Mercoledi Musicale

I think it is pretty obvious from posts over the past three years that this is a musical Island. I’m not just talking the almost nightly Ceilidhs at various clubs, pubs, and venues though that is a large part of it. Music here goes well beyond Irish/Scott/Maritime traditional. We have jazz clubs, blues clubs, punk bands, retro-rock bands, big bands, folk singers, pop singers, choral ensembles, wind, brass and string ensembles et al. Often the same double bass player you see thumping away at a jazz club also plays in the Mahler #3; one friend is an accomplished jazz saxophonist, a member of a professional women’s vocal ensemble and a classical vocal ensemble. The line between genres is often a very vague one even within the same group.

Last Sunday was the final concert of the season for the Atlantic String Machine a group of musicians who perhaps best represent the meshing (and mashing) of musical styles on the Island. As their name suggests they are a string ensemble comprised of Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello and Double Bass. Their composition may be traditional but the compositions can vary anywhere from Monteverdi to Metallica in arrangements by members of the ensemble. All the musicians – Sean Kemp, Karen Graves, Jeffrey Bazzet-Jones, Natalie Williams Calhoun and Adam Hill – have classical training and experience with major international orchestras and ensembles. But they also have the chameleon ability to change shape and colour in their approach to other genres as well as the classical repertoire.

And more often than not a new work will be thrown into the mix. Earlier this season they teamed up with baritone Philippe Sly to present the North American premiere of Jonathan Dove’s song cycle Who Wrote the Book of Love. That same evening they premiered Approaching Winter by Kathy Campbell, a music composition major at UPEI. At Sunday’s concert we heard a new piece by double bassist Adam Hill.

A summer concert at the Indian River Festival at historic St Mary’s Church.
Photo by Darrell Therialt.

They have also provided back up and arrangements for well-known Canadian artists both in concert and on disc. Sunday singer/songwriter Nathan Wiley made a guest appearance to do two numbers that I believe he has record with the ASM for their upcoming album. I’ve always loved Wiley’s Home but in Karen Graves’ arrangement I found a new poignancy. Here it is in a video recorded at the Trailside Music Cafe and Inn back in 2016.

When I was a boy, I had everything
I had silver and gold
I sailed ships with the cowboys
And I'd never grow old
And my father was strong
And my mother was young
Fell asleep in the backseat
'Till we got home
Pick me up take me back where I belong
'Cause I don't know, anymore
I want to go home
And the sea was my country
And the fields were my den
And I'd sail a thousand ships
To get back again
Tell me when did I grow old
Tell me where can I go
To run in the tall grass
And lay in the snow
(repeat chorus)
Where are the railroad tracks
Where are the summers I used to know
When I was a boy, I had everything
I had silver and gold

Nathan Wiley

Somehow this video says so much to me about music on our Island.

May 22 is Buy A Musical Instrument Day – now talk about your serendipity!

Lunedi Lunacy

We don’t have – collective gasp – Netflix! But after having watch a few clips of the new British series Derry Girls I’m almost tempted. It’s hysterically funny and at time brutally honest about the foibles, dangers, prejudices, and preconceptions of life in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

Perhaps it was serendipity that I saw the first clip just after reading Thomas O’Grady’s poem “Delivering the News”. Much like his young newsie the chief concern of the teenage girls (and boy) from Derry are of the moment: exams, getting to a rock concert, dead dogs, and a young priest with fabulous hair. The larger troubles, what one of the adult characters refers to as the “civil war”, and attempts for peace are present but pale beside their own “troubles”.

I must admit there are a few times when the Derry accent can be impenetrable and the dialogue often comes fast and furious but so do the laughs. After a successful second series Channel 4 has confirmed that a third (and most likely final) series is in the works.

Though the cast is a ensemble I have to admit my favourite character is Sister Michael, the headmistress at Our Lady Immaculate College, the all girls (well except for James) school.

Please be warned that there is “strong language” and some of this may not be considered “safe for work”. But what the frig it’s British TV, what did you expect?

Series creator Lisa McGee isn’t shy about taking the mickey out of the attitudes of sectarianism that are prevalent in Ulster. Sadly there is an underlying reality to the humour in this little episode.

