Going down the road with the Atlantic Symphony

They aren’t the best yet, but aren’t they terrific?


Going down the road with the Atlantic Symphony

They aren’t the best yet, but aren’t they terrific?


Going down the road with the Atlantic Symphony

They aren’t the best yet, but aren’t they terrific?


It is a curious scene: 45 adults in full evening dress entering a technical school gymnasium in Sydney, Nova

Scotia, carrying various quite lovely objects made of brass, gut. hair, wood and skin. They sit up front and make a wild caterwauling. Five hundred or 600 assorted persons face them — schoolchildren, priests, pensioners, mechanics, housewives, surveyors, professors.

Who are all these people?

Who. for instance, is that blondish fellow with the beard and the rimless glasses, holding a metal tube to his face and blowing across it? Flow did he get there, and for what purpose?

Who is that woman, and why is she embracing that large, strangely curved box, caressing it with horsehairs stretched along a stick?

The woman is Betty Pedersen, the man is her husband Stephen, and they play the double bass and the flute in the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, which is just tuning up. Eleven hours ago. as the symphony’s big Trailways bus rolled out of Halifax. Steve Pedersen told me that when he first joined the symphony he found the whole thing so strange that he took to reading books about the psychology of small groups.

Making music, he explained, was in a fanciful way like making love, and being in the symphony w-as a bit like being in a marriage. The relationships between people were oddly intimate, petty and profound at the same time. Attuned to one another, deeply committed to a common enterprise, the musicians could still be angrier with one another than with virtually any outsider.

At 8.30 a.m. the bus had been parked in front of the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax, the driver stowing bags, violinists and percussionists scrambling into Murray’s Restaurant for a coffee to go.

Cellists awkwardly lugged their instruments between the high seats, clarinetists and trumpeters tucked their little cases on the hat rack. Really large instruments — harp, tympani, four double basses — were already en route in the orchestra’s panel truck, driven by stage manager Jimmy Tasco and his assistant, and in a rented van driven by horn player Phil Myers and percussionist Jim Faraday, who earn a few extra dollars that way. By nine-fifteen we were making our way through the woods to Highway 102 and distant Sydney.

A large family car, I thought, listening to the buzz of conversation. The musicians are men and women of all shapes and sizes, long-haired and short-haired, young and old, natives of Basle and Prague, Dallas and Dartmouth. Some are settled in Nova Scotia, others dream of playing in Berlin, Montreal, Philadelphia. They are connected by their careers in music, and often by little else. But in the seat behind the Pedersens, Wolfgang Flebbe was reading Der Stern while his wife, Loredana, clicked her knitting needles. Both violinists, both German, the Flebbes met and married in Halifax. Ten of the orchestra’s 45 players are married to one another.

Around us people drank beer, played bridge, peered out the window. Betty was knitting too, and Steve was saying that many musicians really distrust words. Some therefore distrust Steve himself, a one-time English teacher at Toronto’s Danforth Tech and Centennial College. His room in the Pedersens’ snug little seaside house at Portuguese Cove, 10 or 12 miles down the shore from Halifax, is lined to the ceiling with books; by contrast, Betty’s practice room is sparsely furnished, almost bare.

As a girl in Regina. Betty wanted to play the violin, but by the time she could

begin she was in Hamilton, going to high school — too old to begin the violin. She switched to the double bass, finished her commercial course, and took an office job. traveling every week to Buffalo for music lessons, and winning a chair in the National Youth Orchestra. Then a bassist who taught in the Toronto public schools got a one-year symphony job, and she filled in for him.

“There I was.” she remembers, “teaching bass, and I hardly knew how to hold it. Then I got a job in the Atlantic Symphony for two years, but I was still just a rank student. I wonder now how I ever managed to play parts.”

One evening just before she left for Halifax, a fellow bassist dropped in with a friend. Steve Pedersen, who was challenged by Betty’s example.

“When I was maybe 10,” Steve grins, “I got hold of a little plastic trumpet, with four notes on it. and I ran around the farm back in Alberta playing what I thought was Beethoven’s Fifth. Well, my mother could just make out enough of it that she could see what I was trying to do, and it drove her crazy. So she got me a tonette, a plastic affair very much like a recorder.”

A high-school band in Calgary. College in Alberta; a job in Toronto. A year in Europe; teaching in Toronto. All the while gradually moving from English to music. Then Betty’s example. Steve quit his job. became a full-time flute student, and stayed alive by supply teaching. Later he went back to teaching, but kept right on with the flute.

“But eventually I just had to make a decision. I found I could give up teaching. but I couldn’t give up music.” The Atlantic Symphony was looking for both bass and flute. The Pedersens auditioned and got the jobs. Steve was 33.

Truro: the bus

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swung onto the Trans-Canada, up over the hills toward New Glasgow and Antigonish, past Bible Hill, through Kemptown and Salt Springs and past the turnoff for Garden of Eden. Garden of Eden, Nova Scotia.

Steve is 37 now, and he has a good life. A grand piano dominates the Pedersens’ long, low living room. Sunlight filtering through the pine trees. At home the Pedersens often take their morning coffee down to the shore and watch the ships enter Halifax harbor. Would they move? Well . . .

“Moving becomes less and less attractive the more involved we become here.” With other ASO members, Steve plays both in a chamber group, the Halifax Woodwind Quintet, and in inNOVAtions in MUSIC, an ensemble devoted entirely to modern works. He composes music, gives some CBC radio talks, and teaches flute in several cities the ASO visits.

Betty has a few students, but she would as soon not teach. “Really. I just want to become a very good bass player.” She studies with Gary Karr, the great bass player who lives in Halifax and teaches at Dalhousie University — and two years ago taught at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and the New England Conservatory as well — while still maintaining an international concert career.

Gary Karr will be the guest soloist tonight in Sydney. He’s a showman, a tireless promoter of himself and his instrument. and he is one of only four virtuosi in the whole history of the double bass, the kind of musician for whom composers write special works. To the Pedersens he is both friend and inspira-

tion. Betty works part-time as his secretary. As a member of his International Institute for the String Bass she wears a lapel birtton - BASS IS BEAUTIFUL. Steve illustrates his points with quotations from Karr. Betty admires his work with Halifax schoolchildren.

As we talked. I wondered whether at some level they weren’t thinking about the Sydney concert. True. Steve admitted. “For instance, there’s a very tricky entry in Swan Lake. I have to put my flute down and come in again with the piccolo after eight very fast bars. If the piccolo is too warm or too cold it’ll be out of pitch; if it doesn’t seat on my chin exactly right, or if my embouchure is wrong, the way I hold my mouth, or if I don’t count properly. I’ll come in at the wrong time, or just not crisply and firmly, but a little tentatively. I don’t exactly worry about it. but from time to time my mind wanders to that kind of thing.”

At noon the bus turned left down Church Street into Antigonish. pulling up in front of Wong’s Restaurant, stopping an hour for lunch.

In Sydney. 137 miles ahead. Gordon Le Drew scuttled up and down steel ladders. repairing fans and conveyors in the Kaiser Minerals plant at the Point Edward Industrial Park. His mind ran ahead to the concert tonight: Gordon had been playing the double bass for 30 years, in dance bands like the Acadian Orchestra and in a backup group for the Cape Breton male choir. The Men of the Deep. He would take his sons Kevin and Paul. Kevin was starting to play the double bass, and this Gary Karr had quite a reputation. He would fire Ke-


vin’s interest. When Gordon first began playing the double bass, there was no teacher in Sydney — still isn’t, in fact. He smiled to himself. It would be good to see the whole orchestra playing second fiddle to his big clumsy bass.

Pat Cormier was driving to a property he would survey, thinking that, dammit, tonight was the last symphony concert of the season. Pat’s father led an orchestra that played for the old silent movies, and he taught Pat to play the violin. It must be wonderful to play for a living; Pat can only play for his own enjoyment. There aren’t enough good string players in Sydney to form a chamber group. Pat smiled, remembering the time he played with some ASO musicians in Antigonish. and they told him he was good enough to audition for the orchestra. He never did. though. Never got to Halifax. The only live music he and Irene hear is these concerts in Sydney. Wonderful. Records aren’t the same thing at all.

At Xavier College, a fighting Irishman named Father Luke Dempsey was lecturing in theology when it occurred to him that tonight was the symphony, which certainly added a touch of grace to this tough industrial area. We’d be much the poorer without it. he thought. It was a thing to look forward to.

Leaving Antigonish, we crossed the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, 103 fniles from Sydney, still talking about the orchestra which was sleeping all round us. You don’t get rich playing in an orchestra. Steve remarked; he’s still only making about half a teacher’s salary. The musicians’ basic pay is $150 a week plus $53 from the CBC for that 34week season; about $6.900 a year.

Lionel Smith worries a lot about money, too.

Tall. trim, suave. Smith wears evening dress as though to the manner born. Originally English, he had a varied business career before dropping out in 1958 to raise chickens in Nasonworth. New Brunswick. His wife became interested in the semiprofessional New Brunswick Symphony, which merged with the Halifax Symphony to form the new Atlantic Symphony in 1968. Lionel had joined the Fredericton symphony committee, found he had a taste and a talent for arts administration, and eventually moved to Halifax as the new orchestra’s executive director.

Despite all the grand talk about Maritime union. Lionel said, the symphony was the first significant regional venture and is still the only regional symphony in North America. It gave 122 concerts and broadcasts this season, in 18 centres scattered along a base line stretching from Edmundston 1.600 miles to St. John’s. Last year Smith. Mizerit and Leone Wilcox made 12 attempts just to

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come up with a workable schedule.

The ASO budget of $712.559 makes it a pretty substantial industry. With the office staff and stage crew its payroll totals 52. about a third of that of the Halifax container port. Every time it visits a city, it leaves up to $1.500 behind.

The symphony is supported by the Canada Council, the CBC. the various municipal governments, and the governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The box office provides about 40^ of the revenue, and six local committees raise the remainder.

“Our organizational structure.” Smith explained, “is unique. Our board is made up of representatives elected from the local committees. When they meet as a board, they are in effect telling themselves what they are going to do. and they have to go home and implement their own decisions. It’s a lot of damned hard work for practicallv no recognition.”

Why do they do it. then?

“People used to sav it was for social reasons, but I don’t think that’s true any more. Today the arts must literally be for everyone, and we notice a real democratization of the audience. People feel they can come as they are and just enjoy the music. I think our volunteers probably begin with an interest in the art form, and later find the committee work itself a real challenge.”

The audience has grown enormously, especially in the past tw'o years — in Fredericton and Saint John, for instance. the concerts are completely sold out. In Halifax, the orchestra now gives two subscription series; the tw'o nights combined are 957c sold out. When the orchestra brought guest conductors such as Arthur Fiedler. Mitch Miller and Skitch Henderson to Halifax last season for its first series of pop concerts, every seat w'as taken.

What about support from industry? Smith frowned. “In Canada.” he said, “we’re far behind the United States in the degree of support we get from industry.” Examples? Smith flatly refused to give any. but other sources reveal that National Sea Products. Nova Scotia’s giant fishing company, last year gave a paltry $100. K. C. Irving Ltd., w'hich virtually owms New Brunswick, has never given a cent.

The symphony is an industry, an educational resource, a kind of family, a traveling museum of music. The symphony is a group of people snoozing and quiet, tired by their trip as the bus pulls up in front of the Isle Rovale Hotel in Sydney in the middle of the afternoon.

In the living room of the highrise apartment. Gary Karr, thoroughlv Jewish and a native of Los Angeles, talked with the Pedersens, myself, and his friend. Harmon Lewis, who is also his

colleague in the Karr-Lewis Duo. We talked casually, and dined, but hadn’t time to linger over coffee. Leaving for the gym, I looked at Steve.

“Still thinking about that entry in Swan Lake?”

“Yeah, a little. I’ve been thinking about it a little all day.”

Jimmy Tasco has the basses lined up in a hall outside the gym. In their fibre glass traveling cases, they look like coffins for monsters. The musicians trickle in. sporting evening dress now’. Slowly they gather in the hall, instruments w'ailing and blasting.

There, on the right, that’s Gordon Le Drew and his sons. Ten row's back, that priest is Luke Dempsey. And look, back a bit. that’s Pat and Irene Cormier.

And here comes Jan Bobak. the concertmaster. calling for the ritual A from the oboe, and the orchestra tunes up by sections. It is a piece of theatre, and a spectacle, the lights bouncing off the brass, the musicians drawm up in a semicircle.

In à moment Klaro Mizerit will mount the podium at the centre. A charming man, Mizerit — “Maestro,” most people call him — has been the orchestra’s conductor and music director since its inception in 1968. Though nobody suggests he is another Toscanini, more than one member of the ASO will say flatly that he is head and shoulders above anyone who could conceivably be asked to replace him.

The ASO, like most Canadian symphonies. grew out of amateur and semiprofessional orchestras, and some of its veterans have to work furiously to keep up. I am told one or two probably don’t belong in a professional orchestra at all. What does Mizerit think? Tactfully. he shrugs and smiles, but he admits that the ASO only now', after six years, begins to sound like “a normal symphonv.”

Mizerit concedes that Maritime audiences are not as sophisticated as European audiences but. he smiles, they have a compensating “hunger for the music.” In Fredericton a couple of years ago. Mizerit was walking across the dark lobby of the Playhouse w'hen a stranger appeared from the shadows. “Klaro!” he cried. “Klaro!” He was a millhand from a town 30 miles off. he never missed a concert.

“Thank you,” he said, pumping Mizerit’s hand. “Thank you!” He plunged out into the night, and when Mizerit opened his hand he found a crumpled dollar bill.

You don’t tip the conductor, it’s just not done. But Mizerit looks up at me. obviously very moved. “What you can expect.” he says softly, spreading his hands, “more than this?”

And here he comes now. after Ljubl-

jana and Vienna, Koblenz and Dubrovnik. smiling at the audience of Sydney. Nova Scotia. Ceremoniouslv. he shakes Jan Bobak’s hand in the traditional greeting to the musicians, turns and bows to the audience, turns back, raises his baton, and calls forth the great wave of sound which is the essential sensuous delight of a live orchestra.

In his head he is “singing” the music a half second ahead of the orchestra, trving to induce a sound as full and clear and rich as that ideal performance going on in there behind his eyes. His stocky body, with its sweeping baton, becomes one with his mind, one with the orchestra. Perhaps tonight he can “sing” especially well, for after a Schubert overture the orchestra plays Variations On A Theme Of Handel, by Klaro Mizerit. Charmed by the piece, the critic of the Cape Breton Post will describe Mizerit’s performance as “sensational” and “inspired.”

And Gary Karr is bowing now to the applause, addressing his instrument, playing a rare bass concerto by Domenico Dragonetti. The bass hums. sobs, roars, sparkles. Even I. who scarcely know an allegro from an avocado, am astounded. Karr is simply dazzling.

Finally, astonishingly. Karr offers comedy — Paganini’s Moses Fantasy, treated with a wit so pointed the audience laughs out loud. The wit is in the music, not in Karr’s facial expressions or his occasional cheery foot-swinging. Those musicians who aren’t offended by Karr’s lighthearted showmanship are breaking up too, as Karr waits till the last split-second before picking up a theme from the orchestra, dallies with it, passes it back. Pat Cormier is craning to see. Later, queuing up to congratulate the soloist, he will be utterly floored by Karr’s spontaneous comment: “You have the neatest little eyebrows I ever saw!”

On the closing selections from Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake the orchestra lets go, the gym pulses, swirling blasts of sound, you never heard anything like it on your stereo, a rich driving wash of music. 45 people releasing torrents of music to an audience now strangely cemented into a single listener. 500, 600 people still as the fixed core of the spinning earth, hear it build now . . . And as the music soars and crashes, Steve Pedersen sets his flute down, takes his piccolo from his vest pocket, counts eight bars, and makes his entry . . .

They have heard that entry, the Le Drews and the Cormiers and the Dempseys, whether or not they even noticed it they have heard Steve do that; and hearing that, you see, is the thing, the whole point; those little notes adding up to one vast music — that is what this exotic occasion in the steelmilling city of Sydney is all about. Cf