Patrons of the Welland Seaway Mall never saw it coming. Chorus Niagara, with the help of director Robert Coopera, did an excellent rendition of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to Luisa for pointing me toward this.
Mary Willan Mason, the youngest child of Toronto composer, teacher and church musician Healey Willan (1880-1968), celebrated her 90th birthday earlier this year with the publication of a memoir of her early years. The short paperback is titled The Well-Tempered Listener: Growing-Up With Musical Parents.
(The book is not listed at Chapter's-Indigo or on Amazon. It's the first book by a company called Words Indeed, which has no website, but an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The memoir is an easy, engaging read. Mason, a writer who spent a long time as an arts critic at the Hamilton Spectator, breezes us through the first four decades of her life -- from her birth in 1920 to the death of her mother in 1964 and her father, four years later.
Mason writes in anecdotes, rendered in short, declarative sentences. The experience is a lot like sitting down over tea with a witty, chatty elderly guest.
Anyone looking for insights into the music and working life of one of Canada's first great composers will be disappointed, though. The memoir is like being stuck in a gentle session of bumper cars, where one keeps being bumping into interesting people, but is forced to move on, often in a completely different direction.
Mason admits early on to not having a keen interest in the details of music, hence the book's title (which is not as original as she makes it out to be). So what we get are Little House on the Prairie-style vignettes of family life in 1920s and 1930s Toronto, a small, provincial city where the iceman drops off his weekly block of refrigerator ice, family pets roam each other's backyards freely, and the streetcar drivers greet you by name.
You could call it Little House on the Ravine. The comfortable, three-storey Edwardian painted-brick house still stands proudly in Moore Park, within boy-scouting distance of the ravine that runs alongside Mt. Pleasant Rd.
Anyone who has heard tell of Toronto's Protestant roots will have their worst fears confirmed, as Mason tells us of how the Eaton's department store at College Park would draw curtains across its display windows on Saturday evenings, so that Sunday pedestrians would not be tempted by worldly goods.
Mason did not get involved in the musical life at the Toronto Conservatory (now the Royal Conservatory) and the University of Toronto, where her father taught. Nor did she find much of interest at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where Willan worked as organist and choirmaster from 1921 until his death, and the source of Willan's greatest musical inspiration. As her memoir meanders along, we do end up with a sort of catalogue of Willan's large body of work, but Mason rarely comments on it.
Dozens of family acquaintances flow through the narrative -- most of them seminal figures in Toronto's slow cultural awakening. The most colourful has to be local theatre pioneer Dora Mavor Moore, who we meet as a single mother forced by circumstances to move in to a log cabin on Bathurst St. with a hand pump for cold water in the kitchen.
As is typical of pre-mid-20th century Anglo-Saxon family life, there is no sudden display of emotion, no tattling, no poking in dark corners to probe for psychological insight or grudging confession.
There are touching moments, though, like this vignette from the day after her mother's death:
The same night, after everyone had gone home, Dad and I went up to his study, his 'junk room' he called it, because he chucked everything musical in there somewhere. We were just going over the day's events quietly when suddenly he jumped up, went to the piano, and began to play. He must have played non-stop for at least half and hour. It was music that I had never heard before and it was transcendentally lovely, ethereal. I asked him what it was, and he said very quietly, with his head bowed, "I was just thinking of your Mother." At last I understood: for all their seeming aloofness to each other at times, and always in public, they simply adored each other.
If you think, as I do, that the little details of daily life -- what the French call "la petite histoire" -- means something, then Mason's little memoir is well worth a weekend's meander.
In honour of Willan, and Remembrance Day tomorrow, here is a Memorial University choir (in Newfoundland) singing Willan's How They So Softly Rest:
Yo Yo Ma at Koerner Hall on Friday morning. Photo: John Terauds
I was lucky enough to get invited to the first of this year's four Learning Through the Arts events at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where students from primary schools are connected to something or someone special in the world of music.
