Seen Backstage 1


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.


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.

* * * * *

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:


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:

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:


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:

NutNouv Cover small

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:

Rant #2

Lately I’ve read several items on the World Wide Interwebs in which artists talk about being asked to produce Art without being paid for it. Ah, I thought to myself, it might be time to throw in my two-cents-worth.

One of these items was a Facebook post by a distressed colleague. She’d followed up on a lead for work as a community children’s music teacher by sending along her credentials, experience and her fee, which she calculates on a sliding scale to accommodate people of various means. She was unprepared for the response she received, which was, ‘Sorry but I think they mean free lessons.’

Ouch. My colleague was stunned and hurt. To be sure, those folks probably pay their babysitters, their school taxes and their hydro bills, but apparently an extracurricular music teacher isn’t even worth minimum wage. It’s a shock to run into people who think that the playing or teaching of music shouldn’t cost anyone anything. There are many people out there who seem to think either that we musicians all have money trees in our backyards, or that we don’t actually have to eat, pay for public transit or buy underwear like everyone else. Apparently, we are miracles – or freaks – of nature. Come to think of it, my aforementioned colleague has lived a blessed life if she’s only just run into this attitude.

I thought I’d share my most significant experience of this type, but before I do, I’d like to clarify a couple of things. Firstly, as we already know, money isn’t everything (don’t I sound deep?). There are many times when musicians offer their services for free, knowing that paying a realistic fee would constitute a genuine hardship, or if the event is something of which one simply wishes to be a part.  Every one of us has done this, and for me, over the years, such events have included certain funerals, wedding ceremonies, fundraising concerts and community events. For several years I played once a month at the long term care facility where my mother lived during her final years. I continued playing there for quite a while after she died, and I’ll take it up again soon after a break of a few months. The non-monetary rewards of playing there are many and diverse, and many such facilities just don’t have funds to provide artistic activities that their residents enjoy and deserve.

But I must also say that the organizations or people who can’t afford to pay their musicians usually offer to do so anyway, apologizing all over themselves for having so little to spare, and it’s that offer that means a great deal. There’s a recognition that music has value, and that a musician’s expertise and time is worth something. In my experience it’s often the people who can afford to pay that don’t recognize this. There are folks who will tell you they spent $10,000 on a wedding dress and then offer $200 for five hours of a quartet’s time, adding that the musicians won’t get served dinner either but are welcome to ask the wait staff for water. (“Great, thanks. Is it OK if I forage for berries in the country club garden on my break?”)

A country club with lots of green areas. Ideal for foraging.

A country club with lots of green areas. Ideal for foraging.

And now for the story I said I’d tell.

Once upon a time, a member of a distinguished women’s organization called me on the touch tone phone. She asked me to put together a Baroque ensemble to provide music for a swanky fundraising event that her organization was putting on for the Alzheimer’s Foundation. The cause was very worthy, as they almost all are, and in hindsight this story feels even a little sadder than it did at the time. It was Alzheimer’s that felled my mother, reducing to a shadow a feisty woman whom not even cancer had succeeded in demolishing.

The woman told me that the ritzy restaurant Winston’s would be catering the event, that Very Important People would be there, and that it was bound to be an altogether scintillating event. “Well, it sounds very impressive, and thank you for calling me about it,” I said, or something like that. “May I ask what you’ve budgeted for the music?” She sounded a bit surprised. “Oh. We don’t have a budget for music,” she replied.

There was a moment of silence on both ends of the touch tone phone, and then I told her I didn’t really think anyone would be willing to play several hours of background music for free. “But it’ll be very good exposure!” she piped up. “Very Important People will be there! Please ask your colleagues. I’m sure they’ll be happy to support this great cause.” Wow. I’d heard that before, and I’ve heard it since, but it was particularly odd to hear such words coming from the representative of a women’s club linked to a local university, where people paid lots of tuition in exchange for professional training in medicine, law, engineering and – gasp – music. I told her that if musicians played for free every time we were asked to, we’d be living on the street, but she clearly didn’t understand what I meant. I suppose I sounded kind of rude, but she cheerfully asked me to check with my colleagues and get back to her.

To test my theory I called up one colleague and asked what she thought. She laughed uproariously, which is a great gift for a musician to have – way more fun than crying and much healthier than getting mad. I waited a couple of days and phoned the woman back. I surmised out loud that Winston’s probably wasn’t catering for free, nor would Canada Post deliver the invitations out of the goodness of their hearts, so why should any musicians should be expected to play for free?  If the music was as significant and meaningful a part of the event as she described it, why was there no budget for it? There wasn’t even an offer of tax receipts in lieu of payment, which would at least have demonstrated an awareness of the value of the musicians’ services. As for exposure – and this part I didn’t say in my out loud voice – exposure at such an event is usually meaningless as far as career development goes. The best you can hope for is that nobody Very Important spills their red wine on you, your music, and/or your instrument. (Word to the wise re: gig outfits: always wear dark colours.)


I suggested that perhaps she could try hiring an ensemble of undergraduate students, who might actually appreciate the experience and exposure. Thanks for calling, but no thanks, and the conversation ended. Later on, I had to smile when I learned that the local universities and conservatory actually charge a fee on behalf of student ensembles who play at events like this. Go figure, it’s actually professional training.

Another time I’ll address the questions of payment and the recording industry…but this is enough for now. In the meantime, here are a couple of the many interesting posts I’ve came across: