Sunday, December 8, 2019

Handel's Messiah is all around us

It's that time of year again...time for fans of serious Christmas music to attend a performance of arguably Handel's second-biggest hit, his oratorio Messiah.  Most music historians would put Messiah just behind his celebrated Water Music in terms of overall popularity.  But not during the Christmas season, obviously.

Funny thing is, Messiah wasn't originally written as a Christmas work per se.  Coming at a particularly difficult time in Handel's career following the lacklustre reception to his final attempts at opera with Imeneo in 1740 and Deidamia in 1741, Handel dearly needed a hit.

He found it in the form of a sacred, non-dramatic oratorio based largely on the Passion and then the triumph of the Resurrection of Christ, with the libretto by Jennens drawing from both Old and New Testament sources.  In that case, it would more correctly be performed as part of Easter celebrations rather than Christmas.

Handel completed the score in little more than three weeks between August 22nd and September 12th of 1741, and it received its premiere performance at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th, 1742.  So that likely would have coincided with Easter celebrations that year.

The oratorio was performed to huge acclaim at that first performance and from then on, Handel never looked back.  He wrote many other grand oratorios but never quite recaptured the popularity of Messiah again.  It would become his signature work at the time of his death in 1758.

So why are we flocking to performances of Messiah at Christmas rather than at Easter?  I don't have the answer to that, but I do know for many, Christmas just isn't Christmas without attending a performance of Handel's Messiah.

I've told the story before about the year I threw caution to the wind and attended two performances in two different cities on the same day, and I still can't quite comprehend what possessed me to do it.  I was much younger back in those days of course, so I thought nothing of attending a Sunday afternoon performance with Chorus Niagara in St. Catharines and then after a quick dinner driving up to Guelph for a performance with the Guelph Chamber Choir that evening at the River Run Centre.

Once a day is plenty for me now, thanks, and we still have several from which to choose from before the season winds down.

Locally the Choralis Camerata performance has already been held, as have performances in the Hamilton area, by and large.  And as I noted last week in this space Chorus Niagara is in their alternate year this year so their Handel's Messiah will return next season.

So now you'll have to drive a bit to get to a performance before Christmas but in all these cases the effort will certainly be worth it.

The next Messiah performance within driving distance will feature the Elora Singers at St. Joseph's Church in Fergus just outside of Elora tonight at 7:30 pm.  Entitled Singers Messiah, this unique interpretation will feature the Elora Singers as both chorus and soloists.  Considering many of the singers are in fact accomplished soloists in their own right, this seems rather appropriate.

The Elora Singers are for my money one of the premiere chamber choirs in the country so you are guaranteed a splendid performance this evening, and the weather promises to be good should you decide to make the drive up that way.  For tickets call the box office at 519-846-0331 or go to www.elorasingers.ca.

If you don't mind the trip to Toronto there are two popular performances of Messiah still to come, both coming mid-December.  And both will offer decidedly different interpretations.

From December 17th to the 22nd the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir present their traditional large-scale (some might call it well-upholstered) Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto.  This is almost always a sellout so you had better act fast if you still want to attend a performance.  Evening performances are at 7:30 pm and the Sunday matinee is at 3pm.

The TSO will be conducted by Alexander Shelley, Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and the all-star cast of soloists includes Baritone Russell Braun.

For tickets to any of these performances go to www.tso.ca.

Meantime the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ivars Taurins presents a more scaled-down period instrument performance of Messiah at Koerner Hall in the city's north end on similar dates, December 17th through the 20th at 7:30 pm.  They will also have their ever-popular Singalong Messiah conducted by "Mr. Handel" on Saturday, December 21st at 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

I attended a performance of their Singalong Messiah at a different location many years ago and it is truly a wonderful experience.  If I recall correctly I sang baritone and was glad I was drowned out by better voices all around me!

For tickets to any of the Tafelmusik Messiah performances call 416-408-0208.

Finally, the wonderful Guelph Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. Charlene Pauls will be joined by the Music Viva Orchestra performing on period instruments at the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph on Saturday evening December 21st at 7:30 pm.  When I attended this particular performance many years ago as part of my Messiah double bill I recall the trumpets were stationed around the hall including the balcony, to great effect.  I have no idea what Dr. Pauls has up her sleeve or on the tip of her baton this time round but it's worth attending just to find out.

