The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). Photo credit Google Art ProjectMy daughter said something to me last week that has had me thinking. She said that there’s been one very positive aspect to this world of suspended animation in which we’ve been living for almost a year now. And that was, she thought, that the virus has forced introspection upon us, forced us to slow down and disrupt our patterns of living, to scrutinize them with more care. For her it’s meant a serious career change, a new place to live, and a quite different attitude towards things – all very positive from her point of view.

My feeling has been almost the opposite – that we are so desperate to keep afloat these days, financially, socially and physically, that we haven’t had a minute to contemplate what the pandemic means on a larger scale. And what if it doesn’t mean anything? Perhaps it’s just something that happened, with no deeper implications. 

It’s interesting to note, however, that back in the Middle Ages, when a similar pandemic roiled Europe, its meaning, for many, was extremely clear. God was punishing mankind for its sinfulness, and the Black Death was the result. That interpretation, almost universally held at the time, gave rise to many changes in thinking and attitude in the decades and centuries that followed. Indeed, some historians draw a straight line from the bubonic plague to the Protestant Reformation of a couple of hundred years later. 

We live in a more secular age today, of course, so I’m not sure the prevailing currency on the meaning of the COVID virus centres around divine displeasure (although I’m certain there are many who think exactly as they thought in the 1300s). But it interests me that I haven’t yet come across any 21st-century equivalent explanations. 

Read more: Suspended Animation, or Animated Suspense?

Alex Trebek PHOTO SONY PICTURESAlex TrebekIt was surprising to me, in all the genuine affection that blossomed in America for the person of Alex Trebek, following his death in early November, that no one seems to have put their finger on what I think is the essential part of his appeal. I wouldn’t expect our American cousins to understand this, but I would have thought we up here might have clued in to it.

Because in an America riven by mistrust, suspicion, the worst kind of passion, hatefulness even, Trebek radiated a calm, reassuring, intelligent, steady presence. He was the anti-Trump; he was a model of engaged civility; he was the quintessential Canadian. The true secret of his success.

Those of us Canadians of a certain age knew of Trebek long before he took over from Art Fleming to be the host of a revived Jeopardy! in 1984. We had seen him for years on the CBC, hosting the truly great TV quiz show of all time – Reach for the Top – jousting and jesting with kids from high schools all over Canada. (How innocent we were in those days.) According to his Wikipedia entry, Trebek was producer Ralph Mellanby’s first choice to host Hockey Night in Canada in the early 70s. His mustache did him in it seems; the job went to Dave Hodge.

But most of us probably don’t remember, or even know, that Trebek and Glenn Gould appeared together in several of the many, many programs that Gould created for CBC Television in the 60s and 70s. OK, to call Trebek a collaborator with Gould may be stretching it a bit – Trebek, along with Bill Hawes and Ken Haslam, and several others, was a staff announcer at the CBC assigned at one time or another to work on the Gould specials. But they did appear together: Trebek introducing Gould playing Beethoven; Trebek quizzing Gould on his distaste for audiences; Trebek inviting us to join Gould next week.

Glenn Gould by Don Hunstein 1963The idea of a staff announcer was a BBC invention, later taken up by Canadian broadcasters. It was based on a supremely democratic notion: that all content was equally accessible to a modern, contemporary audience, or should be, so that the same person who read the news could introduce a program about pop music, or gardening, or a documentary about the mating habits of moose, or Gould talking about Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata. It was all content for a curious audience, it was all content worth transmitting on prime time television on a weekday evening; it was the definition of modern Canadian civility. It was the atmosphere in which a young Trebek, born into a multicultural family (Ukrainian dad, Franco-Ontarian mom), in Sudbury, with his degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa, learned about the world, the atmosphere in which the values so admired and honoured by his American audiences were honed.

And those Gould programs, which actually ran in one way or another for over 20 years on the CBC, from the mid-50s to the late 70s (released on DVD by SONY Classical in 2011, still shamefully not available on the CBC website) were, and are still, astonishing: Gould playing and talking about Bach, reviewing the legacy of Richard Strauss, playing with Menuhin, performing Scriabin, in character as Theodore Slutz or Karlheinz Klopwiesser, taking part in one of those awkward, scripted interviews made to seem spontaneous that are so painful to listen to today. (Every one of Gould’s recorded interviews, including the famous conversations much later with filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, were scripted by Gould down to the last um and ah.) These broadcasts were unfailingly interesting, unfailingly egomaniacal, unfailingly erudite, and if you were someone like Trebek, CBC staff announcer in 1966, and assigned to one of these shows, you were expected to be able to, if not hold your own with Gould, at least not embarrass yourself. 

The network was based on the notion of a certain universality of interest, a certain belief in the ability of us all to understand and appreciate the world on many levels simultaneously – precisely the values that Jeopardy!, of all things, presented to America night after night in its own, modest way – the reason that Trebek was such a perfect fit to be its host. Invented by Merv Griffin (developed from an idea his wife came up with on an airplane as the couple returned to NYC from a visit to her hometown of Ironwood, Michigan) Jeopardy! is based on the notion that intelligence matters, that information is valuable for its own sake, not as a weapon to create political realities, and its continuing popularity in the riven America of 2020 is proof that those values have not entirely departed from the world. And Trebek, in his very modest, but sure and unassailable Canadian way, stood for those values. Which is why a game show host, of all things, could legitimately emerge as a powerful cultural icon in the 21st century. We tend to forget here (or our preternatural modesty has blinded us to the fact) that we stand for something real in the world, we Canadians – something that linked a musical genius and a professional announcer, that made Gould and Trebek not as unlikely a pair of cultural models as you might think. 

