It is no coincidence for Michael Baker to end up as a career musician as he was surrounded by all types of music from childhood. Sunday family dinners were always followed by impromptu concerts of Neapolitan Art songs and opera arias.
Michael’s dad was an amateur violinist and a semi-professional alto sax man. Michael’s first ever gig was in his dad’s dance band.
His mom Marcelle was a professional pianist and church organist who could play Brahms for fun at home in the afternoon and play her top-40s nightclub gig the same day. She was also the silver medallist at the Royal Conservatory Voice Competition.
Their church choir (Immaculée Conception – Edmonton) was made up of many family members and at one time included Canadian baritones Bernard Turgeon and Robert Goulet.
The list of other family members in the arts is vast and includes opera singers, musicians, graphic designers, and painters. His uncles and mom along with family friend Jean Letourneau set the groundwork for the foundation of the Edmonton Opera Association.
Uncle Maurice Lorieau was the founding President of the Calgary Opera Association in 1972 and recipient of the Governor General Sovereign’s Medal in 2001. Uncle Paul Lorieau was the National Anthem Voice of the Edmonton Oilers for 30 years. Cousin Pierre Lorieau besides practising law is also the Director of the Opera Française in New York City. Cousin Henri Lorieau was a pianist and arranger in Vancouver. He was also the Music Director and Arranger for the two-year Vancouver run of the Tom Jones Show, arranging for the likes of Rita Coolidge, Paul Anka, Gladys Knight, and Chaka Kahn.
While still in high school, Michael joined the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra with a per-service contract. During those early years, Michael also freelanced in many venues as a drummer and percussionist. He was a session drummer and arranger at Project 70 Studios, staff drummer at Citadel Theatre, percussionist with the Tommy Banks Big Band (The Performers – CBC), and notably drummer with the Edmonton Jazz/Rock Ensemble. Members of this particular group included vocalist Judy Singh, bassist Dave Young (Oscar Peterson), Earl Seymore (Blood Sweat and Tears), and Rick and Jim Tait (Manteca). He was also a percussionist with the Alberta Pops Orchestra under the legendary Arthur Fiedler.
As a session drummer, Michael also recorded with Gabrielle Bugeaud, Rolanda Lee (Edmonton’s Klondike Kate), Clarence (Big) Miller, Garry Donnelly, Sheryl Keela, and Gary Fjellgaard, among others.
Later on, Michael moved to California to continue studies with three summers at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and freelanced in Los Angeles. He was Principal Timpani of the Ventura Symphony (New West Symphony) and gigged with the orchestras of Santa Barbara, Long Beach, and the Committee on the Arts Orchestra.
Upon returning to Edmonton, Michael was the defacto Principal Percussion of the ESO and declined the offer from then Music Director Pierre Hétu of the permanent position to assume the Principal Timpani Chair of the Mexico State Symphony.
He later became the founding Principal Timpanist of the Mexico City Philharmonic. He was the founding Professor of Timpani and Percussion at the Escuela Vida y Movimiento and the founding President of the Mexico City Chapter of the Percussive Arts Society. He was also a member of the Pan American Percussion Ensemble under conductor and composer Jorge Sarmientos.
Michael returned to the Mexico City Philharmonic on a sabbatical invitation from Music Director Jorge Mester during their 2000/01 season. During this time, he also played a number of freelance gigs with the Orquesta de las Americas under Bejamin Juarez, and he played on a number of freelance recording projects that included newly discovered Baroque music found during further archeological excavations of the cathedral in downtown Mexico City. He also spent that summer as the drummer for the Mexico City production of Man of la Mancha.
With the Mexico City Philharmonic, Michael has toured around the word performing in venues such as the Berlin Philharmonie, Konzerthaus – Vienna, Royal Concertgebouw – Amsterdam, Beethoven Hallé – Bonn, Teatro Colon – Buenos Aires, and Suntory Hall – Tokyo. He has shared the stage with performers as diverse as Renata Scotto, Beverley Sills, Henryk Szeryng, Janos Starker, Lighthouse, and Chuck Mangione. Over the course of his career, he has played under the batons of an estimated 300 conductors that include Leonard Bernstein, Eduardo Mata, Efrem Kurtz, Kurt Klippstatter, and Isaac Karabchevsky.
