No Ill Wind Here—A Conversation with Oboist Colin Maier
The name Colin Maier may ring a bell for some. He is currently the oboist for the internationally renowned and critically acclaimed ensemble Quartetto Gelato. Born and raised in Calgary, Colin graduated from the University of Calgary in 1997 with a degree in oboe performance, studying with David Sussman. He has been heard on national radio broadcasts, seen on the BRAVO network, and received the 2010 INDIE award for best classical ensemble. He has also played with orchestras such as the Calgary Philharmonic, the National Ballet Orchestra, the Scarborough Philharmonic, and the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival.
In addition to oboe, Colin also plays clarinet, English horn, violin, five-string banjo, acoustic/electric bass, piano, saxophone, flute, guitar, and musical saw, diverse talents that are amply demonstrated in one of the pieces on his debut album reviewed below. With these other instruments, Colin has been the founder/leader of many independent groups that include The Jive Mommas, High Strung, The Fabulous Doo-Wop Boys, The Plaid Tongued Devils, Sonshine and Broccoli, and Full Fathom Five. In 2002, he was a featured jazz oboist at the International Double Reed Festival, where he performed and conducted a jazz master class.
In addition to being a musician, Colin has also worked for over 20 years as a dancer, actor, stuntman, singer, choreographer, acrobat, and martial-artist. Colin had the honor of playing the devil fiddler in the flying blue canoe for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Opening Ceremonies; and in his other capacities, he has been seen in Mirvish’s world premiere production of
Lord of the Rings
as a Hobbit, in Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas
show, and in stagings of
A Chorus Line
, among other theatrical productions.
Q: Tell me how you came to settle on the oboe as your main instrument. It’s reputed to be such a difficult instrument to play, and not one that’s usually a first choice of would-be musicians.
A: When I began grade seven, I really wanted to play in the school band despite absolutely hating my years of violin lessons. I thought trombone was awesome, but when my band teacher found out I played the violin, he suggested the oboe and I went along with it even though I had absolutely no idea what it was or that I would be eventually making reeds for the rest of my life. I almost switched to bassoon in grade eight but when I took the instrument home to try it out, I tried playing it like a bass clarinet with it resting on the floor in front of me. I couldn’t reach the holes and the reed and chalked it up to being too small to play. So I stayed with the oboe. Oddly enough, bassoon is one of the few instruments I don’t play, but I am always looking for one on eBay.
Q: I was also fascinated to learn about all the other instruments you play. How does one acquire facility on so many entirely different instruments? I mean it’s not unusual for an oboe player to take up the English horn, for a clarinetist to take up the saxophone, or for a violinist to take up the viola, but how does an oboist become proficient in violin and banjo?
A: Music has always been as much of a hobby for me as it has been my career. Playing has always been fun, and learning and exploring all aspects of music has always been fun. I enjoy learning the theory, the genres, styles, and also the instruments. I have always felt that learning walking bass lines or banjo licks has made me a better oboist. I began violin at age three, and oboe at 12. That’s fairly standard for most kids. But I remember being in grade 11, and trying out my friend’s alto sax during band class. It was so similar to the oboe that I learned how to play it in about 20 minutes, and by the following week I was playing lead alto in the school jazz band. Now granted, we had a very small school so there wasn’t much competition for chairs and I was able to take the opportunity. But I realized after that that I had a knack for learning instruments and decided to keep trying to explore my potential. So I borrowed other winds and stringed instruments and even some brass from friends and the school. And because of my years on the violin and oboe, the learning curve on the other winds and strings was that much faster with every new instrument. So by the time I was 21, I knew how to play a dozen instruments (not great at all mind you), but I always seemed to get opportunities to play these instruments. After playing bass for only a month, I got asked to play in several jazz combos. And I said “yes.” In the case of the five-string banjo, I got offered a role in a theater production called “Cotton Patch Gospel” as an actor/banjo player, simply because I could play “You are my sunshine.” I said yes to the gig, and began practicing everyday so I could actually play the instrument. So the short answer as to how I gained facility on the instruments, I ALWAYS say “yes” and put myself in a position where I am forced to do it.
Q: Did your parents force you into practicing? How crucial were they to your success? Were there any other influential people in your development?
