KINGSTON, Ont. — A small gem of a concert hall has opened here, nestled on the north-eastern shore of Lake Ontario. The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts – known as The Isabel – is an 80,000-square-foot facility. At its heart lies a visually striking 566-seat concert hall whose interior walls undulate with a variety of rich-toned wood textures. The unusually fine acoustics (designed by Arup of New York) complement the architectural conception.
The design of The Isabel involved the incorporation of elements from two historic adjoining buildings, including a 19th- century distillery complex and a stable. The architects from the Norwegian firm, Snohetta, have seamlessly redeveloped and coalesced old and new, while connecting the character of the building and the shore.
Built at a comparatively modest cost of $72 million (for a complex of this quality), The Isabel was a collaborative venture of the federal and provincial governments, with the substantial lead gift of $31 million from Alfred Bader and his wife, Isabel.
Bader, who is 90 years old, was present at the ribbon-cutting. His life story, from its background in prewar Austria, is remarkable. His grandfather, Moritz Ritter von Bader, was a middle-class Jewish civil engineer who worked on the building of the Suez Canal. His father was Jewish, but his mother was not. Despite her family’s opposition, they married in London, settled in Vienna, and had two children there. When his father died soon after Alfred’s birth in 1924, his mother was left with no income at a time of runaway inflation. Her sister-in-law adopted Alfred and raised him as a Jew. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, Alfred was one of 10,000 primarily Jewish youngsters allowed to enter Britain in the Kindertransport.
In 1940, Britain sent many German-speaking refugees to internment camps in Canada and Australia. Bader, just 16, was held in Quebec’s Fort Lennox until the fall of 1941 when he was released into the care of a Montreal sponsor, Martin Wolff, who became like a father to him. Bader tried to enter both McGill and the University of Toronto, but was rejected either because their Jewish “quota” was filled (McGill) or because the chemistry department was doing sensitive war work (U of T). He applied to Queen’s University and was accepted into the faculty of applied science.
Combining arts and science, Bader earned a number of degrees at Queen’s and went on to complete his PhD in organic chemistry at Harvard in 1950. That year he went to Milwaukee to work in research and the next year started his own tiny chemical supply company, literally in a garage. A self-made millionaire, Bader is a survivor, an astute businessman, art collector and connoisseur of the arts. He is Queen’s University’s most generous benefactor.
On entering The Isabel – perhaps the crown jewel of his philanthropy – the visitor walks into a soaring light-filled atrium fronting the panoramic lakeside vista. That welcoming atrium can itself function as an event space. During intermission, patrons stroll outside and enjoy the sight of shimmering waves a few metres away.
As the inter-disciplinary home for all the performing arts at Queen’s, The Isabel also has a 100-seat studio theatre with flexibility for student and community use; a 92-seat film screening room; recording facilities; an imposing music rehearsal hall with huge windows onto the lake, and whose sonic properties replicate those of the nearby concert hall; instructional space for the various creative arts departments; faculty offices and student lounges.
Clearly, the beating heart of The Isabel is that recital hall. Kingston – and Queen’s – has never had anything like it. Any city with such a facility in its midst experiences its transforming impact. This is partly a matter of acoustics – music can be heard much more clearly now, set against a background of absolute silence. And the acoustics themselves engender a new keenness of listening in the audience, a reflection of the surrounding silence. (When an unmuffled cough creates a significant disturbance for all other listeners, people are inclined to suppress their coughs.) The stage is large enough to accommodate a symphony orchestra and chorus.
The Isabel is presenting an engaging concert series for its inaugural year, and it began Sept.21 with an accomplished performance by the young Afiara Quartet and pianist Maxim Bernard.
No doubt there will be tweaking and adjusting in the coming days as the architects and acoustician work with faculty, students and guest performers. Even a small shift in the positioning onstage can have a substantial effect in an acoustical environment of this sensitivity.
The good news is that there is so much to work with here. The seats are comfortable, and their colour scheme – varying shades of green – enhances the interior environment.