Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tour of the Island

The tour of Vancouver Island went phenomenally well this year, thanks to a bit of help from Mother Nature; I recall having to drive the three hours from Courtney to Victoria during a blizzard a few years ago. The flakes were as big as oranges, and I passed many spun-out vehicles along the highway.


How to pack a van for a tour.

The ferry ride was a pleasure, and coming into Nanaimo is always a bit exciting for me, since I know the local waters around Departure Bay very well from having raced in Nanaimo's famous Bathtub Race for three years, and escorted tubers for many more years before that. The view up to the Winchelsea group of islands, the outer limit of the race, was spectacular and they stood out in the distance across the shimmering silvery waves.

This year’s first stop was Courtenay, where we play at the Sid Williams Theatre. As the driver of the van with the largest amount of gear, it felt great pulling up to a venue where there were lots of eager theatre techs keen on giving me a hand to load in. The techs at the Sid Williams Theatre are consummate professionals, and after a brief sound check and running over a couple of numbers, we had the sound we needed in the house and through the monitors on stage. It is really quite a luxury which we take for granted, but having four separate monitor mixes on stage makes it much easier to follow what’s going on at the extreme end of the stage. Having professionals that know the venue and their equipment is also a joy. Working with happy, positive people is such a treat. Our backdrops are huge theatrical stage size affairs, and putting them up and lighting them properly are always a challenge in smaller theatres, but the crew went all out and did a great job.

Janelle and Roger discuss program notes

Joining us for the Island leg of the tour was Roger Helfrick, an amazing medieval vocalist and harpist. Roger’s talent and almost-encyclopedic knowledge of early music never ceases to amaze me, and it is always a pleasure getting to share the stage with him.

After we were satisfied with the stage setup, we indulged in another Winter Harp tradition, dinner at Tita's Mexican Restaurant. Their hot and spicy tortilla soup really hits the spot on cold wintry nights.

The sold-out house treated us to a long standing ovation, which means a great deal to us. Afterwards we went up to the lobby where they had set up tables for us to autograph our CD’s. As usual, the bar in the lobby puts together wonderful concoctions which they brand with our name. This year’s Winter Harp beverage was hot mulled cider with a shot of schnapps.

Afterwards, as is also our tradition, we unwound at the English style pub back at the hotel. The fireplace, dark panelling, and enormous high-back leather wing chairs you can disappear into, are the perfect place to unwind after the frenetic intensity of a stage performance. Tragically, their blender was broken, so my annual habit of drinking piña coladas (the official drink of Puerto Rico since 1978 and Ernest Hemingway’s favourite beverage) while wearing a tropical shirt and sun glasses was interrupted. In any case, unlike other snow and ice bound years, it was almost warm outside, so the rejuvenating quality of tropical drinks was not as essential: imbibing is strictly for medicinal reasons you understand.

The next day, Friday, I awoke early, wolfed down some breakfast, and made my way to the theatre where the rest of the ensemble gave me a much appreciated hand loading up the van, and I made my way to the Port Theatre in Nanaimo to leave the back-drops so they could get them installed and lit for our shows on Saturday. After that I drove to Victoria just in time to bring the folding percussion riser so Lauri Lyster could get her space organized on stage. Our promoter in Victoria, Colin, had everything ready, and our sound man almost immediately started patching us into his system. The Alex Goolden Performance Hall is a fantastic late Victorian space, something almost out of Harry Potter.

The interior of this former church is mostly sonically bright surfaces, stone, lath and plaster, wood, stained glass, thus extremely acoustically alive, with the enormous natural reverb these old Victorian halls are famous for, so setting up the sound levels is always a challenge. Too much amplification and the entire show becomes one enormous muddy mess. Too little boost and some instruments, such as the drums, block out the softer instruments, such as the harps, and an unplugged show becomes a rock concert. After some trial and error, we arrived at a happy medium, which is always at best an educated guess because a hall will always be acoustically very different once 600 people are seated.

After a quick bite to eat, we put on our costumes and hit the stage. There is a ritual in getting dressed too as this picture demonstrates.

The show went really well, and the sound was crystal clear. As much as I like performing in theatres with mist effects, dramatic lighting, and mobile scenery, playing in a beautiful old Victorian church has a different feeling, almost making it all about the material, and the words, rather like an orchestral recital of an opera. There is an almost Baroque quality to it. We received a warm heart-felt standing ovation from the near capacity audience, the whole evening being deeply magical.

Victoria has always been one of my favourite places to play, and I always feel that I never have enough time to walk around familiar haunts during the tour. During the year, there is always an excuse not to visit the provincial capital, and it’s one of those things that may require an addendum to the list of yearly resolutions: visit Victoria more often.

The next day, we repacked our gear and drove up to Nanaimo. It was a pleasant day, and again, almost perfect driving weather. Compared to Victoria, our show in Nanaimo is a theatrical production with big sound and elaborate lighting. The Port Theatre is one of the most technologically up-to-date venues we play, and the sound and light technicians always do an outstanding job. The enormous stage also allows us lots of room to spread out and not feel like we're playing on top of each other. As time is tight, we have out meals catered by the always excellent Modern Cafe. Extra, extra points and special mention of their Bengal Curry pasta dish. Wow! As is my custom, I do a pre-concert talk about the instruments and the ensemble in general, and this year I had the good fortune of having Patrick Ball explain the origins of the metal strung harp, and Jeff Pelletier talked about his flutes. Afterwards someone from the audience asked about the cost of our instruments, which is something I’d never really considered: it turns out that the combined value of our gear is about the same as the price of a house almost anywhere in British Columbia (except the Lower Mainland).

As is also another of our traditions, we had an after-concert night-cap at the elegant Minnows bar and lounge at the Coast Bastion, one of our favourite hotels of the whole tour. Breaking yet another annual tradition, they had run out of piña colada mix, a disaster for me, but the resourceful bar tender whipped up some fruity concoction with bananas and tropical fruit, so I managed to get my fix of essential cold-dispelling vitamins: strictly for medicine reasons you understand. Apparently having a night-cap at the hotel is also an annual tradition of many audience members, because we almost received a second standing ovation when we entered the lounge, despite being out of costume.

The rooms at the Coast Bastion are spa-like and very relaxing, and I always look forward to coming back for Bathtub Racing weekend, when the whole town is in a great celebratory mood. Nanaimo is a city with heart.

After a high quality sleep, I had a great breakfast nearby, and proceeded to load up the van for the final Island concert in Duncan. The lighting in Winter Harp shows is critical, and it takes almost as much careful seeing as careful listening to appreciate the subtlety of some of the effects. This takes quite some time to set up and it is a testament to lighting technicians who “get it” and set up the appropriate mood to match the music.

Special thanks to all the technicians, volunteers and friends of Winter Harp for making this part of the tour so enjoyable. It’s a pleasure to come back year after year.

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