Making Joyful Music
In the early 1960s, a young boy named Kerry Stratton was growing up in Belleville, a rural town in Ontario. But he found life there much too quiet — literally, very quiet. His parents didn’t attend concerts and his home had no record player. But when Kerry listened to the radio or heard a movie soundtrack, he knew one thing beyond doubt — he craved music.
Today, Kerry Stratton is the beloved and much honoured conductor of the Toronto Concert Orchestra. His accolades include being the first Canadian to conduct the St. Petersburg Camerata in the Hermitage Theatre at the Winter Palace, performing with the Beijing Symphony at the Forbidden City, 23 years as conductor and musical director of the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra, and receiving both the Masaryk and the Gratis Agit awards for his services to Czech and Slovak culture.
His path to becoming a world-class conductor has been a difficult one — including having two fingers surgically reattached to his hand after an accident — but Stratton’s enthusiasm for orchestral music never faltered. “I believe music is almost 100 percent joy,” he says with a boyish twinkle in his eyes.
“People have the wrong idea about music when they say it should be admired and respected. Music isn’t written to be respected: it’s written to be loved. Music that touches your heart… no one can steal that from you. It’s yours… forever. That’s what conducting lets me do — share my passion and pleasure with the audience.”
This need for music and art, Stratton believes, is part of humanity’s genetic makeup. “There are caves in France that are said to have been inhabited in the ages before Christ. They are protected, dry — good reasons for why they would be used for shelter. But no one has ever been able to explain why those early people painted the walls.”
World of discovery
Stratton describes convincing his parents to give him music lessons as akin to “mounting a military campaign.” As a first step, he persuaded his mother to buy a record player. But records were expensive — $4.99 each.
“My father said: ‘do you know how many chores you have to do to make four dollars and 99 cents?’” Somehow Stratton makes the word “know” sound like it’s three syllables long. “I said: ‘Yes, and I will do them.’ I also collected empty bottles everywhere I could — along the roads, in dumps, even in junkyards. I’d put them in my bicycle carrier, wash them, and get my two cents per bottle.” He grins. “You need a lot of two-cent bottles to make up five dollars plus tax, plus shipping.”
Then Stratton discovered a mail-order record club and his world changed. “I could get four records for 99 cents if I promised to buy four more at full price.” His first purchase was Fritz Reimer conducting Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with the Chicago Symphony. That record is still one of the most prized among the Maestro’s collection. “I felt like an explorer every time a new record arrived. Who was this Chopin, this ‘Miz-oor-ski’? Was that even how you pronounced their names?”
Stratton’s parents gave in and let the boy study music. His first break came in high school when the music teacher said: “So Kerry, you want to be a conductor? Why don’t you try conducting for tomorrow’s Assembly?” In no time, the young man was conducting every Assembly and other musical events for the school.
In McGill University, Stratton became Assistant Conductor for the Montreal Junior Symphony, occasionally covering for the regular conductor and ultimately taking on the full-time position when the elder man retired.
Art and passion
“Everything you need to learn about the technical side of conducting can be taught very quickly,” Stratton stresses. After that, the difference between success and failure is the conductor’s personality and passion. “When you listen to an orchestra, you are really listening to the conductor — the same as anyone can read Hamlet but it takes actor John Gielgud to give you the chills.”
Encouraging aspiring young performers and conductors to develop this ability of sending shivers down the spines of their audience is another facet of Stratton’s career. He’s particularly delighted when he can offer students a rare opportunity to conduct at summer festivals. “Why is this important? If your child wants to study the violin it’s easy — you buy them a violin. Even a cheap violin will do. But if your child wants to be a conductor, their instrument is an orchestra. It’s a little more difficult to buy one of those.”
Follow your heart
Stratton believes when a child shows genuine enthusiasm for music, ongoing exposure to different styles is key. “Take them to concerts to see what they like, but pick the right concerts. We now have four generations of children who grew up on television — four minutes, stop, four minutes, stop. I don’t like it, but you work with it. A lot of people say they’re embarrassed to say the first place they heard a symphony is in cartoons. I say — me too! And don’t be upset if you hope your child will play violin but they like the clarinet because, ultimately, it’s all good.”
The maestro is a vocal advocate for the need to encourage musicality for all students during their school years. “We teach so many things in school that those students will never use. Teach music, and it stays with you forever.”
One of the simplest solutions, he suggests, is singing. “Voice is the instrument that’s free and everyone has it. On the faces of six-year-old children, I’ve seen the feeling of accomplishment that comes from creating something that sounds beautiful. We helped one primary school put on an opera called Brundibár, and the teacher wrote to me to say that the children still get together at recess to sing.”
George Bernard Shaw once said “in heaven, before the throne of God, the angels play Bach — but at home they play music.” And whether he’s at home, on the international stage, or engaging with the youngest new talent, Kerry Stratton is fulfilling his childhood dream of joyfully filling his life with music.