Looking Back on 25 Years at the Winspear Centre

Looking Back on 25 Years at the Winspear Centre

By D.T. Baker, Musicologist

In 1990, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra hired me in the communications department. The gig lasted a couple of years, but that was long enough to witness the formation of the Edmonton Concert Hall Foundation, created to realize the dream of many committed Edmonton music lovers – the creation of a concert hall.

As of this September, that concert hall has been open for 25 years. From the gleam in the eye of visionaries like Tommy Banks, and thanks to the amazing lead gift by Edmonton entrepreneur (and long-time ESO board member back in the day) Francis Winspear – not to mention the guidance and tireless effort of a dedicated board and hundreds of community partners – the Winspear Centre became a reality in September of 1997. And there is absolutely no hyperbole in saying that our music community has not been the same since.

As a freelance writer for The Journal, covering the classical music beat, I went to a ton of concerts at the Jubilee Auditorium – the hall built as a gift to our city from the Province, marking Alberta’s 50th anniversary in 1955. The Jube is a multi-use space, designed to host all kinds of presentations. Music was one, but it was a part of a much larger mandate. This is not to say a single bad word about the Jube – some of my most treasured musical memories were performances I saw there. But I truly only realized its limitations when I heard music in the Winspear Centre for the first time.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to hang around our wonderful concert hall all these years are fond of saying how lucky we are to have this magnificent building. I say it a lot, I realize, but every time I do, I absolutely mean it. To this day, I recall with a thrill hearing Juliette Kang – the talented Edmonton violinist who was part of several concerts during the hall-opening Winspearation Festival – present a noontime recital, playing alone on a stage that still had that new car smell. For the first time, the implied polyphony of the Bach partita she performed was illuminated brilliantly, the sound never wandering up into the flies of a theatrical auditorium to be lost, but reverberating around a hall that kept the sound alive and enduring …

And that, of course, was only one of the thousand sounds I got to hear in our Winspear Centre in the last quarter century. For the newspaper, I got to cover the fundraising; the highs and lows as the original board was replaced; as locations were scouted and discarded. I accompanied Juliette, along with soprano Linda Perillo and pianist Angela Cheng (also Edmonton musicians) into the pit of the excavation as the building took shape. As the hall’s completion got closer, one of my favourite memories was running into Harriet Winspear, wife of Francis, at a Jeans ‘n Classics event (naturally, still back at the Jube of course), in which she had had to convince her button-down, businessman husband to put on a pair of jeans for the event. Harriet! Such language …

During all 10 days of the hall’s opening, I pretty much never left the building, and probably had a better grasp of the floor plan than many of the spanking new ushers in the hall. Then in 2002, just in time for the installation and premiere of the Davis Concert Organ, the ESO hired me back, and once again, I’ve pretty much never left the building.

One aspect of what this hall has meant to us that not a lot of people would know concerns what it has done for the relationship between the administration and the musicians of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Before the Winspear opened, the ESO and its administrators lived separate lives – the orchestra at the Jube, its management in various downtown locations across the river. The Winspear Centre finally put both in the same building, and I cannot tell you how invigorating it has been for both. The musicians of the orchestra can come upstairs – maybe only to get a dental claim form (back before all that was done online, of course), and maybe get lost in a conversation about marketing with a staff member. And staff with degrees in accounting could slip into a loge during a rehearsal, and suddenly all the numbers they tabulate are put into context by hearing the climax of a Brahms symphony. The bond between orchestra and staff – an obvious necessity – has become something it had never been before, and I cannot tell you how much easier that makes everyone’s job.

I still know how lucky we are to have this space. I know how lucky I have been to have been around for its birthing pains, and to see it evolve. The hall is not done, as all the construction on the back of our building will tell you. The dream that Francis and Tommy and all those others had, to make this place THE centre for music in our community, means that we have to reach any and every aspect of our community that we can, to invite them in, welcome them, and give them a space to present and encounter music on their terms. That’s part of the grand design, and I know that when the many new spaces being created are ready, the luck we feel in having the Winspear Centre in our community will only increase. It will be others’ jobs then to tell people just how lucky we are. But the sentiment will be just as passionate, and just as real.

Enjoy it, keep it, treasure it. Sláinte.

Learn More About The Winspear Centre’s History