Tot ziens, Frans

It’s been almost exactly two months since Frans Brüggen died. With his passing, an incandescent light of the early music world went out, though the deft touch and inspiration he gave to so many musical projects, musicians and music lovers will abide for a very long time. It has taken me an inordinate amount of time to write this small tribute to one of the most influential musicians in my life. Simply put, words failed.

Frans Brüggen was an extraordinary musician whose medium in the earliest part of his career just happened to be the recorder. In this, he was an inspiration to the rest of us who play it, not only for his radiant musicality but also because he put the instrument on the map without affectation or defensiveness. He didn’t seem to feel he had to prove anything – in his own inventive, elegant and committed way, he just made this simple-looking pipe sing and, in so doing, persuaded many who had previously doubted it that yes, in fact, this instrument could be just as musical an instrument as any other.

And when he’d had enough, which he described as ‘recordered out,’ Frans moved on to new Career and Personal Growth Opportunities. In this, too, he set a fine example: when you feel you’ve conveyed all you can through one artistic channel, switch it and move on. When you’re done, you’re done, and there’s no need for regret, no cause for shame. New discoveries and unexpected joys await!

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Before I heard Frans, the first recorder player to impress me was a Danish woman named Irmgard Matthiesen, whose recording of Telemann sonatas I got when I was 13 or so. Her ornamentation of one particular sonata’s first movement was so gorgeous that I memorized and reproduced it every time I played the piece. When I finally decided I really ought to make up my own version, it felt like cheating on Irmgard. I wore out the grooves on that LP; the only disc more ‘played’ out in our house was the one accidentally destroyed by my younger cousins, who ran over it with the patio chaise-lounge.

But it was Frans’s playing which utterly blew me away. He was many notches more amazing than Irmgard, and his conquest was complete and everlasting. I first encountered him through the boxed LP set entitled Frans Brüggen and not very creatively subtitled, Frans Brüggen spielt 17 Blockflöten – because he played seventeen original 17th- and 18th-century instruments on the recording. What a revelation and inspiration it all was! Though I couldn’t have described it this way at the time, it seemed that the ideal alchemical balance had been struck between player, instrument and music, like some perfect artistic cocktail. I don’t remember exactly what music I first heard him play, but I remember Telemann fantasias and van Eyck sounding better than I could ever have imagined. I’m quite certain that his rendition of Andrew Parcham’s Sonata in G influenced my ongoing fascination with lesser known repertoire: Frans brought this eccentric little piece wholly to life, proving beyond any doubt that some respectful, inventive co-creation with a less familiar composer could produce quite fetching results.

Anyway, I bought all of his recordings and I listened to them incessantly. I still have them, in all their LP glory, as well as some of the reissued CDs. Plus, I got – and still have – The Poster, which was popular and amusing proof of the Rock Star status Frans had in the classical music world. The record company marketers capitalized on his sultry good looks by putting large photos of him on the front and back of the packaging, several more in the booklet, and a HUGE poster in the box. I didn’t actually ever put it up on my wall because frankly, it was so big it was scary; but from time to time, I’d take it out of the box and stare at it in adolescent, recorder-geeky rapture. After Frans died, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I still have it, as the evidence shows:

Frans & Al #2

Over the years, I met this unwitting mentor three times. In Toronto for a visit between my years of study in Basel, I went with my former teacher Hugh Orr to hear Frans in recital with Anner Bylsma and Gustav Leonhardt. I don’t recall them cracking even one smile onstage during the entire show, but they were captivating and utterly inspiring nevertheless. Hugh and Frans knew one another and, after the backstage greetings following the show, we were invited along for a meal at a swanky Toronto bistro. I spent the evening feeling simultaneously delighted and totally out of my depth, eating shrimp cocktail (not exactly a staple at home) and sitting across the table from this internationally famous musical hero of mine, who seemed to be a friendly, intelligent and interesting person, without arrogance or pretense. He also tried out the new Rudolf Tutz traverso I’d just brought back from Europe, which I hadn’t had a chance to show to anyone else who knew Baroque flutes. After several tootlings he pronounced it ‘very, very good,’ and asked me for the maker’s contact info. I was over the moon for weeks.

He must have had a remarkable memory for names and faces, given how many hundreds of them he must surely have met, because a year later he remembered me during his visit to the Schola in Basel, where I was still studying. And a few years later, knowing I’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity, I signed up to play in a rare master class he’d agreed to give during another Toronto visit. It was a last chance moment: if he hadn’t already quit teaching by that point, he was very close to doing so. The insightful comments he made about Anne Danican Philidor’s Sonate pour la flute à bec were exactly what I needed to hear, and the quiet, unnecessary compliment he gave me afterwards has continued to be a radiant little beacon in darker, uncertain times since then.

