Harper gets on stage with a little help from his wife


Prime Minister Stephen Harper sings "With a Little Help from My Friends" and plays piano during a surprise appearance at the National Arts Centre Gala, Saturday October 3, 2009 in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sings "With a Little Help from My Friends" and plays piano during a surprise appearance at the National Arts Centre Gala, Saturday October 3, 2009 in Ottawa.

Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa — There wasn’t a senior Tory strategist, a publicity team or image consultant behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s surprise performance at Saturday’s NAC Gala.

The impresario who convinced the usually gala-shy prime minister onto the National Arts Centre stage was none other than his wife, Laureen.

“This was essentially a husband doing a favour for his wife,” said NAC Foundation CEO Jayne Watson.

But there was nothing straightforward about securing this favour. The plan involved marital cajoling, a side conversation at the G20 summit, a top-secret rehearsal nine hours before the performance, and in on the conspiracy was one of the greatest musicians of our time.

This marks Laureen Harper’s fourth year as honorary chairwoman of the gala. She did not attend last year, sending her regrets late in the game — the day after the prime minister made his controversial “people at a rich gala” comment during the 2008 election campaign.

What Laureen said to convince him, few will ever know. But that it was the missus who masterminded the moment is undeniable.

According to Watson, “about a month ago, Mrs. Harper phoned me up and said, ?What do you think if I ask my husband to come and play at the gala?’”

Thrilled, but a little skeptical, Watson responded: “Can you get him to say yes?”

Not at first. But after many years of marriage, a spouse knows when “no” means “maybe.”

The prime minister plays piano every day and often with his 13-year-old son, Ben, who is learning the drums. Still, any amateur would have second thoughts about performing in front of 2,300 people, let alone a politician who knows his every gesture will be intensely scrutinized.

But Laureen thought her husband would be game — if only he had the right encouragement. The opportunity to find some came two weeks ago at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. It happened that Yo-Yo Ma was performing at a luncheon hosted by Michelle Obama for spouses of the world leaders. At some point, Laureen found a moment to fly her idea past the world-renowned cellist.

Known as a generous artist, Ma said he thought “it would be fantastic,” said Watson.

Shortly after Ma’s blessing, the secret Harper performance was officially a go. At first, it was supposed to be just a piano solo. Then someone thought to bring in the band.

Herringbone is a three-man Celtic group composed of André Van Schyndel, Richard Linke and Phil Nolan. One of the band members has a mutual friend with Stephen Harper. Through this Tory connection, Herringbone’s been to 24 Sussex on a few occasions to jam with the piano-playing prime minister.

“The few times we’ve been, it’s just been musical fun,” said Nolan, not wanting to give the impression he hangs out casually with the PM.

About two weeks ago, the band was asked — again, through this unnamed mutual friend — if they’d like to accompany Stephen Harper at the gala.

The trio immediately began going through the repertoire they know the prime minister favours — rock ’n’ roll classics from Elton John, Billy Joel, CCR and, of course, The Beatles — looking for numbers in Harper’s modest vocal range.

Herringbone dropped by 24 Sussex last Sunday and, together with the Harpers, decided on With a Little Help from my Friends.

“It’s a fun song and The Beatles are really topical right now,” said Nolan.

They practised the piece again on Tuesday, but there was to be yet another change to the lineup.

At some point in the last week or so, someone at the NAC thought they should at least ask if Yo-Yo Ma wanted to join the prime minister on stage — after all, it was supposed to be the cellist’s gig. Again, Ma was delighted.

“And that’s how, on Saturday morning, at 9 a.m., we found ourselves sneaking Stephen Harper into the NAC to rehearse with Yo-Yo Ma and Herringbone,” said Watson.

Ma’s famous geniality was at work again during rehearsal, giving a lot of time to a piece he certainly did not need to practise.

“He’d say, ?Let’s try it this way,’ or ?Let’s do it again!’” said Watson. “I don’t think that this would have necessarily worked with another artist.”

Although it was hard to keep it secret, the performance certainly surprised the sell-out crowd on Saturday night. If Harper appeared a bit stiff at first — and who wouldn’t be nervous? — he seemed to relax once he started playing and the audience began to clap along.

The prime minister left immediately after the curtain call, although his wife stayed through the lavish post-performance dinner, as she usually does.

Privately, Laureen Harper is known to have strong political views. But she’s also been personally involved with the NAC Gala, more so than past honorary chairs. That this was her idea speaks to her political acumen and her artistic instinct.

According to Watson, Laureen Harper’s motivation was only that “she wanted to surprise people and do something fun for the gala audience who generously support the NAC and the National Youth and Education Trust.”

But it couldn’t hurt her husband’s career, either.

Politically, Stephen Harper’s performance was pitch perfect. Pundits are bestowing nothing but kudos, along with many comparisons to former president Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo on late-night TV.

While it was possible to scoff at a presidential sax gig on The Arsenio Hall Show, Harper’s concert debut with one of the world’s most beloved and revered classical masters is unassailable. It can also be read as an apology to the arts community he offended last year, but his choice of a Beatles oldie shores up his regular-guy credentials with the boomer electorate.

