Saturday, January 12, 2019

Looking for ways to cure the January blahs...

Now that the holidays are over and stores are already stocking Valentines gifts and cards, we're in that in-between period when the days, although getting slightly longer, are getting progressively colder.  For some, the January blahs are a very real thing, and cures are hard to come by.  I have that feeling myself sometimes, so I have promised myself this year to get out and try new things when the opportunity presents itself, while not forgetting the fun things that make life more enjoyable more than once.

So this weekend a couple of examples of that, one just passed and the other currently underway.

I happened to spot at the entrance to our downtown Centennial Library over the holidays there would be a presentation in the Mills Room on Saturday afternoon, January 12th entitled The Facer Street Gang Rides Again.  Intrigued, I read further and discovered an afternoon of words and music, much of it pertaining to the small part of St. Catharines known affectionately as Little Europe would be presented.

This has long been one of my favourite parts of the city, going back to my younger days when my then-girlfriend lived in the area.  When I went house shopping about 25 years ago for the very first time, I found myself attracted to a little house on Garnet Street, not far from Facer Street, that was being sold privately.  I came close but ultimately decided to settle closer to downtown, which by the way I have never regretted doing.

Still, the attraction of Little Europe has always been with me and I often find myself on a Saturday afternoon visiting the area still.  Granted, the area has fallen on hard times over the years and it is not the busy commercial and retail district it was 50 or 60 years ago, but it still shows a vibrancy of spirit you don't often see in newer parts of the city today.

I can't visit the Facer Street area without visiting St. Joseph Bakery, of course, and just around the corner and up the street on Garnet Street still stands the old building housing Rosa's Italian Market.  There I often pick up meals for nights when I don't feel like cooking if I am on my own, and at Christmas I cannot refuse their imported panettone!

But getting back to the presentation this afternoon, it was a look back to a simpler time in the Facer neighbourhood with a number of presenters.  I don't have names of them all but of particular mention are author Stan Skrzeszewski, who has written a book of poetry based on the area he grew up in as well as an historical retrospective of the area, entitled A Walk Down Facer Street, 1870-1939, and singer/actress Maja Bannerman.

Stan waxes poetic in his book and at the presentation today of the way it used to be in the Facer Street area, full of hard-working folk who may not have had much materially, but were rich in family values and spirit.  His book, which I had to purchase for obvious reasons, is chock full of lore and stories about the people and businesses that made the area a totally unique part of the city landscape.

Stan's book is available through Grey Borders Books based in Niagara Falls, and I'm told a follow up volume is in the works for the near future.

I've long known Maja Bannerman, related to Shaw actor Guy Bannerman, and still remember the days when I first met her at the McFarland House Tea Room along the Niagara Parkway where she would serve on occasion.  She's a local treasure and full of love for her adopted home turf of Niagara, the Facer Street area included.

So it was a nice way to spend a cold Saturday afternoon with like-minded souls remembering the way it was in one of the more interesting parts of our city years ago, and hopefully will be again.

Meantime, you might recall I wrote glowingly about the then-new show at the Oh Canada Eh? Dinner Theatre in Niagara Falls when the show first ran last winter.  We attended a performance in March and the packed house rocked with the sounds of the music of the 60s & 70s, all tied together with a circus theme running throughout in a show entitled The Show Must Go On.

I am always amazed what they can do on that small stage at the theatre located on Lundy's Lane just outside the tourist district, and equally amazed at the quality of talent they continually find.  The proverbial icing on the cake is the exceptional meal they serve to a full house with military precision; everything works like clockwork from start to finish with many of the performers also doubling as servers.

Well, they are doing it again, and with largely the same cast, too.  But the show only runs until January 26th so you don't have a lot of time left.  And if you attend shows on the 16th and 18th, you can get a special deal on dinner/show packages in the Maple Leaf section of the theatre that makes the show even more worthwhile.

I even discovered one of my most admired musical friends locally, Chelsea DiFranco is handling keyboard duties for some performances of the show this month.  Chelsea, a local music teacher, is something of an amateur thespian as well, appearing in several productions in both Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.

