All Dressed

Le Concert Champêtre: in conversation with Naomi Woo

Back before there were iPods and Airpods, CDs, cassette tapes, and shellac, the only way to hear music would have been to hear musicians playing it. And before there were synthesizers and samplers and computers capable of making any sound under the sun, there were orchestras.

Music is such an ambient part of everyday life that it’s easy to take for granted how exceptional it is to hear sound organized in such forms that seem conventional now, but were in no way predetermined. There is no natural law that decreed stringed instruments, that blew wind through wood and brass, or drummed drums and crashed cymbals in ecstatic crescendos.

“An orchestra really is like an instrument,” says pianist and conductor Naomi Woo, who this summer begins an artistic collaboration with the Orchestre Metropolitain, following a two-year mentorship under superstar conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Woo launches her OM partnership at the podium of three free en plein air concerts taking place in Montreal’s outer niches between July 5th and 12th. As a keyboardist first, it’s fitting that Woo might view the orchestra as one big instrument, “that consists,” she explains, “of dozens or hundreds of other instruments that can make so many sounds and colours and ideas.”

Woo began her musical training at age four as a pianist. She was captivated with an upright piano at home and begged her parents for lessons. But they thought she was too young, having not started grade school. A musician friend of the family encouraged a change of heart.

“This musician said, oh no, she’s four, she’s far too old,” Woo recalls. “My really earliest memories of music were just the joy of discovery. I really loved discovering all of the sounds and colours that the piano could make. And when I discovered the orchestra, that was a whole new journey of discovering this instrument.”

Woo was one of the first participants in a new mentorship programme for young conductors developed by the Orchestre Metropolitain and Maestro Nézet-Séguin. The programme’s aim is to immerse conductors not only in the orchestra’s musical side, but also in its administrative, promotional, educational, and community outreach work, providing a holistic view of a functioning symphony’s machinery.

Woo quickly fell in love with the Orchestre Metropolitain. “It has such an incredible enthusiasm, an incredible life,” she says of this unique collective instrument. “It’s an orchestra that’s constantly pushing the boundaries of the repertoire, showing audiences new things. They’re not afraid to riff. And those riffs have paid off. We’ve got audiences into the concert hall, and into the outdoors, as well. It’s really exciting to see that.”

The park performances in July are Woo’s unique chance to take the Orchestre Metropolitain into outlying neighbourhoods — and to audiences who, for whatever reasons, might not regularly attend Maison Symphonique.

“They’re really special concerts,” Woo says, “because they take place in communities, they take place outdoors, they are free for anyone to come to — with food, with families — and have a really wonderful experience. This is a great opportunity for me to visit some new neighbourhoods, to get to know some new people, to get a feel for who this orchestra is really for, which in my mind is everyone. And to top things off, we’re performing some pretty exceptional music.”

“There’s the feeling of experiencing an orchestra live,” says Woo, “which is different than a recording, simply because of the physics.”

Woo tells me that the pandemic shifted her perspective on the real value and cultural meaning both of performing and experiencing music live. “I have a vivid memory of watching a movie,” she recalls. “It must have been in May or June of 2020. And in the movie there was a scene where there were people at a concert. It wasn’t an emotional scene in the movie at all, but I burst into tears. And I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. And that feeling — I vowed in that moment to not take it for granted.”

Woo and I talk awhile about that lost-and-found feeling of coming through the lockdown’s looking glass, of regaining what was missed, and that unmistakable sensation of hearing anew.

“There’s two things,” Woo elaborates: “There’s the feeling of experiencing an orchestra live, which is different than a recording, simply because of the physics. Because the sound waves made by the instrumentalists are transferring through the air and into your body. That’s how we hear sound: it’s waves; it’s touch; it’s something tangible and physical. Those sound waves are different when they’re coming out of tubas and oboes and violas and double basses compared to when they’re coming out of speakers. That’s just a physical fact of science. So that’s one thing, and that’s so powerful. And then there’s the feeling of being together as an audience. You might know when you have a CD that thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people also own that CD. But it is different when you have all gathered together to share in an experience. It’s incomparable. I feel really lucky that I get to be a part of it every day.”

Woo’s enthusiasm for this city is equally infectious. She confesses a love for the local independent music scene, particularly some of Montreal’s more boundary-pushing composers. “I actually wrote a chapter of my PhD about Nicole Lizée,” says Woo. “I’m a really, really big fan of her work. Music is one of the ways I understand the world. So listening to and getting to know local music and artists is a way that I can understand the people and the spaces around me.”

The Orchestre Metropolitain’s Alfresco concerts are Montreal’s opportunity to get to know Woo, too, to hear symphonic music beyond a concert hall, and to feel the actual physical sound vibrations that only an orchestra can offer. For Woo, it’s about making connections.

“I think Montreal has a real vibrance, artistically. The linguistic and cultural diversity of the city makes for a unique kind of cultural engagement, and unique possibilities for bridging divides, bridging gaps between people.”◼︎

The OM Alfresco with Naomi Woo runs 5-12 July 2023.

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The Canadian Grand Prix

I had a bad dad.

