Standing O … No Standing O

It had been 50 years since I’d heard the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  I played cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13.  Sadly, I told myself I wasn’t good enough to continue playing in university … and I believed me.

As a teenager, I loved going to the ancient Massey Hall to hear the TSO, and once, as a member of the University of Toronto Chorus, I got to sing with them in that classic concert hall.  Lucky me!

And now … it’s now.  Decades later, and the TSO resides elsewhere – in the Roy Thomson Hall.  And they’ve been there for 36 years!  Time marches on.

I went to hear my old friends last night, although none of the 1969 orchestra members were still playing.  The feature work was The Planets by Gustav Holst.  I sat in a concert hall that was brand new to me, set in a  circular arrangement with very steep seating.  I liked it but I wasn’t gasping.

And then the music.  The first piece was a funeral dedication from the composer to his mentor.  Such sadness in the melodies, but strangely I wasn’t moved.

Then a piece featuring a virtuoso trumpet player.  What tone!  What sublime moments!  Yes, I was moved.

After intermission, Mr. Trumpet walks to the front of the stage and says “Tonight is special.  One of our musicians is retiring.  You were very generous to me with your applause after I played for 25 minutes.  Gord has been playing for you for 41 years!”  And we stood as one to honour this man. He cried.

Finally, The Planets.  It celebrated the members of our solar system.  Parts I enjoyed, parts not.  Not once, however, was I transported to sweet worlds.

At the end of it all, many folks stood and applauded.  I sat and applauded.  Not touched, not standing.  Is there something wrong with me?  No.  Is there something wrong with the music?  No.  I stand immediately when heavens enter me.  Not this time.  And “considered” standing O’s, when you look around to see what other folks are doing? No thanks.

I learned more about me last night.  I’m glad.

Laura Smith

The written word doesn’t do a great job of sensing the beauty of sound.  But the beauty of sound is alive in my heart right now and WordPress is the vehicle I have to reach you.

Think of the moments in life when the human voice has transported you to a deep place, a spacious place, a place with little reference to our wake-a-day consciousness.  Months ago, I went to a tribute concert for somebody (I don’t remember who!) at Hugh’s Room, a folk music venue in Toronto.  Amongst the musicians offering cover songs was a woman in her 60’s or 70’s.  Nice enough to look at but really nothing extraordinary in her physical presentation.  It was her turn to sing.  The band started up.  She opened her mouth and something came out.  It was a something beyond the sweet voice, beyond the inspired lyrics, and beyond the pure emotion.  It was … heart stopping.  It was Laura Smith.

I sat there, stunned.  What was happening to me?  Laura was going way inside my body and shaking the foundations therein.  I seek the words to describe all this and they’re not there.  Melting, falling, embracing, vibrating, crying.  Like nothing I’d heard before.

It may be that you were in the room that night and weren’t moved in the slightest.  But I doubt that you could have stayed stable during that short performance.  Yes, I was shaken.  Somehow Spirit or God or Grace filled me.  Laura Smith was a conduit for something immensely big.

Here are the lyrics to “My Bonny”, her adaptation of a classic folk song.  How can simple words on a screen shine on you?  I don’t know.  Maybe they can’t.  But here goes nothing:

My bonny lies over the ocean
My bonny lies over the sea
My bonny lies over the ocean
Bring back my bonny to me

The leaves haven’t even started falling
Already there’s such a chill in the air
Someone’s got a kite on the wind and their mate is calling
Well, I’ve got a tramp’s whisker that tells me you still care

So bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me
Yeah, bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me

Soon there’ll be no difference between the land and the water
I can walk on the ice to places I’ve never been
When I get as far as I can go
Oh, I’m gonna turn and throw my cares over my shoulder
Along with your memory
I’ll just let it all float down the Gulf Stream

And I’ll walk home singing
My bonny lies over the ocean
My bonny lies over the sea
My bonny lies over the ocean
C’mon bring back, bring back my bonny to me

Yeah, bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me
Yeah, bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me
Bring back my bonny, yeah
Bring back my bonny to me

Oh, the human longing for connection.  The sadness of loss.  The remembering.

The best I can do is point you to YouTube.  Enter “Laura Smith My Bonny” and see where your soul takes you.  I figure you’re more like me than different.  Perhaps you too will be stopped in your tracks.