As part of his gorgeous solo recital on Thursday night, Yo Yo Ma agreed to speak to more than 1,000 kids on "The Power of Music Education" on Friday morning. At least that's what the printed programme said.
But instead of a lecture or a class, Ma persuaded the kids on stage with him to step out of their comfort zones and pushed them to open up to the message of the music they were making.
An Orff-method group from the Claude Watson School did an beautifully polished job with text, song, percussion and dance in two poems by Chief Dan George. Ma thanked them, then, with the help of a visiting Korean drummer acting as impromptu facilitator, asked everyone present to improvise something.
While this would make most adults freeze in terror, the singers, dancers, xylophonists and even the audience gamely got in on it.
With actions instead of words, Ma showed everyone in Koerner Hall that the first thing you need to make music happen is be open to possibilities.
Then, with an older group -- 21 teenagers and 20-somethings (as well as a couple of teachers) from the RCM's various programmes -- Ma tried to tease out something magnetic from the first movement of J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043).
Essentially, he used various intrusive means -- poking, making faces and asking seemingly silly questions -- to snap the musicians out of being concentrated on the score into a zone where they are focused on communicating the music to the audience.
In the end, he forced the little orchestra to move forward to the edge of the stage. When he asked the kids in the audience what they thought, they overwhelmingly preferred the more in-your-face performance.
Most inspiring for me was being reminded of the message rather than the medium. It's too easy to get caught up in the details of overcoming technical hurdles and crafting a polished interpretation, at the expense of remembering what the magic of a great concert is really about.
And if the person making the music is open, the listener is going to be more receptive in return. That's why we all gave Ma a rapturous standing ovation on Thursday night.
As a sweet little extra, here is Ma in concert with bassist Edgar Meyer, in a live performance of Meyer's Duet for Cello & Bass (they recorded it together for the Appalachian Journeys CD back in 2000):
A crooked businessperson will see opportunity wherever there's money changing hands. Musical instruments are no exception.
If you don't have a skilled and experienced expert along to give you advice, how do you know that the $20,000 cello or violin is any better than the $500 beginner's instrument? More importantly, is the bargain a real bargain?
As with any other major purchase, there's some security in a brand name (except when a wily luthier switches labels) and near-total assurance when you buy from an established merchant who has carefully built an excellent reputation. But you always pay more for that seal of security.
Is it money well spent?
No matter how tempting the bargain price, the answer is yes. Of course, there are great bargains out there, usually from some lucky lightning strike, where someone has found an old instrument in an attic, or grandma had to move to a senior's home, leaving behind a valuable instrument that needs to be sold quickly. But these are truly lucky moments, not something that comes around every day.
I was reminded of this over the past 10 days, as I checked out the market for pianos (it's my instrument, so I feel more comfortable in separating fact from fiction).
What I discovered in a cursory survey made my skin crawl.
There's an Ontario-based guy selling a Steinway Model A, a great workhorse instrument, that he claims has been completely rebuilt, for a bargain price of $15,000. The best old Model A, the A-III, in ready-to-work condition, usually sells for about $40,000.
I looked more closely at the pictures posted on the well-known free buy-sell website and saw right away that it's really an old Duo-Art player piano that's been converted to a regular piano. It's not a Model A but (I'm guessing) an XR, based on the less-coveted Model M. I have played on several XR conversions -- done by reputable rebuilders -- over the years and have found them all lacking in the quality of the action.
I tried to contact this seller but, after a short initial conversation, he was no longer answering his phone.
Also responding to an ad posted on this website, I went to visit a piano teacher here in the GTA who has an old industrial office space filled with Yamaha and Kawai pianos. Each grand piano that I looked at was from one of his students, and was not needed any longer. The prices are incredibly good -- about half of what they would be at the city's most reputable multi-line stores: Robert Lowrey's, Merriam Music, Grand Piano House and Cosmo Music.
