Saturday, January 25, 2020

It's not too early to start thinking of the Annual Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School

I have a confession to make.  I love choral music.  Just love it.  The sound of human voices soaring into the rafters is for me, the nearest thing to heaven on earth I think we mere mortals can achieve.

Unfortunately, my love of choral music does not extend to me actually singing with a choir.  Oh I have been approached to sing in choirs before, but that invitation usually is rescinded when they actually hear me sing.  Really.

It's not that I am all that bad.  I mean, I do have a voice since I spent 40 years in radio broadcasting.  However I never learned to read music, and besides, my timing is off.  My far better half has gone on record as stating I am always about half a beat behind everyone else whenever I sing with a group.  And that's on a good day.  I just like to be ready, that's all.

What's more, I tend to sing as flat as Saskatchewan.  Meaning, of course, my occasional basso-profundo is enough to annoy the cats we share the house with on a regular basis.

But that's not to say I don't enjoy hearing great choral music sung by those who can hold a note or two.  Or three.

Many of those aspiring young singers with an interest in Renaissance polyphony will be more than a little interested in the announcement this week the so-called "soft" deadline for applications to participate in the annual Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School at Huron University in May is set for February 1st.

Huron University is part of Western University in London, Ontario, and CRMSS is directed by world-renowned baritone and choral workshop leader Greg Skidmore.  The summer music school is now in its third year, running this year from May 9th to 17th and is the only Renaissance choral music workshop of its kind in Canada.

If you need a comparison of how important this summer music school is, it's basically on a par with those run by The Tallis Scholars in Seattle and the Early Music Academy in Boston, along with those held in England and throughout Europe.

In fact, the Canadian school's official patron is none other than the current director of The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips.  His recordings with the Scholars are luminous in sound and quite literally can take your breath away with their beauty.

Director Skidmore says this year they will be focusing on the works of the Franco-Flemish school, really the 'home' of Renaissance polyphonic music.  Helping out the home team in musical tutoring this year will be five master's level performance students from the University of York in the U.K., as well as guest artist Robert Hollingworth, director of the dynamic and inventive U.K.-based vocal consort I Fagiolini.

The Canadian Renaissance Music Summer Music School is aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at undergraduate students, graduates and young professional singers.  It will be a week-long deep dive into Renaissance polyphonic vocal music with an intensive period of rehearsal and performance, both liturgically and in concert, all with an emphasis on quality in performance.

In fact the week will culminate in a final live concert performance for the public at the end of the course in London, Ontario on Sunday, May 17th at 2:30 pm.

The theme of CRMSS 2020 is Beyond the Ordinary, with a focus on Franco-Flemish music.  Essentially this polyphonic style, meaning music with multiple, independent melody lines performed simultaneously was pioneered by the great master of the genre Josquin des Prez.

Renaissance music is both vocal and instrumental music written and performed in Europe essentially during the Renaissance era.  Most agree the period began about 1400 and ran for the better part of 200 years, closing around 1600 with the advent of the Baroque period.

The distribution of music and music theory texts to a wider audience was a laborious task at the start of the Renaissance period, as it all had to be hand-copied.  That time-consuming and expensive process was replaced by the first printing press that came out in 1439 and that made music more accessible to those who no longer had to pay a king's ransom to acquire scores with which they could rehearse.

So now here we are in 2020 and the music is not only readily available for study and performance, but there are schools such as CRMSS dedicated to making the music literally come alive for a whole new generation.

If you want more information on the course curriculum just go to http://www.crmss.org/course.html.

I might not be able to sing with the graduates but I think I can handle sitting in the audience and enjoying the final results.  Just so long as I keep my mouth shut...

Have a great weekend!

January 25th, 2020.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Niagara Symphony joins the Beethoven bandwagon this weekend

In classical music we like to observe special dates of note, such as the birth or unfortunately the death of a particular composer for example.  The I used to host my longtime classical music programme on 610CKTB years ago I regularly noted anniversaries of all sorts on the show.

Record companies regularly take advantage of these anniversary dates as well in order to market their classical catalogues, hopefully to new listeners as well as old.  I still remember the huge marketing machine behind the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart back in 1991 that produced all sorts of repackaged box sets of Mozart's music culminating in the mammoth Phillips Classics Complete Mozart Edition.  That set was incredibly expensive to purchase but included every single work Mozart ever wrote.

Ah yes, Marketing 101:  give people what they want even if they don't know they need it yet.

This year the classical marketing sets its collective sights on the so-called Bad Boy of Classical Music, Ludwig van Beethoven.  In case you were unawares, 2020 would have marked Beethoven's 250th birthday and although he likely would never be able to hear the commotion caused by this anniversary were he alive today, he would most certainly appreciate all the attention nonetheless.

