Plummer, Shakespeare & Oundjian

Tonight’s concert, the latest in the month-long Toronto Symphony celebration of Peter Oundjian, was like a cross between a pops concert and a play reading, titled “Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare”. It was like “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits”, a series of textual highlights delivered by Christopher Plummer, embellished with some of the famous music associated with each of the plays being sampled, and it was smooth as silk, effortless as if they’ve done this program a thousand times..

But it felt like an event. The fact that we watched The Great Man at work for a couple of hours felt very special. Plummer may be in his 80s, he may walk with a bit of a limp that he’s earned with years of toil onstage and onscreen, but he’s still capable of silencing a full theatre with his eloquence. We heard famous passages from several plays, as Plummer showed us the brilliance he still commands even now. Shakespearean magic was wound around the moments of appreciation for Oundjian, with whom he shared the stage & the adulation of a thrilled audience at Roy Thomson Hall. I wish I could tell you it’s to be repeated tomorrow but this is the only time, and I’ll never forget it.

We heard a relatively small sampler of the wonderful music Shakespeare has inspired (given that there’s such an enormous amount): yet it filled out the evening. Every nation’s music, every great composer has taken their turn, if not several turns either adapting Shakespeare (in opera, ballet or musicals), or writing music to accompany a presentation of a play or film adaptation. Over the course of this delightful program we heard from Wagner, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Korngold, Rota, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, & Willan.

At times Plummer & Oundjian worked at the same time, the music underscoring a passage: for instance in the Walton “Passacaglia” from Henry V, as Plummer gave us first Falstaff and then the King answering.

But for the most part it was more of a give & take, the music and the text going back and forth, answering one another. In the end that’s the most natural thing, given that the text & music are part of a centuries-old dialogue, words inspiring the composition of music, the music inspiring the reading of the words.  And again. Again.

It was magical.

At times Plummer would give us BOTH characters in a scene, offering a contrast in the voice & body language to differentiate for us, so we’d know Falstaff from King Henry, or Puck from Oberon.

At the end there was huge applause for both men and the orchestra as well.

All that remains for Oundjian of his tenure as TSO Music Director are a series of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth this Thursday, Friday & Saturday nights with soloists & the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.


Peter Oundjian, autographing the Scheherazade CD for (lucky) me

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The People’s Purcell

Michael Slattery & La Nef are back with another recording from ATMA.


A few years ago they collaborated on Dowland in Dublin. On that occasion their project took the music  in a new direction, reminding me of folk music or even pub music. Layers of artifice were cleared away to expose an approach to the composer from a more informal world, a whole other way of hearing & performing the music.

At the time I remember wondering what they might do next, whether there were any other composers they might uncover, revisit, rethink.

And that’s what I thought of when I saw the cover of The People’s Purcell, their latest.

Was there something comparable at work? In the Dowland album they presented a theory that there was an Irish connection, and from there took the music in a wholly new direction, undertaken in a new way. The album made a compelling case for rethinking the composer, even if it began as nothing more than a fun experiment, like the ones we sometimes do when we’re playing around the piano, improvising something hypothetical. What happens if I play the Pathetique in Major instead of minor, or add a dotted rhythm to this Mozart sonata, or play this half as fast or twice as fast. What happens as in, is it funny or is it actually any good?

I am sometimes the fastest person I know: at watching & writing & publishing. I’ll see a show from 8-10 pm, drive home to Scarborough and usually have the review published within the hour, allowing me to go to bed & be up for work the next day. And sometimes? If I’m not sure, if there’s something deeper at work, I may balk, pausing to ponder. This is especially so with CDs & DVDs, where there is no public performance to be promoted by the review, and so the time-frame ceases to matter.

I first listened to The People’s Purcell months ago. It was winter and now spring is giving way to summer. I’ve driven about with this CD on my car’s stereo. I can hum most of this to myself by now because I know every note of the CD. Yet I was stopped, as I tried to understand what was really going on, to make sure I could get a handle on what they were doing, or at least to understand my response, my passionate enthusiasm.

