Christmas day and very nice to be up north with Dad and Jake and even the stupid cat, Diva. She is happy to be with all of us, very interested in all the new smells and makes the weird, jaw-vibrato-cat-must-kill-bird sounds when she spots the many blue jays on Dad’s balcony feeder.
Last year Mom was still with us. Jake was with his Dad. Linda Harriman was still looking after my parents (she is now back in Alberta). I made a prime rib roast for my folks last year, but really Dad is the one who likes it most, so I made it again this year. This is my third roast and I am getting almost casually competent. My son said it was delicious. I do not take these compliments lightly. Dad is always appreciative, but tonight he was actually beaming. With more bad health news on the horizon for him, and increasing weakness, I am thrilled when anything lifts his spirits. The other thing that actually made him laugh out loud was a Banksy image of a chicken glaring at a fried egg in a black pan… somehow it just struck him right. I enjoy cooking for him though I have a pathological dread being cast in the role of constant cook… I am not domestic but I love food. And love seeing Dad eat.
Postcard perfect day outside… jewel-blue sky, luminous sun, sparkling snow, elegant trees both near and far. Did not leave the house, and finished 9 more freehand shaped and profiled blanks, bringing my total to 100 this year.
I am fixated on numbers when it comes to reeds. First of all, I like new reeds, and need a minimum of 10 per month to actually have newish reeds for each concert. This year, I fell behind and actually did a recital on an ancient reed, an experience that I never want to repeat, hence the current push to get the numbers up for the coming season.
I quickly googled to see if other people are doing the freehand approach. I am sure that I am not the only one, but if there are others, they are staying quiet for the time being. Or perhaps they use different terminology.
I have now been making reeds this way for 18 months, producing 173 reeds thus far. I these reeds have been heard on all my recitals, concerti, chamber music and orchestral playing (first, second and third bassoon). I have released one recording that I made two months after starting in this style (Vivaldi Volume I) and am about to release my second album (Canadian Concerto Project I).
This method takes very little equipment…. xacto knife, pencil, ruler, easel, sandpaper, file and nail file. It is cheap and all of the extra practise of looking and assessing can be easily applied to the mechanized processes of shaping and profiling. My good old Dad has made 4 new maple easels despite how hard it is for him to stand and see.
Each time I start one of these reeds from a piece of gouged and profiled cane, it feels like it is a conceptual impossibility. I suppose that is from years of training in the use of mechanized tools. And yet, 173 reeds have emerged from the mountains of sawdust on my various reed tables and have gone on to concert halls across the continent. Conceptually possible.
Merry Christmas and Joy to all of you who take the time to read my thoughts, thank you. And thanks to Nic McGegan for sending this absolutely heavenly image.
I haven’t written since our return from Japan. Using the unusual gift of some free time to finally organize my office. And to woodshed the Berio Sequenza XII, coming up soon. And visiting with Nic McGegan, here to conduct 5 concerts of Messiah with the Toronto Symphony. And trying to make a nod towards Christmas…
Almost a week has passed since our return and I am left with an amazing sense of gratitude from the time in Japan… even including the plane ride home. I sat with a young American who was returning home via Tokyo after her first year of teaching English in Korea. My armchair receptacle for my headset was not accepting the plug in… I despaired, thinking of the 12 hour plane ride and my thwarted plan to indulge in as many movies as possible. She calmly suggested that it might work anyway. When I checked, it did! So I held it in place, then half an hour later, asked the steward for an elastic band. While he hesitated (why did I think he would have one??) my seat mate whipped off one of her hair elastics and handed it to me. I put it around the armrest, and the sideways pressure pushed the plug into contact, relieving me of the duty of holding it in place. The easy generosity of my seat mate, from her basic pragmatic optimism to her responsiveness, extended the sensation of grace that lingers from my time in Japan.
My Dad was very very very tired on the return trip and only rose from his seat once. The effort was so great for him that I spent the rest of the trip hopping over him by stepping on the armrests… he didn’t mind. Watching him struggle, his unresponsive legs so heavy, his limbs so tired, but never giving up, made me realize anew how deeply he needed to make this trip. If he only did what was easy for him, he would not have gone. But his heart called to these people and they responded. Dai told me that they did not spread the word of Dad’s visit too much because many more people would have come and the event would have been unmanageable given our last-minute preparations. Yet it all felt like it had been planned for months and that it went off without a hitch. Our Japanese friends have all written to ask after Dad… he went back up north the day after our return, eager to be back in his own house but, as always, missing me and his friends. He calls to thank me for the journey when it was he who made it possible… his grace is beyond conscious thought.
