Summit – Get ready to have a ball at the Bella

Get ready to have a ball at the Bella

The Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts and the Bella Concert Hall to open in August!

Words by Sherri Zickefoose

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This August, the Mount Royal University Conservatory will be opening the doors to its very own home. And Calgary will be welcoming the city's newest performing arts centre since the 1980s.

The new Conservatory and Bella Concert Hall — a landmark $90-million construction project which broke ground in spring 2011 — is opening next fall and launching its first season with a high-profile fall arts festival in September 2015.

The Conservatory is one of Mount Royal’s original programs, dating back to 1911. Today, it is the largest music education institution of its kind in Canada. Nearly 5,000 students enrolled in non-credit programming fill rehearsal and classroom spaces scattered around campus. The Conservatory attracts world-famous faculty to teach its Academy for Gifted Youth and international Morningside Music Bridge summer training school, and has famously helped launch the international careers of music prodigies, including concert pianists Yuja Wang and Jan Lisiecki. Grammy nominee and Juno award-winning singer-songwriter Feist studied voice at the Conservatory as a teenager. 

Since the ‘90s, limited space has capped growth for the Conservatory’s successful early childhood education classes, speech arts, private lessons, masterclasses for gifted students and ensemble activities.

“For years, we had to stay at the same size. We were also part of the oldest building and we were surrounded. There was nowhere to expand to. We just needed a place to grow,” says former Conservatory Director Paul Dornian.

Growth is just what’s in store for the Conservatory and its new free-standing building, located at the east end of campus beside the Roderick Mah Centre for Continuous Learning.

Plans to expand youth and community programming will see its student numbers more than double by 2018, 8,500 music and speech arts students — from babies to retirees — are expected to fill classes. With 43 private teaching studios, five early childhood classrooms, five master classrooms, six large rehersal halls, two traditional classrooms and one multipurpose room.

“On any given day, you could conceivably have babies with their parents or grandparents in the early childhood suite,” says Dornian. “You could have a percussion ensemble rehearsing up in the percussion room; a couple of different concert bands in the ensemble spaces; a full orchestra rehearsing in the TransAlta Pavilion. You might have fifty or sixty private lessons in oboe, bassoon, harp, violin, cello, saxophone and piano. And who knows? You could have a symphony orchestra performing in the concert hall. All that can happen at the same time.”

The cost of the project is divided among the federal and provincial governments, which are contributing $20 million each, and the City of Calgary with $10.3 million. Mount Royal is providing $3 million in land and project costs. The remainder of the budget is being provided through generous donations from a variety of corporations and private citizens. Opportunities still exist to join this group.

Not long after Calgary philanthropist Don Taylor was approached, the family announced a record-breaking $21 million donation in 2010, making it the largest single private donation in the University’s history. In addition to the Taylor family, TransAlta Corp., the late F. Richard Matthews Q.C. and others have also pledged support.

The Bella Concert Hall is named after the Taylor family matriarch, Mary Belle (Sherwood) Taylor, known as Bella to her loved ones.

“Don wanted to do something to honour his mother and do something public, something appropriate and it’s a public concert hall,” says Dornian. “The Taylor family are amazing community supporters. They do things in a big way and very thoughtfully.”

Taylor says the entire family is anticipating the big launch.

“We’re really looking forward to that. The hall is going to be one of the most majestic and impressive concert halls in all of North America,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything that will come to close to matching what the building is going to be.”

Meet Bella

Mary Belle Taylor

With a goal of making life better for everyone around her, Mary Belle (Sherwood) Taylor succeeded at every turn.

Whether it was scratching out a new life on a southern Alberta farm as a young bride, supplementing tough times by supporting her family or rallying for a much-needed community school, Mary Belle orchestrated success. 

“She was a great Alberta pioneering woman, in every sense,” says son Don Taylor.

The Bella Concert Hall — at the heart of the new Conservatory  — is named in honour of the Taylor family matriarch Mary Belle (Sherwood) Taylor (1891-1972), known simply as Bella to loved ones.

Slated to open next fall, the city’s much-anticipated medium sized professional concert hall would not have been possible without a generous $21-million contribution provided by the Taylor family. It’s the largest private donation in Mount Royal’s history.

The concert hall will serve music students and audiences, as well as provide a hub for a broad range of performing arts activities for the community.

The story of Bella is the story of true pioneering spirit. In the spring of 1912, the 21-year-old bride boarded a train in Kingston, ON, bravely heading west to start a life farming with her husband on the Prairies. After the family lost the farm in Barons, AB during The Depression, Bella moved to Calgary where she ran a boarding house for 12 years to help support her family.

“She was an incredibly great lady and very hard-working,” says Taylor.

Bella was an enthusiastic supporter of education and was instrumental in bringing an elementary to Grade 12 schoolhouse to serve Barons, a rural village located 170 kilometres south of Calgary. The school was featured in a scene of the 1978 film Superman.

“It was such a small community, it couldn’t be justified. But she campaigned with the local and provincial governments. And it happened solely because of her efforts.”

Much like Bella’s efforts to further education, the Taylor family’s philanthropy will benefit music lovers and theatre goers for generations to come.

“If my mother was here I’m sure she would be justly proud,” says Taylor.

Architecturally, it’s a stunning space... a signature piece. I think when people walk in, their jaws will drop. It’s edgy but at the same time it’s warm. I don’t think Western Canada has seen a space like this before. Generations of Calgarians are going to come through this building and really appreciate the fact that it’s a very distinctive statement that absolutely blends in with the western esthetic.

Paul Dornian, former conservatory director

By 2011, Pfeiffer Partner Architects Inc., and Sahuri + Partners Architecture Inc. began work on the performance centre, which takes up an 8,700 gross metre footprint.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certified building is the project of a lifetime for CANA Construction, which is tasked with the complicated demands of building acoustically-engineered spaces. Sound-proofing practice rooms require box-within-box construction to enable singers, cellists or clarinetists to practise side-by-side without sound bleeding from one room to the next. The 773-seat concert hall is a state-of-the-art performance centre — the city’s first since Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts was built in 1985.

“While Calgary is home to many theatres and performance halls, there’s nothing in the medium range,” says Dornian. The Bella’s medium size is large enough to accommodate a 100-piece orchestra and 90-person choir loft but its classic design offers concert-goers an intimate space with superb acoustics.

The classic shoebox structure and rural prairie heritage-influenced design — structural elements are reminiscent of a barn roof, and wooden sound reflector panels mimic the petals of an Alberta rose — mean the Bella is no cookie-cutter concert hall.

“Architecturally, it’s a stunning space,” says Dornian. “It’s a signature piece. When people walk in, their jaws will drop. It’s edgy but at the same time it’s warm. I don’t think Western Canada has seen a space like this before. Generations of Calgarians are going to come through this building and really appreciate the fact that it’s a very distinctive statement that absolutely blends in with the western esthetic.”

The Bella and the Conservatory rehearsal rooms will provide space for dance troupes, film festivals, theatre and spoken word performers, and all forms of music performance.

“It will create new opportunities with us to partner with the whole arts community that we haven’t had the right space for before,” said Dornian, who was director for more than 20 years.

“We have this wonderful history going back to when the doors opened in 1911 of being a community organization, the Conservatory being a credit-free operation that is there to enhance and provide cultural opportunities for the city of Calgary. That part won’t change, and I hope it never changes. It’s a great mandate and a wonderfully positive thing to be part of.”