The art and business of beauty with Cheryl Lone & Co.

“Lone & Co.” is actually Cheryl Lone and her team of associates, now one of the most popular places to go for a haircut, colouring, beard trim, or even a heart-to-heart conversation.

While I may be due for another haircut soon, I am always eager to talk with Cheryl. Never mind the top of my head for now.  First I wanted to chat with her to ask her about the art & the business of beauty.

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barczablog: I always begin by asking: are you more like your father or your mother?

CHERYL:  I look like my mother but I am like my father through and through.   I think he’s just calm and his temperament is calm. But his work ethic is crazy. I am a Gemini and a redhead, like him.

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Cheryl Lone

barczablog: There are two sides to you?

CHERYL: Yes, I can switch my moods really easily, kind of like my mom.

barczablog:   Isn’t it also true that any creator –singer, actor, and you, as a creative entrepreneur—is going to have to be a split personality? The creative side & the business side are different. 

CHERYL: Yes they are totally different.  And when you’re not in the mood you have to learn how to mask it, to fake it: you can’t be in a bad mood.  Before, when I was younger, I could just do it, be the problem solver.

barczablog: How many people do you have working in here, normally? 

CHERYL: with support staff from nine to eleven people.  And I’m doing clients all day so I have to manage the clients: And each one of those has a different personality. Plus I have to manage eleven creative personalities in the salon.

barczablog:  A bit of a chameleon?

CHERYL: Oh 100%! But –I don’t mean to be conceited—but I’ve heard this a lot through my life, that I can just put on the role and do it.  Chameleon.  And every hour I have to conform to somebody’s energy.

barczablog:  Artist but also therapist?

CHERYL:  Oh totally.  I have three clients over the years who come in, and I’ll sit down beside them on my stool and they’ll tell me: talk or cut.

barczablog: Like a psychotherapist?

CHERYL: yeah.  A client will say “oh I needed to see you, run it by you…”  It happens a lot. I always got sent ….hm I don’t know if “crazy” is the right word.  But I always got the clients who were difficult, challenging.  I could handle them and I enjoy it.

barczablog: So you have a history at other salons handling the people no one else could handle?

CHERYL: yes

barczablog: And maybe that’s where this salon got some of its success.  You’ve been singled out in NOW magazine, Blog TO, And people have noticed you’ve got something special here.  And it’s not just about the hair.

CHERYL: My staff play a huge part in this.  I got to hand-pick my staff.  In the year and a bit that we’ve been open, it’s consistent, I hear this from the clients. We have a good vibe, good energy in here.  I’ve worked in enough salons that I knew what I wanted to create. And it’s happening.

barczablog: That’s why you’re a good therapist. Therapists are listeners as I recall right?

CHERYL: Yes.

There is ego: because this is a young person’s job.  We have some in their 20s, some later.  I have another girl who’s my age.  I don’t think you know how to sort your ego out until later in life.  It’s there, it comes out once in awhile but it’s not too bad.

barczablog:  So you’re a mentor in some ways.

CHERYL: I worked at Civello’s for ten years, five years ago.  All my staff, except two people, are from Civello’s. Two of them I mentored at Civello’s when they were 18, and now they’re here, twelve years later.

barczablog: Does that mean that when they’re working sometimes they come to you with their troubles, like you’re their mom, and you’re helping them solve creative problems?

CHERYL: Oh yeah sometimes they call me “Mama Cheryl”.  Or “Mom“.  In my younger days they’d ask questions.  And I just watch them and give them feedback on how they handle clients and stuff.

Like: sit in front of them, and look at them eye to eye.

Like: don’t talk through the mirror.

Like little things like that. A lot of people stand behind the chair and talk.  I try to get my staff (the people I mentor) to stand in front of them.

barczablog:  And you know I have some issues with my neck. It’s so interesting. I never noticed any of this because you put me at ease. Now I will be thinking about it.

CHERYL: It’s impersonal to talk through a mirror, and awkward.  The number one thing about my staff is customer service.  It’s a fading art, customer service, in any job.  I’m on it all the time.

Walk your client to the front. 

Come get your client. 

barczablog: And you give great hugs. Do you talk to them about that, too?

CHERYL: Ah but not everybody likes to hug.  Usually I am a pretty good judge.  [Cheryl does the body language of someone not wanting to be touched…]…”oh sorry!”

barczablog:  You’ve been boss here for how long?

CHERYL: This salon, since last February, and a salon in the Beaches for two years.

Everybody is good at everything. But there are people who have specialties.

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Marvel- Amazing at barbering and carvings. Anita- Ashy blondes Sarah- curly and wash & wear Sean- Natural tones and balayage Jessica- Rainbow colours Charise- Natural tones and highlights Cheryl- classic bob & curly hair. For more see the website (below)

And you just get referrals.  Another difference with this salon is that everybody gets to choose what they want to do.  I don’t get people to do what they don’t want to do.

And everybody is priced at what they think they’re worth.  So when I hire somebody, they tell me what they want to charge.  And it usually works. At the other salons I’ve worked at there’s a “junior” and an “intermediate” and a “senior”.  That’s how they name it.

barczablog: In terms of pricing?

CHERYL: and in terms of lingo.  So they say “between junior, intermediate and senior stylists, who do you want to see”? And I don’t do that here. Everybody’s the same.

barczablog:  Aha you don’t make a class distinction.  That’s so dignified.

