Thursday, June 22, 2017

Second Season of The Foster Festival set to get underway in St. Catharines

Hard to believe, but the second season of The Foster Festival is now underway at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  Previews are underway now and the new season officially kicks off tomorrow night, so let's take a few moments and look at what's on tap this year and why you should go...

I noted last season, the Festival's first in St. Catharines, things were a little slow getting off the mark in June, due likely to the fact we simply were not accustomed to live theatre downtown, especially during the summer months.  Oh sure, we had Carousel Players and Essential Collective Theatre working out of the theatre space in the old courthouse next to the market during the winter months, but even with all their hard work and quality productions, crowds were often still small and infrequent.

So it was logical to ask if the city would/could support a live theatre festival during the heat of the summer months in downtown St. Catharines, given the right ingredients.  The answer now, of course, is a resounding 'yes'.

The right ingredients include a proper and exceptional theatre space in the Cairns Recital Hall at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and a festival devoted to the plays of arguably Canada's greatest living playwright, Norm Foster.  After all, most if not all Ontario summer theatre festivals feature at least one Norm Foster play per season, simply because they are considered 'guaranteed win' nights for summer theatre.

Norm began his playwriting career with The Melville Boys in 1984 and has not looked back since, producing now an average of one new play per year.  Yet amazingly, no theatre festival has ever been devised to celebrate his large catalogue of works like say, the Shaw Festival has built up around the works of George Bernard Shaw.

Until now.

I remember two summers ago attending the media launch of The Foster Festival downtown, when plans were announced for the new festival the following summer - 2016 - at the new PAC downtown.  Hopes and spirits were high the festival would take off and I think as the summer season wore on last year, the somewhat slow start turned into a gallop towards the end as the festival became one of the most talked-about summer events of the season.

That optimism certainly will spill over into this year as the maiden voyage has proven there is indeed an audience out there ready to come downtown and take in some quality theatre on a summer night or  one of the matinee performances.

Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Executive Director Emily Oriold read the theatrical tea-leaves at the end of the season last year and found some things they could tweak this year, including less early-week performances when audiences were rather thin last year.  Their adjustments should ensure more bums are in the seats for performances that remain and everyone will be happy theatrical campers, one would assume.

So, what's on tap for this season, you ask?  Not one but two world premieres this year sandwiched between a Foster classic.

Previews are already underway for the first new play of the season, Screwball Comedy, which officially opens tomorrow night at 8 and from what I hear is completely sold out.  Set in 1938, the story centres around Mary Hayes, a young wannabe newspaper reporter trying to break into a very male-dominated world.  Given a chance to report on a society wedding pits Mary against veteran reporter Jeff Kincaid, in the editor's bad books for his less than sparkling performances as of late.

The dialogue reflects the time period reminiscent of The Front Page, which filled seats at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  Screwball Comedy will likely be a perfect start to the season.  It runs until July 7th and stars Cosette Derome, Kevin Hare, Darren Keay and Eliza-Jane Scott.

Next up from July 12th to the 28th is Foster's classic Old Love, about a recently divorced Bud meeting newly-widowed Molly.  They meet at her husband's funeral, no less, and the story traces their courtship, rekindled romance and the importance of hope.  Real-life husband & wife team of Janet Laine-Green and Booth Savage star in the second show of the season.

The second world premiere and final offering of the season is Lunenburg, involving an American widow, Iris, who along with good friend Natalie arrive in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to a house Iris has inherited from her recently deceased husband.  This was all news to Iris, but she meets up with neighbour Charlie who happily brings the girls up to speed on what they need to know.  Lunenberg stars Shaw Festival regulars Melanie Janzen, Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.

Patricia Vanstone will be busy this summer as she directs all three productions, I'm told.  And yes, Norm Foster himself, who starred in the opening show last year opposite Vanstone, will be attending the season launch tomorrow night.

Want tickets?  Log on to www.fosterfestival.com for more information and ordering online, or call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722, or stop by the box office downtown to pick up your tickets in advance.

This promises to be a great festival and a wonderful way to spend some time downtown this summer, perhaps catching dinner and a show right in your own backyard.  What could be better than that?

Have a great week!

June 22nd, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

TD Niagara Jazz Festival set to heat up your summer of 2017

There has been a flurry of activity lately regarding the TD Niagara Jazz Festival, founded just four years ago by local jazz performers and impresarios Peter Shea and Juliet Dunn.  Just last week, in fact, they announced the musical lineup for the main summer festival, scheduled for the last weekend of July, so let's look at some of that activity and why you should consider spending some time cooling off on those hot summer nights with some cool jazz...

