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High domes and pillars of faith: ‘Informally~Formal’ to grace the Montante stage next week

blog by The Canisius Griffin  • 

The high dome ceiling of Montante Cultural Center, decorated on the inside with the likeness of the four writers of the Gospels, echoes well the voices and music emanating through the concert hall. The high arches stand firm, a reflection of faith and value, while the intricate artwork painted so long ago remains a reminder of the piety and dedication of those charged with its creation.

Once St. Vincent DePaul Roman Catholic Church, Montante Cultural Center was re-christened after it was closed as a church in 1993 and obtained by Canisius College. The long echoes were the culprits of an intricate theft of sound soaring to the top of the dome, making the building an architectural gem with an uncertain future – until it was set to be renovated later that decade.

At a price of $3.4 million, the church became a cultural center and reopened at the beginning of the next decade. Its acoustics were evaluated by technicians from Boston, its interior was transformed to include a stage and sound system, and its artwork and architecture were restored.

Named for Carl J. and Carol Montante who donated $1.5 million toward its renovation in 1998, the Montante Cultural Center is now home to most of the concerts on campus, the performance ensembles, several highly esteemed lecture series and the ArtsCanisius cultural series.

This Tuesday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m., Montante Cultural Center will host ArtsCanisius’ ‘Informally~Formal Chamber Recital.” The recital will feature Amy Licata on violin, Andrea Cone on viola and Eva Herer on cello, all of whom are members of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

But concerts on campus have not always had such a beautiful home as the one found on Main St. today. The earliest ‘Informally~Formal’ concerts took place in the Richard E. Winter ‘32 Student Center, where an auditorium once occupied the space now filled with club rooms.

Jane Cary, director of the Canisius College music program, served on the committee to redesign St. Vincent de Paul Church and today remains one of the cultural hall’s biggest fans.

“It won all kinds of awards for architectural design,” she explained. “They tried to keep as much of the original church there as possible, other than the sound boards covering the dome.”

“The fact that it was a church,” said Ellen Barnum, associate director of ArtsCanisius, “can make it hard to play in, because often churches are known for this incredible and intense reverb. Montante doesn’t really have that problem because of the acoustical redesigning.”

The hall was dedicated on Oct. 23, 2000 and has since been one of the most sought-out spaces on campus. It’s also, according to Barnum and Cary, the perfect space for the ‘Informally~Formal Chamber Recitals.’

“It’s perfect, especially for chamber music,” said Cary. “Though,” she added with a laugh, “it’s not really good for loud music, for rock bands, that kind of stuff. But for chamber music it’s perfect.”

Montante holds its own in league with cultural centers on other college campuses, especially those found at The Center for the Arts at the University at Buffalo and the Burchfield Penney at Buffalo State College, both State University of New York schools.

One of the major advantages of Montante is its size. Because it’s not a huge concert hall it can accommodate both student and faculty recitals, as well as concerts by the BPO.  Barnum explained that the Burchfield Penney doesn’t accommodate for student performers and even faculty performances are rare. Instead, it’s more of a large-scale concert hall.

“We primarily use the performance hall in Rockwell Hall at Buff State,” she explained. “Acoustically it isn’t the best to play in as a musician.”

She described the hall’s acoustics as being a little too ‘live’ for theatre but still too ‘dry’ for music.

“It’s also so big and seats so many that even when you have a reasonable audience for chamber music it looks empty.”

Above all, her problem comes from the perspective of a musician. Barnum is a bassoonist who, among other ensembles, performs with the BPO.

“There are some concert halls where you can see your audience and others where the lights are so bright that you can’t see your audience.”

Rockwell is one of those, she explained, and as a result it’s difficult for her to accommodate to her audience’s reactions to what she’s doing on stage.

But Montante overcomes all of these problems.

“I think the intimacy of it, the beautiful architecture that can’t be matched by any of the other recital halls – as far as the windows, the floors, the tiles – people just come in and they just say ‘wow,’” said Cary, a smile on her face.

And this all becomes most clear when framed by the Informally~Formal Chamber Recital series.

The BPO has been a staple on campus for decades, but there was a period, marked by financial hardships on the part of both Canisius and the BPO, that left Canisius without an annual concert.

Martha Malkiewicz, adjunct professor of fine arts at Canisius and bassoonist for the BPO, launched a new chamber recital series, Informally~Formal, to fill that gap. Individual members of the BPO could perform at Canisius in a more intimate setting, framed with round tables with a white tablecloth and refreshments.

Originally four chamber recitals of this type were offered until the BPO returned. Today the series boasts three concerts a year in addition to the annual BPO concert.

“We wanted it to be not a formal concert, but more a ‘cabaret’ style,” said Cary. “Students and community members can get to know the musicians and the musicians can mingle with the students in the audience.”

Both Cary and Barnum are excited for Tuesday’s concert.

“Amy Licata is playing in the upcoming concert,” said Barnum, “and the first time I ever got to hear Amy play a solo was in an Informally~Formal recital.”

For that concert, the new BPO concertmaster of the time was supposed to perform in the recital. At the last minute he cancelled.

“Amy stepped in and it was just jaw-droppingly amazing. I remember being blown away. I had no idea a women with four children could maintain a level of playing that she maintains.”

The recital series isn’t just an exciting opportunity for music faculty and students at Canisius, but for the musicians themselves. Many of the musicians approach Barnum and ask if they can be a part of the series, partly because of it’s location.

“Montante’s such a wonderful hall,” suggested Cary, “and they just love performing here.”

Tuesday’s concert has been in the works for about two years and scheduled for over a year now.

When Barnum approached Andrea Cone about doing the particular upcoming program, which will feature works by Bohuslav Martinu and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Cone offered a title for the program.

“When I first asked her to play this concert she said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but can we call it middle aged moms making music?’” laughed Barnum.

The concert Tuesday will be held in Montante at 7:30 p.m., and costs $15 general admission, $7 students.

“What’s really cool about Informally~Formal,” explained Barnum, “is that it’s very much an informal setting for something that has been made incredibly formal. But most of that music, when it was created, wasn’t meant to be recital hall music!”

Chamber music at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries was known as “salon music,” the atmosphere of which Informally~Formal attempts to replicate – and for which Montante is perfectly suited.

By Jonathan Beck
The Griffin

TAGGED: bpo, buffalo philharmonic orchestra, canisius college, canisius griffins, jonathan beck, montante cultural center

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