Timothy Dawson got one of life’s great tips when his bass quartet was prepping for a gig at Upper Canada Brewing.
On the set list was a “rock étude” – a piece that called for no instruments, just rhythmic clapping.
But this was a gig for BASStiality. During its 15-year run, Dawson and three other Toronto Symphony Orchestra bassists in the group enjoyed staging vaudeville pranks as much as their irreverent name.
For their “rock étude,” they wanted to play actual rocks.
Dawson’s sister liked the idea, but suggested they take it one step further.
“My sister said, ‘Well, invite the head of the geology department to talk about your rocks,’” said Dawson, who also teaches music at the University of Toronto.
“I thought, ‘You’re crazy, there’s no way he’ll ever do this!’”
But the prof gave a whole-hearted “yes.” He even wore his lab coat to the show.
“We met him like five minutes before the concert, but he gave this brilliant, side-splitting dissertation about each of our rocks and how they related to our characters,” said Dawson. “The audience was in stitches.”
It was just as Dawson’s sister had told him – it’s the top people who often say yes if you ask for help, since they likely got where they are by having a positive attitude.
Dawson’s double bass is a case in point. Built around 1744 by Domenico Montagnana, renowned as one of the world’s finest makers of stringed instruments, the bass spent its early life at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Some 220 years later, the Montagnana bass came to Toronto in the hands of Tom Monohan, a Kentucky-born musician who played in several US orchestras and one in Israel before joining the TSO as its principal bassist in 1966.
By the time Monohan retired, in 1991, every bass player in the orchestra was a former pupil, Dawson included.
“Getting into the orchestra and then sitting behind Tom was just, ‘wow,’” said Dawson.
“He was one of these ‘the buck stops here’ kind of players.”
For Dawson, who was just 21 when he joined the orchestra in 1980, playing with Monohan and the TSO was like a master class he was paid for.
“It was cool because I knew that I knew nothing,” he said, adding that it takes about 10 years to learn the repertoire. “All my colleagues were amazing.”
Critics agreed. When the TSO played Dublin in 1986, an Irish Times review singled out the “superb bottom line of eight double basses of a quality not excelled even by those of the Vienna Philharmonic.”
A few years after Monohan passed away in 1994, one of Dawson’s colleagues dropped by to tell him that Monohan’s ex-wife had decided to sell the Montagnana bass. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he phoned Monohan’s ex-wife anyway.
“It’s yours,” she said.
“I’m still paying for it,” said Dawson, smiling. “But it’s such a privilege. When you play it in a section, it has a sound that kind of wraps around other players and invites them to join in the sound.”
That inviting quality of the Montagnana bass is a perfect fit for Dawson. Besides playing or teaching bass, it seems sending out invites is about all he does.
For 20 years, Dawson has invited top musicians and conductors to play in the Bach Consort – a chamber orchestra whose ticket sales and two benefit albums have raised more than $400,000 for charity.
“We say it’s giving Bach to the community,” he said with a grin.
On Nov. 28, the Consort will play Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Runnymede United, near High Park – part of what Dawson hopes will become a new tradition in Toronto, where Handel’s Messiah is the Christmas champion.
“The year we started it, there were 40 Messiahs in Toronto,” he said. “I thought, you know, there’s room for another piece.”
When he met with Beach Metro News, Dawson’s fingers were still splotched with paint from signs he was making for the performance last weekend by tango ensemble Payadora at Kingston Road United Church – the first of four benefit concerts to support the church’s accessibility ramp while landing some top talents in Kingston Road Village, including latin jazz star Amanda Martinez, CBC’s Tom Allen in an accompanied reading of pieces from Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music, and some 30 roof-raising brass players led by conductor Scott Good.
Flipping through old posters from the last six years of the Kingston Road Village concert series, Dawson passed everything from Sultans of String to a performance by his opera-singer daughter and another by Scott Good’s Vonnegut and the Slaughterhouse Orchestra.
“This was half rock band, half orchestra, with a singer that sounds like Tom Waits – a just wild piece, with lighting and everything,” he said, explaining that all the song lyrics were based on Kurt Vonnegut classics.
Dawson finally stopped on a page of plain text with no showtimes.
“This is my dream,”he said.
At the top, in bold letters, were the words “Kingston Road Arts Centre.”
It’s just a proposal right now, Dawson said, but he would love to see the chancel at Kingston Road United redesigned so the church can double as a regular venue for concerts and readings.
Dawson was inspired in part by Runnymede United, which did something similar, and by the architecture of a newer church at Victoria Park and Danforth called Seicho No le (pronounced “say-cho no yay”).
Inspired by Japanese architecture and built primarily from wood, Seicho No le features a sloped ceiling, lots of natural light, and Dawson called the acoustics “fabulous.”
Not to sit still after playing TSO gigs, teaching, and organizing the Kingston Road series, Dawson is also planning a series of six cello performances at Seicho No le – the Bach suites made famous by Pablo Casals. TSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson will play Suite 1 on Oct. 26.
“Every cellist plays these, but they were once considered just for practice, not for public performance,” said Dawson. “But now they’re concert repertoire.”
All in all, Dawson had 11 concerts to plan this summer before taking off on a TSO tour. He actually wore different hats while doing all the work so he didn’t get confused.
Money-wise, it’s all unpaid, but Dawson said that’s not how it feels.
“My life is just so rich, and so much of it comes from all the free stuff,” he said.
“The one message I’ve gotten big time – volunteering, giving yourself, you get it back like 10 times.”