There is also a Singalong Messiah in support of Family & Children's Services of Wellington County on Friday, December 20th at 7:30 pm with the same orchestra and Choir as sort of a warm up to the big performance on Saturday night.  Admission is by donation with a suggested donation of $20 mentioned.

For tickets to the Saturday performance at the River Run Centre you can call the River Run box office or go online to the River Run site to purchase tickets.  I would imagine the Friday evening performance will have tickets available at the door.

So there you go:  a Messiah for every taste and several flavours to choose from this season.  One thing is constant though...don't forget to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus.  It's just tradition now, so just do it.

Now, how do I convince a choir to take a gamble on an Easter performance of Messiah one of these years...

Have a great weekend!

December 8th, 2019.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In praise of the glorious music of Christmas, but not before December 1st.

I have a golden rule I follow at this time of year:  no Christmas music at all until December 1st.

Admittedly, it is difficult to accomplish this, what with malls and other stores pumping the generic holiday slop nonstop since Halloween in most cases.  It's exacerbated by those so-called "Light Rock" or "Soft Rock" radio stations going non-stop holiday music from early November onwards.

I do my best to tune it all out and try to ignore it.  I suggest others do the same.

The problem with this non-stop supposed Christmas mood-setting is two-fold, from what I can see:  the music choices are at best abysmal and at worst relentlessly repetitive.  Simply put, people often get sick of hearing the music by mid-December because they've been fed a steady diet of the stuff for at least a month and a half at that point.

Don't get me wrong:  I love Christmas music as much as the next person, perhaps even more.  I have, in fact, a huge Christmas CD and album collection going back decades to prove the fact.  But everything in moderation, people, everything in moderation.

Time was during my early days in radio broadcasting, stations eased you into the holiday spirit usually around December 1st with maybe one or two added to the mix every hour, increasing the frequency proportionately until it is all Christmas music about December 23rd or 24th.  No more.  It's all or nothing now, and I will stick with nothing thanks until December 1st.

The musical choices of radio stations and mall music services is especially narrow-minded as well.  The Christmas music universe used is severely limited, leaving out scads of classic recordings we all grew up with and enjoyed hearing years ago in favour of the same old, same old.

In my early years at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines when we still played music most of the time, I often hosted on Christmas Eve or even on Christmas Day some years a programme of Christmas music I would like to listen to myself.  I was given the leverage to play anything I wanted from my own collection, a privilege no longer available to broadcasters in these preprogrammed radio times we now live in.

I coyly referred to my show back then as a "Rockin' 'Round The Christmas Tree free zone", meaning of course Brenda Lee's 1960 classic would not be included in my holiday mix that day.  The reasoning was simple:  everyone else was playing it to death and I wanted to avoid all that.

They still do.  A few years ago when I worked in the banking sector we sometimes played a little game while listening to the local light rock radio station playing wall-to-wall Christmas music:  how many times over the course of our shift did we hear a particular ubiquitous Christmas song in the rotation.  Most often Brenda Lee's classic was the worst offender.  At only 2 minutes and 2 seconds long it was a convenient way to time out to the newscast or something else at the top of the hour.

But that was not the only offender we still hear ad nauseam over the holidays.  My list of Christmas songs that should be banned forever due to over-exposure is a long one and includes the following near the top of the list:  Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney; Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano; Santa Baby by Madonna.

Let's be honest, the reason these are played in heavy rotation is because the sound doesn't deviate too much from the musical mix used the rest of the year, so the stations feel they are not going to alienate their core audience.  But then they'll play Gene Autry's Here Comes Santa Claus and well, there goes that theory...

Why is it the only time we'll hear anything by the likes of Nat King Cole, Percy Faith, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and their ilk is over the holidays?  Do they rise from the radio dead for two months each year and then safely tucked away again on the 26th of December?  Sure seems that way.

