After 40 months and $146 million ($184 million Canadian dollars) in renovations, Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall reopened to the public on Nov. 25 with the first of three sold-out show by Gordon Lightfoot, a regular at the 127-year-old venue with at least 170 appearances under his belt. The Canadian icon played the last show before renovations began on Canada Day (July 1) in 2018.
During a media tour and sign lighting the day before, construction workers and staff were still drilling, hammering and sawing away, busily readying the heritage property — the “Carnegie Hall of Canada” — for the grand opening, something president and CEO Jesse Kumagai acknowledged when he took the stage prior to Lightfoot’s show.
“It has been a long and challenging journey bringing us to tonight,” he said. “When we closed our doors in the summer of 2018, nobody would have predicted what it had in store for us. In 2019, we lost our president and CEO Deane Cameron, a leader and our friend. Deane’s passion and determination, alongside that of all the members of our team, both past and present, is what’s made tonight possible…”
Cameron, the head of EMI Music Canada for close to 25 years, championed Massey Hall’s Revitalization Project when he joined The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall in 2015. He died in 2019 of a heart attack. A recording studio on the 7th floor of the south tower will be named after him. Kumagai was appointed president and CEO in January 2020.
“And then in March of 2020, the world changed,” continued Kumagai. “The pandemic had a significant impact on our project, stopping construction for an extended period of time, then making it so much more challenging when we resumed. It increased the cost, interrupted our fundraising and delayed our completion, all while our sister venue, Roy Thomson Hall, sat dark…
“So the fact that you’re here tonight is something of a minor miracle. When you look around you may notice a few elements that are not quite finished. Under the circumstances, we could have postponed our reopening, but the pandemic also made us all appreciate just how important cultural events like this really are.”
Over its long history, Massey Hall has hosted a staggering array of talent, including Rush, Igor Stravinsky, Neil Young, George Gershwin, Eddie Vedder, U2, Bob Dylan, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Marley, Creem, Justin Bieber, Van Halen, Bryan Adams, Keith Richards, and The Quintet (Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach), captured on the 1953 album, Jazz At Massey Hall. Rush also recorded its first live album there, 1976’s All The World’s A Stage.
Upon walking through the famous red doors, it’s evident the integrity and look of “The Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street” remains. The renovation was treated with the utmost respect. The lead architect is Marianne McKenna, principal at KPMB Architects; construction is by Ellis Don; the acoustician is Bob Essert from Sound Space Vision; and sound designer Martin Van Dijk from Engineering Harmonics.
On the media tour, Grant Troop, vp of operations, and the executive lead on the project for over six years, pointed out the architectural, acoustic, and cosmetic changes.
Ten years in the making, the first phase of the Revitalization Project officially began seven years ago, originally made possible because of the 2012 transfer of 4,804 square feet of land to the south of Massey Hall by Toronto’s MOD Developments and Tricon Capital Group Inc. The basement of the new building was dug out, followed a year later by the purchase of improved sound and lighting system (previously it was rented).
Among the most visible changes: brand new roomier red seats; a reconfigured main floor; washrooms on every level (they used to be only in the basement); passerelles/ramps on either side of the building to improve patron safety and accessibility; and the stunning restoration of the original stained glass dated to 1894 that had been boarded up; and the painting and restoration of the ceiling arches that had been bound by chicken wire to prevent cracked plaster from falling. The original brass railings and 1933 terrazzo floor also remain.
“The biggest changes in seating here relate to the creation of this wrap-around seating structure called the parterre,” said Troop, of replacing the outer seats on the main floor with a curved elevated area “mimicking the seating style on the balcony and gallery.” The new seats in the center area can also be stored under the stage in order to create a standing general admission pit.
Massey Hall’s capacity is now 2550 fully seated to over 2800 general admission.
Fundraising is still ongoing and completion is expected next summer on many of the additions. The entire complex is known as the Allied Music Centre and will offer four venues (Massey Hall, and the yet-to-be-named Basement Bar, The Club, The Theatre) for artists, educators, and community groups, and expanded programming to include artist development and student activities.
Allied Music Centre’s biggest donors are both public and private: Allied Properties, the Government of Canada; the Province of Ontario; the City of Toronto; The Slaight Family Foundation; Cornerstone Supporters MOD Developments, Tricon Residential Inc., and Weston Family Foundation. In Massey Hall, signs now read The Weston Family Foyer, and the Allan Slaight Auditorium & Stage because of their sizeable support.
Massey Hall is also fully configured for sound and video capture from the south tower.
“The idea is not only will we be able to have great events in this room, we’ll be able to capture them; we’ll be able to broadcast them; we’ll be able to do recordings for artists, both up and coming and artists that are well into their careers,” said Troop. “The idea is to turn this whole building, The Allied Music Centre, into more of a music hub.”