Christmastime is Concert

Christmastime is Concert Time

Last Sunday evening was the final performance of this year’s version of the Yellow Point Christmas Spectacular. I’ve been a member of the band backing up the show since its inception five years ago. The brainchild of Katy Bowen-Roberts, the production has become a must-see for Vancouver Island residents during December. 

The Yellow Point Christmas Spectacular is a fast-paced mixture of song, dance and instrumental features covering a vast array of musical genres. As the piano accompanist within the five piece orchestra I’ve played everything from traditional Christmas carols through to pop standards by the Beatles and ABBA. This year, production numbers included Jerry Lee Lewis and Michael Jackson tributes. Another section featured ballet selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, music I’ve never played before. I confess it did take a little extra practice.

The musical director and arranger for the show is talented violinist James Mark who currently plays with the Vancouver Island Symphony and teaches at both the Nanaimo Conservatory of Music and Vancouver Island University. A new member of the backup band this year was Steve Jones who doubled on saxophone and guitar. Steve also teaches at VIU. I first met Steve many years ago when he was the band director at Klitsa Secondary School in Port Alberni. We both performed in a weekend band called The Cavemen led by trumpeter Bill Cave. Bill taught music with me for several years at Eric Dunn School before transferring to Kwalikum Secondary School in Qualicum Beach. Our drummer in the Cavemen was Rick Acres who unexpectedly came knocking at the stage door of the Yellow Point production during one of our matinee intermissions. It was great having a few minutes catching up on some old Cavemen memories. 

Rounding out our Yellow Point band was long time musical associate Michael Wright on drums and a gifted bass player named David Baird. Working together with the energetic young professional cast of singers and dancers (who came from Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto) through two weeks of rehearsals and 17 sellout performances not only contributed to my mental state of feeling young, but is a tremendously rewarding experience musically. Where else can you play Michael Jackson’s Beat-It one moment and Tchaikovsky’s The Sugar Plum Fairy a few minutes later? Unquestionably, the show kick-starts my Christmas Season. 

Christmastime is Nutcracker Time

I don’t in reality keep a bucket list. However, every once in a while I become conscious there are activities I’ve never got around to in my life and feel it’s high time I did something about it. One came about on Monday evening. Triggered through playing excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in the Yellow Point Christmas Spectacular show, I became aware that I’d never attended a full-length performance of a professional ballet production - an embarrassing admission to make after having been involved in artistic endeavors for my entire life.

Scanning the movie theatre listings on Monday evening I spotted a trailer promoting a live showing via satellite from Moscow of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. The production I saw starred Nina Kaptsova as Marie and Artem Ovcharenko as The Prince with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, not that these names meant much to me. However, to the cheering Moscow audience they were obviously big names in Russia.  

Tchaikovsky composed The Nutcracker over a four month period in 1891, a large portion being written at sea on his journey from Europe to the United States. The ballet has become a beloved Christmas standard since its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the classical ballet is set in a nineteenth century Russian town one Christmas Eve. Uncle Drosselmeyer is seen performing magical tricks for the entire family. He gives his young niece Marie a plain looking doll in a red uniform. The doll, which has an unusual mouth, is actually a mechanical nutcracker.
However, in a jealous rage, Marie's brother breaks the doll and Uncle Drosselmeyer places it under the Christmas tree to recuperate. Marie is seen falling asleep under the tree with the broken doll wrapped in her arms and in the process enters a dream world where the Christmas tree flies up to the sky and all the toys come alive.
Unfortunately Pat was unable to join me as she was teaching some extra lessons to piano students before the Christmas break. I know she would have loved seeing the production. I enjoyed the evening immensely and can now understand why every young female ballet student dreams of dancing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. More than likely it would be their first involvement in a big, full-length work with elaborate sets and costumes and a live orchestral score, or their first experience of performing with older, professional dancers and the incomparable thrill of taking to the stage before a large audience.

Christmastime is Movie Time

During December the major movie studios invariably launch an array of new films. Many are vying for an Academy Award nomination before the year-end deadline. For a movie fan such as myself it’s a virtual film feast. So far I’ve seen The Muppets, Hugo, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol with Tom Cruise. This is the 4th installment of Mission Impossible done for the big-screen. I love the fact that Lalo Schifrin’s original iconic theme music from the old TV show written in 5/4 time is still being used throughout the score.    