CHERYL: And what does it mean anyway? Marvel is much better at barbering than I am. He’s been on the floor for 2 ½ years, and I’m going on eighteen.  So why do I get to say I am a “senior stylist”?

barczablog: And I think that’s something people pick up on. So can we talk a bit about style..? Would you spend a lot of time keeping up on what’s new?

CHERYL: not as much as I used to.  I definitely flip through magazines, and once in awhile I’ll google spring-summer hair trends.   The trends are more styling than the actual cut.  So it’s like: everyone does beachy waves now, it doesn’t matter what kind of hair you have, long short, medium, whatever it is, everyone wants beachy waves.  So it’s more the styling than the cut.  And it’s all over the map now.  It used to be one specific haircut.  Like the Jennifer Aniston or the Victoria Beckham.  It’s kind of like those have faded, it’s all over the place now.  You can google street fashions from all over the world, or music videos or celebrities.

barczablog:  So what’s special about Lone & Co?

CHERYL: I just want people to come in and be relaxed.  Salons can be an intimidating place.  I have great staff who will sit and help people feel relaxed.

barczablog: You gave me brilliant haircuts, several actually.  What’s the key to replicating that look at home?

CHERYL: there are a few keys. It all depends on the hair you’re working with.  Everybody has to use product in their hair.  It’s a given.  You only need one. I’m not one to suggest three products as some do.  You need one product that works for your hair. It might take a few tries to figure out what that is…

barczablog: That sounds so simple. 

CHERYL: Sure. Wash and wear is great, but most people don’t have wash and wear hair.  Everybody’s hair needs work.  Having the right tools (which is easier said than done), but everyone here is pretty realistic about what someone’s going to do when they go home.  So it’s just trying to keep it simple.  And not over-complicate it, so that they feel they can achieve it.

barczablog:  You’re being interviewed by someone who thinks of himself as old. You actually made me feel comfortable trying something much bolder and more nervy than anything I’ve ever done before.  Is that just part of that whole psychology thing you were talking about? Do you always try to take people in a bolder direction?

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The obligatory post-haircut selfie with the stylist.

CHERYL: No.  You get really good at reading people.  It takes about five minutes for me to figure out. Your hair didn’t reflect your personality.  There are some people who come in and they have really long simple hair and they’ll say “I want a change!”  And I can tell right away.  They don’t.  And you talk about it. Well we could do this and this, and they’re like (whining voice)”we-e-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l”….  So I can tell pretty quickly what direction that’s going to go in.

barczablog: So I’m very flattered by what you’re telling me.  You actually gave me what I asked for. 

CHERYL: When you do this job you get a real knack for reading people.

barczablog: so can we talk about bridal for a minute? Do you sometimes have the whole place taken over by a wedding party?

CHERYL: Yeah.  They usually start earlier. I’ve also done off-site weddings.  But it’s usually 75% a stressful situation and 25% of the time, super laid back.   We get the very beginning of “okay this is it!” You’ll get a bridesmaid reading her speech, or calling and yelling “make sure the flowers are gonna be there on time”.

barczablog:  And how is this working for your staff? Are you sometimes taking them aside and giving them a pep talk or a hug? Because they’re all stressed out?

CHERYL: Yes bridal parties are high stress. Sometimes people have to walk away, without anybody knowing (know what I mean?).  They just need a minute, maybe to go to the back because somebody’s changed their mind.  They have to have their up do done by a particular time..(!)  It gets a little stressful.  I don’t do those anymore.  I come, and say “how’s everybody doing”?  Making sure everyone’s on time, getting the next person into makeup.

barczablog:  what is your ultimate dream? To expand?

CHERYL: My absolute dream is to have this salon, and to go to the cottage a few days, and then come to the salon.  That’s all I need. I just want to be able to do that.

barczablog: Okay here’s another version of that question. Is Lone & Co a version of you? Do you look at the salon & see yourself?

CHERYL: Yeah…!  I’ve been told I have a very calming energy. I feel that is here.  I feel a lot of pride when I hear people say that, because I’ve achieved what I set out to do.  It feels like me when I walk in.

barczablog: Can I ask you about your influences..? is there a teacher you look back to, that you want to mention?? 

CHERYL:  I would mention Ray Civello.  He taught me.

My dad has been my inspiration in terms of work ethic.  My dad was taken out of school in grade 6 to farm.  He has been a hard labourer his whole life.  I try to do things to make him proud.

barczablog: So who do you like to listen to?

CHERYL: it’s mostly Netflix, I don’t have cable.  I’m not home enough.

barczablog:  But you have the radio on here all the time.

CHERYL: I come here and the music is on.

barczablog:  So do you have a soundtrack, do you pick what’s played here? Or is it up to somebody else?

CHERYL: We all dive into that.

barczablog:  So it’s a team again. You’re not the big boss who imposes your taste on everyone. You’re consistent even with the music.

CHERYL: They pick what they want to listen to. It changes every few hours.  I try to involve them a lot.

barczablog:  What ability or skill do you wish you had?

CHERYL:  To sing… I wish I could sing:

barczablog:  When you’re just relaxing and not working… what would  you do?

CHERYL:  Cottage…reading. Go to the Island.

barczablog:  So you must be really frustrated that Toronto Island is currently closed due to high water levels…! 

CHERYL: Very frustrated.  I like water.  As I get older, my Cheryl time is getting less and less. When I have a day off, it’s still sometimes work on the business. Things get compacted.  Sometimes you just want to go home and shut your brain off.

barczablog:  Your work is very social, around people. Do you get enough time alone?

