For much of the first 60 years of its history, Massey Hall was a community hub as much as it was a concert theatre. Sure, it was the home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and it was the venue of choice for international acts making a local stop. But it was also the premier stage for local performing groups and ethnic communities, whether it was a “Sons of Scotland concert,” a Ukraine bandurist group, a Korean children’s choir, or a “calypso fiesta.” (Reading more than a century’s worth of show listings at Massey Hall also reveals Toronto’s changing demographics over the decades). St. Michael’s Choir School and the Toronto District School Board have long histories of Christmas and spring concerts at Massey Hall; generations of Toronto children have stood on Massey’s historic stage either with their school or a youth group, including the Toronto Youth Symphony.
As Toronto grew and more venues were built— of various sizes and purposes, some geared toward specific audiences—Massey Hall evolved into primarily a home for marquee acts both national and international; renting the hall became more expensive. But Massey Hall’s commitment to education never waned; in 1999 it started the Share the Music program, bringing students from the GTA to selected shows and often pre-show talks and workshops that illuminated that evening’s program.
Since its inception in 1999, Share the Music has provided free tickets to 22,000 guests (students and their teachers and some parents) to events at Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. In the last year alone, Share the Music hosted 29 different schools and 21 community music groups for 14 concerts. Those shows include not just classical performances by the likes of Pinchas Zukerman, Yundi and Steve Reich, but jazz shows like The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman, avant-garde shows like Tanya Tagaq, rock shows like Classic Albums Live playing the Beatles, and shows by artists focusing on flamenco, blues, folk, and the Creole Carnival tour featuring artists from Haiti, Jamaica and Brazil—all of which represent the diversity of Massey Hall’s programming, and Toronto itself. In addition to seeing the shows, students were often treated to preshow workshops with local artists operating in the same traditions. Sometimes, as was the case with Wynton Marsalis or Bobby McFerrin, the headlining artists themselves answered the students’ questions. The music is demystified for the curious youth; the hope is that many of them take the inspiration found that day and manifest it in their own lives and future careers.
With Massey Hall’s revitalization project, space is being allocated for similar educational and community events that would expand on Massey’s educational mandate, not a special occasion roughly once a month, and not focused entirely on youth, either: it will be a place to spark creativity in all ages. Shows could be programmed in a smaller event space inside Massey; talks and workshops could focus on the science and social benefits of music and performance. The Hall’s archives will be on display and audio tours of the building will be available, which will allow audiences to hear the history of the space come alive while walking through the venue. Partnerships with similar institutions outside the city and local academia could expand the offerings further. Meanwhile, the team at Massey Hall will continue to bring their mission outside of the hall’s walls and into schools, workplaces and communities.
Massey Hall is a non-profit organization: it’s not an academic institution, nor are its operating costs publicly funded, and—although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra calls Roy Thomson Hall home—Massey itself doesn’t have a resident company, nor does it program only one kind of music. All of this, combined with the unique position it has in the city’s consciousness and history, positions the venue to play an innovative and exciting role in inspiring new audiences to participate in the next generation of song. Even if they don’t: the social and intellectual function of music facilitates a more engaged and empathetic populace—just like Hart Massey envisioned almost 125 years ago.
Everybody has a story with Massey. Soon there will be so many more.