1000 Words about Music by a Man who knows Nothing

As published on Retirement News Weekly/Niagara on July 23, 2010.

To start, I must tell you that I know nothing about music. While my friends are each knowledgeable about their genre of choice, ranging from 80’s rock to death metal, or have musical training on the piano or guitar or harmonica, I can boast none of these things. All I know is what I like, an eclectic mixture of acoustic guitar and pop hits, and what I don’t, mainly operas. So given the opportunity to attend the Opening Gala of Music Niagara, a festival that aims to showcase impressive Canadian classical and jazz talent, I seize the chance to be exposed to historically powerful music with only slight hesitation.

Before July 17 and this incredible night of music, I had only one question. What do I wear? I finally settle on a blue dress shirt and black pants before leaving my St. Catharine’s apartment and making my way to the beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake. Driving down Byron Street, a narrow road at the edge of the town, I spot St. Mark’s Anglican Church with ease. Its grey granite-block exterior offers the illusion of a medieval castle, but the manicured lawns and neat stone pathway suggest more modern times. People are gathered in front of the church, collecting their tickets and having them ripped at the door. After collecting my ticket, I make my way through the small crowd and enter the church that dates back to the 1800s. It’s dimly lit by four chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and the smell is a mixture of expensive perfumes and colognes with the polite musk of an older church. It’s a comforting smell somehow.

The wearers of said perfumes and colognes are dressed to the nines in formal wear. Men are in suits and women are in dresses or conservative blouses. Looking around the room, I regret my decision not to wear a tie. Sitting in the very back of the church, in a seat I would later find out was set aside for volunteers, I take the aesthetics of the room in. The cream colored walls are framed by brown trimming and the dark stain-glass windows prevent any light from entering. The audience, finding their seat in pews atop complimentary square cushions, is a buzz with excitement. As 7:30 approaches, a sudden quiet falls on them.

After brief speeches and the mandatory thanks from organizers and select local political figures, pianist Andre Laplante enters from the back of the church with his head held high. The small ponytail that you would expect from such a man hangs behind his head. He politely introduces himself with a slight Quebec accent, explains a minor change in the night’s program, and then sits behind his piano and begins.

The music starts slow and builds and one can find beauty in the performance. The show is nothing more or less than a man and his piano. There are no special effects, no plot or visual stimulation of any sort, but there is beauty in the simplicity. The audience remains captivated. They sit in awe as Andre taps and pounds on the keys. In a day and age when it seems nothing so simple could keep our attention for more than thirty seconds, it’s wonderful to see that the marvel of music can still hold an audience in rapture.

And for the music, which I know nothing about, I can only describe it as I experienced it. Andre’s fingers race across the keys, building in speed and intensity. The sound becomes almost palpable in the room. It fills your ears, but more. It’s filling your head and mind, filling your body, filling your soul. It can make you feel insignificant, but fills you all the same. It brings you into the music, making you a part of the growing and crashing sound, making you part of the magic.

The church is suitable for such an experience. Not only was it designed with acoustics in mind, but the religious undertones of what is being performed do not escape me. It is, after all, almost a ritual for Andre, who has played the piece hundreds of times. At the same time, the tradition and ritual of the piece does not make it any less gripping. More so, with each precise key stroke, we are still witnessing the art of creation. As many times as it’s been played before, it is still the first here and now.

Wave after wave of Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor opus 35 crashes over the audience. It is both assaulting and soothing at the same time; both joy and melancholy. At times the music startles, jumping from smooth melodies to jarred and sharp notes. Yet the audience is drawn in, longing to satisfy their urge to be a part of this creation. One man hums loudly with the music. The rest sit on seat’s edge and feel themselves being taken away.

When Andre finishes, he jumps from his seats and bows. The crowd erupts in applause, also jumping from their seats in a standing ovation. This is not an audience being polite. This is an audience being appreciative for the journey they were just taken on.

This is only intermission. The second half of the show is just as moving as the first with the addition of the Gould String Quartet. Violinists Atis Bankas, Tanya Charles, and Natasha Sharko with Luke Pomorski on cello add a new dimension to Andre’s piano. They appear almost like wooden puppets on strings dramatically bending at the elbow and bouncing in their high back seats with each powerful and graceful strum. At the end of the evening, the crowd erupts again, this time in a rush of murmurs followed immediately by applause.

Afterwards I talk about the experience with Terry Lett, one audience member and the official photographer of the festival. He proclaims his love for both the music and the quality of artists that Music Niagara brings to the region each year. If the Opening Gala is any measure I must agree. Knowing nothing about the music, it is still without doubt quality and beauty.

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