The name of the free tour of Edmonton’s Francis Winspear Centre for Music could not be more apt as Overture is French for ‘opening’ and a common classical music term as well as the name of a monthly tour of one of Canada’s great concert halls as it opens its doors to the public.

I joined a small group taking the opportunity an open door policy presented to walk the corridors and peer into musical archives which are normally off limits to the public. The Noon tour begins with a few light bites in the lobby before an able and amiable guide  such as Turlough welcomes guests in the lobby with its soaring Tyndall stone donor wall.

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Front and center on the donor wall is a red dress which is part of the REDress project which began as a public art installation by Winnipeg artist Jamie Black in response to the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic in Canada and the U.S.  There are other dresses throughout the Winspear including along the backstage corridors where the striking colour contrasts with black & white photos of past performance pinnacles.

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The centre, opened in 1997, is home of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) and is named for Dr. Francis G. Winspear a noted local accountant who helped found both the ESO and the Edmonton Opera and donated $6 million to the construction of the facility which remains the single largest private donation ever to a performing arts facility in Canadian history. A bust of Winspear stands politely to one side in the lobby greetings guests with his smiling countenance.

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There are hidden stories in plain view scattered around the Winspear including a plaque to commemorate the time capsule buried at the time of the facility’s construction in 1997 which will be opened in 2095, the  300th anniversary of the founding of Fort Edmonton.

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I must’ve walked by this innocuous marker at least a dozen times while attending performances at the Winspear and missed its relevance.

There are other less visible stories that make the Winspear a local landmark including the creative solution to a sound problem as the acoustic experts early on in the construction process identified a steady rumble as regular as clockwork every 5-minutes as LRT (Light Rail Transit) trains pulled into Churchill Station located directly below the concert hall but after a meeting  with city staff the solution was to slow the speed of the trains entering the subterranean station thereby reducing the resulting rumble. Churchill Station is the only Edmonton LRT station with such a speed zone although as a frequent rider it’s not something passenger appreciate.

The Valley Line LRT route currently under construction passes right next to the Winspear Centre at ground level on 102 Avenue however the tracks are cushioned with rubber dampeners so won’t transmit unwanted vibrations into the facility.

The visit to the music library shows illustrates how all the sheet music is printed for each of the 56 members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra for each score as well as the back catalog of past performances stored on floor-to-ceiling archival shelving.

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The concert hall has a seating capacity of 1,716 people and is  tall and rectangular with stepped, curved balconies and terraces.

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photo by author

When the Winspear was built there was only enough funds to complete the concert hall itself leaving a chunk of land immediately east undeveloped until plans were drawn up in recent years to build a 41,000 square foot multi-purpose facility which includes  a 550-seat flex-use midsize acoustic hall called the Music Box, a 64-space not-for-profit YMCA childcare centre, underground and street level parking, multi-functional spaces and commercial space.

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The expansion construction is scheduled to begin in January 2020 and be complete in 2021. A grand opening will be held in 2022 to mark the Winspear’s 25th anniversary.

In 2002, the Davis Concert Organ was installed at the centre and is still Canada’s largest concert hall pipe organ. Built by Orgues Létourneau of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, the organ has 96 stops, 122 ranks, and 6,551 pipes ranging from the size of a city bus to the size of a finger ans is named after the organ donor, Dr. Stuart Davis, in memory of his late wife Winona.  Davis , a retired University of Alberta chemistry professor and longtime symphony subscriber, donated $2 million in Nortel shares, which crashed less than a week after the Winspear cashed them in.

The tour includes a stop to hear the musical majesty of the organ with a short recorded recital.

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Hearing the pipes fill with air as the organ warms up and peeking into the towering instrument is a privilege few are able to experience so I would highly recommend joining a future Overture tour.