Montreal – part 2

In my tenth year living in Montreal, I received an unexpected and unintended gift. I had been singing for just over a year at St. Matthias when I subbed for my boss as a conductor over the Christmas break. I was skeptical, dubiously so, but also very willing. Why on earth he would choose me was totally immaterial – I loved conducting and was happy to say yes. I think it was just for the week including Epiphany Sunday. We sang the Malcolm Missa ad Praesepe (lovely music) and Goldschmidt (less lovely). The Sunday came and went and I expected him back like everyone else.

It came as a surprise when his entry back into Canada was refused due to issues with paperwork. The church asked me to stick around for a few more weeks and those few weeks turned into his self-destructive resignation and a few more months of interim work. Then suddenly, and without a search, I was appointed the Director of Music. It turned out that my three-month stint had convinced them not to audition.

Now, that was a surprise too. I had been a singer for a decade, and I felt a bit unprepared to take on something like St. Matthias. I was not alone in that assessment – plenty of musicians in town (especially organists) felt the same way and made sure everyone knew it – a few organists even went so far as to offer their services assuming that I was a lame duck. That was the perfect experience for me – a scenario where I had to prove myself time and again, which is exactly what you want if you are a musician. I love proving myself.

There were many days where I felt completely out of my depth. I had a good background and good training, but I had no leadership skills. So, I rolled up my sleeves and told myself I would learn how to do this no matter what, and I did. I still do. I learned from others and learned from experience and I’m never shy about trying to improve in any way I can and in my own way. Being an artist is mostly a commitment to respecting what is unique about you. You must never, ever, give that up. After that, try to choose a medium that you have natural inclinations for.

I’ve certainly had my share of successes in the past 10 years. More than a few failures too. But what I’ve noticed most recently is this : Where many see successes I see room for improvement. That is a good sign. I’m super critical of my work, but I think I’m looking at myself through a different lens today. A healthy, but self-critical lens.

I’ve done and learned far too much at St. Matthias to be able to write it all down. It has nurtured my abilities and kept me pushing myself forward into unknown territory. And that is just the professional side. My personal side is just as important here. Where did I meet my wife? Make most of my friends? Where are my children baptized? All of it happened right here. I was very lucky the congregation and choir was full of genuinely good people who were patient with me while I found my way.

This year we did the Duruflé Requiem with organ and strings. It is not an easy score – fraught with difficult transitions and difficult harmonies – and I spent many an hour fretting over it. By the time of the performance, I was so immersed in the music and was getting such wonderful results from the ensemble that I fell into unity with the music and came out of it just at the end. I remember almost nothing about that performance – the music had reached such a rush within me that I lost all thought, the music simply flowed through me and I was a part of the flow. An embodiment. That night I knew I had learned what I had been at St. Matthias to learn. I’m very grateful to William Blizzard and the rest of the corporation of that time for choosing me. It made such a difference to my life. I’m very glad that William was there to hear the Duruflé. I’m so grateful to this church for helping me get there.

Sunday is the last hurrah for me as Director of Music here. I’m very grateful to my many friends and family who supported me over the past decade. It was an extraordinary experience. Tonight is our last Thursday night rehearsal together. There is a matins at 10:30, a little concert and wine sampling at 3, and then…

Then – who knows? Into the unknown. After 10 years this chapter has been well read. Time to write something new. Something wonderful is waiting around the corner.

Montreal – Part one

Montreal – my home now for 20 years – is one of Canada’s gems. It is a marvelous place to encounter music and make friends and be involved in the arts on many levels. I’ve been very happy to live here this long – and I thought to share just a few snippits of what life was like in my first decade here.

Montreal 20 years ago was completely different than it is now. There was a residual memory of what life had been like before 1980 in the form of many landmarks that have disappeared. The prices on housing were remarkably low – you could get a condo then for around 60k – and it was completely possible to make a good living singing part time. In many ways it was just perfect for me because I didn’t have much of a sense of how to build a career, and I needed some time to grow into those understandings in a relaxed economic environment.

It was my third year which truly defined what was to come for me, career-wise. I sang in SMAM for Christopher, at Christ Church Cathedral for Patrick, was hired at the Music Librarian at the McGill Chamber Orchestra for Alexander, sang my first opera solos at McGill, got into Song Interpretation with Jan and Michael, and still somehow found time to study academics – and I have no idea how! That it only took three years to be put in front of some world class musicians was a real stroke of luck. I did my best with it and loved every moment.

Everything about that year was supercharged with activity and when I look back at my course load I was stunned by how heavy it was, and how many jobs I had. I was even teaching athletics at the McGill Gymnasium.

