The elegant interior of Massey Hall in 1911, with an enormous chandelier and light pouring in through the windows.

In this early photograph, the chandelier appears afloat in the middle of Massey Hall’s auditorium, seen here flooded with natural light.

Roy Thomson Hall/Massey Hall Performance Magazine – Spring 2005

By Stewart Hoffman


A photo in the National Archives shows Massey Hall like you’ve never seen her before.

An elegant chandelier appears afloat in the middle of an auditorium flooded with natural light from four levels of stained-glass windows.  The brilliantly polished stage floor glistens like a sheet of ice. Intricately etched Moorish arches frame boxes on stage left, with the fourth tier windows – seemingly ablaze – echoing their shape.  Archways span the ceiling – decades before a protective wire mesh was grafted on to it in the 1950s – exhibiting a detailed craftsmanship long hidden from view.

For many of us, it seems that the only Massey Hall renovation has been the occasional paint job and the inevitable accumulation of dirt on its façade. Indeed, though I’d visited the Hall hundreds of times over the years, it never quite clicked-in that the Art Deco lobby and balcony lounge could not possibly have sprung from the imagination of architect Sidney Rose Badgley back in 1894. In fact, I only recently realized, while reading William Kilbourn’s evocative history of Massey Hall, Intimate Grandeur, and poring over the book’s historic photos, that the Old Lady of Shuter Street had indeed undergone substantial reconstructive surgery. Twice, in fact. Not to mention the numerous other nips and tucks performed on her throughout the last century.

The “Entombed” Stained Glass Windows

One of the Hall’s most dramatic alterations occurred when the auditorium stained-glass windows were blocked off, victims of the street noise that accompanied the growing popularity of the automobile. Amazingly, most are still in place, and still visible from the street. Only the ground floor panels – a remarkable series of composers’ portraits – are boarded up on both sides. Though likenesses of Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Haydn were removed in 1911, when fire escapes were installed, those of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Chopin, Wagner, Gounod, Schubert, and Weber patiently await rescue from their entombment.

Professor Shirley Anne Brown, Director of the Registry of Stained Glass Windows in Canada has noted that the Hall contains “the largest single integrated set of Art Nouveau commercial glass in Ontario and perhaps Canada.” Though the glass needs cleaning, and the metal wiring securing them in place needs repair, most are in fairly good shape.

While the effect of the windows can’t possibly be appreciated in black and white photos, Douglas Gardner, a longtime Roy Thomson Hall/Massey Hall volunteer and chairman of the tour program, did hear the testimony of one eyewitness. At a presentation for the Swansea Historical Board a few years ago, Gardner asked audience members about their first visit to Massey Hall. A woman in her 90s, Gardner says, “lit up like a Christmas tree.”  A little girl when she first visited the Hall, she remembered nothing of what took place on stage. But, she says, she vividly recalled the windows, and the magic of “being surrounded by this marvellous light, this gorgeous, soft mixture of coloured light coming from all levels.”

In 2002, the three centre panels on each side of the fourth level were shorn of decades-old coats of paint. Now they are illuminated before concerts and at intermissions – the attic windows, which do not face the street, were originally lit with gas lamps – and we can finally get a glimpse of the Hall’s hidden riches.

The exterior of Massey Hall showing a canopy, built in 1911 that ran along the front of the theatre.

A canopy running the full length of Massey Hall was added to the building in 1911 and demolished 31 years later, the victim of a war-time steel shortage.

Along with the fire escape in 1911 came a dramatic addition to the exterior of the Hall –  an enormous canopy extending out to the curb and running the full length of the Hall along Shuter Street. It would protect visitors from the elements until 1942, when rusted out steel girders led to its demolition. Had the country not been at war, the canopy probably would have been replaced.  As it was, its many tons of steel were slated for the war mills.

By the late 1920s, the Hall was considered by many – including Vincent Massey, Hart’s grandson and the future Governor-General of Canada – to be shabby and outdated. In 1929, with the intention of building a more modern concert hall, the board agreed to sell it for $650,000. When no one stepped forward, discussions began on a major renovation.

A New Lobby: From Victorian to Art Deco

The board apparently solicited advice from various sources. In the summer of 1933, F. C. Schlang of Columbia Concert Corporation in New York wrote to J. Stanley McLean, Massey Hall chairman at the time. Included with his suggestions were some fascinating observations.

A photo of Massey Hall's original, wooden Victorian lobby.

Massey Hall’s original lobby was criticized for its small size and dustiness. This is the only existing photo of the Victorian lobby.

“The main fault of Massey Hall,” Schlang wrote, “is that the lobby is too small and if there is any line at all of purchasers of tickets on the evening of a concert, they are compelled to stand in a cold, drafty queue reaching down a flight of stairs . . . [W]ould it not be possible to increase the size of the lobby by sacrificing two or three rows of the back of the orchestra, as these seats are not often taken anyway?”

“If a new lobby is constructed, the material used for flooring should be other than wood, preferably some composition which is easily cleaned with soap and water. The lobby of Massey Hall has always a dusty smell.  A similar improvement would be welcome to the treads of the stairways leading to the balcony.”

The most significant changes to the Massey Hall renovation that began that fall were the reconfiguration of the staircases, the addition of a balcony lounge, and the expansion of the lobby. As well, the auditorium was repainted in red and gold and elegant, shaded lamps were installed.

While Massey Hall’s lobby may not be generously proportioned by today’s standards, the original – measuring about 25 feet across by 16 feet deep – was tiny. The walls were brick; the floor, as Schlang said, was wood. A flight of stairs at each side of the lobby area led to box offices that could also be reached from outside entrances at the east and west ends of the Hall off Shuter Street. (You can still make out where the old doors once were by observing the arrangement of brick that today frames the ticket booths.)  Visitors climbing to both the balcony and gallery would share a single set of wooden stairs.

The 1933 renovation lowered the lobby to ground level and enlarged it by removing the last two rows of downstairs seats. A ramp leading straight through to the auditorium’s ground floor was built, along with, The Toronto Star wrote, “a battery of hot-air faucets to kill the draughts.”

What had been the back wall of the auditorium became the rear wall of an inner lobby.  (If you look closely at the plaster, you can still see the “scars” where the old floor and wall met.) The wooden floor was replaced with marble terrazzo. And the wooden staircases were replaced with two pair of broad, stone stairways that efficiently redirected the flow of traffic. (Here too, amateur sleuths will note the markings in the stairwells’ old plaster walls that reveal the configuration of the original stairs.)

Photo of Massey Hall's enlarged Art Deco lobby.

The lobby was renovated in 1933 in the popular Art Deco style of the day.

Also of interest is the clock now hanging above the foyer doors. Originally a fixture of the Parliament of Upper Canada on Front Street, it came to Massey Hall via the Queen’s Hotel, torn down in the late 1920s to make way for the Royal York Hotel.

The removal of the last six rows of balcony seats cleared the way for a much-needed lounge. Like the lobby, it was also Art Deco.  (The style was very much in vogue in the early 1930s; three spectacular Deco buildings – the Harris Filtration Plant, Maple Leaf Gardens and Eaton’s College Street store – were built in Toronto at that time.)

The Grand Re0pening . . . Before Further Massy Hall Renovation

Certainly the vast majority of those attending the reopening concert agreed with the Evening Telegram’s Edward W. Wodson when he wrote of the “temptation to forget the music of the evening awhile and tell about architectural revolutions, stately promenades, atria and vestibules and stairways of ingenious arrangement and construction.”

But at least one Telegram colleague regarded the newfound luxuries as unnecessary distractions. “The lounge and the larger foyers are concessions to that restless trend of modern life,” he wrote, “which compels theatre goers to promenade between acts and to smoke. In the old Massey Hall, it was assumed that people went there to relax and listen to the message of music’s glorious voice.”

But 15 years later, workers were once again tearing the place apart. This time, it was the auditorium’s turn to be converted into a construction site. Concerns about fireproofing led to a concrete floor being built beneath the orchestra seats and stage, which was also lowered by a foot to improve sight lines. Cushioned seats replaced the wooden ones downstairs and, the following year, on the first balcony. Not all were pleased about the premature opening of the hall after only the ground floor renovations. “The ground floor is grand,” Margaret Aitken wrote in her Toronto Telegram column, “but above that . . . the dust and shoddiness is appalling. Even the piano was dusty. I am sure every housewife present could hardly restrain herself from going on to the stage there and then, armed with a duster.”