To be around people who have allowed themselves to be inspired by my father was a privilege that goes beyond words. He never accepts personal credit for the work and motivation of others, but he feels so happy in the company of those who have worked side-by-side with him. It will take me years to understand more, but I feel there is a chance. For now, I know that I want to return to Japan to experience more of this incredible culture and to see my new friends again.
Rainy morning… still going to go for a run. I only had to get up once last night to help keep the fire blazing. As always, my upstairs room is so hot that I am not in any need of extra heat, but must keep in mind that Dad feels the cold so strongly. It is so hard because he cannot move quickly at all which is the one thing that would keep him warm!
Today many more people arrived to see Dad. Toward the end of the day, a local artist (Fukami-san) arrived to show Dad a special door that had been commissioned by the mayor of the Tochigi prefecture.
The day’s loose plan involved first going en masse to visit the gravesite of Kyu Hoshino, the founder of the log building school in Japan (Forest Engineers), to be followed by an enormous barbecue He was one of Dad’s closest friends and an incredibly fun-loving, social person. Everyone said that he would be glad to have so many visitors. We all walked down the hillside, past the former home of the Hoshino family (over 350 years) to the family graveyard. All of the homes in this part of the country have their ancestral graveyards, incredibly beautiful tall dark grey stone monuments covered with different colours of lichen and moss, surrounded by stone gates. The Hoshino site was beside the river. Dad was driven down in a van and helped up the steep stairs. A chair was brought for him but he declined it.
Unlike the church ceremonies of my experience, this was a group of laughing, talking people. There was some wild animal poop on the grass nearby and it was quickly covered with newspaper and joked about but nothing took away from the sense of ceremony. Incense was lit by Kyu’s widow Kako, and then each person in the group received two sticks. We lined up and then put the incense on the grave monument in a small box and squatting on our heels, put our hands together in silent communion. Dad put his walking stick aside to approach the monument though there was no question of him squatting. Then we all went back up the hill… Dad was led around the far side of the graveyard so as to avoid the slippery descent down the steep stairs. Once he was loaded into the van, Dai Ona jumped on the back bumper and hitched a ride up the hill.
Then the serious business of the barbecue began. As guests arrived, an impressive lineup of fine sakes graced the low wall of the barbecue house. Two woodburning fires surrounded by concrete blocks were set blazing, one of which had a huge flat iron griddle on it. Another barbecue was set up outside the house. There was mountains of food, and aside from a few things, very different from a North American barbecue.
A local writer, craftsman and artist arrived with his wife (Hata-san and Kaori) and created a very rich jambalaya, then grilled thinly sliced cow tongue and shitake. Kino-san set up the outside barbecue and prised open many huge scallops, shucked them out of their shells, removed the stomachs, then chopped them into quarters and placed them back in the shells to barbecue. They were big! I had two of them them, perfectly seasoned with soy sauce and other things I am not sure of, eating them with chopsticks out of the shell. Shitake were grilled in the fires and on the barbecue… we also had grilled marinated chicken, raw scallops, salami, camembert, noodles with meat and vegetables… altogether a gloriously fine barbecue.
By nightfall, it was a bit nippy and Dad got layered up with two down coats and a fleece to sit on. Students lined up to have their photos taken with him and photographers from Umenomarutagoya (Dream Log House).
At one point, Dad rose to speak about the importance of keeping the association of log builders alive in Japan… amazing that there is not a log builders’ association here yet! Many think it is a good idea but no one has stepped forward yet.
One other thing that distinguishes a party of log-builders is the question: how many fingers do you have? I must say that I really like these rugged, handsome gentlemen!
Dad and I went home at about 10:30 and the party continued long into the night. I was so tired for some reason that I fell asleep fully clothed, waking up later to brush my teeth.
Today dawned fair and sunny, much warmer! I got up and made breakfast for Dad then went for a run. I expanded my boundaries a bit this time, running past the building site, along the mountain river and up the mountain logging road to the clearing, then back the other way, past the Hoshino homestead and to the bridge over the river.
Then went back to see how Dad was doing. He had a bit of a stomach crisis after the consecutive days of excitement and rich food. The lesson I take from this is that it is very tough to be old but I try to help. And I must say that the Japanese are extremely kind and supportive towards older people, so I had lots of back up.
Then Emiko and I jumped into the car and headed back to Imaichi to get supplies. Every drive here is entertaining as every perspective is utterly new to me. On the way home to Okorogawa, we stopped to visit the lovely goats (Nana and Ran-maru)… Emiko has told me about them and it was wonderful to see the powerful personalities in these small beasts. They are the subject of a wonderful series of photos by Kaori… I wish that I could read Japanese as she also attributes comments to them!