A: My parents, Pat and Don, have been completely supportive from the beginning. They got me involved in so many things that I never had any free evenings or weekends. But I loved all of it. I loved singing, dancing, acting, gymnastics, martial arts…except the violin. I was forced to do my weekly 30 minutes of practicing (pretty minimal) and fought it the whole way. I would actually hide behind a dumpster after school so I would hopefully be late for my lessons. I enjoyed going to do summer fiddle workshops and practicing those tunes though. But after I quit lessons in grade five and began oboe in band, I was left up to my own devices. I was never forced to practice any of my activities outside the actual lesson times. If I did, it was on my own for my own pleasure completely. So at the end of high school when I told my parents that I wanted to go into the arts, my dad almost lost his mind. He wanted me to be a brain surgeon and then tried to bargain me down to a doctor. When I said no to that, he tried sports medicine…anything but the arts. Then I reminded him that he had me enrolled in 15 years of extracurricular arts training and it was his own fault. But throughout all the training, career building, high and low times, mental breakdowns…my parents have always supported me and been my biggest cheerleaders, always, at every show and concert and every milestone. I truly owe them everything. My wife of 16 years, Sonya, and my nine-year-old son, Xavier, have always been 100 percent supportive too. I feel incredibly fortunate to have such an amazing family support system. Growing up, I had amazing teachers and mentors. There were a few bad ones too, but mostly good ones. My band teacher, Brian Thorlacius, allowed me the use of the Loree oboe for two years from the Naval Band which he conducted. That’s a lot of trust in a goofy kid.
Q: Speaking of playing so many different instruments, I note that in one of the pieces on your album you play oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto saxophone, guitar, violin, and double bass, not to mention penny whistle. I assume the recording of this piece had to be done with multitracking?
A: Yes, that piece was so much fun to do. It had always been my dream to be my own orchestra accompaniment. That track took a very long time to do. There were many hours of practicing beforehand on all the instruments of course. But it took about 11-1/2 hours of recording, close to seven hours of mixing, and it took about 25 tracks. My engineer, Mark Camilleri, of Imagine Sound Studios was so efficient and was able to solve every issue that came up. Rebecca Pellet was also in the studio the whole time as well, and was crucial to the final outcome. I believe without Mark and Rebecca, the process would have taken twice as long and there would have been 10 times as much crying.
Q: How did you come up with the program for your CD? Were you personally acquainted with the other composers and musicians? I note that Alexander Sevastian and Liza McLellan are members of Quartetto Gelato, but what’s your connection with the others, especially Rebecca Pellett whose pieces on the disc quite charmed me?
A: I have always been inspired by visual artists in that they seem to be able to constantly create original works that reflect their unique style and personality. By and large, they are true to themselves and are not interested in compromising their vision. If you ask an abstract artist to paint a cowboy scene, they will probably quickly say “No.” So, one goal for the CD was to create something that would accurately portray my personality and style—something that was so unabashedly “Colin,” that I would never need to explain or justify my choices. So, in terms of choosing the program, it was very important to me to always keep that in mind. I decided to model the CD in a similar fashion to the way a pop/rock band would do one, in the sense that a good pop band will do original music. I have never seen a pop band that just does cover tunes achieve great success. But we as classical musicians do just that. We are basically cover musicians. Re-creative artists rather than creative artists. There is nothing wrong with that at all, and it is universally accepted. Again, this was always in mind when deciding on the repertoire.
I also wanted the CD to flow like the soundtrack to a live concert and hopefully avoid the pitfall of having the musical palette getting bored half way through and having the listener skip through the songs. We often see CDs that are collections of baroque concertos, yet I have never seen a live performance where that is the case. In a live show setting, we would address the audience, tell jokes, tell stories, etc., to keep the show moving and keep it fresh. We would also change programs to offer diversity and create flow. It is difficult to do that on a CD with no visuals or audience interaction. So, I used the “Advice” songs as interludes between the “main” pieces to serve the function of the speeches in a live show. It is an idea I got from a Jack Black album. As for the rest of the CD, I have personally always found that my favorite CDs to listen to are the compilation CDs. Seeing as I have no other CDs, I tried to create the feel of a compilation CD with as much variety and color as possible. Then it became easy to think of something that would balance the CD to my taste. As for my connection to my amazing team, I called upon Mark Camilleri (engineer/piano), a friend from my years as an actor in musicals, to be involved. That was easy. I trusted him because he understood me. When choosing Pellett, again, that was a no-brainer. She has just assisted Quartetto Gelato in recording our latest Christmas album. We became friends; I heard her stuff and loved it. Once again, I trusted her because she understood me. It was crucial to me that I use people who I knew and that understood my vision for the project, especially the composers, creative team, and singers. They all understood the theatrical, fun, the quirky twist I was aiming for, and I didn’t have to explain it to them. Essentially, because they all knew me and my weird personality, they knew what kind of CD it was going to be. But the whole project began because of a road trip I had with Peter DeSotto of QG, where he said to me “Colin, you need to make a CD!” and of course I said “Yes.”
