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.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Back from a Trip of a Lifetime

If you noticed I did not post last weekend, so this weekend I will make up for it with an explanation - and a bit of a diversion from what I normally write about in this space.

I took a one-week vacation and my far better half and I jetted off to England for a six-day tour of the English countryside, ending up in London for the final night prior to the return home.  So this week a bit of a travelogue and collected thoughts from the week away.

It all began last February when Sophie, a devoted WNED watcher and supporter, saw an ad for a tour in August entitled To The Manor Born.  Basically, you would tour some of the sites and locations for some of her - and my - favourite British television shows we watch regularly on PBS.  The tour was guided, of course, and not inexpensive.  Airfare, I might add, was not included.  Sophie said at dinner one night she wanted to go - whether I wanted to or not!

Well faced with a dilemma like that, I knew the only correct answer was "Yes, dear", meaning of course I would accompany her on the tour.  Truth be told, I have wanted to get back to the U.K. for some time now, as my first trip was 41 years ago and the last one 28 years ago.  In other words, two generations and one generation ago respectively.

It took some stick-handling to get an unscheduled week off from work at a time when I normally can't get time off, but it all somehow came together and after a lot of online booking, searching, booking some more and checking, we were all set to go.

First off, let me say international travel is not my friend.  I find the flights too long and since we're flying economy, there is simply not a lot of room for stretching out hours on end.  You really are crammed in like sardines these days.  Add to that a very long lineup for both checking in and clearing security at Pearson in Toronto and you are already feeling tired and stressed out before you even leave the ground.

An overnight flight is not my favourite, but at least I timed it right so we arrived at our first hotel in Windsor, just outside of London, in time to simply walk in, grab our room key and go for a well-deserved rest.

We added an extra day on to the front of the tour so as to relax and rest up before hitting the road, and it certainly proved to be the right plan.  The first night there, Sunday, we were both too tired to do much more than take a walk around the area and enjoy a quiet dinner in the hotel dining room.

Those first two nights were spent at the splendid Castle Hotel Windsor, situated right in the heart of town with a view from our hotel room of Windsor Castle across the way.  In every way, the hotel is exquisite and I highly recommend it when you are in Windsor.  We definitely plan to return again in the future.

Monday the tour group met and we basically had the day to explore Windsor and tour Windsor Castle before meeting for a group dinner at the hotel that night.  We discovered far too many shops to explore in town, and even discovered a new pub that had opened just a few months ago described as an 'art bar.'  Art by local artists was on display and all for sale, and the Scottish theme of the pub was reflected in the music and the menu.  I ordered the vegetarian haggis, actually, and it was far better than the real thing, in my estimation.

The Tuesday morning we embarked on the first part of our road tour, stopping late morning at Highclere Castle, the setting for the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.  As the bus made its way down the long, winding drive, the tour guide wisely popped the Downton Abbey soundtrack CD into the system and with the theme from the series filling our ears, we approached the castle.

Sophie was very emotional at the site of it, as she is totally into the entire series.  Because of the time it aired on Sunday nights I usually didn't get to see many episodes so I was not quite as into it as she was, until we got inside.

The first thing you notice upon arriving is aside from the rolling countryside and distant gardens, there is no visible vegetation anywhere surrounding the castle.  It is all simply gravel, which seems rather barren.  The second thing you discover is no picture taking is allowed inside the castle.

Still, the tour is well worth it, and each room used in the show has a large, full-colour picture depicting a scene from the series shot in that particular room.  But you will also notice, as I did, the amount of wear and tear the carpets are experiencing with all those visitors traipsing through every day.  They are positively threadbare in spots, and together with some rough spots on the walls and some peeling paint on parts of the ceiling, you can see the grand old lady is still in need of repair after all this time.

The 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife are the present occupants of the castle, yet they live there only part-time now.  Most of their time is spent at a cottage elsewhere on the grounds and the castle is for all intents and purposes a museum of sorts.  But what a magnificent museum!