Hata-san (writer and builder and artisan craftsman making all of his furniture in addition to the house)
Fascinating to see all the details in the home and in the infrastructure, such as the log garden that sits atop the deck railing!
In some way, this journey is a door to the world for me, witnessing the path that my Dad took alone for so many decades. It is humbling to see the way that his Japanese and Korean friends welcome him, how they honour him yet integrate him into their midst. How they respect his old age yet still remember the vibrant super hero that he was. How they quietly try to understand his cryptic humour, explaining the metaphors to one another until the laugh takes over the room. How candid they are through the veils of multiple languages (the Japanese speak English to the Koreans, some of them understand one another’s languages while not speaking them) and open about their emotions while somehow staying very calm. How much they laugh and how quietly glad Dad is to be in their company.
Originally, I did not want to make this trip, afraid of my father’s frailty, vulnerability, and forgetfulness, wondering how I would cope. I get embarrassingly crabby with him at times, and he occasionally gives in to understandable self-pity and a hint of bitterness… never towards me but just because he is still not reconciled to being old. Everything is hard, including getting dressed, let alone bending down and taking his shoes on and off whenever we enter a Japanese home. But! He never gives up for long, gamely insisting on taking off his shoes, walking as much as possible, trying to do all that he can.
This trip is a good thing; I am seeing things that I have never seen before and Dad is reconnecting to one of the most vivid and important phases of his life. Every morning I go for a run around this mountainside school that has several buildings built by the students of my father during his years in Japan. It feels like home and an entirely new world at the same time.
December 10, 2012 (during 13 hour flight from Toronto to Tokyo’s Narita airport)
Dad came to Toronto on December 8 to hear my annual student Vivaldi concert. Then we had the day off for me to get organized to leave on December 10 for a week in Japan.
Dad has longed to see his old friends for many years now and it is finally happening.
We were three hours early just because I didn’t want to have to hurry Dad. He is doing well for 87 but his legs are not just strong any more. We got through everything easily, learning along the way that there is a special check-in spot for people who need extra help and that we should also have told Air Canada when we bought the ticket that Dad needed a wheelchair. Of course, Dad doesn’t want to need a wheel chair, but it sure helps. There is also a special security section for people to go through, though they still require that coats come off and that everything is thoroughly screened. For reasons that I cannot fathom, they didn’t notice the black x-acto box cutter that was in my handbag… it was for the CD sales at my last concert. I had taken the CDs out of my bag but not the knife. Amazing.
We got to our gate early and went for coffee, then I piloted the wheel chair straight up to the priority line at the gate. The really great thing about traveling with an elderly gentleman is that we get royal treatment. The trim airline clerk took the wheelchair and got Dad onto the plane before anyone else… so easy to stow our stuff and sit down! I know that it will work the other way at Tokyo but it is worth it.
The Boeing 777-300ER is as smooth as silk. We have the enormous good fortune of having a 3-seat section to ourselves as no one arrived to take the window seat. There are hundreds of movies to watch. Dad is doing his usual thing of not wanting to hear the sound… he searches until he finds a movie that he knows. Every once in awhile, he gets up. It requires an enormous effort for him to lift himself from his seat… people start looking in concern, but he never slips, doesn’t grab anyone else’s seat, and eventually is smoothly, slowly, carefully walking down the aisle. I have managed to convince him to take his pills but it has been a constant negotiation.
We are in the final 5 hours of the flight, just heading south from the Bering Sea, another mere 2362 miles to go.
Flight landed, smooth as silk, right on time. A world away and my phone shook itself awake and delivered all of my FaceBook messages, business as usual.
We waited until everyone was off the plane. Dad’s feet and legs were numb from the flight but there was a wheelchair waiting and a very classy assistant who helped us through Customs. When exited the terminal with our suitcases, tall handsome Teru (Teruyuki Nakamira) was waiting for us. Dad insisted on getting out of the wheelchair, but when we told him that it was a long walk to the restaurant area, he allowed us to get another wheelchair. We went and Dad had a beer and I had a curry, exchanged money and found some stomach antacid pills for, then we went to wait at the gate for Dai Oshino. He was out by 6:30 or so, then we got into the big Nissan van and began driving north. I fell asleep instantly and was unaware of the traffic jam and accidents. We stopped at a roadside house and had curry and noodles and rice and drove another couple of hours, arriving at the Woodsman Village at around 11 p.m. There are many smaller log houses and the large one in the midst over very tall Japanese cedars on what feels like mountainous terrain. A fine dusting of snow, bright stars and crisp cold air.
We went straight to the big house and met Kako Hoshino and Emako and Kuzen Hoshino (son). Dad was having a great deal of trouble getting feeling into his feet and moved very slowly. He was so happy to see them and they were a little in shock at his weakened state but quickly gathered around him.