Part of it was an openness to the world, a lack of cultural and intellectual boisterousness that manifested itself in Gould as a thrilling desire to interrogate cultural and musical truths long held to be inviolable, and in Trebek as a simple, but steady, belief in honesty, curiosity and decency. Part of it was an understanding, born of cohabiting a continent with the loudest nation on earth, of the value of silence, modesty, and contemplation. Part of it was an understanding that a country so blessed with natural wonders, but cursed with them as well, demanded a certain self-reliance, an understanding that, in the end, it is you yourself who must decide your worth, that you are accountable, finally, to your own set of values. That’s what kept Gould in Canada – the knowledge that the US would have overwhelmed his relatively fragile, but essential sense of self – and that’s what allowed Trebek, even though he became an American citizen, to remain very palely Canadian despite years of being scorched by the hot American sun of Los Angeles celebrity.

The CBC, of course, has long abandoned the philosophy of cultural democracy that could link two minds so wildly different as those of the once-in-a-lifetime Gould and the more amenable (which is not to say characterless) Trebek. And, to be fair, the world they temporarily co-inhabited is 50 years distant. But the ability of culture, in all its forms, high and low, Bach fugue and Final Jeopardy query, to provide a source of illumination that shines on us all, despite all our differences, has not entirely disappeared from the world. Glenn Gould blazed that illumination blindingly; Alex Trebek, much more modestly. But both were sources of light in the world. A very Canadian light.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

54 Classical Dino MirrorbannerHappy HalloweenHappy Halloween. So it seems we’re going to have some time on our hands in the musical world, whether we like it or not. It’s clear now. We’re not getting back to anything resembling normal musical life until the fall – next fall that is, September 2021. Joe Biden will have been president for almost a year before we get to go to another live concert (the joke should work either way no matter next Tuesday’s result). And if it’s smart, the classical musical world will use this forced hiatus in its life cycle to confront some of its powerful existential dilemmas. 

I know, I know this may seem like exactly the wrong time. High financial anxiety in the classical world may well be upon us a year from now. The Toronto Symphony, for example, just released its financial statement for their fiscal year 2019-2020, which ended in June, reporting a $600,000 deficit. That represents just four months of reduced activity. What will 15 months look like? It will be more difficult to ask institutions facing potential financial catastrophe to keep their minds on balance and inclusiveness in their hiring and programming, the true nature of classical art in a multicultural society, and other such esoteric existential questions when they’re just trying to keep the lights on. 

But we have to. The world is full of institutions who ignored different sorts of challenges, assuming they would pass by, who are now in a death spiral because of their studied indifference to these challenges. Institutions like the recording business, the news business, the TV business, the magazine business, pretty soon the airline business, the hospitality business, and many others. If the thing we call classical music wants not just to survive, but to thrive, it’s got to understand itself in a fundamentally new way. 

Read more: “Classical” Baggage vs Necessary Luggage

Photo by Robert HarrisI’ve written before about how difficult I’ve been finding it to listen to much music these anechoic coronavirus days. My recordings aren’t doing it for me; the livestream efforts I check out, however admirable, leave me cold; I sadly and inexplicably want to punch all the cheerful radio hosts I hear right in the nose. (sorry Tom, Julie, Paulo, Mark, Alexa, Kathleen, Mike and Jean and whoever else I’ve offended)

So I’m not listening much these days, but, lo and behold, much to my surprise I find that I’m playing more – a lot more, actually. I’m a pianist – well, OK, I play the piano, to be more accurate; there’s a difference, and I’m on the spectator side of the difference. I’m strictly an amateur player. I got my Grade 10 from the Royal Conservatory in my teens, and studied piano for my three years in the Music Department at the University of Ottawa, but never had the discipline, or nerves, or the temperament to be a professional player. Nonetheless, I make some music virtually every day one way or another and am still playing the Gerhard upright my parents bought me when I was nine. It’s been a daily part of my life for over 60 years now – the same instrument – maybe my closest companion. I can tell you where every scrape, scratch, discolouration from partying drinks inadvertently left on its surface, gouges and broken pedals came from (the move up and down the three flights of stairs in the house in which we had an apartment in Peterborough, with just my wife and I doing the hauling, was especially memorable). Next to my wife, daughter and dogs, my piano is the closest thing to me that I know. I really don’t know how I could live without it. 

Read more: Drastic vs. Gnostic: Missing the Touch of It All

rearviewI think it’s becoming clear that, at least here in North America, the unimaginable is going to be a reality.

There just aren’t going to be any major live performing arts events for us to go to for a year. Maybe longer. The Toronto Symphony has cancelled its entire planned season; Music Toronto the same. The COC has cancelled its productions at least until January, as has the National Ballet. No Nutcracker in Toronto for the first time since 1955.

But the shade of the pandemic hasn’t just denied us opportunities to witness performances. Beyond all the artistic and financial consequences of the virus, three major musical organizations in Toronto in the midst of institutional renewal have had those plans severely upended. Gustavo Gimeno will have to wait a year before he can conduct the TSO as its new music director from the podium in Roy Thomson Hall. The next general director of the COC, to replace Alexander Neef in September 2021, might not have a season to produce for some time, and the fascinating new spirit that Elisa Citterio has brought to Tafelmusik has been forced into relative hibernation just as it was blossoming. The virus burrows deeper and deeper into our lives as it continues unabated.

And so it is becoming clearer that the long-term effects of the disease are taking on increasingly radical proportions. We have underestimated the significance of the pandemic repeatedly since it first made its appearance. We continue to do so, and I shudder to think what will happen when a second wave of the virus comes smack up against our regular flu season. With each passing day, the potential for the virus to seriously disrupt and change central aspects of our lives increases. We’re not going back to normal, I think. That normal is a thing of the past.

So what might that mean for classical music?

Read more: COVID’s Metamorphoses
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