I want to take the opportunity to publicly thank the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for honouring me with their 2013 Golden Baton Award last week (April 25) at their annual gala.
I received the award alongside The Richardson Foundation, which was honoured for its faithful and generous support of the WSO.
My award recognized musicality and a creative partnership with the WSO that has “worked out marvelously for [Steve] and us too” offered Trudy Schroeder, WSO executive director. “It’s been transformative on both sides.”
Transformative indeed…for me in particular.
When I was growing up, guitar was my ‘fun’ instrument, but trumpet was the instrument I studied formally. I always assumed I’d eventually be a high school band teacher. It never once occurred to me that one day an orchestra would call and offer to do a concert of my music. And so I can’t say this has been a dream come true, because it was never on my radar as a possibility.
That first concert with the WSO in 2007 opened the doors for 25 more concerts with symphonies across Canada (and one in Nashville). It paved the way for a CD called Symphony Sessions, and a concert DVD with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra at the magnificent Winspear Theatre in Edmonton. The most dramatic highlight so far has been a concert with the Toronto Symphony at Massey Hall.
But nothing will ever beat the first few moments at the premiere concert in Winnipeg, when the violins began to shimmer the first notes of Burning Ember. Beatitude descended on the room like a silvery dust as we were all bathed in beauty. I’ll never forget that moment, as long as I live (see video):
One of the highlights of the evening for me was the award itself. Instead of giving out an acrylic monument, or the mounted faux-gold baton one might expect, the WSO each year honours a visual artist who is then commissioned to provide a piece of art for each awardee. This year’s visual artist of distinction was Jordan Van Sewall who is beloved for his quirky clay creations which I’ve been a fan of for some time. Check out his website, it’s a riot! My piece depicts the Blue Bird of Happiness in the Tree of Life proudly waving the first leaf of spring. Awesome! Couldn’t be more perfect after the winter we’ve just had.
For those interested, I’ve reprinted my acceptance speech below along with a few extra pictures. After the speech, I performed Peace Be Unto You with Gwen Hoebig and Dan Schultz. I’ve posted the audio of that song below as well.
But before all that, I just want to say a heartfelt thanks to my friend Leona DeFehr who presented me with the award. Besides the eloquence of her words, there was a deep affirmation and beauty in her smile which I found very moving.
Click arrow below to listen to the song performed with Gwen and Dan:
Rehearsing Peace Be Unto You before the gala.
Those of you who know me, know I don’t often prepare in advance what I want to say. But I took the time to write this because I wanted to adequately convey my gratitude to the WSO and to my hometown, Winnipeg, for my being here tonight.
Until I got the call from J.F. about this award, it never once occurred to me that I would, or should, ever receive such an honour. In truth, the idea of working with an orchestra was never on my radar at all. It came from within the organization itself when in 2006 Barbara Hamilton and a few others put my name forward as a possible collaboration. When my manager Dave told me that James Manishen of the WSO had called proposing a concert, my first response was “has he heard my music?”
My music is fairly folksy, and arises out of my Christian faith. It is impressive that an organization like the WSO would be inclusive of music from various faith backgrounds.
Musically speaking, I have very little of the kind of formal training normally associated with the music of orchestras, and the training I did get was somewhat dubiously motivated. In high school, I found out that if I got my grade 5 piano it would count as a credit. So, at the beginning of grade ten I sought out a piano teacher and told her that I needed to jump in and get my grade five that year. She told me it couldn’t be done. Eight months later I was sitting in a reception room waiting for my exam – and I knew I wasn’t ready. My mother, sensing my stress, gave me a hug, some reassuring words, and then slipped me a valium 🙂 The exam went very well… I passed with honours.
I also played trumpet in high school and assumed I’d eventually go to Brandon University and study to be a high school band teacher. That didn’t happen. I took a year off after grade 12 to save some money for university and during that year I started playing in a bands like Dega and Elias, Schritt and Bell, which set me on an alternate course that has brought me here.
So… coming up to this night, the word humility seems the right word to guide my speech. I don’t mean “humility” as it is commonly understood: the virtuous suppression of vanity. But rather, “humility” comes from the root-word humus, meaning: of the ground. And I know well the ground from which I’ve sprung:
1. First, I acknowledge my beloved parents. My father taught me to think for myself and then blessed me to do so. He understood the power of a good story and taught me how to tap my experiences for those sorts of stories that help to make life meaningful. He also instilled in my sisters and me a love of, and commitment to, lifelong learning; a virtue he still teaches by example.