So with all that going for it, how could you refuse escaping the winter blahs for a retro night out in Niagara Falls?  For tickets and more information go to www.OhCanadaEh.com or call 905-374-1995.

Have a great weekend and stay warm!

January 12th, 2019.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A New Year brings change and Auld Lang Syne...

It has been a little while since I spent some time writing in this space, about two and-a-half months in fact.  There are many reasons for that, and let me go through them now before I get to today's topic, which is a culmination of these and a lot of other things.

As many of you know I presently work at Canada Post, a job I have happily held since the fall of 2015.  Although I still go out on mail routes occasionally when needed I spend most of my early mornings now inside at the depot getting mail and parcels ready for those who do go out on routes on a daily basis.  It was a good move for me as I feel it will save my body for my retirement years and frees up a good part of the day for other pursuits.

But we've had what amounts to a personnel upheaval in recent months that will necessitate some of us, myself included, moving to new positions for one reason or another.  The stress that led up to this decision caused both me and my esteemed colleagues on the floor a considerable amount of anxiety in recent months and will continue to do so for many months to come.

As that was unfolding in October, of course, we engaged in rotating strikes to hopefully further contract talks with the Corporation.  I will steer clear of the complexities of the negotiations here, simply stating the length and uncertainty of the strike action - plus the inability of both sides to reach an equitable agreement after almost of year of talks - has taken its toll on many of us, both emotionally and in some cases, physically.  For me personally, this was an extremely stressful time as we approached what many consider the busiest time of year for many businesses, ours undoubtedly included.

By the time the government ordered workers back to their jobs in late November, the busy Christmas season was well underway and all of us worked hard to make this season - in spite of all the problems as of late - a very happy and special time of year for all involved, including our customers.

Yet I found when the crush happened and I normally would be ready for the onslaught as in past years, this year I was not.  My emotional reserves had been spent, frankly, and had not been replenished sufficiently before the enormous crush of Christmas shipping hit us all like a proverbial tidal wave.  I found myself tremendously stressed out and frankly, unable to enjoy the season before, during or even after it had arrived.

The start of 2019 brought relief more than anything else, as now we could settle down and concentrate on the business of delivering mail and parcels as we do 52 weeks of the year, efficiently and without much rancor as was the case a couple of months ago.

But for me it brought a need to look at my life and see where I could streamline things in my life and eliminate needless aggravations.  This is an ongoing process and will take some time, but earlier this week, as the New Year dawned, I took the first steps to basically simplify my life just a little bit.

I made the difficult decision to close my online music service, A Web of Fine Music, at the close of 2018.  It was something I had been thinking about for some time, but held off as I genuinely thought I was providing a valuable service to people here in Niagara.  Indeed I was, still, but to an ever-shrinking clientele.

Looking at the end of year numbers for orders processed I found, much to my dismay, sales were down about 40% year over year between 2017 and 2018.  And that followed steady declines each year for several over the past decade.

I always maintained I would keep the business going as long as it was financially viable to do so, but after this disappointing year it became increasingly clear the financial viability was no longer there.  I had cut expenses to the bone and basically run the business on the proverbial shoestring for so many years it became increasingly evident there was nothing else left to cut.

The total sales for the entire year amounted to what would have been considered a fairly good month not that many years ago.  So I had to ask myself if it was really worth it to continue and the only true answer for myself was no.

There are several reasons for this, primarily centred on the seismic shifts in the music industry since I started A Web of Fine Music almost 16 years ago in 2003.  Back then many people were still buying CDs primarily, and digital downloading was still in its infancy.  But as that trend continued to develop, coupled with the fact Apple's iTunes was available on all computers, not just Macs as of about 2006, the death knell for the music business as we knew it was beginning to be felt.

In my little corner of the music world, for example, sales started a steep decline at that time, and I was not alone.  Record companies slowly started to amalgamate, stores closed and online sales and downloading picked up steam.

The result?  If you didn't adapt to change you were doomed to failure, if not right away than eventually.  As I always ran the business as a sideline to my regular job, I chose not to make the expensive changes needed to remain competitive and rather ride out the wave until the wave was no more.