Look I know radio stations have a "sound" they like to maintain and it's all about keeping their audience numbers up.  Good ratings mean good advertising revenue and that means everyone's happy.  Except perhaps the beleaguered listener such as myself wanting something more at this time of year.

I know some will scoff at the suggestion, but what's wrong with including, say, John Rutter's uplifting  Shepherd's Pipe Carol into the mix.  It doesn't deviate too much from the norm and just sounds wonderful.  There are lots of other examples we can name but you know we'll never hear them on the air...ever.

One of my favourite Christmas CDs is appropriately titled The Glorious Sound of Christmas on the Sony/Columbia label and it features Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra along with the Temple University Concert Choir.  It dates from 1963 and although it shows its age a little bit by today's standards, the Arthur Harris arrangements of such gems as The First Nowell and Deck The Halls is still a favourite of mine every year.  We used to play it every season in my days at CHFI in Toronto in the 70s.  But no more.

It almost seems the only way you'll get to hear some great music for the holidays at this time of year is to go out and support your local choir and revel in the sounds of the season at their annual Christmas concert.

Two of those are happening today, in fact, and will uplift you beyond your wildest expectations.  Both variations of the classic Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols enjoying its centenary this year, they will skillfully draw you into the magic of the season without once expecting you to open your wallet to spend, spend, spend, save for the purchase of the ticket to get in of course.

For followers in Guelph, the Guelph Chamber Choir will be joined by what's called a Brass 5tet at the  beautiful St. George's Anglican Church for their Christmas Festival of Lessons & Carols.  It begins at 3 pm and tickets should still be available at the door.  Closer to home, the Music Niagara Choral series continues this afternoon at 4 pm with their Advent Service of Lessons & Carols at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Again, tickets should be available at the door.

If today's icy mix of winter weather deters you from venturing outside, there are two more presentations I know about in the near future in both areas worth remembering.  In Elora the Elora Singers present their Festival of Carols for a total of 4 performances at the candlelit St. John's Church in the heart of the town, on December 17th and 18th at 5 and 7:30 pm each day.  These popular events consistently sell out so you might want to call ahead for ticket availability.

Locally, the newly renovated and splendid Knox Church in downtown St. Catharines presents their popular Festival of Carols on Sunday, December 22nd at 4 pm.  It will feature organ, choir, brass ensemble and of course, lots of congregational singing as well.

Still Christmas themed but somewhat different in scope is the next Chorus Niagara concert coming up on December 14th, entitled Welcome Christmas.  Joining the 100-voice choir will be narrator Benedict Campbell for a collection of carols and stories sure to please this holiday season.  The location is at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

Any and all of these performances will raise the level of holiday music to new levels, leaving you feeling uplifted and anticipating the season.

And not one of them will feature I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.  Thank goodness for that!

Have a great weekend!

December 1st, 2019.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Gallery Players of Niagara kick off their 25th Anniversary season this weekend

We've looked at a number of fall concerts and events coming up in and around Niagara the last couple of months, but not one of our local treasures that somehow often seems to run underneath the radar a little bit.  So this weekend, as they prepare to kick off their 25th Anniversary season, let's look at the new season for Gallery Players of Niagara.

Artistic Director Margaret Gay can hardly believe it is 25 years ago this chamber music enterprise launched in Niagara.  From humble beginnings grew a group of chamber musicians comfortable enough in their own collective musical skins to bring in numerous guest artists and entire guest ensembles to share music with their audience.

The audiences for their part have been just as welcoming as the artists themselves, willing to try new things and follow new paths, sure in the knowledge the players and Artistic Director Margaret Gay know the way and won't steer them wrong.

And they never have.

That brings us to this first concert of their 25th Anniversary season, another new endeavour and brimming with new ideas ready to explore.  Tomorrow afternoon at 2 in the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Gallery Players present the World Premiere of Borodin's Muse - An Animated Concert.

Borodin's Muse brings music and drama together to illuminate the life of 19th century Russian chemist and composer Aleksandr Borodin through music both by Borodin and his contemporaries, and with words by way of a play by St. Catharines playwright Anthony Magro, starring actor Colin Bruce Anthes as Borodin along with Genevieve Jones.  The production is directed by local theatre veteran Barbara Worthy.

