Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Time of Dreaming

They say Christmas is a time for dreaming -- a time when hope meets disappointment, when laughter meets tears, when all that we have done in the year is behind us, and our path for the New Year lies open and untrodden before us. Yes, Christmas is a time for dreaming.

We want to take this opportunity to thank you -- all of you whom we have seen during our winter concert tour. Thank you for coming to our concerts, for dreaming with us, for laughing with us, for celebrating, for being part of Winter Harp and the memories and joys of stories and music.

Christmas is a time for dreaming -- may all your dreams come true.

Lori Pappajohn
Winter Harp Director

Behind the Scenes @ Winter Harp

The shows in Nanaimo, North Vancouver and Maple Ridge this year were overseen by our lighting and effects tech Roger. Our sound engineer Dwayne manages every aspect of our sound in New Westminster, North Vancouver, Vancouver and Maple Ridge. Having consistent sound and lighting is such a great relief, and these unsung members of the Winter Harp ensemble deserve a great deal of credit for the look, feel and sound of our shows.

During the set up for the North Vancouver show we discovered that there was a loose connection somewhere in the transducer built into the harp. Dwayne and the other sound techs and I quickly did some "open harp surgery" to remedy the problem, but just in case we also set up an acoustic microphone nearby. As it turned out, it was likely a patch cord issue and the problem never reoccurred after that sound check.


Many years ago when we played to audiences of 100 or less, we would often play entirely acoustically. While historically correct, it also limited the venues which we could play in. As the show grew in size and scope, amplification become essential, though we always strive for a very natural acoustic sound. Having lots of microphones on stage is not ideal since they are too susceptible to being bumped and getting tripped over, and as the distance between a microphone and an instrument is critical, it limits movement on stage. Consequently, as much as possible the instruments have transducers built into them which transfers the vibrations of the sound into the mixing board and produces a very clean and consistent signal.

Long before we setup, Dwayne is busy checking connections and making sure everything works properly before we get a chance to play a single note or run a single song. Often we just show up, plug in, and play.

Amplification requires monitors onstage, otherwise we can't hear ourselves as the sound is moving outwards into the audience and away from us, and that slight delay, though tiny, is enough to make it difficult for the musicians to actually hear their own instruments.

Consequently, we need to adjust the monitors on stage so that we can hear ourselves, yet not influence the sound which is being broadcast into the house. Usually it's a matter of compromise, we don't want any drums in our mix - they are loud enough, but we do need the bass of the harps, since that is a much softer sound and gets quickly buried under vocals and other instruments. This all goes fairly quickly because we all know what we want and where, though minor tweaking is always required depending on the acoustics of the room itself.

During sound check we often play musical pranks. Mark is famous for playing the melody line of a song which we are about to play, but transposing it exactly a 1/2 tone up or down, which drives people with perfect pitch crazy but is hilarious nevertheless. Here he is with a couple of blobs of wax behind his glasses.

Vocal microphones are the last thing which are set up once we have the instruments and monitors up to level, since we like to establish where the music is going to be first before we layer that on top. Setting up for the loudest vocal and instrumental sections is quite often hilarious since we don't run an entire number. Here is Caroline giving Dwayne an impromptu max level.


This year I had a rare opportunity to actually go into the audience in one number where I play the symphonie to imitate a distant set of bagpipes from the back of the theatre. This little excursion is not without the possibility of amusing, if not disastrous consequences. Once when I disappeared backstage and made my way down an outside corridor to the front of the house, it never occurred to me to check whether all the doors I walked through could actually be opened on my return. As it turned out, one of them was a one way door- it locked behind me. After playing my number I quickly retraced my steps to discover, much to my horror, the locked door. There is only a very brief instrumental and narrative number before I play the opening chords for the next song on the psaltery. This was a disaster! I had to get back on stage now or else there would be an awkward silence. It occurred to me that the loading door in the back was likely still open. So I dashed outside from the front of the house, with ushers no doubt thinking I was quite mad, ran down the street in the pouring rain. Anyone walking or driving down the street that night probably wondered where someone carrying a symphonie and wearing a medieval outfit and a look of terror on his face was going in such a mad panic. I made it just in time and quite out of breath to slowly walk towards the psaltery as the last notes of the harp slowly rang off into space. Those people in the very front rows might have noticed that the shoulders of my tunic and my hair were wet, and the occasional drop of water fell off my hands.
The rest of the times this little trip mid-show went very smoothly and I even had the rare opportunity to take a photograph backstage during a song.