That day, for me at least, appears to be here.  The painful realization came in December when, while most retailers are at their busiest, as I was for many years, this year the order desk remained silent.  There simply were no orders.  It was as if the party had ended and it was time to turn out the light on your way out the door.

Now, I am of two minds regarding this situation.  I always knew it was coming and eventually I would not be able to ignore the numbers any longer.  So I was prepared for this day.  But I still approached the decision with great remorse for what was and perhaps could have been.  But with events being the way they have been the past several months, I had no energy left to ride the wave, albeit a very small one, any longer.

Once I made the decision earlier this week, the remorse and sadness gave way to relief that I had done a noble job for many years and perhaps it was time to sit on the sidelines and take a rest.  So that's what I've decided to do.

But not completely.

Going forward, the familiar website at www.finemusic.ca will be no more very soon.  I have maintained ownership of the domain name for now just in case, and this space where I write my thoughts and offer insights on a myriad of topics will continue, hopefully with greater frequency, in the months and years ahead.

I may expand the mandate of my blog as we move through the year, but that remains to be seen at this point.  Right now I want to focus on getting this blog up off the mat of dormancy and revitalize it slowly but surely as we move through the year.

So what's this ultimately mean to you, dear reader?  Not a lot really.  I will still be writing, I will still offer opinions and insights on the arts and many other topics that strike my fancy.  My business email address music@vaxxine.com will continue as before, as it has been my personal address as well since the beginning.  And my Facebook page for A Web of Fine Music, at least for the time being, will continue as well, although no longer offering CDs for sale but rather, interesting arts related news stories I want to share with you.  Oh, and lots of the customary humour as well.  That will never change!

So although A Web of Fine Music will be no more as of now, I am not going anywhere.  Some things are just not meant to change I guess...

Thanks for making my almost 16 years in business memorable ones.  And don't be a stranger...keep in touch and let me know what interests you.  I am keenly aware the fact you read my posts means we both get something out of this venture, and I want that to continue unabated for years to come.

Thanks for being on this ride with me, and let's keep the momentum going in the New Year.

Happy New Year 2019, and thanks!

January 5th, 2019.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A story about paying it forward & surprising someone you don't even know.

I promised yesterday on Facebook & Twitter I would offer up a story today that will make you smile, so here we go...

With my online business, A Web of Fine Music, I still endeavour to fill CD orders for customers on a very small scale, as the public demand for CDs is shrinking almost by the day.  But I still fill orders as they come in, even though I no longer advertise the business any more.  I simply rely on my Facebook business page (you should Like it if you have not already done so) and to a lesser extent, my website at www.finemusic.ca to market the business.

Back in July I received an order for a couple of CDs I had to order in from a supplier I deal with in the United States.  I've used them many times over the years so I know they are a trustworthy organization.  However, they slipped up on an order this summer, and it wasn't mine.

In early August I received a small box with the CDs I ordered for my customer as has happened many times before.  However, an identical box bearing my address arrived the same day, from the same company's second-hand reseller arm.  I knew it must be a mistake as I opened it up and sure enough, inside were several used CDs along with a sales receipt made out to a gentleman in Poland.  Yet the box was addressed to me.

I correctly deduced they simply put the wrong mailing label on the box after correctly labelling mine, and off it went in the post.  So what to do?  I promptly emailed the company explaining the situation and the fact I was now in receipt of several CDs I don't need that were intended for a customer in Poland.

After a couple of days I received an email back telling me not to worry about it, just keep the CDs and no RA# (return authorization number) would be issued, as they would have to be returned at their expense from Canada to the U.S. and they clearly didn't want to absorb the expense.

So I thought about this for a couple of days, and finally decided if this guy in Poland is as enthusiastic about his music as I am about mine, he would rather have the CDs.  I knew the company would be writing to him and more than likely refunding his money as the CDs had gone missing.  But they had not gone missing; I had them right here.

I decided to try to pay it forward and make someone's day I likely will never meet.  I took the CDs and with my years of shipping experience placed them in a smaller package that would cost significantly less to ship and walked down to our main post office downtown.  I know the people there of course, having worked there myself briefly over a year ago.