Perhaps more important, it shows a personal side of the prime minister that few Canadians ever see.

“I’ve never seen him look so happy,” said Watson.

“To me, that’s what music and the arts is about. I thought it was an absolutely wonderful statement about the power of music to transport people, and the power of the arts to give you a whole new perspective on life.”

Around Town: More on the

piano-playing prime minister

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sings "With a Little Help from My Friends" and plays piano during a surprise appearance at the National Arts Centre Gala, Saturday October 3, 2009 in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sings "With a Little Help from My Friends" and plays piano during a surprise appearance at the National Arts Centre Gala, Saturday October 3, 2009 in Ottawa.

Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen


More Photo Galleries

Jeremy Mackenzie

Ottawa in pictures

Got a fresh picture of life in Ottawa you'd like to...

Best in photos

Best in photos

View the best news photos from Canada and around the...


National Portrait Gallery

A few of the 12,000 portraits produced by members ...

G Smith
October 05, 2009 - 6:28 PM

Intelligent, smart and now a dash of charisma.  Brilliant.  The former Prime Minister whos best move was doing a pirouette behind the Queens back may just have to move over.  Seems a bit lame compared to Mr. Harpers performance on Saturday night.

Heard a rumour that Iggy has signed up for clarinet lessons.  Say it ain't so!

Mike in Mtl
October 05, 2009 - 6:26 PM

I think we have the 'coolest' PM ever!

Not only does he chose a visit to Tim Hortons over a pointless UN meeting... The guy can also sing and play rock-n-roll... Wow.

Way to go Lauren!!!

Gigi Marga
October 05, 2009 - 3:46 PM

He sounded just like Ringo.

October 05, 2009 - 3:22 PM

The "apology" is long overdue.  But a better apology would have been to re-institute the funding that he cut leading up to the last election for struggling arts groups in this country.

Anybody can apologize after the fact, a better action would be to correct the mistake.  That being said, well done...took guts.  I wish I had been there to see it.

October 05, 2009 - 3:02 PM

i hate harpers guts. the sooner that piece of crap gets thrown out the better.

October 05, 2009 - 1:53 PM


October 05, 2009 - 12:49 PM

Really enjoyed this. Stephen, you already had my vote. Let's hope others see the other side of you and realise any "fears" they have are unsubstantiated.

October 05, 2009 - 12:45 PM

Congratulations Mr. Harper!  Last night's performance was fantastic!  For those of you nay sayers, give your collective heads a shake and stop taking yourselves so seriously.

October 05, 2009 - 12:34 PM

Bravo!!! Despite the naysayers in this country, especially the Libs, PM Harper

chose to apologize in a creative manner. His performance was commendable

and great fun for this Canada to see and hear. Rather than pontificate with the vacuous rhetoric that is stuffed in our ears by other prominent politicos

PM Harper tickled those ivories with a little help from his friends. Right on Herringbone and Yo- Yo MA...and again BRAVO!!!    

George, from Ottawa
October 05, 2009 - 12:11 PM

I think the tune should have been dedicated to NDP leader Jack Layton, who helped Harper to get by and keep his job. At least for now.

October 05, 2009 - 11:39 AM

Thanks to all who made this happen. Our kids loved it and I'm still smiling!

October 05, 2009 - 11:35 AM

It was fun.....I enjoyed it.  Good for Steven Harper, not an easy thing to do.  

Anyone with negative comments about this preformance needs to "smack" themselves.

Bob M
October 05, 2009 - 11:30 AM

Being at the NAC Gala on Saturday night, it was a complete surprise to everyone in the audience.  Even the orchestra was surprised, wondering what was going on when the stage crew brought out the drums, moved the piano, and adjusted the microphones.  

Then, young Aden Yu, who had just finished a duet with Yo Yo Ma stepped up to the microphone at stage left and announced that he had a special surprise.  The band walked on stage followed by Harper.  Everyone wondered what would follow.  

What followed was a fun piece for both the audience and for Harper.  It was like Steve and the boys getting together to jam a bit in the basement - only this time it was centre stage at the NAC in front of 2,300 people.  He certainly deserved the standing ovation he got.  

Afterwards during the intermission in the washroom, the comments were all along the line of "that took guts!", followed by "Does it change your vote?".  


October 05, 2009 - 10:39 AM

This was a fun moment for Stephen Harper ... way to go!  To all the little childish people who choose to condemn him, all I can say is, "grow up!".  And to Ignatieff, with your petty, immature comments, all you are doing is hurting yourself because it's letting people see exactly what you really are.   Seeing Mr. Harper out of his 'bubble' was really fun to see, and I hope he takes the opportunity to connect with Canadians more often on a similar note.

October 05, 2009 - 10:06 AM

During last year's election, Harper used the image of black tie galas for elite artists to appeal to his conservative base. This year he dresses up and plays the piano to soften his image. Who will he demonize in the next election?

Keep it clean, and stay on the subject or we might delete your comment. If you see inappropriate language, e-mail us. You must have a javascript enabled browser to submit a comment.
Your Name
Your Comment

Related Topics


The Ottawa Citizen Headline News

Sign up to receive daily headline news from The Ottawa Citizen.

Top Stories from ET Canada