They realized that the Principal House that they had prepared for us would be difficult since the beds were upstairs and the bathroom downstairs. The spiral stairs made out of sloping, scooped out cedar are no longer possible for Dad to navigate, soDai and Teru moved a bed downstairs for Dad.
We drove back down to Principal House and Dai lit a fire. Emako showed us how everything works… so neat and tidy. Food in the fridge… eggs, butter, bread, coffee… it is like we never left Dad’s house except that the logs are fine small cedars and the language on the packages is very different.
We went to bed and I was very cozy in my upstairs loft under feather quilts and blankets. Dad got cold when the fire went out and I heard him moving around at 4:30 a.m…. I was sure he would be fine, but in the morning learned that he had been disoriented in the dark and couldn’t find any of the light switches. After a long time, he got the fire going and was back in bed. When he told me about this in the morning, I resolved to be more alert!
Got breakfast for Dad then went for a walk around the compound, through the cedar lined path, down to the building site with the tower, up a section of the logging road.
We had lunch with Kako and Emako then Kako drove us to the incredible ancient shrine at Nikko. There are hundreds of stone steps leading from the great gate at the bottom to the ancient shrine of the first shogun on the top. Dad and Kako stayed in the car while Emiko and I went through it as quickly as possible. I knew that Dad would be fretting after 15 minutes and we were gone for an hour and 15 min. Still, it was a wonderful sensation to be able to climb the stairs at our own pace without worrying constantly about him. There was too much to see in such a short time but it was better than nothing.
On the way back, we got a coat for Dad that would be lighter and possible for him to put on by himself… his present down-filled bomber jacket is heavy and impossible for him to handle.
On top of the cold (for Dad), there was a young bat in our bathroom sink. For some reason, the little creature couldn’t fly out, and was doing kind of an overhand crawl… at first I thought it was a big grey frog, but it was a tiny bat. I put on gloves and used a small towel to gather up his wings. As I approached, he turned his little head, eyes bright, tiny muzzle open in silent terror. I had already opened the door, and though he struggled as I walked toward it, managed to get him outside. Anyway, based on that, I know know what the rustling and high-pitched squeaking sounds are that come from the ceiling over my bed!
Dad is frail and it is taking everyone a bit by surprise since they knew him as an unstoppable superhero. It is harder for him than anyone. The first night, the house was still warming up and we ran out of wood for the fire and the heater ran out of fuel. I could have walked up the road to find wood, and probably the same for the fuel, but I didn’t. Added to that, Dad cannot bear to have many blankets on his bed, not even the feather duvet, because it makes it hard for him to turn in bed. In the morning, our friends loaded up the woodpile, brought thermal longjohns for Dad (which he won’t wear), loaned us their electric blanket and showed me how to fill the kerosene heaters. Dad still gets up a few times per night to manage these heating sources and I get up if he is taking a long time or having trouble. But as always, he manages to find ways to do the tasks that he has done all of his life.
Ran for 35 minutes in the beautiful mountain morning. Played aki in the sunlight then had a bath in the wonderful high-sided, mini, rectangular tub.
Got ready for lunch… we were going to a French resto with Emiko and Kako but when we arrived at the house, learned that Emiko had food poisoning, throwing up all night and then all day. They took her to the hospital in the late afternoon for an hour and a half treatment of intravenous fluids and antibiotics. She was the only one of us to get ill so we don’t really know what caused it.
Lovely lunch of inari… deep fried tofu skins stuffed with seasoned rice, miso. Home for a nap then practised then dinner… chicken curry. Kako is such a skilled chef, turning out delicious meals for the whole group.
Breakfast then longer run, 40 minutes switching directions halfway through. Played aki outside of Dad’s former lodging house (Rustic House, built in 1988).
Dai came for a visit andI asked about outings. Dai suggested going to see the work of Kosaka. We arranged to leave in 15 minutes, but first went up to the big house to see how Emiko was doing. While we were there, a vibrant man with a shaved head and a chartreuse down jacket and work pants came in, another former student of Dad’s, a logbuilder name Kosaka. He thought I was Dad’s girlfriend. I took it as a compliment though wondered if I really looked like I was in Dad’s age group. Whatev
Kino dropped by to show us one of his carved oak stools… exquisite traditional wave pattern carved into the surface.
We loaded into Kino’s huge Toyata van and went to a spectacularly beautiful noodle house. Dai told me that in Japan, the builder does all of the design, from the placement on the site to the final finishing details, to the actual building. The details were extraordinary. The outbuilding had sections of charred wood in the background, contrasting with a board-and-batten detail of small logs or poles cut in half and arranged at regular intervals.