They thought the idea was hilarious, but dutifully weighed the package and told me - at my request - the cheapest possible way to get them over to Poland.  It would cost about 14 bucks to ship the package via surface transportation, which is a fancy way of saying it would travel by boat across the ocean rather than by air.  I asked, in jest, if there was tracking on the package...uh, no, sorry.

Okay, so I know the guy in Poland doesn't know they are coming so that's not a problem; he'll be surprised whenever they do arrive.  Surface transportation from Canada to Poland would take about two months, I was told, and this week I started to think about that package and the fact it should be arriving any day now.  But how would I know without tracking unless he reached out and got in touch with me?

I included a note explaining the situation and enclosed my business card and didn't think anything more about it at the time.

So yesterday when I arrived home from work around noon I had a phone message awaiting me.  It was from a gentleman named Isaac Chombe of Ottawa, and he wanted to thank me for sending the CDs on to his father in Poland.  He emphasized he wanted to thank me personally, so please call him back at the number provided.

With great bemusement I did just that.  Turns out Isaac is a funny, well-spoken guy who got a message recently from his father who still lives in Poland telling him about this package that had just arrived.  I explained to Isaac my rationale for doing so and he agreed his father would rather have the CDs rather than the refund.

Turns out his father is quite a character.  He's a doctor who still practices, apparently, and his home in Poland is full of about 20,000 CDs of every description.  That makes my collection of several hundred seem tiny in comparison.  None of the CDs he had ordered were people I had ever heard of before, and trust me, I have known a lot of musicians from every walk of life over many years.  So I can only imagine how large and eclectic this guy's extensive collection really is.

We talked for about 20 minutes and he invited me to call him if I'm ever in Ottawa and we'll get together.  I'm sure if we do his father will no doubt come up in the conversation!

So there you go.  You just never know what the outcome will be when you pay something forward but my simple gesture made the day of not one or two people, but all three of us.  Isaac's father is thrilled to have the CDs he thought he would never see, and Isaac was happy to relay to me how happy is father was.  I was happy I made both of them happy!

I also told Isaac to relay this fact to his father back home and he assured me he would.  But before the conversation ended he related to me his father himself received a big order of 40 or 50 CDs he never actually ordered, that were destined for a customer in Japan!  I suggested if he looks into surface transportation it might be doable to make that person's day too.

Oh, and by the way.  Turns out surface transportation didn't take about two months as I was told.  Isaac said his father actually received them in August, so it couldn't have taken more than a couple of weeks or so.  Amazing.

Funny how life works sometimes, doesn't it?  I mean, I could have just tossed them out or put them in the basement and forgot about them, but I did what I felt was the honourable thing and made sure the errant order was shipped to the correct address.  I hoped I would hear how things worked out but didn't think I actually would.

Karma works, and this is proof.  So when you can, do something nice for someone you don't even know.  Just for the pleasure of doing it.  The rewards may be there or they may not.  But you'll have the reward of knowing you surprised someone else in some small way when they least expect it.

Have a great weekend!

October 20th, 2018.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Remembering Peter Partridge Sr.

Much has been written this weekend about the untimely passing of a local business and arts leader on Thursday morning, Peter Partridge Sr.  All of it richly deserved by a man and family committed to making St. Catharines a better place for all of us to live.

I can't aspire to offer tremendous insights into the numerous contributions Peter and his family have made to the city beyond being eternally grateful he accepted the position to become fundraising chair for the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, kicking off the campaign with a hefty donation of 1-million dollars from the family.  It is because of that commitment to the arts in St. Catharines the largest venue in our arts showplace downtown is named Partridge Hall in the family's honour.

But I can offer some insights from my personal contacts with Peter and his wife Janet, which go back to when I first moved here in 1981.  By then, Peter and his family had been here for about 17 years, already firmly entrenching themselves in the culture of our city, both professionally and socially.

Peter was vice-president and portfolio manager at RBC Dominion Securities for 48 years, working just steps away from our house downtown.  But only once did I meet him in his business environment, when I once delivered a CD he had ordered directly to his office one day.

