Exhilarating UK/Germany tour, or, “I’m sure I can remember how to drive a stick shift”

When you have a long tour, and I consider 18 days on the road long, you do your best to plan ahead – line up all the flights, trains, accommodations, practice space, rehearsal times, etc. weeks or months before. But the unexpected happens – good and not so good – and in the end, like in life, you just kind of have to just go with the flow.

Take for example our first five days in London. We intentionally arrived there a few days early so we’d have time to rehearse with cellist, Heather Tuach for a Conway Hall trio concert. When we play in London we always stay at a lovely place that is part of the University of London near Russell Square. We especially like it because they let us use their practice rooms free of charge. One of the big challenges of touring as a pianist is still finding somewhere to practice on the days between gigs. So this place was always perfect for a longer stay. However, this time, due to renovations taking place in their main building, we couldn’t use the pianos. Happily one of our colleagues from St John’s was able to arrange a piano for us to use in a friend’s flat way across town. Then London had a Tube strike. So practicing was not an option and the streets were clogged with taxis going nowhere. So Tim walked the 8 km to and 8 km back in order to practice (….and then he developed plantar fasciitis).

Walking in the countryside around Cambridge with our hosts.
Walking in the countryside around Cambridge with our hosts.

In the U.K. we travelled to Scotland and Cambridge by train – a relaxing, scenic and civilized way to get places. In Germany, we played 5 concerts in 6 days in Munich, Cologne and Bad Zwesten and going by train was just too expensive there, especially with our 2 kids along. So we lined up a rental car out of the Frankfurt airport months before, happy to get a great weekly rate on a small car. Tim would be the primary driver; having lived in Germany for 11 years he was familiar with the Autobahn, narrow city roads, etc. After giving our info at the car rental place in terminal 1 we walked the long, long corridor, for what seems like a mile, to the car lot. There we were handed our keys, and met our car. It was a larger than expected vehicle (good news) but a standard (not good!). (I am sure we requested an automatic.) The thought of walking all the way back to the kiosk to try to change this and delaying our already late departure, was enough to prompt Tim to proclaim: “I’m sure I can remember how to drive a stick.” (He did drive through the Cape Breton highlands in a standard VW Rabbit during a little vacation pre-kids … umm …only 17 years ago…). So, that first day we drove from Frankfurt to a friend’s house in the countryside near Kassel, and, minus a few shudders and sputters, all went just fine.

The next morning we left for Munich. It’s about a 5-hour drive and by the time we neared the city the kids were getting crabby, sick of and poking each other in the back seat. It is an unwritten truth that there is a direct and proportional relationship between the driving task complexity and the volume emitting from the backseat. Even Germans say Munich is very tricky and it’s easy to take a slightly wrong turn. The lanes are very narrow and sometimes twist and turn as you carefully maneuver an intersection. At one such juncture, Tim moved into a different lane by accident (understandable if you are distracted by trying to shift to the right gear, and not stall or gun the engine or sputter, right?) The car behind us started honking, staying right on our tail. At the next intersection, the light turned green, and Tim unfortunately stalled the car. Laying on the horn again, this now-furious driver zoomed next to us at the earliest opportunity. Red faced, he yelled something in German which Tim soon translated: “Why don’t you get some *&^^% driving lessons?!!”

In the main square in Munich.
In the main square in Munich.