Music to be performed include Borodin's String Quartet #2 as well as Arensky's Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, Op. 35, Glinka's Quartet #2 and Liszt's Liebestraum #3 in A Major.

Brock University's Walker String Quartet will be the instrumental performers.  The Quartet, made up of Niagara Symphony Principal Cellist Gordon Cleland and violinist Vera Alekseeva along with violinist Faith Laura and violist Roman Kosarev will be joined by pianist Erika Reiman.  The Walker String Quartet was founded at Brock University not that many seasons ago and has quickly established itself as a chamber musical force not to be missed.

The rest of the season's concerts are just as interesting, beginning of course with their annual Christmas concert, entitled The Heart of Christmas Past.  The concert features Glissandi and Shaw Festival alumnus Guy Bannerman in words and music of familiar yuletide favourites.  The stories are derived from festive remembrances shared by Gallery Players audience members last season, which is a nice twist.

Glissandi is made up of Douglas Miller on flute, Deborah Braun on harp and David Braun on violin.  Their popularity has grown exponentially over the years with popular holiday recordings and concerts  such as this season's Christmas production.

There are two performances, December 19th at 4pm at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines and December 20th at 7:30 pm at Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The first concert of the new year will feature Niagara native Kristin Hoff, mezzo-soprano along with violist Caitlin Boyle, guitarist Timothy Phelan and pianist Antoine Joubert in a performance entitled From Home and Afar - A Journey of Enchantment.

The musical journey goes from Germany to Canada with a side trip to Argentina.  Compositions include Brahms' Two Songs for mezzo, viola and piano, Op. 91, Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano by Frank Bridge, the Canciones sefardies for guitar and mezzo by Sid Rabinovitch, Penelope for piano and voice by Cecilia Livingston and Astor Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango, arranged by Timothy Phelan for viola and guitar.

The concert comes up at 2 pm on February 9th of next year at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.

Next up is Songs of Life, Year 2 and Bach on Turtle's Back - Death.  An intriguing title, right?  Songs of Life explores creation destruction and transformation through performances by solo violinist Julia Wedman of Tafelmusik and dancer Brian Solomon along with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Solomon is also the director and choreographer for the production and in addition to Wedman is accompanied by soprano Sinead White, tenor Asitha Tennekoon, mezzo-soprano Jessica Wright, baritone Keith Lam, Alison Melville, flute, Michelle Odorico, violin, Patrick Jordan, viola, Maho Sone on keyboard and Margaret Gay on cello.

Incidentally the Year 2 in the title refers to the fact this is year two of a three-year project, all supported by the Pluralism Fund.  The concert comes up at 2pm on March 8th in the Recital Hall of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

The annual Movie Night comes up April 4th in the Film House at the PAC with a screening of Charlie Chaplin's classic 1931 film City Lights.  The film, considered one of Chaplin's best, follows the misadventures of Chaplin's iconic tramp as he falls in love with a blind girl and develops a complex relationship with an alcoholic millionaire.

The improvised score will be performed by Douglas Miller on flute, Eric Mahar on guitar, and Penner Mackay on percussion.  Local film historian Joan Nicks will be speaking about the film's significance in the pre-screen talk, which begins at 6:45pm, followed by the screening with musical accompaniment at 7.

The May 10th concert features a new venture for Gallery Players, Inside the Music, in which musicians draw the audience deep into a selected piece of music, guiding their musical listening experience.  The renowned Eybler Quartet will be joined by Suzannah Clark, Professor of Music at Harvard University as together they perform as well as discuss things such as harmony, phrase structure and the social significance of an important work by Haydn.

Performers include violinist Aisslinn Nosky, Julia Wedman on violin, Patrick Jordan on viola and Margaret Gay on cello.  Music will include Haydn's String Quartet Op. 54 No. 1, Franz Asplmayr's String Quartet Op. 2 No. 6 and Cris Derksen's White Man's Cattle.

The concert takes place at 2pm on May 10th at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.