CHERYL: I love my own company. Going home and just reading is bliss.  It depends on the day.  Some days I need to shut my brain off.  I need a distraction: so I’ll turn on the TV. And I can shut my brain off.

barczablog:  do you drink coffee? 

CHERYL: I drink one in the morning, seven days a week.  It’s a slippery slope. I grew up in a lot of salons.

barczablog: you mean: addiction? 

CHERYL: I’ve seen a lot of people who just drink coffee all day. They don’t eat.  You don’t get paid when you’re eating, so it’s tempting to just keep working.  And people will run to the back, stand at the table and eat a few bites. And then go back out.

barczablog: is that the normal culture?

CHERYL: Yes.   And even when I have a lunch, I’m reading emails. And I’m eating fast. I feel I’m rushing. I was going to say, that having a business in some ways is like having a child. It doesn’t go away, I never forget, it doesn’t ever stop, you always worry.

barczablog:  What’s the best thing about what you do?

CHERYL: The best thing is making people feel great.  It’s a very powerful thing.  And people letting you into their space. There’s not a lot that people do that you get so close.  How many things can you think of, other than say doctor, that you spend time with, so close?  It’s really a rewarding thing.  Sometimes you lose sight of that, you’re tired or have a blah week.  And then you’ll cut a client’s hair and their eyes well up.  They say it’s so amazing and you can tell.  You’ve made somebody feel real good.    I always try to tell the kids: you don’t know where somebody’s coming from.  Somebody’s dad could have just passed away.  Somebody could have lost a job.  Somebody’s partner could have left them.

And I can read people. I know when someone’s going through something, really quickly.  And there are times when people say “I want a change”, or “I want something super different”.  And I’ve got to a point in my career where I feel comfortable–the younger ones not so much – where I’ll pull up my chair, and say “what’s going on? did you lose your job, divorce, death? “  And they just look at me, and they’re like “yeah”? and their eyes well up.  Okay. So we’re not doing that.  In two months you come back and we’ll do that.  There are so many stories over the years.  There’s this one woman, the first time I cut her hair, and she started crying into her hands.  I didn’t know what to do.  She said “thank you, you made me feel beautiful, this is my first haircut after chemo”.

That’s why you do it.

barczablog:  Is there anything you’d like to tell the world? Are we washing our hair too much? (I self-consciously handle my frizzy hair)

CHERYL:  Generally people do wash their hair too much. It’s a hard hard thing to break. It depends on the hair.  You can just rinse it (instead of shampoo).  The oils are going to help you with the frizz.

barczablog:  Some people have straight hair and wish it were curly, some of us have really curly hair and wish they had straight hair.

CHERYL: It’s a fascinating thing.  98% of the people who come in to this salon don’t like their hair. Nobody likes their hair.

barczablog: I wonder if part of it is that people aren’t always honest, as people will act like they’re happy about something and not admit that they’re unhappy. I think people are very honest with you.    You help people come to terms with what they have, to love the hair they have. That’s a huge thing.

CHERYL:  You have to be really straight with people.  People will want me to turn them into something they’re not, like making the frizz go away.   I mean the frizz: that’s just your hair. I don’t have a magic wand.

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Lone & Co. are found on Queen St near the corner of Broadview.  Find out more by looking at their website.

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Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Psychology and perception, Questions, Questions | Leave a comment

Forensic Composition, or when the script is like a CSI

That headline is dead serious and no joke.  I was brought in twice way back in the 1970s as a composer by directors looking with puzzlement at play scripts.  It would happen again later.  These formative projects changed the way I saw composition & adaptation, but my purpose here is to reflect on some of the first things I ever did, when I was young.

It needs to be said that every text composed for performance – whether musical, verbal or something else—is in some sense an enigma.  A singer or dancer or actor read a score or script as a set of instructions, that may or may not be explicit.  This may be due to the huge lapse in time. When David Fallis, the music director of Opera Atelier, looks at the score of one of the 17th century operas by Lully or Charpentier, there may be huge furrows in his forehead as he thinks about how he might approach one of these rarities: works that are so rarely undertaken as to represent an unknown idiom.  Shakespeare’s plays have relatively few instructions, leaving the producer to ponder how they want to approach the staging, the design, the music or dance.  This is usually a matter easily answered through a little creativity.

But sometimes the text may stop you cold in your tracks.

At the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, Dotty goes a bit crazy because the moon, once a source of romance and beauty, is now merely a destination for astronauts.  She sings a series of fragmentary bits from songs about the moon.  It’s a funny thing Stoppard wrote, but also a bit of a nightmare for the music director, seeking to show us Dotty rambling through a series of moon songs. Given the words, one has to work backwards to a musical score and an eventual performance.

How can one shine on a blue moon that’s a harvest moon that must be moonglow?

(if you take my meaning…)

I was asked to help the singer create a tape of her voice, that would be used, while she  lip-synched to herself, once we figured out just how to sing this rambling soliloquy. That was a relatively easy task, one that was only a minute or so of solo madness early in a show.

The other one, though was much more problematic.  I’m writing about this one as we approach the 40th anniversary.  In 1977 Michael Sidnell directed a production of a play by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, namely The Dog Beneath the Skin at the University of Toronto.

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Paul Baker, Leslie Barcza, David Boyd, Gordon Woodbury, Chris Schiller and Rod Taylor. The cool kids in the band let me in.

