There is a saying among photographers that the best camera is the one you have with you. In my case, I had a little point-and-shoot in my bag when I had the opportunity to watch Joni Mitchell rehearse for her performance as part of Luminato Festival at Massey Hall.
Luminato had coaxed the elusive Mitchell to come to Toronto for two special concerts that pay tribute to the songwriter as she prepares to mark her 70th birthday in November. The concerts, entitled Joni: A Portrait in Song — A Birthday Happening Live at Massey Hall, were recorded by CBC Radio 2's Canada Live and will be broadcast on July 1 at 7 p.m. and again on Nov. 7 (Mitchell's birthday). I was part of the production team recording the shows.
Mitchell was rehearsing a poem called This Rain that was inspired by Emily Carr. She was going to narrate it, along with musical accompaniment. Stepping out on the stage, Mitchell greeted the musicians, most of whom are good friends. She worried about how her health issues would affect her ability to perform. A steaming cup of tea and her electronic cigarette helped to calm her. She eventually kicked off her shoes as she settled into the familiarity of the stage.
Mitchell had once pronounced that her performing days were over. Yet you could see the joy she was getting from interacting with the musicians and recounting stories of the past. Together they worked to realize Mitchell's interpretation and to bring the poem to life. The more they experimented, the more Mitchell loosened up and expanded the character of the narration, varying her tonal range to emphasize the lines and bring colour to the lyrics. What started out somewhat stiff and structured became fluid and elastic with each go, drawing you in with that voice.
The handful of production crew that were privileged to witness Mitchell's genius at work slowly began to sneak out their cellphones to capture the moment. We knew we were witnessing musical history. I slipped out my little point-and-shoot and tried to grab a few photos — mentally cursing the focus that was moving in and out with the stage lights. Discreetly I grabbed the few photos that I could. Nobody wanted to disturb Ms. Mitchell. Nobody wanted the moment to end. And it seems that neither did Mitchell. She went on to rehearse several more songs, to the surprise of the audience.
While I wished for my DSLR camera, I was relaxed knowing that our recording mobile was on hand to record the performances and that we will be able to share them with you.
Tune in July 1 to Canada Live on CBC Radio 2 at 7 p.m./7:30 p.m. NT and hear for yourself the artistic gift that is Joni Mitchell.