OOO firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.toronto_star 2005-08-08 published
John GOVEDAS, 55: A force of nature with 88 keys
John GOVEDAS brightened up choir rehearsals
Pianist also brilliant composer and arranger
By Catherine DUNPHY, Obituary Writer
They are an unheralded lot, these accompanists in school gyms or drafty church basements hunched in balled sweaters over pianos that may or may not be in tune, playing for bored and/or restless choristers who may or may not be in time or on the same note.
Then there was John GOVEDAS.
A big man, a nutty professor of a guy, he would burst into rehearsals, streaming sheet music behind him -- and everything, including the choir he was about to accompany, was brighter.
"Behind your back he would be winding the kids up," said Margaret STANFIELD, the renowned and recently retired music director at Howard Jr. Public School. "He would make faces behind the conductor's back. He could be a distraction."
Before every school practice, the kids would crowd around GOVEDAS at the piano, giggling at the buck teeth and horns he added to the pictures he'd taken of them with his new digital camera. Then there was the fake hand that appeared at Halloween.
Indeed the clown who could break into The Simpsons theme song to crack up a choir hid the artist, the lyrical pianist, the composer, the arranger with the uncompromising standards and the need to hone musical expression to those same standards, to an always higher level.
"Either you could work with John or you couldn't. He was intimidating. He could wreak havoc at a rehearsal if he sensed you weren't strong or confident," said Shelagh COHEN, who could and did work with GOVEDAS for years, even after she left conducting in schools to work in administration for the Toronto public board's music department.
GOVEDAS went on to do all the accompanying work for the board.
"(His) piano was never relegated to a supporting role but was an integral part of the song," STANFIELD said in her eulogy to GOVEDAS, who died May 11. He was 55.
She was another music teacher/choir director who faced down GOVEDAS and won his Friendship. "I inherited him," she said when she went to Glen Ames school to teach. "I was told I should keep him, that he was brilliant. And that's what he was: brilliant."
The two worked together for 20 years, 16 of them at Howard school, talking over repertoire and interpretation and producing a long run of award-winning choirs from there.
GOVEDAS used to attack the piano, STANFIELD said. "He grunted, he groaned and sweated, as his page turners knew. He was a force of nature at the piano."
GOVEDAS accompanied school choirs all over town; among them those at John Wanless, Glen Ames, John Ross Robertson, Maurice Cody, Earl Haig and Gledhill schools. He accompanied adult singers as well in the High Park community choir, the Riverdale Youth Singers and the Milton Choristers. For a time he led a girls' choir in Hamilton and for 35 years he was choir director at his own church.
In his music-strewn apartment in High Park, he arranged and composed music on his electric piano. He wrote "I am the Song," a favourite with many of his school choirs. His 1996 version of "I'se the B'y" has been performed by choirs in Iceland and Australia as well as Newfoundland.
COHEN said she had to fight with GOVEDAS to show her that arrangement he insisted he'd written it for the high school voice, not that of an elementary school-aged child. And it was true that GOVEDAS, whose music degree from the University of Toronto was in choral composition, had a gift: he knew how to write for a child's voice, knew its range, understood that it is tricky for youngsters to hit a high G on an E or I vowel sound, although somewhat easier for them to manage it with the more open A, Ah, O or OOO vowel sounds. He knew how to make the rhythm fit the text, often frightening the conductors who knew there would be lots of meter and rhythm changes.
"The children found his music easy to learn, yet it was not easy music," said COHEN. " His music sat so well with the children's voice. And they adored his songs."
There were always accolades for his compositions at the annual Kiwanis music festivals. So COHEN persevered until her friend finally brought in a scratchy, scribbled manuscript of "I'se the B'y." It was the Maurice Cody school choir, under COHEN, who first performed the piece.
GOVEDAS had many commissions, writing music for families of all faiths to mark special occasions, and for both Howard and Northlea schools, long-time rivals at the Kiwanis festivals.
While music director at one Catholic church -- the Lithuanian Martyrs in Mississauga -- he was commissioned to write music for another, the Church of the Holy Resurrection. He once proudly showed STANFIELD the medal he received from the Lithuanian government for his contribution to his cultural heritage, and it was at church, the centre of community life for many Lithuanians, where he discovered his love of music.
When Lithuanian Martyrs was still located on College Street, it had a magnificent pipe organ that entranced a 6-year-old GOVEDAS waiting while his mother attended choir practice. When he was 10, his parents bought a piano; when he was 12, he was playing the organ at church; at 16, he got his first paid gig, playing for a wedding.
His brother Denis can't remember a time when John was not playing the piano at their home. That focus stayed with him for the rest of his life. "He was always so busy with his music, always running," said Denis.
But when John came to his home for Christmas in 2003, Denis knew something was wrong when his normally ebullient brother was subdued. And it was obvious he was in pain when he visited three months later.
"He kept procrastinating seeing a doctor," said Denis. "For John there was no other world than music."
By 2004, STANFIELD too was worried about her friend, especially as the February date for the annual Kiwanis festival neared. "He wouldn't let go," she said. "We were torn between saying to him that he must stop, but the feeling was that he would have given up sooner on life if he had been shut out."
Gaunt and grey-skinned, he was at the piano when Howard's primary choir, the Grade 3s, sang "Piping Down the Valleys Wild" and "The Brown Bird Singing," the latter a favourite of GOVEDAS.
"At the end they had to hold a high F note and they held it beautifully and I remember thinking I am going to hang onto this a little longer. It was an exquisite moment and John knew it too," said STANFIELD. " When they sang that last perfect note he smiled at them and nodded."
The choir won the award as best of its class, and GOVEDAS was determined to accompany his singers, as well as the choir from Earl Haig school, at the upcoming Spring Festival, the annual city-wide concert of school choirs that takes place each May at Massey Hall.
COHEN had also hired GOVEDAS for that concert to accompany the mass choir singing his piece "I am the Song," although by March she realized he wasn't going to be able to play. Still she sent the program to the printers with his name on it: "I thought I can't remove him now since it may dash his hopes and his determination."
But 10 days before the concert, GOVEDAS was moved into the palliative care unit at St. Michael's Hospital and COHEN and STANFIELD began talking about having him attend Spring Fest 2005 in a wheelchair. But when it was time for the concert, May 4, GOVEDAS was in a coma and unable to witness COHEN conduct the choir as they sang the piece he had written 11 years earlier for that same event.
It was performed just before the intermission and COHEN had arranged for the sound engineer to record and make a Compact Disk of the piece then and there.
"I went beating down Queen St. in all my finery and ran up to the 4th floor (at St. Mike's) and handed the Compact Disk to Denis," COHEN recalled. I spoke to John and told him it was a great show and that he had a lot of applause."
As Denis played the piece, COHEN said she saw "a little movement" of John's head, a "little wrinkle" of the brow. "I think he heard it," Denis said.
STANFIELD has put together a tribute Compact Disk "of all the songs I could find that were previously recorded and arranged or written by him." It is called A Tribute to John GOVEDAS and Howard school is selling it to raise money for an award in his name to be presented at future Kiwanis festivals.
And come spring, she will organize a concert to honour the man for whom the music never stopped.
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