Massey Hall fills up
(photo credit: Nada Nesin)

They are closing my very favourite room in the entire city of Toronto in July for a massive multi-year renovation project, and if they mess this one up, I fear they may just break my heart.

I got a wonderful invitation last Monday, to see a concert by a band that I knew absolutely nothing about – and Nada, who invited me, was very pleased to be able to introduce me to their music. I was excited when I read about them, but agreed it would be most fun to let them surprise me with their live sound, without any sneak-listening in advance.

I was also delighted because Massey Hall really is my favourite room in my whole home-town. Some of the nicest memories of my childhood were when my dad would take my brother and I to the symphony for kids shows – Peter and the wolf – Peer Gynt – In the hall of the mountain king – all the super-dramatic orchestral colour a young kid could want – and afterward, an ice-cream sundae at the soda fountain at the appealingly ancient ‘New Saxony’, just a half a block down Yonge.

The red doors – instant excitement!

Much later – as a sullen and highly ridiculous teenager, I took-in a whole range of culture treats at Massey – including Thomas Dolby, Ultravox and the Eurythmics (and yes, Annie Lennox’s insanely powerful charisma had every single person in the whole place utterly transfixed, every moment that she was on stage).

My very favourite concert ‘show’ that I ever expect to see, also happened there – Laurie Anderson’s “Mister Heartbreak” Tour (one of my favourite albums of all-time, and David Van Tieghem – the percussionist from Blue Lagoon played his amazing solo on instruments arrayed on every side, above and below – an omnidirectional percussion cage – dazzling!

Anderson’s own combination of spartan but exquisitely leveraged theatricality and her technical mastery still blow me away decades later (I appreciate the tech-side difficulties she faced better than most – having at one time or another repaired a fair proportion of the stuff she had on stage). To make all of those flaky boxes cooperate seamlessly? Brilliant on it’s own, even aside from the stellar musical discoveries she was making and then proving strong and valid, beyond any doubt.

An especially stark contrast with the most disappointing show I ever saw – also there, where the drummer (from Simple Minds) had to halt the show because he blew a fuse on his drum machine – and not only could no one find it – he couldn’t play any of their tunes without it! (Shark well-jumped by then (New gold dream) anyhow – though I do still like Sons and Fascination).

On the orchestral side, I saw the great Victor Felbrill replaced by then-upstart Andrew Davis, just before the Toronto symphony orchestra was finally moved to the glitzier (and more in keeping with modern fire-code), but also frustratingly dead-sounding Roy Thompson Hall, in 1982.

I even saw the most powerfully humane concert I ever caught, at Massey. Pete Seeger, all alone on stage with a banjo and so much radiant warmth and spirit that he had the whole place singing four-part harmonies in foreign languages – and sounding great – twenty minutes into his (very generous) show. Everyone who came that night left feeling like his friend and comrade – and each others, too!

You know when you can clearly remember a song you only heard once, more than thirty years later – it’s singer really meant-it – and I got more than one lovely tune stuck very happily in my head, that most-magical evening.

Venerable and beloved

Now the thing about this act we saw on Monday – Pink Martini – isn’t just that they are a very hard-working, slick, touring ten-piece band, that doesn’t chart (except in France and Japan) which is itself, something of a marvel in this day and age.

Nor does their main interest lie in the high-musicianship on display all around the stage – and the wonderful warm and playful camaraderie between them. What really surprises about this band, is that they play the whole world – 15 different languages and far more countries than that – and boy were they ever in the right room for their planet-embracing act on Monday night!

After a playful overture version of Bolero, their singer China Forbes, launched into a display of cross-cultural virtuosity that dazzled the room. Singing first in English, then in rich and beautiful French, then playful and feisty Spanish (about a nun, who used to be a whore).

She sang in Albanian, heartbreakingly, and when someone requested “Girl from Ipanema,” in the second set, she invited Portuguese singers to come up and sing it along with her. Yes, she was modestly-rusty on the original lyrics, as she respectfully knew them to be, but the whole group was also impressively fearless (for a ten-piece, making-up a sweet rich arrangement for such a subtle tune on the fly, is a very nice trick indeed). Spoke to their ease and mutual trust – twenty-two years together really do add-up!

All evening long, China kept welcoming participation from all who would share – whether it was hipsters dancing side-stage, a twelve year old girl leading a conga-line up and down the aisles, or guests singing the song on stage (and into the mic) right along with her – and she did it with a beautiful combination of unassailable diva-energy, and completely disarming mom-warmth.

The bring-down-the-house moment was when she asked if there were any Arabic speakers, who knew the words to a popular song she was going to sing next, and someone from the balcony said, “We tried to come down the last time you asked about Arabic, but they won’t let us leave our seats.”

She said, “What if we send one of our musicians up there to escort you all down?” And then sang another number, while they were being fetched.

Several Arabic-speaking folks gathered proudly on stage with her, all quite delighted to participate – but the couple most eager absolutely stole the show, both displaying surprisingly rich and beautiful singing voices – and also perfectly timed call-and-answer with China as the song itself required – as smoothly as if they’d all been up on stage together for years.

Welcoming the gifts of strangers
(Photo credit: Nada Nesin)

Not only that – but the man could really dance – and to see him completely cut-loose and share a sincere and joyous side of his culture with everyone there, brought the whole place to their feet.

“This doesn’t happen when they play in the states,” my friend said, sadly.

I have to digress for just a moment to say that I pretty much fell in love with the horn-players – both of whom are bandleaders in their own right – the trumpet player Gavin Bondy played bright and humorously, with a ton of well practised vintage technique (his band is all about reawakening interest in 20s-40s jazz). The trombonist Antonis Andreou was even more impressive – so rare to hear the instrument played as the lead voice in such a big ensemble – but again and again, he took-it and ran – dirty bone – nothing is more gut-satisfying, when done with style and energy – and he kept it up with sharp attack and perfect intonation all night long – even when he was using an extended slide for truly hilarious super-bass notes!

And just when I was pretty much brimming-over with my usual emotional outburst toward the end of a truly great concert (an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to the musicians, and regret about myself – why oh why have I ever wasted a single minute of my life doing anything other than music – what am I, nuts?), they came back on to play an encore that literally had tears pouring down my cheeks and my face sore from smiling.

Brazil – which I will forever associate with Gilliam’s film of the same name, which film probably has more to do with my political formation, ideation, and character growth, than any other single piece of culture I’ve imbibed.

And they did it freakin’ perfectly – not just the sentimental opening part, but the full-on raucous Samba percussion finale as well. Sure helps to have three brilliant percussionists on stage (who danced easily between chairs on different numbers, just to be extra fun and cool).

Yes, Massey Hall was built all the way back in 1892 – I’ll admit that it’s a little bit disquieting when you can feel every footfall on the upper level, transmitted to your seat, through the creaky wooden structure – and there’s no question that many infirm folks will benefit from an elevator install (floor seats are ridiculously expensive – and that is one heck of a lot of narrow old stairs to climb).

But they had better keep the sonic and cultural magic in that room intact, that’s all I’m saying. Or I won’t be the only one in town utterly heartbroken.

Thanks for a last-look at – and completely satisfying listen-to the original room, Nada.

Most spectacular timing on your part, as always!

You do all know the lovely old joke, I hope?

A guy asks a taxi driver. “Hey there, do you know how I get to Massey Hall?”

The cab driver raises an eyebrow and says, “Practise buddy, practise.”

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