Don’t lose sight of one thing. I really like The People’s Purcell even if I have been pondering it for weeks, unsure of what to say. Just because I can’t really explain its charm or deconstruct it into neat categories doesn’t diminish its achievement. Indeed it’s rather unpretentious, so maybe the key is to just accept it on its own terms. I don’t know what the thought process was behind the People’s Purcell nor do I know exactly what that title meant to them, only that it’s meaningful to me after having listened to this album for several weeks in the car, one of my favourite experimental laboratories.

I find the title very suggestive, very powerful, to tell me what this music has become in the hands of La Nef & Slattery, and perhaps along the way they’ve discovered something about Purcell and how he is traditionally approached. Please feel free to find the answer to the question if you would, in someone else’s review or interview.

The thing is, this really feels like a new way of approaching Purcell, a Purcell I’ve never heard before. The usual Purcell is more formal, more stuffy than this pub-flavored performance. The way La Nef make music it sounds like folk music, even when they’re playing something usually understood as serious baroque music. I found myself imagining musicians after hours, taking the music to the tavern, or playing among themselves, and making something fun out of more serious compositions.

Why you may ask, would anyone need a “people’s Purcell”? unless perhaps the composer has somehow been submerged in something else, lost, misplaced. Whose Purcell was it if not the people’s? Perhaps we’ve had a more pretentious Purcell, the virtuoso’s Purcell or the composer as treated by big institutions such as the church or conservatories. However he’s been represented, this is a kind of unpretentious re-think. Or maybe it’s simply Purcell among the people rather than up above us, a less lofty and ambitious version of a composer sometimes held up as the greatest of all English composers. And how wonderful must he be that he shows himself in a whole new light, even in this rough guise?  I should add, that if you’re someone who loves the way Purcell is usually performed, you’ll think what I just wrote is nonsense, hogwash, PR- BS. But I confess, I am always ready for another look, another approach.

And this is why I keep listening to this CD. Well, there’s also the small matter of my admiration & enjoyment of Michael Slattery’s voice, its impeccable diction & pitch, the directness of communication without the overlay of too much artifice. We have ornamented music on this CD where the ornaments feel natural and organic, rather than forced or artificial. That in itself is an achievement, as though we’re seeing the compositions more clearly, hearing the thought more truly. And his collaboration with La Nef is again such a natural thing, as though the music of Purcell were always played in taverns and bars. HAS it ever been played there?

Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that I was daunted initially by this CD because it straddles boundaries, doesn’t immediately declare itself as opera or classical, neither this nor that. That’s one of its strengths arguably even as that has been the reason I didn’t review it for weeks and weeks. And now as we’re into the summer I want to put out the review, to encourage people to have this the way I have it, ideal for the car as you travel to the cottage or just enjoying a drive with the windows down.

We begin with something called ”An Evening Hymn” that is a perfect illustration of what’s different about this CD.

Let me first link to a typical recording of this piece from youtube.

The voice is lovely, the accompaniment delightful. Notice that this is a hymn that addresses the whole question of how it would be sung, how to deport itself.

Now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?

Dear, dear God, even in Thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.


This hymn is almost a prayer within a prayer, asking God: how to pray, how to approach God.

Here’s another recording, also quite wonderful!

I’ve listened to several, and they are ALL wonderful. It’s a fabulous little piece of music.

Dare I say it, the version by Slattery & La Nef (sorry I am not presenting it for you) manages to strip away the veneer of art, to get to the essence of the music without making it seem so difficult. In making it seem effortless I feel closer to spirit: the essence of prayer & spirituality. To each his own, naturally. But that’s where I was first won, in that sense of directness & sincerity, of a music with just enough art as to make something beautiful, with enough spontaneity as to allow me to feel what must be felt. Slattery’s evening hymn becomes a different hymn. We’re not in a church that’s for sure. Might we be alone with him as he prays? it’s not big and loud. Where would we imagine this being sung? It seems like a very direct address to the creator, as though in a private space, in a bed softly at bedtime or out in a field alone looking up at the night sky. I think it’s closer to the language of the actual hymn as it benefits from informality, creating intimacy missing from any other version I’ve encountered. They’re all more rhetorical, more formal. This one? is vulnerable and gentle and yes even cute. I find it adorable, heart-breaking in its simplicity.

