Before I turned 12 in 1944, my mother helped me notate what I was doodling at the piano. Then, after two years of formal lessons with Mrs. MacKenzie in Biggar, Saskatchewan I studied ten years with Lyell Gustin in Saskatoon. It was a thirty mile commute by train from the rural Hamlet of Juniata where I lived with my mother, sister, Sheila, and our grandparents. My mother had resumed her teaching career after my father’s death the previous year. To relieve the household from incessant practising my grandfather retrieved a granary from the homestead; insulated and equipped it with an oil stove and camping cot. It became the studio where I spent my formative years on the family Heintzman upright.
After returning in 1954 from a Summer School in Aspen, Colorado with Darius Milhaud, my “Concertpiece for Piano and Chamber Orchestra” won a prize in the Saskatchewan Golden Jubilee Competition. Lyell Gustin suggested I put the funds toward a Summer School in Fontainbleau, France. It was there I met Nadia Boulanger and subsequently applied for a Royal Overseas Award to study with her in Paris from 1957 to 1960. My greatest take-away from those three years was learning that, if ultimate beauty can be created under the strict rules of counterpoint and keyboard harmony, then you are well equipped to create the utmost beauty under your own rules.
During the summer in Fontainbleau, Boulanger had to visit Paris for a day. Students at the office came across her Little Black Book with B’s, C’s and D’s next their names. We all thought these expressed
her opinion of our ability. But the treasurer explained that it was Nadia’s social calendar: keeping track of invitations to Brunch, Cocktails and Dinner.
My friend, Jack Behrens, invited John Cage to the Emma Lake Art Colony in 1965. The Art Colony was an annual summer event offered by the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus. Cage describes in his book A Year From Monday how he got lost over night looking for mushrooms in the muskeg on the far side of the lake. Cage was found around 9:00 the next morning. The area had been combed with canoes, human grids and Mountie support including a helicopter and dog. That evening Cage cooked hydnums (fungi) and served them to the colony to atone for the trouble he’d caused. That evening tuned out to be one of the most creative sessions in the history of the Art Colony with the sharing of poetry, art and music.
Garth Beckett and I have many memories touring as duo pianists. Bob Unger of Yamaha Winnipeg was our chauffeur transporting 2 C7 Grands across the prairies in 1967. After a concert in Outlook, Saskatchewan, Bob’s routine was to pack up the pianos and drive to the next destination. It was a moonlit night when, speeding over a hill, he encountered a cow standing broadside on the narrow highway. The decision as to which ditch to manoeuvre or whether to collide with the animal was solved when the cow suddenly turned to face the truck and let our vehicle whistle by. Whew! In 1970 we drove our two Yamaha Grands in a Tilden truck for a tour of 20 Jeunesse Musicales centres in B.C. We checked the radio each evening for news of the FLQ crisis taking place in Quebec. During a tour for George Zuckerman’s Overture Series in the winter of 1971 a wheel was about to fall off our truck – that same tour concluded with my foot getting caught under the dollie as we transferred pianos from one truck to another. Ouch!
Our memorable concerts over-seas during the 60’s and 70’s included Festivals in Cheltenham, England and Pitlochry, Scotland; concerts in Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, Embassies in Paris, Frankfurt and Zurich. Our New York debut in1978 coincided with a newspaper strike – critics offered reviews over the phone. The stage crew, intent on watching the baseball world series, neglected to open the doors when we finished our last encore. If you know Alice Tulley Hall, finding your way off stage can be a challenge. Over the years we had the honour of premiering Canadian two piano works by Bruce Mather, Owen Underhill, Jack Behrens, Bill Pura, Lawrence Ritchey, David Dahlgren and Boyd McDonald.
Around 1980 a brilliant harpist auditioned to enter the Faculty of Music. The Faculty did not own a harp so Dean Christine Mather quickly created a budget to purchase one. When the student decided to study elsewhere, Dean Mather decided to use the budget to buy a fortepiano – and put it in Boyd’s Office! So, with some help from Malcolm Bilson, I got the hang of how the instrument was played/tuned and experienced the revelation on how to interpret scores of Mozart and Beethoven. Consequently I ended up coordinating the Summer Baroque Work Shops at Laurier and became a founding member of the Classical Trio with Jeanne Lamon and Christine Mather of Tafelmusik. The next 2 decades saw me touring across Canada with my 5 octave replica, built by Lawrence Ritchey, engagements in USA with the Cleveland Orchestra and a tour in the UK. Recording sessions followed with Paul Pulford using various fortepianos in the complete cello works of Beethoven and Brahms.
In March, 2019, I organized the Ontario Chapter of the Leschetizky Association. The Chapter sponsored a Soiree May 25 to celebrate the lineage of teachers through Lyell Gustin, Jeannette Durno, (assistant to Theodore Leschetizkty), his teacher Carl Czerny, who worked with Beethoven, whose mentor was Joseph Haydn. A typical Gustin Soiree featured a symphony played 4 hands on 2 pianos and a play-reading. The play-reading suggestion came from Pat Reid Banks, an actress sent to Saskatoon from London to avoid the bombings of WW 2. Pat is perhaps best known as the mother of Lynn Reid Banks who, 10 at the time, was to become the author of “Little Indian In the Cupboard” and “The L-Shaped Room”. Lyell Gustin had been the Canadian Representative of the Leschetizky Association until his death in 1988. I was assigned that responsibility until the Ontario Chapter was established.
As Professor Emeritus I keep busy with the Springdale Trio (Wendy Wagler, flute and Ben Bolt-Martin, cello). Recent concerts included works by Canadian composers Murray Adaskin, Owen Underhill, Ben Bolt-Martin and Boyd McDonald plus “Vox Balaenae” by American composer, George Crumb. I look forward to the premieres of my Concertino for accordionist Joseph Petric and the Penderecki String Quartet and Concerto for Guy Few (trumpet & piano) with the Waterloo Chamber Orchestra conducted by Matthew Jones.
© Copyright 2019 Boyd David McDonald.