Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Call for Jury Duty

I got my notice that I’d been called for Jury Duty at the end of February. I’d been called twice before and on both occasions, since I was teaching younger children and had letters of explanation from a former principal and a Justice of the Peace, I’d been excused.

I tried to research the process online and found only the videos provided by the government which talk up the value of the experience without really explaining what goes on for those called for jury duty before a trial begins. So I decided to post this recount of the experience for the benefit of anyone who might be going to have a similar experience.

This was a call from the Superior Court of Ontario so the details likely vary in other jurisdictions.

Jury Duty is an obligation of citizenship really akin to nothing in our system except a military draft. It is also an inconvenience to everybody, although a far greater one to some than others. It also pays not at all for the first 10 days and meagerly after that.

My appointment was at the John Sopinka Courthouse in the vary core of Downtown Hamilton. The building was originally a depression era post office but was renovated in the 1990s. I I arrived at the King St. entrance about 8:55 for my 9:00 call. The main entrance is on the other side of the building so there was no waiting in line. They warn you not to bring sharp objects in the letter you receive in the mail. You put your stuff in a tray and pass through a metal detector. A polite and patient Special Constable dug through my backpack.

The building occupies most of a city block so it was a long walk past the numerous, now shuttered, post office wickets to the elevators. As you can see in the photo, it’s a stunning lobby. I found the courtroom on the 6th floor. About 75 people were waiting in what looks just like an airport waiting area. There were only a few empty seats.

At about 9:15 two men took attendance using the numbers assigned on the documents we’d received in the mail. No names of prospective jurors are ever mentioned. About a dozen people hadn’t shown up. There’s no set penalty for not responding to the call for jury duty but you can be held in contempt of court. I suspect the names are simply put on the next list and the people are called again.

They finished taking attendance at about 9:40 and we were told to wait until the judge and other court officials and employees were ready. They finally called us in at about 10:10.

We were led into a a large, modern courtroom looking exactly like the ones you see on Canadian TV shows but with a glassed enclosure for the accused in the middle just in front of the padded pews for the public.

My first real surprise was that the accused was actually there as were the Defence and Crown Counsels. Later we learned that the trial would begin later that day, as soon as the jury had been selected.

The judge gave, what I am sure, was his standard lecture about the importance of serving on a jury, about how each of us, if chosen, would act as a judge. He also mentioned that it was  inconvenient for everyone but the cornerstone of our system of jurisprudence.

The next half hour was taken up with people asking, and often being excused, for various reasons. First were those who knew the accused and accuser, witnesses and the various police and court officials. Then they moved on to other categories including Canadian Citizenship (you must be a citizen to serve on a jury), inability to hear clearly, proficiency in reading and understanding English, extreme financial impact and so forth. Some people had documents to support their appeal others responded to the judges queries anecdotally. Many were excused. Several had their names put back on the ledger for the next call.

Then they drew jury numbers randomly from a wooden jar and called 15 of us to the side of the courtroom. In turn, the were instructed to look at the accused and he at them. Then the two counsels either approved or excused each prospective juror in turn. Those who were chosen were then asked if they would swear solemnly or on a Bible. About two thirds chose not to sear on the Bible.  

In my second surprise, more than half of the first group were refused by one or the other of the counsels.

They then called a further 15 people and repeated the process. By the time they’d chosen and sworn in 12 jurors only one of the second group remained. Thus, they had chosen 12 jurors from a randomly chosen group of 30.

At this point the judge announced that the jury would go to the jury room and the rest of us, about 50 people were thanked and excused.

I  wasn’t looking forward to serving on a jury but, if I’d been chosen, I’d have felt better about it than I had going in. It is an obligation and someone has to do it. Better it be someone educated and in possession of all their faculties. I have no doubt that some juries have a difficult and unpleasant time when one or more members isn’t up to the task.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Dreamer

The Dreamer is a setting of three stanzas of a C.A. Swinburne poem and the third in the set entitled Three Swinburne Songs. They were composed in 1998 and premièred in a concert at McMaster University that year by soprano Elise Bédard and pianist Gloria Saarinen.