One of the nice aspects of the festival that actually runs all year long is the Twilight Jazz series, featuring both local performers and those from further afield at intimate settings in Niagara.  Just over a week ago we attended the performance featuring Guelph-area jazz singer Brenda Lewis, whom I have known for several years now through Facebook and regular email contact, yet we had never met.

This was a chance to finally catch Brenda in action along with her musical partner, guitarist Margaret Stowe, in the cosy confines of the Mahtay Cafe & Lounge downtown.  They didn't disappoint, as the Great American Songbook was well represented through three sets of lovely easy-going jazz.  It's typical of what you can expect throughout the year at the Twilight Jazz series and I was happy to be a part of the audience that night.

Juliet Dunn, the indefatigable Co-Creator and Executive Director of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival was there of course, and invited me to the media launch of the 2017 season a couple of days later at the Hare Winery Company in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I was more than happy to take her up on the offer!

Part of the announcement included a contribution of $50,000 for the festival from title sponsors TD Canada Trust, presented by District Vice-President Coby Hawkins.  Further funding is provided by the Province of Ontario's Media Development Corporation, Celebrate Ontario, Ontario 150 as well as a number of other supporters both local and provincial.

The TD NJF received the prestigious award of Best New Festival in Ontario for 2017 and considering it is barely four years old now, that is indeed something to celebrate.  It has come from a tremendous amount of work on the part of Juliet, Peter and their legion of volunteers and supporters; the community support shown for the not-for-profit festival is a direct result of this dedication and the quality of the product they are putting out there throughout the season.

One of the highlights of the new season is their Canada 150 initiative:  Live Learn Jazz:  A Canadiana Suite.  This ongoing series saw legendary saxophonist Pat LaBarbera performing at Henry of Pelham Winery last Thursday evening, in fact.  Still to come in the series on July 6th, Vibes in the Vines will be presented at Stratus Vineyards featuring Randy Stirtzinger and Graham Lear.  The event is almost sold-out but if you act fast you should still be able to get tickets to that event.

The main event weekend from July 28th to the 30th will cover a lot of ground and several venues throughout Niagara.  The flagship event will take place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on the Friday evening beginning at 8, with a concert entitled Jazz and Funk in the City.  Featured artists include the Andrean Farrugia Trio and Chops n' Soul with Joel Parisien.  That same night beginning at 10:30 across the street at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, Jam in the City will present the TD Niagara Jazz Festival House Band led by local legend Randy Stirtzinger.

On the Saturday events run all day long, beginning at 11:30 am with the first of the Jazz on the River cruises aboard the Niagara Belle, featuring Dr. Jazz and the Jazzbugs performing classic Dixieland jazz.  Jazz in the Park, meantime, takes over the stage at Simcoe Park in Niagara on the Lake from 11 am to 7 pm with performances by the likes of the Jazz.FM 91 Youth Big Band, the Jimmy Stahl Big Band and Zach Preston's Latin Ensemble, among others at the Fallsview Fiesta Stage.

There are performances as well on the Henley Honda Stage including the Melissa-Marie Shriner Jazz Trio, the Barbra Lica Quartet and the Robert Fekete Quintet; on the Long and McQuade Live Learn Jazz Stage meantime, several more performances will take place including choral singing with Cinnamon Jones and Choir Nation with Sophia Perlman.  Many of these stage performances are free of charge, by the way.

On the final day, Sunday July 30th, the Jazz on the River cruise is presently sold out, but the free stage events continue in Simcoe Park with more performances by the likes of Turbo Street Funk, the Juliann Kuchocki & Dave Restivo Duo and the Stu MacDonald Quartet, among others.

I'm happy to see a tribute to the celebrated Canadian jazz musician Moe Koffman scheduled for 2 pm on Sunday featuring Bernie Senensky's Moe Koffman Legacy Band with Bill McBirnie.  At 7 pm in the evening a concert celebrating the one and only Oscar Peterson will feature local jazz giant John Sherwood along with Dave Young and Terry Clarke.

As if all that isn't enough, there are Tent Talks events scheduled for Saturday in Simcoe Park, and leading up to the big weekend you can catch a free jazz art exhibit on July 27th from 7 to 9 pm at the Niagara Artists Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  It's a free event, by the way.