Most times, he was away from the business world, doing what he did best in my estimation:  being a goodwill ambassador for the city he loved and making us all the better for his being here.  Rarely would you go to a Niagara Symphony or Chorus Niagara concert, for example, and Peter was not there.  If there was a bigger booster for the arts in St. Catharines, I don't know who it could possibly be.

I first met Peter and his wife shortly after I started my evening show at CKTB Radio in the big white house on Yates Street.  Peter and Janet were there most evenings as well, picking music for the classical music show he hosted on our sister station, then known as QR-FM.  I would often run into them in the library sifting through the maze of old albums for music for that evening's show and we would often talk about our shared love of classical music in particular and the arts in general.

While his show Invitation to Good Music was widely known at the time, I had little realization back then just how high his profile was in the local arts community.  When they retired from the show after some time, a new classical programme was hosted by a local teacher, the late Henry Goerzen for a time, before I finally assumed the position and renamed the show Classically Yours.  I had the honour of hosting that show on CKTB Radio for a period in the late 80s and again in the early 90s.

Most of my contact with Peter during later years was through my online music business, A Web of Fine Music, following several years at the bricks & mortar store Downtown Fine Music where I worked as a music consultant for many years.  Janet was a regular customer with both businesses, although it's been several years since I've seen her; the last time I was actually driving by her neighbourhood as she was out walking the dog one cold winter's day some years go.

About ten or so years ago I got a call from Peter inviting me to sell my CDs at a special organ concert to be held at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street.  I believe the concert coincided with a local convention of church organists, which Peter would have been involved with due to his position as music director of the old St. Paul Street United Church (now Silver Spire Church) for many years.

His only stipulation was that I sell only organ discs, so I scoured the audio catalogues for anything I could get my hands on in time for the concert.  The concert turned out to be a great event, and yes, sales were very good that evening.  Were it not for the kind foresight of Peter, I never would have experienced either.

My last business related contact with Peter came a few seasons back when I was still distributing my online music newsletter of new releases, and featured an item I knew would get his attention.  I would often do that with regular customers, put something in the newsletter I knew they just couldn't resist.

Sure enough, I soon received a call from Peter.  The lure was a new box set of recordings by The Choir of King's College Cambridge, with most of the recordings featuring long-time conductor Sir David Willcocks.  Peter had a long-standing relationship with Sir David dating back to his time in England before coming to St. Catharines, when Peter studied at the Royal Academy of Music and eventually became the assistant to the organist at Westminster Abbey.  That's about the time Peter and David would have worked together, as he related to me when he ordered the box set.

When Sir David himself came to St. Catharines to guest-conduct Chorus Niagara at St. Thomas' Church in the early part of this century, you can bet Peter and Janet hosted him while in the Garden City.  I still recall that magnificent performance the choir gave with Sir David on the podium.

I had not seen Peter much in recent years, although I remember attending the ground-breaking ceremony for the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in the early fall of 2013, and he spoke eloquently about the need for the new venue to better serve the growing needs of the arts community in the city.  He was there from start to finish, doing a spectacular job along the way raising funds for the new venue.

In an odd twist of fate, my current job with Canada Post brought my final contacts with the Partridge household last winter when I filled in on the letter-carrier route in Old Glenridge on a couple of occasions between Christmas and New Years, and of course delivered to their home.  This time it was mail rather than CDs, of course.

My biggest regret is never having the chance to attend the Civic Christmas Carol Concert Peter conducted at St. Thomas Church every December for the past 27 years.  Every year I planned to be there and every year it seemed something came up and I didn't make it.  This year's concert will no doubt include a tribute to the man whose spirit and talent made the event one of the must-attend concerts of the Christmas season for so many in our city.

Peter was 76 and when you think about it, that is still far too early for anyone to pass away.  Everyone is in shock - including me, frankly - that he was taken from us far too son.  But his considerable legacy will live on in the many contributions he made to the community in so many ways.  That is what would please him most, I suspect.

So this Thanksgiving weekend, be sure to be thankful for blessings bestowed upon you and never take them for granted.  Our time on this earth can often be far too short, so be grateful for the time you have and all the good you can do too.