And I was so, so lucky. People were so generous with their time and their knowledge – I got to hang out with and sing for people who were so far ahead of my own work, because they were just so nice. That mentorship made a huge difference to me, and helped me learn life lessons unavailable in the classroom. A few world class singers gave me coachings just because they had the time and thought well of me. I learned about what generosity was that year, and how to be generous whenever possible.

In my fifth year I was working so much I took a year off school. I sang everywhere I could and made a living as a freelancer, and music was my whole life from that moment onwards. I sang solos in Oratorio, and continued a very busy life as a chorister. I was doing alright, but just alright. I was struggling a bit vocally from some uncertain technique, and after a few years of ill health my voice was beginning to wear down. I began a masters the following year in voice, but it didn’t help. I was too busy and too ill.

My seventh year was when I walked away for a while. I quit the masters and instead spent four months in Belgium with my first wife. The Masters had been the beginning of two very difficult years. I had been sick from tonsilitis nearly every month for a year, and was feeling an enormous amount of pressure to succeed in a field that I didn’t absolutely love. It was dawning on me that I needed a change, but I had no idea as to what.

Belgium was a great place to recover. They were very open to me as a musician there. I got my first conducting gigs there, and I was coaching and teaching and having a great time learning about true joie de vivre. The Belgians really understand how to pass through life with a genuine smile. Many of my favorites stories come from those four months, and I encountered Brel and Tintin and all sorts of popular culture that gave me a chance to just relax and reset. We lived in the tiniest one room apartment – and rarely ate meat – but there were so many cultural activities and the bakeries were so good that we hardly noticed.

My eight and ninth years were very quiet. I was back and forth to Belgium a bit doing some trips and teaching, but everyone in Montreal had expected me to come back to singing full time. In truth, my voice had not improved much, and I was contemplating what else I would do. I was fortunate that a new future  was dropped in my lap quite quite suddenly, and I began conducting in the ninth year as my profession. I had always loved conducting, and always wanted to do it, but a few very dishonest people turned me off that path when I had been ready for it earlier. I got a reprieve thanks to some very kind souls at St. Matthias Anglican Church and I resolved to make the most of it.

Next post – part two


A Manitoba Upbringing

We spent the last month or so in Manitoba, and now that I’ve had enough time to think about it, I’m struck again by where I grew up.

I’m really lucky.I grew up in a fantastic musical environment. From my earliest memories as a chorister to when I left, I got the best that Manitoba had to offer even when I didn’t always deserve it.

There is no shortage of strong choral programs. Throw a stone and hit a strong program. I’m learning about it as I go, and trying to pay close attention to attentively hear the choirs. I was really impressed with Camerata Nova at the NMF. They gave a nuanced, sculpted and attractive performance of a difficult work. It was a highlight and opened my eyes yet again to singer/teacher/conductor/composer/isthereanythingthisguycan’tdo Mel Braun. He is a total package, just amazing. It’s easy to see why he has gotten so much work there for such a long time. Amazingly, he was my first voice teacher. I was so lucky he found time for me, some 16 year old punk whose voice had barely broken and who didn’t listen too closely.

Also, I think what Prairie Voices has done in the last few years with Vic Pankratz has been extremely special. They have won international awards for their singing. That’s a huge accomplishment. I got to sing for Vic at Westgate where I went to highschool, and it was a great experience. Westgate is, to hear other people tell it, one of the strongest highschool programs in the province, and it’s a special musical environment. A culture, really. When I look at my own conducting, I can definitely see the resemblances in my work now to what I learned in those early years. Westgate is the incubator for so much musical talent.

I also sang at all saints church as a treble. So, I would practice violin for two hours a day, but practicing at all saints several times a week was where I found my love of choirs and found some pretty amazing friends. I befriended Ross Brownlee and Andrew Balfour and PJ Buchan. Ross is a real firecracker with a beautiful counter-tenor voice. He has so much energy and positiveness, I don’t know where it comes from but I hope he never changes. I think he is just amazing. And I’m really impressed by the creativity of Andrew Balfour. Sometimes the ideas just seem to flow so easily. He is really “tapped in” in a remarkable way, and he teaches music in a pretty special way. PJ is an expert on Icelandic music and culture, and teaches at the U of M. He is also an excellent tenor.

Where does this come from? Well, I think it’s about perspective. Each of the names I’ve mentioned are artists who educate. I’m so very much in my professional bubble of a musical world. In my life I think I’m educating, but I’m not, not like they do. I educate myself far more than I educate others. The difference is in the lives they touch, which is the element that gets so many of us going.

Those guys (and girls) are getting it done every day. Without them I maybe wouldn’t be in music.So thanks Vic, Mel, Ross, Andrew, and PJ, for putting up with a cantankerous guy. Much obliged for everything.