I keep hoping that someone will upload the whole series to YouTube. Stranger things have happened – like the – and I say this with all sincerity – blessed Good Friday Agreement.

May 20th is Be A Millionaire Day, which I’m sure we can all go with. It’s also Strawberry Day so we can send the staff out to pick some from the manor garden to go with our bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon Rose Gold Methuselah.

Reawakened Beauty

Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteny framed in a doorway overlooking Grenada. A left click will take you to a photographic retrospective of the dancer and her career.

Today marks the birth, one hundred years ago, of the great Margaret Evelyn Hookham. Well okay you might have heard of her as Dame Margot Fonteyn. Arguably she was the most famous English ballerina of the mid-20th century. Her career began with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935 and she was it’s acknowledge prima ballerina when it became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She retired as prima ballerina assoluta from what had become the Royal Ballet in 1979: an almost unprecedented – surely challenged only by Alicia Alonso, but that is another story – 44 years as one of the leading dancers of the century.

If you hover your mouse over Oliver Messel’s original design for Aurora in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) you can catch a glimpse of Margot Fonteyn’s original costume from this iconic role.

I only had the joy of seeing her dance once in 1962: it was in her iconic role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. To this day I recall her gliding through the colonnade of Oliver Messel’s gloriously baroque palace in that subtle but stunning rose, pink and silver costume. By the time she reached centre stage she had transformed herself from a 43 year old ballerina into a glowing teenager at her 16th birthday party. I was to see other Aurora’s after that (Alla Sizova, Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Ashley Bouder) but none captured that moment with quite the magic of Fonteyn.

There are various clips of her performing the Rose Adagio from Act I sadly none of them are entirely satisfactory however (despite the odd aspect ratio setting) the excerpt below from a film of the Royal Ballet production in 1969 when she was 50 years old captures much of the magic of her performance. It was filmed one Sunday afternoon at a theatre in Bournemouth with a touring company of the Royal Ballet. The stage was smaller than Covent Garden which accounts for a few changes in the choreography. Ironically producer Keith Money ran out of money and the rest was left unfinished. The film was stored in cans in the attic of a barn in rural England until they were unearthed many years later. It was broadcast as part of a documentary in 1990.

Fonteyn’s style is of an earlier school of dancing that grew out of Russian roots in mid-century Britain. Though very much an athlete (what dancer isn’t?) her’s is never an athletic display. She is softer, more lyrical, more musical than today’s dancers tend to be. The technique is there but never openly pushed to the front, it is at the service of the character and the music. The pauses when she reaches a position are almost imperceptible but those pauses focus on the drama and the mood. It is dancing at its most elegant, most dramatic and finest. And I count myself as privileged to have experienced it.

May 18th is No Dirty Dishes Day! I do wish the people who create these days would mind their own damned business!

A Way With Words

Last evening was a busy evening in town for meetings, readings, and exhibition openings. Fortunately I was able to attend a portion of a poetry reading by Thomas O’Grady at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery hosted by Bookmark, one of our local independent book stores. Thomas is a member of a well-known Island family with strong Irish ties and is the Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts. His sister is a good friend and through her we have met Thomas and other members of the family.

It was a pleasure to hear him talk about his recently released poetry anthology Delivering the News and I was in time to hear him read several of the poems from it. “Seeing Red” the first part of the book is chiefly reflections on his childhood here in Prince Edward Island.

The second last piece he read came from that section and was the poem that gave his book it’s title. He introduced it with a reference to a Robert Harris painting in the collection at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery that hung behind him. In the undated portrait – Harris was active in the late 1800s-early 1900s – a young newsie stands at the corner of Queen St and Sydney St here in Charlottetown hawking what may be his last paper of the day. Save for the now paved street and cement sidewalks the view is exactly the same today.

Don’t Lose the News for Two Cents, Mister
Robert Harris – date unknown
Confederation Centre Art Gallery

Thomas recalled his own career as a less than willing paper boy that was the inspiration from the poem. And he wryly commented that anyone who ever had a paper route knew the truth of that last line. As well as the gentle humour of that line for me the poem also catches that time of our young lives when our troubles of the moment outweighed those of the wider world.