I kept asking if he had sourced these pianos in Japan, as there is a thriving business in grey-market instruments in North America (where containers full of used, freshened-up Japanese pianos are shipped over to eager cut-rate merchants on this side of the Pacific). The piano teacher kept insisting that these were local pianos, despite evidence to the contrary. (In case you're interested, pianos originally sold in Japan come with a plastic sleeve on the inner, bass-side rim as well as a serial-number plate on the underside of the lid -- both features missing from North American-market pianos.)
At one point, the piano teacher promised me a 25-year warranty -- about five times longer than a typical warranty on a used piano from those reputable stores -- to make me feel better. I couldn't help but think of what my father used to call fly-by-night used-car dealers, the ones operating out of trailers on vacant suburban lots. I wondered where this piano shop would be in 25 months, much less 25 years.
But the reality is that there are dozens and dozens of piano buyers in the Toronto area who are going to buy instruments from people like this every year. Most will, hopefully, never regret the purchase. But what about the others?
I'd love to find out more about the shady people operating in and around Toronto. If you know anyone with an interesting story to tell, please encourage them to get in touch with me: email@example.com
(York University prof and accomplished jazz pianist Mark Eisenman has added his eloquent take on the neglect of pianos in the comments, below.)
He did, and proceeded to move about animatedly with the music, sometimes reacting to violent changes in mood, tempo or key, sometimes anticipating them. Then his cellphone went off.
I figured I had a choice: either shove him over the balcony rail, and risk hurting the people below, or marshall all of my meditative skills to focus on what was happening on stage.
The result? I've probably never listened so intently at Schumann's Symphony No. 2 -- even if it was Mahler's re-orchestration, which I don't care for.
On my way to the Star afterward, I thought about the chatter in church on Sunday mornings while I play the prelude. It forces me to focus more on what I'm playing, and to try and will the music to reach the ears of the people who are trying to have a reflective or prayerful moment before the start of mass.
Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck -- blogging for the Guardian -- had a related sense-focusing experience in watching the Metropolitan Opera's opening night performance of Das Rheingold in Times Square.
Noise during a live performance is rich fodder for debate and argument. Philosophically, I love the idea of opening the performing arts up to every passerby, even if it means just a few moments of conenction with a random pair of eyes and ears. In practice as a listener, I love golden silence and still attention. As a performer (and I'll use that term very, very loosely), I don't mind a bit of noise elsewhere.
I suspect we'll never find common ground.
Here's a fun, live riff on the ringing cellphone, thanks to Grant Baciocco of American musical comedy act, Throwing Toasters:
I've just read a theatrical horror story that made me think of the Marx Brother's Night at the Opera crossed with the most biting satire one could imagine about mounting a production -- except that it's all real.
In the style of current TV storytelling, I'm going to introduce it from the closing paragraphs, then let you click on the link to read the harrowing journey to that moment. It's a long but gripping read, as Britain's Classic FM presenter Natalie Wheen chronicles, in The Arts Desk, every hairpin twist and turn in a new production of Kenneth MacMillan's classic 1965 choreography for the ballet Romeo and Juliet at Teatro alla Scala, in Milan.
(When I interviewed Italian soprano Serena Farnoccia earlier this year, during her wonderful turn in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Maria Stuarda, she mentioned that she doesn't accept many opera engagements in Italy anymore, because of the headaches leading up to opening night.)
Granted, there's plenty of nail-biting before every first curtain. But this is scarier than most.
Here is how Wheen's story ends:
At 8pm, the theatre is full with Milan in its finery. Kevin Rhodes enters the pit in his evening dress, his orchestra in shorts and T-shirts. I wondered whether they were the faces he expected to see.
So the bustle of the market starts, the swashbuckling swordfights, Juliet and the nurse and meeting the unlucky Paris. The team holds its breath before the opening to the Capulet’s ball - which seems to go pretty well – swags and candelabra more or less all present. The change to the Balcony scene works its magic – until someone knocks a fader and a great streak of white light blares across the stage.
And you could hear everyone in the theatre thinking, “For goodness sake, why can’t they get something as basic as that right?”
