Dear Grammie (a letter inspired by the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra cuts)

Dear Grammie,

Hope you’re enjoying the Holidays! The celebrations must be incredible where you are.

I know it’s only been a week since I last wrote, but a lot has happened since then. I’m sure you’ve been following all the news over the proposed cuts to the orchestra at the Charlottetown Festival. We’re not sure yet who is going to be cut. I guess it depends on the directions the orchestrator is given. Our worry is that it could affect more than just six of us. Rather than being told to cut six specific instruments, the orchestrator may simply be instructed to create an orchestration for 13, in which case he could just as easily write for a completely different set of instruments. There is talk of using electronic keyboards; I know that would drive you crazy! Anyway, we’re going to try not to let the stress of this news interfere with our enjoyment of the Holidays. The Christmas show must go on!

The whole thing has gotten me thinking, reminiscing about when I first started playing the trombone. I remember practicing in the living room while you were reading. I could always tell when you pretended to keep reading, but weren’t really paying any attention to your book. I especially remember when I played “Pomp and Circumstance” how your eyes would well up with tears. I never did get around to asking what it was about the music that moved you so. Although I couldn’t have explained it then, I realize now that your response was my introduction to the emotional power of music. It’s something that has stuck with me ever since, something I experience every time I perform, or when I listen to music myself.

Just last week I played a concert for some school kids. You wouldn’t believe the cheers after every piece. After it was over they swarmed the stage, asking for our autographs. One boy even wanted me to sign his sneaker! Ha ha, that reminds me of one time when I left through the stage door after an Anne performance, and this sweet little girl asked me for my autograph. Her mom said, “Oh, he’s just a musician.” Can you believe it?! The girl wanted my autograph anyway, but her mom dragged her off in search of bigger fish. It’s such a shame that some people grow up and forget how to feel the magic of music.

Anyway, our kids have certainly been bitten by the music bug. I can’t remember if I already told you that Alexandra started playing violin this year, and is still singing up a storm. Bailey’s been asking for a guitar for Christmas, and he has recently learned to whistle (and does it non-stop!). You should hear him! Alex and I went to hear the Toronto Symphony together. The sound of their 80-piece orchestra sent chills up my spine. Alex got so caught up in the music that I had to tap her arm because I was afraid her physical rapture would disturb some of the other patrons! I love seeing the joy music brings to their lives. They are aware of what’s going on with the Charlottetown Festival, and understand, but we are trying to shield them from the fallout as much as we can. Such sweet kids; I wish they could have known you.

Grammie, every day I remember your words encouraging me to follow my dreams, no matter what obstacles get thrown in my path. Every hurdle I face makes me more determined to live up to those inspirational words.

Here’s hoping you have the best Christmas ever! We miss you so much.

Love,
Dale

P.S. I don’t know how it works up there, but if you happen to know Norman Campbell, please tell him we’re doing our best to look out for him and his music. He must be going crazy looking down at all this nonsense, but at the same time he must also be overwhelmed by how many people have spoken up in support of protecting the legacy of his music. Please give him my best.

Posted in Kids, Life, Music | Leave a comment

Orchestra cuts to save money: Really? A closer look

Confederation Centre CEO Jesse Inman has stated that cutting 6 positions from the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra will save “in excess of $100,000 per season”. This is an exaggeration that is unfortunately being quoted as accurate by the media, so let’s start by correcting this amount:

The base pay for an orchestra musician is $870 per week. The upcoming season is 13 weeks long (and this is about average). Here’s my math: $870 X 6 people X 13 weeks = $67,860. Add 10% pension: $74,646.

It is true that some people make more than the base rate. There is extra pay for the librarian, the union steward, the leader, etc. This increases the average rate of pay, but you can’t calculate savings by using the average rate, because the higher-paid positions (librarian, union steward, leader, etc.) will still be required, no matter what the instrumentation.

Now, let’s look at the financial ramifications of re-orchestrating. There are the costs of paying for the re-orchestration, and for the copying of the orchestral parts (both of which will be substantial) – but I am going to ignore that, because these are not ongoing costs; they are one-time up-front costs.

But, a reduction in the number of musicians will actually cause some increased on-going costs. First, any orchestrator, no matter how skilled, is going to have to find creative ways of getting around the restrictions imposed by writing for limited resources (cf. my analogy of limiting the lighting designer to 1/3 of their colour spectrum). One of the ways to accomplish this is to ask musicians to “double” (play more than one instrument) in order to add back some of the missing colours. The union rates for doubling are an extra 50% for the first double, plus 25% for each subsequent double. In Hairspray, for example, which used a smaller orchestra (15 musicians), three of the musicians played four instruments each. With three doubles, those three musicians were each making twice the base rate.

