Earl Stafford has made a career out of being in the right place at the right time.
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra presents Ariel Barnes with conductor Earl Stafford
● Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster Ave.
● Wednesday, Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m.
● Tickets: $36 adults, $34 seniors, $15 students at themco.ca.
He had never seen a ballet prior to joining the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as its principal pianist in 1976. Stafford was given two weeks to audit rehearsals and get a feel for the job; however, his debut in the studio didn’t go as planned.
"The very first day that I was in watching the dancers, the pianist didn’t show up and who is in the class? Mikhail Baryshnikov," Stafford says, referring to the famous Russian-born dancer, choreographer and actor. "I started playing them Beethoven sonatas and stuff that I knew, but it wasn’t what they needed for a ballet class.
"Baryshnikov came and sat beside me and he said, ‘Do you want me to play the second half?’ "
Stafford, 67, describes the learning curve as "baptism by fire."
Despite the rocky start, he would go on to become the ballet’s principal conductor and music director — a transition that followed a familiar pattern and included an actual fire.
"(The ballet was) doing Romeo and Juliet in Toronto, the conductor was in Montreal at the time and there was a fire at the Montreal airport; this was a half-hour before curtain time," he says. "One of the musicians in the orchestra said, ‘Get Earl to do it’... I conducted probably the first half of the first act and then the conductor showed up."
Stafford retired from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2009 and has spent the last decade freelancing and guest conducting. In 2017, he was made a member of the Order of Canada.
On Wednesday, Stafford will lead what may be his final public performance during a Manitoba Chamber Orchestra concert with Canadian cellist Ariel Barnes — although, he’s hesitant to call the next phase retirement.
"I don’t know if I ever would say ‘never again,’ " he says. "If you want to be a professional in anything, you can’t leave it for very long — you get rusty."
The fact that Stafford has been able to step in at the last minute on so many occasions speaks to his talent and work ethic.
Stafford grew up in Thunder Bay and started playing piano at age eight. He practised two hours every day because his mother "wanted to get her money’s worth," and made his performance debut with the Thunder Bay Orchestra at the age of 10.
As a teen, Stafford pulled away from music to pursue other interests. He found himself back at the keys, though, when he was accepted into the faculty of music at the University of Toronto. After graduating, he went on to study privately with Milton Kaye — accompanist to violin great Jascha Heifetz — in New York, where he spent the majority of his time playing a small piano in a small bachelor apartment in a rough part of town.
Although he had never visited the city, Winnipeg became home when he was hired by the RWB. Stafford moved into a place on Aberdeen Avenue in the North End and got to work learning the nuances of playing piano for dance.
"When you’re accompanying ballet, it’s visual accompaniment, so you’re having to adjust your tempo to what you’re seeing, as opposed to what you’re hearing," he says.
The position was a master class in discipline, especially his time working with ballerina Evelyn Hart.
"I don’t know if I’ve known anyone more dedicated to what they did than Evelyn," he says.
In 1980, Stafford travelled with Hart to the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, where she became the first western dancer to win a gold medal for best female soloist. Stafford won gold for best accompanist.
Canada’s prima ballerina was also part of the most memorable performance of Stafford’s career.
The pair performed together at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an open-air theatre in Athens, for a crowd of 6,000 people during an international tour with the ballet.
"We just got lost in what we were doing; it was like there was no one else there," he says. "The acoustics were fantastic and I will never forget that evening."
André Lewis, the RWB’s artistic director and chief executive officer, was a dancer with the company when he first met Stafford.
"What I loved the most about him... was his artistry, he had a way of getting the most out of the intent of a phrase, of a section of music," says Lewis, who was often partnered with Hart. "When you felt that he was infusing, if you will, the piece with that artistry, it combined with what Evelyn and I were doing onstage and it made it that much stronger."
Stafford’s appointment to principal conductor of the ballet in 1984 came with a new set of challenges and opportunities.
"The focus had gone from being a pianist to now trying to learn how to work with a different instrument... the orchestra," he says.
At the height of his career, Stafford split his time between Winnipeg — where he was conducting for the ballet, teaching at the University of Manitoba and raising a family — and Saskatchewan, where he was music director for the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. He has guest-conducted with orchestras in Tokyo, Hungary and Scotland, and performed for the likes of renowned jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and Queen Elizabeth.
Boyd MacKenzie, concert manager with the MCO and former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra violinist, has performed under Stafford’s baton many times.
"One of the nicest and most important things about his conducting style is his enthusiasm for music," MacKenzie says. "He would always come well-prepared and really know what he wanted."
"We just got lost in what we were doing; it was like there was no one else there. The acoustics were fantastic and I will never forget that evening." – Earl Stafford on performing with ballerina Evelyn Hart at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an open–air theatre in Athens
Stafford has performed with the MCO a handful of times over the last decade — including, as has become his modus operandi, stepping in to conduct Igor Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale on short notice in 2013 when the planned conductor became suddenly ill.
"We contacted him because he was in the community and very familiar with the music," MacKenzie says. "And I know the musicians really do enjoy working with him."
Even though he is keeping his options open, Wednesday’s performance with the chamber orchestra is Stafford’s last for the foreseeable future.
"If it’s my last time I do anything publicly, I’ll be fine with it," he says. "I’ve had a very full life."
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.