Stars on Ice
Kurt List

Music of the Ice (Skating Classics) with Kurt Browning

Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC, Jan. 27, 2018

written by Tina

According to Kurt Browning, several years ago, conductor Lucas Waldin was watching figure skating on TV when he was struck by how symphonic and dynamic the music was. He got the idea to do a symphony show of skating music, and enlisted Toller Cranston to host. The concerts were a success, and a few years ago, he approached Kurt to host a new concert of skating music. Some of the music would be specific to Kurt's career, some to skating in general. Kurt, in turn, enlisted his good friend and frequent co-collaborator Geoffrey Tyler to provide the vocals for a few special songs. The collaboration resulted in a fun, poignant, beautiful, hilarious, and ultimately entertaining night of music with a few fun surprises sprinkled along the way. They have brought the concert to a few symphonies around Canada, including Kitchener and Waterloo, and I finally got the chance to catch it in Victoria, BC, with the Victoria Symphony. Though there is currently nothing scheduled, they do hope to bring this concert to other cities in the future. A fair warning before beginning this recap/review - if you do plan to see the show and don't want to know what's going to happen in advance, stop reading. I'm going to go into some detail below.

The prospect of the charismatic Kurt hosting with the symphony playing music familiar to skating already was appealing enough, but they further spiced things up with a plethora of visual imagery during the songs. Photographs from the archives of Skate Canada and video were projected up on screen, sometimes of clips of skating performances, and sometimes of entire skating performances. The concert wasn't merely a collection of familiar music, but was crafted so that each segment or song had a theme or story which Kurt introduced in his hosting and which was continued through the visuals and music itself.

The concert opened with Lucas Waldin introducing Kurt, who of course came out with a bald joke. They both talked about the concept of the show, and Kurt went on to introduce the first song, one that many skaters, including himself, had skated to. It was "time to get our Gershwin on" with An American in Paris. This was the only song in the first act with no visuals, but the music of Gershwin is dynamic enough and familiar enough that it was enjoyable to just take in the orchestra's beautiful performance. Plus, no doubt many audience members were picturing their favorite performance as they listened.

Kurt returned to stage to talk about the difficult premise skaters had to start from, working alone on a blank, white, sterile surface, standing there waiting for the music to start, frozen and awkward, with no team to help you out. How they had to draw in the audience with their performance even if the previous skater had set an entirely different tone and gotten the audience going. However, a secret weapon that a skater could employ to get an instant "in" with the audience was to start with something well known, like a popular movie character. His secret weapon, of course, was Rick, from Casablanca. The lights went down, and a video of Kurt skating to Casablanca was projected on the back wall. Lucas Waldin had re-created the exact cuts to the music that Sandra Bezic had edited together all those years ago, and the audience was treated to the orchestra playing that familiar version of Casablanca, perfectly timed to Kurt's movements in the video. I could even hear the audience starting to clap at the jumps, before remembering the skating had happened some 14 years ago and subsiding.

After making sure the audience knew and appreciated that Lucas had done the work to recreate the Casablanca score as figure skating fans knew it, Kurt went on to talk about Toller Cranston. He spoke about how great Toller was, how he set pushed boundaries and set new ones, how his skating was unlike anything else happening in men's skating at the time. He talked about his artistry and uniqueness, as well as about his actual art, and about his "dry as the Sahara" sense of humor, telling amusing anecdotes as he went. Unsurprisingly, the next number was a tribute to Toller, showing pictures and videos from Toller's childhood through adulthood, on the ice and off, set to "Selections from the ballet Gayanne", including his famous "Sabre Dance" program. It was really striking to see the old video footage and realize just what an influence Toller's skating was on modern men's skating.

Kurt came back on the stage and told the audience to keep a special eye on the dance competition at the upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang. He talked about how Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had had this great rivalry with Meryl Davis and Charlie White, resulting in an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver for each team, and how the whole time, they trained at the same rink with the same coach. And then, how Tessa and Scott had retired and this French team shot out of nowhere to win Worlds twice. But then Tessa and Scott came back and won everything, so everyone though they clearly were going to win the Olympics...but then a couple weeks ago, the French team had beaten Tessa and Scott. And the kicker was that they were also skating at the same rink..with the same coach. He used this as a launching point to talk about other famous skating rivalries over the years, from Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas with the Battle of the Carmens, to his own rivalry (but off ice friendship) with Elvis Stojko, to the Battle of the Brians and his own story of sitting in the locker room in Calgary with Brian Boitano and Brian Orser and realizing that only one of them was going to have his dreams come true that night. This led into the orchestra playing "Sing, Sing, Sing" as a whole series of skating rivalry photos were shown on screen, and not just those mentioned in Kurt's anecdotes.