It’s a very political text full of songs.  Sidnell turned to musical artists with whom he’d collaborated before, namely Gordon Woodbury and Rod Taylor, to compose the song settings required by this play that was first produced in 1936 by the Group Theatre.  I believe Sidnell, Woodbury & Taylor were happily exploring the possibilities in the text, employing a small onstage band for their songs.

But there was a bit of a fly in the ointment, and that was one small scene in the play, a scene that led Sidnell to contact me.  I don’t know why he decided to keep it rather than do the logical thing and simply cut it from the text.  Was it kept because it was crucial or because Sidnell –a Professor of Modern Drama busily staging a modern classic—wanted to avoid cuts? There we were on page 107 where it says “The music of the ensuing duet should be in the style of Wagnerian opera.”  Sidnell very generously worked me into other parts of the show, let me work with his band: but I was really there as a token Wagnerian, to make that scene work.

Working backwards from lines and actions that reminded me strongly of parts of Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung I cobbled together a continuous through-composed scene in the manner of a late Wagner music-drama, sometimes seguing from one excerpt into the next, but without stopping.  In places it was meant to get laughs but the key lines were done with all seriousness and pathos.  The point of my re-purposed Wagner was to reproduce the scene as Auden & Isherwood had wanted, to achieve something elusive, verging on impossible, given that they’d left no instructions.  At first I thought I was to be singer in the duet while someone in the band played it, but in the end, we traded places, so that I played  and someone from the band sang.  That was a practical choice given that much of the piano part –lifted from Wagner scores–was quite difficult to play, while the vocal part for the dying Siegfried that I quoted is not terribly difficult singing.  When it finally clicked as written we enjoyed a sudden spontaneous round of applause from the cast.  It was a thrill repeated every night in performance.

That was forty years ago, but the memory is still vivid.

Posted in Opera, Popular music & culture, Theatre & musicals, university life | Leave a comment

James Ehnes: a one-man show

This was the one I’ve been looking forward to for months, as James Ehnes played a full program of unaccompanied violin music in Koerner Hall.   I swear Ehnes played more notes than what he’d be required to play in three concerts with orchestra.  He was completely exposed, nowhere to hide.  Koerner’s acoustic gave us such intimacy that it was as though we could hear Ehnes’ thoughts.

The program consisted of four items:

  • The Partita in B minor of JS Bach
  • The “Ballade” from Sonata #3 of Eugène Ysaÿe
  • Sonatina “In homage to JS Bach” by Barrie Cabena in its world premiere
  • The Partita in D minor of JS Bach

Without question this was the best concert I heard so far in 2017.

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Violinist James Ehnes (photo: Ben Ealovega)

I am reminded of something from long ago in my undergraduate days, studying philosophy.  I dimly recall a kind of hierarchy of the disciplines, with the understanding that mathematics is more pure than physics, which is more pure than chemistry and softer sciences are understood to be lower in the pecking order.  I can’t recall whether metaphysics –meaning religion—trumped science in the end, only that there’s something similar at work in the arts.  Walter Pater said “all the arts aspire to the condition of music.”  And what do the different types of music aspire to? I have to think that when we transcribe Bach for orchestra –as Stokowski did in the 20th century—that it waters down (some might say “bastardizes”) its purity.  I find the original piano version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky purer than the bombastic orchestrated version by Ravel.  The purest and more rarefied music? The solo violin music by JS Bach.  While I’ve played piano transcriptions of the Chaconne in D minor that concludes that Partita, both the massive one by Busoni and the subtler one-handed one by Brahms, each aspires after the rare air of the original.  And while I’ve heard this wonderful music in recordings, I realize now that it’s a totally different experience live, watching the violinist martial his/her resources, shaping phrases and building drama.  This is a most memorable performance, that bodes well for the festival.  The day after tomorrow –Wednesday night July 19th –Ehnes will be back, teamed with Jonathan Crow at the Church of the Redeemer in an all- Bach program.

For the B minor it’s eight movements, some delicate and lyrical, some brilliantly fast.  One wouldn’t believe how much variety there is in this music, but for the subtleties Ehnes brings, sometimes so soulful and distant, then urgent and passionate.

And then we came to Ysaÿe, and it was clear we’re not in Leipzig anymore, Toto.  Here Ehnes used a different body language, leaning from one foot to the other, playing a piece that was almost like an eight minute cadenza, big bold melodic lines, powerful double stops, delicate little figures, then heavy accents leading to an explosive ending.

Cabena’s new work might be understood as neo-classical if this were the early 20th century, or perhaps we can call it “post-modern” in this century, for its use of recognizable phrases that remind one of Bach.  It would have been better had they found space in the program to explain & discuss a bit, as a new work really benefits from explanation more than the pieces we’ve heard before, both to explain the inter-textual references, but also to give us some context within the composer’s other works.

And then we came to the item I was really waiting for, namely the D-minor Bach. In March I posted an earlier Ehnes performance of the Chaconne that I found on youtube, that pales beside what I heard tonight. In person I watched the drama unfold, an entire audience spellbound, mesmerized.  Wow.

It’s better in person of course.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | 2 Comments

Arthur Wenk and Story Cartel

Have you ever heard of The Story Cartel? It’s a new way of promoting books.

Here’s how they explain it:

The books you see on Story Cartel are all free in exchange for your honest review. Discover your next favorite book and support the community of authors.

wenk_bookThe download period is limited, so you only have access for a limited time.  It’s new to me, but they’re coming up to their fifth anniversary. As they say

Since October 2012, 50750 people have downloaded 103817 books, helping 2078 authors get reviews.

