Love in the Front Row

Tonight I get to experience the Royal Conservatory Orchestra from the middle of the front row. I’m jumping inside. What’s possible?

Will there be the joy of creation shared between the players? Will the word “orchestra” explode into a heart-stopping epiphany of union – all these parts blossoming into an unfathomable whole?

I’m feeling a fierceness inside that flies so beyond any worries about how you’ll respond to the language of those two questions. It truly doesn’t matter. I am open to an outrageous evening … part of which is what I’ll bring to the front row seat and the musicians nearby. For we the audience flow out to the violinists, cellists, trumpeters and flutists. They aren’t inert lumps of virtuoso mud. Our energy touches them. So how about ecstasy for all tonight?

***

I just walked into the foyer of Koerner Hall, seeking a spot where I could take off my walking boots and put on my dress shoes. Ah ha. There’s a bench with lots of people and a space for me! I sit down and smile at the woman to my right. I’m not sure what her face did in reply. After a minute of me fiddling with laces, she says “Are you here for a rush seat?” > “No, I have my ticket.” > “You’re awfully early for the concert.” > “Well, a few music students are doing a pre-concert at 6:45” …

And then it hit me. I’d plunked myself down in a lineup for rush seats. I laughed and laughed. The woman smiled (a really genuine one).

***

Speaking of the pre-concert, it just ended. My chosen spot is dwarfed by the Steinway grand looming above. I get to be under a piano! A young oriental woman walks onstage and bows. Once she’s settled on the piano chair, all I see is her lower body. Fingers to keys … and the notes vibrate in a way that’s absolutely new. The tender passages seem to waft out from the underside of the instrument and make their way into my pores. My heart is nearby. And when she plays frantically, her right foot smashes onto the pedal, her thighs bounce and her bum elevates at regular intervals. Once in awhile, the pianist arches back and I catch a glimpse of her black hair shining, but never her face. And that was just fine.

Next up is a young violinist wearing a shimmering shirt. Swaths of green and red shone like a Christmas tree. I watched his body flow and erupt, but again there was no face. It was hidden behind his music stand. I felt in the presence of Everyman.

Mr. Unknown was accompanied by a young woman who wore a long black skirt and high heels. Between were her bare feet. As she worked the pedals, I was fascinated by the pulsing bones of her right foot. So, sitting in the Underworld, I beheld sights and sounds unknown to folks occupying the 30th row.

***

Now another pianist, leading the orchestra through a piece by Tchaikovsky. She wore a gorgeous green dress and took turns caressing and then slapping the keys. During the fast stretches, I saw the muscles of her upper right arm vibrate, and her right earring flew into view. Then there was the end of the movement, with her hand held high, the fingers curling.

Linda Ruan stood, all smiles, receiving our applause. Then she turned to the musicians, and they all joyed together, the orchestra stomping its collective feet. On her way off the stage, she touched the shoulder of the very last violinist.

***

For the final number before intermission, no piano was needed. So my world widened to include actual faces – some vibrant, some meditative. The principal violist smiled a lot at her stand mate. A first violinist was the tallest blond fellow and he twisted his body every which way in his passion for the melody.

There were moments when the full orchestra swelled and the timpani player sounded the depths of his drum. The energy flooded me, and I felt mine arc back to the players, willing them on to excellence. They gave. We gave. We all received.

***

Now it’s intermission. I’m happy, ready once more to live inside the music. The time is coming for passion to reappear, and we are all the better for it. Thank you, dear players of instruments large and small; high and low; string, brass and woodwind.

Hometown Hockey

I grew up in Toronto, where hockey is king.  In the 1960’s, I went to four Stanley Cup parades, all ending on the steps of City Hall, where my heroes gave speeches and held the cup high.  The huge crowd cheered.

The official Hockey Hall of Fame is downtown on Front Street.  Each year, many thousands of fans walk by the memorabilia of the National Hockey League.  But hidden in a back alley in the Weston neighbourhood of the city is a more informal shrine, featuring all things Toronto Maple Leafs.  To find this gem, walk along Weston Road to John Street.  Turn east and watch for the sign pointing to Peter’s Barber Shop.  Pantelis Kalamaris started cutting hair just around the corner in 1961.  As an immigrant from Greece, he decided to change in name to Peter and to embrace the sport of his new country.

On Saturday morning, I reached for the sliding glass door and walked into history.  Hardly a square inch of wall space was available … the rest trumpeted the Leafs in posters, pennants, newspaper articles, pucks and hockey sticks.  I stood there transfixed.  Seeing my wonder, Peter the Younger barber smiled.  He was busy putting the finishing touches on the do of an older gentleman.  The two of them were fully engaged in the merits of the Leafs’ current star – Auston Matthews.

I sat down amid a row of blue folding seats … originals from Maple Leaf Gardens, the team’s home until 1999.  As a kid, I too had occasionally sat on such seats, although we couldn’t afford the blues.

To go from waiting area to barber’s chair, you had to pass through a Gardens turnstile, again just like I had done decades ago.  The floor was covered with various hues of hair.  I asked Peter if any of that was from the Leafs’ stars of the 1960’s.  “No, but I do have some in plastic bags.”  Cool.

Here was one of Johnny Bower’s goalie sticks.  Here was a poster showing the Leafs’ 100 best players of all time, photoshopped into a team photo.  Here was a board hockey game that Peter sometimes plays with his customers.  Of course the barber always plays as the Leafs.