If all this gets your senses reeling and you need to be a part of it, weekend passes are available in various forms to catch as much or as little as you want.  Just visit www.niagarajazzfestival.com for more details, pricing and availability.

I will be updating my website calendar page shortly with the events as well, at www.finemusic.ca.

There is simply no excuse to be bored in Niagara ever, and this summer especially so with events such as the TD Niagara Jazz Festival happening.  Why not get out and enjoy some great jazz right here in Niagara?

Have a great week!

June 15th, 2017.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

An update on my career path

It's been a little while since I updated you on my career path which, as you know, has taken a few detours over the last couple of years since my exit from radio broadcasting after 40 years of service.  So this weekend I'll bring you up to speed on the current situation which includes some positive changes.

As many of you know in the fall of 2015 I began my New Adventure with Canada Post, after a rather rigorous selection process.  At the time I was pleasantly surprised I made it all the way through the various screening processes and had a new career as a casual, on-call letter carrier in St. Catharines.  I was told back then don't count on making this your only job as it is only on-call, but for me at least, I had more than enough work to keep me going most of the year.

There were down times for us casuals in late April/early May and late September/early October, but otherwise I was working almost every day.  So for me, the down time allowed me some much-needed rest and recharge for the next round of busy work schedules.  We knew going in this would be the case, but again for me, I was fine with it.

The goal of the casual worker is to get hired on permanently at Canada Post, although this can often take years to accomplish as older workers retire and positions open up.  The fact others can transfer in to this area and take a position based on seniority can slow the process down as well.  But you always hold out hope this will someday happen, hopefully sooner rather than later.

After another winter walking the routes in all sorts of inclement weather, I debated whether I would continue once I hit the age of 60 marker, which happens later this coming week.  I was getting tired and my back was starting to ache by the end of those long walks.  I was a late starter at this game and although I worked hard to keep up with the 'young bucks' I was usually the last one out of the depot in the morning and the last one back at the end of the shift.

Still and all, it is a great job and you meet a lot of great people on your walks.  The nice days are usually a pleasure; who can resist walking in the sunshine on a nice spring or fall day and getting paid to do it?  Granted, the nasty weather makes the walk less enjoyable but even then, properly protected from the elements you can manage to work through it well enough.

This past winter although snow was not as big an issue around these parts much of the season, the ice we had prior to Christmas and the March break blizzard both presented their challenges to us letter carriers both young and old alike.  But as they say, through snow, rain, hail, etc. the mail must go through and so it is on a daily basis at Canada Post.

While I was pondering my future back in March, slogging through knee-high snowdrifts while delivering the mail, I had a call from my supervisor asking if I would be interested in training for a temporary posting inside in the retail division.  It would involve extensive learning in order to know all the different aspects of the job to properly serve the customers in a timely manner, but after careful consideration I agreed to the opportunity.

So in April I did the required training following my last mail routes the week following Easter weekend.  I knew I would be posted to the main post office on Queen Street in downtown St. Catharines providing sick relief on what was expected to be a long-term basis.  While it was a steep learning curve I managed to get the hang of it and enjoyed meeting a lot of the downtown people I have known for years working in the centre of the city.  It was basically a 9 to 5 full time job inside, so what's not to like?

Then a funny thing happened.

The third week into my posting downtown I caught a very nasty cold and was off work for several days, which for me is unusual and rather ironic as I walked the entire winter outside with little trouble and once I get an inside job I catch a cold.  Go figure.  But as you are dealing with the public face to face and handling cash on a daily basis it is almost inevitable you will catch something.

By the third day of the cold I was particularly frustrated by my slow recovery when the phone rang.  It was the call every casual waits for.  I had been hired permanently at Canada Post!  Yes, I felt a little better after the call for sure!

There are different roles you can apply for at Canada Post, including of course full-time letter carrier. I gave careful thought to my choices but ultimately given my age and the number of years I had left before retirement, I included in my choices a part-time position working inside the depot helping with the morning sort and processing of parcels.  And that is the position I was hired for.

The day starts early, usually at 5.  But after years of getting up early for a 5 am start in radio I was well used to the routine so to me it was just like old times.  Being part time I only work four or five hours a day so I am usually done by either 9 or 10 in the morning depending on the shift and the volume of mail, and then the rest of the day is mine.