Q: Was any of this music composed new specifically for your album, or were all of the pieces pre-existing?
A: Another thing I tried to do was to have nothing “off-the-shelf” on my CD. I realized that I needed to have some standard rep for many reasons, so I chose my absolute favorites to play—the Pasculli and the Saint-Saëns. I wrote
once I began the programming process and then commissioned out the remaining works. So besides the two standards, everything was commissioned and composed especially for this CD. And to allow me to have unique original works for me to perform at solo recitals.
Q: I’ve never interviewed anyone before who wears as many performing hats as you do. Tell me about your other theatrical endeavors.
A: I grew up in Calgary and was part of a performing group called The Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede. From eight to 17 years of age, I learned acting, dancing, singing, gymnastics, stunts, and performing. The whole time I was studying martial arts and received my second degree black belt in Hap-Ki Do. It was going to be my main career, and I planned to go to musical theater college. But in my final year of high school, I missed the audition date for the college by a day. So that’s when I naïvely decided to audition for the University of Calgary on the oboe. I had never taken a lesson, barely knew how to read music, and never heard of Hindemith. Luckily I got in the university, finished my four years, and decided I would get back to my theater. So I danced in a Ukrainian dance troupe for a few years to get back into shape. Then I found an acting agent and began auditioning. I landed my first audition as a ninja in an episode of
Honey I Shrunk the Kids
. It was amazing, and I was back into acting again. I then landed my first theater audition in a production of
at the StageWest dinner theater as a dancing waiter. That led to another show, which led to another, which led to doing shows in different cities, which then led to my experience with Cirque du Soleil. They were looking for martial-artist/stunt/dancers. That was of course my biggest dream come true. It was an amazing experience I will never forget. After that the ball kept rolling until I landed another great part in Toronto’s world premiere staging of
Lord of the Rings
as a hobbit. This was amazing in that they relocated my family from Calgary to Toronto in order to participate in the show which was something my wife, Sonya, and son, Xavier, and I had wanted to do. As all things do, this show had its time and eventually ended after a year-long contract. After the
, I did some commercials and a few more big shows in the Toronto theaters when I got a call from the organizing committee of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics to play the part of the devil fiddler in the Flying Blue Canoe. That was an indescribable experience to be surrounded by pure patriotism and watched by billions of people globally. That call for the Olympics came within weeks of me receiving a call from Peter DeSotto of Quartetto Gelato asking if I’d be interested in being part of the group. So with that, I said yes to Gelato as well, fulfilling my music dream. Quartetto Gelato’s players were my musical idols while studying in university with David Sussman. And with my crazy touring schedule with QG, I have not been able to commit to any theater contracts since the Olympics, as I never have six to 12 weeks in my schedule free. But I am always looking for awesome fun theater projects that will fit in my schedule!
Q: What is it you’re trying to do as an artist?
A: I think the main thing that we as artists strive for is to preserve those moments in time where we connect with other people and truly be present. And that can only happen when you open yourself up, become vulnerable, and take risks. I put the audience first and try not to think about what other musicians might say. I want to give the audience an experience and entertain them in a way they haven’t seen before or aren’t expecting. Generally speaking, I think almost everything has been done before. So we aren’t trying to reinvent music. But it’s the small things that can touch somebody that can actually change their day or in some cases their lives. I’m not trying to push the technical boundaries of the oboe just for the instrument’s sake; I am looking to push the performance experience. But if that happens on the way, then that’s amazing.
Q: Do you find elements of theater and music cross over? Are they intrinsically the same?