The columns of golden cubes, completely covering most of the boxes, were probably installed at this time, though many of the boxes had been boarded up before 1948.  They can still be reached as they always had, from the entrances off the back stairwells.  One of them was occupied for years as a CBC broadcast booth. Today, their condition is far from pristine, and most are storage rooms. Surprisingly, from the inside looking out, the original Moorish archways can still be seen.

A number of hidden improvements to the Hall have been undertaken over the past decade or so, including updated electrical systems, various structural repairs, and new fire panels and sprinklers. Washrooms, too, have been added and accessibility has been improved. The roof, given a life expectancy of one hundred years in 1894, was replaced right on schedule.

A more conspicuous renovation took place in 1995, when the basement – the coat-check for visitors to the Hall and a dungeon to the musicians who used it as a storage area – was transformed into the Centuries Lounge.

The Unsolved Mystery

While we’ve pieced together much of Massey Hall’s history by examining photos, documents, news clippings and clues embedded in the building itself, one particular alteration leaves us baffled to this day.

The glass and bronze chandelier that hung from the centre of the auditorium was the most spectacular Toronto had ever seen. Comprised of 400 electric and gas lights, its New York State manufacturer proudly claimed that it was the biggest the state had ever produced. Exactly why or when it was removed is not known. No documentation suggesting where it was taken exists. If it was hauled out in one piece or turned into 400 lamps that made their way into homes throughout the province, we don’t know.

All that we know for sure is that it has disappeared without a trace.

A historic photo outside of the Heintzman factory in Toronto. A carriage drawn by two horses carries what appears to be a piano under a protective cover.

The Heintzman factory in Toronto’s “junction”.

Look carefully and you can still see the faded letters that spell “Heintzman and Co.” on the south wall of an elegant, eight-story building half a block up from the corner of Toronto’s Queen and Yonge. From 1911 until 1971, “Heintzman Hall” was the nerve centre of what had been the most prestigious of all the piano manufacturers that this country ever produced – and there were no fewer than 28 of them in the early 1920s. Those were the days when a house wasn’t a home without a piano in the parlour, and Heintzman met the demand for instruments with a network of 18 branch stores and 13 distributors coast-to-coast.

Today, Heintzman pianos – at least, those whose pedigree dates back to 1860 when Theodore Heintzman is said to have single-handedly assembled an instrument in his Toronto kitchen – are readily found in schools, conservatories and homes throughout the country. Many have been battered about for decades. Some are neglected family heirlooms, receiving about as much attention as the eight-track tape deck packed away in the basement. But the Heintzmans that have weathered the years – that have not succumbed to dry air or humidity or dozens of missed tunings – provide proof of the instruments’ reputation: that their components and sound were of the highest quality, and that the great Heintzman uprights were, arguably, the best produced anywhere. When the company closed its factory doors for good in 1986, one of the last in Canada’s industry to do so, it pretty much ended an era.

So it comes as a surprise to walk into a local music store and discover the golden “Heintzman” stencil staring out off the fallboard of shiny, new, ebony uprights and grands. Although for Casey Siepman, the pianos’ Winnipeg importer, it’s simply good marketing sense to draw on the Heintzman legacy.

“It was a great old name, and I thought if I could take that name, and put it on a piano worthy of what a Heintzman used to be, then maybe we can make something of this,” he says, pointing to the pianos he is importing from the Czech Republic.

The Heintzman Piano Company Beginnings

When Theodore Heintzman arrived in Toronto in 1860, he brought with him the old-world skills he had honed while apprenticing in his native Berlin. Heintzman and Co., incorporated six years later, was a success from the start, but it was son George who was the driving force behind the company’s growth. Legend has it that, to garner publicity, he rode the cow-catcher on the first transcontinental passenger train to Vancouver in 1887. And in 1888, George insisted on shipping pianos to the Indian and Colonial exposition in London, England, where Queen Victoria expressed amazement that such a product could come from the colonies. By 1890, Heintzman and Co. was one of the largest manufacturing firms in Toronto, employing 200 craftsmen and producing 1,000 pianos a year from a factory in the city’s west end.

In 1911, the doors opened to Heintzman Hall, home to what the early publicity dubbed “the most beautiful warerooms in the British Empire”. With brass doors, a majestic, marble staircase that would have been the envy of Norma Desmond, pillars, stained glass windows, Oriental rugs, and potted ferns, the building embodied all the dignity and refinement that the name Heintzman had come to represent.

But all of Heintzman Hall’s opulence was just a backdrop for its raison d’etre: the hundreds of grands and uprights of the finest polished woods, crafted by the best cabinet makers and technicians of the day. Glenn Gould practised on the nine-foot grand in the sixth floor artist’s room. Oscar Peterson occasionally dropped in for an impromptu performance on the showroom floor.

Verne Edquist on Heintzman Pianos

Verne Edquist, head tuner, tone regulator, and assistant manager of the grand piano department at Heintzman in the ’50s and ’60s, is somewhat of a legend himself. He was also Glenn Gould’s technician, and the fastidious pianist’s second set of ears during recording sessions.

“I think”, says Edquist, “that you’ve come to the holy grail of the Canadian piano industry with the Heintzman upright.” His own upright dates from the late ’20s. A basic, workhorse model, it was built to weather the onslaught of music students in schools and conservatories across the country. And when Edquist draws a series of chords from the instrument’s upper register – round, rich, cathedral-like chimes – they seem to hang, miraculously, in mid-air.

The Heintzman sound was no accident. The circular, acoustic rim in the corners of the soundboard, says Edquist, “was scientifically placed to give maximum resonance.” The Agraffe bridge was patented in 1873. A raised bar running across the upper octaves of the instrument’s cast iron frame, its tiny holes guide the taut, treble strings. “The energy went into this bar,” says Edquist, “and the tone would resonate in the heavy cast iron.” He points out the wooden shanks attached to the felt hammers. “You see how these are shaved on the sides? They cut down the mass because you don’t want a great big clunky hammer hitting the string.” Even today’s better grands don’t get it right, says Edquist. “Too much clunk and not enough tone.”

The Beginning of the End

The depression hit the company hard. With only 200 pianos produced in 1934, the most beautiful warerooms in the British Empire saw fridges and stoves added to their inventory. Government contracts to build boxes for telescopes and bomb sights helped get the company through the War, but the novelty of television brought further hardship in the early ’50s. By mid-decade, though, Heintzman piano production – fueled perhaps by pianist Liberace’s spectacular popularity ­­­– was up to about 1,000 annually. But it was still a far cry from the heyday of the early ’20s, when roughly 3,000 left the factory per year.

The big blow came in the ’60s. At the  beginning of the decade, Yamaha was putting out 50,000 pianos a year – and twice that by 1967 – because of cheaper Japanese labour and more efficient production techniques, explains Bill Heintzman, a Heintzman vice president at the time. “And they were making a good product. We, along with a few other remaining piano makers, got swamped.”

The move to a state-of-the-art factory in Hanover, Ontario, in 1962, streamlined production, but cost the company dearly when the older, experienced technicians wouldn’t relocate. As a result, standards slipped to the point where technicians in the Yonge Street repair division, as one former employee says, had to “salvage some of the pianos coming from Hanover. We had to call and say there were parts missing here and there. Quality control was gone.”

In the ’70s, the financial problems became critical. Heintzman Hall was abandoned; an old marble factory, far from the downtown hub, would suffice for office space and grand piano production. The retail chain was sold next. Bill Heintzman, who, in 1964, had taken over another piano firm, Sherlock-Manning, tried to breathe life into the failing family business by merging the two companies under the name Heintzman Ltd. He gave it his best shot for three years. But when he took over, says Heintzman, the company, in effect, was bankrupt. In 1981, it was sold to the Sklar-Peppler furniture company, which hung in for five years before bailing out of the piano business.

The remaining Heintzman inventory and trademarks were sold to The Music Stand, a chain of retail stores then operating in Ontario. When that company started shipping inferior South Korean and American pianos into the country, only to slap Heintzman nameplates on them, a Federal Court judge ruled against the practice, stating that “there was clearly a deliberate attempt . . . to camouflage the fact that a change of source had occurred.” It finally seemed like the end of the line for the Heintzman name.

The New Heintzmans

But about two years ago, Siepman resurrected it. He says the Heintzman name was essential if he had any chance of breaking into an extremely difficult market. “If a good piano was going to be introduced into this country that wasn’t from the Orient, then it pretty much had to be a Heintzman piano,” Siepman explains.

