When it comes to playing music, the Victoria Symphony’s special guest describes himself as “reasonably competent,” albeit “not great.”
In the world of symphony orchestras, that might seem, well … unusual. But then, Chris Hadfield’s biggest claim to fame is as an astronaut, not as a soloist.
On the eve of his Victoria Symphony debut, Hadfield spoke to the Times Colonist about his limited proficiency as a trombonist (both regular and bass trombone) in high school and university. Back then, he played in stage bands and jazz bands.
Later, Hadfield — who sings, plays guitar and composes — developed sufficient chops to go semi-pro, gigging in bar bands. He even joined a Celtic group that played for thousands at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in France.
Hadfield is best known as the mustachioed, music-loving astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. Before hanging up his spaceboots four years ago, he operated the Canadarm, flew two space-shuttle missions and was commander of the International Space Station.
He’s also something of a social-media whiz — his pioneering musical achievement was video-recording David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the space station. The clip attracted millions of hits on YouTube, making him an international celebrity. In 2015, he released Space Sessions: Songs From a Tin Can, an album recorded in space.
Some of his original compositions from Space Sessions — Beyond the Terra, Big Smoke and Space Lullaby — will be performed by Hadfield and the Victoria Symphony on Friday and Saturday.
The concert, conducted by Giuseppe Pietraroia, also includes spacey orchestral music such as the themes from Star Wars, Star Trek and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Now living in Toronto, Hadfield claims a couple of Victoria links. He’s skied at Mount Washington; his mother-in-law has lived here for years. And Hadfield studied mechanical engineering at Royal Roads Military College for two years in the late 1970s.
He was a fighter pilot and a test pilot before becoming an astronaut. After graduating from the University of Tennessee Space Institute in 1992, he was one of four Canadian astronauts selected from a field of more than 5,000 applicants. Through the Canadian Space Agency, Hadfield was assigned to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.
Hadfield, 57, grew up in an 1845 farmhouse in southern Ontario. His father was an Air Canada pilot.
Watching the 1969 moon-landing as a nine-year-old got him interested in the idea of being an astronaut. He knew it was — both figuratively and literally — a long shot. “We didn’t have astronauts in Canada. We didn’t even have a space agency. I watched the first people walk on the moon and thought: ‘Now that is a possibility,’ ” he said.
Hadfield, who retired in 2013, has written three books, including his autobiography: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination and Being Prepared for Anything.
At his numerous speaking engagements, he says, people often ask him the same question: What’s it like to be in space?
“It’s an intoxicating and completely engrossing environment. It was how I imagined, but better. It was richer, more profound and more simulating,” Hadfield said, recalling the excitement of crossing the length of Canada in eight minutes.
His music career has led to collaborations with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and singer-songwriter Danny Michel.
Last year, Hadfield invited Michel and other creative folk to take a trip with him on a Russian icebreaker travelling the Northwest Passage.
Hadfield has performed with a number of orchestras, including the Houston Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Nova Scotia. In Victoria, he will not only play music but talk about his experiences as a Canadian spaceman.
So far, he’s lived an extraordinary life.
“One of the moments that really hammers that home to me is to be standing in front of a symphony, to be trusted to do that. And to be in a position to tell stories and offer reflections that have value,” Hadfield said.
“To me, that’s maybe when I pinch myself the most.”
What: Chris Hadfield with the Victoria Symphony
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Tickets: $32 to $82 at 250-385-6815