At the invitation of then Music Director of the Dallas Symphony, Eduardo Mata, Michael recorded the Carlos Chavez Partita for Solo Timpani at the RCA studios in New York City. This was part of a recording project of Chavez music with the Dallas Symphony. Michael later performed the world premier of this piece at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.
Michael has played on an estimated 800 recordings and television performances for CBC Records, Angel, Desto, Forlane, Televisa-Canal 8, and PBS with most of the aforementioned orchestras.
Notable performances with the Mexico City Philharmonic include the annual United Nations Day Concert 1981 in the General Assembly Room and a gala concert in Mexico City for then US President Jimmy Carter. Both concerts were broadcast internationally on PBS.
In 2021 Michael was a Guest Artist at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. This annual gathering draws between five and six thousand players, educators, and industry leaders from around the world.
Always an enthusiastic educator, his first and second-generation students perform in every orchestra in Mexico, across Latin America, and also in Europe. Many are now teachers themselves across Mexico and the US. One former student is the first percussionist in the history of Manhattan School of Music to win their concerto competition. Others include founding members of Scrap Arts – Vancouver, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble – Mexico City, Blue Man Group – Chicago, and the Tonhalle and Chamber Orchestras of Zurich.
Michael was a timpani student of Cloyd Duff at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He also studied with snare drum genius Forrest Clark of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and keyboard wizard Earl Hatch – Paramount Studios.
Michael is a founding member of Symphony Nova Scotia and also Principal Timpani at Colorado MahlerFest. He is an endorsee of Sabian Cymbals and Evans Drumheads.
Q&A with Michael
Do you play any other instruments?
Trumpet and piano. Trumpet was my first instrument but I’m glad my folks insisted I study piano.
Can you tell us a funny story about your experience with Symphony Nova Scotia?
Back when we were working under Georg Tintner, one of our trumpeters, Jeff, was late for a rehearsal one day – so we dressed up a bassoon case in a winter coat and a toque on his chair, and set a trumpet on its lap. Luckily for us (and for Jeff!), Tintner didn’t notice. If he did, he didn’t say anything, not even when Jeff showed up 45 minutes later. I had to hide behind the timpani I was laughing so hard.
What do you love about symphonic music?
It’s the only thing I’m good at!
If you couldn’t be a musician, what would you like to do?
Pro golf. Not a playing pro (too stressful) but a teaching pro.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
… Is this a rhetorical question?
What’s the best gig you’ve performed at? Why was it so great?
I’ll always remember when Leonard Bernstein came to conduct the Mexico City Philharmonic for a gala concert for US President Jimmy Carter. It was an incredible experience. For the dress rehearsal we had a line of people that went around the block. At this same rehearsal Bernstein showed up in a white suit and full-length white cape and the crowd went bananas! The concert itself was amazing, and was broadcast live around the world on PBS.
Indulge me with a second one! Back with the Mexico City Philharmonic we had a runout concert in Puebla, a city then of about 5 million with a large and historically important cathedral downtown.
The main part of the program was 1812 overture. For logistics reasons we couldn’t all rehearse together, so we assembled for a quick sound check shortly before concert time. We setup in front of this huge church with our core orchestra of 110 players and chorus of 250 singers. Around the back of the orchestra were positioned 50 military brass players. Then the surprises stared when we got to the famous chorale near the end of the overture. The cathedral bells started and then the fireworks began. Then by radio walkie-talkies from our percussion section, the army (setup a mile away of on hill) started firing their canons! It was all beyond thrilling and the fifteen thousand people in attendance went wild. The best part is I still have my hearing.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Frank Zappa, Boz Scaggs, Arturo Sandoval, and Mahler.
What’s a fact that nobody would know about you?
If I told you that…
What’s your favourite indulgence?
I can’t tell you that either!
Who is the person who most influenced you, and how/why?
I’m a Heinz 57 – there are too many to mention. If there was one, it would have to be my timpani teacher Cloyd Duff of the Cleveland Orchestra. He was the master of ‘pay if forward’.
What’s your favourite food?
Chicken mole. Mole is a chocolate and peanut sauce. If you know you know!