March 4, 2015 – From large-scale music halls to intimate venues and museum displays to recording studios, Calgary caters to musicians and is gaining notoriety for its multifaceted and expansive involvement in music.
On Stephen Ave., the iconic Jack Singer Concert Hall has been the proud home of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) since 1985. As the cornerstone of the newly-renamed Arts Commons (formerly Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts), the hall is acclaimed for being one of North America’s best acoustic venues.
“It’s one of my favourite places to play,” says Calgary-based singer-songwriter and former Canadian Idol contestant Jenn Beaupré.
“It’s got a great sound, a great atmosphere.”
The Jack Singer stage has hosted some of the world’s most famous musicians, Grammy and Juno nominees and winners, and Broadway stars as guests of the CPO. It brings a touch of renowned, celebrated classical and contemporary music to the culture of Calgary.
While its 60-year impact on the music scene in Calgary is to be commended, the CPO and Jack Singer Hall make up only one aspect of music in the city, and are among a host of institutions and venues that are beginning to impact the status of music in Calgary and Alberta as a whole.
Mount Royal University (MRU) has witnessed the growing popularity of live music in Calgary, and as such the conservatory at the school launched a project that has taken nearly two decades to complete: the Bella Concert Hall.
“We began conceiving of the new conservatory back in the late 1990s,” says Director of the Conservatory Paul Dornian.
“The Bella [Concert Hall] was always intended to be the centrepiece, and it is surrounded by private studios, classrooms, and a learning arts centre.”
The Bella Concert Hall will open during the summer of 2015, and will feature 773 seats. The mid-sized theatre is meant to fill a gap in Calgary’s selection of musical venues.
“There are lots of venues around 350 seats, like Ironwood and smaller theatres,” explains Dornian.
“The Jack Singer can seat about 1,700, and the Jubilee is around 2,200. So we decided to build something in the mid-range, and we are proud of the result.”
Featuring state-of-the-art acoustic paneling and design, the Bella Concert Hall will host both MRU and community events on its stage, and offer new possibilities to local musicians and smaller orchestral groups.
“It’s really going to fill a niche,” boasts Dornian.
“It will definitely have a big impact on the community as a whole.”
Smaller venues like Ironwood Stage and Grill and Wine-Ohs also contribute to the music scene of Calgary by encouraging and promoting local up-and-coming artists to engage with audiences in public performance and make themselves known in the city.
Calum Graham, a 23-year-old guitarist and composer who hails from High River, got his start on the Grandstand Stage at the Calgary Stampede, winning the Youth Talent Search in 2009.
“The Stampede is a great venue for young people to perform. It’s stressful, and fun, and exciting – just like every other performance I’ve done since,” Graham laughs.
Graham played several smaller stages around Calgary before moving to Toronto to attend school in 2010.
“As for my favourite [venue], I would have to say Wine-Ohs,” says Graham.
“They have a great sound and there’s always a great vibe in the room.”
A number of restaurants and lounges in the city offer live music on a regular basis, providing local musicians with the chance to share their craft with appreciative audiences. For many, it can be a foot in the door for greater opportunities.
“I was singing in the Oak Room at the Palliser every Friday night, and one weekend this guy approached me after my set, and told me he enjoyed my music,” recalls Ellen Doty, a Calgary-based singer-songwriter.
The man was David Mancini, a New York jazz musician who happened to be staying at the Palliser. He invited her to travel to New York and work with him.
With Mancini’s help, Doty produced her first album, “Live at the Station.”
“It was an amazing experience, and I took what I learned and brought it back to Calgary with me, and I’ve produced two more albums since,” says Doty.
However, recording studios and production opportunities are what some artists have found to be lacking in Calgary.
To fulfill this need, the National Music Centre (NMC) is proudly including production facilities in its new building, set to open in spring 2016.
The facility will be located at 9 Ave. S.E. and 4 St. S.E., the site of the old King Edward Hotel (the King Eddy).
The NMC is home to an impressive collection of historical keyed instruments that take visitors through their evolution, from an original Hammer Dulcimer to hundreds of pianos and organs, and to modern synthesizers.
The collection also boasts the white upright piano on which Elton John composed his first 100 songs, and The Original New Timbal Orchestra (TONTO), the largest synthesizer capable of producing many tones with different voices simultaneously.
TONTO was used by Stevie Wonder to create his album, “Surperstition,” and the artifact has found its new home in Calgary, where the NMC has displayed it in working condition for artists to experiment and record albums.
“It was originally offered to the Smithsonian, but it came here instead. The owner and co-creator wanted it to be working,” explains Mike Mattson, collections and digital content coordinator at NMC.
“At the Smithsonian, it would have been in a basement somewhere. But we’re about bringing the technology to the public.”
The new NMC will boast two conjoined buildings called “blocks.” The east block will consist of the collection—which will be open to public self-guided tours, rather than operating with private tours only, as the Centre does now—and a 300-seat performance theatre. The west block will house recording studios, classrooms, and the new CKUA office.
“There will be a strong artist-in-residence program there too,” says Mattson.
“Calgary has so many musicians that can use those recording facilities and work with our collection to create what their imaginations perceive.
“It’s also going to be huge for culture and cultural tourism. I can guarantee that people from around the world will come to see TONTO, and to have the chance to work with it.”
Artists like Beaupré, Doty, and Graham are excited about the opportunities that NMC will offer local and other budding Canadian musicians. The three artists are interested in the possibility of producing quality albums in their home town.
“I do think it will be a great draw. I would definitely consider using the facilities, though it’s all about the people who staff it,” admits Beaupré.
Graham, who has recorded three albums—two solo and one with guitar legend Don Ross—in Toronto, is intrigued by the prospect of recording at NMC.
“It’s a great centre, and musicians and non-musicians alike can both walk away from the tour and take something memorable away from it. I would definitely not be opposed to seeing what it can offer,” he says.
Mattson is proud to be a part of NMC, and expects that the development of their new facility will attract more artists to Calgary’s already-blossoming musical landscape.
“We’re pushing boundaries,” says Mattson.
“I think Calgary is really well-positioned for the arts, and there tends to be support of the arts, sometimes financial, sometimes institutional.
“We’re creating something that encourages people to learn and explore and travel down new avenues.”
As for artists like Doty, the music centre and local theatres and stages are developing a stronger artistic presence in the city and helping musicians to build singing careers and realize dreams.
“Calgary’s music scene is certainly not as prominent as some others in Canada, but it is really growing,” says Doty.
“I’ve noticed a lot of changes in the past couple of years.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of it.”