HE TOOK A PLANE TO TORONTO.
Once there, he'll go to a bank.
If all goes well, he'll come back with merchandise worth $7.5 million.
North Vancouver musician Ariel Barnes is one of 10 cellists competing in the 2012 Musical Instrument Bank Competition. The top prize is the opportunity to choose between the finest cellos under the care of the Canada Council's Musical Instrument Bank, including one instrument crafted by legendary Italian artisan Antonio Stradivari.
"To have the opportunity to play an instrument built by Antonio Stradivari is a rare one and a beautiful one," says Barnes, sitting in a North Vancouver coffee shop the day before hopping a plane for Hogtown. "There are four cellos in the instrument bank, but of course the one that most cellists have their eyes set on is the Bonjour Stradivarius built in 1696. So, to have an instrument that echoes that much history in your hands is a really special thing."
The winner will have the opportunity to perform and record with the cello for the next three years.
Over the course of more than 60 years in the 17th and 18th centuries, Stradivari built approximately 1,100 instruments using spruce, willow, maple, and woodworking techniques that continue to be debated today.
Only 650 instruments remain from that workshop in Cremona, Italy, but they continue to be prized by virtuoso musicians like Yo-Yo Ma.
Born to a violinist and a composer, Barnes grew up to the music of Beethoven and Bach and was playing squeaky renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on his own violin at the age of two.
"I was just sort of attracted to the instruments that were around me. I would take my mom's violin and hold it inbetween my legs like a cello and try and bow it," Barnes recalls.
Upon reaching the age of three, Barnes moved in a new musical direction.
"As the story goes, my mom and a string quartet were rehearsing in the living room and I just gravitated towards the cellist and wouldn't stop standing too close. I asked for two years for a cello and finally got one when I was five. My mom made me agree to two conditions: that was I would play until I was 16, and I would carry it myself."
Following the teaching method of Shinichi Suzuki, Barnes' parents taught music as you teach a child language.
"He felt that if children learned how to play an instrument that they would become better citizens of the world. They would become more sensitive to the human condition," Barnes says of the Suzuki method.
The young cellist first held a room with his playing after moving from Toronto, Ont. to attend Hebrew school in Boston, Mass.
"I remember playing performances for the entire congregation at seven years old," he says.
Boston is also where Barnes first experienced popular music.
"My mom played in the Boston Symphony and in the summer we would go up to the Tanglewood Institute," he says. "Tanglewood was a huge outdoor music venue. There was a place called the Shed there, and big rock bands would come through and play The Shed because it was a covered roof and then open walls and it would extend up to these huge grounds. People could lay out blankets. You could fit thousands of people on the grounds at Tanglewood. So it's there that I discovered the music of the Beach Boys, who were probably one of the earliest rock bands I can remember hearing live, and the Moody Blues. . . . I remember hearing these bands. Standing at the gates and listening to these shows. Not even going in, being on my step-dad's shoulders and watching the shows from outside the gates."
While Barnes' father composed melodic music inspired by his Jewish culture, his step-father played in a rock band and studied the Qur'an.
Barnes' step-father, Don DiNovo, is likely best known for contributing his violin and viola to the Canadian prog rock band Lighthouse.
"He bought this church many years ago for Lighthouse to record in so they made records in the sanctuary in this old church in the Ontario countryside," Barnes says.
As a teenager, Barnes says he tried to distance himself from his family by severing his ties with music.
"When I was 14 I was just adamant about not playing anymore. I think part of that was the fact that I was involved in a musical family and that was my way of trying to separate myself or become an individual," he says.
After being forced to attend the Marrowstone Music Festival, Barnes found himself transformed.
"It proved to be a real TSN turning point in my rebellion as a teenager in regards to music. I absolutely fell in love with playing chamber music that summer. . . . I played a performance of the Mendelssohn Octet, which is a seminal work in the chamber music literature, and I felt the rush," he says. "I absolutely fell in love with what live classical music was and with the gifts that I'd been given with all the support and nurturing and the purchasing of instruments, private lessons I'd received, it all came together at that moment. I went, 'Oh, this really is for me, it's not about my mom or about anybody else.' From that point on I always stuck with it."
Barnes has played as a soloist, in an orchestra, and with Couloir, a cello/harp duo with Heidi Krutzen.
Now, he's ready for the myriad of creative possibilities represented by a new instrument.
"Stradivari's are typically known for having a rich, deep tone with a lot of character a lot of colour, and great projection," he says.
However, while the Stradivarius is the most highly-prized instrument, Barnes is also eager to put a bow to the Newland Joannes Franciscus Celoniatus cello.
Made of black Italian poplar in 1730, Barnes says a few of his colleagues have suggested that cello may be the best the bank has to offer.
A proponent of visualization, Barnes has already imagined himself at the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street West in Toronto.
"I'd like to go to the location where I'm auditioning a little bit early to just be in the space," he says.
While auditions and competitions provide a slightly different energy than recitals, Barnes says he is largely immune from the stage fright and performance anxiety that cause many musicians to reach for drugs designed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"Every now and then your heart will start to pound in your throat and you can feel it against the collar of your shirt," he says. "Some people really struggle psychologically with the whole idea of performance, but many years ago I came to terms with the fact that if this is was what I was going to do with my life, and this is what I'm passionate about, why should I be so scared of it?"
For Barnes, overcoming nervousness is like crossing a border that lies between performer and audience.
"I find that the most rewarding performances, not only for me but also for audience members are ones in which I'm very connected to the music making and I'm just wholeheartedly involved in what I'm doing. And when I feel nervous I feel there's a wall between me and the real matter at hand, the subject matter of the music, or the poetry of the music."
Barnes speaks with equal enthusiasm about Beethoven and Duran Duran as formative influences on his childhood. That diversity of taste may give him an advantage at the competition, where each musician is expected to play two contrasting pieces.
After playing a solo cello piece from "Allemande" by J.S. Bach, Barnes is planning to perform "Vez" by Serbian/ Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic, which he calls "a drastically different sound world than Bach."
"Vez in Serbian means embroidery or needlework, and this piece, in a very abstract but understandable way, references the whole idea of notes threading in and around various accented pitches. And she uses an incredibly diverse palette of colour and energy in this piece," he says.
Focusing on the intention of the composer is utmost in his mind when he performs.
"I'm moreso thinking about the human spirit, really. I just really try and tap into what it is the music is expressing and how to convey that to people, it doesn't matter if they're 15 or 55 or 85."
The finals of the competition are scheduled for Sept. 21. Barnes scheduled his return trip for Sept. 22.
For more information on the competition visit instrumentbank.canadacouncil.ca.