Wednesday, July 30, 2008

oliver schroer 1956-2008

July 3rd saw the passing of Oliver Schroer, the admired Canadian musician and composer whose unique gift back to Saint James' Way was the stunning Camino CD, a collection of original compositions recorded in churches along the way to Santiago, and mixed in with the ambient sounds of the pilgrimage. I was very fortunate to see Oliver's last show June 6th, four weeks before his death. Performed at Toronto's Trinity Saint Paul's Church and billed (with characteristically mordant humour) "Oliver's Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet," it was a generous two-and-a-half hours of music, mostly solo, a remarkable feat of bravura and stamina for a man near the end of a protracted fight with leukemia - really the show of a lifetime.

Oliver was a tremendous catalyst in Canadian music, as the "Olifiddle" benefit concerts held for him at Hugh's Room during the past year made evident. I attended two of the evenings last summer, where musicians from all over Canada delivered their testimonials to the influence Oliver had had on their lives, careers and musical styles. There was every sort of musician present, but above all, the evenings belonged to the fiddlers. I would never have guessed the wealth of fiddle talent that exists in this country.

And the fiddlers were in evidence at Oliver's final show as well, not only on stage but in the audience. During the first encore, "A Song for All Seasons" from his Hymns and Hers album (recorded during his sickness), a dozen or so of Oliver's students who had flown in from BC went strolling through the auditorium, serenading the audience as they accompanied Oliver. Even when the concert was over, it wasn't over. My wife and I lingered another fifteen minutes at the doors of the church to hear a lively impromptu concert (in Oliver's coined term, "a random act of violins") delivered by these same young artists. It wrapped up a deeply sad and joyous evening.

Oliver's memory is not fading anytime soon. His youth corps, The Twisted String, are forging ahead under the management of Oliver protegees Emilyn Stam and Chelsea Sleep (not to mention terrorizing the Toronto subway system - see the YouTube video), as is Oliver's old band, the Stewed Tomatoes, with Jaron Freeman-Fox - whose sly and sprited duet with Oliver was one of the sensations of the concert - taking over the fiddle duties from the master.

And on the Camino side of things, Peter Coffman, Oliver's walking companion, who was on hand for the original recordings and took the powerful black-and-white photographs used in the CD booklet, has a book of his Camino photography coming out next year with Ottawa publisher Novalis. Perfect material, along with Oliver's music and a glass or two of tinto, to stir memories of the long walk to the west that binds us all together.

Photo credit: Peter Coffman (whose website has now been under construction for nearly as long as Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.)