A: Absolutely. I feel that at the root of all the performing arts, the same rules apply. On a technical side, many do as well. For example, the one thing actors need to ask themselves at all times is “Am I telling the story clearly?” In music, the story is not being told with understandable words, it is more abstract but it nevertheless has a journey from beginning to end. And if that story is passed along, then you have done your job. Communication and relationships are such crucial elements that go into theater. You can watch a scene between two great actors and be drawn in through their relationship. If they’re facing the audience and having a conversation with each other while they read off cue cards, the scene falls flat. The same is true with music. There should always be active communication between the conductor and musicians. And the more you can communicate with the other musicians the better. Of course it is hard to do when the music stands are in front of your face, and you ignore the conductor’s eyes, and you don’t look at other musicians. But in my experience, when the music is memorized and the musicians stand up to play, the audience feels the energy between the players and feels the communication. Suddenly, they are pulled into your musical scene and they will follow you through the journey of the performance.
Advice from a Misguided Man
is your first commercial album—the title comes from a song cycle by Rebecca Pellett. Where do you see it taking you? Are you looking to record more mainstream works from the classical oboe repertoire—concertos, sonatas, and chamber works from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries? Or are you more interested in exploring contemporary and mixed media works similar to those on your new CD? And what was the impetus for this CD project?
A: I plan to continue building my brand of theatrical performance and classical crossover alongside my work with Quartetto Gelato. I hope to build a solo recital that incorporates as many facets of multimedia and inter-arts as possible with “The Misguided Band.” There is no question that the standard repertoire is standard for a reason—because they are brilliant masterworks that should be heard and never forgotten. But we should also remember to keep looking forward to the development of new music, art, performance, and especially new experiences for the audience, especially in a day where competition comes not from other oboists or other classical musicians, but rather from Internet videos of talking pets or people falling down. As for recording, I would love to record as much as possible. If somebody said to me that my job was to go to the studio every day I would be in heaven. I love recording. I have some very exciting projects I am working on right now that will effectively mix the classical and the contemporary in a very unique way. That’s all I can say about that right now. I plan to stay open to all experiences and opportunities and see where the “wind” blows me. For years I had fantasized about having my very own CD, but never felt ready. It sometimes takes a single event or a person to give you the kick in the butt or to give you the vote of confidence. For me, that was Peter DeSotto, telling me I needed to make a CD. He mentioned that he had always wished Cynthia Steljes (the original Quartetto Gelato oboist and late wife of Peter) would have created a solo album. So when he gave me his vote of confidence, I felt completely empowered to see this project to its completion. But none of it would have been possible without the generous support from FACTOR and the Ontario Arts Council.
ADVICE FROM A MISGUIDED MAN
Colin Maier (ob, Eh, cl, bs cl, fl, alt sax, gtr, vn, db
); Mark Inneo (dr
); Fraser Jackson (bn, cbn
); Mark Camilleri (pn
); Andrew Dunsmore (perc
); Joel Cormier (perc
); Michael Therriault (voc
); Jon Maharaj (db
); Martin Julien (voc
); Alex Sevastian (acc
); Colin Mochrie (voc
); Allison Wiebe (pn
); Rick Miller (voc
); Hilario Duran (pn
); Evan Buliung (voc
); Liza McLellan (vc
XCMM 001 (48:17)
How to Do It.
How to Eat Cheese.
Isn’t it Wonderful.
Concerto sopra motivi dell’opera “La favorita” di Donizetti.
Song for Magdalena.
Songs of the North Woods,
Lass of Glenshee; Chapeau Boys
Truth to tell, when I first laid eyes on this release I thought for sure it had to be one of those party albums; you know, the kind you play for laughs at a gathering of friends when everyone is feeling good and acting a little silly. But experience has taught me not to judge record albums either by their titles or their sometimes alluring and other times lurid cover art.
Colin Maier’s debut CD is in fact a serious affair, not always or necessarily in subject matter—some of the pieces on the disc are meant to be amusing and to evoke a smile—but in its presentation of a number of original works by some very talented active composer/performers, and always in the highly accomplished playing of Maier and his fellow musicians.
Even the album title,
Advice from a Misguided Man
, turns out not to be the pun I thought it was. It’s the title of a five-movement suite by Rebecca Pellett, inspired by Vaughan Williams’s
. In other words, this is not a disc that pokes fun at musical works by famous composers, à la P. D. Q. Bach, by transforming them into musical jokes. And in all but one case, Pasculli’s “
” paraphrase, the pieces are played by the instruments for which they were written, but more on that anon.