There were a few more bumps in the German road so to speak but I think I’ll move on to some of many wonderful things about this tour. Listed here in a crescendo-ing order of importance:
-FOOD. Eating ends up having a big presence on any tour. Sometimes it hard to find a healthy and tasty meal and not pay an arm and a leg. But when we had an unexpectedly great meal, like in London at a Vietnamese restaurant, we remember and savour it!
-FRIENDS. When we travel we often end up connecting with many former students, now friends. We love to see them and hear how their lives are developing. Having them show up unexpectedly at our concerts is an added bonus!
-GENEROUS HOSTS. Staying in the homes of kind concert volunteers, or at friends, or friends’ of friends, is a wonderful way to tour. Often you are fed delicious home cooked meals, sleep in cozy beds surrounded by interesting books to read, and are thankfully, driven to your concert! All this really helps you to play your best. It’s also fun to stay in someone else’s home and be part of a different routine. In Germany, that meant tea and cake at 5 and supper at 8. Our kids, since returning home, have wanted the breakfast they had in Scotland each day: egg in eggcup, grapefruit, toast with marmalade and tea each morning! And none of us would say no to a great Cologne bratwurst either!
– MEETING MONIKA. It was so great to finally meet in person the lovely German publicist who worked so hard to promote our Beethoven album! We are so grateful for all her help; we so enjoyed her sunny personality and enthusiasm at our Munich concerts and sharing a meal together afterwards.
-JOYS OF REPEAT PERFORMANCES. There is something about the experience of performing the same piece on many concerts that can give you a unique freedom and openness, a feeling of transcendence. It’s as if the violin, for example, feels suspended and the music is channeling effortlessly through you. One cherishes these wonderful, rare moments so much that they make the whole tour worth every second.
-YOUNG PEOPLE. Munich, in addition to some crazy streets and one angry driver, has some wonderful children whose enthusiasm for music really moves the soul. We played at a school where all the grade 5 and 6 kids had prepared questions for us and had watched our YouTube channel before we got there. They were keenly interested in the music and in our lives and background as performers. When asked to choose the final piece, they picked someone’s work they already knew well and were intensively proud of, Beethoven. Here they are after the concert, getting us to sign their programs.

Meeting students after the school concert in Munich.
Meeting students after the school concert in Munich.


Mixing Kids and Touring

This week marks our saying good-bye to our caregiver Ginny of 15 years as our youngest child also turns 12. Some reflections on touring as Duo Concertante while trying to raise two kids seemed timely somehow.

In 1998 we’d just gotten our first agent, were starting to do showcase events, had some good reviews in our newly developed press kit. It was an exciting time and we could feel our career gaining momentum. One day that year we also – to our immense surprise – found ourselves to be expecting. Our doctor, the bearer of this shocking and ultimately of course wonderful news, took about an hour to talk through how our lives could work as performers – continue to tour, for example – and have a baby. We basically (and gratefully) followed all her advice, hiring Ginny shortly after our daughter’s arrival.

Until our oldest was five years old, we always toured with our kids. When we could afford it, we took Ginny with us. This helped enormously in terms of being able to practice easily, not worry about the kids while on stage, etc.  We remember a trip to NYC with our baby daughter.   As Nancy warmed up in our hotel room, we recall watching out the window as our daughter and Ginny happily but with some trepidation headed for Macy’s. There were lots of good times touring as a foursome, then as a fivesome – eating good meals together, visiting interesting and beautiful places. But, even with a sitter, touring with young children was difficult.  Sleep was in short supply as both of our kids didn’t sleep through the night until they were 2 and a half (That equals five years of being a zombie. Clara Schumann: how did you do it?). Drinking lots of coke before concerts helped but sometimes it, apparently, wasn’t enough. One reviewer wrote that the violinist “seemed asleep in the first work but woke up for the Bartok.” That was probably an astute comment.

Often it just wasn’t possible financially to take Ginny along and we would make arrangements with local presenters to find us a caregiver. Most times this worked out (as far as we knew!). But once a presenter arranged for herself to be the sitter.  Nancy had described the needs of our baby son over email before we arrived – he was happy if he was pushing his stroller or, when he got tired, being pushed in it at a fairly quick tempo.  The lady over email said that that would be no problem. When we arrived at the church where we were to give the concert, we discovered the presenter/sitter was very elderly and had major mobility challenges.  Her plan was to keep the two kids near us in the church nursery; she assured us that she could push our son around in the stroller.  We played our concert, thankfully (sort of) oblivious to the two hours of howls of a strapped in baby being pushed slowly forward and backwards over just two feet. Obviously he survived.