His pianos do attract attention – perhaps even a pang of nostalgia. It’s a pang that becomes more acute upon reading the brochures associating them with the pianos that you “remember when you were growing up,” when “most of the people you knew had a Heintzman piano.” This may be treading on questionable territory, though Siepman, and the staff at Remenyi House of Music, where the pianos are sold locally, make a point of distinguishing these instruments from the stock spawned in Toronto’s west end.

But, are they good pianos? Paul Gilchrist, an independent piano technician in the Toronto area, thinks they are. “I think,” says Gilchrist, “they’re the best pianos made with the Heintzman name on them in the last 40 years. They’re precise, they’re neat, and the construction looks good, with solid maple bridges and solid spruce boards. Even the wood grain orientation gives them maximum strength.”

The upright comes mostly from the Czech Republic, while much of the grand, says Gilchrist, originates in Korea’s Young Chang factory, which has long been making pianos for European and American companies. Siepman looked to a company in the Czech Republic for the pianos’ scales – the design and plan that outline the interplay of the instrument’s different parts – because the craftmanship, although comparable to Germany’s high standards, comes at a lower labour cost. Gilchrist says that the Czech handiwork, as well as the German Renner action, gives the pianos a more European “flavour.”

“Asians tend to go for a hard, dense hammer,” he says, “while Europeans go for a slightly more resilient, softer hammer.” The piano, in general, is slightly less bright and aggressive than its Asian counterpart – more “classical”.

So Siepman went to a company in the Czech Republic, where he says craftsmanship, though comparable to Germany’s high standards, comes at a lower labour cost.

And the end result, says Gilchrist, is a “premium” instrument. The Heintzman name, it seems, shall endure on a fine piano.

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.

Don Thompson playing bass

Pianist, bassist and vibraphonist Don Thompson

Performance magazine, Winter 2005
By Stewart Hoffman

“Instruments, to a degree, dictate what you can play,” says Don Thompson, who is sitting in a music room filled with them. Along with his baby grand piano, there is a vibraphone, a set of drums, and a pair of double basses – a blonde French one and a dark German one. “I hear a musical sound, a melody, in my head, but as soon as I touch the bass, I realize the limitations of the instrument. I can play stuff on the piano in my sleep that I can’t come close to on the vibes, and the bass is so much harder than either one of them, that to play anything at all on it is a miracle.”

Few can speak with greater authority on the challenges of playing musical instruments than Don Thompson.

He was a good enough drummer to play in guitarist Lenny Breau’s band in the early ’70s, but his most extraordinary accomplishments are on bass, piano and vibraphone. He could have had a stellar career playing any one of them.

To illustrate that point, you need look no further than a few recent performances, at which he’s played bass at Toronto’s Montreal Bistro with pianist Junior Mance, bass and piano at the Monterey Jazz Festival with the John Handy Quintet, vibraphone at the Salzburg Jazz Festival – the lone Canadian featured in a sextet of stellar European jazzmen – and, vibraphone again at a concert entitled Good Vibes, which showcased the country’s best performers on that instrument.

When Don Thompson moves effortlessly from one instrument to the other – a feat he performed regularly on bass and piano for the five years he toured with pianist George Shearing – even musicians’ jaws drop. Saxophonist Paul Desmond, best known for his work with Dave Brubeck’s quartet, referred to Thompson as “a walking miracle.”

His recent CD, Ask Me Later, is a marvelous recording of Thompson originals on which he performs on piano and vibraphone – producing the most opulent sound you’ll ever hear on that instrument.

Not to suggest that performing feats is of any interest to him. Soft spoken and self-effacing, he frequently points out his perceived limitations – that his playing “falls short in all kinds of areas,” and that working with Shearing was “like being in school.” For the 65-year old Thompson, the learning never stops and the music is all that counts.

His instruments provide an entry into the music from very different vantage points. “Piano is a whole orchestra”, he says. “Here are the saxophones, this is a trombone section, these are trumpets, these are woodwinds – in my mind I hear all the sounds when I’m playing piano.

“With vibes, I can be a pretend horn player. I have a vibrato, and I can hold my notes.”

Playing bass gives him, “an opportunity to create the bottom melody, a counterpoint to the one on top. It’s like you’re soloing all the time. You’re trying to make the bass line as melodic, creative and pretty as can be.”

Which is exactly what Thompson does in his duo with guitarist Reg Schwager.

At Mezzetta Restaurant on St. Clair Avenue West, an intimate venue where they’ve performed frequently over the years, the small, after-dinner crowd is there to listen. The musicians never discuss what they’ll play before stepping onto the bandstand; while Thompson sometimes introduces a tune, more often than not one of them tosses off a few introductory notes, leaving the other to slide his way in. Thompson occasionally closes his eyes when he plays, but mostly he gazes straight ahead, focused on a horizon line just above the heads at the back of the room. Indeed, if you were to just zoom in on his face, you might not think he was playing at all – but for the fact that his hands are flying up and down the fingerboard spinning melodic solos that wouldn’t sound out of place pouring out of a trumpet. “When he solos,” says drummer Terry Clarke, Thompson’s friend and close musical partner for over forty years, “he’s continuously playing melodies. There’s an overabundance of ideas.”

It seems Don Thompson has forever been spinning melodies. His older brother, who played excellent classical piano, taught him little tunes “for as long as I can remember.”

Thompson took some formal lessons, but got hooked on jazz in high school listening to friends’ records. “I’d just put on a record and play along on the piano. I’d figure out exactly what Oscar [Peterson] was playing – as best I could at least – and then just play along as though I was in the band with him. If the tempos weren’t too fast I was okay.”

He learned every instrument he could get his hands on at school, then, after hearing Terry Gibbs play vibraphone on a recording, ordered one from a store in Vancouver.

By the time Thompson got around to playing bass, it didn’t appear to be much of a challenge. “I thought, ‘this is so easy, it’s almost like cheating. If all you have to do is play four notes to the bar, I couldn’t possibly miss.'”

His move to Vancouver in 1960 provided lots of opportunities to hone his musical skills. That’s also where he met Clarke, who credits Thompson with broadening his own musical development. “Don is such a listening player,” he says. “He was the one that taught me to start listening to the piano, to learn the relationship to all the parts. I became a more musical player.”

When saxophonist John Handy, who had played with Thompson and Clarke at The Cellar in Vancouver, invited them to join his band in San Francisco in 1965, “all of a sudden we were in the big time,” says Thompson. “To be 24-years old and playing with one of the greatest musicians in the world was ridiculous.” Plus, Haight-Ashbury in the heyday of protests, hippies and flower power was “jazz heaven. One had twenty-four hour jazz, six bands playing four hours each, non-stop!”

Not to mention the fact that he was playing in one of the hottest jazz bands in the country. Their live recording at the Monterey Jazz Festival quickly became a jazz classic.

In 1969 Thompson finally moved to Toronto. He became a fixture in the studios and jazz clubs of the day, and a regular in the Boss Brass and the bands of Moe Koffman, Sonny Greenwich and Lennie Breau. At clubs like Bourbon Street, which paired the biggest names in jazz with a local rhythm section, he performed with the likes of saxophonists Lee Konitz and James Moody – and especially vibraphonist Milt Jackson, an enormous influence on Thompson’s own vibraphone playing. “When he plays,” says Thompson, “it’s like you’re in church. Every night was probably the most perfectly beautiful music you ever heard.”

He met guitarist Jim Hall at a party thrown by fellow guitarist Ed Bickert. “We took our instruments,” says Thompson, “and had a big [jam] session. It was like I’d been playing with him for about 30 years. His harmony, his choice of tunes, his time feel, the spaces he leaves – every aspect of his playing was absolutely perfect for me.” They remained a band for the next seven or eight years. For Clarke, their music represented the essence of jazz, “a three-way conversation” rather than bass and drum support for a star soloist. The trio can still be heard on the luminous Jim Hall Live!, the 1975 recording engineered by Thompson himself at Bourbon Street.

After five years with Shearing in the ’80s, Thompson decided to take on a variety of endeavours that would keep him closer to the mid-town Toronto bungalow that he shares with his wife of thirty-nine years, Norma.

Writing is one of them. He’s currently working on arrangements for a twenty-seven piece orchestra plus jazz band headed by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and singer Norma Winstone that will be performing at Glenn Gould Studio in March.

