Tuesday, September 1, 2009


What A Musical Delight

It's not every day you get to conduct the Toronto Symphony.
And it's not every day you get to witness a startling memory.
Both happened to me in the 1980s when the Toronto Sun got tired of being dubbed a blue-collar tab and decided to go upscale at least for one promotion.
So the Sun partnered with Labatts and did a Jeans and Classics concert where everyone got a free beer as well as a delightful pops program.
And since I was the Editor, the idea was to get me involved with the concert.
Now I've been going to listen to the TSO all my life and can currently be found eight concerts a year in the front row centre, thanks to the great tickets my son Mark received when he talked about cancelling his subscription.
I've sung in choirs and glee clubs but play no instrument. No matter, the symphony folk said, we'll find something to bang or tootle.
I showed up for the afternoon rehearsal to find a dressing room with my name on it and Erich Kunzel waving in a sea of musicians.
He explained that I was to play the nightingale, sort of a giant whistle, in the Toy Symphony. "I'll point to you and you blow as long as you can," Erich explained.
I said I had a lot of wind, or so the family told me, and I could blow for a long time if only someone warned me before Kunzel pointed at me. For some reason the nightingale came out of the percussion section so I suggested some percussionist who wasn't busy could stand behind me and poke me just before the wand pointed.
Kunzel laughed and said:"You don't understand, John, the point is to make you look ridiculous."
It all went well, or so people said to my face. During the beer-and-pizza party afterwards, I introduced my son Mark to Kunzel and said he played the trumpet.
The Sun decided to do another Jeans-and-Classics concert a year later.
It was wonderful because all of Kunzel's pop concerts, and I've been to a few, were wonderful. His joy in music shone through, and he had a marvelous rapport with the audience.
The star in this concert was Art Eggleton. He conducted the orchestra briefly and waved his mayoral bum at the audience. They roared with laughter, because Eggs had a stuffy reputation. (He he had successfully hidden his horny side that finally cost him a federal ministry.)
Kunzel handed me his baton after I again played some tiny bit on some forgettable instrument and I stared down at the musicians, wondering would they stop playing if I stopped waving. But there was a glint in some eyes, particularly from the concert master, which suggested that I better not push this conducting bit too far.
So I swooped the baton a few times and everyone applauded and I got out of there.
Afterwards, at the beer-and-pizza session where the players come down from their performance high, I pushed Mark towards Kunzel and introduced him again.
"Oh yes," Kunzel said, "you play the trumpet. And how is that going?"
Just imagine! Since he had last met Mark, there had been thousands of introductions, hundreds of musical scores, dozens of cities, and the turmoil of busy life that conductors at the top of their game experience.
But he remembered Mark's instrument.
That is why when I heard of Erich Kunzel's death at 74, I drank a toast to him in my favourite Grolsch beer, Classic not being available. A toast to a man who brought pleasure to millions but could still care enough to remember what a high school kid played.

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