After a couple of weeks in my new position I couldn't be happier.  I am an early riser by nature anyway and there is a certain pleasure in getting the work day done very early, I find.  The shift often flies by on busy days and before I know it I am heading out and on my way to the Y to walk the track, shower and head home at noon for lunch.  The afternoon is mine to do whatever I wish.

Oh I will have no trouble filling the time in the afternoon, I can assure you.  Lots of things to do around the house I will now have time for, and on nice days when Sophie is working all day I can sneak out and enjoy an escape in the sunshine, as I did this past Friday afternoon.  What's not to like?

I also plan to do some things I simply have not had time for the last while such as writing more, both in this space and on a book or two I know I have in me.  I want to write about my experiences finding a second career late in life and weathering the tricky employment reality today, for one.  I even have a working title for the book, but that will be a well-kept secret for now.

While this is not a scenario that would suit everyone it is absolutely perfect for me.  I am at the stage in my life where I can work a little less and spend a little more time doing what I like and I have to admit I am ready for that.  For over fifty years now I have been working at one job or another in some capacity, and many years more than one job at once.  For me the time was right to slow down just a little and easy ever so gently into what I am calling semi-retirement.

I am blessed to have the opportunity to essentially end my career with Canada Post, working with a talented team of professionals I have an immense amount of respect for.  Every day brings with it new challenges and every day the team I work with rises to the challenge and shows what they're made of.  I am proud to have this opportunity to work alongside them every day.

So as the big 6-0 looms on the horizon this week, know I am exactly where I want to be at this stage in my life:  working in many ways to make the city a better place to be.  It will be a busy time, but this writer is looking forward to the challenge.

Onwards and upwards we go...join me for the ride of a lifetime!

June 4th, 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ensemble Vivant to pay tribute to Canadian musical icon Rick Wilkins this week

I've written before about the Toronto-based musical group Ensemble Vivant and their vivacious leader Catherine Wilson.  They last performed in Niagara earlier this year in the southern tier of the peninsula, as well as at our own FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in December as part of their Christmas Tidings tour of Ontario.

Catherine herself is no stranger to Niagara, having performed when the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts presented her as part of their ENCORE! performance schedule up at Brock a few seasons back as well.  On that occasion I managed to hook up with Catherine again after many years' separation after first meeting her in Elora back around 1991.  On that occasion she was performing as part of the then-annual Guelph Spring Festival and I was totally captivated by the lovely sound she produced at the keyboard.

I never expected her to remember me after all those years but she did, and within moments we were exchanging conversations like old friends who have never been apart.

That's the special magic of Catherine Wilson and by extension, her group Ensemble Vivant.  The small, tightly-knit musical ensemble performs a wide array of instrumental music ranging from traditional classical to tangos to just about everything else in between.  And they do it with an effortless style that makes it all look so easy.

But of course, it isn't.

Any performer will tell you it takes years of practice to become an overnight sensation and even then, you have to keep working at your craft to try to at least perfect perfection.  The truly talented musicians do make it look easy; moving from musical style to musical style with an almost chameleon ability other mere mortals simply marvel at.

As with The Beatles and the success they achieved being aided by the so-called Fifth Beatle, producer George Martin, Catherine Wilson and Ensemble Vivant have their musical ace in the hole as well in the form of gifted and multi-talented arranger and composer Rick Wilkins.  Wilkins, perhaps not that well known in his own right by the general public, is the man Toronto musicians have relied upon to provide the musical backing to make their performances and recordings something special.

Throughout his career, Wilkins has worked in a variety of musical genres and with a veritable who's who of music:  Oscar Peterson, Anne Murray, Burton Cummings, Peggy Lee, Celine Dion, Oliver Jones, John McDermott, Guido Basso, Julie Amato and Tommy Ambrose among them.  Heck he even worked with Wayne & Schuster!

During the 70s and 80s in particular I grew to admire his work in a somewhat more traditional way during my early days in radio, when Canadian radio stations relied heavily on recordings made for the Canadian Talent Library in order to fulfill their Canadian Content obligations.  While those 'obligations' might sound onerous to some, Rick managed to make the mundane into something magical by creating often gorgeous arrangements for the creme de la creme of Canadian music.  His arranging and/or conducting talents regularly showed up on CTL recordings by the likes of Hagood Hardy, Eugene Amaro, the Boss Brass and Jimmy Dale, among others.

I still have some of those hard-to-find LP recordings in my personal library to this very day, in fact.