As a soundtrack, here is a clip of Andrei Gavrilov playing the "Montagues and Capulets" scene from Sergei Prokofiev's score on the piano (in case you didn't know, Prokofiev composed everything at the piano, then worked out the orchestration afterward):
I've been reading a new book, The Secret Life of Glenn Gould: A Genius in Love, by Michael Clarkson (ECW Press -- click on the book jacket for all the info plus a pdf excerpt).
Attempting to go deeper into the Toronto pianist's psyche than any other of the previous 18 biographies and analyses, Clarkson tries to put labels on every single one of Gould's female relationships.
Near the end of Chapter Six, Clarkson quotes Gould friend, former CBC producer John Roberts: "Glenn liked to call himself 'the last puritan,' but if you knew about the women in his life, you could hardly call him that."
Clarkson wants us to know about the women in Gould's life, ostensibly so that we can have a better appreciation for the many layers of his art, as interpreter as well as creator and thinker. But, ultimately, the story can't help but become an exercise in wild speculation, peppered with little details that make me feel like someone spying through a bedroom window where someone forgot to draw the drapes.
Putting Gould and his girls aside last night, and waking up to "What's gay got to do with acting?" Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian's response to the controversy over "Straight Jacket" a recent Newsweek article that questioned the ability of gay actors to portray straight characters, made me think about how, when all is said and done, the deeply personal really is a part of our relationship to art and artists, no matter what nobler ideals we may pay (chaste) lip service to.
Near the end of his article, which reveals that gay actors continue to be afraid to talk publicly about their sexuality, Ouzounian writes: "In fact, do we need to know anything at all about the personal lives of the performers? Best to just look at what they do on stage or screen and leave the rest behind."
My colleague's sentiment is virtuous. I can't count the number of times that very thought hasn't crossed my mind in the course of my work, as I am sure is the case with every other conscientious journalist. But that doesn't erase the fact that human beings have an intense curiosity about the personal details of other people.
Let's put aside the obvious excesses of TMZ and its print equivalents near the supermarket checkout. We want to know about J.S. Bach's frustrations with the fusty burghers of Leipzig, Mozart being kicked in the ass by the Archbishop Coloredo, Johannes Brahms's infatuation with the daughter of Clara Schumann -- a woman he had loved, too, who happened to be the wife of one of his best friends.
Somehow, in some way, these events and emotions either contribute or detract from the artist himself.
The large-scale reconciliations of private and public are the most obvious -- and difficult -- and, in the world of music, who is a greater evil genius than Richard Wagner, lothario, deadbeat, anti-Semite, and operatic genius? The only reason I began to listen to Wagner's music was because I had become a music critic and could no longer avoid it on principle. It didn't take long for me to realise what the rest of the world already knew, that his later operas really are something extraordinary, not simply in the context of the 19th century, but in the context of all of Western music history. Knowing that Wagner was a schmuck (it's more satisfying to use a Yiddish word) actually deepens the experience of his art, for me.
As I sat through The Flying Dutchman at the COC earlier this month, I kept thinking about the parallels between the doomed, wandering captain, desperate for a woman's redeeming love, and Wagner's own escapades with women. The choice of subject matter is no accident, on a subconscious level.
Getting back to the matter at hand, I think the point of interest is not the sexuality itself. Who the heck cares what Gould's or Sean Hayes's kissing preferences are? As Ouzounian points out, an actor's bad performance is the fault of the script, the director or a lack of talent. They may be suffering from a migraine headache on the day of that performance.
But what does, I think, add to the art, is the artist's underlying attitude toward his or her sexuality. To use some of the most obvious examples, how much of the pathos in Tchaikovsky's music is due to his struggle with homosexual desire? How much of the brittle surface of Stephen Sondheim's characters comes from his own personal experience of love and loneliness? Did Maria Callas see herself in the mirror as a fat, unloved teenager to the end?
If we didn't read letters, interview friends and listen to gossip, we would be missing out on a dimension of each artist's legacy. But, like everything else, there are boundaries of good taste and fairness -- usually nearly invisible.
