Oliver Schroer’s "Camino"

Sunday, November 12
Wellington Street Theatre

Spiritual peaks were scaled in downtown Kingston this past Sunday. An evening at the Wellington Theatre set the stage for a musical and visual journey along the El Camino, or “the way”. This legendary pilgrimage traces a route across the southern hills of France into the mountains and plains of Spain. For almost a thousand years people have followed this well worn path of religious pilgrimage; today many of the hikers are artists, photographers, long distance walkers whose motivation for undertaking the journey varies from the spiritual to the physical. Travelers set out from any one of four starting points in France: Tours, Velezay, Le Puy and Arles, to reach the “Town of the Apostle”, where it is believed the remains of the first Christian martyr, St James the Apostle lay at rest.

In May of 2004 Oliver Schroer , a Canadian violinist and composer, along with his friend Peter Coffman who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at Queen’s University, and their wives Elena and Diane, walked the 800 kilometre length of El Camino. In addition to his backpack where every ounce counted, Schroer carried a portable sound recording studio and his violin. “I carried my violin like a wooden chalice, like my own precious relic”. He played his instrument in ancient sanctuaries ranging from small rural churches to massive Romanesque cathedrals and recorded each performance.

Schroer walked onto the stage and launched into a performance of the “Ultreia”, while images of the pilgrimage were projected onto a screen behind him. We were on our way forward. His five string acoustic fiddle, a combination of violin and viola, resonated through the hall. The music echoed off the four walls of the building and one could visualize standing inside the nave of a great Romanesque cathedral. The lush and haunting melodies were enhanced with a background of stark black and white photographs. Coffman’s superb images added a dramatic element to the performance. The effect of music and visuals was hypnotic. We were transfixed.

Schroer regaled the audience with stories of the many strange and marvelous encounters with innkeepers, locals and fellow pilgrims along the way. Nearing the end of his journey, he suffered a sprained foot, yet managed to complete the journey and celebrate the “Pilgrim’s Mass” in the cathedral of Santiago. At one point during his recollections of the journey, he asked how many in the audience had traveled “El Camino” and several hands shot up from the crowd. One can only imagine the spiritual elation which many of these individuals must have experienced in response to the music and the images of familiar landmarks portrayed on the screen. To re-live a journey so eloquently portrayed, must have revived a deep bond with pilgrims dating back to the 12th century.

Schroer’s playing reminded me of a performance I attended over thirty years ago when I was a student at Leuven University in Belgium. A young student was playing Bach partitas for solo violin in the Cathedral of Our Lady. The notes rose high into the ceiling overhead and floated for a short time before dissipating. Oliver Schroer took me back to the music of a time I had long forgotten.

For many of those in the audience, Schroer conveyed the conviction through the unique style of his performance that “we walk together, but from our first step to the last cobblestone, for each of us, the Camino is our own”.

His CD, aptly titled “Camino” is an exquisitely designed recording of his physical and spiritual journey along the pilgrim’s path. It echoes with the sounds of tapping footsteps marching along the pilgrim’s route, the sudden peeling of church bells, the clanging of cow bells, and the subdued conversations of pilgrims. Oliver Schroer will return to Kingston in May of 2007. For many of us in the audience, I can guarantee that we will all welcome his return. Once again we will re-live the experience of traveling the pilgrim’s route to the field of stars, in Santiago de Compostela.

by Wayne Smith

Wayne Smith is a graduate of Queen’s University and University of Leuven with degrees in Philosophy. He works at Queen’s and hosts a monthly series of writer’s workshops for Kingston authors. One of his major goals in life is to walk the Camino.

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