And teaching is another. At Humber College, along with his composition class, he directs a “killer” ensemble. But Thompson notes that while students never tire of talking about scales, chords and practice routines, the deeper questions related to their art remain unexplored. “They never ask, ‘Why is this music beautiful to me?’ I try to get across that they have to decide what they like and what they don’t like and why they like it and why they don’t and what they perceive to be beautiful. If a John Coltrane solo is really beautiful, what makes it beautiful? I think this is the most important part, and it’s never addressed. You can teach polyrhythms and metric modulations, but you can’t teach how you play a beautiful melody.”

Maybe so, but listening to Thompson and Schwager play duets together, as they did at Mezzetta, is about as close as you’ll get to attending a master class on the subject.

Schwager weaves intricate lines with a warm tone and gentle forcefulness, and Thompson responds to every musical nuance. His rhythmic, walking bass both anchors and propels the music forward, though sometimes, when he plays in the upper register, you might imagine a pair of guitars is playing melodies in counterpoint. Their music is thoughtful, subtle, inventive, and eloquent – and it swings like crazy. As you step out into the midnight air, its warmth lingers like a fine cognac.

And it just doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.

Photo of bassist Joel Quarrington

Joel Quarrington “has always been innovative,” says friend and TSO bassist Chas Elliot. “He was always the one to push the envelope.”

Performance magazine, Winter 2005
By Stewart Hoffman

It’s a brilliant July afternoon and at Parry Sound’s Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts bassist Joel Quarrington is performing a Dvorak quintet as if his life depended on it. Which is nothing unusual for Quarrington. That’s just the way he plays – absolutely focused, breathing along with each phrase as he digs his bow deep down into the thick strings of his instrument, he provides a musical foundation that’s as solid as the hall’s exposed stone and timber.

The Dvorák is being performed with the New Zealand String Quartet, a collaboration forged by Festival of the Sound director James Campbell. The quartet’s cellist, Rolf Gjelsten, points out that when Campbell first called him in Wellington, he asked: “How would you like to play with the best bass player in the world?’” There’s no indication that Gjelsten feels he was misled.

“His sound is like velvet,” says the cellist. “He has fantastic articulation. And his playing has so much rhythmic impetus. It feels like he is running the show. At the same time, you feel you can be as flexible as possible. We played Dvorak with another bass player who was fine. This is a different league.”

It’s a league, in this country at least, that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal bassist occupies on his own. Ask Quarrington’s longtime friend Chas Elliott, another TSO bassist, what Quarrington was like as a student, and he readily admits that “he was leaps and bounds ahead of all of us. He had a level of virtuosity beyond where any of us were. Tom [Monohan, the TSO’s former principal bass and Quarrington’s teacher] recognized it early on. Joel was working on things I’ve never worked on.”

At 50 years old, Joel Quarrington’s still working on things – apparently all the time. Walking along the Parry Sound Harbour to grab a quick lunch before his afternoon rehearsal, he’s on his cell phone, still talking bass, excited about a recent discovery.

“I’ve been doing something new when playing with a large piano,” he announces enthusiastically into the phone, “leaving the lid open, but turning the piano around.” Balancing the deep, resonant tones of the bass with those of a grand piano have always posed a dilemma, one traditionally solved by adjusting the height of the piano lid. But Quarrington has never blindly followed tradition. “It has to do with the sound reflecting off the piano lid,” he explains, then asks, utterly baffled: “Why has no one ever done this?”

Why, indeed. It’s this constant questioning that has led Quarrington along musical paths that have never been taken before – though you can be forgiven if at first you don’t recognize the seriousness with which he takes his art. There’s the look of an overgrown boy about Quarrington, something in his eyes that suggest he’s planning some sort of mischief. And his sense of humour can be totally off the wall.

He plays the erhu, the traditional Chinese two-stringed instrument, but admits his playing is “truly terrible” – which hasn’t dissuaded him from producing seven CDs with titles such as Everybody Digs the ErhuErhu From Beyond the Galaxy and Country Erhu ’98.

He has a reputation as a prankster, though that might be a holdover from his youth. Once, for example, during a session of the National Youth Orchestra, Quarrington hid under his dormitory bed, determined to scare the living daylights out of his roommate. When his victim returned to the room and shuffled over to within striking distance, Quarrington’s hand darted out from under the bed and latched onto an ankle. His colleague instinctively executed a leap worthy of an Olympic gold medal. It’s unclear just how long Quarrington had lain in wait under the bed, maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20 – though Quarrington pegs it at 45. What it comes down to is that Quarrington is serious and single-minded about everything, even about being funny.

So it may not come as too much of a surprise that Quarrington, with his questioning mind, singularity of purpose and virtuoso technique, is considered an innovator on his instrument. Indeed, Britain’s Double Bassist magazine commented that he has “expanded the boundaries of bass playing.” That was back in 1998. In 2005, his stated goal is nothing short of “revolutionizing” the art of bass playing.

The household in which Quarrington grew up seems to have been a breeding ground for nonconformists, for original thinkers – and funny people. He has two brothers. Paul is the novelist and humourist, author of Whale MusicGalveston and King Leary, for which he won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. Tony is a prominent jazz guitarist and songwriter. Sister Christine is a research manager at the University Health Network.

They were the children of psychologists, who, Quarrington concedes, were a little off beat. “They weren’t into housecleaning for instance. They were into free thought, ridiculing religion, stuff like that.” And they encouraged individualism. “They encouraged us to be suspicious of anything that was popular.”

Creativity was encouraged, and there was always music in their north Toronto home. The brothers played together in bands. Joel experimented with guitar, drums and piano. Tony played a mean banjo, as well as bass guitar – until Joel picked up the instrument when he was about 10.

He discovered double bass in grade 7 at Don Mills Collegiate. Only four-and-a-half feet tall, he was dwarfed by the instrument. Nevertheless, when the teacher demonstrated it, “it made the skylight rattle.” That, along with the fact that it was “the least geeky of all the string instruments,” hooked him.

“Once he started playing double bass,” says Paul, “we didn’t really play together anymore. He was pretty single minded from the word go.” Joel says he practised eight hours a day in the summers, 16 if he missed a day.

He studied in Toronto with Tom Monohan and Peter Madgett, who was and remains a member of the TSO’s bass section. But curiosity led him to study with the foremost bassists in Europe, Ludwig Streicher in Vienna and Franco Petracchi in Rome. “Joel has always been innovative,” says Chas Elliott. “He was the first student from here to study with Streicher and Petracchi, and he came back with new ideas. He was always the one to push the envelope. People don’t like that if they’re comfortable and set in their ways. But to move forward, you have to change.”

In 1976, Quarrington won first prize in the CBC Talent Festival, and took the top medal in the Geneva International Bass Competition two years later. In 1979 he became principal bassist of the Hamilton Philharmonic, and assumed that position with the TSO in 1991.

He is the most in-demand bassist in the country, performing as soloist with orchestras and working with the finest chamber ensembles on the continent. A faculty member of the Royal Conservatory of Music, he has also conducted master classes at such renowned institutions as Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and London’s Royal Academy of Music. His second disc of the music of 19th century bass virtuoso/composer Giovanni Bottesini was recorded in August for the NAXOS label. Next April, Quarrington and the TSO premiere a bass concerto by the distinguished American composer John Harbison at the New Creations Festival in Toronto.

Still, as remarkable as his career as a performing artist is, a question remains: Where is the revolution?

The answer lies in the fact that Quarrington, the day after receiving tenure with the TSO, changed the tuning of his open bass strings from the way practically everyone tunes a bass, E-A-D-G, to C-G-D-A – From intervals of fourths to intervals of fifths. This is where the revolution comes in.

Bass playing techniques, explains Quarrington, as well as the instrument itself, have been standardized for only a short time. The problem, in a nutshell, was developing an instrument that could best reach the low notes composers wanted to hear – generally speaking, cello notes sounded an octave lower. Early technologies couldn’t produce bass strings – longer and thicker than those of any other instrument – that sounded good. Made of thick gut, they were so difficult to play that bassists wore gloves to avoid burn.

Performers experimented with different tuning systems, while instrument makers came up with instruments with three-, four-, five- and even six-strings. Finally, the four-stringed instrument we see today, tuned in fourths, became the standard. The problem is, cellos are tuned in fifths. And without getting into a dissertation on musical acoustics, that disparity throws things out of whack.

Of course, remind Quarrington that he spoke of “revolutionizing bass playing” and his response is one of mock astonishment. “I did?” he shoots back. “Was I drinking?” But he immediately settles into an impassioned defense of his cause, and you realize he’s dead serious.