Need more musical credentials?  He has had a prolific career in both radio and television, especially for the CBC network as well as for CTV.  Rick was also music director for a television series and several specials featuring The Jackson Five years ago on CBS, and also conducted part of the opening ceremonies for the Calgary Olympics.  The gala opening of Toronto's Skydome?  He was the musical director there as well.  The Hockey Night in Canada theme?  He didn't write it but he's scored and rescored it more than once, essentially scoring more often than the Maple Leafs back in the bad old days...

Throughout that prolific career, Rick has also written exclusively for Ensemble Vivant throughout the past 27 years, commenting recently of the group:  "This is the highest-level chamber music-making".

Indeed it is.

The love affair that has spanned 27 years between Catherine Wilson's Ensemble Vivant and Rick Wilkins will be celebrated this week in Toronto with a special tribute concert to mark Mr. Wilkins' 80th birthday this year.  The concert will feature compositions and arrangements Rick has contributed to the group over that time, highlighted by some other pretty high-powered Canadian talent as well.  Featured on the programme will be some of Canada's most renowned jazz artists including Brian Barlow, Mike Murley and Guido Basso.

The 80th Birthday Tribute Concert for Rick Wilkins happens this coming Thursday, May 11th at 7:30 at the lovely Grace Church on the Hill, 300 Lonsdale Road in Toronto.  Tickets are $45.00 and you can order yours by calling 416-465-8856.

A portion of the proceeds will go to EUTERPE, a charity providing under-serviced GTA children with access to live high-caliber classical and jazz concerts and musical education free of charge.  It is a charity Catherine personally has more than a passing interest in, believing passionately in the cause herself.

I unfortunately have a prior engagement here in St. Catharines Thursday evening but if you have the time and the inclination to go, you will not be disappointed.  You will be amazed by the breadth of musical talent Rick has helped to foster over the past several decades.

Have a great weekend!

May 7th, 2017.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

So much happening with Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts this spring!

I was looking through the listings of events and happenings in the month of April involving the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts and it struck me how fortunate we are to have such a thriving arts hub now located in the heart of the city.  So I thought I'd touch on a few of the more immediate events coming up you can enjoy here in the city courtesy our arts purveyors at Brock.

Last week the Brock University Department of Visual Arts Honours Exhibition opened at Rodman Hall Arts Centre on St. Paul Crescent.  Entitled Denouement, the exhibition features the works of Amber Brown, Becca Marshall, Kylie Mitchell, Robin Nisbet, Jasmine Said and Taylor Umer.  This is a free community event running through to April 30th and there will be an Artists Talk about the exhibition at Rodman Hall on April 21st at 7 pm.

The RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital series continues through to late April, featuring faculty and students from the Department of Music at Brock, and last Tuesday at noon I had a chance to attend the recital of voice students accompanied by pianist Lesley Kingham at the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

There were 7 voice students altogether, alternating with songs and arias from a variety of composers including Mozart, Arne, Brahms, Tosti, Copeland, Ravel, Debussy and several others.  All of the young students were impressive and show great promise, but I found Elizabeth Pereira particularly impressive with a great stage presence and expressive voice.

Other students on the programme included Awura-Adwoa Bonsu, Jessica Pierre, Emily Stockwell, Loris Isabettini, Karlie Boyle and William Sadler.  Sadler, incidentally, brought the audience to their feet at the end with a nicely-done rendition of Bring Him Home from Schonberg's popular musical Les Miserables.

The RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital series continues this Tuesday at noon with performances by piano and guitar students from the Department of Music, and once again the recital is free and open to the public.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy some great music over your lunch hour in the heart of the city.

Tonight at 7:30 the Brock University Choirs and Brock Music Alumni present a special finale concert in the Cairns Recital Hall.  The concert, appropriately entitled "Finale" is the farewell performance by  conductor Dr. Harris Loewen, who will be leaving his post at Brock after 30 years.  Joining the current men's, women's and mixed choirs will be about 50 Department of Music alumni, the Walker String Quartet and other guest artists.

The programme will feature a variety of works, including Vivaldi's Magnificat, which Loewen first performed with the choirs in his debut concert at Brock in the fall of 1987.  Several new works written by colleague Dr. Matthew Royal will also receive their premiere performance tonight.

Tonight's concert promises to be an emotional and memorable musical event, and tickets are very affordably priced at $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.  You can call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722 to order yours.

