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Frank Horvat: No Place For Half-Heartedness

February 2011

By Mike Levin

Last year pianist and composer Frank Horvat released a new album, A Little Dark Music. The support tour he organized has become something for posterity.

It’s morphed into a 54-week run. By the end in early April, it will have visited every Canadian province and seven American states. And it has not charged audience members for a single performance.

Horvat and wife Lisa have done all the organizing. They’ve booked all the venues, cold-called 90 sponsors and done all the promotion, including a heavy dose of social media. Through it all, Frank has wrapped 60 transcontinental concerts around full-time work in Toronto as a music teacher and freelance performer. It has been, he says, “an adventure beyond belief.”

Frank Horvat's "adventure beyond belief" is winding down after a year on the road. Photo courtesy of Frank Horvat.

With eight weeks left, he’s about to return to his hometown for a two-hour show February 13 at the University of Ottawa’s Freiman Hall. Most media attention for  The Green Keys Tour has focussed on its broad elements of ecological enlightenment, on the percentage from CD sales that Horvat gives to the World Wildlife Fund and on the hour-long Earth Hour composition he plays in the dark during each performance. But Horvat’s motivation is far-more complicated than simply being a kilowatt hugger.

“The whole environmental thing didn’t come from any epiphany. (My wife and I) had changed our lifestyle to a more eco-sustainable one; that’s who we are, what we believe in. But there was still a void. I knew I had to take the message of my music and make it applicable somehow. I wanted to see if something like this could be done (with a minimal environmental footprint).”

Horvat started small, thinking that adding dates would simply mean a few more hours on a Greyhound bus. He now sees the naivety. To get here, he’s had to change part of his personality, to move from fierce independence to a state of collaboration.

“I hate asking for help, but early on I realized I’d have to swallow my pride and ask sponsors to help make (free concerts) a reality, to create a community thing where ideas and values are shared. Sort of like making the effort to shop at eco-sensitive stores.”

He found very quickly that his networking generated energy for those involved as well as momentum for his music and its messages, which fit comfortably with the lessons he learned from his parents, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.

“They’re from a place where everything is emotional so why do (anything) half-hearted? They’ve led a simple life but had great passion for instilling a sense that what is important in life is worth following,” Horvat says.

For Frank, that meant music. The Horvat house was full of it, and as an only child, he soaked luxuriously in it. His parents took him to the National Arts Centre in the 1970s to see Englebert Humperdinck and Jerry Lee Lewis. They vacationed in Hungary, where the family originated, and Frank fell in love with the repertoire of Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok.

He started piano at five and never lost the passion that came from creating with his fingers. But it was at Nepean High School that he finally realized how to make music work.

In 1992 Horvat played in the school’s jazz band, a group of 20 that won a regional band competition and with it the right to compete on a national stage in Halifax. Then Ottawa teachers went on strike.

Rather than cancel the trip, Horvat organized daily practice time in a church basement and pushed members into door-to-door fundraising. “It was just too important to let slip away. So we worked unbelievably hard to show people what we could do. We covered all the costs, and we went to Halifax (where the band won gold). I learned so much about music and business, and it’s stuck with me today.”

Which is a main reason he’s spent the past 11 months working 18-hour days – not just to promote a new album and certainly not simply to promulgate the ubiquitous message of environmental sustainability. He’s done it because he’s got stories to tell, and the magic in his fingers is the best way he knows how.

Horvat’s concert at the University of Ottawa will also riff on a themes of poverty and other global issues, using neoclassical compositions that are quite spare yet completely rhythmic.


Kel Parsons. Courtesy of Kel Parsons.

Ottawa actress Kel Parsons can be seen in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gladstone Theatre until February 26 as well in the ongoing Web series Sweet Tarts Takeaway.

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