Type the phrase “double bass tuning fifths” into your computer’s search engine and you’ll find Quarrington’s name peppered throughout the first few pages. He’s writing a three-part method book, a “massive tome” detailing technical concepts fully integrated with his tuning system. “What it’s all about,” he says, “is clearer sound, and perfect intonation with the cellos. An instrument tuned in fifths is more alive.”

But the movement is still in its infancy. And understandably so. After all, it takes months, or longer, for a seasoned musician to make the switch. “After years of playing notes here, here and here,” explains Chas Elliott, “suddenly they’re not there anymore.” Think touch typing with the keyboard all jumbled up.

Not that Quarrington expects everyone to relearn how to play bass. “But,” he insists, “there’s no reason young players can’t learn this. I’m not going to win this battle in my lifetime, but it has to start somewhere.”

It all comes back to lessons learned long ago, about questioning the status quo, and having the strength of your convictions. Most of what people believe to be true, Quarrington points out, usually isn’t. “There’s some inaccuracy somewhere. So it makes sense to make up your own mind about things, doesn’t it?”

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's principal clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas

Performance magazine, Spring 2005
By Stewart Hoffman

In 1979, KRMA Television in Denver produced a documentary featuring three of the Aspen Music Festival’s most promising students. One of them was clarinetist and conductor Joaquin Valdepeñas. A slender 24-year-old at the time, sporting big glasses and lots of dark, wavy hair, Valdepeñas is first seen practising the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, then conducting sections from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and a Dvorák Serenade. His clarinet instructor says in a voiceover that Valdepeñas is “one of the best clarinetists” he has ever heard, while Murray Sidlin, conductor of the New Haven Symphony at the time, comments that Valdepeñas is “a remarkably sensitive, natural musician. He someday will be a first rate conductor.”

Back then, Valdepeñas figured he would end up playing with one of the great American orchestras – maybe Boston or New York or Philadelphia – but just five months after the film was made, he auditioned for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinet job. And he’s been enriching the local music scene ever since.

“I’m going to be here until I’m 75,” he says, flashing the brilliant smile that punctuates much of his speech. Along with his duties with the TSO – which recently included appearances as soloist for Luciano Berio’s reworking of Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 1 – he happens to be one of the most active chamber musicians in town. He appears four times a year with the Amici Chamber Ensemble, the celebrated group he co-founded twenty-six years ago with pianist Patricia Parr and cellist and fellow TSO member David Hetherington, as well as with numerous other ensembles throughout the season.

And if his hectic schedule performing and teaching weren’t enough – the Mexican-born clarinetist teaches and conducts at the Royal Conservatory of Music, at the Aspen Festival and occasionally at a university in Mexico City – he’s also helping design a new clarinet for Yamaha. “I’m very restless, always moving and thinking of ways to do something different,” he says. Hetherington confirms it: “Joaquín likes to be busy. “The last thing he wants is time on his hands.”

Classical music was not a big part of Valdepeñas’ life growing up in Mexico, in the city of Torreón until he was eight, then in the scruffy town of Tijuana for four years – though he has fond memories of his mother and a “couple of uncles with big tenor voices” singing traditional songs while playing guitars. It wasn’t until he was in Anaheim, California, where he’d moved with his mother and sister at age twelve, that he was turned on to music. “In grade 7 we had a wonderful band teacher,” he says, “and he would let some of us get up on the podium and conduct. That’s where I got the bug to wave the stick. It felt so great.”

But he didn’t dive wholeheartedly into a career in music until he’d completed his second year at California State University at Fullerton, where he’d been studying privately with Los Angeles Philharmonic principal clarinet Kalman Bloch. “He was an incredible musician. That’s where everything came into focus for me and I changed my degree.”

During his final year at Cal State, Joaquin Valdepeñas successfully auditioned for Aspen and subsequently placed first in the orchestral placement auditions. “Some of the best students from the conservatories were there. That’s when I realized I could really do this thing: if I work really hard, practise hard, and become the best that I can be, maybe this can work.”

The TSO audition came up during his second year of graduate studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. By that time he had some good experience under his belt – college orchestras, eight concerts a year with the New Haven Symphony, and Aspen, where he played principal clarinet in a Chamber Symphony whose membership boasted violinists Joshua Bell, Cho-Liang Lin, Nigel Kennedy and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg – but considering he was auditioning for the principal clarinet position, it wasn’t a lot. And surely more than a few eyebrows were raised when he copped the job.

Arthur Kaptainis, music critic for the Globe and Mail at the time, made much of Valdepeñas’ youth – and music director Andrew Davis’ gamble – in a 1982 review of the clarinetist’s first solo appearance with the orchestra. “Happily,” wrote Kaptainis, “Valdepeñas . . . has proved Davis a high roller in the best Nevada tradition.” He went on to heap praise on the soloist’s “cool, blemishless and beautiful” tone, “gentle and introspective” state of mind, and “instinct for organized phrasing suited to the maturest of veterans.”

Hetherington recalls that while Valdepeñas hadn’t yet developed the kind of sound that could “barrel through an orchestra,” his sensitivity, musicality and dynamic range were unsurpassed, “as was the wide spectrum of colour he could coax from the clarinet.” Of course, ads Hetherington, his youth made him all the more impressive.

Apart from the frigid Toronto winters – Valdepeñas had never even seen snow before going to Yale – he had to get used to living in a city that rolled up the sidewalks on Sundays. “Life in Toronto back then wasn’t what it is today. People wouldn’t look you in the eye. It’s changed. It’s so multicultural and I think it’s having an effect.”

And Toronto multiculturalism has paid dividends in more ways that one. Valdepeñas has been married to his wife, Korean-born TSO violinist Mi Hyon Kim, for sixteen years, and they have two sons, Josué, age fifteen, who plays piano and cello, and Alejandro, 10, who plays violin.

Valdepeñas first performed with Hetherington and Parr at a Faculty Artist Concert in 1985 that Parr organized at the University of Toronto. By 1988 they’d become Amici, and launched their first concert series at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. They moved to Glenn Gould Studio in 1994, and to date have racked up a discography of nine highly-acclaimed CDs.

With a relatively small repertoire of music for clarinet, piano and cello to draw on, Amici collaborates with musical guests – Shmuel Ashkenazy, Cho-Liang Lin, Jaime Laredo and Arnold Steinhardt among them – to perform everything from Bach to Shostakovich to the latest commission from composers Chan Ka Nin or Jacques Hétu. “Our primary objective is for the programs to be interesting,” says Valdepeñas. Judging from reviews spanning the past quarter century, the ensemble has consistently achieved that goal and more with performances acclaimed for their virtuosity, intelligence and musicality. The remaining season concerts at Glenn Gould Studio feature soprano Barbara Hannigan on April 21 and violinist Ida Kavafian on May 12.

And how does Amici manage to stay amici after so many years of intense musical collaboration and the inevitable disagreements, both musical and otherwise? “We’re very open with one another and we say what we think,” says Valdepeñas, pointing out that he and Parr are “a little more impulsive” than Hetherington. “She’s very strong, but I can be very strong and stubborn. I’ll say ‘Why do we have to do it like that? Can we do it like this?’ Then she’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’ David tends to be the diplomat. He’ll often say, ‘Well, there’s merit to both sides.’ He’s a tempering element. But it’s like a good relationship – you say your piece, but no matter what happens you respect each other and get past it. Ultimately, the music is the main thing.”

Of course, the advantage of having such a long musical relationship is that the musicians develop a sixth sense with regard to where their colleagues are taking the music.

“We’ll vary what we play if we’ve done a piece a lot,” says Hetherington. “Joaquin and I are often tossing a phrase back and forth; he will do something with it and I will do something with that. We often expand on what we discuss at rehearsal. It makes it interesting and brings a smile to the other person’s face.” A smile surely echoed by their audience.

Ask Valdepeñas what the future holds for him and he points out that he likes his life just the way it is. “When I came here out of school,” he says, “I thought I would be here a few years and move on.” As it turns out, when that coveted job in Boston finally opened up in 1993, he didn’t even bother taking the audition.

He looks forward to recording a few CDs – among them the entire set of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas for Naxos, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Clarinet Sonata for Sony, as well as a Sony CD with the ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory). “We’re the only institution in all of Canada,” boasts Valdepeñas, “that has a major recording deal with a major company.”