One lesson my dad did teach me, though — and quite by accident — is how to spot other bad dads and people who had them. What kinds of bad dads? Weinstein bad? Epstein bad? Frankenstein bad? D: All of the steins. Nicole Spector and I were friends on Twitter.

This is why I so despise the F1 weekend in Montreal, I realized. It is a concentrated convergence of grand pricks in wrinkled suits that descend like bad dads upon this otherwise fair city, drinking whisky, smoking cigars, banging hookers, burning rubber, and all right around Father’s Day. This year it’s as if they were astrologically aligned. I shouldn’t take it personally. But I do.

Another lesson I learned later in life was from a film called Shame, directed by Steve McQueen. The British Black filmmaker/photographer, not the White American movie star/race car driver. I sympathize with Michael Fassbinder’s character because we are about the same age, if not the same shoe size. And also because of the brutality of addiction to tame trauma that the story portrays. It’s sex for Fassbinder’s Brandon, but it could be anything: whisky, cigars, rubber.

The family trauma is never revealed in the film. But Sissy, Brandon’s sister, played by Carey Mulligan, indicates its dark sexual nature. She reminds her brother in a moving line of dialogue: just because we come from a bad place does not make us bad people.

So this Father’s Day, if you had a bad dad, I see you. And if you had a good dad — or no dad — be glad. Because unless you’re Roger fucking Waters, coming up dadless is decidedly the better draw.

Ky with HRT and Genital Shame, La Sotterenea, 1 June 2023

There are such things as evil spirits. They can inhabit anyone. One of the most common and overlooked ways that this happens is alcohol.

Recently at a show celebrating the album launch of the Montreal artist Ky, an extremely intoxicated man wandered into La Sotterenea. There was simply no security to stop him. His visage was grizzled from drink and life on the street. His behaviour reflected no vestige of autonomy. He bounced around the room like a pinball, alternately asking patrons for change, and scanning the floor for anything of value.

I was worried for a moment that he may accost someone, possibly me, and an altercation might ensue. But fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, there was exactly nothing for this lost soul in the basement of La Sotterenea. And so he simply ascended the stairs and was spat back out into the night.

There was once a human there. Though his body is now animated entirely by a poison colloquially called spirits. This man was not in good spirits. That is, good spirits did not possess the man.

The Montreal Museum of Illusions

There is, though, some light still left in the world. One place it’s found is in that innocent sense of childlike astonishment at optical illusions. I will never forget a New Years Eve party I attended one year where a group of friends brought their kids. There happened to be a book of optical illusions on the coffee table, and Mrs. Doubtfire couldn’t have made a better babysitter.

The Museum of Illusions, newly opened in Old Montreal, is just such a place. It’s a welcome addition to a previously derelict stretch of St. Antoine, and an excellent way to entertain the whole family when visiting Montreal, or just coming in to the city from the suburbs at the weekend. Ironically, the illusory brings us back in touch with life’s important, real things.

Orchestre Metropolitain, Symphonic Explorations, Maison Symphonique, 11 June 2023

Lately the authorities have been testing the REM network. And one problem I don’t think they anticipated is how loud the things are. It’s a ghostly noise, too, those empty cars gliding back and forth on elevated tracks.

I identified a similar sound in Keiko Devaux’s newest piece, which premiered triumphantly at the Orchestre Metropolitain’s Season Finale concert, and was conducted with gusto by our superstar maestro, the pride of Montreal, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Echoes of technology often crop up in contemporary music — cell phone static is big these days — and perhaps it’s where it’s best dealt with. Devaux’s signature glissando, more subdued now, emulates that constant velocity motivating modern life, smearing cacophony into harmony.

Go Baroque! Montreal Chamber Music Festival, Bourgie Hall, 12 June 2023

The kids used to have a phrase: pics or it didn’t happen. So the photographic evidence presented below proves that the sordid tale that is about to unfold is one hundred percent true.

I was greatly looking forward to a performance by the cellist Elinor Frey at Bourgie Hall as part of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. And I was in awe of Frey and her quartet of assembled musicians pouring their combined lifetimes of practice into producing this beautiful music. Likely never before in three hundred years had it been played so exquisitely, and in such a setting.

It was about three quarters into the evening that I noticed the couple sitting to my left, a man in a blue collared shirt and a woman wearing a black cocktail dress. I noticed because the woman emitted a giggle following one of the pieces and I wondered what struck her as particularly funny.

In part because something like this just happened at the L.A. Philharmonic, and also because I just wrote about it, I realized what was transpiring. It wasn’t a screaming full body orgasm. But the man’s hands were undoubtedly in the woman’s lap, and hers in his. Through their clothes, they were “manually operating.”

You can’t make this stuff up. And of course it has to find me.

I didn’t know what to do. I immediately felt embarrassment at being subjected to this immensely intimate act in public. So I reached for my water bottle and was about to literally pour cold water on the pair. But I also didn’t want to interrupt the concert. So I reached for my camera instead. The images are blurry because of circumstance, but what they depict is clear.

I don’t follow the world of pornography because of the aforementioned. But I wonder if there is some sinister version of a Tik Tok challenge weaselling its way through the dark web, egging on this sort of exhibitionism. If so, it should be unequivocally named and shamed.

If you’re feeling amorous, especially at a Chamber Music festival, get a room.◼︎