Palm Desert, California
Editor’s note: I have been an admirer of Quartetto Gelato since attending a performance of theirs that was part of the visiting artist series at Interlochen Arts Camp, where I have spent many summers. At that time, Cynthia Steljes was the incredible oboist. Of course she kept me riveted all through their 2-hour performance. Playing entirely from memory, she performed part of the Mozart Quartet, all of Pasculli’s Concerto on Themes from Donizetti’s “La Favorita”, and many other works with the utmost in effortlessness and virtuosity. I went to see her backstage, along with many of my students, and invited her then to come back to Interlochen to give a class.
It was very soon after that I heard of her illness—a form of lung cancer induced by youthful exposure to asbestos—and then of her death in December of 2006. Many people wondered who the oboist could be who would ever take her place. Young Colin Maier, studying with David Sussman of the Calgary Philharmonic, and working as a dancer, actor, athlete, proved to be that oboist.
Seeing his new CD inspired me to contact him about an interview for the DR. He proved to be a dream subject….mostly asking his own questions! So via e-mails, Facebook, and telephone calls, we were able to wrap up this article in less than a week. This multi-talented young musician dives right in. I hope readers will enjoy this as much as I enjoyed putting it all together!……ds
Dan Stolper (DS): Do you have a website? Can people contact you? How is your CD available?
Colin Maier (CM): Yes, I have a website. It is www.colinmaier.com. There is a contact form online or you can e-mail me no problem! Colinmaier1@hotmail.com. The CD (Advice from a Misguided Man ) is available as a digital download through iTunes and cdbaby. If you want a physical copy, it is available through me personally. Just e-mail me and we can sort out the details.
DS: Talk about Quartetto Gelato. Was QG an influence in your playing growing up? How have you fit in since joining? Was it hard to follow Cynthia Steljes?
CM: I was in University, looking for repertoire for my senior recital, and I stumbled across the Hummel variations. It looked like a really fun piece and not knowing much of the solo rep, I brought it in to my teacher. He took one look at it and handed me a Quartetto Gelato CD and told me to listen to the Pasculli variations. So after about five seconds of listening to the track, I knew this had to be the piece for my recital. And I was an immediate QG super fan. I absolutely loved Cynthia Steljes’s sound. I admired everything about the group; their fame, success, sound. Everything that I believed in as a musician was all there. So from then on, QG has always remained a benchmark for me in pursuing my own career. Fast forward to three years ago… I was totally caught off guard to receive the call from Peter DeSotto asking me to be part of the group. Of course I said YES! We hit it off amazingly from day one. It’s an amazing vehicle to show off the many facets of classical music. I pinch myself every day.
I must admit that at first I was very intimidated to follow in Cynthia’s footsteps and share the stage with these incredible musicians. But the guys were so inviting and made me feel comfortable from the beginning. They allowed me to just be myself.
DS: Tell us about your musical upbringing. How did you get started?
CM: 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 leaning 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 grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada where I began Suzuki violin at age three. I was a pretty awful student. In fact, I don’t remember ever practicing. But I would go to these country bluegrass fiddle camps in the summer and absolutely loved those. Then I began the oboe in grade 7. My band teacher, Brian Thorlacius, found out I played violin and pushed me into the oboe. I had never heard of it, but I went along with it. I actually almost switched to bassoon in grade 8, but when I couldn’t put it together or figure out how to hold it (what’s a seat strap????) I gave it back. He was very supportive and let me use a professional Lorée that he had access to when I was in
grade 11. I used that for three years and was a huge motivation to keep playing. I never took oboe lessons during school. We had clinicians come to the school occasionally and so I would have a lesson then, and I would buy her hand made reeds. By the time graduation came, I had decided I would pursue university in the field of musical theatre. I had been studying dance, acting, martial arts, gymnastics and singing all through school and it seemed like a fun direction to go…. But when I enquired to the school, it turned out that I had missed the audition for the program by one day… So in my complete naïveté I
then said, ”I guess I’ll do oboe at university.” I had never taken a lesson, I didn’t know who Hindemith was and never played with an accompanist either. But luckily for me, there were no oboe students in the school so when I showed up with my borrowed Lorée, they were a little shocked, But thankfully they took me
DS: Did your parents force you into practicing? How crucial were they to your success? Were there any other influential people in your development
CM: My parents, Pat and Don, have been completely supportive from the beginning. They got me involved in so many things that I had 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 would actually hide behind a dumpster after school so I would hopefully be late for my lessons. But with all my activities, I was never forced to practice 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 Sonya of 16 years 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.
DS: 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. Can you talk about this? How does one acquire facility on so many entirely different instruments?
CM: 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 11-12 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. The composer 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.I began violin at age three, and oboe at 12. That’s fairly standard for most kids to play two instruments. 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 all great 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.
DS: Explain the title of the CD.
CM: First off, as I say on my website, this CD is meant to be fun, that’s all, just a good time… So don’t take it so seriously… The title comes from a suite of five musical theatre art songs. I found five wacky poems by QG’s cellist Liza McLellan and commissioned Rebecca Pellett to write music for it. Each piece, sung by a different Canadian musical theatre star and evenColin Mochrie from Drew Carey’s “Whose Line is it Anyway” to sing them. The pieces offer bizarre, random and poor advice and meant to be a fun break in the CD. I was inspired by Vaughan Williams “Blake Songs” to commission this suite in what I call Musical Theatre Art Song.