Here is a link to an orchestral realization of the song. The cycle, for soprano and piano, is available at from Canadian Music Centre.

The Dreamer

Glad, but not flush'd with gladness,
Since joys go by;
Sad, but not bent with sadness,
Since sorrows die;
Deep in the gleaming glass
She sees all past things pass,
And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.
There glowing ghosts of flowers
Draw down, draw nigh;
And wings of swift spent hours
Take flight and fly;
She sees by formless gleams,
She hears across cold streams,
Dead mouths of many dreams that sing and sigh.
Face fallen and white throat lifted,
With sleepless eye
She sees old loves that drifted,
She knew not why,
Old loves and faded fears
Float down a stream that hears
The flowing of all men's tears beneath the sky.

Monday, April 8, 2019

25th Anniversary of the BPOC

The 25th Anniversary Season of the Buchanan Park Opera Club has arrived and performances will take place in the first week of May. I was, as some readers will know, for 13 seasons the Maestro and Chorus Master of the BPOC. It was a volunteer position and one I was happy to fill. My time as a Music Teacher was past when I arrived at Buchanan Park but the musical education of children is of great value and I believe my contribution there benefited hundreds of children.

I had very little to do with the preparation of the first production as I was preoccupied with learning my real job as a Grade 3 teacher. I knew what an opera conductor was supposed to do. Unfortunately, aside from Dawn, nobody else did. I remember waving my arms and attempting to conduct the Grand March from Aida. The orchestra consisted of a piano and three trumpeters wearing elephant trunk masks. More than one hundred children made their way into the theatre (i.e. the gym) during the introduction. One of my own students stood directly behind me and, as the singing started (Glory to Egypt) he let fly loudly with the appropriate words and rhythm but with pitches which had nothing whatever to do with the melody. It was an alarming foreshadowing of what was to come. None of the performers had ever worked with a conductor before and they paid me very little heed but we all persevered. By the time the preparations for the next year’s show rolled around I made sure it didn’t happen again. I spent hundreds of hours working with kids in preparation for the opera and teaching choral music over the time I taught at Buchanan Park School.

It was a couple of years before I suggested to Dawn Martens, pianist and artistic director, that it might be helpful if we started a choir. The children could learn better how to learn music by rote (few of them could read music at all) and how to work with a conductor (i.e. me). We did that, preparing and performing Christmas music each fall. Beginning in February we started to learn properly the chorus music for that year’s production and whatever Festival selections were appropriate. For more than 10 years we had an excellent Junior School Choir and won accolades where ever the choir sang. We took Gold and Silver awards at the Toronto and Hamilton Kiwanis Festivals and always won Gold at the HWDSB’s annual Choral Fest.


I interview Dawn for my blog some years ago and asked her for amusing anecdotes. She could come up with very few and I realized that I hadn’t many either. As many hours as I put in working on “the opera” she spent many, many more. We were too busy doing that, while at the same time doing our actual jobs, to take much notice. And the children picked up how seriously the adults treated the work of preparation. Any serious stage production, especially one involving children, requires lots and lots of advanced work and as silly as doing Grand Opera with children seems, we always took it seriously. Unforeseeable events are a given but the readier one is the less frequently they happen and, when they do, the more likely is everyone to cope.

Dawn and me during Romeo and Juliet.
I'm holding a William Shakespeare puppet.

I suppose many people were surprised when I retired and told them I wouldn’t continue working with Dawn at BP as a volunteer. It was her project and, as willing as I had been to help, she’d done it before I arrived and I knew that she could continue to do so. I stopped going to performances once the children I knew had moved on to Middle School.

This year, though, I’ll be there on Thursday morning for the Dress Rehearsal. A 25th Anniversary is a special occasion and teachers don’t go on forever.

The little boy who couldn’t sing in tune in the Aida chorus is, incidentally, working for an airline as a Commercial Pilot. I don’t know whether he ever learned to sing in tune but I’ll bet he remembers Aida.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Elektra at the COC

We went Sunday afternoon (Feb 10, 2019) to see a performance of the COC’s revival production of Elektra at the Four Seasons Centre.