If three musicians are being paid twice as much, we have just reduced the projected savings by exactly half. We are now down to $37,323 saved.

Incidentally, doubling is still an artistic compromise because the doublers can’t play two instruments at once, so all of those colours aren’t available all of the time.

The next step the orchestrator will take to deal with the limited instrumental resources is to incorporate the use of technology, such as synthesizers, to try to replace some of the missing orchestral colours. I’ve already written about the artistic compromise of this approach, but extra technology also comes with increased financial costs.

Unlike the cost of the re-orchestration, added technology is not a one-time cost. Because technology is constantly changing, new gear must always be purchased or rented in order to stay current. In Hairspray, for example again, three keyboards were used, and they couldn’t be just any keyboard; they had to be a certain Kurzweil model, and those keyboards had to be rented for the entire run of the production (including the cast rehearsal period). In addition, keyboards must be programmed with the correct sounds. Someone has to spend time doing this, and their time costs money. And guess what else? Keyboard players automatically receive payment of an extra 25% per keyboard – not per person, PER KEYBOARD.

This increased use of technology also breeds the need for more technology. Sound technicians will tell you that sampled sounds are extremely difficult to mix (they describe the sound as “dead, lifeless, and inert”, not to mention the tuning issues and articulation incompatibilities that arise when paired with acoustic instruments). The three keyboards in Hairspray created quite a challenge in sound production: how to create an environment in the pit where everyone can hear all of the instruments, but at a volume where the sound technician has control over the final mix. In the Hairspray situation, individual headphone monitor systems were rented and provided for each musician. This required a dedicated sound board in the pit (Cost: more gear) and an extra sound technician to control the monitors (Cost: wages for one extra crew).

Is anyone keeping track of the savings…?

As contractor of the orchestra for Hairspray, I can tell you that the cost of music for that production (including both musicians’ fees and added technology costs) was actually more than that for Anne of Green Gables…

I have taken the stance that audiences are more discerning than implied by the Charlottetown Festival, who seem to think that nobody will notice the difference in the music played by a decimated orchestra. If I allow that some audience members really won’t notice – that they are completely oblivious – I then also have to allow that some audience members really WILL notice, and I have indeed heard from many audience-goers about how importantly the music contributes to their experience of the musical. We then must expect that some of our audience will be disappointed and won’t return to see the show again. Cost: lost ticket sales. And there is NO chance that a reduction to the orchestra will, in and of itself, attract any new patrons.

Now, there is one more hidden cost about which details are sketchy. Elaine Campbell, lyricist, and wife of Norman, the composer of the music for Anne of Green Gables, established The Norman Campbell Legacy Fund: Anne of Green Gables-The Musical Endowment, which was “created to support the cost of the live orchestra, which is the foundation of the distinctively rich sound that defines the music of Anne of Green Gables”. What happens to the endowment if the orchestra is gutted? Will the Campbell heirs then withdraw their support?

Do we really still think that these cuts will save money for the Charlottetown Festival? Does the paltry amount saved, if any, really justify the cost to the artistic quality of the show? Surely there is a better way to save money, and at the same time save the integrity of the production and the reputation of the Confederation Centre as “one of Canada’s premier live theatre houses” that “showcases the best in Canadian visual and performing arts”.

Posted in Music | 15 Comments

Why the orchestra matters

In my previous post about the proposed cuts to the Anne of Green Gables orchestra, and also in my radio interview on CBC this morning, there is one thing that I feel I have not been articulating clearly enough. The Charlottetown Festival says that reducing the orchestra by 1/3 will have no negative impact on the quality of the musical. This is a delusional statement at best, if not downright deceptive, and here’s why:

Let me make some analogies, in an attempt to better get my point across:

Imagine telling the artistic director that she has to make do with 1/3 of the cast. She gets to keep Anne, of course, and Matthew and Marilla, etc., but Mrs. Blewett really has to go. In fact, that whole Mrs. Blewett scene is really not essential to the story. And hey, come to think of it, neither the stationmaster nor Earl the mailman is really necessary either. Sure, those characters may not be essential, but they add DEPTH to the story, and contribute to a richer experience for the audience.

Now imagine that the lighting designer is told they can only use 1/3 of the colour spectrum. They get to keep the blue and the green, but sorry, no red anymore. The thing is, without red, they no longer have yellow either, because yellow is made from the combination of red and green. Sure, it’s still light enough on stage – you can still SEE all that you need to see – but something is missing: depth of colour.

