How to Present

Lifting the Curtain

This is a description of how we planned and presented our concerts, concentrating on our most characteristic events, the Sunday afternoons in Walter Hall, University of Toronto. We hope this personal account may be of interest and, perhaps, practical use.

Shaping a season

Ideas for programmes would percolate for some time, then unexpectedly surface. There would often be an approaching anniversary of a composer or poet, or a once-in-a-lifetime event like the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The focus of a concert could be a particular artistic centre – Vienna, Venice, Paris – or a moment in Canadian cultural history. Some of our ideas, we realised, would take a lot of research to bring to fruition: we began reading the four volumes of Ernest Newman’s biography of Wagner many months before our concert of the composer’s music. Meanwhile, we might accumulate more concert ideas than could be accommodated in one season, so some would be put on hold.

There’s nothing like a deadline for focussing the mind. Things would get much more serious when a couple of these approached more or less simultaneously: (i) the time for booking available days in the hall and (ii) the due date for Arts Council applications. We were lucky to have such a suitable venue as Walter Hall at our disposal: the right size (490 seats), a good piano, good acoustics, conveniently situated on the downtown campus and not ruinously expensive. But for the same reasons, several other series presenters would have their eye on it. Because of Stephen’s faculty appointment, we were usually pretty much able to get in first and make the booking. (It took us a few years fully to realise, however, why some dates were always free: the parades of Santa Claus and St. Patrick effectively cut off access to the hall.)

At about the same time, Arts Council applications had to be in. Of course, those august bodies (municipal and provincial) would demand as much detail as possible. Budgeting had to be realistic; so not too many singers, just enough to make things interesting. But of prime importance were the concert titles. These, like the original germ of an idea, would often occur to one in the middle of the night. We were rather proud of a number of them, like “Caliban’s Cave” (Berlioz’s description of his Parisian apartment) or “The Princess and the Sewing Machine” (about Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac). As film producers or detective novelists know, a good title is half the battle. Also, it was important to ensure balance as far as language, style, genre and historical period were concerned, both within a season and over the course of a few years. A post-Christmas brainstorming session, often while walking along Beach Drive, Victoria, would crystallise our ideas.

Now, we must have our principal singers engaged. Unlike the great opera houses, we found it a positive advantage to be booking only a few months before an event, since agents would have their artists’ major commitments firmly mapped out and it was easy for them to see whether one of our concert weekends could be slotted in. Our archives show a fairly large roster of singers whom we could call on regularly, enhanced by younger artists whose work we had noticed and to whom we were pleased to give a performing opportunity. We could not be over generous with our fees, but the labourer is worthy of his hire and we can say that any negotiations were concluded most amicably – also that we made a point of always being punctual with payment.

Creating a Concert

The really hard work then began, in the form of choosing repertoire. With a programme centred around a composer, this stage was a little easier – print off a list of their songs and play or listen to them all. When the subject was something less purely musical, we had to set our minds a-thinking. Our archives contain sheet upon sheet of hand-scribbled material, all kinds of possibilities associated with the theme and always, ultimately, much too much for one afternoon. A certain song might immediately suggest one or other of our contracted singers. Conversely, they might request a song they would love to perform. We sought, of course, to give each of the singers the same amount of material, including at least one showstopper. They would then be sent a package of their material, ensuring that each performer had the right key or the right setting of Schubert’s “An den Mond” or Debussy’s “Clair de lune”.

Putting things into an order could be challenging; we would choose an effective starter and finisher, not to mention a good encore, which could tie a lot of diverse threads together and ensure that the audience finally “got the point”. We set out to make each concert a unified artistic creation, the songs enhanced by linking spoken material. At the same time, we most definitely aimed NOT to present a lecture recital. Narration, therefore, came as much as possible from original sources, letters, diaries, contemporary journals and so on; once or twice in a season we would engage a distinguished actor to read for us. (We must admit that, very occasionally, what a composer might have said – but written by us – would provide the right link.) Throughout the process, but particularly at this point, precise timing was crucial. We learnt early on that enthusiasm for a subject can cause things to overrun; it has always been a mystery to us that presenters can be astonished that a performance ends up twice as long as they expected. Timing songs is easy, as is reading through a script with a stopwatch; vigilance is all. Final adjustments might take place right up to the morning of the concert in order to achieve our aim – a first half of no more than an hour, 20 minutes intermission and a second half between 20 and 30 minutes, the whole performance ideally lasting an hour and 50 minutes.

