Every year, amid the swirl of fa-la-la festivities, many churches hold a "Blue Christmas," also known as "Longest Night" services for those struggling with loss or hardship, on or around the winter solstice on Dec. 21.
I have long admired this "other" occasion that speaks to our better angels and gives a caring, compassionate, metaphorical hug of hope to those for whom the Christmas season only sharpens the rapier edges of life, including individuals grieving loved ones who have slipped their earthly bonds for the sweet hereafter.
So in that same spirit, my annual Christmas column is going "blue" this year, as we remember together two towering giants deeply connected to Winnipeg’s classical scene. Their respective deaths were two days apart earlier this month, leaving many in our community feeling as bereft as if losing one of their own family members — which, in a way, they did.
The first is Leon Cole, the fabled CBC radio broadcaster, organist, composer and lover of all things Gilbert and Sullivan, who died Dec. 5, a few short weeks before what would have been his 80th birthday on Dec. 29.
The Kirkland Lake, Ontario-born Cole studied music at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto, and arrived in Winnipeg to host CBC Stereo’s national radio programs Soundtrack and RSVP, with the latter classical request show on the air from 1985-95. He chronicled his journey in the 1996 book Dear RSVP and once told Arts East, "The greatest reward was feeling connected to a community of music lovers, right across the country."
Winnipeg broadcaster and presenter Andrea Ratuski worked closely with Cole during those years as she built her own career, first as his associate producer and then producer, learning the ropes from a master.
"Leon was a consummate professional who had this great desire to present beautiful music to everyone in an accessible fashion," Ratuski says during a telephone interview, adding that she used to listen to Cole regularly as a fan while completing her master’s degree at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s. She even interviewed Cole in his Portage Avenue studio in 1984 for a paper she was writing at the time.
"I was a real rookie and he had a profound influence on my approach as a music producer. He had no ego and a very strong work ethic. He loved music deeply but he also loved the listeners, and was always touched by their personal stories they shared with him," adds Ratuski, who hosted and produced her own CBC national show, Northern Lights, as well as regularly recorded Manitoba Chamber Orchestra concerts and other ensembles for In Concert, Tempo and Choral Concert for the CBC.
Cole took particular pride in his children with his first wife, Carolyn Cole (Underwood), sons Allen, Ted and and sole daughter, Canadian jazz singer Holly Cole. The quintessential family man also delighted in his three grandchildren, and enjoyed a loving marriage with his second partner of 42 years, renowned arts journalist Jacqui Good with whom he had a fourth child, Austin.
A tribute program, originally intended as an early 80th birthday party for Cole, took place in Halifax on Dec. 8. The ailing artist, who not surprisingly chose the afternoon’s entire bill of music — à la his own RSVP requests — had been expected to attend. His death two days before gently turned the program into a celebration of his life for family, friends and relatives who gathered from far and wide to honour his legacy and share personal stories and heartfelt anecdotes.
Winnipeg musicologist and historian Don Anderson, who also served as associate producer for Soundtrack from 1984-85 and filled in as needed for Cole on RSVP, flew to Nova Scotia for the event, as did Winnipeg’s Sandra Thacker and Wendy Robbins.
"The mood was completely upbeat and full of joy. On the whole, it was a very happy occasion," Anderson says of the 90-minute celebration that included Holly singing the Gershwin jazz standard How Long Has This Been Going On, as well as plenty of Gilbert & Sullivan, which Cole adored. Purcell’s searing aria When I am Laid in Earth, from Cole’s favourite opera, Dido and Aeneas, provided a fitting punctuation mark to the afternoon program.
"Leon was an absolute gentlemen, and humble in a way that was completely un-self-conscious," Anderson recalls with palpable reverence. "He was the perfect choice to be the host of RSVP, because he loved communicating with listeners and sharing with them. That was his personality in a nutshell."
For 18 years, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra audiences thrilled to the artistry and leadership of British-Canadian conductor Simon Streatfeild, who served as its music director between 1982 and 2000, in addition to other groups including the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver Bach Choir, Regina Symphony Orchestra and Quebec Symphony Orchestra.
The musician, who died at age 90 on Dec. 7, was a founding member of English chamber orchestra Academy of St Martin in the Fields, in which he performed as violist. He also performed with the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras and others, before coming to Canada in 1965.
Winnipeg violist Rennie Regehr first crossed bows with Streatfeild while a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario, where the elder musician led the school’s orchestra.
Regehr returned to Winnipeg in 1978 to become the principal violist for the MCO and also served as its company manager. He became instrumental in bringing Streatfeild to Winnipeg, when MCO concerts were still held in glowing candlelight at the Fort Garry Hotel.
"He treated everybody with profound respect, and everyone just adored him," says Regehr, who refers to Streatfeild as a "personal mentor and role model.
"He was a mensch, with boundless energy and enthusiasm, as well as being a fabulous musician and a wonderful gentleman. He always put it on the line every time he stood on the podium."
Streatfeild was once described as "Canada’s itinerant conductor," because he led virtually every orchestra across the country as guest maestro.
Another important facet of Streatfeild’s legacy with the MCO was his commissioning of a number of new Canadian works each season — a tradition that continues today — as well as adding to the orchestra’s growing discography.
Nicola Schaefer, a longtime MCO volunteer regularly spotted in the audience during each monthly concert, became close friends with Streatfeild, often visiting him back in their shared homeland of England to discuss their lives, families and matters of the arts. Streatfeild would regularly regale her with his tales of hobnobbing with the greats, including English composers Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst. But she reveals another side to the conductor many might not know.
"He was an immensely strong socialist, including being an active campaigner for nuclear disarmament," recalls Schaefer, who would send him MCO’s new season brochure each spring. "He always supported all the left-wing causes."
It was Schaefer who disseminated news of Streatfeild’s final illness among Winnipeg’s music community, after learning from his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter Sarah, a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, that the end was near.
"He was a musician’s conductor, and everyone loved him for it," Schaefer says.
Finally, two grace notes: Westminster United Church, home of the MCO, is holding a one-hour Blue Christmas service tonight at 7 p.m., and all are welcome.
Also, for anyone who might be struggling during this festive season — if attending a church service is not really your cup of tea — please know you are not alone and it’s OK to ask for help. Free, friendly counsellors at Klinic Community Health Centre are ready to take your call 24-7, and you can speak confidentially.
Klinic’s number is 204-786-8686 or toll free: 1-888-322-3019 or on the web at klinic.mb.ca/crisis-support.
It seems fitting to end this Blue Christmas column with Shakespeare, and I’ll beg the bard’s forgiveness for (slightly) paraphrasing a few lines from Hamlet: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet princes; And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
This is the last Music Matters for 2019. Have a peaceful, happy and harmonious Christmas season — whether that may be white, blue, or any other shade in between — and a very Happy New Year. See you in 2020.
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Updated on Wednesday, December 18, 2019 at 2:31 PM CST: Updated.
3:44 PM: Typo fixed.