He conducts the TSO occasionally and that, along with his Glenn Gould Academy Orchestra at the Conservatory, is about as much conducting as he cares to do. Any more would mean something has to go.

“I don’t want to leave the Symphony; I love it. And chamber music is very important. I just want to keep playing well – hopefully my teeth won’t fall out – and I want to keep doing good repertoire and working with good people. There’s always a challenge around the corner. To me that’s very important.”



(a shortened version of the following appeared in The Toronto Star, 27 April 2003)
By Stewart Hoffman

There was a time when most everyone in town knew the Eaton Auditorium.

Its acoustics were so good that Glenn Gould made more than 30 recordings there.
Crowds packed the place to hear artists and entertainers from Serge Rachmaninoff to Nelson Eddy to Duke Ellington to Maurice Chevalier. Debutantes and designers threw parties there. Nervous parents and children in the thousands for decades came from all over the city for the Kiwanis Music Festival.

For 40 years, from the day the auditorium opened in 1931, it was the cultural hub of the city.

The restored Round Room.

The Round Room boasted a stylish, radio-equipped chandelier and a fountain of black and frosted-white glass plates lit from beneath a pool of water.

And the 1,014-seat Art Deco Eaton Auditorium, perched atop Eaton’s old College Street store at Yonge – now College Park – was only one component of the building’s fabled seventh story. The elegant Round Room Restaurant and the sleek foyer that swept the length of the floor were the others. And while its streamlined, art moderne style can be found elsewhere, says Isabelle Gournay, a University of Maryland architecture professor and authority on the period, “in that scale, with a restaurant with a luminous fountain – I don’t think there is any equivalent in North America.”

But ask anyone today about the place and the response would likely be a quizzical stare. And with good reason. It’s been closed to the public since 1976, and hasn’t been headline news since a decade after that. That’s when a Federal Supreme Court order prevented College Park, the owners of the building at the time, from blasting it to smithereens in order to install TD Bank offices. For the next fifteen years it was simply left to rot. No one was allowed in and the developers of the site, Toronto College Street Centre Ltd. wouldn’t talk about it. The floor might have been forgotten altogether, had it not been for Eleanor Koldofsky and Friends of Eaton Auditorium, which organized when the seventh floor was first threatened in 1980.

Koldofsky is a poet and long-time patron of the arts. She ran her own record company, Acquitane Records, for ten years starting in 1975. A Gemini award winning filmmaker, currently wrapping-up filming her own documentary about the floor, she has vivid memories of Eaton’s College Street.

Though the building’s original plans – a seven-story department store topped by a soaring, 670-foot office tower – were nixed when the Depression hit, Koldofsky could still see the new building from her Brunswick Avenue home when it opened in 1930. It was the epitome of opulence. Originally the retailer’s “headquarters of furniture and house furnishings”, its fifth-floor period rooms included a mockup of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles boudoir. There was a second-floor art gallery, and a lending library at street level. The finest materials – including Tyndall limestone, Monel metal and French marble – were used in its construction. But the building’s undisputed crowning jewel was the seventh floor.

Lady Eaton herself, after a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Ile de France, decided that the Art Deco interiors of the spectacular liner should serve as its inspiration. To execute her vision, she hired the French architect and designer Jacques Carlu, a professor at MIT at the time, who would later gain renown for his redesign of the Trocadero in Paris.

Koldofsky recalls her excitement when, as a young girl, she rode the elevator to the top of the building. She would walk along the foyer and into the Round Room restaurant, which boasted a stylish, radio-equipped chandelier and a fountain of black and frosted-white glass plates lit from beneath a pool of water. Grand murals by Natasha Carlu, the architect’s wife, depicted idyllic images of life in the village, forest, fields and by the sea. Eight terra-cotta sculptures by Denis Gélin, set off by dramatic backlighting, were recessed into the walls. “It was glorious,” says Koldofsky. “To be a little girl and walk in there was very special.”

Eaton auditorium, too, left a powerful impression. Covered with panels of Fabrikoid – a kind of rubberized material, golden in tone – and illuminated with wide bands o

Eaton Auditorium, c 1945. Looking onto the stage from the balcony.

Eaton Auditorium, c 1945 (courtesy T. Eaton Company fonds, Archives of Ontario/F 229-308-0-61).

f lighting that snaked up the front walls and across the ceiling to the back of the room, the hall radiated a golden glow that was magical.

“I attended every concert that was performed there,” says Koldofsky – no easy task in the middle of the Depression. To scrape up ticket money, she would swipe empty milk bottles off the front steps of people’s homes, then cash them in for five cents each. When violinist Fritz Kreisler appeared there, Koldofsky, about 12 at the time, sold her shoes to pay for a 75-cent ticket.

Not surprisingly, when the Hall was threatened fifty years later, Koldofsky was in the thick of the fray from the beginning.

In 1976, Eatons sold the building to a consortium, headed by London Life, called Toronto College Street Centre Ltd., with the proviso that the developer would “maintain and restore” the seventh floor. Four years later, company vice-president and general manager Gordon Bacque claimed that the floor was not viable commercially and that a 1975 heritage by-law covering the building did not apply to the seventh floor. He requested City Council’s permission to convert it into TD Bank offices. Toronto’s arts community rallied to the cause, and Friends of Eaton Auditorium was born.

Along with Koldofsky, its membership included Ontario Arts Council president Arthur Gelber, Glenn Gould, soprano Maureen Forrester, interior designer Jim Reid, architect Brian Forsythe, conductor Paul Robinson and media executive Edgar Cowan. Numerous theatre, dance and production companies joined in, lobbying government, circulating newsletters and raising awareness. Alderman Janet Howard helped galvanize City Council’s support. In Patricia Zolf, a city planner whose portfolio included the seventh floor, they had crucial support from within the City Planning Department – all the more important when you consider that Planning and Development Commissioner Stephen McLaughlin was prepared to let Bacque go ahead with his plans if he agreed to recreate the Round Room on the first floor. Neither Zolf, nor Friends, nor the Historical Board bought the idea. Most important, neither did the Land Use Committee. “Basically, the committee wanted further study,” says Zolf. “This is a national historic site for heaven’s sake.”

The City’s rejection of Bacque’s request led to a series of court cases and appeals that finally ended in the 1986 Supreme Court ruling against the developer. Koldofsky has one bitter recollection from the day she went to Ottawa to witness the judges’ decision. “This one judge, struggling into his beautiful red robes leaned over and said to me, ‘What is so important about this hall, the ladies’ toilets? It’s a pity that these buildings can’t be destroyed quickly and save the developers all that trouble.'”

While the Supreme Court supported the 1975 heritage by-law that protected the floor, it nevertheless ruled that the developer’s commitment to maintain and restore it no longer applied. The result? The floor was frozen in time. And from what could be gathered from reports that occasionally filtered out, time was taking its toll.

It was known that the Casavant organ – the magnificent instrument played by Glenn Gould at his debut performance – had been sold at auction, but there were also stories of water damage and vandalism. The Gélin sculptures were gone. Artifacts were turning up in second-hand shops and antique stores. William Dendy, in his classic book, Lost Toronto, even claimed that the Carlu murals had been removed. “It is hard to know,” he wrote, “how much the seventh-floor interiors can be described as ‘lost’.” It appeared that Bacque might win the battle after all.

Then, in 1997, Great West Life Realty Advisors Inc. acquired London Life. A few years after that, GWL, looking to build a pair of Bay Street condos, approached councillor Kyle Rae requesting significant variances to built-forms dating from the ’70s. Rae laid out the terms: no support from the city until there’s a commitment to restore the seventh floor. Not that GWL put up a fight. “I don’t think they realized they had something that valuable,” says Rae. “A light went on. They just started working on it.”

Rae called Koldofsky to deliver the news of the agreement the very day she was presenting a lecture at Toronto’s Heliconian Club, March 20, 2001. She could now add a coda to her backgrounder on the seventh floor: the announcement that her 20-year battle was finally over. At the end of the evening, Koldofsky – a determined, no-nonsense type who doesn’t rattle easily – looked to be somewhat in shock. When Rae called with the news that morning, she said, “I nearly fell over.”

Koldofsky might have felt a similar sinking feeling once she stared out onto the floor for the first time in twenty-five years. The scene was one of peeling paint, smashed glass and garbage everywhere. Ceilings were water damaged. Building materials and pipes were dumped on the floor. Elegant, old leather furniture was broken and sitting in piles “waiting to be taken to the dumpster.” The Round Room served as storage for boxes of broken dishes, the chandelier was painted over, and chunks of the fountain’s black Vitrolite – a rare, architectural sheet glass – were missing. And the niches that had once housed the Gélin sculptures were indeed empty. “I was looking at destruction,” says Koldofsky.