And this is exactly why an orchestra cut by 1/3 is unacceptable. Musicians refer to the different instruments in an orchestra as “orchestral colours”. Each individual instrument has their own colour, but just like primary visual colours, the combination of those colours in different ways creates even more colours and shades. Playing with 13 musicians instead of 19 is exactly like taking colours away from the lighting designer. Sure, there are still enough musicians to play all the notes in a chord – you can still HEAR all the notes you need to hear – but something is missing: musical depth of colour.

And what about the “contemporary changes” artistic director Anne Allen mentions in yesterday’s press release? Does she mean electronic technology? That’s sure what it sounds like to me. Let me make another analogy:

Imagine that this year they decide to use a painted mural of a buggy instead of the real thing. Sure, you can’t actually sit in it, but it looks great, doesn’t it? But something is missing: depth, the 3rd dimension.

I bet you can see where this is going. Let’s replace the strings with a synthesizer. Sounds almost as good as the real thing, doesn’t it? But something is missing, something only a human can bring to an instrumental sound: depth of expression, the musical 3rd dimension, the ability to caress a phrase, to add warmth to the tone, to articulate a note with varying degrees of softness, to infuse passion into a musical line. And isn’t that what music/musical theatre/the Arts is all about: giving expression to that which is uniquely human.

I also believe that Anne audiences are smart enough to notice that something is missing, and I think it is very condescending to imply otherwise. Some of them may not be able to articulate it in so many words, but they will notice. They will notice because an orchestra of fewer players lacks depth of colour, and electronic sounds lack depth of expression. How can this not be a compromise to the “integrity of the score” – a compromise that will contribute to a “lesser experience” for the audience?

Posted in Life on PEI, Music | 8 Comments

Charlottetown Festival to reduce orchestra

Today (the week before Christmas) the Charlottetown Festival announced plans to re-orchestrate Anne of Green Gables-The Musical, a plan which will see the orchestra reduced by six musicians, from 19 to 13. This is devastating news – news that could have an enormous impact on my life as I know it. For the last 22 years I have played trombone for this production. I have rarely subbed out. I have always imagined doing this until the day I retire, and I can’t believe that there is a possibility it may be over. The Charlottetown Festival has been my bread and butter, my single biggest source of income, and something I truly love doing. Having this work every summer is what has given me the freedom to be a musician on PEI – to do what I want to do, where I want to do it. Losing this job would change my life – I would either have to do something else for a living, or move away from PEI. It is ironic that now, as I pursue a doctorate in performance – the most advanced form of musical training – I may no longer be able to survive as a musician.

But there is a bigger picture here. This is not about me – or even about six musicians – losing our jobs. People lose their jobs every day; it is just part of business in our current economic climate. No, what is at stake here is the artistic integrity of the Anne of Green Gables production itself. Only a year ago the Charlottetown Festival invested in a new “re-imagined” production of Anne of Green Gables, complete with new choreography and sets, in an effort to make the show even better. Why take a step backwards now? To save money, of course. But of all the possible ways to save money, why target the music? Well, music is ephemeral and intangible – you can’t see it or touch it or hold it in your hands and marvel at the skill that went into its creation. At first glance, it may appear to be superfluous – a little extra icing on the cake. But the truth is that it is as integral to the artistic quality of the show as the choreography, the sets, the costumes and the lights – surely the title of the show gives this away: Anne of Green Gables-The Musical. And orchestration matters: imagine watching a movie – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, even Titanic – with only 13 musicians (or worse, an electronic keyboard) providing the soundtrack instead of a full orchestra. Music is an essential component in providing emotional impact – even gamers know this; witness the current trend for video game productions to include a soundtrack recorded by a live full orchestra. As one producer says:

The only reason to use a live orchestra in a game soundtrack would be to make the game better than if you had not used an orchestra; to make the game more immersive, more engaging, more fun than if it didn’t include the orchestra. And on the business side, it would be helpful if you could sell enough units to pay for it. . . . But, then you might say: “Of course a live orchestra would make our game better, but we can’t afford it!” Well, my goal . . . is to communicate just one thing: In order to make a game that would truly be better due to using an orchestra, can you really afford not to use one? – Jack Wall

An audience attends musical theatre for more than simple entertainment – part of the experience is to be “immersed” and “engaged”, to be emotionally and spiritually enriched and uplifted. The music is an essential part of this. Audiences know the importance of this too – they are a lot smarter than it would seem they are given credit for. And one of the big attractions for the Anne of Green Gables production at the Charlottetown Festival – the one thing that sets us apart from anything else in the region – is our 19-piece orchestra. Audiences know that they can come to Charlottetown and experience something special – something they can’t experience anywhere else – something the Charlottetown Festival promotes as a “Broadway calibre production”. As a national cultural institution (and one that has received increased federal funding recently) that “showcases the best in Canadian visual and performing arts“, the Confederation Centre of the Arts “is the result of a dream shared by all Canadians – to create a place where our country’s history and multicultural character is celebrated, and where the talents of its people are nurtured and showcased“. If their goal is to provide quality programming at a national level, they need to aim to maintain the musical quality of their flagship musical production. 13 musicians do not an orchestra make.

