Toronto Symphony Orchestra Performance Magazine
By Stewart Hoffman

At six-thirty in the morning, Roy Thompson Hall is a pretty lonely place. There’s a security guard posted at the stage door, and a cleaning staff – somewhere. But the auditorium is empty, and there are no musicians backstage to bat around the pucks on the two mini- table hockey games propped up on the piano bench storage crate.

It’s even early for TSO piano technician Ted Campbell, but on this late September morning he’s got two instruments to prepare for a ten o’clock rehearsal: the TSO’s, and that of the week’s soloist, Anton Kuerti. Living in Toronto can have its perks, and the eminent pianist is being afforded the rare opportunity to rehearse on his own instrument, as well as the Symphony’s, before deciding on which one to perform Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Which means that much of Campbell’s morning session will be spent making subtle adjustments to the symphony’s Steinway grand. They’re adjustments that few but the most rarefied of TSO soloists would consider. For Kuerti, the instrument’s depth of touch was a tad shallow, the downweight too light, and the repetition springs, which control the speed of the hammers, were too strong.

The pianist’s own instrument, similar to the Symphony’s but much older, doesn’t need much more than a routine tuning.

It’s not uncommon for Campbell to do a customizing job on the instrument. Some soloists may think the piano’s too bright; others, too dull. “You might have to harden the hammers a bit, or there might be a few notes that stick out to their way of hearing. You adjust those sorts of things to suit the taste of each person.”

And “those sorts of things” can be quite specific. For example, Campbell always sets aside extra time when Alfred Brendel comes to town. “As opposed to perhaps an hour of special work, he requires a day or even more. It’s mostly to do with the voicing of the piano and making subtle changes: how even, how loud, how sweet, how mellow – this kind of thing.” And if the generally “reasonable and polite” artists occasionally test his patience, the easy-going Campbell always manages to keep a lid on. “You’re dealing with a select group of people under a lot of stress. Everything’s got to be just so.”

TSO pianist Pat Krueger knows how bad things can be out there. She’s played solos on pianos that have been half a tone flat – and worse. “One time, I put down the sustaining pedal and it stayed down for the duration of the piece. I kept going, but it was a little blurry.” But that was a long time ago, in a venue Krueger refuses to embarrass. Of course, it’s not the kind of thing she has to worry about at Roy Thompson Hall, where Campbell tunes the piano before every rehearsal and concert. He’s even on standby in the hall for recitals, but he doesn’t lose sleep worrying that something untoward will happen. “It’s pretty rare there’s something wrong; the instrument’s maintained and played constantly.”

He ought to know. The 46-year old Campbell has been in charge of the symphony’s Steinway grands since he earned his piano technician’s diploma at George Brown College eighteen years ago. He also maintains other pianos found in Roy Thompson Hall, including the historic Glenn Gould Yamaha in the foyer, and instruments owned by the CBC, Hart House, and those of his many private customers. It’s the ideal career, says Campbell, one in which he can combine his love of music – he studied piano as a boy and played lute throughout university – with the art of a craftsman. And it’s one he’s been familiar with since he was a child.

Ted Campbell’s grandfather, Theodore “Red” Hyde, had his own instrument repair business around Queen and Church streets in Toronto. “We’d go and visit him and it would be full of old violins and cellos and drums and guitars. There were hanks of horse hair and glue pots and rare woods, and there would always be a flow of eccentric musicians coming through.” It’s hard to say how much those visits influenced Campbell’s career choice, but his ultimate decision wasn’t one that Grandpa encouraged. The business, says Campbell, can get quite rough. “Though my grandfather was pretty successful, he didn’t want other people in his family to be tradesmen. He wanted them to be professionals.”

Perhaps, but if he could see Campbell today, with a rosewood-handled tuning hammer in hand, gently coaxing acoustic perfection from the Symphony’s magnificent eight-foot, eleven-and-a-half inch Steinway, he would surely be impressed.

Ted Campbell has an efficient, no nonsense approach to his craft. He quickly removes a few screws around the frame of the keyboard and hauls out the action – the mechanism that converts the stroke of a finger into a hammer blow against a piano string – then pulls off the keys to expose the thin, round paper “punchings” piled neatly underneath. Armed with a pair of tweezers, and looking like a dentist hovering over a set of eighty-eight teeth, he lifts one punching, about the diameter of a quarter, from the top of each pile. The result? A depth of touch all of seven one-thousandths of an inch lower. Campbell assures that Kuerti will feel a significant difference.

He proceeds to knock out a lead plug from three keys to even out the touch, then, addressing the problem of the repetition springs, presses down on each one with a short, metal rod. With the springs now weakened, the hammers won’t rise as quickly. “A lot of pianists,” he says, “like the springs a little faster. Others don’t because they feel it compromises their control.”

After a finishing touch, needling the hammer of a c-sharp “that sounded a little rough when I was tuning,” he reinstalls the keybed, screws together the cabinet, and moves on to Kuerti’s own instrument.

