Winnipeg symphony looks to province for $2.6M in repairs for 'disastrous' acoustical shell

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is looking to the provincial government for $2.6 million to help fix much-needed repairs to an acoustical shell at the Centennial Concert Hall that is currently in "disastrous" shape.

Director asks audience members to write MLAs demanding government fund fixes for Centennial Concert Hall

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra executive director Trudy Schroeder said she doesn't think the Manitoba government understands how important a functioning acoustical shell is for performers, because the province hasn't provided funding for repairs. The shell typically wraps behind the stage like a seashell and helps distribute sound throughout the Centennial Concert Hall. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is looking to the provincial government for $2.6 million to help fix much-needed repairs to an acoustical shell at the Centennial Concert Hall that is currently in "disastrous" shape.

"The lack of a functional shell is really desperate," Trudy Schroeder, WSO executive director, told CBC Up to Speed host Ismaila Alfa on Tuesday. "We've been waiting, we've been very patient."

Schroeder said the organization hasn't received repair money from the Manitoba government despite repeated calls for help.

She went as far as to take the stage to solicit help from audience members during a performance at the concert hall last weekend, asking them to write their local members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and pressure them to make the repairs a priority.

When the concert hall opened in the late-1960s, it had a mechanical shell installed that would descend from a storage place in the rafters and extend behind the orchestra. This enabled the room to easily go from a hall for a ballet to one for an opera or orchestral performance, said Schroeder.

"It actually is like a seashell that is placed behind the orchestra and that provides a roof and walls on all sides and it helps the acoustic sound from the orchestra to sort of both be contained within the stage area — rather than sort of flowing up into the very, very tall sort of tower that's above the stage — and move it out to the to the audience," she said. 

Schroeder recently asked audience members to write their MLAs and demand the province fund the acoustical shell fixes she says are desperately needed. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

"For the musicians, it makes it possible for them to hear each other so they can play properly and not overplay and not hurt themselves for the audience members. It bathes them in the beautiful glorious sound of the orchestra."

Mechanical aspects aren't working right now and it would be too dangerous to use, she said.

"We are, I'd say, the only hall in North America that is functioning in this kind of a state, and this broke down three years ago," she said.

In a previous meeting with a government official, former WSO conductor Alexander Mickelthwate likened playing without a complete acoustical shell to the Winnipeg Jets playing hockey on glass or plastic because the ice-making machine was broken, said Schroeder.

"You just can't ask specialized people to come and do their wonderful work in our community and not provide them with an appropriate place in which to work."

As a Band-Aid solution, the symphony set up a wall of risers behind the performers to help with the sound, but Schroeder said that doesn't spread sound effectively.

Musicians aren't able to hear or communicate with each other as well they could before. As a result, they have had to compensate by playing harder and louder, said Schroeder, and some are getting repetitive strain injuries. 

"The hall is actually part of the instrument. Your experience of your orchestra is because of the space it is in as well as the musicians that are playing," she said. "This is a really critical part of the symphony hall."

The concert hall is owned by the province and rented by the WSO. Schroeder said the province generally hasn't invested adequate refurbishment dollars in the Centennial Concert Hall over the past 50 years, but the acoustical shell issues desperately need to be addressed.

"As a renter we're saying look, we need to rent a concert hall. You're charging us rent for a concert hall. Fix it so that it is in fact a concert hall for us. It's your facility."

A spokesperson for the province said the government is trying to co-ordinate the repair of the shell with other repairs at the concert hall. The province spent $179,000 on an interim acoustical shell, and another $5 million to replace the concert hall fire alarm system, the spokesperson added.

If the funds for the shell don't start to flow soon, Schroeder said she is considering starting a petition.

With files from Danelle Cloutier