Let’s try another example. “Let each gallant heart” is a song about love.

Let each gallant heart,
Untouch’d with love’s dart,
Prepare for his secret alarms;
That sluggish repose
Wherein now thou art,
Affords far less numerous charms,
For the warfare of love
Yields a thousand times more
Sweets and delights than your dull peace before.

Long torment ’tis sure
We must calmly endure,
Before the dear prize we obtain.
Yet still the hard toil
Is part of the cure,
And such pleasures we find in our pain,
That the warfare of love
Yields a thousand times more
Blissful delights than your dull peace before.

The text is playful, the realm of love becoming a metaphorical site of warfare. How to approach it?

Here’s one way to read the text & music

I find it somewhat formal, so caught up in being authentic to the baroque style that it’s not really playful. It’s a nice performance, but, well I’m comparing it to what Slattery & La Nef do, and that’s a problem, because I can’t unhear the fun they have.

So let’s finally hear some of Slattery & La Nef so you can have some idea what I’m raving about..!

After the People’s Purcell, I will never be quite the same about any of this music. I will always ask myself: how would they have done it? The entire CD asks me –and perhaps you too – to reconsider Purcell, hear him in a new way. Are we hearing some of the implications in the music, perhaps folk influences? or did they simply go off on a mad folk tangent? I am not sure it matters, or at least it doesn’t matter to me. I am not listening to this as a definitive Purcell but rather as an alternative, a kind of deconstructed or reconstructed Purcell, synthesized from folk music, as though he were played in pubs & taverns rather than concert halls & conservatories.  I am wondering, are all those precise classical artists perhaps being too strict, not playful enough? It’s an unpretentious project, this rethink of Purcell. If you ask them to document or prove this by some kind of musicological criteria, it must fail. But it’s the Purcell you might hear in a bar over a few drinks, not the Purcell you’d ever find in the concert hall: unless of course they invite La Nef & Slattery to perform there.

They certainly have my ear.

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Mozart & Mahler @ TSO

The final week of Peter Oundjian’s tenure leading the Toronto Symphony is here, so tantalizing because there’s a genuine rapport between the players & their leader. The future conductors who lead the ensemble, whether as guests or residents, may never get this close to the musicians, all of whom know Oundjian at least from years working together, if not also as the man who found & recruited them to their position. It’s his band to steer for the moment even if he will soon let go of the tiller.

Tonight was in some ways a classic TSO concert, reminding me of so many nights at Roy Thomson Hall, when we’d hear sporadic applause between movements, including the looks of irritation from some who don’t want applause in their silent mid-symphony reverie (like that pensive soul sitting in front of me fidgeting at every noise). There was an early courteous pause to allow patrons to find their seats, and a dramatic eruption near the end from a child whose sobs surprised a parent who must have mistaken Mahler for the Muppets (what was he thinking? At least the child wasn’t separated from his dad, even if I was immediately reminded by the audible cries of other tearful moments on the news this week).  But for me this is typical TSO –in stark contrast to the discipline one sees from the Tafelmusik audience—as we remember that Oundjian has been a teacher not just to the symphonic colleagues he’s mentored but to his audience as well, nursed along in the Decades Project and other efforts to raise the literacy of his listeners. I recall a concert a decade ago that infuriated me for the inability of the audience to be quiet: but at that time the orchestra hadn’t yet persuaded us (the listeners) to keep still.

We’ve come a long way.

The two works on the program couldn’t be more different, both for what they require of the orchestra & leader, as well as what they demand of the listener.

Emanuel Ax, Peter Oundjian, TSO_2 (@Nick Wons) (1)

Emanuel Ax at the piano with the TSO led by Peter Oundjian (photo: Nick Wons)

We began with Mozart in the guise of K 453, a piano concerto in G Major, employing veteran soloist Emanuel Ax. As with other concerts in this festival of Oundjiania, Ax has history with Oundjian, being his very first concerto soloist, and he’s now the last as well with this weekend’s concert. I’m sounding like a broken record in once more calling attention to the excellence with which Oundjian follows visiting virtuosi.  I am always impressed with how good he makes them sound, how masterfully the work comes off. Had it been Wolfgang Amadeus himself sitting at the keyboard I don’t think it would have been better (allowing that WA Mozart might have wanted to conduct his own ensemble from the piano, distracted by the big beautiful sounds coming out of his modern instrument, and dazzled to find himself alive in the 21st century surrounded by all the attractive patrons at Roy Thomson Hall). Ax? a humble servant of the music, even in its most challenging moments, never rocking the Mozartian boat.