And what about the wishes of Norman Campbell (the composer) and his wife Elaine, two of the co-creators of Anne of Green Gables-The Musical? Years ago the orchestra was reduced to its current size of 19 – a size that was believed to be the absolute minimum required to do justice to the music. Before he died, Norman made it very clear that his wish was to see the orchestra preserved, and Elaine did her best (before her own death) to see that this wish would be upheld – by donating a large sum of money to the Charlottetown Festival specifically earmarked for the purpose of maintaining the orchestra. I guess now that they are dead, their wishes no longer matter…

Below is the press release that was issued this morning. What do you think?

For Immediate Release

Centre plans to re-orchestrate Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™ in 2012

(Charlottetown, PE – December 19, 2011)- After presenting a successfully re-imagined Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™ last summer, the Confederation Centre of the Arts is planning to re-orchestrate the music of this flagship production in 2012. The re-orchestration work will take place in the spring and will be presented for the 2012 season of The Charlottetown Festival.

“Ensuring that we preserve the magical theatre experience that audiences have enjoyed for many years is of the utmost importance. Although the musical score for Anne of Green Gables has been altered over the past 47 years, we have never made a change to this extent.” says Anne Allen, Artistic Director of The Charlottetown Festival.

This change in the score will mean the musical can be presented with a reduced orchestra. The current orchestra includes 19 musicians. The re-orchestrated score will require 13 musicians.

“The opportunity in re-orchestrating is that should we decide to tour Anne, this reduced orchestra size would make it more feasible. The reduced orchestra size will also allow for some contemporary changes and flexibility.” adds Allen.

The change will also allow The Charlottetown Festival to keep theatre ticket prices reasonable for visitors and Islander’s alike according to Confederation Centre CEO Jessie Inman.

“We want to continue to offer a first class, affordable musical theatre experience,” says Inman.

The contract to re-orchestrate the musical will be assigned in early 2012.

Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™ is sponsored by MacLean Construction and plays selected dates from July 3 to September 26, 2012. Tickets for the hit musical start at $20 and can be purchased at the Confederation Centre Box Office, toll-free by calling 1-800-565-0278, or online at www.charlottetownfestival.com

The Charlottetown Festival major sponsor is APM. Media sponsors are The Guardian, CTV, Ocean 100 and K-Rock.

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Media contact:

Tracy Stretch, Communications Manager, Confederation Centre of the Arts

902-628-6135 | 902-314-5966

tstretch@confederationcentre.com | www.confederationcentre.com

www.facebook.com/confedcentre

Posted in Life on PEI, Music | 12 Comments

International Trombone Week 2011

Today marks the beginning of International Trombone Week for 2011 (April 3-10), and there are many ways we can all celebrate: perform (or attend) a trombone recital, compose a piece for trombone, make a radio request for some trombone music, etc. etc. Use your imagination!

I started the week by performing a pretty heavy program with the Prince Edward Island Symphony Orchestra: Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C Major, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, Canadian composer John Beckwith‘s transcriptions of several of Bach’s Figural Chorales, and the world premiere of Canadian composer Jim O’Leary‘s “Softly at Night the Stars are Shining” with soprano soloist Helen Pridmore.

When last I wrote about International Trombone Week, I was performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with the PEISO and wrote about the importance of this work for trombonists. Schubert’s “Great” Symphony is also a landmark work, as Schubert took Beethoven’s idea a step further. Not only does Schubert use the trombones to reinforce the texture of the orchestral fortissimo, but he also gives us some wonderful soft chords to play, and even the MELODY!!!  – and we play in all four movements! We are in fact quite a bit busier than the trumpets in this Symphony. Like many performers, I use the alto trombone on the 1st parts in Schubert’s works, not just because it is historically accurate to do so, but also because the alto has a brightness to its tone that blends well with the trumpets and creates a bridge between the upper and lower cylindrical brass. I think of this blend as a pyramid shape, where the tone broadens from high to low more evenly than it would with a tenor trombone on the 1st part – I think this is a very pleasing sound.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture is also quite an important work for trombonists, as it is one of the few orchestral pieces that contains a trombone solo. This one is a chant-like solo in the 2nd trombone part that can be played quite freely, and features the noble sound of the trombone to great effect. The fact that this solo is in the 2nd part leads me to wonder if Rimsky had the alto trombone in mind for the 1st part – this is definitely something to look into. Having said that, I do prefer to play this on the tenor…

