The Road North

Our current lifestyle is based on dividing our time between two home bases: Austin, Texas and the Eastern Townships in Quebec, Canada. We can pretty much live anywhere we choose but these two places offer extraordinary advantages: Austin is moderate in the winter months and the Townships are moderate in the summer months. Even more importantly, we have family at both ends. There are lots of other reasons for settling in these two particular places but I’ll deal with that subject on another occasion.

Usually, we leave Texas and head north when the temperature starts to climb into the 90s and stays there which in most years is in June. But this year we had constant rains which kept temperatures down and we had some business in Mexico that kept pulling us back. Finally, we set out on August 11.

We always drive the 2,200 miles or so because we are carrying so much baggage relating to both our writing and business interests. Even in this increasingly wireless and paperless age it is incredible how much stuff we can’t do without for three months! But even without the luggage we look forward to the trip as a chance to visit old familiar places as well as new places and take in all manner of cultural events along the way.

Our route north this year took us through Little Rock and Louisville with a border crossing at Pt. Huron, Michigan. We nearly always choose Pt. Huron rather than Detroit because it is far less congested. This year we also discovered a fine “old” inn right on the St. Clair River. Actually, the Thomas Edison Inn is not old at all but just made to look old. But then real old is not always better than fake old anyway. In short, we liked it and enjoyed watching the lakers go by within a few feet of us as we strolled along the river.

Once over the border it is only a few hours before we arrive at what has become for us an annual essential destination: the Stratford Festival. One of my sisters has lived in Stratford for many years and was associated with the festival. One of Marita’s brothers and his wife came down from their lakeside hideaway to join for several events in Stratford and then we all went on to the Shaw Festival (http://www.shawfest.com/) in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Stratford has been much criticized in recent years for turning away from Shakespeare and concentrating on putting on lavish productions of broadway musicals.

It’s a sellout, some say. The people running the festival are now only interested in commercial shows at the expense of their raison d’être. I don’t agree at all. If they had stuck to Shakespeare and nothing but the Bard they would long since have had to shut their doors. At one time they did opera, then watered that down to G&S and finally turned to American musicals. Again, while the festival has always been well supported by government the grants have never been enough to offset events nobody wants to see.

It is time to stop complaining about what the festival is doing to save itself – and doing it remarkably well – and look at its artistic achievement. Putting it quite simply, the Stratford Festival (http://www.stratford-festival.on.ca/) has become a veritable showcase for the presentation of American musicals; I defy anyone to better productions of these shows, year after year, anywhere in the world including New York. It is also time to recognize that American musicals are a distinct genre of musical theatre and worthy of being set aside the best of European opera and operetta.

This year the musical chosen was Oklahoma. I have known the music and the show since I was a kid – my father owned a copy of the complete piano score and played it regularly – but I had never seen it on stage. From the first song, “O what a beautiful morning” I was under the spell of this magnificent show, and it was one fine tune after another. And in this production I realized for the first time what a touching song “Surrey with the fringe on top” could be in a sensitive performance. The singing, the dancing, the acting, the direction were all first-rate. What a joyous afternoon in the company of Rogers and Hammerstein and the Stratford company all at their very best.

We also saw the Gershwin’s My One and Only excellent but more tap dancing than I care to see and hear, and Merchant of Venice. This remains one of Shakespeare’s more puzzling and disturbing plays but this production was a worthy and thoughtful one, making us think again about the issues raised. Graeme Greene, a well-known Canadian film actor of Indian heritage was dismissed in advance as miscast as but he had dignity and authority and spoke the language very well.

At the Shaw Festival we saw Mack and Mabel, a much-praised musical about silent filmmaker Mack Sennett and found it overrated in spite of Benedict Campbell’s energetic performance. We enjoyed more an old and clever Somerset Maugham played called The Circle.

On our way to the Townships we stopped for a few days in Toronto. I spent an evening with Bruce Surtees, my old colleague on the CJRT program “Records in Review,” and Jacob Harnoy, now very active as the owner and sole producer of records for the company Doremi (http://www.doremi.com/home.html). He has devoted himself to putting out the work of some current performers but mostly he is unearthing old treasures, cleaning them up as only he can with his fine ear, state of the art equipment and infinite patience. He gave me one of his recent releases and I played it in the car on our way to Quebec.

It was a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played on the harpsichord by a man I had never heard of named Frank Pelleg . I was raised on the 1955 recording by Glenn Gould and later heard Rosalyn Tureck play it in concert – both unforgettable experiences – but Pelleg brought to the music a variety of colors I had never heard before. When I got to our country place I had to dig out my score to try to figure out how he did it.

Ralph Kirkpatrick was the editor of my editions of the Goldbergs and he writes very perceptively about the piece and the instrument Bach had in mind. In fact, I had forgotten that Bach was working with a two-manual harpsichord with stops. With such an instrument Bach could indeed approach some of the qualities of the modern piano but only an excellent musician could really capture the composer’s conception on either a harpsichord or a piano. Pelleg was obviously a wonderful artist and this 1959 recording deserves to be widely heard. By all accounts Pelleg was Mr. Music in Israel playing the harpsichord, piano – with Klemperer and Dorati among others – chamber music, music from all periods and conducting, teaching and broadcasting too. He died in 1968 at the age of only 57.

While in Toronto I also met briefly with Ted O’Reilly, another colleague from CJRT-FM. Ted was the foremost jazz broadcaster in Canada and acknowledged as such by listeners and musicians alike. When CJRT-FM changed its format to all-jazz Ted stayed on but not for long. Only until they started telling him what to play. Ted always mixed up traditional jazz with the very latest experimental jazz and never forgot that it was primarily a performers’ medium. He never lost an opportunity to give the younger players a chance to be heard. Like classical music jazz is a living art form. If we do nothing but worship the giants of the past the art form will die, and part of our souls along with it.

Paul E. Robinson

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