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Laureen Harper kicks off the National Arts Centre gala performance in Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Laureen Harper kicks off the National Arts Centre gala performance in Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Harper performed with a little help from his wife Add to ...

The architect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's surprise concert performance with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma at an Ottawa gala Saturday was not a Conservative spin doctor, campaign strategist or image consultant.

The executive producer credit goes to his wife, Laureen, who was the honorary chair of the event and says there was "no big strategic thinking" behind his vocal rendition of the Beatles' anthem, With a Little Help from My Friends.

"I just thought it would be a fun surprise. When was the last time you were shocked? I wanted people to be surprised," she said.

The whole thing began to take shape a month ago when Mrs. Harper approached Jayne Watson - chief executive officer of the National Arts Centre Foundation, which hosted Saturday's gala to benefit youth in performing arts - about putting the Prime Minister on stage. "She said, 'What would you think if I asked my husband to perform at the gala?' I said, 'That would be fantastic and unexpected! Of course,' " Ms. Watson said.

She added she knew from the outset that Mr. Harper would not embarrass himself. It's well known among his social circle that he adores the piano. He taught himself to play and made it to Grade 9 with the Royal Conservatory of Music. At home, he plays the piano "almost daily," Mrs. Harper said.

"I'd heard him play the piano before," Ms. Watson said, recalling her reaction to Mrs. Harper's pitch. "At this point were weren't talking singing, we were only talking the piano. He's no [Juno-winning pianist]James Parker, but he's a very good amateur piano player."

Still, before she locked the Prime Minister into the gig she had arranged, Mrs. Harper launched a sort-of recruiting drive to give herself what Ms. Watson called "a little bit of a boost." In Pittsburgh for the G20 summit last month, Mrs. Harper approached Mr. Ma, knowing he was already scheduled to headline the NAC gala.

"I just mentioned it to Yo-Yo in Pittsburgh but told him it might not happen," she said. "He told me it was a good idea."

In Ms. Watson's view, having the cellist on board gave Mrs. Harper "ammunition." Still, when she finally broached the performance with her husband, she told The Globe his answer took a bit of decoding: "I've been married to him long enough to know when a 'no' means 'maybe' and 'maybe' means 'yes,' " she said.

It also meant it was time to cue the band.

Herringbone is an Ottawa-based three-man Celtic band that met Mr. Harper through "a friend of a friend," according to percussionist Phil Nolan, a high-school music teacher by day. "We've gone over [to 24 Sussex Dr.]a couple of times this summer to jam," Mr. Nolan said Sunday.

Those jam sessions made Herringbone a natural choice for Mr. Harper's stage debut.

"We got a phone call," Mr. Nolan said. "It was Laureen's idea to play and so we decided we'd get together and see."

He said their first real rehearsal was Sept. 27, less than a week before they were scheduled to play "the show of our lives."

Together they chose the performance piece, Mr. Nolan said. The decision was not based on lyrics or symbolism. "My husband loves the Beatles, the song was in his vocal range and that is about it," Mrs. Harper said. "Also, it was playable by the band. Some of the Beatles' stuff uses lots of instruments and obviously it had to be something a small band could play."

Throughout last week the four rehearsed when time allowed, usually at night.

On Saturday morning, they began the biggest day of their musical careers like true rock stars, ducking clandestinely into the National Arts Centre through a back door for an early morning rehearsal. Inside the empty cavern of a hall the four joined Mr. Ma on stage, he at his cello and Mr. Harper at the helm of a glossy Steinway Grand. They reassembled eight hours later in front of a packed crowd gathered for the NAC gala, where Mr. Harper shocked the crowd and the 60-member orchestra when he strode on stage.

"We managed to keep it a deep, dark secret, which is not easy to do in Ottawa," laughed Ms. Watson.

As the band began to play, the audience began singing along, which seemed to put Mr. Harper at ease, she said.

"I think anybody who is not a professional artist is going to be nervous," she said. "When people started clapping and singing along … you could almost see him relax."

That was no surprise to Mrs. Harper, who throughout the process has seen the Sussex Dr. piano move from a corner to the centre of the living room.

"I encourage him because it makes him happy," she said.

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