On Wednesday Pat and I with my brother Terry saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Both of them had read the best-selling book so they were tweaked differently to the plot than I was, having not read it. No matter, as I found the movie riveting from start to finish. However be warned, this is not your normal holiday film with an R-rating for “brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language”. 

The unseen films I’m looking forward to seeing this holiday season are War Horse, The Artist, My Week with Marilyn, The Iron Lady, The Adventures of Tintin and Midnight In Paris. Two ‘turkeys’ that I’d recommend you skip are New Year’s Eve and The Sitter. Why they even got to the production stage let alone released to theatres is beyond my comprehension. 

Christmastime is Memory Time

I always grow wistful, looking back on a year from the vantage point of December. Recollections of Christmases past flood my mind and nostalgia pervades all. My first snowfall, winter skating at the top of the hump at Loon Lake, hiking a few short blocks from home into the woods to chop down a Christmas tree, prying open crates of mandarins when the easy-peeled oranges travelled via steamship from Japan in wooden boxes, wrapping gifts without scotch tape, community and school Christmas concerts, turkey dinners with family – I cherish every memory.

World War II had just ended and electric trains were once again to be found in toy stores. In the photo above my brother Terry and myself are playing with a model railroad that suddenly appeared on Christmas morning. The layout, set up by our father late on Christmas Eve, consisted of a 4X8 sheet of plywood painted green with an oval of “027" gauge railroad track tacked firmly to its surface. Our father being a medical doctor had even constructed a miniature pedestrian overpass out of wooden tongue depressors. That simple layout expanded over the years into a major model railway operation only to be torn down when my parents moved to a smaller home after I graduated from high school.

Getting married in the 60's didn’t suppress the boy within as I undertook the construction of a model railway layout in the spare bedroom of our first apartment. Whenever we had visitors stay overnight, they got the master bedroom and my wife Pat and I slept on a foamy beneath the sheets of plywood supporting the railroad. Pat mentioned to me in later years just what she was thinking as she lay there looking up at the various trestles criss-crossing above her - “This must be true love. Who else would put up with this?” 

Today my train collection has been boxed away. However, at this time of year I’ll invariably get a box or two out of storage, have a quick look at a few pieces and reflect how that single gift on a December 25th morning in the mid-1940’s sparked in me a life-long love of trains.

Pictured above is the British built Hornby steam locomotive from my first model train set. It now graces our living room Christmas window display.

Two homes in our neighborhood combined their lighting display with Santa climbing between their roofs via an extended ladder.

My father in the late 1940’s jig-sawed this group of carolers from a 1/4 inch piece of plywood. I still display it every Christmas at my front door.

Thursday evening was cold and clear as Pat and I wheeled our way westward over the hump before hitting the inversion layered fog bank upon entering the Alberni Valley. Happily the outdoor Christmas lights gave a colourful radiance to the blanket of white. The event we’d come for was a carol-sing with Timbre! at the Harbour Quay Farmer’s Market. Not exactly a concert hall setting as you can see by the photos. However weather wise it was a vast improvement over last year’s torrential rainfall that had me fearful I was going to light up like a Christmas tree from the power cords lying amongst the puddles leading to my electric piano and amplifier.

The thermometer was dipping just below zero on Thursday evening as I tinkled the keys with frozen fingers for Timbre!’s carol sing at the Harbour Quay Farmer’s Market in Port Alberni. Note my wool gloves with the fingers cut out.     

It’s Christmas Eve day morning as I finish this blog. Tomorrow morning after opening presents Pat and I will light our Teen Choir Christmas Candle. When we presented our final Candlelight Concert 13 years ago some of our choir parents melted down all the candle stubs that had been saved and left over from several years of rehearsal use. The melt was molded into a handsome candle which we light each Christmas Day. The candle is so large it reminds me of the visionary image of the Wyoming mountain known as Devil’s Tower that Richard Dreyfuss created in his living room in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When we light our own mountain of wax it tends to burn somewhat like a volcanic display, heating up the whole living room in the process but most importantly enveloping us with brilliant memories of our years with the Teen Choir.  

Pat and I wish you all the very best this holiday season. 
Merry Christmas!