I had a dream a few years ago, a vivid dream in which Frans was a central figure, and which echoed the ambivalence I was feeling about my musical life at the time. The dream has resurfaced in consciousness several times since then, and it popped sharply back into memory when I learned that Frans had died. It was set outside Humbercrest United Church, a popular Toronto recording venue in an east end neighbourhood. Frans was sitting in the back of a large black limousine parked in front of the church, waiting to go to the airport. I approached the car, the rear passenger door opened, and as I leaned in to say goodbye, Frans said I was very welcome to join him if I was heading to the airport too. For a second I wanted to take him up on the offer and just head away, anywhere, but it became clear that I needed to stick around a bit longer, so I declined. Sitting there in the limo, Frans looked very old and frail, and it was obvious that he was unwell (which I’d heard was indeed the case in the ‘real’ world). In the dream, as I wished him a good trip and shut the limo door, I also knew quite clearly that I wouldn’t be seeing him again. It was a bit spooky when, in the days following his death, I inadvertently came across this photo on the web.

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Smooth travels, Frans, and thank you for everything.

Seen Backstage 1

Greetings.

There will unfortunately have to be another brief hiatus from writing, with some playing about which I’ll write when I’m done, but in the meantime I’ve decided to start another category – Seen Backstage. It can be quite entertaining, and odd.

Here’s the first offering: backstage at an enormous industrial club/performance space in St. Catharines, ON.

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Background Music #2: Water Music

A few musicians I know have gigged for a while on cruise ships, playing in a band or orchestra to provide dinner music and accompany shows for the hundreds of passengers on these seafaring behemoths. Like a lot of jobs, it sounds at first as though it might be a lot of fun – the adventure of the open sea, getting away from it all, seeing new places, discounted drinks perhaps –  but it sometimes turns out to be not quite so scintillating. You can end up playing the same charts night after night, receive unwanted attention from passengers from whom you can’t really escape except by hiding all day in your cabin, or discover that you suffer from occasional sea-sickness only after terra firma has been left hundreds of miles behind. On top of that, if your colleagues should turn out to be poor company (or they think you are, which of course would be impossible), you can’t just dump them and find some new ones to play with. But I hear the money’s not bad, and some people head back to a cruise gig when other jobs are inconsistent or in short supply.

Arcadia Cruise Ship

I’ve never done an ocean liner gig, nor have I set foot on one of those massive ships, even despite my Glaswegian shipbuilding roots. Maybe one day there’ll be an opportunity to which all we Baroque music people flock, for example if Cunard Lines were to offer Baroque-themed cruises such as Bach Around the Baltic, or Händel’s Water Music – Go Big Or Go Home.  But so far, the only ship gig I’ve ever played was on a much smaller, less glamorous scale: it was for a party held by a wealthy businessman and patron of the arts, who decided that the most festive way to celebrate his parents 50th wedding anniversary was to party down on board one of Toronto’s historic ferries. He rented the Trillium, the magnificent ‘grande dame’ of the city’s fleet, to chug around the Toronto islands for a few hours while all the assembled friends and relatives partied the evening away.

The Trillium

The Trillium

The guests of honour loved Baroque music, and their son hired three musicians to provide some: harpsichordist Valerie Weeks, Brian Franklin (bass viol), and yours truly. We played together frequently and so had a clutch of cheery, party-friendly repertoire by the usual suspects – Telemann, Sammartini, Händel, Boismortier, etc. This ferry party sounded to us like a fun and straightforward gig, so at the appointed time we loaded ourselves and the instruments onto the Trillium at Toronto’s harbour. We were asked to set up on the lower deck, mostly indoors and protected from wind and possible rain, and we started playing as the guests began to arrive. The ferry bobbed slightly from side to side as people came on board, and the atmosphere was vaguely idyllic. So far, so good.

Well, the idyll ended abruptly with the ignition of the ferry’s engine, located right underneath us. A low but loud rumbling enveloped the space, and an incredible vibration buzzed through the floorboards. I felt like a Lilliputian sitting on a Gulliver-sized massage chair – which isn’t a bad sensation, but it’s a tad distracting when you’re playing a musical instrument. The three of us couldn’t really hear ourselves either so any necessary communication, such as sorting out our set list, required yelling, sign language, or semaphore. Numerous guests came down to the lower deck throughout the evening, and they all bellowed at each other too. It was elegant and festive, and it was bedlam.

