let the smallest nuance be meaningful to the last person in the top row, and to make sure it doesn't go over the heads of the people who have paid even more money downstairs--which often happens.

These are the qualities that a hall must have, and these are the qualities that every builder of a new hall searches for. I would hope very much that what you have here will be one of those halls, because it is important for us, not only as performers but as part of the western tradition of civilized habits, to have places like this. A hall becomes a centre of the activities of a city. It becomes the focal point for other artists to visit. They then excite local efforts. It becomes a happy meeting place for people who care. Certainly those who are in the opinion-making area of any culture become a part of the efforts of the artists in a hall of that quality.

More important than anything else is the fact that our culture, the culture that has bred us, is becoming the culture of a rapidly diminishing minority in the world. There is no reason to arrogate to ourselves the notion that the rest of the world is going to automatically accept our culture as theirs. They have a perfect right to their own and they are more numerous than we. Therefore, if we respect that which bred us, that which makes us human in our sense, in our political scene, we must support, expand, extend, always revitalize the cultural aspects of our society and its culture which we will pass on to our children.

All of this comes to my mind when I see the possibilities of a hall like yours. But that brings a further responsibility to the community that takes upon itself the adventure, the excitement of building such a great meeting place. Just to get the money to put together the bricks and the mortar is not enough. There should also be a performing fund, permanent and healthy, so that those whose responsibility it is can from time to time subsidize, excite and interest themselves and the community and the country in those areas of artistic enquiry and endeavour that cannot bring a profit.

Artistic excellence, enquiry and profit do not run in the same league. Like everything else, culture must be paid for. As we pay for education, medical services, mail services--and all of those are supported -so too must cultural efforts be supported. In a very real sense, the support of the arts gives an artist or an artistic concept the right to fail. We must not demand that they always succeed. For this I would ask that some attention be given, as the hall nears completion, to a performing fund, and that those who are knowledgeable in that area be made responsible for the discretionary use of those funds.

The effort of making a hall like that pay for itself is going to be a rather difficult one at best. Serious music is not and never has been, as you well know, a profitmaking undertaking. It is necessary to support it massively. It would be only too easy for the directors of the new hall, at the moment called the New Massey Hall, to take the path of least resistance and allow as many pop and rock groups to come in as want to because they attract a very large audience and they make a lot of money. But shall they be the measure of all the care and attention and artistic thought that went into this soaring new building, the care for the musicians and patrons and acoustics? Is it for that reason that it was built?

Without demeaning any of the other major centres in Canada, all of which I have played in and will continue to play in with great pleasure, Toronto has a vitality and centrality to the meaning of Canada that is possessed by no other city. It is the cultural capital of this country. How you, the citizens of this city, support it, treat it, use it and love it will in large measure reflect Canada's interest in its own cultural life, its cultural strength and its cultural future.

I will take a few questions now from the floor.

Following the question period, the thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Stern by Marvin Gelber, Honorary Treasurer of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Concert Hall as an Artistic Instrument

To the performer on stage, the hall is indeed another instrument. Why this is so. The performer's respect for a hall. The responsibility of a community that takes on the adventure of building a concert hall. The need for a permanent and healthy performing fund. The issue of finances. Can and must a hall pay for itself?