Laura Smith is returning to Hugh’s Room on April 14.  I’ll be there.

Angel of the Piano

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down in Toronto’s Koerner Hall, anticipating the keystrokes of a virtuoso pianist – Sir Andras Schiff.  Beside me sat a young Asian woman and we got talking.  She’s a student at the Glenn Gould School of classical music performance.  We chatted about the beauty of Koerner Hall, especially the violin-like wooden sculpture that adorned the ceiling.  It reminded me of waves of energy, and I wondered if the love and peace I felt coming off me was anything like that.

I told Linda about my meditation retreat and I do believe she was enthralled.  “I’ve wanted to do something like that.”  She was one of very few people in such conversations that didn’t say “Oh, I could never do that.”  I mentioned the Buddha’s instruction “What you contemplate, you become.”  She seemed to see the wisdom of it right away.  Before Andras took the stage, we discussed more of life’s ups and downs.  It was a lovely time.

Sir Andras lived up to his billing, with exquisite runs, explosive passages and tender melodies.  I closed my eyes and a quiet crept over me.  Soon I was deep in meditation as his fingers created the magic.  I opened my eyes a few times, occasionally to see Linda leaning way forward, head down.  I wondered if I had something to do with that.

At the break, neither of us wanted to go anywhere.  We talked of love and peace.  Linda told me she was a pianist and was presenting a recital in the evening, in another hall at the Royal Conservatory.  I said I would come.  She smiled.  “But it won’t be as good as this.”  “Let’s try that again.”  I said I would come.  “Thank you.”

And so the evening.  Mazzoleni Hall was an intimate yellow brick and wood enclave.  Linda strolled onstage wearing a gorgeous cream-coloured gown.  Sadly, the audience was nine.

Linda launched into Haydn with a sometimes flurry and an often caress.  Her face was with the music … a passionate “Oh!” and then a sweet “Ahh.”  I was entranced.  She may be decades younger that Mr. Schiff but the heart was just as open.  Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky were cheering her brilliance for the rest of the evening.

I gave Linda a standing O, accompanied by a “Bravo!”  So richly deserved.

At the entrance to the hall, I said, “Thank you, Linda.”  We hugged.  We bowed.  “It was lovely.”  “Thank you so much for coming.”

And I was gone into the night.

Island Thoughts

Yesterday was brunch-and-concert day on Toronto Island, at St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church.  It’s another world, only a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown.

As I walked from the docks, I heard a familiar sound.  I’m used to the scrape of skates on ice during telecasts of Hockey Night In Canada.  Go you Maple Leafs!  But this was classic.  Up ahead, a hockey game was breaking out on the channel between islands.  I stopped and marvelled.  So deep in Canada’s roots, doing stuff outdoors.  I thought of David Francey’s song:

The music from the skating rink
Drifts across the town
The stars of heaven high above
Forever looking down
I stand here looking upward,
And I’m listening to the sound
Of the village in the lonely heart of winter

Here were ten women flowing on their blades, some very skilled, a few not so.  There was one grey hair and several teens.  Plus ten smiles.  For goals, they had laid two six-foot beams on the ice.  If you wanted to score, you couldn’t raise the puck.  And no bodychecking.  I stared some more.  It was so simple and so beautiful.

On to the church.  Pews were turned around and tables placed between.  I sat with local folks, steeped in the history of the Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island communities.  An Algonquiner praised her land as “The Heights”, clearly superior to the Ward’s accommodation.  Jabs in the ribs and more happy faces.

And then … tofu with a sweet-and-sour sauce, bok choy, exotic mushrooms, a nest of rice noodles, and cucumber.  Not to mention a dark cake drizzled with vanilla icing.  Waydago, chef.

We talked about island life.  Coming soon is a huge bonfire on Ward’s beach, reducing the island’s Christmas trees to ash.  I mentioned the meditation retreat I’m about to go on.  Beside me sat a fellow with a speech impediment.  I felt a stereotype bubble up as I struggled to understand him.  But then I got the hang of his lingo and we were off to the races.  He had many wise things to say.

Amply satisfied, we switched the pews to theatre style.  Three gentlemen began their enthrallment of us the audience.  Violin, cello, piano.  Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.  Oh my.  Melodies soared.  Harmonies filled the tones.  Brilliant runs and calm lacings of notes.