The concept was brought to my attention by Arthur Wenk, an impressive organist I first met when I was a tenor soloist, and his page-turner at his church in the 1990s, and later stumbling upon him via the shelves of the Edward Johnson Building’s music library.  Wenk happens to be one of the important authorities on Claude Debussy, known for such books as Claude Debussy and the Poets, an inter-disciplinary study decades ahead of its time.

His latest book, A Brief History of Classical Music:  A Tale of Time, Tonality and Timbre, is available free of charge via download at Story Cartel until the end of July.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Press Releases and Announcements | Leave a comment

St Lawrence Quartet gives Toronto Summer Music Sesqui spin

Tonight’s concert by the St Lawrence Quartet launching the 2017 Toronto Summer Music Festival, the first under their new Artistic Director Jonathan Crow, has me wishing I could spend the next few weeks doing nothing but going to TSM concerts.  There was a sense of occasion, a genuine electricity in the air.  Crow explained that the theme for TSM 2017 is taken from the Sesquicentennial of Canada, as in a focus on Canadian composers and performers.  When I saw tonight’s program –placing an R Murray Schafer string quartet between quartets by Haydn and Beethoven—I wondered how he would compare.

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Violinist Jonathan Crow, Artistic Director of Toronto Summer Music Festival & Toronto Symphony Concertmaster

While I’m as nationalistic as the next guy I figured

  • at worst we would hear a new sound beside the two familiar composers
  • at worst the Canadian work would be more than just a token few minutes to begin the concert

I did not expect that Schafer would more than hold his own, that he’d seem to be a peer of the two icons with whom he shared the stage.  Some of that needs to be properly attributed to Crow & the St Lawrence Quartet whose intelligent programming brought out the complementary aspects of the three works.  And nothing was held back in the performance of the Schafer.

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Composer R Murray Schafer

From a lush romantic interpretation of the Haydn Op 20 #2 in C Major, a textbook demonstration of how quartets usually work, we went to the Schafer, a three movement composition that deconstructs the quartet experience in three vivid movements.

The first movement began with Christopher Costanza, cello, alone on the stage.  He was playing notes on two strings that sometimes were close to the same pitch, sometimes slightly different, calling our ears’ attention to the phenomena of tuning, harmonics, and the actual creation of the sound from first principles.  In time we hear a second musical sound from backstage and we see Lesley Robertson, viola, gradually coming to her place onstage.  In due course we also have each of the violins arriving, namely Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby.

SLSQ Photo: Marco Borggreve

Violinist Geoff Nuttall

Schafer is known for operas & spectacles that have something of the “happening” about them, so I wasn’t surprised when I started seeing his string quartet in dramatic terms, indeed, wanting to understand the piece for its dramaturgy.  Where the first movement gradually assembled the players into a team, we were watching a piece that was busily problematizing the usual principles & relationships of the quartet.  Were we watching four players working together from the same score, or were we at times watching four independent agents improvising?   And part of this framework was the audience’s apprehension of the event.  At times we could barely hear what was happening backstage or in the auditorium as the players gradually approached and assembled into an ensemble.  Some of the movements by the players were more flamboyant than usual, indeed at one point I thought Geoff Nuttall, who seemed to be channeling Lyle Lovett via the violin, reminded me of that “Walk like an Egyptian” song from the 80s, in his movement vocabulary.   Were we watching music played by virtuosi, or a performance where the musicians enacted roles? I think this is the sort of question Schafer suggested to us.

In the second movement Schafer held up a distorted mirror to what we had been seeing and doing in the Haydn (or any concert situation).  Where the first movement was slow as the ensemble gradually coalesced onstage, the second movement was a visceral appeal to my most immature impulses.  I think if the audience had been comprised of children, we would have been clapping and stomping along with this vibrant pulsing composition, indeed I wanted to jump to my feet and dance.  Of course that’s not done at Koerner Hall when a string quartet is playing, so I pretended to be an adult.  I wasn’t the only one, as i heard lots of giggles.  This middle movement included some fast passages, but often augmented by vocal work from the quartet. Yes I was stifling my jubilation, although in places the audience laughed loudly.  At times I thought the quartet resembled the Swingles Singers, after they’d been afflicted with Tourettes; and not to mock anyone with that condition, but the players seemed to be seized by primal impulses, the music seeming to emerge from the id of this quartet, pure raw irrational noises.  The playing –controlled as it was—seemed galvanic, as though someone were shooting electricity into them.  I was reminded of “talking like a pirate day” on Facebook, with some of the “arrr” sounds coming out of the players.  And then in the last movement, for the most part Schafer confounded expectation by having large swaths of unison among the four players.  How elegant they sounded, even if these weren’t the melodies of a Haydn or a Beethoven.  And then Nuttall rose to his feet, began to play a busy but beautiful solo passage, while the other three: cohered into a tonic chords.  Nuttall took his solo into the wings, fainter and fainter, against that solid assonant affirmation to conclude.

I was not the only one  impressed, as the huge reception turned to the Master in the hall, namely Schafer himself. I’m thrilled that he got to hear the work played with such lucidity and commitment, and especially that it –and he– were so warmly received by this enthusiastic audience.

We closed with Beethoven’s Op 131 in a reading that was probably the most conservative interpretation of the three works presented.  I’m not complaining, not by a long shot. Where the players showed flamboyance and daring in the Haydn—thinking especially of Nuttall & Costanza for their bold cantabile playing—they approached the Beethoven with a steady consistency, wonderfully tight with one another.   It was bliss watching their inter-actions, the eye contact and body language, accentuating the stunning sounds.  This is all one could ask for in chamber music.