Finally, the Vesuvius Ensemble visits St. Catharines on June 14th at 2pm for a performance entitled Tarantella:  Viva Napoli!  The group performs on a host of rustic instruments, few of which I can pronounce, presenting instrumental and vocal music that paints a musical portrait of Naples and the surrounding area.

The members of the Vesuvius Ensemble include Francesco Pellegrino, Marco Era, Lucas Harris, Romina Di Gasbarro and Ben Grossman.

The sunny finale to the Gallery Players' 25th Anniversary season takes place at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.

Intrigued?  Gallery Players are worth your time and you can purchase tickets either as a subscription or individually by calling them at 905-468-1525 or go online to www.GalleryPlayers.ca.  I know they had phone problems earlier this week but hopefully things are all sorted out by now.  If all else fails, you can call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722.

Have a great weekend!



Saturday, November 16, 2019

Music Niagara presents Choralfest starting this weekend

There is something about the colder weather we are experiencing now that brings out in me a desire to revel in the magnificent sounds of truly great choral singing.  Be it a church choir or professional ensemble, there are a multitude of choices from which to choose in Niagara.  Some of the best from Niagara and beyond will be on full display this month and next during Music Niagara's Choralfest.

The summertime music festival has pioneered inventive classical and jazz programming in the Niagara Region for many years now, but usually by mid-August they are done for the season.  Not anymore.

With Choralfest Music Niagara is endeavouring to present world-class, diverse music experiences in unique and intimate settings throughout Niagara.  Performances range from crackerjack school choirs to the best Toronto has to offer.

The whole festival kicks off tonight with a performance by the Juno award-winning Elmer Iseler Singers with Lydia Adams conducting.  On the programme will be works by Guerrero, Lassus and Gibbons along with Canadian composers such as R. Murray Schafer, Vivier and others.  The Elmer Iseler Singers will be performing tonight at 7 pm at Niagara Mennonite Church at 1775 Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Avanti Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. Rachel Rensink-Hoff, fresh from their debut performance of the season in St. Catharines last weekend, will perform on November 19th.  Dr. Rinsink-Hoff, Assistant Professor of Music at Brock University most often performs with the community-based chamber choir under the umbrella of Brock's Viva Voce Choral Series.   Here they step from underneath that umbrella to bring their trademark choral music, both accompanied and a cappella to Niagara-on-the-Lake with works by not only Canadian but also Niagara-based composers.
The performance begins at 7 pm in the cozy confines of St. Mark's Anglican Church on Byron Street in the Olde Town.

November 22nd the Victoria Scholars, an all-male, award-winning choir of international acclaim will perform everything from Gregorian chants to works by French-Canadian composers, both sacred and contemporary.  To date they've recorded four albums and have performed with some of the biggest names in classical and contemporary music.  While their sound is firmly rooted in the traditional Renaissance music, they push their musical boundaries to include the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras as well.  The Victoria Scholars perform at 7 pm in one of my favourite churches in Niagara, Our Lady of Peace next door to Mount Carmel Monastery at 6988 Stanley Avenue in Niagara Falls.

The next night the Celaya Conservatory Children's Choir will perform at 1:30 in the afternoon at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  If you have not heard of the Celaya Conservatory Children's Choir before, you're not alone.  Neither had I.  It turns out they're one of the top Children's choirs in Mexico and this is their very first performance in Canada.  Count on hearing some Latin American music to warm up a late November afternoon on November 23rd.

That very evening one of the big draws for Choralfest this year will be a Sing-Along Messiah, with the Messiah Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Mervin Frick filling the space at St. Mark's in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the glorious Handel oratorio that for many is a Christmas tradition.  If you feel like joining in, well, go right ahead.  It is a Sing-Along Messiah after all.  It happens at 7pm on November 23rd.

On the 24th, Music Niagara presents the Vesnivka Choir and Volunge Choir, also at St. Mark's at 2 in the afternoon.  Volunge, it turns out, is named after Lithuania's beautiful "Golden Oriole" and is an award-winning Lithuanian choir led by conductor Dalia Viskontas along with accompanist Danguole Radtke.  Volunge will perform an eclectic programme of Lithuanian sacred and secular songs and major works before giving way to the Vesnivka Choir led by founding conductor and director Halyna Kyitka Kondracki.  Their programme will be sung entirely in Unkrainian with works by Oleksander Koshyts, who first brought the familiar "Carol of the Bells" to North American audiences, as well as Ukrainian folk songs and works by Ukrainian-Canadian composers.  The programme will conclude with some lighter fare by composer Bohdan Vesolowsky.