Of course, travelling with babies and toddlers does throw a wrench in the image of the jet-setting glamorous touring musician.  A trip to BC for just one concert with baby translated into hours of feeding on the plane, much to the exhaustion of Nancy.  The end result was meeting our lovely presenters at the airport, dripping wet with regurgitated sour milk.  Another memory is trying to wash our baby in a Pearson airport sink – his/her (identity withheld) head, tummy, arms, legs, face, you name it, after a massive diaper malfunction.

The most difficult moment in all of this was when we had to start leaving our kids behind with either our parents or with Ginny.  Our first such trip was to China for two weeks when our kids were just two and a half and five.  It was the longest two weeks of our lives and in those first few hours in particular Nancy felt like she’d lost a limb.  The lump in her throat was the size of the grapefruit and during interminable, jetlag induced sleepless nights in a land that felt like another planet we pined for our children. (That lump in the throat is still always there whenever we take that taxi ride to the St John’s airport without our kids.) When you feel this immense internal conflict and miss your family so much, you end up walking on stage telling yourself, “You’d better make this really matter.” Somehow, the music part does really matter. It’s who you are. But you’re never really sure that performing is not a ridiculously selfish act somehow.

Our next blog will be about our tour in England, Scotland, and Germany. Happily, our kids are along for this one.

Recapitulation and Prelude (2013 and 2014)

There are some things we’re always going to remember about 2013:

– The thrill of playing in Carnegie Hall and the hair-raising few days before! (Read bottom of our blog for the blow by blow if you haven’t already). We know we’ll never forget that!

– Releasing the Beethoven album. Of course, we’ve written about this already but as part of saying good-bye to 2013 we want to thank the team that made this album possible – David Jaeger, producer; Dennis Patterson, engineer; Francine Labelle, publicist; and Earl Rosen and Dinah Hoyle at Marquis. We owe them much. We also want to share a lovely review we’ve gotten since the album’s European release in September– from the Wiener Zeitung.

– Premiering Vince Ho’s Maples and the Stream at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival. Evelyn Hart was truly extraordinary. She memorized the entire 30 minutes of text, always knew exactly how it fit with the complex score (what a musician she is!), staged and directed the entire piece, and ultimately mesmerized the audience with her intensity, energy and authenticity. Vince’s evocative and masterful score communicated the depth, subtlety and subtext of the words by Lein Chao, but also provided a large-scale structural arc to her seven lyrical poems. Audiences both in Ottawa and Barrie were transfixed.

Maples and the Stream at the Colours of Music Festival in Barrie, Ontario
Maples and the Stream at the Colours of Music Festival in Barrie, Ontario.

– Creating some new videos. Thanks to Rich Blenkinsopp and the School of Music at Memorial University for their expertise and assistance in this. We’re especially proud of the Bach Sonata no. 4, Sicilienne. (I first studied this with my wonderful teacher and the great violinist Masuko Ushioda, who, I am very sad to say, passed away in May. Playing it always makes me think of her.)

– Playing double concertos. We got the chance to play the Andrew MacDonald Concerto and the Mendelssohn Double. Always a thrill to solo with an orchestra. Here we are before and after the performance of the Mendelssohn with the NSO.

Walking on stage in St. John's to perform the Mendelssohn Double.
Walking on stage in St. John’s to perform the Mendelssohn Double.

With Marc David.  The final chord!
With Marc David. The final chord!

Which leads me to the Prelude section of this entry, or, what we’re looking forward to in 2014:

– Recording the MacDonald and Mendelssohn concertos! This was supposed to take place in December 2013 but our engineer unfortunately broke his hand! The sessions will take place in September 2014, and we expect the disc to be ready by Feb. 2014.

– Playing concerts in Germany, England and Scotland. Between April 26 and May 12 we’ll be touring in Europe, playing as a Duo but also as a trio with cellist Heather Tuach of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. In addition to the regular evening concerts, we have school concerts in Germany, which we’re excited about too!

– Learning and performing all the Schubert violin and piano works. Our next big project starts next fall with concerts featuring the 3 Sonatinas, the Duo, Fantasy and Rondo.

– A new commission or two… more adventures with Evelyn… another recording (Bach Sonatas)… but we’ll leave these for another entry!