Finn Letourneau plays violin in the centre courtyard of the Waddington Building, home to the central branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. Tim Collins/Victoria News

Victoria’s accidental amphitheatre: Courtyard’s acoustics attract pros, amateurs alike

Downtown library building’s centre court a haven for musicians

As the sun streams into the courtyard outside the Central Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library, the lilting strains of violin music can be heard throughout the complex.

The music is enchanting, almost ethereal. For the uninitiated, it seems to emanate from the buildings themselves or perhaps rise from the courtyard’s cobbled paving stones. But if one takes the time to seek the source of the sound, it can be found beneath the central pillar and accompanying artwork that forms the focal point for this remarkable public space.

Finn Letourneau is not a professional musician, at least not yet. She studies performing arts in Victoria with an emphasis on singing, dancing and acting. But Letourneau has also played classical violin since the age of four and has now ventured into playing Celtic themed songs on the fiddle. She smiled when asked about why she comes to the courtyard to play.

“There are such beautiful acoustics here. I would guess it was probably just designed to be a beautiful space, but whether they meant it to be or not, it is also a beautiful home for music. Where else can you play a stringed instrument outside and experience sound like this?” she said.

No one seems quite certain whether the courtyard of the Waddington Building was intentionally constructed to act as a performing arts venue, but it has certainly taken on that function now.

Jennifer Rowan, the library’s co-ordinator of public services, explained how the library has used the space as a performance stage since 2012 when they planned a Christmas choir series under the glass atrium and discovered the unrivaled acoustic qualities of the space.

“Since that time we’ve regularly hosted musical and performing arts events right outside our door. We’ve had the UVic applied theatre program put on their final production, opera and Shakespeare plays and even a ukulele concert, along with a host of choirs and musicians. And this year we had readings from our emerging authors event, complete with refreshments and, of course, music,” said Rowan.

Outnumbering the scheduled events, however, are the impromptu performances by musicians of every style and genre. They range from a classical flautist whose pure sound is enough to send shivers up one’s spine, to an a capella trio that offers up medieval Gregorian chants.

And, although Victoria is famous for its buskers, the musicians who come to play at the library are not your usual street performers. They come to the library courtyard, not for the chance to solicit money from passers-by, but to hear the sound of their own artistic expression.

That’s certainly the case for Richard Kay, a professional musician who plays with the band Analogue at bars and private functions.

“What’s so special is that it’s a natural amphitheatre,” he said. “You get this incredible reverb and echo and you just don’t get that anywhere without a lot of electronics involved. Here you can sing or play with no amplification and the sound is better than most purpose-built venues.”

The courtyard’s sound qualities are so enthralling that Rowan has observed very young school children discovering their voice when visiting the library, spontaneously breaking into song just to hear the sound dance around the space above their heads.

“We’ve looked into the background on the building and nowhere is it mentioned that it was designed to be a performance site, but it’s an amazing space and the library has had more than 2,500 people attend our events alone since 2015. That doesn’t begin to count the thousands of people who just happen to pass through and stop to listen to the musicians who are always out there,” she said.

The next chance to see a library concert in the space will happen July 6, when a classical music group called Raven Baroque will play a collection of compositions from the 16th and 17th century. Alternatively, take a stroll down to the central library and, on virtually any day, discover whatever music is filling the air when you arrive.

editor@vicnews.com