I first encountered this opera in a 20th Century Analysis class at McGill too many years ago. I didn’t like it very much. The constantly changing key centres made me seasick. It took a peculiar turn of events to change my mind.

I was singing in the chorus of La Belle Hélène in January of 1983 and Elektra, which has no chorus, was the other opera being staged at that time in the cavernous O’Keefe Centre. Incidentally, at least five of my FB friends had roles in that production. Elektra wasn’t selling out and I was offered complementary tickets to four different performances. Each evening, when the lights went down, I scurried forward to much better seats than those to which the tickets entitled me. This was the very first show that featured Surtitles and, given the wordiness of von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, understanding what was being sung added enormously to my enjoyment of the opera as did my growing musical experience.

I was certainly looking forward to hearing and seeing it again, this time from really good seats in a real opera house, which the O’Keefe never was. 

Some of my readers will have heard a performance in the production’s original run twelve years ago in which, surprisingly, this year’s Klytämnestra, Susan Bullock, sang Elektra!

The opera is wild one with a mad eponymous leading lady and fifteen other singers declaiming, frequently loudly, in quasi-Wagnerian fashion. Few people will leave the theatre humming the orchestral melodies which are often built up from brief leitmotifs. The vocal lines are like pitched versions of the rhythms of the text, a kind of extended Straussian accompanied recitative. There’s a huge orchestra (love those Wagner tubas) playing wildly eclectic and very busy music. It’s a testament to Strauss’s genius that he even wrote the piece, so complex and relentless it is. It is also written in one 90 minute long act. That pre-performance coffee might not be a very good idea!

All of the principal singers were wonderful. Christine Goerke, as Elektra, is one of the world’s great Wagnerian sopranos and sang brilliantly. She’s on stage for the entire opera and sings most of it. She never lost her dramatic focus and sang it as if it was written for her.  We heard the more dramatic side of the marvellous Canadian soprano Erin Wall, as Chrysothemis, whom we last saw as Arabella in that very different Strauss opera. Susan Bullock, as their mother Klytämnestra, was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra but was very convincing when the orchestration thinned out. 

Christine Goerke (Elektra) in COC’s Elektra. Photo: Michael Cooper

Wilhelm Schwinghammer played a fine Orest. MIchael Schade took a delightful turn as Aegisth, murderer of Agamemnon and husband to Klytämnestra. His bright lighter sound projected out over the orchestra and the his characterization of the loathesome man was just right. Owen Causland, a young servant, sang his short bit beautifully.

Of the women in supporting roles, some showed promise in this specialized repertoire, others, not so much. Simone McIntosh, as Klytämnestra's confidante and a COC Ensemble member, sang notably well, her voice clear and bright but powerful. 

The production is clearly inspired by German Expressionist art, more symbol than function. I missed the long staircase down which Klytämnestra is supposed to descend (it’s in the score) and which Maureen Forester did, so creepily, in that long ago COC production.

Should you go see this show? I liked it a lot but like Wagner’s Ring operas, this piece appeals to a very specialized taste. I can easily imagine some audience members, fans of Mozart or 19th C. Italian or French opera, wondering what it is they’ve paid to see and bemoaning the fact that one cannot escape until it’s over.

On the other hand, Elektra isn’t produced very often, and the opportunity to hear Christine Goerke is not to be missed. Moreover, it doesn’t require four or five hours of your time as it might in a Wagner show.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Xmas, Christmas, Yule and Tiny Tim.

Again this year, I've seen Keep Christ in Christmas and Keep the Original Meaning of Christmas type slogans on cars and lawns, and in Facebook postings. This illustrates the silos of thought and ideas in which most people live.

It ignores that fact that in modern Canada, Christmas and the Christmas Season have at least four different meanings and it's a rare individual who embraces all of them.

The most obvious one is that of Santa Claus a version of a mythic story that was popularized by Washington Irving and Clement Moore who wrote A Visit from St. Nicolaus (aka Twas the Night Before Christmas) almost 200 years ago. It was later capitalized upon by Coca Cola and later by every commercial interest imaginable. It is prevalent because it dominates every kind of medium and enables the monetization of the holiday. For those who depend on the retail and manufacturing world, what could be more important than that?