The big work to conclude, Mahler’s 9th Symphony, was as much a treat for the conductor as for us, guaranteeing that a fun time was had by all: except perhaps the little child who was stunned by the intensity near the end, plus his embarrassed papa, carrying him to the safety of the lobby. For those of us who didn’t have to run away in terror it was quite an event. Oundjian had full commitment from his players this time out, everyone going all out. We got solos in every section, played flawlessly as far as I could tell. Teng Li was especially eloquent tonight in the last days of her tenure as principal violist, before she goes to Los Angeles as the Philharmonic’s new Principal. Oundjian’s interpretation opted for the faster tempi that I usually prefer in Mahler even if that can be fraught with risks, a greater challenge to hold it all together. The intensity never let up, particularly in a hair-raising third movement taken at a break-neck speed. With every year and new arrival, the virtuosity of this orchestra has risen ever higher, so it’s a treat to hear them tested in a showcase work such as this one.

The victory lap continues next week, with a Shakespeare program featuring Christopher Plummer and then Beethoven’s Ninth to finish next weekend.

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Ermanno Mauro: “Great Tenor Arias”

Sometimes recordings can open a window on the past. I’ve got a “new” CD, actually an old one that’s only new to me. Forgive me if I choose to write about something that’s not easily available but the CD immediately took me back decades to several powerful moments.

  1. One of my first live opera experiences, at the U of T Opera School (later the Opera Department)
  2. One of my most powerful moments ever playing for singers
  3. The first night of the Canadian Opera Company under Lotfi Mansouri

What or rather who do these three moments have in common?  Tenor Ermanno Mauro.

#1, up close in the MacMillan Theatre of the Edward Johnson Building, Mauro’s voice was a powerful experience, in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.  I remember very little except the visceral pressure of the voice in a space that seemed tiny when he let fly, an effortless sound, and my first real experience of a huge voice.

#2: Playing? I think it must have been the year my brother sang Schaunard with the Canadian Opera Company opposite Mauro as Rodolfo, and so Ermanno came to dinner at my mom’s house: where I still lived, a teenager.  In Opera Viva (that wonderful and sometimes astonishing history of the COC by Ezra Schabas & Carl Morey), I see that it was in the autumn of 1972, when Peter was all of 23 singing on the COC’s mainstage, and Mauro? a mature singer ten years older than my brother with that huge voice.  His Rodolfo could be lyrical, but from an instrument of such power.  I’ve never heard anything like it before or since.

That 1972 experience (#2), one of the most powerful musical experiences of my young life, felt like I was riding a wild horse, playing the Otello vengeance duet while Peter & Ermanno sang.  I played as loud as I could, barely able to hear the piano, while the two voices enveloped me, in my mom’s back-room.  Afterwards I only recall the kindness of the man, so sweet to me while I had been struggling to keep up, sight-reading Verdi, turning pages,  while these two amazing voices belted out music that I had recently heard and embraced from records.  I was 17 and star-struck, but will never forget.  Ermanno’s voice is remarkable, an ideal instrument honed for verismo, spinto singing.   He can sing soft delicate phrases but has a direct sound and secure high notes.  I hear a bit of Giuseppe di Stefano here (particularly in the gentle oh so Italianate pianissimo passages), a bit of James McCracken there (the vowel diphthongs, a sound we sometimes hear from American tenor Russell Thomas).  But unlike di Stefano or McCracken the voice stayed together, the production impressive even in his maturity.

Listen to him sing Otello in this video, nearly 70 years old, and still an amazing voice.