We played on and, as with many background music gigs, there were several people interested enough to hang around and listen for a while (or maybe they just liked the vibrating floor too). One of them was a tuxedo-clad but very inebriated gentleman who decided to hold himself up by leaning on the raised harpsichord lid, which soon began to buckle under his weight. I had my back turned to this, and couldn’t hear much, so I only realized there was trouble when I saw Valerie flailing her arms in the direction of the harpsichord’s tail and looking a bit freaked out. I turned around, saw the warping harpsichord lid, stood up and asked Mr. Hammered to please stop leaning on the harpsichord. I tried to ask politely, but that’s a genuine challenge when you have to yell. He shouted back, “Who invited YOU? Who do you people think you ARE?” and then, “What do you think you’re DOING?,” a very good question which we’d already been asking ourselves for the previous couple of hours. He eventually shuffled off, the harpsichord lid survived in one piece, and we played on. The rest of the evening was uneventful, and when the night was over, when we had docked and the rumbling and shaking was over, we had to admit that the bedlam had been fun and that gig stories like this wouldn’t come along every day.

So if Cunard Lines ever decides to put out a call for Baroque Cruises staff – who knows, maybe they’re already on it – I can hardly wait to apply. Perhaps I’d do OK as far as ‘previous experience’ goes. I have my Trillium story; and I once survived a ferry ride across the English Channel in a force 8 gale. My most vivid memory of that? The massive sound of smashing glass, followed immediately by the smell of the world’s biggest accidental cocktail, and a single word from a lone, tired voice: ‘SHIT.‘ Someone had forgotten to take down the duty-free display before we left harbour, and when the first wave hit: KABLOOEY.

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The Trillium first sailed in 1910, was retired in 1957 and then put back into service for parties such as this beginning in the 1970s. She’s a beautiful ferry. For more on the Trillium, read here:

http://www.blogto.com/city/2013/01/the_nautical_adventures_of_the_trillium_ferry_in_toronto/

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Sighting #8

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) played the recorder!? I had no idea until my friend Frances sent me a link with this photo on it. Shame on me.

Benjamin Britten

And not only did he play recorder, having been persuaded to give it a shot by his friend and colleague Imogen Holst, but from 1958 to 1976 Benjamin Britten was the President of Britain’s Society of Recorder Players.

Britten wrote a few pieces for or involving the recorder: Scherzo (1954), for recorder quartet (SATB); Alpine Suite (1955), a diminutive trio for a friend who broke her leg skiing in Zermatt (SSA); and there are recorder parts in two operas: Noye’s Fludde [Noah’s Flood]  (1957); and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960).

Noye’s Fludde is based on one of the 15th-century Chester Mystery plays, and was designed to make use of many levels of musical skill – it’s a very community-oriented piece, a musical manifestation of ‘it takes a village…’  First presented in Britten’s home base of Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1958, it has had hundreds of performances around the world since then. Scored for a big cast – as many children extras as you can find for the animals of the ark! – it calls for adult solo singers, a children’s choir, and some younger soloists; a professional-level string quartet, recorder soloist, percussion, keyboard; and a student string orchestra, student recorder group, and so on – and a conductor, one with immense patience, unflagging enthusiasm, and no fear whatsoever. True, projects like this are a bit of a nightmare to organize, but they are completely worth the trouble. This kind of show provides the wonderful but fairly rare opportunity for younger musicians to work with professional singers and players over the whole production period; and it offers a dose of ‘get real’ for the pros, who may spend a lot of their working life in a more rarified concert atmosphere…Everyone’s horizons get broadened, and it’s brilliant.

I’ve been involved in two Noye’s Fluddes, with the Toronto Symphony under Andrew Davis and at the Guelph Spring Festival under Simon Streatfield. Both projects were inspiring, heartwarming, and worth every moment of the lengthy rehearsals required to get everything working. There was also a very high Cute Quotient once the smaller members of the cast got their costumes on.

You’ll get an idea of what I mean by those last two remarks if you take a look at this excerpt from a Canadian production of Noye’s Fludde, filmed by the CBC. Stay to the end and you’ll hear the solo recorder accompanying the dove, as she flies out from the ark and returns with an olive branch. The recorder player is Avery MacLean.

