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.”
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