Sometimes, people ask me how I came to be a regular contributor to a newspaper in another country, 1,500 miles away from my home in Toronto.
It all started back in 2008, when I noticed that the pianist Lang Lang was coming to Toronto for performances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Out of curiosity, I went to his website, and I saw that following his Toronto appearances, he would play in about a dozen American cities. So I wrote to all the arts and entertainment editors at all the daily newspapers in all the cities he would visit, and made them an offer. I said I could get them a live, in-person interview with Lang, in advance of his appearance in their town.
I wasn’t optimistic. I was well aware that editors get all kinds of offers from freelancers, and that they generally don’t trust unknown writers. But email is free, and I figured there was no harm in my little experiment. Then, much to my surprise, I got a reply from an editor at the Houston Chronicle. Yes, they would like a story on Lang. I nailed down an interview with the Chinese pianist while he was in Toronto, and submitted my story. The editor in Houston liked it, it was published, and I received a cheque (or, rather, a “check”) from the Hearst Corporation.
This was all well and good, but I didn’t think anything else would come from my dealings with the Houston Chronicle. However, about a year later, I noticed that the TSO’s music director, Peter Oundjian, was scheduled to make a guest-conducting appearance with the Houston Symphony. I contacted the editor at the Chronicle, and proposed an interview with Oundjian. Yes, I was told, the Chronicle would like that story.
After my Oundjian piece was published, I started to think that there might be some future in my relationship with the far-away newspaper. And apparently, I wasn’t the only person who was thinking this way. My editor wrote and told me that the Chronicle hadn’t been giving much coverage to Houston’s classical music scene since the paper’s former music critic, Charles Ward, retired. (I later met Ward, and learned that he and I were both born in the same town: Hamilton, Canada.) She wanted more classical music coverage, and any stories I could write from Toronto would be welcome.
I now had a steady freelance gig – a very strange kind of freelance gig. Obviously, I couldn’t function as a critic in the narrow sense of the term, since I was in no position to attend performances in Houston. What I could do was interview (usually by telephone) musicians coming to Houston and write advance feature stories about them. I interviewed Emanuel Ax, Leon Fleisher, Gabriela Montero, Jonathan Biss, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Bryn Terfel, Susan Graham, and the Ebène, Miró, Emerson and Tokyo quartets, among many others.
I could have done this kind of writing from the Moon. But more challenging was writing about Houston’s own musicians and musical institutions. To do that, I realized I’d have to get to know the city. Between 2010 and 2016, I visited Houston about ten times, each time making a point of meeting local performers and presenters. It was, for me, a fascinating adventure of discovery, and I was impressed with much that I saw and heard: the artistic quality of the Houston Symphony and the Houston Grand Opera, and the facilities and high standards of the music schools at Rice University and the University of Houston. I was also impressed with many of the dedicated people I met in Houston who make music happen there: Alecia Lawyer, Sarah Rothenberg, Robert Simpson, Anthony Brandt, Matt Detrick, Matthew Dirst and Antoine Plante (again, among others).
Unfortunately, moving to Houston was never really a viable option for me. At one point, I was told, the Houston Chronicle looked into hiring me full-time, but the lawyers said it would be impossible to get me a visa, as there are so many unemployed journalists in the U.S. And I vividly remember one encounter with a U.S. Immigration officer at the border who was mightily displeased to learn I was a regular contributor to an American newspaper. (However, I had a legal technicality on my side: as long as I was not doing any paid work while on U.S. soil, I was not in violation of any law.)
My standing engagement with the Houston Chronical unwound earlier this year with the departure of the editor I reported to, and her replacement by a new editor who decided to reorganize entertainment coverage. My last piece in the Chronicle was a retrospective on the opera Nixon in China, published in August. (You can read it here.)
Because I wasn’t writing criticism per se, I soon found that I developed a very different relationship with Houston than the one I have with Toronto (where I am very much a critic). When I wrote about Houston, seldom was heard a discouraging word.
I also never really had the opportunity to make many broad, general observations about music in Houston. But I do have a few of these, and often they are based on similarities and differences I’ve noticed between Toronto and Houston. These two cities have little artistic contact with each other – neither is much of a blip on the other’s cultural radar-screen – but there are things they could learn from one another.
Both cities see themselves as vital, creative places, brimming with artistic activity – that the rest of the world really ought to notice more. However, I believe that Toronto is doing a better job of reaching out. The Toronto International Film Festival is a huge event that attracts the world’s attention. And Toronto’s annual Luminato Festival is a world-class multi-arts event that’s engagingly outward-looking. Perhaps some kind of big annual festival would put Houston on the map.
Toronto also has several unique musical organizations that don’t correspond with anything in Houston. Toronto’s Opera Atelier is one of the world’s only baroque “period” opera companies, and Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra is one of the few all-contemporary orchestras to be found on the continent.
On the other hand, Houston has Da Camera, a concert series brimming with diverse ideas and influences, encompassing jazz, contemporary classical music and standard-rep classics. (There’s nothing quite like it in Toronto, or anywhere else I know.) And Houston has the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, a small but adventurous orchestra that punches above its weight. Also, there's Opera in the Heights, a plucky little company that is a very useful stepping-stone for young professional singers. As well, I admire the way that musical organizations in Houston partner with the city’s visual arts scene. Toronto musicians could learn a few things from this symbiotic relationship.
Finally, something needs to be done about Houston’s Jones Hall – and that “something” could well involve a wrecking ball. The Houston Symphony deserves much better than the bland, cavernous hangar it now calls home. And without a new or substantially improved hall, I can’t imagine how the orchestra’s goal of becoming a “top-ten” U.S. orchestra can be achieved. For many years, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was saddled with a clunker of a hall, and it seemed to take people a long time to come to the conclusion that the problem couldn’t be worked around. After two decades, the engineers were finally called in to fix Roy Thomson Hall.
At this point in time, I have no idea when or why I will visit Houston again. But something tells me that I haven’t seen the last of the city – and I look forward to my next return.
© Colin Eatock 2016