Friday, December 23, 2011
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Here he is at the Capilano University theatre just after our concert. Don't ask me how he knows what to do with all those buttons -- never mind the stack of electronic gear behind him.....
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Esther recently won the concerto competition at Trinity College. That means a harp concerto will be written specifically for her. Now that's cool.
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
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.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Annette was the official masseuse of a famous American rock band. She toured with them on their bus through the US. And once, when they were in Europe, they were so desperate for her that they gave her one day’s notice to get on a plane -- and they flew her first class all the way to Germany.
Annette Johnston works out of the Sixth Street Wellness Clinic in Burnaby. So if you are looking for an excellent registered massage therapist -- she’s your gal. (By the way, the two chiropractors she shares the clinic with work on some of North America’s top hockey players and Olympic athletes.)
But back to the concert. We had so much fun performing with the Vancouver Welsh Men’s Choir. There’s nothing like playing your harp right in front of 80 men singing their hearts out. And such power. You should have heard them on our fun song Christmas Comes But Once a Year. The Irish song urges one to put their cares aside on Christmas and eat, drink and be merry -- for Christmas comes but once a year.
About 1/2 the choir is in this photo.
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
We had a limousine ride to Hermanos, a Uruguayan restaurant which is over-the-top wonderful. There is definitely a Latin-American vibe to the place, and Janelle's parents Brian and Rachelle had made special arrangements with the owner to have an elaborate all-you-can-snarf barbecue, with amazing creamy mash potatoes, three different types of salad, wonderfully moist and strong garlic bread, and heaps of sausage, pork, chicken, and beef, done on a coal grill by an expert in the art of the barbecue from Brazil. All of this was washed down with brilliant Chilean reds, and finished with outrageous chocolate and cheesecake desserts.
Janelle met up with an old friend:
Back at the hotel we all turned in for the evening, it having been a day of some energy expenditure. To paraphrase a line from one of our past readings, "we slept like slumbering wintering bears. Twas noon before we came downstairs." This was literally true in almost every case.
As for me, I had a leisurely morning, consolidating some luggage, having a very late lunch, and writing heaps of emails.
We arrived at the theatre at 3:30 p.m., and fortunately Brian had the foresight to have our instruments brought to the stage the day before, so everything was well acclimatized at this point, and tuning issues were minimized. I can't speak highly enough about the crew at The Pantages Theatre, a stately edifice from the turn of the century which is very reminiscent of Vancouver's opulent Orpheum Theatre. There is a peculiarity to these old theaters; the acoustics are invariably excellent, and the sightlines for this near sold-out audience are also very good; there are few bad seats. Clearly something has been lost in the art of theatre design, not to mention decoration. The gilded columns, painted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and elegant lobby belies the fact that this is a very state-of-the-art theatre, with excellent sound, lighting, and fly technology.
Special thanks to our sound and light men, Gary and Bernie, who make us shine and sing on stage, literally. The boisterous standing ovation we received at the end of the concert also belongs to the masters of sound and light at this majestic theatre!
The flight home the next day was by way of Calgary, where we had a two hour stop over. With the expert tutelage of Jeff, Laurie and Janelle I learned a new skill; the art of playing cribbage! This may well become the official pass time of Winter Harp lay-overs and pre-concert Green Room waits. There is a bit of irony in playing with a deck of cards that includes images of people in costumes similar to what we wear on stage.
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Monday, December 05, 2011
The prairie leg of our tour started off with a quick flight to Edmonton. Flying with heaps of baggage is always challenging, but kudos to the friendly people at WestJet Airlines who put up with our wild eccentricities. The odd shape of our instrument travel cases always causes raised eyebrows and much curiosity from both fellow passengers and baggage handlers. The fact that everything is oversized leads to many conversations about flying with harps and medieval instruments. As they are passed through the large format X-ray machines, the checkers often comment on the ornate shapes and geometry of the instruments: it's not everyday that they see an X-ray of a harp, much less a nyckelharpa, or a psaltery.
The second obstacle in traveling with such a bewildering arsenal of instruments is getting them back at the other end once we land. This year, just for variety, the roll-up door of the over-size baggage area clamped down on the psaltery case, and no amount of pushing or shoving allowed us to free it.
Arranging the two rental vans onto which we loaded our luggage was also an event. The rental company had only set up two days before, and their software had just been installed, so naturally our reservations were not in the system (why would they be!) despite my having reservation reference numbers, etc. Nevertheless, we always try to leave extra time for just such an occasion, so we eventually sorted it out and made it to the theatre in good time.
The Royal Inn Hotel in Spruce Grove, Alberta still has an autographed concert poster from when we played and stayed here in 2007, and despite the fact that four years had passed, the neighborhood and shops around the hotel felt familiar, and we quickly settled in.
Both shows at Horizon Stage in Spruce Grove were sold out, or very nearly so, and again, the excellent technical support of both the sound and lighting techs was very much appreciated. The managers looked after us well, with all sorts of treats in the green room, and the theatre let us pack in early. Our sound people had us set up and sound checked quickly and efficiently. Horizon Stage is an intimate setting of just 318 seats (which is why we play two shows), and the semi-circular arrangement of the seats makes it almost feel like playing in someone's living room.
As is always the case when traveling between Vancouver and the Prairies, the fact that humidity in the Lower Mainland is typically somewhere between 90 and 100% (essentially we live underwater) compared to the 10-20% of the Prairies wreaks havoc with the stability of the tuning of our instruments. Wooden instruments shrink, pads on flutes dry out, and gut strings tighten. We always spend a great deal of time tuning before the show, and we like to acclimatize the instruments for as long as possible, with many tunings in between. The shows went well, and we had standing ovations both evenings. It's really a great venue, and we enjoy playing here tremendously.
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The drive to the theatre was unremarkable this year; we have battled through snow drifts in the past. The marquee at the venue, which doubles as a movie theatre, paired us up with the latest installment of the Twilight franchise; stranger combinations have occured in our past: sharing a theatre with the rapper Snoop-Dogg comes to mind. The theatre let us pack in early and our sound people had us set up and checked quickly and efficiently. It always feels reassuring getting back into the swing of concerts, the entire ritual of the green rooms, changing, pulling pranks, and the friendly banter before a show.
Aside from some initial technical problems with the stage monitors, the sold out capacity show went very well. We had our first standing ovation of the season, which is always warmly received. Also when we were headed back to Vancouver on the ferry, seated in the cafeteria eating, several fans came up to us and thanked us for the great concert. One couple had come from Vancouver specifically to see us in Sechelt. They'd seen Winter Harp each year in a different venue, but they'd never seen Winter Harp in Sechelt before -- so they made the journey by ferry across Howe Sound to the Sunshine Coast.
A great start!
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