One of the local highlights to the festival is the appearance by the award-winning Laura Secord Secondary School Choir from right here in St. Catharines.  Under the direction of Ms. Katryna Sacco, the choir has toured many North American cities as well as in Europe.  They've also worked with many professional musicians including Measha Brueggergosman, Kenny Rogers, Take 6, Molly Johnson, Jackie Richardson, Joe Sealy and most recently, during the Voices of Freedom Festival last weekend at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  The performance will be November 24th at 7 pm at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Hamilton Children's Choir comes to St. Mark's Church on November 25th at 7:30 pm, accompanied as well by the Celaya Conservatory Children's Choir.  Jasmin Lin, a Music Niagara Performance Academy alumni and student at Juillard will perform with the choir onstage on the great Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume "Messiah" violin awarded to her by the Canada Council Instrument Bank for three years.

The festival will conclude December 8th with a decidedly non-choral performance by the Toronto All-Star Big Band performing their Swinging Christmas show, a collection of seasonal and all-time favourites from the Golden Age of Swing.  The performance begins at 7 pm, again at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

If you are interested in any or all of the performances beginning tonight and running through to December 8th, you can purchase tickets in advance through the Shaw Festival box office by calling 1-800-511-7429.  There will be special student pricing discounts available as well.

Have a great weekend!

November 16th, 2019.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Proving you can come home again

This Friday November 15th a homecoming of sorts will take place at the Niagara Artists Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  Longtime folk musician and teacher Jane Lewis, born and raised in St. Catharines, will return to the city with musical partner Eve Goldberg to host a local launch of their new CD collaboration, All That's Real on Borealis Records.  They perform under the moniker Gathering Sparks, which is an apt description of what they do.

It's been awhile for Lewis, as she moved from the city to Guelph several years ago to pursue a music career full time.  Why Guelph?  Why not?  I've always found Guelph and much of Wellington County to be a hotbed of creative organic folk music, much of it making it on to the airwaves of Canada's national broadcaster CBC as well as selling strongly in the Canadian music marketplace.

I used to work in a music store on Carden Street in downtown Guelph years ago, Twelfth Night Music, and it had a relatively large selection of Canadian-grown folk music, and it always sold quite well.  So it should come as no surprise Lewis would follow her folk inclinations to the city.

Somewhere along the way, while recording her solo album Stay With Me, leading music workshops on singing harmony and singing backup vocals for other artists, Jane hooked up with Toronto-based musician and vocalist Eve Goldberg and things just seemed to click.  Goldberg, originally from Boston, moved to Toronto in 1981 and has been a busy performer at festivals, folk clubs and concert venues across Canada and the US ever since.

Eve has released three albums on her own, Ever Brightening Day in 2006, Crossing The Water in 2003 and A Kinder Season also in 2006.  Like Lewis Eva is also an experienced teacher who engages aspiring musicians in private lessons, workshops and classes.

Jane Lewis plays piano, ukulele, accordion as well as sings; Eve Goldberg also sings, plays acoustic guitar and ukulele.  For the CD launch on Friday they will be joined by special guest Cheryl Prashker on drums and percussion, who also appears on the new CD.

Together, Lewis and Goldberg perform as Gathering Sparks and their new collaboration is entitled All That's Real, produced by Jeff Bird of Cowboy Junkies fame.  Joining them on the new disc, which first launched back in early October in Guelph, are the aforementioned Cheryl Prashker on percussion as well as Anne Lindsay on fiddle, Joel Schwartz and Kevin Breit on guitars and a host of harmony singers, all of whom presumably worked at one point or another with Lewis!

Already the lead-off song from the album, Bringing in the Light has been recognized with a 2019 Folk Music Ontario "Songs From The Heart" Award in the Singer-Songwriter category.  That's on top of the group being nominated for a 2014 Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year for their six-song debut CD.