Shocking indeed, but repairing and restoring the damaged rooms and Deco elements would be like performing a facelift compared to the invasive surgery required elsewhere. “A lot of what we’re doing in terms of the finishing on the floor is actually just cleaning up, stripping paint, and repainting what was there,” says Mark Robert who, together with Jeffry Roick, manages The Carlu Corporation, the company leasing the floor from Great West Life for the next thirty years. “The vast majority of our restoration work is going into things that you can’t see.” Things such as upgrading the sprinkler systems, and removing asbestos. One Sunday morning last July, a section of Yonge Street was shut down as three 40-foot vans delivered heating and air conditioning equipment that was then hoisted by a monstrous crane onto the building’s roof. It would later be installed in the mechanical room above the seventh floor.

A total of $8.5 million – $4 million from the Carlu Corporation, $3 million from GWL and $1.5 million from sponsors – has been poured into the floor. Now called The Carlu, it opens on May 1. “Our vision is almost identical to what Lady Eaton’s was when she opened it in 1931,” says Robert – so much so that the permanent, raked seating installed on the auditorium’s main floor in 1951 was removed and replaced with portable seats, similar to the originals. Aside from concerts, theatre and lectures, the hall will once again be used for anything from weddings to meetings to auto shows to – if anyone is so inclined – debutante balls.

The return to a multi-purpose auditorium is key to the financial health of the enterprise. While the reopening of the hall has piqued the interest of a number of cultural organizations – representatives from Tafelmusik, the Mendelssohn Choir, the Royal Conservatory and even the Rome Opera have been through the floor – he says that limiting the venue to cultural events would be financial suicide. “With the rent that we’re paying, we’d be bankrupt in a month. Events beyond cultural offerings generate a greater amount of money, quite frankly, so we have to do one to be able to afford the other.” With that in mind, the auditorium will sport new sound and lighting systems while the entire floor, boasting internet access for 1,700 people, is wired to accommodate any kind of conference or trade show. “We’re trying to make this place sort of plug-in-and-off-you-go for any conceivable type of event.”

The auditorium seats one thousand for a concert, six-hundred-and-eighty with tables and chairs installed. The three-hundred-and-eighty seat Round Room, like the rest of the floor, is a function space. The Clipper Room, used in the old days for light meals, and a new meeting area, forged out of what had been a massive kitchen, complete the floor.

At 7:30 in the morning just over two weeks before opening, the floor buzzes with activity. Workers are painting mouldings along the foyer pillars and cutting baseboard for the Auditorium floor. A scissor lift carries a technician to the foyer ceiling to adjust the lights. The floor is littered with scaffolds and cans of paint. A dolly in the foyer is stacked with carpet tiles.

The ubiquitous Monel metal – a rare alloy of nickel, copper, iron and manganese used on the grills, doors and the display cases lining the foyer – has all been restored and buffed to a rich lustre. The auditorium floor, having been dug up and soundproofed, is again covered with tiles replicating Carlu’s geometric design. The ceiling, after being punctured and probed to remove asbestos, is now pristine.

Every effort has been taken to make the restoration as authentic as possible. Even the two-by-two foot section of mural, once removed from the Round Room wall in order to hang a fire hose cabinet, has been located in a City of Toronto storage facility. With the cabinet now removed, the canvas should be back on the wall in time for the opening.
The murals have been cause for other concerns. Sealed with varnishes that severely yellowed over the years, the risks associated with cleaning them were so high that E.R.A. Architects’ Michael McClelland originally thought that they might have to be left as is. “The trick was that glazes were used as part of the painting. Now it’s difficult to see which is glaze and which is varnish.” Ultimately, the light touch of fine art conservator Laszlo Cser removed some of the yellow with no damage done. E.R.A. – which is also working on the ROM extension with Peter Liebeskind as well as the Gooderham and Worts restoration – is entrusted with the floor’s heritage restoration. WZMH Architects is coordinating the project.

But some of the original material cannot be replaced. Ruboleum, a predecessor to linoleum that was used on the auditorium floor, is no longer available. And matching the colour and size of the fountain’s broken Vitrolite is now impossible. “We’re lucky most of that material was still there,” says McClelland. As for restoring the material that wasn’t there, a period of experimentation was needed to come up with the right match.

And that golden glow of the Auditorium that Koldofsky remembers from days gone by? “The original Fabrikoid was quite gold,” says McClelland. “With layers upon layers of paint applied to it over the years, it became a dull yellow.” McClelland is replacing the material, now deemed a fire hazard, with wallpaper that should recreate the same luminous effect.

You might say the Auditorium is returning to its Golden Age – though it’s unlikely that the Rachmaninoffs and Kreislers of today will schedule performances on as regular a basis. But Koldofsky remains unperturbed. “It could be simply an entertainment hall for weddings or conventions – which would be very beautiful. I only hope the people that have it will make a thundering success of it.”

But while the rest of the building retains its magnificent façade and some of the ground floor Deco features, Koldofsky laments the alterations it has suffered over time: the wonderful arcade that once ran its entire length along Yonge Street is now divided up into separate entranceways, and nondescript provincial courts and offices occupy most of the upper floors.

“The building could never be what it once was. But the seventh floor is what it was.” She pauses, reflecting a moment. “That’s a small miracle really.”

Roy Thomson Hall/Massey Hall Program, Sept-Nov 2001
By Stewart Hoffman

Cover of CD: Directions in Music

The Directions in Music concert, recorded live at Massey Hall.

(See the related article The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever: Jazz at Massey Hall for an in-depth account of the historic 1953 concert featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach.)

Toronto’s fabled jazz clubs of the last century are long gone. The House of Hambourg endured in a number of incarnations until 1963. An office tower now occupies the Queen Street site of the old Town Tavern. And as for the old Colonial Tavern just south of Massey Hall on Yonge, it was bulldozed in 1988. You’ll find a parkette there today, in which a bronze plaque commemorating the famed club rests in the ground like a gravestone.

The only local venue that still serves as a link to Toronto’s early jazz history is Massey Hall. When the all-star quintet of pianist Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade perform their Directions in Music: Miles Davis and John Coltrane 75th Birthday Celebration, they will be extending a tradition of jazz concerts at Massey Hall that stretches back more than half a century.

The greatest names in jazz played at Massey Hall over the years – from Louis Armstrong and his all-star band to Thelonius Monk to Dave Brubeck to Miles Davis himself, who performed his last Toronto concert here in February 1990. A 1952 show called Piano Parade presented Meade “Lux” Lewis, Pete Johnson and trios led by Erroll Garner and Art Tatum. On another evening that year, The Stars of Birdland brought the Count Basie Band, Billy Eckstine and the George Shearing Quintet to town. The Ellington band appeared at Massey Hall a number of times: once, in the ’60s, they even shared the spotlight with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of a Jazz at the Symphony series. The list goes on and on.

But from the late ’40s through the ’50s, the hot ticket in town was the annual visit to Massey Hall of Jazz at the Philharmonic. A wild, loosely organized affair, JATP showcased the greatest stars of the day in what were, for the most part, rip-roaring jam sessions.

“They always ended with a blues that went on forever,” says writer Robert Fulford. “You had the feeling that some of these people might actually be meeting for the first time.”

The spectacular roster of musicians more than made up for what the concerts lacked in ensemble finesse. A typical line up might read like the one that appeared on September 26, 1952, when fans thrilled to the music of Lester Young and Flip Phillips, Hank Jones, Charlie Shavers, Willie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich and the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Barney Kessel. Included in the 1948 edition were Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Red Rodney, Flip Phillips and Dexter Gordon. Often, recalls writer Don Brown, the programmes would feature “cutting sessions”, where “great artists, like trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Charlie Shavers would be reduced to seeing who could play louder and faster.” The crowds ate it up.

Illinois Jacquet was king of the grandstanders. A fine tenor saxophonist, he was also a shameless showman who would honk and squeal and even resort to playing while lying on his back in order to fire up the crowd. Says Fulford: “People like me, snobs who consider themselves aficionados, would know that he was the least important tenor player anywhere near the stage – but he drove the audience into a wild frenzy.”

