If you have ever seen the Quebec entertainer Gregory Charles perform you will know that he has a remarkable memory. Many of his shows are based on random rapid-fire requests for songs thrown at him from the audience.
His recall is extraordinary and covers just about every musical genre. He learned this skill from his mother Pierrette, who was an opera singer and an organist.
It is certainly tragic then that his mother, who died in January, contracted Alzheimer’s and lost her memories at the end of her life and now his father Lennox has the same condition.
“To me memory is extremely moving, extremely important. As long as I have mine I am going to use it,” he said in an interview before two shows he is doing at the Music and Beyond Festival this week. “I’m no different from kids who love soccer and who can tell you how many goals a star player has scored. I love music so much.
“Now because of my parents, it’s even more personal. Every time I play something I think about mom and dad.”
The first show Charles is doing features four young performers from a Radio Canada TV show that he has hosted for three years called Virtuose.
“That show is amazing. It’s completely crazy we are not doing this show in English because we are recruiting kids seven to 17 from across Canada from Vancouver to P.E.I.”
The young people play classical music on violin, woodwinds, cellos and some are singers.
“People forget that 90 per cent of minors who study music, study classical music. I know most people think classical music is fringe music. It’s not so fringe. It’s like ballet. A lot of people may feel it’s a dead art form, but, excuse me, there are ballet classes across this country. How many conservatories are there for hip hop.”
In the first half Thursday night, the young performers will play solos and in the second half they will emulate Charles, who hosts and accompanies on piano, and take requests.
“People know I can do that but when they see and hear a 10 year old do it, they are impressed.”
On July 14, Charles will play some classical music in the first half of his show with Julian Armour (the cello-playing artistic director of Music and Beyond) and some of his colleagues.
One of the pieces he’ll play is the Spellbound Concerto by Miklos Rosza which was written for a movie of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock. Movie music in the classical style appeals to Charles.
In the second half of the show, he will do a variation on his requests theme.
“I have this theory that music is a better history teacher that the history books. So I am going to ask people to give me a year and we might go back to end of second world war to 2017. I’ll tell the story of that year through songs from that year.
“Depending on year I might play one song or I might play seven.”
His mother inspired this idea because she was always encouraging her son to connect music to real life; to sports, to politics.
“She thought it was the best way to reach people and make it real.”
Charles says he “can tell people all about a song, where was on an album, when the album was recorded, who was playing and what was No. 1 that week. That was the household I was brought up in. Music was the glue for everything else.
“My mom was all about not forgetting and the irony was she ended up with Alzheimer’s.”
You might think performing, recording and the like would be enough in a busy life.
But Charles does so much more. He started directing choirs in high school and he still does that. His company has purchased two radio stations in Quebec that play classical music. And he is the newly appointed artistic director of the annual Lanaudiere festival.
“I know it’s going to sound weird but my parents when I was kid told me that the point of life was to divide your time into three parts. One third you spend with family and loved ones. One third you spend developing your talents and abilities to the utmost and the other third you spend trying to contribute to society.
“I started directing choirs in high school and I have done it ever since. That is part of my contribution to the next generation. At same time I started teaching at end of high school. And I’ve been teaching drop outs for years now.”
The man doesn’t sleep, clearly.
These days he says he is trying to consolidate all the strands of his life and point them in one direction.
His teaching side will now be focused on an online project to teach children classical music. That connects to his role at Lanaudiere, his radio stations and his TV shows such as Virtuose.
“I haven’t played much classical music in past 20 years, but I know that the best way to learn music is through classical music. And I know that music education is in bad shape in the schools and in families.
“I feel like the Montreal Canadiens. They have been building rinks in Montreal for people to use, making it possible for kids to play hockey.” It’s audience development and community building at the same time, he believes.
“If I encourage people to learn classical music or to listen to classical music, by owning classical radio stations, then it makes sense. If I use TV to promote youth talent through classical music.”
That connects to Lanaudiere. As a kid, Charles went to a music camp close to the festival. The festival founder Pere Fernand Lindsay also wanted young people to see what it was like to be a professional musician.
“I have felt personally involved with that festival ever since. When there was vacancy last year, I thought I might be the right person to build a bridge between those who love classical music and those who don’t.
“I’m eternally happy because of music. I feel a little bit like I know the gospel of happiness through music and I would be crazy not to want to share this gospel with everyone.”
He does have his dad to care for so he is selling his home in Montreal and moving into a house that is more suited to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“Dad’s condition demands a new location. We can see it coming. He’s less mobile and conscious. We want to keep him with our family as long as we can and that requires a new location and a different setting. It’s not a burden. It’s a true privilege.
“My parents did everything in their power to help me. We never owned a car but we did have a grand piano. I really appreciate that. They gave me gift of music and now I can return the favour. My dad’s face lights up when we start playing music.
“I have a five year old and a 77 year old and my job is to care for both.”
Gregory Charles at Music and Beyond
When: July 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
An Evening with Gregory Charles
When: July 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church