Their inclusive style embraces folk, pop, blues and gospel influences all played on acoustic guitar, piano, accordion and of course the ukulele.  They had me at the ukulele, actually.  Although I've never played one I've always loved that humble stringed instrument ever since I first heard British singer George Formby on the instrument many years ago.  Who doesn't love the ukulele?!

Anyway, this is the very first time Lewis and Goldberg have written together but you'd never know it.  They have brought together their passion for wordplay, strong melodies and harmony to create 11 new songs plus one cover of a Pete Townshend classic.  The end result is a collection of songs that are decidedly hopeful and upbeat as well as reflective and full of great storytelling.

Perhaps that's not such a bad combination in these divided times we seem to live in.

If you want to join in on the CD launch yourself, you can pick up tickets for $20 in advance or $25 at the door Friday night.  Advance online orders can be made by going to www.gatheringsparks.com.  The concert/launch begins at 8 pm and NAC is located at 354 St. Paul Street.

Have a great week!

November 11th, 2019.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Bravo Niagara! Voices of Freedom Festival coming up this week

I'm a little late getting to my weekend blog this week as it is now Monday but hey, better late than never, right?

Anyway, I don't want to leave this for another day as an important and interesting music festival is coming up later this week in Niagara.  The entrepreneurial souls at Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts in Niagara-on-the-Lake have organized a three-day festival around this Friday evening's concert featuring pioneering jazz pianist Monty Alexander and musical friends.

The concert, Friday evening at 7:30 in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, promises to be one of the jazz events of the fall season in Niagara.  Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander, who now makes his home in the United States, headlines the concert.  Opening performances will feature award-winning drummer Larnell Lewis of Snarky Puppy fame along with his band, and special guest, South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo, who has performed with Paul Simon.  Needless to say with talent like that, jazz and Afro-Caribbean music aficionados alike will want to be there.

Kicking off the festival will be a special interactive student workshop with Bakithi Kumalo featuring iconic Paul Simon music at Laura Secord Secondary School Thursday afternoon at 1 pm.  Kumalo will discuss growing up in Soweto, South Africa during Apartheid and the influences of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid leader who just happened to be a personal acquaintance of Kumalo.

The workshop is free and open to the public.

Thursday evening at 7:30 pm the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library will host the screening of the film Under African Skies with special guest Bakithi Kumalo.  Kumalo, of course, appeared on the ground-breaking Paul Simon album Graceland and he will introduce the film in which he is featured.

The documentary explores the cultural and political climate of South Africa 25 years ago and follows Simon as he returns once again to South Africa.  Under African Skies features appearances by anti-apartheid activists and musical legends including Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Sir Paul McCartney and David Byrne.

Sadly, the film screening presented in partnership with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library is already sold out, but you can join the wait list if you choose.

Friday morning at 10 a second interactive student workshop will be held at Laura Secord Secondary School with drummer Larnell Lewis.  The Toronto native and musician, producer, composer and educator has established himself as one of the most diverse and in-demand drummers around, and has worked with such well-known names as Etienne Charles, Gregory Porter, Benny Golson, Lalah Hathaway, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Lisa Fisher and Kurt Elling among others.

The workshop is free and again, open to the public.

Saturday morning at 11 the Niagara Historical Museum will host an Artists as Activists Roundtable, exploring the role of artists in society and the historic and present-day interaction of music and social change.  Moderated by Jazzcast.ca's Garvia Bailey, featured participants include Bakithi Kumalo, producer and artist manager Celine Peterson, and Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of the El Sistema-inspired organization Play On, Philly!

The Saturday roundtable is presented in partnership with the Niagara Historical Museum, is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required.  Go to www.bravoniagara.org for more information.

Finally, there is a film screening at the Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines I plan on attending this Saturday afternoon at 4 pm.  Entitled Crescendo:  The Power of Music, the screening will feature special guest Stanford Thompson.

Thompson's organization Play on, Philly! is one of the schools that have embraced the concept of Venezuela's phenomenal youth orchestra programme El Sistema, founded in 1976 and which has brought social transformation to several million disadvantaged children in the country.  Want proof?  Superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel came through El Sistema.