Take care and have a special Thanksgiving with those who matter most to you.

October 8th, 2018.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Culture Days are on today in downtown St. Catharines

With all the hype around the annual Niagara Wine Festival and of course, the Grape & Wine Grande Parade held yesterday, it might be easy to overlook some of the other activities on this weekend in and around Niagara.  Today in fact the annual Culture Days at the PAC is underway right now until 4 this afternoon.

All activities are free, family-friendly, and there's even free cake and a community photo at 12 noon today in the Algoma Central Lobby!

Just a few highlights of the activities planned for today include:

Poetry at the PAC with Kevin Hobbs, James Millhaven, Laurie Boese and Kim Van Styger, throughout the day until 4 this afternoon.  If you choose to meet with a poet, you can have them compose a unique poem in calligraphy, which is pretty cool.  You can even read your own poem out loud and presumably ruminate on the meaning contained within.  This is open to kids of all ages, by the way.

Waterwood Theatre presents The Spider and the Fly, a series of collaborative theatrical activities in the Robertson Theatre until 2:30 this afternoon.  For example, you can learn how percussion and sound is used to enhance a performance starting at 12 noon today.  From 1 to 2:30 you can learn about play development as you watch how a play is staged and music added to enhance the production.  You can then watch it all come together in the world premiere of the play The Spider and the Fly in a puppetry performance from 2:40 to 3 pm.

Until 3 pm you can Play with a Pro with The Foster Festival in the Cairns Recital Hall, with new sessions starting every 30 minutes.  Here you can engage with professional actors during a reading of Norm Foster's famous plays, followed by a Q&A session moderated by Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone.  This is open to people 16 years of age and over.

Also until 3 you can visit The Film House for ImaginNATIVE - Journey Through Turtle Island, a collection of 6 short films curated by ImagineNATIVE, the world's largest presenter of Indigenous films.  The films are by Jay Cardinal Villeneuve, Terril Calder, Asinnajaq, Sean Stiller, Asia Youngman and Caroline Monnet, and are open to all ages.

Ongoing until 3 pm you can take in the Two Row Wampum Community Art Project in front of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as you are invited to take a paint brush and help to paint and learn more about the Two  Row Wampum.  This is also open to all ages and will go ahead weather permitting, which at the moment looks to be okay.

One of the more interesting events is the Instrument Petting Zoo with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra through to 4 pm today in the Algoma Central Lobby.  People of all ages can explore a variety of instruments from boomwhackers and harpsicles to more conventional instruments such as the cello and oboe.  The presentation is in partnership with Long and McQuade, the Niagara Youth Orchestra and the Niagara Elementary Instrumental School Music programme, in conjunction with the NSO, of course.

Of particular interest to local youth with an interest in dance in general and ballet in particular, auditions will be held on the Partridge Hall stage today for The Nutcracker coming up this holiday season.

Culture Days has developed into a full-scale event featuring thousands of free, hands-on interactive activities designed to introduce the public to the world of artists, creators, heritage experts, architects, curators, designers and many other creative professionals in communities throughout the country.

This is a collaborative initiative welcoming public participation, whether you are already passionate about the arts or simply curious and ready to discover something entirely new.

You can learn more about Culture Days in St. Catharines by visiting www.stcatharines.ca/CultureDays, and on a larger scale you can learn about events in other communities by going to www.culturedays.ca.

Don't let the weather deter you today; get out and see what local artists and musicians have to offer today right in the heart of downtown St. Catharines!

September 30th, 2018.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Niagara Symphony kicks off their new season this weekend

You know summer is drawing to a close and the cooler weather is here when the new season for the Niagara Symphony is finally upon us.  Sure, I have been to symphony concerts in October and even November when it still feels like summer out there, but with the cooler weather this weekend the symmetry just seems perfect to start the new season.

It's been awhile since I have written about our hometown symphony orchestra, and there are several reasons for that.  But the time seems right to renew old ties and take an active role in getting the word out about how fine an ensemble our NSO really is.  So this weekend, a quick look at what to expect this Sunday afternoon and for the rest of their 71st season.