Another behind the scenes tradition which the members of Winter Harp enjoy at the end of the season is a celebratory dance. It never ceases to amaze me the other gigs which Winter Harp members have done - Janelle has played with Kanye West, Bruce has played traditional Chinese music, and Mark has played in a Mariachi band. It is the latter skill which we call upon to do our end of season happy dance.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Tour to Date

This year's new line up of players in the Winter Harp ensemble received a crash course in touring. After an afternoon show in Gibsons Nov. 27, we flew to Winnipeg and played at the Pantages Theatre. Amazingly this year, the temperature was actually above freezing and there was not a trace of snow to be seen. After checking into our rooms, we loaded into the theatre for the concert the next day and had a brief rehearsal. As we ran over the show, snowflakes started to fall, and by the time we were done, the ground had a beautiful light dusting of snow.

Later, we drove to Janelle's parent's grain farm just outside Winnipeg where Janelle had the opportunity to reunite with her pet cat.



We all had a fabulous dinner of light curry with rice and broccoli. Of particular interest was a new grain which is grown in the prairies and which blended wonderfully with the basmati rice. It's little discoveries such as this which make touring so much fun. After dinner, we gathered round the fire and Winter Harp's narrator Ron Halder did a dramatic recitation of a heart warming and very funny piece of fiction which he had written. Afterwards we had a decadent chocolate cake for dessert, and Bruce and I entered into a joke competition; we each alternated telling jokes, and amidst all the laughter we quickly lost track of how late it was, so bidding everyone a fond goodnight we retraced our tracks back to Winnipeg and enjoyed the amenities of the first rate hotel.


The next day we arrived at the theatre early to get the sound and lights set up, and as always, the crew at the Pantages Theatre and Janelle's parents did a fabulous job creating a magical back drop for us to play against.

We flew back to Vancouver and the next day Lori, Janelle and I rehearsed with the Vancouver Welshman's Choir in preparation for our show in New Westminster's Massey Theatre. Playing with the choir is always a treat -- 90 enthusiastic voices really adds a spectacular dimension to the show. In some cases just the humming of so many voices adds a beautiful rich depth to a piece which is transcendent.



A few days later was the start of the Vancouver Island tour. Packing all the gear for our shows is often a challenge, as well as doing the logistics of what goes in which van, and maintaining temperature and humidity control for the various instruments. Hats off to the Mazda corporation for their design of the Mazda 5, which is a hybrid of a passenger car/mini van, but amazingly will seat three people and carry a full sized concert harp, a Celtic harp, a harp dolly, and all the luggage for the three passengers. Here is a picture of how it all fits!

We sailed to Nanaimo where I did a quick television interview, and off we went to Courtenay for two concerts. Courtenay is a really lovely town and the staff at the Sid Williams Theatre is very professional and always makes us feel welcome.

A special highlight of playing in Courtenay is that they always set up a table in the lobby after the show where we can autograph CDs and meet audience members.


After Courtenay we had a long drive ahead of us to Victoria so we started out early and made excellent time without a trace of snow. All along the way there were beautiful displays of thousands of icicles coming of the rock cliffs and embankments on the highway. After setup and sound check we walked across the street for a Japanese dinner, and our percussionist Bruce did a quick rhythm tutorial while we waited for our food. This is how percussionists pass the time.
Here he demonstrates playing 11 against 4.

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And here is a demonstration of a Brazilian rhythm.


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The Alix Goolden Hall in Victoria is particularly lively, and very little amplification is required.

The two shows in Nanaimo are always a real pleasure to play. Bruce and I did a preconcert lecture before the afternoon show as is the long-standing tradition. The technicians at the Port Theatre are some of the best I have ever met, and kudos to them for making this venue so fantastic and ideal for our performances. Add to this the catering from Modern Cafe for lunch and dinner and it makes playing there a real treat.



Because we play two concerts back to back, the couches backstage are very much appreciated, since after driving up from Victoria, setting up and sound check, and doing a lecture and show, it's easy to feel a bit drained. A short rest revives everyone and we're quickly energized for the second show.


We often get into interesting discussions while back stage in the change rooms, and it turns out that both Bruce and Mark have a keen interest in Chinese music. Here is Mark demonstrating how he imitates the traditional Chinese violin on his classical Western violin.

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Afterwards, we all relaxed at the Minnows Lounge at the Coast Bastion where we stayed and had a celebratory gathering where many of the people who had been to our concert also met up with us. Nanaimo is a friendly town and I look forward to returning soon for bathtub racing season. After a good night's sleep at the Bastion we took a morning ferry back to the mainland and are looking forward to the rest of the tour.