Later in the afternoon we departed for the city of Bath, described as the second most-visited tourist destination in England after London.  Upon arrival it was easy to see why.  Bath, famous for the ancient Roman Baths in the centre of town, is equally famous for the music in every public square in town pretty much all the time.

Walking extensively both that evening and in the morning before departing, Sophie and I were amazed by the sights and sounds of Bath, from the Bath Abbey where Chorus Niagara sang several years ago to Number One Royal Crescent, where a tour reveals how fashionable Georgian society lived.

Our night in Bath was spent at the Abbey Hotel, a compact art-inspired hotel in the centre of town with a bar area featuring wine glasses suspended from the ceiling.  While the room was nice, it was a bit of a let down from the clean elegance of the Castle Hotel Windsor, but it was nicely appointed and since we were only there one night it was not a big problem.

Prior to leaving the next morning, following our walk around town Sophie stopped back into the hotel  to use the main floor women's washroom off the lobby, and after a rather lengthy period inside, she came out and dragged me in to see the room.  Thankfully we were alone at the time, but it was a picture of elegance and grace with a view outside that was quite stunning.  Yes, there is certainly a great divide between mens and women's washrooms the world over it seems...

Leaving Bath Wednesday morning with great reluctance, Sophie and I decided we simply have to return again some day as there is simply so much more to see in the city.  We travelled first to Cricket St. Thomas, an elegant Regency mansion built c1820 and surrounded by spectacular gardens and even a lawn bowling green.

The mansion was chosen by the BBC as the location for the popular British sitcom To The Manor Born several years ago, and today is a popular country house hotel.  We enjoyed a cream tea and tour of the gardens during our mid-day visit there.

Later in the afternoon it was off to Devon and our hotel for the next two nights, Boringdon Hall.  This manor house hotel features dramatic Elizabethan architecture complete with imposing stone towers, secret archways and curious arrow slits that hint at the hotel's rich history.

Boringdon Hall was a pleasure to stay at, with extremely comfortable accommodation in the more modern wing and exceptional dining both nights we were there.  There is also a newer spa wing added on not too many years ago.

Thursday morning we departed for what was for Sophie and I perhaps the highlight of the entire tour, a day-long visit to the Cornish coast and a tour of the seaside village of Port Isaac, used for many years as the setting for the popular TV show Doc Martin.  Known as Port Wenn in the show, Port Isaac is hilly with narrow streets and quaint little cottages you can rent much of the year.

In fact, most of the inhabitants in town are people renting those cottages.  Our tour guide is one of only about 25 people who actually live in the town now, and on his street he says he is the only permanent resident.

The guide took us around to most of the outside settings for all the familiar locations in the show, from Doc Martens house (actually owned by people in Australia, we're told) to the iconic apothecary in town which is actually a fudge and gift shop the rest of the year.  All of the indoor scenes for the show are shot in a barn not far from Port Isaac, so only the outdoor filming is actually done in town.  The next season will start shooting next May, I'm told.

The weather was cool and windy for our visit there and it threatened rain most of the day, which seemed appropriate given the location, but it is easy to see why the Cornish coastline can be an unforgiving one for those not too careful about where they go.

Upon returning to Boringdon Hall for our second night, we were treated to a falconry demonstration by one of the locals, an eccentric gentleman with a large owl by the name of Merlin, several hawks and lots of stories about local lore.

The Friday morning we left Boringdon hall, again with much reluctance, for a mid-day visit to The Greenway Estate in Devon, the summertime home for Agatha Christie and her second husband.  It is a large historic estate with sprawling grounds used as the setting for Christie's Dead Man Walking, starring of course her signature detective Hercule Poirot.  You can take pictures without flash in the home, and the tour reveals a grand yet still modest lifestyle enjoyed by Dame Agatha in her final years.  I couldn't help but notice a picture in one of the rooms of Slipper, the final cat to reside at The Greenway Estate with her.