#3 was a curious moment.  The opening of the 1977 fall season, I was sitting in the cheap seats at the back of the O’Keefe Centre for the opening night of Don Carlos, as the COC got the jump on the Metropolitan Opera as the first company in North America to present the original five act version in French. While its acoustics are famously bad, the back rows of the orchestra under the balcony actually tended to be better for sound, as there was a bit of a concentration of the sound there, unlike the dead spots in the midst of the orchestra.  I was back there because it was all I could get, but by a magical fluke, there he was.

Lotfi Mansouri.

He stood directly behind me, pacing, fidgeting about. What was he thinking, I wondered? I could feel his tension.  But the production was handsome and very beautiful in places.  Mauro played the title role.   And the production was the beginning of a quantum leap for the COC.

Pardon me for the preamble, but that’s more or less meant to indicate that when I slipped the CD into the player in my car, I was somewhat breathless in anticipation, encountering an old friend.  The CD is from the CBC SM5000 series in the 1980s, a DDD recording (meaning, fully digital), Mauro singing a dozen arias accompanied by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uri Mayer.  The Boheme aria you see shared via youtube above is from this recording.

In addition?

  • “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen
  • “O souverain” from Le Cid
  • “Nessun dorma” from Turandot
  • “Un di all’azzuro spazio” from Andrea Chenier
  • “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci
  • “Niun mi tema” from Otello
  • “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther
  • “Ah! lève-toi soleil” Romeo et Juliette
  • ”Ma, se m’è forza perderti” from Un ballo in maschera
  • “Ah si ben mio” from Il trovatore
  • “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca

While a purist might take issue with some of the interpretations, Mauro’s pragmatic vocalism is a good match for most of these operas.  In 2018, we could use a voice like this. At times his muscular sound is as big and loud as any I’ve ever encountered, wonderfully reliable on top.  I’ve now listened to his “Niun mi tema” from Otello twice, totally destroyed by it both times.  While his “vesti la giubba” skips the histrionic crying, the way this Otello chooses to die is heart-breaking, and very original to my ear (and speaking of crying, I had enough sobs for the both of us).  Mauro has a very vulnerable soft voice he employs in places, for instance to begin the flower aria, or in “E lucevan le stelle”: but not in the places I expected.  His “oh dolce baci”, going up to the F-sharp, is soft as the kisses he would describe, so gently evocative that you can see the scene he is describing.  The middle voice is huge when he wants to call up a dark and passionate power, as Werther or in Le Cid.

Ermanno Mauro? Quite a voice.  I will be listening to the CD again and again.


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Vaughan Williams recording: a joyful valedictory for Oundjian

The last month of Peter Oundjian’s tenure with the Toronto Symphony is unfolding as a celebration.  We’re partway through a series of concerts, with three more programs to come in the next fortnight.

In addition Chandos have released a TSO recording that in some ways epitomizes everything Oundjian stands for. It’s English music but performed by Canadians, a young group of soloists, including some of the talented players recruited & mentored by Oundjian.

CH5201 (1)

I understand that the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is a special favourite of Oundjian:

  • Serenade to Music, for Four Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra (1938)
  • Concerto for Oboe & Strings (1944)
  • Flos Campi , Suite for Solo Viola, Small Chorus and Small Orchestra (1924-25)
  • Concerto, for Piano and Orchestra (1926-31)

While the four works are varied, they all serve to show off the exquisite sound of a TSO that Oundjian built & trained.

The Serenade to Music is a sensual delight, and as with most of Vaughan Williams output, takes us to a more tuneful & tonal place than what most of his contemporaries were producing.  The Serenade might have been written in the 19th century for its lush tonal palette, a hymn to romance and romantic music itself.  The Elmer Iseler Singers are quicksilver, fluid as breezes and sunshine illuminating the score from within, seemingly effortless.

The Oboe Concerto, composed during the Second World War, came from a composer likely seeking to uplift & inspire, as that’s how this music hits me. It takes us in a more playful & whimsical direction, suggesting a more vulnerable aspect to the composer, both in the achingly beautiful solos from Sarah Jeffrey, and in the textures that surround or answer her oboe.

Flos Campi (or “Flower of the field”) is arguably one of Vaughan Williams very best works.  The inspiration is the Songs of Songs, that most sensual part of the Bible.  Whether you choose to read this as something devotional or just plain sexy, I think your ear will be ravished one way or another, the TSO’s principal viola Teng Li teaming with the Iseler Singers again.