Directly in front of me sat a young woman with curly red hair stretching to the middle of her back.  I exhaled, a few times.  She was so pretty.  I longed to run my fingers through her tresses.  Showing admirable restraint, however, I returned again and again to the music.

The alignment of bodies ahead meant that I rarely saw a full performer’s head during the performance.  Occasionally just the violinist’s eyes were seen through the gap, and they were usually closed.  Sometimes an upbow rose above the crowd, or a shoulder gave way to an ear.  I decided to let it be, rather than twisting myself to see more.  I thought of how, in one telling, the moment is perfect as it presents itself.  I thought that the folks behind me would have to adjust if I made sudden moves.  And that hair was just so divine.

Ahh
Thank you, Toronto Island
and more especially the people who call it home
I’ll be back

String Of Magic

It wasn’t a reasonable day, but rather a responsive one.  I didn’t do dishes or set up Christmas decorations.  I simply indulged, starting with breakfast at the Belmont Town Restaurant.  It’s only open on weekends and the buffet is immense.  Never in my life had I had baklava for breakie dessert.  Poppy kept plying me with coffee and the Toronto Sun sports section lured me in.  Plus Christal, the owner of the beloved Diner just down main street, was sitting at the next table with her hubby, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Mid-baklava my friend came up to announce that she’d bought my breakfast.  “Christal – no!  Christal – thank you.”

What’s next?  Well, my friend Jane was hosting a booth at a gigantic Christmas craft fair in London.  What the heck?  Go up there and surprise her.  The event was at the Bellamere Winery, the same venue that welcomed Jody’s friends at her celebration of life two years ago.  I walked into a flurry of festive humans, some selling and some buying.  A band was playing.  A little girl stamped my hand.  And there was Jane.  Surprise!  We hugged and chatted.  After a bit, I wandered over to the front of the room, where a stone fireplace rose to a vaulted ceiling of reddish wood.  Lovely.  At the fireplace, I turned around and faced the throng.  All this colour and movement.  And I remembered.  The rows of chairs, the Kleenex boxes, the songs of love, the words spoken by so many.  My whole being stopped.  Two very different experiences, in the same space.  And both were perfect.

Now zooming back to Belmont to the United Church, for a 50s Christmas performance by Frankie and the Fairlanes.  Elvis songs, California songs, Hawaii songs, reindeer, Santa and “O Come All Ye Faithful” – mostly rockin’.  And we the audience boogied in our seats.  I flirted with the 80-something woman in front of me.  We both loved singing along.  Behind me, Sterling, a former compatriot of mine in the Port Stanley Community Choir, sent and received some good-natured barbs.  Great fun.  Plus some of my new condo neighbours showed up and snarfed banana bread with me during the post-concert festivity.

Two of those neighbours – Bill and Eileen – invited me in for a glass of wine.  We laughed at each other’s stories.  I recited “Twas The Night Before Christmas”.  All was calm.  All was bright.

Back to London to the Cuckoo’s Nest Folk Club, to hear Boreal.  They’re a trio of harmonizing women from Guelph.  Tannis Slimmon was one.  I approached her at the break and said “You are responsible for one of my finest musical memories.”  And that’s true.  Years ago, at the Home County Folk Festival, Tannis invited audience members to come up on stage and sing “There’s A Lift” with her.  Such an anthem.

There’s a lift that I get when I sing this little song
There’s a lift that I get dum dee dum
There’s a lift that I get when people sing along
That’s a lift I’m getting right now

Jude, Katherine and Tannis finished with “Silent Night”, offering us exquisite harmony.  And we fifty souls offered it right back.  No instruments, just the voice.

I’m so glad to be alive.

.

St. Andrew-by-the-Lake

I got on the tiny ferry to Toronto Island this morning, and a chilly, windy one it was.  Go inside or stand at the bow.  An easy choice, and I loved watching the ducks take off as our vessel chugged into the fog.  I kept hoping that one duckie would be brave enough not to fly, that it would just steer clear of the big metal thing.  No such luck.

Once ashore I wandered the narrow paths between the Ward’s Island houses.  Many were tiny.  I loved the ones that were lit from within.  Such a cozy place to call home.  Flowers and bushes were past their seasonal best and the trees arched over me in their skeletal blackness.  My coat and toque kept me warm.  I was happy.

