Early Tuesday morning we left Winter Park, Florida, and headed across the country to begin the final West Coast leg of the tour. It probably comes as no surprise to say that Southern California is a favourite destination for everyone in the orchestra. This has been our third time in the area in recent years, and we were all excited to return to some of our favourite spots in Santa Barbara and La Jolla. The only down side was that the tour schedule was heating up at this point — four travel and concert days in a row meant there would be little time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Nevertheless we were all very excited at the first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean as we made our way up the coast highway to Santa Barbara. Our hotel was the same one we stayed in on our last trip here, the historic Upham. It is the oldest hotel in Santa Barbara and the rooms are all little one-room cottages clustered around a beautiful garden where one can sit tranquilly and enjoy breakfast or just soak up the sun. Given that this was the last free night of the tour a group of us set out in search of a good taqueria, which is not difficult to find anywhere in SoCal.
We ended up at Rincon Alteña, a little hole in the wall in downtown Santa Barbara and were not disappointed. The next day we were free in the morning to explore the town. Jet lag had me up early so I embarked on a morning walk and discovered a lovely little park with a pond full of turtles!
While I certainly love California for the weather and the food, what I most enjoy about touring in my home state is seeing the family and old friends and colleagues I have scattered up and down the coast. Patricia Ahern, Patrick Jordan, Allen Whear, Cristina Zacharias and I all spend our summers in Carmel-by-Sea playing in the Carmel Bach Festival, and two dear friends from the festival, Gail and Stan Dryden, made the trip down from Carmel just to hear our concert and hang out a bit afterwards. The concert venue was the beautiful and historic Lobero Theater, which is where we played on our previous visits. The full house and enthusiastic audience was proof that we’ve developed quite a following here, and after the concert we were immediately invited back to bring our next touring program here.
The next day was a very full one — it began with us hopping back on the bus and heading down to Long Beach for our concert at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts (named after the late Karen Carpenter) at CSULB, a few miles south of Los Angeles. Julia Wedman and I were dropped off en route at the University of Southern California where we both gave masterclasses to some of the many talented students at the fine music school there. Julia worked with the USC Early Music Ensemble, and I worked with modern bassoon studio, giving them an introduction to the baroque bassoon and historical performance practice. After our classes we were rushed down to Long Beach to join the rest of the orchestra during the pre-concert warm up. The Hall was a bit too large for our group and a challenge to play in, but the small but enthusiastic crowd made up for it. An old college roommate of mine, Steve Trapani, who happens to live just a few blocks from the performance venue, generously invited the whole orchestra over to his home for a post concert party complete with his excellent home brewed beer!
Our final day in Southern California began with another bus ride, this one to the lovely village of La Jolla just north of San Diego, where the La Jolla Music Society resides. Here I got to spend a couple of hours with my beautiful niece Amanda, who lives in San Diego, and nephew, Tim, who drove all the way from San Luis Obispo to come hear the concert. The concert venue was located in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, overlooking the ocean and just a few steps from Seal Rock, where we were able to see dozens of harbour seals and their babies sunning themselves on the beach. The concert venue there is about to be renovated and ours was the last concert ever played in that space. We’ll look forward to returning to La Jolla on our next California tour and playing in a brand new concert hall!
One of the things I love the most about touring (and maybe life in general) is that unexpected things happen — both unexpectedly wonderful and unexpectedly challenging. This blog is dedicated to the highlights and challenges of touring.
Sitting next to me on the airplane the other day, our wonderful narrator, Blair Williams, inspired me by quoting Australian actor Zoe Caldwell, “Without a challenge a skin begins to grow around the soul.”
Saturday, March 4, 2017
San Juan, Puerto Rico, 8pm Concert at the Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals, Centre de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferre
Concerts are often the best part of touring, especially when we are playing one of our memorized programs. This concert was a true highlight. The hall in San Juan is incredibly beautiful — the perfect size and acoustic for a group like ours! Named after the famous Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876–1973), it seemed particularly fitting that we would play the music of his favourite composer. Casals said, “For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner … I go to the piano, and I play preludes and fugues of Bach … It is a sort of benediction on the house.”