He’s timed his exit for about nine-thirty, when the hall awakens to the steady unpacking of instruments, and a cacophony of warm-ups.

And to which instrument did Kuerti finally give the nod?

The choice, says Campbell, was as expected. “I thought he’d use his own piano. He knows exactly how it plays, he’s got it sounding the way he likes, and he’s intimately familiar with it. And how many times has he played Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto on it, a hundred?”

He impresses the point that there was never a question of having a personal stake in the experiment; the extra hour-and-a-half or so of time invested in the instrument comes with the job.

“It’s not like there’s a competition. My interest is in serving his best interest – or those of whoever is here.”

Roy Thomson Hall/Massey Hall Program
By Stewart Hoffman

Charlie Parker watches Dizzy Gillespie play with Max Roach, drums

L to R: Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

On May 15, 1953, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charlie Mingus and drummer Max Roach stepped onto the stage of Massey Hall and played a concert that would assume mythic proportions. Each of the performers was seminal in the creation of bebop, and would be towering figures of jazz’s first century. And this was the one and only time that they ever played together. The event inspired the writing of two books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Record jackets, and not a few fans, declared it “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”.

The concert was the brainchild of the New Jazz Society of Toronto, a group of young enthusiasts – some would say dreamers – led by Dick Wattam. When four NJS members drove to New York one cold January night in 1953 to sign on the five seminal figures of bebop, they surely didn’t realize what they were getting into.

Of course, the rescheduling of a much anticipated, championship boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, broadcast on TV the night of the concert, was beyond their control. While it’s difficult to say just how much ticket sales were affected by the competition, the estimated size of the crowd that night was anywhere from 600 to 1700 in a hall that seats 2,765. As a result, the musicians never were fully paid.

Charlie Parker was a source of further anxiety. He missed his scheduled flight to Toronto from New York’s La Guardia airport earlier that day and, while the details are not clear, it appears that it fell upon Dizzy Gillespie to track him down. Though they arrived in town with time to spare, Parker managed to once again go AWOL. When he finally sauntered up to Massey Hall’s stage door at 8:30 – exactly the time stipulated in his contract – the members of the NJS must have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Legend has it that he arrived in town without a sax, and that the peculiar instrument he was playing was the only one he could borrow at the last minute. What’s more likely is that the white plastic Grafton sax he performed on that night was the same instrument that he is now known to have had on several earlier concert dates. But it wasn’t the only myth associated with that most extraordinary night.

Bud Powell, for example, did not show up drunk, as was claimed by one Charlie Parker biographer. Just three months after being discharged from a New York mental hospital, the troubled pianist needed assistance to walk to the piano. Nevertheless, his performance that night was considered by many to be a highlight of the evening. The proof, of course, is in the recording.

The “CBC All Stars”, essentially a pickup band led by trumpeter Graham Topping opened the show that night, performing contemporary big-band music that included arrangements by Woody Herman and Count Basie. Fugue for Reeds and Brass, a challenging composition by Norman Symonds, who also played baritone sax in the band, was also featured. The All Stars would return at the end of the evening to play three tunes before the quintet, minus Powell, joined-in for the finale.

The quintet had no rehearsal, and no one knew what was going to be played until just before walking onto the stage. They played three tunes, Perdido, Salt Peanuts and All the Things You Are, before breaking for intermission, at which time the band, and much of the audience, ran across Shuter Street to the Silver Rail to catch the fight in TV. (The bout was over in about two-and-a-half minutes, with Marciano winning, much to Dizzy’s dismay.) Max Roach led off the second half with a solo spot called Drum Conversation, after which Powell and Mingus joined him for a trio set. The quintet followed with performances of Wee, Hot House, and A Night in Tunisia.

Of course, the organizers’ excitement must have given way to a grinding anxiety when, at a meeting in the basement of Massey Hall, they had to tell their guests that they couldn’t pay the balance of their fees. In Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada, 1953, Mark Miller quotes Dick Wattam. “I personally was just mortified,” he said. “I just wanted the floor to swallow me up.” Ultimately, cheques were issued, but when Gillespie tried to cash his in New York, “It bounced, and bounced, and bounced,” he said, “like a rubber ball.” Roach and Mingus recorded the concert on their own Debut Records. The tapes were first released on three, ten-inch albums entitled Jazz at Massey Hall, though Mingus, furious when he discovered that his bass was barely audible on the masters, later overdubbed his parts. (Recordings of the CBC All Stars have never been released commercially.) The recordings have been reissued numerous times over the years, with the quintet set recently benefiting from 20-bit remastering. And as fascinating as the extramusical stories are, nothing is more compelling than listening to the music itself.

Half a century later, the concert remains as remarkable as ever: inventive, occasionally raucous, often electric and always fascinating. Whether any concert can be proclaimed “the greatest jazz concert ever” is questionable. But there’s little doubt that in 2053 people will once again be revisiting and celebrating that most extraordinary evening at Massey Hall.