Friday, 29 March 2013

Music In My Life

It seems that we always had at least one radio in the house. For the first few years we did not have electricity so I am presuming that the radio was powered by batteries.

One fairly vivid memory of music that I have is about a song that seemed to have been quite popular during the 1930s. This song must have been written for a British Music Hall skit and the lyrics went something like this:

                  Knees up, Mother Brown!
                  Knees up, Mother Brown!
                  Come on, Dearie, let it go
                  It's your bloomin' birthday.........and so on.

My maternal grandmother was known to all as 'Queenie Brown'  so - at four years of age - I thought that she would be thrilled to be hearing a birthday song about her? No - Grandma was horrified!

When we moved to the Dawes Hill area, Alda and I were signed up for music lessons at a studio in New Westminster.  Dad had had cousins who took music lessons - the girl on the piano and the boy on the violin - so he hoped that we would follow suit. However, that was not to be as our choices were the opposite. The studio loaned smaller instruments to the families of students but pianos did not fall into that category so I had to settle for lessons on the Hawaiian guitar which I hated. A piano did not arrive in the house until many years later and that was when I began lessons on that instrument. This situation lasted for a number of years but I have not touched a piano since.

Our younger sister, Babs, was coming along and she had the gift of being able to play by ear. As far as I know, that same piano is the one found in her living room in Kamloops and she still plays - but by ear.

As that music studio evolved the principal people came to be Mr and Mrs Harvey and a Mrs Brown. Mr. Harvey built a fine little orchestra and I remember the music concerts held on Good Friday evening every year - and in a high school auditorium in Vancouver. Mr Harvey was always attired in a tuxedo and, as he had a fine baritone voice, he would hum and sing along with the music. Also, he was a very proud Englishman so every concert ended with a rendition of "Land of Hope and Glory". The lyrics of the verses would be sung by a young soprano with a lovely voice and Mr. Harvey would always join in at the chorus.

Another memory of those days that has remained with me was that Mrs. Brown smoked so there was always an ashtray on the shelf above the keyboard and the room would be full of cigarette smoke. Yes - even as she was teaching we students how to play, a cigarette would be burning.

A business group in New Westminster was given a license to operate a radio station so CKNW was born. In the early years the studio was on the second floor of an older hotel on Columbia Street - the downtown thoroughfare. The bus from where we lived into town ran every two hours and this got us there well in advance of the time for our music lessons so we would go up to the studio and sit in on the broadcast. The noon hour program was 'The  Roundup' and it was live. There were some local 'cowboy singers' and we got to hear them perform (my best memory is of a trio - Mike, Mark and Jack).

A number of years later I was one of a number of articled students in the office of a Chartered Accountant firm. By that time CKNW had moved the studio and was on the ground floor  of a newer building and our office was immediately above them. The format was no longer Country and Western music but had become that of live talk shows and radio contests. Sometimes the jackpots offered by the main contest would reach a fairly high sum so, when we arrived for work in the morning - and especially on Mondays - when we opened the street door we had to wade through piles of envelopes containing the entries from contestant hopefuls.

While the building was newer than the original one had been, it still was not air-conditioned. As it had been built into the side of a fairly steep hill, the parking lot was out behind the building and was accessed by a ramp from the back of our office up to the door into the alley. Connecting to that ramp was a staircase up from the radio studio. A number of commercials were recorded there so, when the air was warm, the doors were left open and we would hear the same commercial sung over and over and over ad-nauseum.

Many of the guys with whom I worked were avid golfers and were buying  items - especially metal tubing - from which to make golf buggies. It was only natural that the boys would become so fed up by the repetitious nature of recording the commercials that one of them would grab one of the metal pipes, quietly lower it down the back staircase and try to drown out the commercial being recorded  by their vocal noises amplified by the tubing. It worked - the connecting door down below was closed!