Let me begin with the Pellett songs, since she is represented by no fewer than six numbers on the disc. Rebecca Pellett lives and works in Toronto where she has been active as a composer and orchestrator in the film industry for more than 10 years, and has worked with many distinguished film composers. She is also an accomplished recording engineer, and is the associate engineer for the ongoing series of live concert recordings being made by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where she has the pleasure of working under Maestro Peter Oundjian.
The five songs on the disc that make up Pellett’s
Advice from a Misguided Man
cycle are “Page 10,” “How to do it,” “How to eat cheese,” “Dear Jeremiah,” and “Bohbins.” The lyrics to all five of the cycle songs are by the disc’s cellist, Liza McLellan, and are essentially whimsical nonsense verse. “Dear Jeremiah,” for example, begins, “Dear Jeremiah, at times like these, what you need to do is get scurvies”; while “How to eat cheese” has only two lines, the hortatory directive, “How to eat cheese,” at the beginning, followed by several seconds of a percussion effect, and concluding with the line, “Just shove it in your face.”
Though the whoopee cushion effect of each of these ditties may seem sophomoric, the instrumental and vocal settings are quite sophisticated in mimicking the words and in communicating layers of meaning deeper than their surfaces may suggest. And in the final analysis, is that not the art of song writing and the objective of all song writers from Schubert to George Gershwin and Victor Herbert to Rebecca Pellett? Pellett’s muse takes a serious turn in the extended and exquisitely beautiful,
Isn’t it Wonderful
, a strictly instrumental piece that expresses a kind of quiet inner peace and joy that one might hear in a gospel song or spiritual.
Way back in 2004, I had my first and last (until now) encounter with Antonio Pasculli (1842–1924?), a virtuoso oboist and composer who earned the title, “Paganini of the oboe.” The encounter in question came on a sampler of his oboe opera paraphrases, one of which was the same
Concerto on Themes from “La favorita” by Donizetti
that Colin Maier performs on the present disc. In Pasculli’s original the accompanying instrument is piano; here the piano part is performed on accordion by Alex Sevastian.
I was quite surprised at just how well the accordion complements the oboe, its overtone series and mix of sounds that range from portative organ to bagpipes actually blending better with the oboe than does the piano. Too bad Pasculli didn’t think of it. Musically, of course, almost nothing could beat Pasculli’s piece for sheer banality, but as a virtuosic showpiece for oboe, it’s probably a masterpiece, exploiting just about every technical trick that the oboe is capable of. For any oboist to dare it at all must take a good deal of courage; to toss it off with the executional perfection and playful panache exhibited by Colin Maier is nothing short of astonishing. Turning again to a more or less serious side of things, Maier and pianist Allison Wiebe give a beautifully pellucid and stylish performance of Saint-Saëns’s very late Oboe Sonata. Even near death, the composer wasn’t morose, a bit reflective perhaps, but not fatalistic. The last movement,
, is as perky and playful as Saint-Saëns gets.
Another purely instrumental piece is Hilario Duran’s
Song for Magdalena
. Falling somewhere between easy listening and mellow jazz, the piece is scored for oboe, piano, double bass, and drums. Duran is a noted Cuban jazz pianist and composer who currently holds the position of adjunct piano professor and ensemble director in jazz on the faculty at Humber College in Toronto. Composer and oboist Aura Pon is a graduate of the University of Calgary, where she studied composition with Allan Bell and David Eagle, and oboe performance with David Sussman. Her
Songs of the North
Woods, No. 1 are based on two folk songs,
Lass of Glenshee
That leaves the opening number on the disc, arrangements of three Irish traditionals in which Maier’s oboe substitutes for, and does a very creditable job of, imitating bagpipes; and another strictly instrumental number, this one composed by Maier himself,
. I’m not quite sure of the derivation of the word or its exact meaning—various sources give its definition as “bake” or “baking” in a number of different languages—but the musical confection Maier has whipped up seems to come from a Middle East meets West recipe in which elements of ancient Arabic chant combine with elements of Western jazz.
Without exception, every single instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer on this CD deserves honorable mention for their contributions to this highly entertaining and commendable project. But Colin Maier, whose debut album this is, and who plays in every number, is the man of the hour. A finer oboist you will not hear. Maier proves himself not just an extraordinary master of this difficult instrument but an artist of exceptional versatility who wears his multicolored musical coats with natural ease and distinction.