Does Crow’s arrival signal something different from TSM?  I don’t know, although a new artistic direction and the energies of youth are usually welcome.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of TSM, indeed I wish I had the time to dive in every night.

Sesqui

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Leave a comment

Questions for Michael Rose: premiering A Northern Lights Dream with SOLT

Michael Rose is a familiar figure in the Toronto opera scene, a pianist, music-director & coach.

On July 28th Summer Opera Lyric Theatre (SOLT) will be giving the world premiere of his first completed opera,  A Northern Lights Dream presented on a double bill with John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus.  Michael studied with Manus Sasonkin (1930-1992) and Malcolm Forsyth (1936-2011).  While he has been writing and composing since childhood, his own musical creations always took a back seat to making a living as a performer & teacher.  It’s only recently that Michael has begun to take it seriously as part of his professional life.  After several readings of large-scale dramatic works and some songs that have been performed Northern Lights is both his first commission and first dramatic piece to make it to the stage: a musical composition for which he also wrote his own original libretto, with a small nod to Shakespeare.

On the occasion of the premiere of A Northern Lights Dream with SOLT, (who also present The Marriage of Figaro with Michael music-directing & at the piano) I asked Michael some questions about his creative life.

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Michael Rose

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

I suspect we all experience that profoundly startling moment in life when we suddenly find ourselves standing in an odd attitude or moving with a peculiar mannerism or saying something in a foreign but all-too-familiar voice. It’s that dreaded moment when your fantasy of uniqueness and independence is exploded, and you realize that, for that one split second, you have become your mother! Or your father. Or both. In my case, it’s both plus my maternal grandparents.

My musicality comes from both my parents. Musicians crop up on my mother’s side of the family through as many generations as we can trace. And my father, who was an orphan, taught himself to play the clarinet and trumpet. He played in bands in the Air Force and even in a community orchestra, when I was little. It was he who asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. This was when I was six. We were living in the country near Brighton, Ontario. I don’t remember it, but the story is that my parents were in the kitchen when they heard a terrible racket in the back yard. They looked through the window and saw that I had taken a transistor radio outside and had surrounded myself with all the metal garbage cans and lids we had. I was bashing them with sticks to the music on the radio, a wannabe Ringo Starr.

I like to flatter myself with the claim that I resemble my grandfather. It’s not as true a claim as I would like. He was a gentle, patient soul, with an almost childlike conviction that the world is just what it should be and that everything is for the best. He loved my grandmother (and she him) perpetually. It was an ideal relationship. She was the business woman, driven, constantly exploring. He was happy to be helpful to her and to people at large. He was the kind of man who loved nothing more than pottering about among his rose bushes, pruning a bit here and there.

I share some of my grandparents’ traits. Like Grandad, I tend to wear rose-coloured glasses. But unlike his, mine have a sharp edge. Like Nana, I need to be on the move. I get anxious being too long in one place. But unlike my grandparents, I’ve never found a relationship like the one they had. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for being single!

2) What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

There are many ‘best’ things in what I do. As a pianist, I cherish those moments when there’s electricity in the air and musical spontaneity is high; when the communication between players and between players and audience is somehow superhuman. I had one of those moments recently in a concert I played with the Forte Gay Men’s Chorus. There was a palpable energy from the audience. And from the first note to the last, there was magic. That is the kind of performance that keeps us addicted to all the hard work that goes into it!

As a coach, the best thing is to hear a young singer conquer a difficult challenge. Those moments are very exciting – for me as well as for the singer. SOLT gives me a chance to work with many gifted new singers. As pianist and music director, my aim is to inspire them to look at the score with fresh eyes and ears. The goal is to feed their imaginations. If they find themselves at the end of the summer singing and acting in a way they could never before have conceived, then I’ve done my job.

As composer and playwright, this season I have the added pleasure and responsibility of providing them with material to challenge and inspire them.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I don’t listen to a lot of music any more. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a recording. I enjoy live concerts; but after a day of music making, I much prefer to go see a play. Or read a book. I watch TV (I love Game of Thrones, Sense8, House of Cards, Davinci’s Demons, and many more!) and movies (mostly on my little laptop). But I prefer the intimacy, magic, and intellectual courage of live theater.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I would love to be a mathematician. What’s happening now in science, particularly in astronomy, is amazing. I would love to be able to understand the mathematics of Newton and Einstein and then explore the many brilliant things that have been discovered since. But I’m just a musician. I can count, but I can’t add!

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

I love to sit in the sun at a coffee shop and read or write. Or just watch the world around me unfold. I also love to travel. But my favorite thing to do when I travel is to sit at a new coffee shop and watch the world around me unfold.

*******

More questions about working with SOLT,
especially premiering Northern Lights Dream

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Suzy Smith is music-director of Michael Rose’s new opera plus John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus.

1) I recall a composer once telling me that one learns to recognize one’s own authentic voice by imitating the things you like, trying out different procedures and sounds, until finally you discover something you like. Our culture has a fetish for newness & originality, while some other cultures make more of a virtue of the imitation of models or emulation of styles. Could you please address this both as a composer AND as a vocal coach, namely how do you reconcile imitation and originality?