Certainly Massey Hall’s most fabled jazz event took place on Friday May 15, 1953, the evening the New Jazz Society of Toronto presented a band for the ages consisting of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. After a local pick-up band, led by trumpeter Graham Topping, warmed up the crowd, the quintet took to the stage. They hadn’t even considered their programme until moments before. “The concert was so disorganized,” says Brown, “it was unsettling.” Indeed, when Gillespie and Parker went AWOL for over an hour at intermission, drummer Max Roach – perhaps the only drummer in history whose solos you could walk away humming – held the restless audience spellbound with an extended improvisation.

Most of the evening was recorded by Mingus himself for Debut Records, available as two separate Jazz at Massey Hall CDs entitled The Quintet and The Amazing Bud Powell. The original Quintet LP was marketed as “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”. Hyperbole aside, it’s a brilliant – at times electric – evening of music making, and the CDs are remarkable documents of a historic event. (Mark Miller, in his book Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada, 1953 provides a fascinating account of the evening and the events leading up to it.)

Ironically, the concert, which would become the most talked about, written about and – thanks to Mingus’s tape – the most listened to jazz event in Canadian history, was also one of Massey Hall’s most poorly attended. Five of the century’s most influential musicians played to a half-filled house, no match against the evening’s competing attraction – the world heavyweight boxing championship bout between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, televised live from Chicago.

The latest all-star quintet to perform at Massey Hall celebrates two of the most influential musicians jazz has ever produced.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane performed together in Davis’s classic ’50s quintet, as well as on the seminal recording, Kind of Blue. When, in the ’60s, Coltrane struck out on his own, he and Miles led what were arguably the two most important bands on the scene, bands that carried jazz itself in new directions as both musicians, each in his own way, ceaselessly searched for new ways of expression.

And with the quintet of Hancock, Brecker, Hargrove, Patitucci and Blade, five giants of contemporary jazz – all of whom are brilliant leaders of their own ensembles – have banded together to pay homage.

The links of the band members to Davis and Trane are sometimes obvious, sometimes not. Herbie Hancock, of course, has a history with Davis. A legend in his own right, he played piano in Davis’s pivotal ’60s quintet. Brecker, a major influence to a younger generation of tenor players, has often expressed his debt to Coltrane. He switched from clarinet and alto sax to tenor after hearing the great saxophonist, and credits the profound effect Coltrane’s music had on him with his decision to pursue a career in music.

And if the white-hot trumpet of Roy Hargrove is not what immediately comes to mind when you think of Miles Davis, Scott Southard, co-director of International Music Network and the event’s organizer, thinks otherwise. In a concert that sets out to explore the influence of Davis and Trane on contemporary jazz, no one, he says, is a better example of the Miles Davis aesthetic. “Roy can play mainstream jazz and bebop as well as collaborate with D’Angelo and Prince,” Southard says. “In my view, there is no better representative of the all-encompassing way Miles approached things.”

With five days of rehearsal prior to their Monterey Jazz Festival debut on September 20, followed by a 27-concert North American tour, the quintet appearing on the stage of Massey Hall on October 25 is a far cry from an all-star pick-up band. Spending that kind of time together, says Brecker, allows musicians “to develop sort of a radar, a feeling of trust and familiarity that develops into a chemistry.”

Which amounts to potentially explosive chemical research. But not to worry: experiments such as this have been held safely in Shuter Street’s renowned musical laboratory for over 50 years.

Homemaker’s Magazine, December 2000
By Stewart Hoffman

Doris McCarthy painting

Artist Doris McCarthy at work.

She claims she’s “no hell” as a skater, but as the final credits roll for the documentary, Doris McCarthy: Heart of a Painter, the artist executes a series of graceful turns across a frozen pond, then ends her routine with a flourish; arms spread like wings, her body and left leg drawn parallel to the ice, she looks like a plane gliding in for a landing.

Doris McCarthy made the film 18 years ago, when she was 72. Today, at 90, she says her skills remain undiminished. The attention-grabbing finale remains “a show-off thing I do at the end of my routine.”

McCarthy’s life is one showstopper after another. The view of Lake Ontario from “Fool’s Paradise”, her five-acre property on the Scarborough Bluffs, on the outskirts of Toronto, is nothing short of spectacular. To McCarthy, a diminutive woman with an energetic handshake and blazing blue eyes, her home is an enormous source of pride,­ even more, perhaps, than the countless watercolours and oil paintings that have made her one of the country¹s most renowned artists. She takes the short drive from here to the skating rink three mornings a week. “I skate for about an hour,” she says. “But I skate hard. I don’t sit down to rest. I haven’t time.”

No kidding. In a two-week space last September, for example, McCarthy judged art shows in both Vancouver and Toronto; flew, by helicopter, to a lodge high in the Selkirk Mountains on a painting expedition; and lectured at the opening of a retrospective of her watercolours at the Tom Thompson Memorial Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ont.

From what magical spring does she summon the energy? “From motivation,” she shoots back promptly. “Because I want to do things. If I ever wake up in the morning and there’s nothing on my program, I’m limp. But if there’s something interesting, I have the energy to get up and get going.”

She attributes her zest for life to the creativity of her work, work which has in no way become routine over the years. She’s started up her own virtual art gallery (, and her pioneer-like temperament has taken her around the world, from the Rockies to the Gaspé to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Her beloved Arctic has provided the inspiration for dozens of magical landscapes. She¹s looking ahead to a trip in the spring to either Tunisia or Morocco. “I haven’t painted all the places I want to paint. I haven’t found out all the things I need to know about being a painter.”

Not that her curiosity is limited to painting. She took her first literature course at the University of Toronto in 1974. Fifteen years later, she was on the dais at U of T’s convocation ceremonies, accepting an Honours BA diploma. An official at the time observed that, at 79, she was the first person to receive an undergrad diploma after being invested as a Member of the Order of Canada.

“It’s very hard to separate Doris’s art from her well-being,” says longtime friend Lynne Atkinson. “Doris today is the same as she has been for decades, going out and searching for that wonderful spot which she can transform into a painting. But while her art is critical in keeping her going and keeping her happy and lively, so is her intellectual curiosity. We might not all be able to go to the top of Revelstoke Mountain in a helicopter and paint, but we can all take courses at a university close by.”

And though McCarthy emphasizes the importance a positive outlook has to overall health, the quest for well-being does not end there. “Cherish health, seek truth, know God, serve others,” she says with conviction. “And cherish health is first. You can’t do any of the others if you don’t look after your own body.” With her customary determination, the once nicotine-addicted McCarthy quit smoking cold turkey on New Year’s Day, 1950. She drinks “reasonably sensibly” and, although she enjoys good food, it’s not the most important thing. “I enjoy not being fat,” she says emphatically. “When I was 16 I weighed 150 pounds and I hated myself. I worked very hard to get rid of it. I learned to say no to myself.”

In truth, Doris McCarthy has never been what you’d call a couch potato. She canoed as a young girl, and as an adult shunned elevators in favour of stairs for the 40 years she taught art at Toronto’s Central Technical School. “And once I bought this place,” she adds, referring to the property she purchased in 1939, “there was plenty of exercise.” And she doesn’t mean puttering around the garden. A 1946 photo in Volume One of her memoirs, A Fool in Paradise: An Artist’s Early Life (McFarlane, Walter & Ross, 1990), shows McCarthy high atop the new garage addition, hammering down the roof.

Her exercise routine these days is more down to earth –­ literally. She starts her day flat out on the floor doing leg lifts – 36 of them – balancing eight-pound weights on each ankle. At the same time, she’s pulling at a chest exerciser for her upper body. “I’ve got osteoporosis,” she explains. “I want to shake it or retard it or reverse it.”

And if you think that might be cause for concern on the skating rink, it’s not. Sure, she falls occasionally but doesn’t worry about it. She even broke her wrist once. But rather than hanging up her skates for good, she responded by learning how to fall. Says Atkinson: “Anybody who operates out of fear is going to find their world closing down. Doris isn’t going to operate out of fear.”

But ask McCarthy from where she draws the greatest source of strength and she’s likely to say it stems from her deep sense of spirituality. “I live in the presence of God,” she says. “Consciously. I have taken to saying grace before meals because I want that moment of awareness, of being thankful for how good life is.” It allows her to put life into perspective, to strike a balance, to differentiate the important from the unimportant.

And if you can manage that, she says, life becomes relatively stress-free. “You live relaxed. You live in joy.” She pauses, reflecting for a moment. “It’s quite possible to live in joy.”