Beckwith’s transcriptions of the Bach Chorales are interesting pieces, once again demonstrating how Bach’s music seems to lend itself quite well to being set in just about any possible style. These transcriptions call for a multi-tasking single trombone that must perform staccato bass lines, marcato tenor, and in the case of one of the chorales we played, a delicate and very high melody necessitating (for me, at least) a switch to the alto trombone. Did I mention how much I love the alto?

Jim O’Leary has been very much influenced by the Swedish composer Jan Sandström, best known outside his own country for his so-called “Motorbike Concerto” written for virtuoso trombonist Christian Lindberg. Jim is likewise no stranger to writing for the trombone (I premiered his Trombone Concerto with the PEISO in 2005), and his new piece calls for four: three tenors and a bass. I love getting to play a piece that explores the various colours of the trombone; in addition to passages using straight, cup, bucket and harmon mutes, there are soft and loud elements covering a range of over three octaves, and even some multiphonics (a technique whereby the trombonist sings one note while playing another) thrown in for good measure. Jim is the new composer-in-residence for the PEISO, so we can look forward to some more great trombone writing from him in the very near future.

All in all, a good start to the 2011 edition of International Trombone Week.

I’d love to hear what you are doing to celebrate ITW, and with that in mind, I do have a suggestion: if you are in PEI this Friday, come hear Romancing the Trombone, a recital featuring me with my sister Jacqueline Sorensen Young on piano, as we aim for nothing less than to put a spell on you that causes you to fall hopelessly in love with the sound of the trombone – just one of my many evil plans for the week…

A happy International Trombone Week to you all!

Posted in Trombone | 1 Comment

Joy to the World

Last night I went carol-singing with some friends – that’s right, singing! Not a trombone in sight! Together with Perry, Peter and Doug, we went around Charlottetown, mainly dropping in unannounced at some seniors’ homes, but also at a couple of friends’ homes, singing barbershop quartet Christmas carols. This was our 2nd annual outing, and hopefully the beginning of a new tradition. The seniors who were surprised by our visit seemed to really appreciate our impromptu performance!

The last time I went caroling was in Toronto (over 10 years ago), and then it was brass caroling (carol-brassing?), not singing – although we did have a couple of singers tag along on our adventures! That tradition used to begin at Herb’s place and proceed through his neighbourhood, stopping to play at friends’ homes along the way. On one memorable occasion, our evening culminated in what could only be called a doppler-elevator-effect. That momentous event has been documented here.

It is fun to sing, and it is fun to share the joy of the Christmas season with friends – and with strangers. And one very unexpected surprise came from this: Visiting all those seniors’ homes gives one a nice tour of the available facilities in the area. The Geneva Villa on Walthen Drive felt so warm and homey, I thought to myself, “I could see myself living here some day”. And while I hope that day is far into the future, it is a bit of a relief to have that decision crossed off the list!

Happy Holidays!

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Of Mice and Men

Last night I had a dream. I dreamed that there was a mouse in our house, and when I discovered it, in my dream, I caught it by the quickest, most resourceful method I could come up with in the spur of the moment – with my bare hand. It was a wiggly little thing, this mouse in my dream, but I managed to hang onto it without either of us getting hurt. Knowing that the mouse would need to be released a considerable distance from the house so it wouldn’t find its way back in, I proceeded to make my way into the woods, intending to go as far as I could, right to the very end of our property. The mouse in my dream was actually rather cute, and with every step I took through the woods, I found myself falling more and more in love with the little creature. It was, then, a tearful moment when I finally said goodbye to my new little friend as I sent it on its way.

The dream was not a surprise. You see, we’ve had an actual mouse in our house the last couple of days – maybe longer, but I just saw it for the first time a couple of days ago, a little brown streak out of the corner of my eye, disappearing under the couch, never to be seen again. I set a trap, a nice little humane trap designed to keep the mouse alive for release back into the wild.
Mouse TrapSure enough, when I awoke this morning the trap door was closed, so I prepared to live out my dream by taking the trap outside. But that’s where the similarities ended – my real mouse (probably a vole, actually) was dead; in fact, rigor mortis had already set in. Perhaps due to my dream (or the fact that I am such a softie), I realized that I was upset by the little creature’s demise. It really was a little cutie!

Posted in Wildlife | 1 Comment