Another comes to us directly from another 19th Century author, Charles Dickens. He documents the gross inequity of Victorian society in his novels and is seen now as a social activist.  Dickens also wrote dozens of Christmas stories. The most famous, A Christmas Carol, helped employees secure time off work at Christmas time and popularized the practice of giving to those who in need, aided by Christian Methodism and its offspring like the Salvation Army.

The third is the Nativity Story as told in two different versions in the Christian Bible. It portrays Jesus's birth happening in the most modest of circumstances, celebrated by lowly shepherds and a divine angel choir. His prestige is affirmed later by a visit from gift-bearing wise men. For many people, this means that children, like Jesus, should receive gifts at Christmas time. Somehow the Massacre of the Innocents and the escape into Egypt which follow don't get much play.

The last version is the actual origin of the mid-Winter festival which was co-opted by the Christian church as early as the third century. It takes place on the shortest day of the year. That was December 25 two thousand years ago. 

It is still called Yule in Scandinavia although it's spelled differently. It was called Saturnalia in the Roman Empire.

People lit candles and fires to keep the light through December as the days grew shorter. In northern Europe they brought greenery into their homes to remind them that nature flourishes while it sleeps and that spring always follows winter. They drank and they partied.

All four of these versions of Christmas have been mixed together and no two families or communities celebrated exactly the same combination.

Personally, I have not been in a church for religious reasons since I was a young teen. For me, it has always been about music. I have taken part in or attended concerts and even services too numerous to mention. I carolled for money and sang in church choirs, first as a volunteer and later as a mercenary. I taught hundreds of children and adolescents Christmas songs, secular and religious. If a school principal, in the interest of political correctness, had decided there could be no more Christmas songs at school I'd have stopped running the school choirs. A descendent of British immigrants, I did my part to preserve and share my culture and traditions.

I find the onslaught of Christmas songs and merchandising, which began after Hallowe'en this year nauseating and irrelevant. I'd rather they left it much later. 

As for the Christmas some people want to keep Christ in, why would anyone who isn't a Christian celebrate it? Some lapsed Christians attend and participate but they no longer believe. 

Different people, families and communities celebrate the holiday season in different ways. It would be helpful for everyone to respect the differences and the reasons for them.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

"I don't really like classical music," he said

I’ve recently been getting to know someone who is in a class I’m taking. On learning that I’d been a “classical singer” he told me he doesn’t really like classical music.

I know him to be a university educated retired professional, an intelligent guy. He’s certainly entitled to like or dislike whatever music he wants. There’s lots of music I don’t like, why shouldn’t he? It got the music educator in me thinking, though.


The experience led me to consider why many people don’t like what they see as “classical music” even though they profess to love music and listen enthusiastically to other genres.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not with the music, per se, but rather with the listener and her/his expectations.

People listen, overwhelmingly, to some version of popular, commercial music. It doesn’t matter whether that music is contemporary or not it all shares certain characteristics which are lacking or disguised in much classical music.

To begin with, everyone identifies individual pieces of popular, commercial music as “songs” even when they aren’t, strictly speaking. What they mean, of course, is there are vocalists of some description, singing or speaking words and they are the most important element of the piece. The language, its rhythm and meaning (if you can make it out) anchor the listener’s experience.

Everybody knows some version of the story in which, at a stadium concert, the band begins to play the introduction to their big hit. The guitar kicks in with the opening rift and the crowd goes wild. Some bars later, after too many repetitions of the guitar riff, the lead singer starts in and a bunch of other people cheer and jump up and down. They second group, who paid big bucks to attend and have probably heard the song dozens of times, didn’t recognize it until the singer came in. Think about that for a minute.

Secondly, commercial, pop songs are overwhelmingly danceable. They have a strong, repetitious beat, reinforced by percussion, usually drums. Even if nobody would actually dance to them they encourage the listener to move with the music, to feel the beat. The music engages them physically in an uncomplicated way.

