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When my ship goes down, I want maestro Bramwell Tovey on deck at the piano. The popular conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra demonstrated at a recent fundraiser that he can keep the musical ship afloat when everyone else is thinking of running for the lifeboats.

The fundraiser was a lunch and concert played host to by the Holland America Line on board its Statendam cruise ship at Canada Place on a refuelling and revictualling stop en route to Alaska. The musical event was scheduled in the few hours between passengers disembarking to leave the ship or to tour Vancouver, or embarking with their luggage for the cruise north.

It is a busy time for the crew. Turnaround time is tight. Tests and emergency drills are held while the cruise ship is in the harbour. The 220 VSO guests were told on boarding that a fire fighting drill dictated that the schedule would be reversed. Lunch would be served first at 11 a.m. and the Bramwell’s piano performance would take place afterward.

The food was decent and the wine plentiful; the service punctuated by sirens and fire alarms. Vancouver’s famous fire boats circled other vessels in the harbour. The Canadian Coast Guard also swished by. So it was a satiated, somewhat sleepy audience sipping mimosas and champagne who gathered in the ship’s theatre to hear Bramwell play after lunch.

Bramwell loves to tell his audiences how he was a member of a Salvation army family, playing in the Sally Ann street band in England, singing carols at Christmas and playing his tuba or whatever instrument was available to families who came out on their porches to listen.

He has become a globally recognized conductor and accomplished jazz pianist, playing regular gigs at Jazz Vespers in St. Andrew’s United church in Vancouver. He plays more than 25 school concerts in the Lower Mainland a year. He knows how to entertain a crowd.

On the Statendam, he recounted a joke about parrots who could sing opera and launched into a stirring Beethoven sonata when, in mid-note, the ship’s public address system gave a piercing whistle, followed by an ascending three-note chord.

From speakers in the room’s ceiling a voice squawked: “Good afternoon passengers and crew. This is the officer of the watch speaking. The following is an important announcement. There is a fire in the pump room. All crew members are to take their stations. This is a drill only.”

When the announcement abruptly squawked off, Bramwell swivelled on his stool to face the piano and ended the Beethoven piece by mimicking the three note chord, G, C, E.

“I often think how lucky Beethoven was to be deaf,” he said to his audience, who at that point didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, clutching their champagne glasses and looking at each other for a cue. Was the concert going to be cancelled?

Tovey then switched to a gentle classic by Robert Schumann, glancing fearfully at the speakers on the ceiling. He managed to finish it before the speakers chimed G, C, and E again. This time the officer of the watch announced: “Good afternoon. This is an important announcement for all passengers and crew. There is a man-overboard drill in progress.”

Bramwell didn’t miss a beat. “Now there is a man overboard. Sounds sexist to me. Time for a little boating song.” His fingers drew a plaintive Over the Sea to Skye melody from the grand piano. We listened to the music in a silence broken by the whine of pulleys and the wheeze of pumps and various thumps and bumps.

He was telling funny stories about his concert career — about Margo Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev and others he has performed with — when, again, there was a shrill whistle and those familiar dulcet G, C, E  notes. Again the officer of the watch made an important announcement for all passengers and crew. “We have finished fuelling and you are now free to smoke in designated areas.”

His punch line torpedoed again, Bramwell turned to the grand piano and pounded out the fierce Wedding March for Juliet’s marriage to Paris for his hugely entertained audience. “My program is completely shot,” he said. “Think what you can do with those three notes”.

Standing at the piano he played  G, C, E in a minor chord. “This is the captain speaking,” he said in sombre tones, implying disaster. Shades of Rufus Wainwright, I thought, who sang: “Everybody knows the ship is sinking, everybody knows the captain lied.”

Still standing, Bramwell switched to a spooky version, swivelling his head with anxious look on his face, like Sherlock Holmes searching for the missing evidence. Then he sat down on the piano stool and improvised a frolicking number, riffing on those three familiar notes, before the familiar voice interrupted: ”This is the officer of the watch. This is an important announcement for passengers and crew.” This time the ship was testing the emergency generators, which would affect elevators. His audience stirred, apprehensive. No elevators?

Ignoring the officer of the watch, Bramwell played from the orchestral score of Act 2 of the ballet Swan Lake to the delight of his enraptured audience. When the watch officer finally announced the test of the emergency generators was completed and the elevators were now in use,

Bramwell knows how to close a set. He played an uptempo, jazz version of Don’t Get Around Much Any More.

We all left the ship as the watch officer announced: “Shore leave for crew is now granted until O600 hours.” The VSO audience wouldn’t be returning. But it is reassuring to know that Tovey will be in command for the opening of the VSO season this weekend. We can expect everything to be ship-shape.

Pat Carney is an author, retired politician and former Vancouver Sun journalist who lives on Saturna Island.

http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/Opinion+Music+maestro+please/10239136/story.html

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Canada Day 2014

Welcome friends and neighbours to Canada Day, Saturna Island style( bon jour,mes amis)

Today we celebrate the 147th birthday our beloved country and celebrate its glorious past, present and future. This year is special because it is the 150th anniversary of a historic step towards confederation, the Quebec conference of 1864.

The steamship Queen Victoria which carried the delegates down the St Laurence River to Charlottetown in August that year 150 years ago carried them up river to Quebec in October. In Charlottetown, the champagne flowed as delegates agreed to form a coalition between the maritime colonies and Upper and Lower Canada, leading the media to claim that confederation was created by hung-over politicians as befogged as Charlottetown harbour.

Unlike the festive Charlottetown, the conference in Quebec city was a sober affair. An early snowstorm had stripped away the colourful autumn leaves. Delegates met around a conference table in a nondescript hotel overlooking the St Lawrence river. The media was banned. Drinking was confined to dinners and pub crawls after work.

There the delegates debated and agreed to compromises which formed the foundation of our Canadian confederation. The US civil war between the states was raging and the delegates were determined not to repeat the mistakes made by their American neighbours. They agreed to establish legislative assemblies in each province and a strong central government with two houses of parliament, the house of commons and the senate.

They overcame regional resentments and language divisions between English and French and agreed on 72 resolutions, the basis of our constitution. Their main achievement was summed up by Thomas Darcy Mcgee, an Irish rebel who became a Canadian nationalist as the Canadian way. It was, he said, “a scheme not suggested by others, or imposed on us, but one the work of ourselves, the creation of our intellect and of our own free, unbiased and untramelled will”.

For his efforts, Darcy Mcgee was shot dead on the steps of his Ottawa boarding house after a midnight parliamentary debate, the only Canadian federal politician to be assassinated. The execution of his assailant Patrick Whelan was the last public hanging in Canada.

The result of the efforts of the fathers of confederation is Canada, glorious and free, and which has the world’s best reputation as a country for the last three years, according to a survey of G7 countries and of course the only Saturna Island lamb barbeque. So raise your glass and your voices to join Sue Kendall in O Canada!

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Welcome to my website. We’ve posted information here about my political work: the ongoing effort to preserve heritage lighthouses through the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, my official biography and key speeches that I delivered while serving as Senator for British Columbia.

Outside of federal politics, I’m also a long-time supporter of the Arthritis Society of Canada and the Arthritis Research Centre, the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden, the Emily Carr Foundation, and Music by the Sea. Information and these and about my memoir, Trade Secrets, are featured here, along with recent media coverage.

I encourage you to contact me with your feedback and questions, and look forward to hearing from you.