The performance tonight dovetails nicely with the Spring Open House happening tomorrow at Brock University from 11 am to 4 pm, providing a great opportunity to see what Brock in general is all about and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in particular.

Next Tuesday April 4th the University Wind Ensemble conducted by Zoltan Kalman will present their spring concert in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  Entitled Music for the Soul, the concert promises to be an interesting mix of powerful, lyrical, celebratory and altogether passionate works by the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Gounod, Leroy Anderson, Tchaikovsky, Philip Sparke and a host of other composers.  Where else can you hear Anderson's The Waltzing Cat on the same programme as Sparke's Prelude to a Celebration, I ask you?!

Once again the performance is very affordably priced at only $10 general admission and only $5 for children 14 and under or for those involved in the eyeGo programme.  Tickets are available by calling the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

On Friday of next week, the Music Ed Plus Chamber Music Ensembles present Music in the Hallway, again presented by the Department of Music between 12 noon and 3 pm.  The performances happen up at the Brock campus in the Dr. Charles A. Sankey Chamber located in A block of the MacKenzie Chown Complex.  This is a free community event.

And finally, the One Act Festival 2017 is happening next Friday and Saturday, presented by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock, in the Marilyn I. Walker Theatre in the School of Fine & Performing Arts downtown.  Part One of the Festival goes Friday at 2 and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Part Two goes Friday evening at 7:30 pm and Saturday afternoon at 2.  The admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis.

So there you go - all that happening in the coming days right here in the heart of the city.  Who says there is not a thriving arts community here in Niagara?  Get out and discover it all for yourself this spring!

Have a great weekend!

April 1st, 2017.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Foster Festival gears up for Season Two

It doesn't seem possible we are already talking about the upcoming second season of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines, but here we are anticipating summertime laughs at the PAC.

If you were not paying attention the last couple of years, the Foster Festival was formed by Executive Director Emily Oriold and Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone to celebrate the plays of Canada's favourite playwright, Norm Foster.  Foster, who has been a summer theatre circuit staple for over a quarter of a century, now has a festival devoted entirely to his vast body of work for the stage.

In the inaugural season in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the Foster Festival presented three Foster plays, each playing for about 3 weeks each, running from late June through to late August.  Two Foster classics were staged along with a premiere of a new Foster play; the Festival has as part of its mandate to premiere at least one new play by their namesake playwright each year.

The first season started slowly but as the word got out this is no ordinary summer theatre festival, sales picked up and by the end of the summer everyone was pleased with the outcome of the first season.  Would there be room for improvement?  Of course there would be.  But was it the right decision to base the Festival in downtown St. Catharines?  I would have to say absolutely yes!

Foster himself appeared in the first play of the season, On a First Name Basis, and attended the opening nights of the following two plays.  So he is very much a part of the Festival that bears his name.

This year, the Foster Festival unveils not one but two new Foster plays as they continue to gain a foothold in the busy summertime entertainment schedule here in Niagara with a roster of new and returning artists both from the Shaw Festival and movies and TV.

The season kicks off June 21st with the World Premiere of Screwball Comedy, directed by Patricia Vanstone and starring Joanna Douglas, Kevin Hare, Darren Keay and Eliza Jane Scott.  Keay returns after a successful run in last year's World Premiere, Halfway to the North Pole.

Screwball Comedy is set in 1938 and involves budding reporter Mary Hayes, trying to break into the male-dominated world of newspaper reporting.  Full of snappy period dialogue, this comedy sends up the screwball comedies we all remember seeing in the theatre while growing up.

Foster's Old Love opens July 12th, and features the real-life husband and wife team of Janet-Laine Green and Booth Savage as Molly and Bud.  Also starring is Melanie Janzen, who wowed audiences last year as the trio of women in Here on the Flight Path.

Old Love, also directed by Vanstone, is a story of courtship, rekindled romance and the importance of hope in everyday life.  Bud is divorced and Molly is recently widowed.  At her husband's funeral, they meet...

The third and final play of the season is the second World Premiere of the season at the Foster Festival, a play titled Lunenburg.  Again directed by Vanstone, the play features the return of Melanie Janzen along with Shaw veteran actors Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.  Lunenburg opens August 2nd and will close down the Festival on August 18th.

Lunenburg is set, naturally, in Lunenburg Nova Scotia, and mixes love, mystery and a lot of laughs as American widow Iris Oulette and friend Natalie arrive in town to a house she's recently inherited from her recently deceased husband.