On wild March days that cotton canvas sack
held rain like a tent and hung so low it thumped

a sodden beat like a leaden weapon sheathed
against my thigh. Schoolboy short, I cinched the strap

up high in a knuckled knot (my collarbone
still sports a phantom bruise) and shouldered on.

From door to door I bore the soggy news,
street by street - Churchill Avenue, Spring Park Road...

War, Pestilence, Famine, Death. Was I deaf
to the headline roar of my unwieldy load?

Weight of the world. Art of the backhand toss.
The guileless messenger shot at and missed.

On Friday night I tallied my receipts
and somehow ended, always, at a loss.

DELIVERING THE NEWS - McGill-Queen's Press - March 2019
by permission of the author.

Over the next few days I intend to make my way slowly through the collection savouring his memories and the language. In a recent article Thomas quotes a remark of the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes: “The English language has always been alive and kicking, and if it ever becomes drowsy, there will always be an Irishman.” Fuentes might have added or an Islander with Irish roots.

Delivering The News can be ordered through the publisher McGill-Queen’s University Press here. An eBook edition will be available shortly.

May 16th is Waiters Day. Created by London Hilton Restaurant Manager Fred Sirieix, his goal is to stop people working in the food service industry from being perceived as unskilled, and instead as hardworking people doing jobs that require many skills and can lead to rewarding careers.

Mercoledi Musicale

Fortunately for the big Hollywood studios of the mid-1900s the previous half-century had produced a plethora of troubled Broadway and Night Club divas in America. Their struggles were the fodder of biofakes biopics which often combined unrequited love, struggles with the bottle/drugs, the heights of fame, and the depths of decline with snappy song and dance numbers. There were not be confused with the Tin Pan Alley composers biopics which often combined inspirational love, struggles with that illusive song, the heights of fame, seldom the depths of decline, with snappy song and dance numbers. [Perhaps the silliest of them was Night and Day starring Cary Grant (!) as Cole Porter (!!)] In most cases they were highly sanitized and often totally fictionalized but they had names in the titles and above the titles as well as those snappy song and dance numbers.

Two films do stand out as exceptions. Last week I mentioned I’ll Cry Tomorrow that starred Susan Hayward as Lillian Roth. As biopics of the period go it stuck fairly close to the truth or at least the truth as told by Miss Roth in her book. And Love Me Or Leave Me the story of Ruth Etting and her turbulent relationship with Moe the Gimp Synder stuck pretty much to the facts. Etting, Synder and Meryl Alderman, the third member of the triangle and Etting’s second husband, all sold away the rights to their stories. A few changes were made to keep the folks over at the Motion Picture Production Code office happy. Etting expressed regret that “the real highlight” of her life, her thirty year marriage to Alderman, was omitted from her story.

MGM offered Spencer Tracy the role of Synder but when he turned it down it went to Jimmy Cagney. Though Ava Gardner and Jane Russell both were vying for the lead role Cagney insisted on Doris Day as his co-star. Until then she had been known primarily as a musical comedy performer, Love Me Or Leave Me was proof of her abilities as a dramatic actress. Cagney admired her “ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple, direct idea without cluttering it”. Day herself always felt it was her best film performance. Etting found Day’s performance “too tough” and thought that Jane Powell should have played her. But a viewing of the film and listening to the soundtrack suggests that the gang at MGM, and Doris Day knew what they were doing.

This post started as a tribute to Doris Day and as with many posts wandered a bit. I remember those delicious comedies that she made in the late 50s-early 60s and my all time favourite The Pajama Game. And I recall when Que Sera Que Sera was the #1 hit for something like 10 weeks running. Wally Crowther played it on his morning radio show every weekend of that 10 weeks and I ate my breakfast cereal to her reassurance that “what will be be, will be!” It wasn’t a bad way to start a morning.

May 15th is Chocolate Chip Day. According to the legend, the creation of the chips was an accident – out of chocolate powder while making cookies for guests, Ruth Wakefield at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts chopped up some chocolate and added it to the cookie dough. She found that the chocolate did not melt as she had expected, and the chocolate chip and the chocolate chip cookie was born.