The noodle house is built facing the mountain and a winding, stone-filled stream… unbelievably perfect. In front, they grew the wheat to make the soba noodles (crop done now) and at the side was a wasabi plantation… the wasabi must grow in clean running water, so the wasabi garden is terraced with channels and the water runs freely, the whole thing covered with mesh… amazing!
Then to a mountain coffee shop furnished with Kosaka’s fantastic work, surrounded by the stone gardens and walking trails that his grandfather began creating when he was 82 years old. Though the stones and ground looked dry now, apparently in monsoon season it is a torrent and waterways guide the water through the gardens, past the house and onto the roads where they rush to the stream below.
Kosaka makes splendid art doors and we saw three of them…. one a black, modern-art looking door, very high, made with reclaimed pieces from a lacquer-makers workshop… rectangles upon which articles had been set for lacquering. Gathered into a collection on the door, they look like exquisite tiles. The front handle was a piece of twisted wood (maybe like the ones I saw growing near the creek?), stained black and the inside handle was a cast piece representing an open hand, the fingers curved. Another door was mahogany coloured, many many strips of wood, undulating surface, two breasts (?) top and bottom at the ends of a sculptural curve and a piece of modern art set in glass in the front and back, the handles part of a wave formation. The final door of softly grey stained planks with an inset of sand art…. these creations defy description for me and the photos will have to help.
When I exclaimed over it all, Dai pointed out that it is a nation of talented people born of an ancient culture and critical mass in terms of population. His point that the talent is everywhere and that art is an extension of everyday life for many many people. I asked why people would ever leave such a beautiful place, and he said that not many do, yet if they do, it might be because of a certain conservatism.
Delicious lunch of leftover curry, then Dad went for a nap while I spent the afternoon with Dai and Kino… very fun, dollar store, home store, dept and groc store.
While we were driving through the countryside, I had many questions for Dai… there are buildings attached to the houses, sometimes compounds, that look like windowless temples and as if they were cut from large blocks of stone. They are store houses for all of the valuable household furnishings for holidays and for other stuff. Though they look like stone, Dai said that they are of thick plaster that allows for humidity control.
He said that many of the houses and families are two-three hundred years old… there are small family cemeteries everywhere, in deep grey cut stone, looking more like small sculpture gardens scattered across the landscape.
Dai asked if my instrument was a real one or a practise or travel; when I said it was the real thing, he suggested playing for people, saying that everyone was very interested. This is what I want to do when I travel, so I said yes!
We drove to Imiachi and first went to a dollar store. A dollar store in Japan is different than North America! I bought paper and paint brushes and oddly shaped (to me) envelopes and hankies for Dad (he said he never uses them) and shipping labels for Dad (he wants people to write their addresses so that he can mail books). Then we went to a large Canadian – Tire style home and hardware store (Gainz?) and spent an hour… there were wooden hand tools for grating horse radish and tools for crushing plums to make wine and all kinds of kitchen knives and things for all aspects of life. I got a comfortable pair of slippers for Dad because he complains about all of the small house slippers. Then we went to a large department store and I got an insulated vest for Dad, extra large (he said it is too tight and he cannot bend in it so will give it to someone else). Also bought a shirt and Tshirt with long sleeves and scarf and pants for Dad, all of which probably won’t be right. I got a light-weight down jacket for Jake in medium and now I worry that it is already too small for him since sizes are smaller in Japan. Then we went to the grocery store and I bought lots of things to try… beautiful fish in small pieces, fish paste, crunchy bean snacks, rice cracker and seaweed snacks, small chocolates for Jake and also french fry snacks. As we left the store with our bags, Kino took mine from me, graciously carrying them to his big van.
It was dark by now and we wended our way home. Everywhere we go, there are rushing streams of water and high mountains and deep forests and ancient houses.
Dai and Kino dropped me off at the house and I played a bit in anticipation of the command performance. The phone rang and Kako said dinner was ready. Dad and I slowly made our way there and many more of Dad’s former students were waiting, some crying as they greeted him. Some of these men are now nearing retirement yet they all of have the rock-and-roll good looks of people who who have lived life doing something challenging and wonderful.
Mr Zou and Mr Kim were in position, ready to make a Korean dinner, waiting for Dad to take the place of honour. They had mountains of fresh thinly sliced pork, lettuce and cabbage leaves with long, slender tiny white mushrooms… they said the dish is called Han Juop Sal… I asked because I hope I can figure out how to make it too. There was also sliced garlic, marinated sliced green onions (big strong ones) and small green pepperish things that were not too hot to dip in the Sam Jan.