If you did not attend last year's Festival, I urge you to take some time and discover what's happening in downtown St. Catharines this summer.  The Foster Festival is the only Canadian theatre festival to celebrate the work of a living playwright.  And with Foster already having written about 60 plays to date, the Festival has lots of material to draw upon in coming seasons.

Foster, for his part, is now an Officer of the Order of Canada, a honour bestowed on him back on December 31st.  It is an honour richly deserved and befitting a playwright who has made so many laugh and think for so many years.

To find out more about the Foster Festival, visit their website at www.fosterfestival.com.  You can purchase tickets directly through the site or through the FirstOntario PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

With spring just around the corner, can summertime fun be far behind?

Have a great week!

February 19th, 2017.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Enjoying a night out swinging with John Sherwood & Friends

It has been a little while since I last wrote in this space, and for that I apologize.  A busy schedule and really feeling tired from a lot of work lately have kept my creative juices from flowing freely.  But with renewed interest after a bit of a break, I hope to return to writing on the arts and other related topics on a semi-regular basis.  Maybe not every week as in the past, but on at least an occasional basis.

So with that out of the way, a heartfelt thank you goes out this weekend to the friendly staff of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in downtown St. Catharines.  Once again they were kind enough to invite this humble scribe to their Encore! Professional Concert Series at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

I've written before about the uniformly high quality of the performances offered in the series, and also the lamented general lack of interest on the part of the general public.  Try as they might, the School of Fine Arts just couldn't seem to gain a foothold on growing their audience for exceptional classical and jazz concerts in Niagara.

But perhaps they are beginning to turn the corner, if Friday evening's performance is anything to go by.  The largest venue at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre was almost full this time around to welcome to the stage local jazz favourite John Sherwood and his musical friends.  Now granted Sherwood is a pretty safe bet almost anywhere, as his performances are usually well attended wherever he goes.

Still, if the Encore! Professional Concert Series needed a cure for their identity crisis, John Sherwood provided it in spades.

John must have worked well in advance to book the talent he brought with him on stage Friday night, as they are all first-rung jazz masters on the Canadian scene in their own right:  Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Pat Collins on bass, Mike Murley on saxophone and none other than Terry Clarke on drums.

The programme was called Canadian Jazz Scene, although save for an obvious tip of the hat to Oscar Peterson to lead off the proceedings, the rest of the evening featured the group as either a trio or quintet on a collection of jazz standards from literally all over the world.

John and the boys were swinging hard at times, gently swinging on occasion and at least once offered a hybrid of the two, including on Pat Metheny's classic James.  But no matter the tempo, everything was anchored by that rock-solid foundation offered at the keyboard of the majestic Steinway & Sons Concert Grand by John Sherwood himself.  He truly is a master of the instrument.

John also happens to be the resident piano tuner for all the pianos at the PAC, so he knows them inside out to begin with, and was able to coax just the right amount of sound and swing throughout the evening.

The evening was inexplicably cut short as they introduced the final tune, I Want to Be Happy when the fire alarm began to sound and everyone had to file out a little prematurely, greeted on the street by the wailing of fire engine sirens coming down St. Paul Street.  I have not heard officially what caused the problem, but rumours persist about a malfunctioning popcorn machine on site.

No matter, things were popping and hopping all night long inside the PAC and I doubt anyone would feel hard done by when the alarm finally did sound.

It's a funny thing about John.  He could probably write his ticket to perform with anyone he wanted anywhere in the world, he is that good.  But he chooses to stay right here in his adopted home town where he grew up and built up his musical career.  We are all the richer for it, of course, but one wonders what kind of offers he's had over the years.

I recall having a wonderful meeting with John at his north St. Catharines home about 5 years ago now when I was researching the whereabouts of one of the two famous grand pianos that used to grace the massive radio studio where I used to work at CKTB Radio.  Turns out the larger of the two is now John's personal piano at home, fully refurbished and looking astounding after all these years.

In an odd twist of fate, my current job as a letter carrier for Canada Post has seen me deliver John's mail on several occasions over the past year!  He is not aware of the fact I am sure, but I smile whenever I approach his house, knowing the connection between my former career and the piano sitting just beyond the front door of his north St. Catharines home.

Thanks again John and friends, for a very entertaining evening of jazz classics from the Great American Songbook.  And thanks to the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts for inviting me to enjoy the show on Friday night.

Have a great week!

February 12th, 2017.