This question is not as simple as it might seem. I think most people would say that originality is desirable. There’s nothing more tedious, for instance, than going to a new music theater piece and hearing music you’ve heard many times before with new lyrics stuck onto it. I feel cheated when that happens (and it happens a lot!) But there are natural limits to originality. Absolute originality would be incomprehensible to anyone but the composer. And what’s the good of that? Every artist learns from his or her predecessors. Brahms from Beethoven. Beethoven from Haydn. Everyone from Bach. We’re the product of innumerable influences. And that’s a healthy, human thing. If a composer can filter those influences into something that is uniquely her own, then she has accomplished something of significance for her audience.

I try not to be aware of any particular style or composer when I’m writing music. Fortunately, I’m aided by the simple fact that I write music for the stage. I’m not trying to write the great Canadian symphony! So I can be inspired by the characters and situations. That’s what dictates the style. I’m a music dramatist. I work to find the right sound for the character.

The same concepts apply to originality in a performer. A composer’s or writer’s work is filtered through the personality and technique of the performer. It’s a dance where both partners can easily tread upon one another’s feet!

The performer has the added influence of other performers and traditions. It’s hard sometimes to learn from outside sources without imitating them. Part of a coach’s job is finding the individual spark in a performer and encouraging that. Sometimes it’s necessary to smash icons. Often a young singer will adopt a musical mannerism that seems insincere or illogical. When questioned, the response is usually something like, “That’s how so and so does it.” My response is always, “If so and so’s name is not Beethoven, or Schubert or Debussy, then I don’t want to hear it.” But, naturally enough, young performers idolize their heroes. They want to be just like them. They must travel a long road before they gain the courage to make their own mistakes!

2) What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in your new opera?  

In the case of A Northern Lights Dream, the characters gave me a chance to write a broad spectrum of style. I had completed about half of the music before I realized where my instincts were taking me. The story has humans, gods, and fairies. The more other-worldly or magical the character, the more complex the counterpoint and harmony; and the more operatic the sound. At the other end of the scale, for the earthy, folksier characters, the style moves closer to musical theater. Robin, who lives quite comfortably in both the magical and human realms, sings in an accessible style, but with great virtuosity.

3) please tell me a bit about the story of Northern Lights Dream.

The story is set in the town of Shakespeare, Ontario, in the present day. It opens with a 400 year old Robin Goodfellow (Shakespeare’s Puck) relating his frustrated attempts to win the heart of Aurora Borealis. He decides to change his trickster ways with mortals in order to gain the goddess’s favour.

In town, meanwhile, there is a fashion designer named Helen, whose shop is at risk of bankruptcy because of an unpaid bill for a wedding dress and bridesmaids gowns – unpaid because the bride and groom have had a row and called off the wedding. Helen, although wary of Robin’s powers, is eventually convinced by her friend and employee, Taylor, to seek the fairy’s assistance in getting the wedding back on track. This leads to a day of revelations for Helen and the other mortals as their hidden, inner lives are gradually made visible, both to themselves and to one another.

4) please reflect for a moment on the pedagogical value for a singer doing a new work, as opposed to a standard work such as Carmen

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SOLT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin

If you were to attend staging rehearsals at SOLT, you might hear Guillermo Silva-Marin, the director, say to the students, “Stop listening to the recordings!” I agree, wholeheartedly. You cannot say this too often or with too much conviction to a student. It’s advice I was given when I was young and advice that I promptly ignored. But it is good advice, nevertheless. Students must forge their own relationship with the score. To the best of their ability, they must channel the composer’s concept and not simply imitate the recreations recorded by other artists. To paraphrase Vladimir Horowitz, Why should they copy someone else’s mistakes, when they can make their own?

A new work has many pedagogical advantages. There are no recordings. The students have no choice. They must rely on their ability to interpret the score. Plus, the composer is present. They can test their interpretations against the source and see where they were right and where they went horribly off track! And the reverse is true. The composer can find those places in the score that need more precision in order to get the desired result.

5) If a young student wants to have a career, what qualities –between a big voice or a good range or musicianship or good acting– would you tell them to work on?

Musicianship and a musical, artistic imagination are essential. You can have the greatest voice in the world and excellent technique. But if you have no concept of how the music goes and nothing personal to express, then it is mere sound, signifying nothing. I always recommend that singers get back to the basics of music making. Forget that you’re a singer. Hum the tunes in the same way that anyone would hum a favorite melody while walking down the street. It’s the beauty of the tune that people want to hear, not just the beauty of the voice (although that’s important, too!)The next thing is to work on interpersonal relationships. If people enjoy being around you, they’ll be more likely to want to work with you. It comes down to some very simple things sometimes. Good hygiene. Wear deodorant, but not perfume. All musicians and artists (not just singers!) breathe. We need clean air! Be on time. If you habitually keep people waiting, you’re wasting precious time. You won’t be asked back. Be friendly but focussed.  It may seem silly to mention such things. But there are many great performers out there. Your odds of being hired are that much better if people love spending time with you.Don’t ignore the other arts. Go to the theater, the art gallery. Read literature and poetry. Art is not created in a vacuum!

6) Please put Dream in context vis a vis operatic prototypes of the 21st century.  How radical or conservative is this opera? 

In terms of contemporary trends in new opera, Northern Lights fits with a stream of thought that predicts a merging of opera with musical theater. I don’t know how accurate that prediction is. But the trend is certainly there, starting with such luminaries as Menotti and Sondheim. I tend to think of my own work as theater with music.
Another recent development, spurred on no doubt by economic realities, is the resurgence of chamber opera. Indie companies like Against the Grain, are doing wonderful work in reinventing the standard repertoire for contemporary audiences, in English translation. I love the intimacy and immediacy of this kind of work. Toronto Operetta Theatre is another company that explores smaller scale work in English translation. There are advantages to this. The audience understands what’s being said. And, in a smaller theater, they get to be closer to the action. Hearing a singer from ten feet away is a totally different experience than hearing that singer from two hundred feet away!