So if your approach is to listen to the singers, the lyrics and the beat, even well know, accessible classical pieces are going in one ear and out the other. For the most part they have no vocalists at all. Even when the rhythm and beat are consistent and straightforward it is rarely supported by drums the way it is in pop music.

There’s no doubt that part of this is an educational issue. Off the top of my head I’d posit that people who had music lessons or played an instrument, especially in some kind of ensemble like a school band are far more likely to “get” classical music. That kind of experience has become more and more rare for kids these days. 

I was told, a few years ago by a musical parent, that their son had done well in high school music and loved it, but had to drop it because there was no room in his Grade 11 timetable. University or college admission was the big consideration and he wasn’t going to study the arts. Other families have to choose between music lessons and athletics. Hereabouts, where ice hockey is king, that’s probably not a very long discussion.

I think this stinks. Classical music is an important part of our shared heritage along with visual art, architecture and literature and much else. That a great swath of the population have no understand of it is a travesty. That something which has so enriched my life is closed to them and that they couldn’t care less makes me sad.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Henry V at Shaw, Julius Caesar at Stratford.

We went Wednesday afternoon (August 8, 2018) to see Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

We knew, going in, that several of the principal male characters would be portrayed by women. We saw a gender-bending Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of seasons ago and wondered in what direction this one would go. Curiously, the actor who plays Brutus in this production played Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in the other.

Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar

Each of the women playing a male role was played by a very fine actor and, even in costume and make-up, none could be mistaken for a man.

The most interesting consequence of this was in the scenes between Brutus, played by Jonathan Goad and and Irene Poole who was Cassius. The two men are very good friends. This friendliness might be taken to be something quite different between a man and a women although Shakespeare may have been subtly implying a different sort of relationship between the two men.

It is, otherwise, a typical Festival Theatre production with beautiful and approriate costumes, lighting and original music (save a Dowland song which was interpolated late in the show).

Seanna McKenna was a marvellous Julius Caesar, the centre of attention in all of her scenes. We found the pacing of the production suspect. The actors spoke the text more quickly than it could be easily understood. Jonathan Goad was a convincing Brutus but some of his lines were impossible to understand. Michelle Giroux, as Mark Antony was more intelligible but rushed through the funeral oration, surely one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. Yet, in a small part as Antony’s Servant, Amy Keating delivered her much of her speech lying prone on the stage but you could understand every word.

This show is a good, if not outstanding one, and worth the trip to Stratford.

On the other hand, We went Wednesday afternoon (August 15, 2018) to see Henry V at the Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival.

Except it wasn’t Henry V like you’d see it at Stratford or in a school production for that matter. I probably shouldn’t have read a scathing review in The Spec last week which lowered my expectations. We had decided that if it was as dismal as the review claimed we were going to leave at the interval. As it happened, we stayed until the end.

The cast of 11, 4 women and 7 men play all the roles, some taken by different players at different times. The men are Canadian WW I soldiers in an underground trench system somewhere in France. They play much, but not all, of the first three acts of Henry V to amuse themselves, some reciting and some reading, while the war carries on around them. In the second act all but one of the soldiers are injured and recovering in bed in hospital and the four women are nurses. The nurses, who spend much of the act tending to the injured soldiers, join in with the play-acting and the cast finishes the play.

So it’s not really a dramatic presentation of Henry V at all, much more akin to a dramatic reading or a concert performance of an opera. Moreover, the text is isn’t all Shakespeare. Actors do occasionally speak in their real 1916 voices explaining, for example, that the King is in disguise or requesting a prop.

As one would expect of a professional company the actors are generally very good, the women perhaps better than the men. Natasha Mumba was a standout as were veteran actors Gray Powell and Patrick Gallican.

The problem is that there’s not much drama. There’s hardly any staging relating to Henry V. Any moving about relates more to the “real” situation in the trench or hospital. And you would have to know Henry V very well to be able to follow its plot because the acting does little to support that play-within-a-play.

So this production is an experiment that didn’t quite work. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re comped.