I love the magic that performing in a great hall inspires in Tafelmusik. It is like an upward spiral — when we hear something beautiful, we are moved to respond with something equally striking, and suddenly the music takes on new shapes that we had never heard before. Adding to the momentum of the upward spiral is a completely engaged audience, like the one we had in San Juan. Just after intermission, I always go up into the balcony and play part of the Allemande from Bach’s D-Minor Partita. Even though it is exciting to be so close to the audience, it can be nerve-wracking to play so far away from the rest of the orchestra. In this concert, it was heart-warming to be part of the crowd. I got to see first-hand how the audience was responding to every sound and image — laughing, whispering to friends, and soaking up everything coming to them from the stage. There was a vibrancy in the response that gave me a true sense of community —everyone was seeing and hearing this concert with the same kind of excitement and love that I have for it! I think people coming to classical music concerts often think that they have to be quiet all the time. Yes, we do need still moments, but I love a boisterous audience and prefer genuinely spontaneous silences that come when the audience and performers are so tuned in that we all need a stillness. In a solo earlier in the program, I have a silence, and one of the tests of me, the hall, and the audience is how long I can draw out that silence. Tonight’s was one of the longest!
Some days our tech team faces big challenges on tour. We travel with our own computer, projector, and large-scale screen, and our technical team (Raha Javanfar, Glenn Davidson, and Glen Charles Landry) arrives several hours before the orchestra in every venue to set up the screen and the projector, focus the lights, and tape the floor medallion to the stage so that Blair and the orchestra know where to stand. One of the biggest challenges at the Sala Pablo Casals was finding a place for the projector so that the image had a clear path to the screen over people’s heads. In order to make that work in San Juan, Raha spent 90 minutes scrounging around backstage “MacGyvering” a stand for the projector in the lighting booth. The resultant pyramid consisted of the projector on top of its own case, on top of scrap pieces of wood, on a table, on the conductor’s podium, on top of a skid. It worked perfectly!
Sunday March 5, 2017
San Juan, Puerto Rico, Free Day
It was my first true day off (no practising!) since the beginning of January. Rhett Lee Garcia, one of the wonderful organizers of our San Juan concert, set up a last-minute tour of the rainforest in gorgeous Yunque National Park. Hector, our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide, picked us up at 10am, and after a scenic drive past incredible coastal views, we stopped at his friend’s grocery where we picked up delicious fresh pineapple, mangoes, and coconut candy. As we drove up into the mountains, he described the medicinal qualities of the trees. “For every disease there is a cure within 20 feet in the rain forest,” he declared. He dropped us off at the top of a narrow stone trail, from where we followed a small stream of water which gained volume as we walked down amongst the lush vegetation, leading to stunning waterfalls. About ten minutes into the walk, I felt my lungs expanding and a deep breath entered my body. It was as if I hadn’t been breathing for months! When we got to the falls, we dipped our feet in the cold water, and the two Glenns bravely dived straight in! Today was an exquisite reminder of nature’s power to heal body and soul.
This was such a wonderful day that even the challenges were fun! We had planned a big dinner for the whole orchestra at a beautiful restaurant in the old city, and a few of us went in early to walk around. After a day of perfect weather, the sun gods decided we had had too much, and a torrential rain storm rudely interrupted our visit to the sixteenth-century citadel, Castillo de San Felipe. We arrived at the restaurant soaking wet, freezing, and starving. Unfortunately the restaurant, located in a charming former convent, was not having its best night. Soon after we arrived, a scuffle (fistfight!) ensued between two members of staff, and our server, who was new, was visibly rattled. The restaurant was understaffed so the food took a long time to arrive — two and half hours! In true Puerto Rican style, they kindly gave us free appetizers, but the food wasn’t quite up to the high standards of many of the officianados in our group. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the ambience and the company, and I took advantage of the tiny hand dryer in the bathroom to dry out my socks while we waited for dinner!
Monday, March 7, 2017
Winter Park, Florida, 7:30pm. Concert at the Tiedtke Concert Hall, Keene Music Building, Rollins College
After an early wake-up and a long day of travel we arrived in sunny Winter Park, Florida, to play for The Bach Festival Society concert series, which was founded in 1935 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth. One of the things we all love about touring is having a chance to visit our musician’s family members around the world. Many of us get the most nervous and also play the best when family members are in the audience (both in Toronto and on tour). Tiedtke Concert Hall in Winter Park is not far from oboist John Abberger’s family home. Not only did we have the honour of playing on such a prestigious and long-running concert series, filled with an audience of smiling Bach-lovers, we were treated to a lovely reception organized by John and his brothers! We were treated to Lester Abberger’s delicious homemade smoked salmon, got to cuddle with Will Abberger’s beautiful golden Labrador, and were treated to a viewing of family treasures, which included the sweetest portraits of John and his brothers as children. It is always fantastic to meet family and find out more about our beloved colleagues’ early years. We also had the pleasure of seeing Tricia Ahern’s mother and Chris Verrette’s brother. We will definitely have to come back to Winter Park soon!