7) What direction do you see yourself going after this?

I’ve started work on a new full-length show to be premiered in Toronto in the 2019-20 season. It hasn’t yet been announced publicly, so I won’t say which company it’s for. But I can say that I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity! Once SOLT is done and I’ve had a chance to see Northern Lights on its feet, I’ll sit down with Guillermo Silva-Marin and discuss possible revisions. As well as being the director of the show, Guillermo was my dramaturg during the writing process. His insights will be invaluable. The audience response will also be immensely informative.

8) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I’ve been fortunate in my colleagues and my teachers. But the biggest influence has been my friends. It’s friends who really help us become who we are.

Or who we might be.

*********

Michael Rose continues to wear several hats this summer:

  • His new opera A Northern Lights Dream receives its world premiere on a double bill with John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus on July 28th with Summer Opera Lyric Theatre (SOLT) at the Robert Gill Theatre.
  • Michael will be music-director & pianist for The Marriage of Figaro
  • SOLT’s 2017 schedule is as follows: (see website for details and purchase information)

Carmen – Jul 29 & Aug 6 at 2 pm; Aug 1 & 3 at 8 pm.
The Marriage Of Figaro – Jul 29, Aug 2 & 4 at 8 pm; Aug 2 at 2 pm
Night Blooming Cereus & A Northern Lights Dream – Jul 28 & Aug 5 at 8 pm; Jul 30 & Aug 5 at 2 pm.

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The happy SOLT cast surrounding Michael, and including…. hockey sticks?  Ah but it is the Sesquicentennial after all.  (Front: Elizabeth Ferguson, Liv Morton, Adriene Donkin, Leyanna Slous;  rear: Kimberley-Rose Kim Pefhany, Avery Laura Lafrentz, Grace Quinsey, Shaelyn Archibald, Michael Rose, Alida Doornberg, Logan Hickey)

 

 

 

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Irresistible Flea

I am usually drawn to Fringe shows either by the material or by the personnel in the show, so I couldn’t miss Pulse Theatre’s production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear. It’s directed by Aleksandar Sasha Lukac, a director who always makes me laugh, especially when he’s directing one of my favourite playwrights.

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Aleksandar Sasha Lukac, director of A Flea in Her Ear

Toronto could stand to show us more Feydeau, a playwright who is a special challenge with his fast paced story-telling, his clockwork plot construction and requirement of endless energy. There are no small parts in this play, as everyone has their moments pushing the plot along, especially in a production adding wacky dance numbers during scene changes. There are very few moments in this show that aren’t suggestively sexy in their physicality.

Oh to be young again.

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Mladen Obradović, Kimberley Wells, A’mar Wharton-Matthew, Tomas Ketchum, Kyla Dewey, Adrian Milan, Suzanne Miller, Xavier de Guzman, Madelaine Burgess, Laurie Hurst, Aaron Schaefer, Anne-Marie Krytiuk (photo: Derrick Chow)

A story centred on questions of marital fidelity is only helped by showing the sexual tensions & subtexts with nothing held back. I understand that this particular farce has a long history in Serbia, a theatre community who influenced Lukac’s unique physical style. While he’s been in Toronto for decades now, both as an important teacher and practitioner, he maintains ties with the old country, regularly taking shows across the ocean.

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Mladen Obradović as Poche (photo: Derrick Chow)

Spoiler alert.  Theatre Pulse’s Artistic Director Mladen Obradovic has a key role: or perhaps I should say roles. The hair-style tricks may not fool you at all, especially if you read in the program that Obradovic is playing two roles. He does an amazing job as two people. This is a special kind of theatrical magic, where those onstage are fooled in a plot involving mistaken identity –due to the two identical people, played by one person–while those of us in the audience may choose to be fooled as well to maximize the fun.

Some performances are more cartoonish, some more like real people. I can’t decide which I prefer, only that Lukac’s approach requires them all, as they all earn laughs at different times for different sorts of actions.

Madeleine Rose, Xavier de Guzman, and  A’mar Wharton-Matthew, as Antoinette, Étienne and Camille start us off in a realm of what I’d like to call physical eloquence, beautiful bodies in motion, sometimes moving in the most unexpected ways. For Lukac whose comedy is informed by the wisdom of the Commedia dell’Arte, every moment and every line become opportunities for discovery in the script.  While she’s a burlesque artist, which may be getting a bit like the flavor du jour for theatre directors, this is so much more than just a glimpse of skin.  All three create intriguing parts out of small roles, setting up everything that follows in the play.  As the commedia often showed us (even though Feydeau is a million miles away from CdA), servants may be the most authentic people on the stage.

Adrian Milan and Suzanne Miller are Don Carlos & his wife Lucienne, a powerful couple who aren’t just visually striking. Milan knocks the play out of the park with his volcanic temper tantrums, a cartoonish thug whose sense of menace is all too real: even though I couldn’t stop laughing.  There are no weak spots in the cast, no small parts in this ensemble, who keep it moving at breakneck speed from start to finish.  It’s a good thing the space is air conditioned.

Pulse Theatre’s A Flea in Her Ear continues at the Factory Theatre on Bathurst until July 16.

 

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