Musings on the Festive Season Just Past

The festive season of 2013, with its Messiahs, Nutcrackers, carol services, and musical chestnuts thumping from the sound system of every mall across the continent, has come and gone. December is over, and the days are a bit quieter for many of us, musicians included.  Most people believe Christmas to be a very busy work time for musicians, but it’s not necessarily so. It depends on what you play, where you play, who wants you to play, and what people seek as balm for their souls after slogging through the Christmas shopping, decorating the tree, and the office parties.

Most popular on this playlist is Händel’s Messiah, with its Hallelujah chorus, He was despised, etc., etc. Because of what I play I’m never involved in performances of this piece, since the orchestration for the original version doesn’t include flute or recorder; and I confess, perhaps to your surprise and to my shame, that I’m not all that sorry about this. My apologies to all who adore this piece, but I’m not a big fan and the only reason I’d be willing to play it night after night would be for a paycheque at the end. Since this mercenary attitude doesn’t exactly jive with the true meaning of the season, I’m happy to avoid this moral dilemma altogether. A December Messiah cheque would certainly come in handy for paying the bills that arrive in January, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get to play a dozen Messiahs. Or thirty Nutcrackers.

Original costume design for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, 1892

Original costume design for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, 1892

Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742, and a year later in London, but during its life it’s been revised various times and what many people today hear as part of their Christmas tradition isn’t Händel’s original version. In 1789 Mozart was commissioned to rework it, and in so doing he added parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns. His version was published in 1803, several years after he died, and it’s this version that is used by many modern-practice groups these days. It could also theoretically be used by period performance groups, if they weren’t so busy being true to Händel’s original; though you may occasionally have the opportunity to take in a historically informed performance of Mozart’s version of Messiah, it’s quite rare. For players of the instruments Mozart added, it’d be fun to be involved in such a performance; but if you really want a make-work Messiah for flutists, then the best version to revive would be Hillers from 1788 which featured eight flutes (plus hundreds of other players and choristers). But does anyone really want to hear that?

What’s a recorder/historical flutes player to do at the festive season, then?

Well, you might get to play the Christmas Story by Heinrich Schütz, dating from about 1660, which does have recorder parts. Or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which calls for flutes in the first three of six glorious cantatas which make up this piece. Well, sometimes I do get to play in those, but Canadian presenters don’t program these pieces anywhere near as often as their European counterparts, more’s the pity. But the other piece which can be often be heard at this time of year is Charpentier’s Messe de minuit, which calls for recorders in the simple yet beautiful settings of many lovely old French carols.

If you’re not familiar with these, you might want to check them out. You can hear the whole Christmas Story of Heinrich Schütz here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3Kd4fcTs8w

This festive season I wasn’t involved in any Charpentier, Schütz or Bach, but I did enjoy some concerts of a smaller, more independent but no less celebratory sort. In late November, for a recital at Islington United Church, Baroque harpist Julia Seager Scott and I combined arrangements of carol tunes from the 13th to 17th centuries with music by Corelli, Händel, Frescobaldi, Oswald and O’Carolan. In mid-December Toronto Consort and various guests gave three performances of Navidad, featuring festive music from 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Latin America. Here’s an example:

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And between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Ensemble Polaris rocked out the old year with Definitely Not the Nutcracker. Our CD of the same program has been getting some great reviews and we’re already booked for some shows of the program next year, so perhaps we’ll create our own tradition. Here’s one of the tunes you may eventually recognize:

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While looking back on the smaller and more personal gigs of the season I remembered playing a couple of Christmas pageants many years ago, at the downtown Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Cyprian. I was in high school and studied piano with the church’s organist. She must have thought that a flute would be a nice touch in the pageant music, and it was fun to drive from the suburbs into deepest darkest Toronto to play a random collection of suitable tunes while people dressed up as Joseph, Mary, angels, Wise Guys and barnyard animals to create some genuine community theatre. It was wintry, it was cosy, and it was genuinely friendly. I also loved the building, and thought that the church had a really cool name – second only to St James Bond United, so named due to the unification of two United Church congregations (St James and Bond).

Our rehearsals always took place in the evening and, it being December, it was always dark during our drives downtown so I never really saw the neighbourhood in which the church was located. Many years later I was entertained to discover that my husband and I had moved into a house only two blocks away!

The church has long since ceased to be active and has been the twinkle in many a developer’s eye for quite a few years now. Development projects have been started, cancelled, put on hold, and the building is surrounded by boards, fences and plastic sheeting, many windows gone, no doubt a home to urban wildlife. Last year I happened on a blog post by Jonathan Castellino, who taken a number of very moving photographs. Do have a look at them, they are beautiful:

http://www.blogto.com/city/2009/05/torontos_forgotten_landmarks_back_to_old_st_marys/