One of the other challenges of touring with a baroque orchestra is that we don’t travel on airplanes with our own harpsichord, so we need to find harpsichords in the places we perform. Today’s harpsichord presented a problem when guest harpsichordist James Johnstone arrived before the orchestra to practise and tune. Many harpsichords have a transposing mechanism that enables them to play at A=440 (modern pitch) or A=415 (baroque pitch). When James arrived, the Dowd harpsichord was at A=440, and the mechanism to switch it over was stuck. After 20 minutes of struggling, Glenn Davidson (from the tech team) came over to help. They were pressed for time because we had arrived almost an hour late to the hotel (delayed flight, faulty GPS on the bus getting to the venue). It caused a little stress — a harpsichord tuned at the wrong pitch would not do! The orchestra would be arriving soon and everything needed to be in place for the dress rehearsal. The stage was a different shape than usual (wide and narrow), so the screen had to be placed beside us rather than behind us. We needed every bit of rehearsal time for re-organizing choreography and getting used to the new space. James had almost fixed the problem when Glenn Davidson arrived to complete the last puzzle piece. Crawling under the harpsichord, Glenn discovered an extra screw that needed to be taken out for the transposition to fall into place! James quickly began tuning as the orchestra arrived, and rehearsal only started about five minutes late. That was great for me because I was late too. I have a lot of food allergies and hadn’t been able to eat anything at the airports that day. My food supply was low, and I had to find a little grocery store after getting to the hotel. In a rush, I dropped my rice cooker, and I thought it broke. But I was able to fix that too!
The orchestra is in California with performances scheduled in Santa Barbara, Long Beach and La Jolla. Then the tours ends in Seattle, Washington.
Tafelmusik is touring the US from February 28 to March 11, 2017, presenting Alison Mackay’s multimedia program J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation. This concert combines text, music, stunning projected video and images to explore the world of the artisans—paper makers, violin carvers, string spinners, and performers—who helped J.S. Bach realize his musical genius. Tour dates and other info at tafelmusik.org/Tours
Less than 24 hours after playing our final Visions & Voyagesconcert at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Tafelmusik set off by bus to the US for a two-week long tour. We experienced no difficulty with visas for musicians at the border, which was a relief, but the paperwork for our stage gear was missing a stamp from our last journey, so we had to double back to the Canadian side to attend to that. Our first stop was Oberlin, Ohio, home to Oberlin College and one of the finest conservatories of music in North America. The school was founded in 1833 by a couple of ministers as one of the first coeducational institutions of learning, and was open to African-Americans as well. Oberlin is otherwise a quiet town with its Ben Franklin Five and Dime store and Apollo Art Decoy movie theatre (which showed its first “talkie” back in 1928) still in use. The campus itself is lovely, and it was welcoming to see the maple trees on the central green being tapped for syrup.
Oberlin has one the oldest and best programs for historical performance, including a summer institute that is in its 46th year. A group of us were able to visit with one of its architects, Catharina Meints, and get a tour of the collection of violas da gamba and other instruments that she and her late husband, James Caldwell amassed over the years. They began collecting in the late 1960’s (she explained that their courtship consisted mostly of playing viol duets!) and the process was not merely one of accumulation of instruments but also of their restoration and of learning a great deal about different national styles of design and construction, and their relation to other arts. One detail she pointed out that has really stuck with me is the head of a 1740ish French instrument, which is a representation of a “noble savage”, a beautiful embodiment of that view of the North American peoples, especially as we come from last week’s Sesquicentennial project.
Our next stop was Penn State University, our third recent visit there. Larger than Oberlin, it is still very much a college town, in fact, the name of the town is “State College”. The university has a deep history dating back to the 1850s, commemorated by many informative signs on the campus, and visible in many old, large trees. The Old Main is a beautiful stone building next to our performance venue. In addition to our performances of J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation, Tafelmusik players made contact with students in both places though performance master classes and visits to classes in other disciplines, as well as a visit to a high school. Given the academic nature of our audiences in both places, the section of the program concerning dress codes in Leipzig brought on much laughter, as university professors are referred to as “second class citizens” and students with master’s degrees as fourth class. Lawyers fall in between as third class…