Finally the most surprising piece for me is the concluding Piano Concerto.  It doesn’t sound like the Vaughan Williams I thought I knew.   I’ll have to take the score out of the library to get inside the piece.  The liner notes suggest the influence of Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, which certainly suggests something on the very boundaries of what’s playable: yet I would never have guessed, listening to the ease with which Louis Lortie plays it. There are places that are lyrical, but also places that are more percussive, with a genuine ferocity.

Throughout, the TSO are at the service of the composer & the conductor, a joyful valedictory for Oundjian.  To obtain or download the recording click here.

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Oundjian and TSO: the long goodbye

It was the first in a series of concerts for the month-long celebration of Peter Oundjian’s achievement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as he finishes his fourteen year tenure as music director.  In his introduction Oundjian explained some of the rationale for the program, as though in some respect these concerts tell a story.

“Peter Oundjian: this is your life.”

Or so it seemed as he told us some of his connections to the Bernstein, the Gershwin and the Brahms on the program.  We heard a charmingly funny horror story about Herbert von Karajan from his student days at Juilliard, pushed into a conductor’s role for a movement of the symphony we heard tonight, complete with the obligatory imitation of the great man.

It was the perfect preamble, something I will miss when he’s gone. Oundjian has a wonderfully collegial manner at the microphone, a generous teacher & mentor without much evident ego getting in the way.

We heard the TSO in three works:

  • Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free by Leonard Bernstein
  • The piano concerto in F by George Gershwin
  • Johannes Brahms’ 1st Symphony in C Minor

It’s an odd sort of thing, this business of celebration.  Everyone was so pumped up that we were not watching an orchestra drilled by their master so much as an ensemble reminding me of  eager children performing their Christmas Pageant, complete with the adoring audience eating it all up.

The month to come won’t necessarily be the same as tonight, but for this occasion, the adrenaline was high.  Everything felt a bit louder than usual, as though the acoustics of Roy Thomson Hall had improved. But I think it was simply that everyone played with great commitment.

This was especially true of Jon Kimura Parker, substituting on short notice for an indisposed Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who was to have been the soloist in the Gershwin.  Parker practically ran onstage, bouncing in his seat a couple of times while playing.  This concerto is a favourite of mine, but I have to say this was a reading unlike any I’ve ever heard.  Oundjian played up the jazzy element from the orchestra, giving us big dynamic range.  And Oundjian gave Parker lots of room for his occasionally idiosyncratic rubati, an interpretation with genuine soul.  I’ve always found Oundjian especially generous in concerti, very thoughtful around his soloists with a wonderfully supportive approach: and that was again true tonight.

Peter Oundjian, Jon Kimura Parker_2 (@Jag Gundu)

Oundjian shapes the orchestra in support of soloist Parker (photo: Jag Gundu).

Parker’s encore that he introduced as a tribute to Oundjian was a blistering reading of Oscar Peterson’s Blues Etude, red hot playing in one of the most impressive displays of pianism I’ve seen in a long time.  Wow.

The three brief Bernstein dance movements were little jewels, exploding with energy & verve.

Then came the Brahms, where the orchestra celebrating Oundjian seemed at odds with the need for balance in a large scale work, colliding with the subtleties of this symphony.  It’s weird, that the piece at times was subverted by energy, when I think I would have preferred something less intense, less edgy, more magisterial, unified and self-assured.  We heard solo after solo played beautifully, stunning playing from the string section (for instance in the main theme of the last movement) or the trombones (the choir near the end of the symphony).  I think tomorrow’s concert will be better when they settle down and simply play.

In the days ahead we’ll be hearing the TSO and Oundjian in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a concert featuring Christopher Plummer & music inspired by William Shakespeare, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and for the final weekend, Beethoven’s joyful Ninth Symphony.

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What I learned from Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain, a man of contradictions, has died.  Yes he ended his life, but he seemed to know more about how to enjoy life than anyone I can think of.  As I watch CNN’s marathon of favourite episodes of Parts Unknown, I’m trying to pay it forward by trying to capture a bit of what I’ve learned from him, a man who was among other things a great teacher.