Producing a Show

For our first concert in 1982, we designed the tickets by hand and sold them out of a shoebox. When we started series presentation, we hired a box office manager as attendance gradually built up. Initially, we would design posters in colour and spend hours distributing and sticking them on hydro poles and bulletin boards around the city. This gradually became unnecessary; however, we continued to produce flyers which could be stuffed in programmes or put in the mail. Our wonderful resource person in this respect was our administrative director, Carol Anderson, who tirelessly for many years masterminded, amid so much else, the production of our printed material. The house programme was very important to us, with a substantial prefatory note to explain the concert’s rationale. There would be complete translations, but not usually the texts of songs in English, unless these were of a complication difficult to pick up at first hearing. Notes to individual songs gave additional help, together with some appropriate pictures. At the end, of course, with the singers’ bios, were the acknowledgments of our growing body of generous donors.

Carol’s help with all this was crucial, since we would meanwhile be busy rehearsing. Scheduling could be complicated, with singers coming in from other parts of Canada (or sometimes, the world). The actual music-making was a pleasure; our artists had prepared themselves well, with memorization an important requirement. When ensembles were rehearsed, it would often take some effort to avoid a social occasion overwhelming work in our music-room on Follis Avenue – the singers, and we ourselves, were only too happy to catch up with the lives of colleagues not seen for some time. This feeling of comradeship, though, was an intrinsic part of the exercise and we were glad of it. Typically, on Saturday morning we ran through the entire concert in the Geiger-Torel Room in the Faculty of Music. This would be the occasion for some frantic head-scratching – would it all make sense the following afternoon? Meanwhile, 500 rented cups, saucers and teaspoons, 10 milk jugs and 6 large tea urns would be delivered to the Faculty of Music, along with 50 dozen delicious shortbread cookies, baked by that superb pastrycook and countertenor, Carl Strygg, and a gorgeous arrangement of silk flowers from Bruce Philpott, replaced more recently by fresh flowers from Jeff Hayter or Hazel Ewing.

The Day Dawns

Over the years, we came to realise just how many helpers were needed for the various aspects of a concert day; by the time of our last Sunday Series in 2012/2013 the process was running like a well-oiled machine – but not without constant surveillance by all concerned. Looking back, we remember a distinguished succession of student house managers, beginning with the wonderful Andrea Budgey (then a graduate student, now Chaplain of Trinity College). All our Walter Hall concerts were recorded, early on by Ed Marshall and latterly by the Walter Hall sound engineer, Peter Olsen. We employed an illustrious series of stage managers to pick us up by car and to shadow us throughout the day until we collapsed back in Follis Avenue that evening – Chris Porter (later of the Royal Alexandra Theatre), Gabe Radford and Sarah Jeffrey (both now of the Toronto Symphony), stage manager in excelsis Isolde Pleasants-Faulkner and, most recently, Joel Ivany of Against the Grain Theatre. All of these extraordinary personnel were the heroes who helped us through our performing Sundays.

At about 10 am we would be picked up by our driver / stage manager (don’t forget the music and the boxes of programmes) and driven to the Faculty. The first thing was to set the stage. A regular feature was the oriental rug, about 8 feet by 5, from our own drawing-room, to give a feeling of a 19th / 20th century salon. We were able to borrow some furniture from the Opera School’s props room, including chairs for the singers (who would remain on stage throughout). A duet piano-stool, temporarily purloined from elsewhere in the building, was crucial, piano-duets being a regular feature of our programmes. Lighting was carefully organized, especially for the audience to be able to read their programmes during the concert, and after a few years it was decided that a microphone was best for the narrator. At about 11:30 am or so, singers (and actor, if there be one) would arrive and an hour or so’s brush-up would ensue – this was, of course, the first time we were able to try any of the programme in the hall itself. We’d take a certain amount of time organising placing and bows – that which takes a little thought on stage will come over as ease and smoothness to the audience. Our stage manager, meanwhile, would go off to buy sandwiches, coffee and water for our lunches; we didn’t want to risk any of us being waylaid or run over at this late stage! A break of an hour allowed us to catch our breath and change into concert clothes before the hall opened at 2 pm.

