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Being the best at something

by Paul Wells, BA'89 | May 6, 2014

iPods are nice — I have several I’ve collected over the years — but I miss the days when you pretty much had to go to where some music was to hear it.

Effortlessly portable music somehow makes it rootless and easier to dismiss. When I was at Western in the 1980s, I’d make occasional trips down the hill to do my homework in the Music building, whose library was lined with thousands of long-playing records. It was a self-defeating plan, because I’d end up concentrating on the music instead of on calculus.

But the music’s abundance was breathtaking, and I liked the feeling of being an interloper on turf normally inhabited only by music students.

One afternoon I found a Duke Ellington record called The Queen’s Suite, put it on the turntable, parked the earphones on my ears. Ellington had met Queen Elizabeth II in the 1950s, been charmed by her, and hurried afterward to record a new suite of music in her honour. He decreed that only one copy of the resulting record would be pressed, as a gift to Her Royal Highness. Commercial release would await his death, which finally came to pass in 1974. The LP I was listening to was the result. There’s a piece on it for piano and string bass called The Single Petal of a Rose. I remember my breath catching in my throat the first time I heard it. I’ve always wondered what Queen Elizabeth made of it. Perhaps she didn’t even listen. It would be her loss. It’s never good to get too stuck in your silo at a university. My trips down the hill to the music building saved my sanity even if they did no wonders for my calculus grades.

When I visited Western last autumn to peddle a book I wrote, I learned I would miss, by two days, an ambitious Sunday afternoon concert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer Benjamin Britten’s birth. I hope some science majors or engineers wandered by to check it out. Britten’s music is good stuff.

The baton for that concert was held by Alain Trudel, who came to London to be Orchestra London’s music director and to join the faculty of the Don Wright Faculty of Music. He recently quit the Orchestra London gig, I’m told for reasons that honour him, but he has stayed on at Western. The students there are lucky to have him.

Trudel is my age, and when I began working as a reporter in Montreal in 1989 he had a reputation as one of the world’s most formidable young trombonists. Conducting came later. Trudel is one of the most experienced orchestral the ’80s when we were all undergrads if I’d only known who was who.

It’s just common to discover, years after the event, that somebody who was prowling around the campus when you were there is now running the world. When I was entertainment editor at The Gazette, I used to edit copy from a soft-spoken, eerily self-possessed older student named Cameron Bailey, BA’87. Today Cameron runs the Toronto International Film Festival.

As The Globe and Mail has noted, the current Governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, MA’79, PhD’82, is a Western alumnus, as are two of his senior deputies, Carolyn Wilkins, MA’88, and Timothy Lane, MA’78, PhD’83. So is Tiff Macklem, MA’84, PhD’89, the Bank official Wilkins replaces. And Douglas Porter, BA’82, MA’84, the chief economist at BMO.

It was at Western I learned that one of the options open to any ordinary kid was to be the best in the world at something. The “something” in question could be just about anything. That sense of a university as a community of achievement is yet another reason why the notion of a university as a physical place, a meeting place for thousands of young people and the ghosts of all who came before them, is nowhere close to being obsolete.

Paul Wells has won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada 2006-. The same book also captured the Dafoe Book Prize recently.

Paul Wells is a senior columnist for Maclean’s magazine. Follow him on Twitter @InklessPW.conductors and music educators in Canada.


This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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