The audience got a big laugh when Kurt emerged next, dressed in a tight blue velvet outfit with white fur trim and medals pinned to the chest. This, it turned out, was Donald Jackson's 1988 Calgary Olympics closing ceremonies costume, and was meant to go along with the theme of the next segment, exploring the history of the sport. It, of course, came with a series of jokes about how trim a man Donald Jackson was, and how tight the costume was on Kurt. But it also came with some interesting stories that Kurt learned after asking Donald Jackson and Barbara Ann Scott about their competitive days. Competing outdoors definitely had its challenges. The photos shown in this segment, set to "Swan Lake", came from Skate Canada's archives, and delved deeply into the history of the sport before transitioning to the future of the sport through photos of current young skaters in the CanSkate program.

The memorable emotional moments of skating are not always what happens on the ice, or are not solely what happens on the ice. Kurt spoke about how the country drew together behind Joannie Rochette at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, when she lost her mother unexpectedly just 2 days before the competition. He said he asked Joannie, a good friend of his, to tell the audience in her own words how she got through such a difficult time to go on to compete and win a bronze medal. He then played a recording he'd made of Joannie talking about how she was able to fall back on her training since she knew every note of the music and every move and expression so well that she could basically let her body go on autopilot and not have to think too much. The orchestra then played "La Cumparsita" accompanied by footage of Joannie skating to it (again matched perfectly) interspersed with photos from the event.

I imagine there were many a damp eye in the house during that song, but Kurt quickly brought the humor back by wheeling out a rack of his old costumes onto the stage. This was a tantalizing bit for a Kurt fan, because while he pulled out several costumes to tell little stories or make jokes about them, he didn't show them all. But they were still very recognizable hanging there, and brought a bit of nostalgic excitement just being there. I couldn't do justice to all the anecdotes he told, but among the costumes he showed were his Raggy the clown outfit, the Hindu War God neckpiece, his son Dillon's Brickhouse outfit from the Family Tribute a few years ago, Casablanca, his 1988 LP (first quad!) costume, his "I Wish I Could be Toller/Taller" T-shirt from a holiday show a few years ago, and more. He ended by pulling out the purple "pimp" crushed velvet jacket from "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" and making Lucas put it on, topping it off with the big sunglasses, and then directing him to conduct the next song while wearing that costume. Unsurprisingly, the next song, music from The Producers, was accompanied by a plethora of photos celebrating "the best and worst costume choices of figure skating," including video of Isabelle Brasseur & Lloyd Eisler's cross-dressing "Patricia the Stripper" exhibition.

Act I closed with the best treat of all - Singing in the Rain. Kurt came out in the wool suit, hat, and regular shoes, with the umbrella under his arm. He regretted not having two "knife blades attached to my feet" to perform it for us, and instead introduced Geoffrey Tyler to sing it, since "it's called 'Singing in the Rain', not 'Skating in the Rain'. He jealously stomped off the stage, leaving Geoffrey behind to sing the song and tap dance charmingly while the orchestra played the music. Then, partway through, Kurt suddenly sailed onto the stage in rollerblades, grabbed the umbrella out of Geoff's hand, and started to skate all over the stage while Geoffrey protested. After a few fancy footwork bits and turns, Kurt disappeared off the stage and Geoffrey resumed singing and dancing, only to have Kurt return and toss him a second umbrella. The two then began to skate and dance side by side, mirroring each others' steps and movements in a very cool way (especially given the limited amount of space on stage!). Kurt's footwork skills on rollerblades are amazing, and he even landed a single axel. At the end, Lucas played the police officer admonishing them for dancing around like that. Geoff left the stage, and Kurt stayed on, taunting Lucas behind his back and finally singing a bit himself before going off stage.

