Dook’s Look Back: Warming the Cold War

Culture in Yellowknife in the 1970s boiled down to the recitals put on by the students of our two local piano teachers, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas staged by the Singing North, whatever the junior and senior high schools were able to cobble together and Max Ferguson on the radio.  We loved Max Ferguson.  We got his version of the news just before the real news, and everybody like ‘Rawhide’ better.  My favourite character was the hockey player Bobby Clobber.

“How are you doing, Bobby?”

“Real good, real good.”

“How’s the game going, Bobby?”

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“Real good, real good.”

Also, Anne Murray once came to Yellowknife, but that was about the time the government introduced the Canadian Content laws for CBC and we were all sick of ‘Snowbird.’  To be fair, we’d have lynched Gordon Lightfoot too.

So it was with delight we learned something called the Overture Concert Association was planning to send musicians to our community to offer us a taste of culture.  Or rather my parents were delighted and made me and my sisters go.  They felt music in a public school auditorium more uplifting than listening to records at home.  Also, my parents didn’t quite approve of ‘JC Superstar.’

The first performer I remember was a mezzo-soprano with a rich singing voice, a classical repertoire and an extremely attractive cleavage which she displayed prominently every time she bowed.  I was fascinated.  Women in Yellowknife never showed their breasts for fear of frostbite in the winter and mosquitoes in the summer.  In fact, sensible females of my acquaintance hardly showed any skin at all, and who could blame them?  So I clapped loudly every time she bowed and wondered enviously if I’d ever achieve such magnificent cleavage.  I didn’t.  But the music was good.

Then we got an Italian tenor with a very powerful voice who with great emotion thanked the Yellowknife Italian community for embracing him with such warmth.  I’ve always suspected the tears in his eyes may have been the effect of a ferocious hangover, because our Italian community ordered up a truckload of grapes from the Okanogan every fall and made their own wine and it was potent stuff.  I know because one Christmas over a parcel mix-up, my parents went to visit an Italian family and someone thrust a tumbler-full of homemade wine in my mother’s hand and she came home tipsy.  “It would have been impolite to refuse,” was her defense, and Dad laughed like crazy.

The music was good, too.

And the Russian pianist!  I think her name was Mina Minvada.  A tall, severe-looking woman with dark hair (no cleavage in sight), she attacked the grand piano in the Yellowknife Public School auditorium with ferocity.  When she played a piece mimicking the Russian Witch Baba Yaga casting spells over her cauldron, you could SEE the explosions.  A row of young children sat on the floor almost at her feet and did not move, so entranced were they.  Our music teacher, who had hosted Mina, expressed relief that no strings broke on that old grand piano.  She said Mina had been taught only enough English to discuss music.  She was at a loss with politics, geography or even cooking.  Well, it was during the Cold War, after all.  But the music was good.

Shortly after that we got four Russian harpists with clever hands and calloused fingers.  They told the audience “First you get blisters, then you get blood blisters, and then you get blood,” and I privately resolved to stick to the piano.  At the end of the program I was one of a few people to leap to my feet, then I stayed stubbornly standing until the lead harpist nodded at me to sit down.  To this day, remembering that grave acknowledgement from so great an artist sends a thrill through me.  The music was good, too.

And finally, we watched a ballet troop with ballerinas in tutus and the male ballet dancers on their toes with muscled buttocks sheathed in semi-opaque white tights. That is the last concert I remember.  The town of Yellowknife was not up to the culture of buttocks, and we sat in horrified thrall, too embarrassed to leave, watch closely or clap enthusiastically.  Music was good, though.

My parents lost heart after that, and did not insist we attend any more Overture Concerts.  I think they resigned themselves to JC Superstar.

But the artists of the Overture Concert series had made a tremendous impression on me.  As Bobby Clobber would say, “Real good, real good.”

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