It was time to wander down the island to the church.  I came upon a geodesic dome, about fifteen feet tall.  Lots of silver metal triangles.  As I got closer, an intricate web of black ropes revealed itself.  A climber!  The shapes inside were squares and hexagons.  I imagined kids loving every second above the earth.  The floor was a spongy rubber, ready to cushion the occasional fall.  I smiled.  Waydago, designing adults.

And then the church … brunch at 12:30, folk concert at 2:00.  I knew no one but I didn’t think that would last for long.  And it didn’t.  Anne and I talked about the brilliance of Stan Rogers, a singer-songwriter who died in a smoke-filled plane in 1983.  And not just talk.  The two of us broke into a rollicking chorus from Northwest Passage:

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea

Soon I met Julia, Roger, Jo, Linda and Karen.  We all sat at the same long table and chatted away as we dug into salads, beans, squash and cheesecake, all grown in island gardens (with the possible exception of the cheesecake).  The church was a small wooden structure built in 1884, all white outside and all brown wood inside.  The tall stained glass windows included Jesus praying at Gethsemane.  Lovely all around.

Our musicians were a guitarist from California and a violinist from Toronto.  They showed us Bach and Vivaldi and an Irish reel and a Balkan dance.  We clapped and cheered as the sound surrounded.

Outside the wind was whipping the season’s first snow sideways.  Inside the building and inside our bodies, all was well.

It’s a community I found today and I became a part of it.  Blessedly home.

Include

I’ve always wanted to attend a concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall and last night “wanted” became “did”.  Loreena McKennitt sat on stage way below me, with a cellist and guitarist.  They were accompanied by five tall candelabras, each hosting seven candles.  Soft light was everywhere, including the ceiling, which reminded me of a cave’s stalactites.  Massey Hall is a grand old building, erected in 1894.  It has two horseshoe-shaped balconies.

And then there was Loreena, she of the soaring voice, and a love affair with the Celts and their music.  She has travelled the world in search of their stories and we are the richer for it.

How can a blog post describe that voice?  It flowed through me, vibrating.  And so did runs from the cellist.  I was brought to silence and then to wild clapping.  Everything stopped inside and out.  I believe we were all touched.

Within this aura were other things:

1. Staff members walking left and right across my field of vision during songs – at least thirty times.

2. The young woman sitting in front of me usually leaning forward, partially blocking my view of the performers.  She had lovely long hair.  At intermission, I asked the guy beside me a question about the ceiling lights.  The person in front turned around to answer … and it was a man.

3. The cell phone of the woman beside me went off during a song.  She managed to get it shut off but soon was perusing the glowing screen to find out the latest from her world.

4. I needed a bathroom break but so did a hundred other men.  Washrooms were located next to the merchandise table so it was pedestrian gridlock, of the bursting bladder variety.

To all of which I say “So what?”  The context of the evening was transcendental.  No amount of life’s tiny travails could change that.  I glowed along with Loreena.

Joyful On The Drums

Well, it was four nights out in a row – the art gallery and then three concerts.  Yesterday evening I listened to Nagata Shachu, seven performers from Toronto showing us the art and passion of Japanese drumming.  Years ago, I’d heard a similar group blast the skies above the Sunfest music festival.  This time, though, the beat would be within the confines of Aeolian Hall, renowned for its acoustics.  Ear plugs or not?  I decided no.

Most of the artists were young adults and one in particular drew me in.  She had long black hair tied at the back, and a lovely face.  She’d crouch behind her barrel drum, hold the sticks high and then smash them down on the horizontal skin in a flurry of strokes.  One by one, her feet would lift off the floor.  But the best was that face: it burst out in ecstasy.  Shine on, my dear.

I was enthralled.  The other drummers had their own excellent energy, and one guy even donned a cheek-revealing loincloth for one of the pieces, but all paled before my girl.  (Hmm.  Guess I shouldn’t be quite so possessive.)

What are you seeing, Bruce?  Something that teaches.  And not just about music.  What if I lived my life that way, virtually all of the time?  Gosh, that would be astonishing.  To be so “out there” that I would:

Say whatever I felt like saying, knowing that I wouldn’t hurt people
Joke around if I sensed the person was happy to play
Wear a silly costume for Halloween
Sing “Do Wa Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Doo” at the drop of a hat
Dance down the sidewalk with my loved one
Paint my kitchen red

Oh, bliss
To be thoroughly me
To be thoroughly happy

Courage

I like the way the French folks say it … koo-rawj’.  I need to be that.