And here was a framed letter from Roger Neilson, a beloved coach of the Leafs and other NHL teams.  Peter the Older had invited him to come to Weston and sign the wall, alongside such luminaries as Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly.  In the letter, Roger said that his doctor wasn’t letting him travel long distances but sometime he’d get to Toronto and sign his John Henry.  But Roger died before that could happen.

It felt that my time was up at Peter’s Barber Shop.  The host and his customers were all friendly (as long as I assured them I wasn’t a fan of the hated Ottawa Senators!)  Like Roger, I vowed to return.  Hopefully unlike Roger, I will.

***

From Pantelis Kalamaris Lane, it was only a ten-minute walk to the Weston Lions Arena.  It was constructed in 1949 (just like me!) and hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs for many practices in the 50’s and 60’s.  Many of the players strolled over to the barber shop for a cut afterwards.

What I had read a few weeks ago was that the arena had the world’s best fries, and who was I to turn down an opportunity like that?  I approached a door that had a back door feel to it but it turned out to be the main entrance.  Then I was in front of the snack bar, with the ice surface beyond, full of boys skating hard and fans shouting encouragement.  I was tempted by the “Not so famous hot dogs” sign but settled for the world-renowned treat.  Pouring on the malt vinegar, I took my French fries and Diet Coke into the stands.

Spectators sat on five rows of wooden benches, some sections red and some blue.  The walls of the arena were two tone blue – robin’s egg contrasted with royal.  It was a lovely assault on the eyes.

  • The kids, maybe 12, were giving ‘er on the ice.  Some flew over the blue line.  Some fell unaided on their tushes.  Goalies stretched for the save.  Forwards dipsydoodled by defensemen, with few passes to be seen.  Coached yelled.  Fans screamed.  I ate.  Gosh, those fries are yummy!

The roof was a curve of bare beams, spotted with metal plates and inch thick cables.  The same as in 1949.  I imagined my Leafs heroes doing their drills on the ice.  Maybe some of these boys in front of me knew the history and were inspired by Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich.  More likely, the names of current Leafs heroes will adorn their backs … Matthews and Marner jerseys.

So hockey has been played here on cold Saturdays for 69 years.  Oh, how a sport can seep into our souls.  Whether the seat is a barber chair or a hard bench,  we live the game.

My Golf … The History

Why fight it?  I’m passionate about golf and have been ever since I was a teenager.  In terms of my current spiritual life, the tendency of Buddhists like me is to think in terms of “ascent” – opening to ever more rarified forms of consciousness.  But “descent” is another possibility – seeing the transcendent in worldly activities, in experiences of the body.  Both approaches contribute to my well-being.  So here I am once more descending into golf.

My passion for the game has been under wraps for a few years but I can feel it re-emerging.  For the past few days, I’ve been reminiscing about my past golfing life, and how I’ve seen the sport as symbolic of life’s journey.

As a kid, I spent a couple of weeks every summer on grandpa’s farm near Dunsford, Ontario.  I remember teeing it up near the lane and trying to reach a fence maybe 120 yards away with my drives.  I don’t think I ever succeeded but I sure had fun, even though I lost a lot of balls in the grain.

A few hundred yards down the road was a nine-hole course – the Dunsford Golf Club.  I spent so many hours walking those fairways alone, hitting the occasional shot that felt so pure, so effortless.  I was becoming a human being.

Back home in Toronto, I discovered the Don Valley Golf Course.  Juniors could play early in the morning.  Even earlier, as the sun rose, I usually was scouring the banks of the Don River in search of golf balls.  Once, I walked onto the 18th tee, a par four, having consumed 84 strokes in my round.  A bogey five and I would break 90 for the first time in my life.  The river crossed in front of the green.  After my drive landed fine in the fairway, I stood over the ball.  I was nervous.  Put the ball into the drink and there’d go the milestone achievement.  Instead I swung smoothly and watched the ball soar onto the green.  Two putts later, I had an 88.  Never since have I broken 90 … but the future beckons.

Even way back then, I loved watching the professionals play.  I’ve stood behind Jack Nicklaus on the tee in Toronto and Calgary, watching the ball continue to climb.  One time I stepped on Gary Player’s ball, happily in a practice round.  I’ve seen the majesty of St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto.  More recently, I’ve followed women pros as they navigated the rolling fairways of my hometown London Hunt and Country Club.  Usually in a blissed-out frame of mind.

Golf is in my genes, I guess.  A resonating part of my life for so many years.  Yes, it’s been underground for awhile but you can’t keep a good sport down.  On I go into a journey of rediscovery.

Passion for the Music

I leaned on the front of the stage at SunFest last night.  Eight feet away from me was a cellist, a member of the Ukrainian quartet Dakha Brakha.  Here’s what the program had to say about them:

Three striking women in white wedding dresses and tall black Astrakhan hats … harmonizing in mighty steel-tearing Ukrainian white voice, two band members pounding drums and the third digging into a folk-pattern-painted cello with massive abrasive energy, plus a male singer wielding accordion and trombone

Indeed.

To be so close to a woman who closed her eyes, threw her head back and sang unknown words was a marvel.  She held her cello between her knees at an angle rather than straight on.  She played some incredibly high notes and would slide her finger down for the next one, creating a mournful wail.  Again with her eyes often closed.

To see those women in their embroidered dresses, wearing many loops of large grey beads around their necks, and to feel the power of the drums … Wow.  Some kind entity allowed me to experience the driving beat and the tender ballads from a few feet away.  I’ve had so many intense moments over the last month, usually with music, and I feel my heart continuing to open and stay open.  Something is happening to me.