After lunch at the estate we departed for Sidmouth, a charming seaside town, although last weekend being a bank holiday in England it was decided we should forego the crowds of Sidmouth for the charms of Torquay, part of what is referred to as the English Riviera.  Here, we passed by the Grand Hotel on our way into town, where Agatha and her husband spent their honeymoon, apparently.

The weather had turned rather cloudy and windy while there, with a threat of rain, but we did explore the boardwalk a bit and the collection of amusements, including a lovely carousel not unlike what we have here in Port Dalhousie.  Eventually we ducked into a local cafe for a light bite before rejoining our tour group for the final leg of the tour that day.

We hit a lot of holiday traffic on that stretch, so our arrival at our hotel for the night, Tortworth Court was later than expected.  But once we arrived, our collective jaws dropped.  Tortworth Court is huge, with over 200 stately rooms in an historic setting that just screams history.  There was a wedding underway that evening so lots to see as we wandered the estate prior to dinner and afterwards.  The room was beautiful with every nicety you could imagine.

The Saturday morning, our final full day on the tour, we departed for Hampton Court Palace on our way in to London for the final night.  Hampton Court Palace was not originally intended as a royal residence and in fact it isn't now, either.  It was built by Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, minister of King Henry VIII and appropriated by the king when Wolsey failed to bring about the king's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The grounds are sprawling, with gardens to welcome you first as you make your way to the palace itself.  The tour takes you through the palace, courtyard and art gallery, so there is a lot to see while there.  There was also a food festival on the grounds that day, so crowds were particularly heavy while we were there.  But it was certainly worth stopping for!

Finally we departed late afternoon for London, a city I first visited in 1977 and last in 1990.  It is still the same multicultural, dynamic city as always, but you cannot escape the tension and sense of urgency while there given the world events of the age we live in.

Our final hotel stay was at the strikingly beautiful Amba Hotel, Charing Cross, adjacent to Charing Cross rail station and close to just about everything you want to see in London.  The reinvention of the old Charing Cross hotel is nothing short of spectacular, although I found the lighting system in our particular room rather troublesome.

Another wedding in that hotel Saturday night so it was again a busy place, but the staff is amazing there, helpful in the extreme.  For our final group dinner together we left the hotel, in fact, and walked a few blocks to a French restaurant near The Strand for a lovely late-evening dinner.

Upon returning to the Amba hotel, we found the large winding staircase in the main lobby was festooned with candles in glass holders along most steps to light your way up or down in the evening.  It was a spectacular display of attention to detail at this historic yet modern hotel.

After breakfast on the Sunday morning I left for a walk around town to get some pictures of familiar places I had visited in the past such as Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, both just steps away from our hotel.  It was a cool, grey day in London, and the rain started falling just as I was concluding my walk.  Upon checkout shortly afterwards the rain was pouring down as our car picked us up for the trip to Heathrow airport.

It was great to be back in such a vibrant city again if even just for one night.  I must return again!

The return home was again an adventure, but for different reasons this time.  We were early enough to avoid the lineups we experienced on the way over, but upon our arrival in Toronto late in the afternoon, it proved to be all for naught as my luggage didn't make the flight although Sophie's did.  Amazingly and without logic, her bag was on our flight but mine was on the next flight to Toronto three hours later!

After a very long wait in Toronto for a bag that was still in the air, we left for our car to come home, and Air Canada, to their credit, delivered my bag directly to the house around noon on Monday.  No idea why this happened and it was a first for me, but it made for an rather interesting end to the week away.

So there you have it.  A week full of memories, and a strong desire to return and experience some of the locations again.

The tour operator, Transcendent Travel, is first-rate and treated us all very well.  Tour director Andrew Lennard is knowledgeable and things of just about every detail.  It was an unforgettable experience being on the tour with Sophie and I don't regret it for a moment.

Have a great weekend!