My Mom taught us kids to sing when we were young, and for most of my youth we traveled around on weekends from church to church singing our songs. The fondest memories I have of my youth were nightly, after Mom put us to bed, she’d often sit at the piano and play into the wee hours: hymns, classics, musicals, Gershwin…. I’d drift in an out of sleep being bathed in melody. I have a particular memory of listening to a muffled Moonlight Sonata while a full moon, just outside my window, bathed my room with falling silver. I was so moved. So enchanted. I’ve been enchanted ever since.
2. And then there’s Nanci, my wife of over thirty years. Early in our marriage, when we still had young children at home and I was beginning to suspect that a successful music career was improbable if not irresponsible – it was Nanci who assured me that she could live with the vulnerability, and encouraged me to stay the course. And in all these years, her steady enthusiasm indicates to me that she has not once regretted her encouragement.
Our children, Sarah, Jesse, Micah and Kendara, have also been an unending source of joy, inspiration and support.
3. Let me thank the Winnipeg music community who has played such a profound role in my development. I was playing clubs in the late seventies and throughout the eighties: Elias, Schritt and Bell, Dega, Rocki Roletti, the Rhonda Heart Band, Bob King Trio, the Byron O’Donnell Band. Back then every club had a band, and original music was often encouraged. You could play 6 nights a week, 52 weeks a year and it was easy to get your 10,000 hours in. After the bars closed, we’d all collect at late-night diners like Moskovitz and Moskovitz, Septembers, and the Blue Note. We’d swap stories and band members; we’d conspire to help each other with recording projects. Those were such great days, and I absorbed so much music and skill from the friends I admired and performed with.
4. Then there is the wonderful community of Winnipeg music lovers who continue to show up for concerts. There are retail stores here that’ll sell your CDs on consignment; radio stations like CBC, CJOB, CHVN, Radio Southern Manitoba that’ll play your music and tell your story. There are generous patrons who will make resources available to create projects and get them to market. There are organizations like Manitoba Film and Sound and Maria that offer enormous supports.
5. Also deserving of huge recognition tonight is my piano player, Mike Janzen. He is the one who created such magnificent scores for the orchestra to play. He is the one who transformed my simple melodies into such grand vistas. Those were Mike’s first scores. I hope the WSO feels proud to have helped launched what I fully expect will be a legendary career. I am certainly proud to to have played a part in it.
Dave and I have worked together now for over 20 years. Not only is he a brilliant recording engineer with a keen musical ear, but he’s a bulldog when it comes to the harder, less glorious tasks of keeping a business healthy and tidy, including the myriad details of keeping a musician on the road. Among the musicians I know, Dave is already legendary. Often, when I talk to fellow musicians, it is often lamented, “I haven’t found my Dave yet.”
I should note that Dave has a terrific wife as well. Her name is Kim, and she has been a steady and personally invested support and encouragement to this work from the first day she got on this train.
Time doesn’t permit me to say how significant and up-building Rei Hotoda has been to me in this leg of my adventure. Rei has conducted over 20 of my concerts including the 2011 concert with the Toronto Symphony at Massey Hall. I wish she could have been here to share this.
To Faye Hall (Signpost Music concert administrator): your tireless efforts to keep event details moving along are to be lauded, as is your dedication to the integrity of our efforts.
Tim Plett: your skill in navigating and negotiating the complexities of union halls, symphony organizations and road dynamics is simply remarkable.
J.F. Phaneuf – you are a gem. Your encouragement, wise counsel and endorsements have been invaluable. In every negotiation, you have sincerely worked hard to achieve win-win situations for everyone involved. We are awfully fond of you over at Signpost Music.
Let me close with this quick picture:
I have a tree in my back yard. It’s a tall evergreen shading a play structure that my grandsons love to climb. But that tree would be a hard little nut that would crack a tooth if it wasn’t for soil that softened and fed it from below, and sun and rain that drew it up from above. And that’s the thing about Winnipeg, and all that I’ve been talking about: the soil is rich here, the rain is sufficient and there are a great many sun days.
WSO – I’m grateful for many things. You’ve helped me mature into a better musician. You’ve given me a platform I’d never have attained on my own. And you’ve launched me to sing beauty into the lives of tens of thousands of people across Canada in a way that never would have happened if you hadn’t made that call in 2007.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And to all of you who are here because you believe the WSO is an institution worthy of your support – thank you.