After dinner, Dai Ona asked me to play for the guests, so I brought my bassoon into the kitchen and played ‘man will only grieve’ and Vivaldi and flight of the bumble bee. Then Mr Kim and Mr Zou sang a heartfelt song in Korean. We stayed and talked… Dad drank more soju and beer than he is used to so needed his strong friends to walk beside him as we went down the road to our house.
It was easy to start the fire and he went to bed for a few hours until it needed stoking again. Finding it very hard to get up and down but somehow still managing.
Rainy morning, warmer… went for a 45 minute run. I will miss this terrain that is both a bit challenging and very wonderful to run in. I only had to get up once last night to help keep the fire blazing. As always, my upstairs room is so hot that I am not in any need of extra heat, but must keep in mind that Dad feels the cold so strongly. It is so hard because he cannot move quickly at all which is the one thing that would keep him warm!
Today is the biggest day of the reunion week. The men have all gone to buy the meat and materials for the all night barbeque that is going to start at 3:00 p.m. Dad dressed in his new shirt and vest after all and looks good.
This was the very best Vivaldi celebration that we have done since I first jump-started this event into existence 7 years ago. Every year I say that it was the best production and insufferable as it seems, I am sure that I have been right every year.
On December 8, we had a full dress rehearsal followed by an evening concert. The rehearsal was planned to fit the schedules of the multi-tasking string players and for the concert, all backstage movements were scheduled so that the soloists would be brought from the warm-up room to the backstage area ten minutes before their appearance. The event was recorded and video-taped for further study. Each player knew exactly when their rehearsal time was and when they would be required to be on stage. We had three bassoonists attending solely to the smooth operation of the backstage movements (Amy Zhang, Susanne Hung and Neil Bishop) while the mastermind behind the whole schedule (Neil Chen) instructed them in their movements while preparing to play his full concerto (RV 500) on the second third of the concert. This involved Neil grabbing the sides of his head and groaning briefly before issuing the next set of orders.
Our recording engineers set up during the dress rehearsal. The school made archival recordings and I also brought in Rob DiVito, one of my favourite engineers to both record and video the show. This is essential to analyze our progress. In many ways, though I attend the rehearsals and sometimes hear parts of the concerti in lessons, this performance, by necessity, is more about independent preparation. So I really want to go over the final product with the players to discuss how their work will continue. I very much want this to be one of many performances.
This is the first year that we have had an artistic director step forward in a very brainstorming, conceptual way that was somehow immediately graspable. Amy Zhang is a first year student, quiet but powerful, and she wanted to be part of the event though she didn’t play this year. This year, as every year, I offered the idea that we could put an artistic theme behind the overall concept. Amy took the idea and ran. She said the parade of concerti could be conceived like a fashion show, with different models taking the stage. As part of the artistic development, she asked each soloist to provide an adjective that corresponded with their concerto and from the list, she chose one or two to represent the work. Though I encouraged them to imagine on a large scale, to imagine how each of them would fit into the big picture, imagine how the concept of a runway show could be woven into the reality of a Vivaldi concert. To imagine just when exactly we could rehearse the movements for a big-concept stage show. The immediate reality is that we had to bring the artistic ideas to our stage in simple ways. The posters reflected the richness and parade of a fashion show, the programmes reflected the imagery and for the concert, Amy prepared large signs and walked on stage with them, holding them high for the audience to read before she left again. Adjectives like “fiery, unorthodox, bohemian, stormy, awake, fervid, flight, dark, exotic, enigmatic” all took a turn on the stage.
After my introduction from the stage, Mike Sweeney led the evening with the Concerto in F Major, RV 489. He had performed this concerto in October with the Toronto Symphony (where he is the principal bassoon) and had meticulously prepared the parts. He was equally clear in the rehearsals, his demands precise but not inhibiting for the young players. He was amazed at their rapid learning curve. His performance was so refined, worked, luminous in it’s intent and so individually thoughtful. In keeping with our loose connection to the idea of a designer fashion show (all eyes on Vivaldi), Michael wore an elegant dark suit with a shirt in a delicately astonishing shade of spring green.
Alicia Bots played the first two movements of the Concerto in E minor, RV 484. She was our surprise powerhouse… she had come from being a shy player, technically unsure, to playing her last two rehearsals from memory with an increasingly strong sound and depth. Everyone stopped at the rehearsal and admitted that they didn’t know she could play like that. Dam straight she can play like that! And she wore a super-elegant, black, snakeskinish dress with patent heels. When she told me what she was going to wear, I said that she couldn’t play in heels unless she had practised in them. “I’ve been practising in them for two week!” was her quick reply.