So, do Clarkson's musings on the private loves of Glenn Gould add to our appreciation of the artist? I think they do. Despite making me feel like a voyeur, Clarkson helps add some more context to the bundled-up figure, whose baggy winter clothes become a metaphor for a lost soul wrapped in a security blanket.
Do we need to know who Gould had for a post-concert quickie in the dressing room? No. Is Gould, the artist, somehow diminished by my knowing about the tryst? No. That's because his legacy is more compelling than that.
Update: Please see Richard Ouzounian's response, below.
Comment from Richard Ouzounian:
Really liked your blog response to my article today, but there is one point of disagreement.
I agree with you that knowledge of what happened to Bach, Sondheim etc. can help us understand their work as creators, but the danger when it comes to interpreters, especially on stage and screen, is that the line grows much fuzzier.
If Sean Hayes is gay, does that mean he cannot play a straight character? If we knew "the truth" about Tom Cruise, does that mean we wouldn't believe him as a romantic action hero? Alas, the truth in a lot of this world is "yes".
In the middle ground lie those like Gould. No one cares if a classical pianist is str8, gay, or likes doggies. But a knowledge of that fact might help us understand him better.
But if we were to discover that George Clooney played for the other team, would it hurt his commercial viability in the kind of films he makes?
How do you keep an theatre full of adolescents occupied while they wait for the curtain to rise?
Set up a big screen on stage, ask them a question, then provide a phone number to which they can text their replies. Within seconds, they will be happily chattering away, responding to the flow messages as a group -- with laughter and applause, as if a real show were going on.
When the show is ready to start, the audience is already primed to follow what is about to unfold.
Brilliant doesn't even begin to describe this stroke of interactive pre-theatre.
It happened this afternoon at Voices With inReach, the first of a series of cross-disciplinary shows Theatre Gargantua has created with students from two Toronto-area high schools.
ArtsJournal pointed me to "My Baby, the opera buff," an article in Tuesday's London Times about Scottish Opera's Baby O Project, aimed at exposing children who are 6 to 18 months old to opera.
After reading the story, it's clear that this is not opera, but sort of a live Teletubbies show.
There was a lot of background information on how infants' brains are developed in nice ways by exposure to music.
Then I realised that I had all of this available to me in my own home when I was growing up, but no one called it anything special. My mother sang (and my father tried to), there was classical radio, the record player (there also were LP records, but I changed that when I decided to dump some in the kitchen sink to clean off the dust with Ajax and hot water while my mother was otherwise occupied one afternoon), and, the biggest treat of all, my grandparents' willingness to let me run riot at their piano for a few minutes whenever we went for a visit (a noisy indulgence my mother wouldn't consider).
Instead of allowing piano time for fingers that could only barely reach the keyboard, I was granted kitchen-floor time. I was allowed to use mixing bowls and pots as percussion instruments, but my favourite activity was tuning rubber bands by stretching them between two kitchen-cabinet knobs, then rotating the knobs to increase or decrease the tension while plucking the bands.
Why am I writing all this nonsense? Simply this: Every parent already has everything they need to expose their precious offspring to the joys and wonder of organized sound sitting at home, waiting for the naturally curious eyes and ears. It's just a matter of connecting the miscellaneous dots.
What most parents don't have is the time to actually engage with their children during the day -- or the energy and patience to do it once the workday is finished.
So, enter sophisticated developmental studies and imaginative programs, such as Scottish Opera's, to pick up where the parents leave off, while checking pre-dinnertime emails on the Blackberry. It's much easier to have someone else do the work -- and put up with the noise -- than to do it yourself. Much like buying prepared or microwave meals at the greengrocer's.
But there are some things you can do right now to connect your child with music, even if you're not there to supervise. Start by chatting with the daycare managers to see if some percussion and singing time is part of the daily routine, or, sit down with the nanny to explore the possibilities in and around the house.
I leave you with Exhibit A, a.k.a. little Jun Seo, having the time of her life with four pieces of wood:
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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