When I was choosing the colours for my new condo in Belmont, Ontario, I don’t remember being brave.  I wanted red, blue, yellow, green, teal, purple and reddish brown walls, and that’s what I got.  Some people love it, some decidedly not.  No problemo.

The inside of the front door, however, gave me pause.  My original plan was cream, to match the baseboards.  But day after day I’d look at that door with unease.  No, cream was not it.  So red lives there now.  And I feel a surge of energy from having leapt out of beigeness.

Last night I went to Hugh’s Room to hear Jez Lowe, a British singer-songwriter.  What a sweet guy, full of stories about coal mining men and women, and usually sung with a twinkle in his eye.  I loved his song “The Bergen”, about a woman waiting back in Norway for her love to return from a sea voyage.  But the Bergen sunk off the coast of Scotland.

Sleep, why wake me with these dreams that you bring?
Dreams came to me where I lay
Deep the melody the wild waves sing
My love is far, far away

 Pity the heart, the wild waves part
My love sails the bonnie barque the Bergen

I tried to remember a song of his that used to thrill me, about a gold rush and the speaker’s partner being swept away in a flood.  Jez told us that he wanted to do one long set rather than have a break.  Hmm.  No opportunity for a request.  Except … right now!

“He’s just finished a song, Bruce.  The applause is fading away.  Ask him!  But nobody else is saying anything.  So what?  Do it.  Okay.”

“Jez, will you sing the one about the gold rush?”

“Gold rush?  I can’t remember.”

“The one where his partner died in a flood.”

(?) … … Oh.  I didn’t write that one.  It’s called “Farewell to the Gold”.

“Yes, that’s it!  Will you sing it anyway?”  (Laughter throughout Hugh’s Room)

The song is such an anthem for us humans who deeply want something but it always seems to elude our grasp.  I’ve never heard it sung live and last night was no exception.  (Sigh)

For it’s only when dreaming that I see you gleaming
Down in the dark, deep underground

A bit later in the evening, Jez introduced a song about a guy who was always a pain in the ass to his friends.  Then he looked at me, smiled, and said “Sort of like this gentleman here.”  I raised my arms in the bliss of acknowledgment.

At the end of the evening, Jez announced his final song.  I loved his music and his spirit so I knew what I was going to do as the last chord hung in the air.  I stood and clapped.  Since I was up front, I couldn’t tell if the folks behind me were joining the standing ovation.  It didn’t matter.  Jez Lowe had captured me and he deserved to be appreciated.

On we go in this life of ours

Home With The Kids

I went to a musical last week at the Palace Theatre in London. The stars were all 13- or 14-years-old.  For six years I taught at St. Mary Choir School and these kids were in Grade 5 during my last year there.  Now they’re in Grade 8, ready to graduate.

What I witnessed was the wonder of The Lion King Junior.  As the show opened, a shaman walked onto the stage, dressed in flaming red, adorned with fierce makeup, and holding a walking stick.  She sang “The Circle Of Life” with a deeply vibrant voice and amazing stage presence.  Fourteen became ageless.

I watched Simba and Mufasa and Zazu and all their friends.  I heard “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”.  All with my mouth slightly ajar.  How music and soul can reach us.

My best moments of the evening were not about what was happening on the stage.  In front of me sat a dad and his young daughter.  She found his lap more comfy than her seat.  There they sat, with the love between them so obvious.  At one point, she reached her arms back and clasped her hands at the back of his neck.  Truly lovely.

Before the show, I talked to one of my favourite students from my St. Mary’s days.  I’ll call her Holly.  She’s in Grade 10 now.  Such a glowing spirit from back then … and still.  Holly is looking at law as a career.  I told her that she speaks so well, and that it would be a good fit for her.  Actually, it didn’t matter what we talked about.  Our love for each other was in the air.

After the show, another former student, now in Grade 9, hugged me.  She’ll be Amanda in this story.  When she was in Grade 5, she gave me the DVD Elf as a Christmas present.  Such a cool thing to do.  Our few minutes of talking were timeless.  Caring for each other doesn’t stop just because we’re not in the same setting anymore.

All these wonders make me want to have kids but I guess that’ll have to wait for my next lifetime.  For the time being, I’ll revel in the moments.