I played the Concerto in C minor, RV 480. I was definitely a bit over-excited. The audience was hugely supportive. I love to play even as I am terrified that I’m going to forget the next note. This was my third time playing the concerto this fall and it still felt somewhat new. All of us need repeat experiences to refine our performances and this is another reason why I push to have this event each year. I had briefly considered changing into one of my designer gowns, but that would have involved assistants and clearing the busy but tiny green room… so in a rare move, I wore the same outfit I had worn all day: I wore my black net, glove-handed hoodie (Magpie Designs original), my faux leather pants (Christina Dobbiuk original), a grey silk shirt that has a long tail (Juma ready-to-wear) and my military Fluvogs.
After intermission, Neil Chen told me that we were 5 minutes ahead of schedule, so he allowed me to speak for another two minutes. I thanked the Chambuls of Chambul Chiropractic for their exceptional sponsorship of our event. I mentioned that all 39 concerti are in the autograph of Antonio Vivaldi with the exception of the one that Bianca Chambul was about to play (RV 499) which was copied out by his father. I mentioned the fact that one of the students had done a financial analysis of the event when I asked him to ascertain how much this would cost in the “real world” and he came back to me baffled, saying that he was sure he had done everything right but kept coming back to the figure of having to charge $600 per ticket to break even. I said that we were in a protected environment, supported by the school in all the major ways, and that we should drink in every second of this privilege. I also said that there were extra costs and I pretended that the money had come entirely from the students pockets rather than mine and encouraged people to drop their spare change in the donation box.
Then Bianca Chambul took the stage in her tailored red soloist suit (very much like her black orchestral suit, but this one florentine red) to play the Concerto in A minor RV 499. I had seen her moments before going on stage and she confessed to nerves. But you would not have know it to see and hear her… a deep rich tone, rippling ornaments, some wild invention that I totally envied and somehow a fascinatingly kinetic, unified performance.
Eric Macarios was next, very tall in his dark blue suit, my incredibly enthusiastic, open and interested first year student from Louisiana. Though he has only had a few weeks of study with me since starting in September, he has grabbed every opportunity to have a lesson, and has learned my daunting freehand shaping and profiling method. He was playing on his own reed made in this style and playing to the very fulness of his ability. Wonderful to witness and likewise, his aunt in the audience gave him an immediate standing ovation which was also one of the highlights of the evening for me… such open support can only help.
This section of the concert ended with Neil Chen taking the stage to play the complete Concerto in A minor, RV 500 in a beautifully Leonard Cohen-ish-without-the-rumples outfit of black leather cap and black trench coat over his black shirt and trousers… he looked incredible though he said he felt a bit hot. I did not feel nervous listening to Neil or really, to any of the students. I knew that they were prepared and that the experience of playing from memory was another step in the preparation, the raw electricity of performance combined with the immense exposure of the self. Almost everyone had a memory slip and now they all know that it won’t kill them and that they can all get back on the horse. Anyway, I liked Neil’s third movement so much that I am putting this concerto on my next album for sure. Now that I think of it, I want to put all of the students’ concerti on my next album, which shows the power of exposing this music.
When he left the stage, the audience sat quietly for a minute until I realized it was the second intermission and said so. At this point, I was in the audience and got to see how many friends, students and new faces were in the audience. It felt like a real show.
Christopher Kostyshyn strode out to play the first two movements of the Concerto in F Major RV 490. In his customary crisp shirt, perfectly-chosen tie and dress pants, he danced, subtle but perfect and unmistakeable, from the first note. My oesteopath was in the audience and later said that Christopher was alive from head to toe… some of the bassoonists were slightly distanced from the instrument, others were completely physically connected; CK was connected.
Our grad student came on to play the first movement of the Concerto in C Major, RV 473. Eric was splendid in a blue velvet jacket, yellow bow tie, cream pants and tousled Chopin hair. His concerto has extended passages of huge leaps, by far the hardest passages to memorize. Every student brought a different voice and a different sense of where their voice will eventually go. Eric’s was deep and warm and in his most engaged moments, a very comforting sense of agile baritone-ness.
Kevin Sleno ended the concert, playing a version of the Concerto in D minor RV 481 with a substitution of the first movement of the Concerto in D minor RV 406 for cello. Always inventive, this was more of an arrangement of the concerto with different voicing in the tuttis and was interesting. In a terse nod to the playful idea of the fashion show, Kevin added a silken silver scarf to his fine black suit.
Specific challenges of Vivaldi It is always a journey to develop the right Vivaldi reed, one that is resilient enough to spring open after large leaps but also refined enough to not slow down the expressive responses or rapid passage work. Tuning must be very stable so that the bassoonist is not slowed down by the need to nurse pitches into place.