DS: How did you come up with the program for your CD? Were you personally acquainted with the other composers and musicians ?
CM: 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 pallet 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.”
DS: Was any of this music composed new specifically for your album, or were all of the pieces pre-existing?
CM: 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-Saens. I wrote The Pipes and Bakön once I began the programming process and then commissioned out the remaining works. So besides thetwo 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.
DS: Talk about your theatrical endeavors.
CM: 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 2nd degree black belt in Hap-Ki Do. It was going to be my main career, and I planned to go to musical theatre 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 naively 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 Hello Dolly 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 yearlong contract. After the Rings, I did some commercials and a few more big shows in the
Toronto theatres 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 theOlympics, 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!
DS. Talk about your experience in the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies as the devil fiddler in the flying blue canoe…
CM: That was an incredible experience. I got a phone call from the Olympics one day, and the asked if I would be comfortable playing violin and doing aerial flying… That’s all they told me because it was so secretive. I had no idea what I was going to be doing exactly until I got there. They took me to the top of the stadium, BC Place in Vancouver, and gave me a tour. At that point, I was about 140 feet in the air suspended from the ceiling. Now I knew it was going to be amazing. The atmosphere in the city leading up to the games was electric, to be cliché. There was so much energy around. And as the days got closer, the tension in the cast was rising too. But on the actual night of the ceremony, there was something even more special. Something I had never experienced before. As I was getting ready for the show, in the bowels of the stadium, we started to hear all kinds of scream coming from outside our dressing rooms. I poked my head out of the room and saw all the athletes lining up in preparation for the parade of nations. I was in awe… I am standing there staring at the best athletes in the world. They have trained their whole lives for this one moment. But as I was staring at them in awe, they looked at me, pointed, said something in German and laughed at me. Taken back, I quickly remembered that I was dressed up in my costume, looking like a Scottish wolverine with devil horns and a kilt. So for the next two hours I went down the parade and took pictures with whoever I could. Often, because of language barriers, we never spoke. But the memories and inspiration they gave me reminded why I continue to pursue my dreams. Then to top it off, feeling the crowd in the stadium scream and cheer as the show began, and to be in the center of this passion, gave me the greatest sense of patriotism I have ever felt. I have a link on my website to the Olympics where you can watch the video and see pictures I took with the athletes.
DS: What is it you’re trying to do as an artist?
CM: 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.
DS: Are there risks in trying to be outside the mold?
CM: I think there are many risks involved with doing anything different. If you try a new hairstyle, a new shirt you open yourself up to be noticed. If you decide that you want to have a really crazy hairstyle with lots of colors and spikes you open yourself up to criticism. That’s just the way people are. But what’s great about art is that “art” should be an expression of who you truly are as a person. I have always heard growing up, that we should just be ourselves. And we shouldn’t worry about what people think. That’s easier said than done. It is very easy to criticize someone for doing something different, and very easy to be embarrassed and maybe not be accepted into the “cool group”. But if you are doing something that is 100% “you”, and you believe in it 100%, it never matters what people will say. For me, I try not to think about if it’s “in or out of the box”. I try to do what I enjoy, what makes me happy and what I have fun doing. Life is too short to worry.
DS. Talk about taking ownership of the music, the performance and responsibility to the audience.
CM: I believe that anyone who gets on a stage to perform anything is at that moment an actor. The audience is there to experience something and it is our job to deliver. How many times do we see a play where the actors read scripts to each other? It never happens because if it did, suddenly there is a roadblock in the communication between the actors. And consequently the audience too. The audience sees relationships between the characters, and they relate it to their own life. With music it is much different, much harder to do. Firstly, we speak an abstract language without words. We use notes to express emotions and feelings. And with music on the stands, the communication between audience and the other musicians is hindered. So we must work harder to express the music in such a way, and perform it in such a way that the audience “gets it”. So that the audience walks away and it touched, or moved or maybe even changed somebodies life. That’s what art can do. So if we individually take ownership of what we do, what we play, how we play it, we can more effectively communicate with the audience. We shouldn’t hide behind the instrument, or the music, or the music stand, or the conductor, or the composer… as performers we need to bring ourselves to the performance always.
DS: I see that you do masterclasses. What do you enjoy about it?
CM: Yes, I have been doing masterclasses with students of all levels from beginner to university across North America for 20 years. I really enjoy doing that work. I find it so exciting and inspiring to work with dedicated young musicians and to really help them find their potential. It can be like a fast game of ping pong where the time seems to disappear and you are completely in the moment. And at the end, you can really see inside each other’s heads. It takes a lot of trust and courage to stand up in front of a stranger and your peers and be completely vulnerable. I really enjoy that process, and it always teaches me more about the oboe and music in general. I love it!!! If I could tour around doing lectures, masterclassess and recitals all year, I would be in heaven!
DS: Are you currently represented by an agent?
CM: Quartetto Gelato is represented by agents in Canada, US and overseas. As a soloist I am currently looking, but have not signed to any label or agency yet.
DS: What advice do you have for young students and players?
CM: Be 100% true to yourself. Always say yes. Enjoy what you do. Never forget why you do this.…. In a nutshell.
DS: Do you find elements of theater and music cross over? Are they intrinsically the same?
CM: 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 an actor needs to rememberat 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.
DS: 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?
CM: 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 multi-media 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. In fact, I am also beginning to work on a CD project with Maestra Nadege Foofat of oboe concertos with orchestra in a more traditional setting. 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. 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.