At this late stage, there still might be emergencies. Lois Marshall, one of our Honorary Patrons, arrived on January 16, 1994, to narrate one of our favourite programmes, “Greta’s Choice”, in honour of our mentor Greta Kraus. Not only was it one of the coldest days of the decade; the university had chosen the next day to repair the elevator which Lois needed to travel in her wheelchair from the main lobby down to stage level and meanwhile, it was totally out of action. Frantic calls across campus finally produced two technicians who manfully and manually pulled the cables to transport themselves, with one of Canada’s legendary stars in the elevator, down to the performance. On another occasion, it was realised at 2:15 that no cookies had been delivered. A worthy student was despatched to buy out all cookies from the local convenience store – not quite of the quality to which our audience had become accustomed!

The Curtain Rises

Looking back on all this, we remember what a relief it was to walk out on stage and sit down at the piano, with just the simple responsibility of playing – no further worries about chairs, flowers or teacups. It was also an enormous pleasure to be reminded of the support of our audience, who greeted us fervently at that point. Then the concert unfolded, all the participants secure in their minds about practical details and able to focus on performing and communicating. Sometimes, if songs were of brief duration, or we wished to maintain narrative continuity, we would ask the audience to withhold their applause until intermission. At that point, however, they could show their appreciation – at the same time exiting rather smartly to gain a place in the line for tea.

We’ve already referred to this element of the afternoon. Our first Walter Hall series was entitled “English Afternoons” and it seemed a nice idea to provide the audience (fewer than a hundred) with afternoon tea. As time passed and numbers grew, it became more difficult to serve them and one day we enclosed a survey in the programme, asking whether the afternoon tea was really important to our audience members. A resounding answer of “Of course!” came back – so we continued thereafter to follow the general wish. It can be imagined how vital were the brave people who turned the Geiger-Torel Room into a salon de thé for a brief twenty minutes. For many years, we were blessed with the presence of Tina Orton (during the week, Opera School administrator) who would rally a willing team of six or so students whose worthy job it was to position the urns, switch them on at the right time and then pour the tea, all with commendable grace and ease. We remember them with heartfelt gratitude, especially our marvellous Tina.

Sitting quietly in the artists’ room, we were blissfully unaware of all this intermission activity (apart from being brought our own tea-tray!). The second half took its measured course, the encore would make the desired effect and we could finally enjoy the warm appreciation of the audience. If the concert were being recorded for radio broadcast, there might be the need for some retakes – but not too many. Then it was time to greet the considerable number of friends who made their way backstage, while our stage manager supervised dismantling the stage, returning furniture to its rightful home and taking all our own things back to the car. We followed suit as soon as possible and were driven to the next event, the reception.

Afterglow

Like the intermission tea, the post-concert party became a much-loved and indispensable occasion and we valued the opportunity to mingle and speak with many of the friends who had been so enthusiastic throughout the afternoon. Financial support from individuals was hugely important to our organization throughout our existence; as well as keeping us magnificently solvent for more than 30 years, it was a clear indication of the success of what we presented and its significance to many people. After each Sunday concert, kind friends would welcome us to their home – usually upwards of 40 or 50 people. The guests would include our most faithful supporters, but also newer friends whose acquaintance we wished to establish. (The stalwart Carol Anderson, for many years, was again invaluable in sending out invitations and liaising with the party-givers; in later years, Sue White fulfilled this role magnificently.) The list of hosts over all the years is a long one; but we pay particular tribute to Elfrieda and Vern Heinrichs who on several occasions opened the doors of their Rosedale mansion and provided lavish hospitality to more than a hundred of us, notably for our anniversary celebrations of Schubert, Poulenc, Ravel and after the closing concerts of our two final seasons. We, and our artists, were enormously relieved to be able to “come down” in friendly and appreciative company and concentrate on cementing important friendships. Our remaining, happy responsibility was, on the following morning, to write thank-you notes to our generous hosts, hand-delivered whenever possible.

Weariness was unavoidable at this point; but one got used to it, as to the awareness of having produced what was essentially a one-off event. Press notices (as for all artists) became less frequent as the years went by. When they did appear, some damage control might be needed. But the excitement of the concert was pretty soon superseded by expectation and preparation for the next in the series. Fortunately, we had developed the habit from the start of placing all of a concert’s material in a large manilla envelope and storing it in our basement, while not realising its use to posterity. Therefore, on concluding our concerts in 2013, we had a vast amount of material which has formed our archive – the papers now deposited in the University of Toronto’s Music Library, the online archive available for your inspection on this website. Happy researching!