Chamber Music Home
Published, Toronto Star, 2014, by Alex Newman
The Steinway grand silhouetted against a backdrop of forested ravine hints at what goes on in the Wells family home. It’s a musical family for sure -- mom Ginny is a violinist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, dad Mark takes gigs when time permits; kids Matt and Annie are involved in various vocal and instrumental groups.
Musical or no, it’s rare a family is prepared to open their home to the public. The grand piano, in front of floor to ceiling windows under the cathedral ceiling, is “instrumental” in the Pocket Concerts they hold. Anywhere from 50 to 60 friends, acquaintances – and strangers -- stream into the North Toronto home to enjoy the chamber concerts, and it’s attracted some musical stars including Brantford Marsalis and tenor Richard Margison.
These concerts in fact drove the design of the Wells’ beautiful modern limestone home – soaring 14-foot ceilings mimic a concert hall and walls roll back to make it possible to accommodate such a crowd.
But when it’s not acting as a mini concert hall, the 5500 sq ft home provides an oasis for this very busy urban family.
With 14 foot ceilings, a vast expanse of windows, and a very large footprint, the living area isn’t exactly “cozy, [but] it’s peaceful,” says Ginny. “I like the peace and quiet, and if I’m feeling very luxurious in time, I can read. I love looking out of the window onto nature, and I love being home alone.”
It’s also where she heads when nobody is at home, so she can practice violin. “If I’m alone this space is really wonderful – the acoustics are very good and I can spread my music out on the floor.”
Mark, who mostly runs the family retirement home business and buys and sells violins all over the world, heads here at the end of a hectic day, unfolding his 6’3” frame onto the long low sectional in front of the fireplace. “The view is calming, I can listen to music, read, watch the news, zone out.”
The Wells met in New York, at the Manhattan School of Music. Ginny, a Taiwanese-American raised in Tennessee, had interrupted a medical career to pursue performance violin, and Mark was doing graduate work after attending University of Toronto for Music Performance (in violin).
When they returned to Canada, Ginny says, “it was the 80s and the height of the [Garth] Drabinsky time. There was plenty of work for both of us. Mark worked for the ballet and the opera, he did Phantom of the Opera, and Showboat.”
She took a one-year contract with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, and then was hired by the TSO, first as a sub and then full time in 1991. But the economy was faltering, freelance work was drying up, and Mark had discovered a talent for buying and selling violins. In 1994, when their daughter Annie was born, they decided both couldn’t be working nights. And since Mark believed Ginny to be “the natural talent in the family,” he opted to go into the family business and take gigs when time allowed.
The idea for home or chamber concerts came from one of their friends in London, UK, a string instrument dealer, who held “soirees” at home, Ginny recalls. “He lent instruments to young musicians to play, and people would come and have wine and cheese. Mark thought it would be lovely if we could do that in our home.”
Chamber music has a long history. Often described as the “music of friends,” it was usually played at home by amateur musicians for friends and family, and was composed for only a few instruments. Home concerts were often where talented young musicians had their debuts.
To accommodate the dream, the Wells’ knew they’d need a different larger home. They’d had their eye on the Ridgefield Rd bungalow for a long time, which was close to their previous home on Sunnydene Cres. The big ravine the home is on offered privacy and a large lot, allowing them to build a large new home.
When it came up for sale in 2009, they bought immediately and then turned to musician friends to design and build -- South Park principles Erin Adelman and Matt Brooks, who are classically trained trumpeters.
Brooks says it was made known in the planning stages that chamber concerts would be part of the use “so large openings and high ceilings were part of the thinking … a special consideration for the project was that middle of the house 2-story opening with huge pocket doors so they could move the piano in and out, but now it stays mostly in the window of the living room.”
Acoustics were an intentional part of the design, Ginny says. “Shoebox kind of shapes are good for acoustics, most of the great concert halls in the world are shoebox, or rectangle -- that’s why Roy Thompson is one of the worst. When a space sucks sound, it not only sounds horrible, it feels horrible, but our musician friends tell us it’s really nice to play in here.”
But the ravine as well played a big part in the design, especially window size and placement. “The house is sort of turned to run nicely with the ravine,” Brooks says. “The floor to ceiling windows were ordered from a specialty company as they are over-sized and difficult to install, but part of the aesthetic thinking was as much glazing as possible.”
The placement of windows optimizes light but also offers captivating views of the ravine. That’s why they like to hold concerts on Sunday afternoons, “because evenings get so dark you can’t see the yard and ravine, and we want people who come to enjoy nature as well,” Ginny says.
The interior is a series of open spaces that unfold to offer glimpses of what’s just “beyond.” Brooks explains that “the glass interior corner and the extra-large skylight lets light flow right into the main space from second floor roof.”
Limestone pillars are designed to look as though they come from “exterior to interior … sense of bringing the outside in,” says Brooks, “and give a sense of coming from outside to in. The limestone finish on the inside wasn’t actually part of the structure, just meant to look like one big column from both outside and inside.”
The Wells’ also like to display the artwork of friends and family -- again in the tradition of European homes. Pieces that don’t hang on walls are displayed on the built-in bookshelves in the living area. Ginny’s mother, for example, did Chinese brush painting before she died in 2000 and her father became a potter after retiring from an engineering career. “He does beautiful work, has this latent artistic eye that never got expressed,” she says. “I wanted to display the work of both, and have space to do chamber music as it was originally designed – to be done in homes. It’s lovely to have that intimate music-making in your own home.”