Act II opened with music from the Phantom of the Opera and no visuals. After the orchestra finished, Kurt came out to say how very nice it was to hear the music without all the figure skating edits. The Phantom of the Opera is so popular in skating, and so overused, but there are always so many edits to make it fit, that it could be painful to listen to all cut up like that. However, one skater he never tired of watching skate to it was Patrick Chan.

Kurt talked about how special a skater Patrick was, but how Patrick left skating for a while and how men's skating had exploded in the interim. How there are now five different kinds of quad on the table - not just five quads in one program, but five different quads. He talked about how Nathan Chen of the US may very well land more quads in his free program at the Olympics than Kurt landed in his entire amateur career. This led into a celebration of "some of the best jumpers and spinners" in the sport, set to "Dance of the Buffoons".

Kurt then talked about his father Dewey, who felt much more comfortable in the mountains on a horse than talking about figure skating. How his father loved meeting and talking to people, and was much more likely to be found in a bar in the arena than rinkside. And how one day his father gave him advice on skating, which was very unlike him, that has stayed with him forever. On their way into junior Canadians in Moncton, Dewey stopped young Kurt as they crossed the parking lot. He pointed out how every single car in that parking lot got there because somebody made the choice to get in that car, carve out some time from their schedules, find some money in their pockets, drive to the arena, park, and pay for a ticket to see Kurt skate. So "don't screw up". This advice made Kurt realize for the rest of his career that we weren't just a faceless crowd out there, but that each and every one of us had chosen to be there and to entrust our night to him and the symphony. He said that they were all grateful to us for that, and he thanked the audience. He then introduced the next number as one of his father's favorite songs, and of course one of his father's favorite programs that he had every performed, "What a Wonderful World." Geoffrey came back out to sing the song, and a video of Kurt performing to the song played in the background.

When Kurt came back out, he kept Geoffrey on stage for a bit to ask him what he thought was the difference between competitive and exhibition skating, since Geoff had worked on both. Geoff pointed out the rules and restrictions of competitive skating, and how the real art was finding the art around those elements. Exhibition or professional skating was much more free and unlimited, and could really show a skater's personality. This led into the next segment, showing a variety of photos from exhibition and professional skating, all set to an ABBA medley.

While Kurt was very familiar with professional skating, he said he knew next to nothing about the next segment, skating with a partner. Skating with a partner allows yo to explore an emotion you don't really get to do as a single skater - love. He then introduced the next three couples as among the best ever, even though only some of them were actually in love. This led to an extended series of pictures of Katia Gordeeva & Sergei Grinkov, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, and Jamie Sale & David Pelletier, all set to the music of Mahler.

After the song ended, Kurt talked about Sergei passing away at the age of 27, and how Katia had skated a brave beautiful solo performance to Mahler the next year. He mentioned that Tessa and Scott had won the Olympics skating to Mahler, while Jamie and David skated to Love Story, and used the latter as a springboard to talk about the changes in the judging system since the 2002 Olympics. He said that the new system was more fair and better in many ways, but that it had eliminated that reward for creating "the perfect moment", which existed with the 6.0 system. He then talked about how Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean had created that perfect moment with Bolero. Before starting the piece, Lucas praised the musicians for being every bit as hard workers and special and amazing as elite athletes, and mentioned that Bolero was one of the most technically challenging pieces for an orchestra to play, so they would would not show any visuals so we could focus on the amazing skills of the musicians and the orchestra.

Bolero was introduced as the final song of the evening, but after a bunch of bows, it turns out they weren't quite done yet. Lucas said it was time for an encore, and how they couldn't do a skating songs concert without Carmen.. He then said he had done his job for the night and how Kurt had been jabbering for hours but while he'd talked the talk, it was time for him to walk the walk, and handed him the conductor's baton. And then we got one of the most energetic, cute, hilarious, conducting sessions ever. It's a super fast song, and Kurt's arm was flying up and down (but perfectly in rhythm!) as his legs started occasionally dancing under him, and he mimicked much of what the conductor does, directing to different parts of the orchestra, getting down super low when the music had to drop in volume, reaching up really high and vibrating his hand at particularly dramatic parts, etc etc. It's hard to describe! He also occasionally turned around and gave the audience really well timed delighted looks that totally cracked everyone up. It was all in all an entirely hilarious and fun performance, and an excellent way to end the show.