Contrary to the bitchy comment attributed to Stravinsky, the music of Vivaldi is neither predictable nor repetitive… the sequences invite variation and his methods of overlapping different sequential ideas can make his music much more challenging to memorize than later classical works.
Conclusion This was our first show in a real concert hall and we were ready for it. That alone seemed to draw in more people. My own Dad was in the hall, along with my oldest friend, my long-time lawyer and many others from my life. My goal is to have the students and others realize that you can make your own break if you have the wherewithal to recognize the raw materials of opportunity. It was by no means a given that the university would allow us to present the concert in their main recital hall, but I like to think was an opportunity that we had worked hard to deserve.
How to Raise the Bar Every year, I add an element to raise the bar, to enrich our experience, to enfranchise us within the context of our culture. Adding the memorization requirement vaulted the level of achievement and the level of risk. What will I do next season? I still think that I will open the doors to anyone who wants to perform. Next season will be only full concerti. And maybe I will fundraise to pay the orchestra and to create a scholarship prize. And maybe we will have the audience vote for the winner. Not sure… first we will have a party and watch the raw video footage on a big screen and groan and yell and laugh. Then we will decide what we want to achieve next. Because it is simple. If you can imagine it then plan it, you sure as hell can do it.
Background History (in case you haven’t had enough already) The first Vivaldi Christmas Concert was held in 2006 in a classroom in Waterloo with a group of young players standing shoulder-to-shoulder beside a piano, reading our way through the first movement of the D minor concerto. We had cake afterwards. During the next 4 years, we expanded the concept, the number of concerti and the audience. When I left Wilfrid Laurier University in 2010, I took the Vivaldi event to the Glenn Gould School of Music and the University of Toronto.
This year, we had nine soloists playing completely from memory and two teams of rehearsed, top-notch string players plus keyboardists. Of the nine soloists, two of us are professionals in our fifties. Among the seven student soloists, we had first year students, education and performance majors and a grad student. Of the nine soloists, 5 of us played complete concerti, two played the first and second movements and two played solely the first movements.
Participation this year, as all previous years, was entirely voluntary. Each player accepted the challenge of memorizing their work. And each player did memorize their piece, though I decided on the night before the show to send our youngest out with his music. He had it memorized but he did not yet have enough experience playing as a soloist. He now has a lot to build on, having played from memory in all three rehearsals and during his lessons. First year students, education majors, performance majors, grad students and seasoned professionals performing on equal footing, taking the stage because they had the guts to step forward and the discipline to prepare, even if some of it was done at the last minute.
We had three rehearsals with the strings and that was the hardest part of the organizing as our young personnel managers quickly learned. The second rehearsal was the cutoff for memorizing. At that rehearsal, I decided if people would be permitted to play their entire concerto or if it would be best if they concentrated on a single movement. Others had decided from the beginning that they would perform one or two movements.
At the first event in 2006, I did all the organization and told the students what to do. Each year, I passed more and more control to the players while always retaining the right of ultimate veto. I warned them that as standards rise, tempers will flare. It took a couple of years for this to happen, but it did. Fine with me since it goes hand-in-hand with strong ambition and willingness to think for oneself.I also wanted the players to know what it takes to get the orchestral parts organized. At first we did it with scissors and paste, photocopying scores and pasting the parts onto pages. Now we order the facsimile scores from the National University Library of Turin and create our own editions.
Very roughly, the process goes something like this:
Convene all soloists and bassoonists who want to operate as support Identify all jobs and assign (e.g. project manager, personnel manager, librarian, programme manager, graphics, pr and marketing, recording manager, stage manager, finance manager, recording and decide if we want a reception) Discuss scope of event – begin to form artistic ideas Choose concerti (committing early is best — we are also trying to cover all 39 concerti so people are encouraged to venture into the lesser-known works, though our special guests are always permitted to play the work of their choice.) Pick a date Check date to avoid other conflicts. Request the Hall Then and only then book the string players Request the harpsichord and organ, tuning and recording services Schedule the rehearsals to the minute Explain the responsibility of the soloists to order the facsimile scores from Italy, to create orchestra parts and have full scores at all rehearsals. The soloists must proofread the parts and make sure that the rehearsal numbers are the same in parts and scores. Librarian maintains a complete set of back up parts. Fine tune the rehearsal days and times far enough in advance to secure room bookings (and harpsichord) Schedule all rehearsals for maximum efficiency Book the rehearsal rooms Book the harpsichord and organ. Book dress rehearsal time Plan backstage flow Plan staging requirements and lighting Book dress rehearsals and sound checks, instrument moving and tuning Plan for the unexpected – illness in the strings or soloists or music