The film documents the journey of three students, one in Harlem and two in Philadelphia at Play On Philly!, along with their teachers and the community around them, all responding to the mysterious power of music.

I've seen the trailer for this Jamie Bernstein directed film and it looks absolutely inspiring, so I am looking forward to seeing the full film on Saturday afternoon.  You can too as the event, co-presented by Bravo Niagara! and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, is free and open to the public.  But again, you have to register in advance.

So that sounds like a lot of musical inspiration coming our way this week in Niagara, all presented by Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts.  Want more information on events and on ordering tickets?  Just go to www.bravoniagara.org and you'll find out all you need to know.

Have a great week!

November 4th, 2019.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Choral season is now upon us!

There are many things I look forward to in the autumn:  the crisp, clear days beneath a bright blue sky, showing against the bright colours of the trees ready to shed for another winter;  the abundance of produce and other good things in our farmer's market; the hot apple cider waiting for me Saturday mornings when I arrive at the market; and of course, the music of the season.

For me, nothing celebrates the cooler fall days musically quite like great choral music.  It goes hand in hand with warming yourself in a church with history all around you.  And it also celebrates the very fine performing arts spaces much of our music - choral and otherwise - often calls home.

So this weekend we'll highlight a couple of choral concerts coming up this weekend and next, featuring performances in Guelph and here in St. Catharines.  In both cases, you will not be left wanting for great music of the past and present.

There is no country on earth I think with a better choral lineage than Great Britain.  Going back to Elizabethan times up through the 19th and 20th centuries, there has never been a shortage of great purveyors of choral music originating in the British Isles.  Two modern-era British composers will be front and centre for both concerts I'm highlighting this weekend.

Tomorrow afternoon in Guelph, the Guelph Chamber Choir under newly-minted Artistic Director Dr. Charlene Pauls will pair up with the GCVI Chamber Choir to celebrate the good that is all around us with a concert entitled Five Days that Changed the World.  The title work is by British composer Bob Chilcott and joins other works that focus on bringing people together.

The Chilcott work highlights five moments that connected and advanced humanity:  the invention of printing, the abolition of slavery, the first powered light, the discovery of penicillin, and the first human in space.  The music reflects humour along with wonder and a touch of poignancy throughout its movements.

Other works on the programme tomorrow afternoon include Winnipeg composer Andrew Balfour's welcoming song Amba (sung in Ojibway), American composer Joan Szymko's It Takes a Village, French composer Maurice Durufle's introspective Ubi Caritas, Canadian composer Sarah Quartel's Sing, My Child, and Paul Simon's familiar Bridge Over Troubled Water in a new gospel arrangement by Kirby Shaw.  Also on the programme will be Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst.

The concert will be at 3 pm tomorrow afternoon at Harcourt Memorial United Church in the heart of Guelph, and tickets are available in advance through the River Run Centre box office by calling 519-763-3000.

Next Saturday evening at 7:30 pm, Chorus Niagara kicks off their new season with the Canadian premiere of Michael Tippett's 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time.  This powerful work was composed in response to the horrors of Kristallnacht, when Nazi Germany ramped up fear and terror in the country.  Tippet's work remains a compelling call for unity in a divided world, which perhaps seems as cogent a comment on our own times as much as it was on mid-20th century life as the world found itself again embroiled in war.

A Child of Our Time draws inspiration from African-American spirituals such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, Steal Away and Deep River among other works, and will be performed by the combined forces of Chorus Niagara and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, 160 voices strong, the Orpheus Concert Orchestra and featured soloists Johane Ansell, soprano, Lauren Segal, mezzo-soprano, Andrew Haji, tenor, and James Westman, bass.

Of course, Robert Cooper, Artistic Director of both Chorus Niagara and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto will conduct in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

For tickets for this and the entire Chorus Niagara season, call or visit the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or email boxoffice@FirstOntarioPAC.ca.

There you go, two reasons to embrace the cooler autumn weather by warming your heart and soul with great choral music with meaning, this weekend and next.  What could be better than that?

Enjoy your weekend!

October 26th, 2019.