September 2nd, 2018.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Foster Festival Finale leaves the best for last

The third and final offering of the 2018 Foster Festival opened just over a week ago, and it is quickly proving to be the hit of the season.  It is also the second of two World Premieres at the Festival this season.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster has outdone himself this time, crafting a play with an intricate and complex plot, brilliant scene melding and some absolutely spot-on characterizations that take summer theatre to a whole new level.  Expect to see Renovations For Six on many summer theatre playbills starting next season and for several years to come.

Foster clearly knows what his audiences want, and then he takes them to places they never knew existed.  With Renovations For Six he pushes the comedic and dramatic envelope even further, providing us with perhaps his best play to date.

Renovations For Six involves three adult couples, each at different stages of their lives.  The first, Grant and Shayna Perkins, have moved here from Vancouver where both had successful careers.  However, while Grant has a new position as manager of a furniture store, his wife is feeling cast adrift in a way, and contemplates starting up her own Pilates business.  But before that happens, she thinks meeting some new people in their new city is overdue.  After all, they have been here six weeks and have yet to make any new friends.

Maurice Dudet and his wife Veronica Dunn-Dudet have a tense, acidic relationship due in large part to the fact Maurice has quit his well-paying engineering job in order to write a novel.  His wife, a psychiatrist who feels put upon for now having to shoulder the entire financial load of the family, is firmly in sarcastic mode from the moment we meet her.

Billie and Wing Falterman, meanwhile, are the gem couple in the trio.  Billie is outgoing, suspicious of others and just plain earthy.  Husband Wing (we never do find out why he is named Wing, incidentally) is a more down-to-earth sort who works hard for a living as the top salesman at Grant's furniture store.  Together they used to have a successful song and dance act, which Billie longs to return to.

All three couples come together in one generic home, with furniture covered for renovations.  This cleverly allows director Patricia Vanstone to skillfully have all three couples use the same set with no changes, oftentimes appearing in the same home at the same time yet in their own dwellings.  The set design by Peter Hartwell is creatively outfitted with oversize paint chips depicting colours each has chosen for their chosen renovations.

Vanstone keeps the pace lively and takes advantage of every opportunity to accentuate the conflicts furthering the plot, culminating in the trademark Foster finale of exposing the demons in each of the characters and how it affects the others in the cast.  It is brilliant writing on the part of Norm Foster.

The characterizations are uniformly good and finely drawn, although I found Wes Berger's portrayal of Grant Perkins strangely stiff and wooden in the early going, a fact that seems at odds with his readiness to jump into the sack for a 'quickie' with his wife Shayna at every opportunity.  As the play progresses and we find out why he is not spending more quality romantic time with his wife, his meanness and nasty streak makes his characterization much more believable.  For her part, Cosette Derome as perky Shayna is beautifully portrayed, particularly when her world starts to fall apart as the play progresses.

Real-life couple Peter Keleghan and Leah Pinsent are a pleasure to watch as Maurice and Veronica.  Their painful relationship, culminating in their own revelation at the end, mirrors people I suspect we have all met at parties and ultimately try to avoid.

The pairing of Shaw veterans William Vickers and Nora McLellan as Wing and Billie Falterman is a stroke of genius.  Vickers perfectly captures the essence of Wing, a humble man in a humble position,  yet comfortable in his humbleness.  Nora McLellan has and always will be a national treasure, and I still have memories of her spectacular turn in Gypsy at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  She imbues Billie with the fun and games demeaner of the kid who was always the class clown in school. Her overly creative imagination and suspicious nature easily plays off William Vickers' more stable portrayal as Wing.

The culminating scene of Renovations For Six is described by director Patricia Vanstone as the "cocktail party from hell" and indeed it is.  It reveals all in this telling comedy and leads us to the wordless finale when five of the six characters support Shayna in her time of grief.

Renovations For Six plays for another week in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and if you have yet to catch it you really should.  It is the highlight of not only this year's Foster Festival, but really, the summer theatre circuit that I've experienced so far.

Tickets are available by going to www.fosterfestival.com or calling or visiting the FirstOntario PAC box office.  The number is 905-688-0722,

Enjoy your weekend!

August 18th, 2018.