Toronto Star

Massey Hall’s rebirth is just what we need


It’s almost as if the great cosmic impresario knew exactly what this pandemic-weary city needed.

A return to normal. A return to a new normal. A world-class example of building back better.

The very idea of Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot taking the stage on Thursday evening to reopen a renovated 127-year-old Massey Hall is music to the civic ear, so rich with hope and history that its symbolism is hard to overstate.

In that one concert will be art, endurance, evolution, community, celebratio­n and the sheer joy of live music.

Massey Hall, which opened in 1894, has been the scene of historic moments in Toronto’s cultural life and the stage of dreams for generation­s of young musicians.

Canadians don’t agree on much, but they repeatedly name Massey Hall — dubbed the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street — as the best live music venue over 1,500 seats from coast to coast to coast.

In mid-July of 2018 it closed for the most extensive renovation in its history, during which craftsmen and women from other fields took centre stage.

As the Star reported in a special section on Massey’s reopening, the elaborate centre ceiling had to be reinforced and secured, while stained-glass windows, iron columns, brass banisters and woodwork were restored.

The first drawings for the redesign were prepared a decade ago and modernizin­g a building of its vintage required improvemen­ts in safety, accessibil­ity, mechanical­s and audience comfort.

The marvel of engineerin­g enabled reconfigur­ing the building “from attic to underpinni­ngs,” principal architect Marianne McKenna told the Star.

There were also significan­t improvemen­ts, in a renovation that actually began in 2013, to the functional areas back of house, including loading bays, production facilities and performers’ dressing rooms.

Patrons will be delighted to know that new seats have been installed, leg-room increased and some sightlines improved. A general-admission space in front of the stage will also be available for some concerts.

Still, the most important element is the music, and the most nervous of observers were the musicians who have played the hall.

McKenna said she heard pleas from the likes of Massey veterans Neil Young and Jim Cuddy not to “mess with it, just fix the things that don’t work.”

Among the things lost to the lockdown era was the thrill and energy of a crowd, the memory-making of concerts, the transporti­ng magic of live music.

But across the city this fall, smaller venues have been reopening under various protocols, to the relief and delight of the starved cultural community.

In speeches in the 1950s, Vincent Massey, scion of the family and then governor-general, spoke in praise of “things that remain,” those monuments to the human spirit, and also the enduring power of the arts to console and inspire.

On all scores, Massey Hall fills the bill.

The historian William Kilbourn said in the 1960s that were he asked by a stranger to North America to be shown the most important religious building in Toronto, he would have named Maple Leaf Gardens.

In 2021, the most important spiritual building in the city — especially given what the pandemic has taken from us, while making clear to us what is important and enriching in our lives — might well be Massey Hall.

Mr. Lightfoot, now 83, has been the most frequently appearing artist in the hall’s history and has called it “the centre of my universe as a musician.”

You might say his performing once again for a three-night gig in a hall that owns a place in Toronto’s heart and soul is just what the doctor ordered.

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