It hardly seems like three years have elapsed since the Niagara Symphony first played in their new home, the expansive and acoustically outstanding Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  I still remember heading up to Brock Centre for the Arts with all my CDs and other paraphernalia to sell in the lobby for many years, and although those days are long gone, the new era that was ushered in with the move downtown to our new arts playpen is indeed worthy of celebration.

I'm sad to report I simply have not gotten around to hearing the Niagara Symphony in their new home yet, and that is something I plan to rectify this season.  It's about time to get out there and cheer for the home team and show some love for the musicians, many of whom I've known personally for many years now.

This Sunday afternoon at 2:30 the Masterworks season gets underway with a concert entitled A River Runs Through it, and as you can imagine the overriding theme here will be water.  Water under the bridge, perhaps?  Well the new Burgoyne Bridge is not that far away, as a matter of fact...

Kicking off the concert will be the music of Bedrich Smetana, his ever-popular The Moldau from Ma Vlast, a four-part concert work when heard in its entirety.  The Moldau is far and away the most popular part of the work, and for good reason.  The swelling strings echo the ebb and flow of the river itself.

Rivalling The Moldau for popularity is Claude Debussy's La Mer, another water-inspired work that set the tone for adventurous orchestral music early in the last century.  It concludes the afternoon concert, paired with another Debussy favourite, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, or, literally, The Afternoon of a Faun.  This deeply evocative and reflective music defines the Impressionist era in classical music coming out of France early in the last century and remains to this day an audience favourite.

Sandwiched in between the Smetana and the Debussy works is the feature performance of the afternoon, Mozart's delightful Concerto for Two Pianos No. 10, K. 365.  A later work in the all-too-short Mozart canon of masterworks, the Concerto for Two Pianos features the Canadian duo of James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton, hailed by the New York Times for their "formidable precision and panache."

I was first introduced to their considerable precision and panache years ago when, while attending a performance by the National Ballet of Canada at the old O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, I stumbled across an old LP of the piano due performing music from the National Ballet repertoire.  I still have that LP in my personal collection, I believe, but it has been years since I last played it.

Anagnoson and Kinton are giants in the world of two-piano works, and for this particular performance in Partridge Hall, Music Director Bradley Thachuk has wisely chosen to highlight their pianistic virtuosity by arranging to have a large screen above the stage in order to project the keyboard playing of each soloist, so as to allow the audience members throughout the hall to see their considerable talents up close.

Looking briefly at the remainder of the NSO season lineup, the first Pops! concert is a tribute to Frank Sinatra with Matt Dusk joining the symphony the weekend of October 13th and 14th.  The launch of the Classical Family series takes place in the Cairns Recital Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 21st at 2:30 with a concert geared towards the upcoming Halloween season.

Looking at the roster of guest soloists after this weekend's concert, cellist Rachel Mercer joins the NSO on October 28th in the Masterworks 2 concert, violinist Aisslinn Nosky returns to both play and conduct on November 25th, Principal Flute of the NSO Doug Miller is featured January 19 & 20; violinist Jonathan Crow joins the symphony on March 10th, pianist Anastasia Rizikov and Principal Trumpet Ira Zingraff perform April 27 and 28, and the full forces of Chorus Niagara close out the Masterworks season with the NSO May 19th for an opera-themed performance.

The balance of the Pops! concerts line up this way:  Joey DeBenedetto and Christine Cornish Smith join the NSO for the trio of annual Christmas concerts December 8th and 9th, guest conductor Melanie Leonard leads the symphony and the Jeans 'n Classics Band in a concert celebrating women of Rock 'n Roll on February 23rd and 24th, and selections from the hit movies of John Williams will close out the Pops! series April 13th and 14th.

The remainder of the Classical Family series features Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf and Blake's The Snowman on December 16th, and a sports-themed concert comes up February 3rd to close out the series.

For tickets to any of the Niagara Symphony concerts this season including the season opener tomorrow afternoon, call or visit the PAC box office at 905-688-0722 or 250 St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  You can also order online at firstontario pac.ca.

Enjoy the new season of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra!