  1. Say “yum” or “mmm” when someone gives you a taste.  Did Bourdain ever say a critical word EVER? He takes a taste and inevitably says “thank you”.  Music critics? We could learn from this guy.  Be grateful. Getting to listen to beautiful music is a blessing.

    Now of course we don’t see the preparation, the research. But that only means that Bourdain & his team make sure they’re eating something wonderful before they set up the shot where everyone is moaning in ecstasy.  But it’s not so hard to stifle the negative words, is it? Smile, nod, model enjoyment & pleasure.

  2. Curiosity seems to be fundamental to intelligence.  Bourdain asks questions, always trying to figure out how things work, enquiring about what’s in a recipe and how something is made. And most fundamentally he wants to taste things he hasn’t tasted before. Remember to try something new, and when reading a menu, order the strangest thing there.
  3. Don’t stipulate. Open your heart to what’s before you. Sure, it’s all staged for TV, maybe it wasn’t like that in real life. Okay! So maybe we should pretend we’re on Parts Unknown and that we are meeting people whom we admire and embracing beauty and brilliance.  Applaud creativity, laugh at jokes, eat it up, devour what’s before you. Love it unconditionally.

    Later (when you’re writing about it)? then you can dissect and contemplate what might be going on. But when you’re face to face with the artists? Offer them love and support.

    They are apprehensive, or possibly even terrified of what you might say. Me? I’m gentle Pollyanna, so nothing to fear. But even so: be gentle, careful.

    Be nice.

  4. Be profane. Don’t be afraid of bad words. They are truthful, dammit.
  5. Listen to the person you are talking to. What do they know? where have they been? what interests them? Shut up and listen.
  6. Learn martial arts : because walking into strange places is easier if you know ju-jitsu or karate and have a wash-board tummy.  I’ll never get the rock hard abs, but it’s not a bad idea, the morning after pigging out.
  7. Eating is fun and drinking is fun and if you’re not loving it, not having fun don’t do it.  Wait until you have a good reason to eat or drink such as acute thirst or hunger.  This is really about going to see opera or a concert. What was it CS Lewis said? Fans of mystery novels should review mystery novels.  If I am a baroque and classical fan, sitting at a modern opera hating its dissonance: maybe I shouldn’t be there. Love is the answer. No I don’t know what the question is.
  8. Good cheese is better than a naked body on the beach. Although I’d love to have the opportunity to make the comparison.
  9. People are vulnerable when they are eating and  drinking.  Vulnerability? However you get it, it’s indispensable for rapport. The unmasked vulnerable person is the real person: the one you want to meet

    And know.

  10. Bourdain regularly pursues the un-commmon rather than the mainstream, the road less traveled. There’s a great episode I saw tonight celebrating examining how Marseilles is a better alternative to Paris.  So of course when he comes to Canada? he explores Québec or Newfoundland.  Of course.
  11. Compassion for the addict and their addiction: no judgment because he has been there and it could happen to anyone.  How is it that this food & travel show taught me more about heroin than anything I’ve ever seen?  Possibly because Bourdain has literally been there himself.
  12. He’s unafraid to look inept or goofy or incompetent: because he is comfortable in his own skin and in front of the camera.  I am remembering an appearance I made on CBC’s opera quiz, and how I laughed at my own ineptitude.  Nobody really cares about performance, so long as you seem comfortable in your own skin.  This is true when we’re singing or playing the keyboard.  The audience / congregation don’t want to be stressed out about whether you’re able to hit the high note.
  13. Bourdain started in the kitchen himself. He never lost his respect for the hard work of creation. Critics should have some sense of the labour involved, some respect for the work.

    Honouring the worker honours the work.

  14. Parts unknown? Visit them both on the map AND on the menu: explore new music new food new people new books new media.  Indeed, the parts unknown can even be ourselves. Do we know our own parts?

And why did he choose to end his life? Who knows. I am sad for such a death. But i can’t miss his love of life,  joie de vivre.

In the meantime seize the day or seize the bottle or seize the lover.  Enjoy yourself and you’re walking in his footsteps.

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