While I was always aware of the 'Hit Parade', my musical tastes were Classical so, when I was able to, I tuned into CBC/Radio Canada on Saturday afternoons in order to listen to the live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. However - I never saw a live opera performance until I lived in Prince George. An American company had been on tour in Alaska and stopped in Prince George to stage a performance in a high school gymnasium. It certainly was not like a real opera house  but I - and the girls from the office where I worked - enjoyed the performance. I cannot remember which opera was performed that evening for certain but I believe that it was one which had been written by Mozart.

This is a late insertion placed here on May 11, 2013.

On this past Wednesday evening I was again a guest at a performance of the Canadian Opera Company. The opera was Poulenc's "Dialogue of the Carmelites". A friend and I saw and heard this opera performed in Vancouver many years ago. The Director at that performance used the classic ending as written by Poulenc. At the end of the performance we hear the nun's singing and - one-by-one - leaving the stage followed shortly by a 'ker-chunk' sound from the orchestra. This continues until there are no nuns left on stage.

The Director of the version currently being performed at the Four Seasons Center here in Toronto has a newer - and even more powerful - ending. The nuns remain on the stage - clad in white habits - singing and then, one-by-one, they collapse on to the floor and into the classic posture of one about to be guillotined. This continued until  there are none left. There was silence from the audience followed by thunderous applause! 

As I have written in the blogs which cover my time in Australia I did see - and hear - some wonderful performances while I was down there. The most memorable of those was a performance in Brisbane by a Maori group from New Zealand of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" - it was pure magic!

While in Brisbane I attended Kedron Methodist Church and sang in the tenor section of the church choir. I must confess, though, that I am a 'coattail singer' in that I am able to sing what you are singing - but ask me to sing a certain note by myself then I am lost! The Messiah is performed every Easter and once I was coerced into being in the choir for that. Rehearsals were in the evening and I was horrified at one rehearsal to find myself the only tenor present! There was no way that I alone could sing a certain note and be in harmony with vocalists from other sections!

As I have mentioned in some previous blogs, I was also very fortunate in being able to be at some wonderful musical performances like Gracie Fields - while on her farewell tour - and to hear the great Paul Robeson (also while he was on his farewell tour).

I love opera - and I love hearing (and watching) performances of Broadway hit shows. While I have never been to NYC I have attended performances of "West Side Story", "My Fair Lady", "The Music Man" and "Les Miserables" in other cities.  Also, I must mention a performance of "Cats" at an AIDS benefit in Vancouver.

While in Vancouver I had come to know a younger fellow who had a wonderful baritone voice (he had gone to the auditions in Seattle for the Metropolitan Opera). While I was in Victoria, he was as well. He was ill with an AIDS related condition but he sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the Rogers and Hammerstein production of "Carousal" at an AIDS benefit concert while most of us wept.

Here in Toronto I have a friend who has two season tickets for every opera performed. Always he takes friends to these operas and I get to see and hear every other one. These, of course, are at the magnificent Four Seasons Opera House down on Queen Street West. I have seen some little known operas as well as 'chestnuts' like "Madama Butterfly" and Wagner's "Ring Cycle".

I am a regular attendee at church and - I must confess - the biggest draw for me is the music. For instance, this past weekend was Palm Sunday and the soloist was a bass baritone who sang one of my absolute favorites - "The Holy City". We have an incredible Music Director and she has her finger in seemingly all of the musical circles in the city. Therefore, we have been blessed by incredible soloists and other musical performers. 

I could go on and on with this subject of music - but I will close here - at least, for now!



  1. Have you ever gone to the movie house performances of opera HD from the Met? I like them not just for the music but from what you can see of the preparation and of the artists. Guilio Cesare will be on June 1st and June 3rd at Cineplexes.

  2. No I haven't. While I have heard of these performances, I have no idea where they might be located. I certainly enjoy the performances by the COC at our own opera house. Also, I know a man at MCCT who loves the Met performances and - I think - attends every one. He is somewhat of a snob therefore he does not think that any opera house in Canada will perform to the caliber of the Metropolitan Opera. I am not in NYC - I am here so I enjoy what the local opera company has to offer (used to attend the VOC performances while I lived in Van - and usually enjoyed them.