September 22nd, 2018.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Janis Ian coming to Midland Cultural Centre this week

I received an email this week about a concert coming up this week at the Midland Cultural Centre in the near north, and it immediately stirred memories of my early days in radio.

Back in the mid-70s I started work at CHFI-FM in Toronto, first as an operator/producer and eventually as a music programmer in the music library.  Back in those days nothing was automated and we programmed each set of music by hand, using two turntables to make sure two pieces of music would sort of blend together nicely.  It was a time-consuming operation back then, compared to today when computer software programmes just appear to be randomly selecting the music according to a preset list of parameters.

By about 1974 the music mandate of the station was broadened somewhat to include some additional soft pop music currently making the charts, and as such we started programming a wide variety of younger, more socially conscious singer/songwriters along with the more traditional fare the station was well known for.

It was about this time, 1975 to be exact, we were introduced to a young folk artist who seemed to be more than a little lonely while growing up, if her music was to be believed.  Many did, in fact, and Janis Ian enjoyed enormous success for her breakout album Between the Lines.  The first song on the LP, When the Party's Over was the first track we played in regular rotation on the station, as I recall.  But it wasn't long before everyone was paying attention to another song from the album, the delicate single At Seventeen which reached the Top 3 and went on to win a Grammy.

Both songs seemed to come from deep inside her heart, echoing the pain of adolescence she and many of us felt at one time in our lives.  For me personally, the pain of loneliness reached its zenith the time I invited several industry and personal friends to a party at our family home in Toronto and only one single, solitary person showed up.  We had a nice evening, thanks, but it crushed my spirit and hearing both those songs made me realize I was not alone; others shared my sense of loneliness and pain.

But what of the singer who brought us those songs and so many others?  Janis Ian was born in 1951 in New York City and began writing her first songs at the tender age of 12.  At the age of 15 she recorded her self-titled debut LP that gave us Society's Child, which with its accent on interracial romance was summarily banned by several radio stations.  It was the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein who invited Ian to perform the song on a television special devoted to pop and rock music and the resulting publicity literally made Ian the proverbial overnight sensation.

But success did not rest comfortably on her shoulders, and after dropping out of high school she recorded three more albums, giving the money in turn to friends and charities.  It was a chance meeting with a photojournalist at a peace rally that prompted the two to eventually marry, and Ian announced she was retiring from the music business at the tender age of 20.

Alas, the marriage did not last so Ian returned to the recording studio in 1971 to produce Present Company, which did not meet with much success.  Three years later she returned with the album Stars, and her song Jessie eventually became a hit for Roberta Flack.

After the phenomenal success of 1975's Between The Lines, however, public response to her follow up efforts were tepid at best.  She tackled material ranging from domestic violence and eroticism to the Holocaust, but much of it failed to reach as wide an audience as her previous successes did.

Today, you could be forgiven if you thought Janis Ian was now little more than a musical footnote in the annals of popular and folk music.  But you can't keep a good girl down, and Janis is still performing, writing and commenting on society today.  Based now in Nashville, Ian holds two Grammy Awards and was nominated no less than nine times.  Her albums have sold over 9-million copies worldwide.

But I suspect it is her social activism that is nearer and dearer to her heart, as she has received honours from any number of organizations for her work, including MADD and the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Those social sensibilities along with her music will be on full display this week when Janis Ian performs in concert at the Midland Cultural Centre, the first appearances for Ian in the area in many years.

Rather than just a live concert of her past hits, the Midland appearances will be spread over two nights:  first on Tuesday September 11th when MCC manager Eugene Rea talks with Ian about her life, career and ultimately her legacy.  The next night, Wednesday, Janis Ian performs at the same venue in concert.

Tickets are available separately or as part of a special offer package for both nights.  For ticket information and availability, contact the Midland Cultural Centre box office at 705-527-4420.

The Midland Cultural Centre is more than just a concert venue, and Janis Ian is more than just another singer/songwriter we remember from our younger days.  Both are vital contributors to today's cultural scene, and I can see both venue and singer benefitting each other quite nicely.

Who knows, When the Party's Over you might just feel you are At Seventeen all over again...

Enjoy your weekend!

September 8th, 2018.