Beethoven has for me held a special place in music.  While Mozart sounds refined and almost perfect, Beethoven on the other hand sounds rougher, almost craggy in comparison.  Where Mozart is depicted often in fine garb at a society event trying to ingratiate himself to a wealthy patron or two, Beethoven appears more often than not as a bit of a lone wolf in the musical world.  Alone in his apartment crafting music amid the chaos of a life well lived, his artistry seems more masculine, dare I say more virile in comparison to his precocious predecessor.

To put this in Hollywood actor terms, which I know I shouldn't but I will nonetheless, Mozart appears polished and rather Cary Grant-ish, while Beethoven might be compared to the swashbuckling swagger of, say, an Erroll Flynn.  At least if you are comparing them on purely musical terms.

So on the heels of this admittedly unorthodox introduction, the Niagara Symphony joins the Beethoven bandwagon for 2020 with an all-Beethoven programme Sunday afternoon titled Triumph of Destiny.  The Masterworks 3 concert happens at 2:30 pm in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

The concert includes three of Beethoven's more muscular works, beginning with his Egmont Overture and concluding with his colossal and iconic Symphony No. 5.  In the middle is the amazing Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano, featuring the considerable talents of the Gryphon Trio.

All three works date from one turbulent decade, 1803 to 1810 as his hearing was in a steady decline but his creative genius was surely at its peak.  The massive Symphony No. 5 alone pushed the musical boundaries even further than they had been following the debut of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica", which happened shortly before the debut of the Triple Concerto.

It's also interesting to note the Niagara Symphony last performed the Symphony No. 5 in 2015 as they performed their final concert in the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Brock University in the spring of that year.  Now, they launch the year-long Beethoven celebration with the same work.

The No. 5, replete with that very familiar four-note opening "dun-dun-dun-dah" has been a musical calling card of sorts for many orchestras and dare I say, conductors, for many years now.  It seems any conductor wanting to show they are in control of the musical forces that lie in front of them while on the podium often chooses to conduct this work to show what he or she, and by extension they, can do as a team.

It is that very team spirit that evidently prompted the redoubtable Dr. Peter Schickle to create his famous dissertation of the opening movement of the Symphony No. 5 as a give-and-take between a couple of well-intentioned football commentators describing the "action" on stage.  It's a classic recording and was certainly a boundary-pusher in its own right when the old Vanguard recording was released back in the '60s.

So with football season soon to climax in the United States early next month, that analogy is perhaps not lost on the esteemed players of the NSO and their popular conductor, Bradley Thachuck.

Kickoff, er, concert time is 2:30 tomorrow afternoon at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  Tickets are still available through the box office at the PAC by visiting in person or calling 905-688-0722.

Pennants are not needed for the concert, by the way...

Have a great weekend!

January 18th, 2020.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Returning to Downton Abbey in downtown St. Catharines

I don't write often about movies in this space but this week I'll make an exception.

There was much hype over the past year about the release of the movie Downton Abbey, as a follow up for fans of the long-running television series that held fans captive on PBS for about five or six seasons.  Early preview notes suggested the plot revolved around the King & Queen of England visiting the Abbey and now-retired head butler Carson being pressed into service to save the day.  As one pundit commented at the time..."is that it?  That's the plot line?!"

Well there was much more to the story line than that, thankfully, and I won't go into all the details here in case you have yet to see the movie.  But suffice it to say there is an attempt on the King's life while visiting the area (not specifically at the Abbey) and the service staff at the Abbey are no pushovers.  It all ends with pretty much everyone happy in the end, save perhaps with ageing Violet Crawley who is merely 'satisfied' a family crisis only she seems concerned about appears to have been averted.

My far better half and I have become fans of the show over the years, she much sooner than I.  Due to the fact I usually have to be in bed by 9 for work the next morning I never really had the chance to get into the series the first time around.  When PBS ran a Downton Abbey marathon weekend a couple of years ago and I couldn't tear Sophie away from the telly for two whole days, I wasn't exactly a fan then either.

But towards the end of the series' run I did in fact try to catch up on the wealthy yet struggling Crawley household and their imposing and iconic Abbey, trying to make sense of each character and what import they had in contributing to the story.  I quickly learned Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley was the glue that kept things together and always would be, snide remarks and all.

Fast-forward to August of 2018 and Sophie and I are on our PBS tour of England and included on the second day of the tour (and the main reason Sophie was adamant about being on this particular tour) was a visit to the much-venerated and oft-visited home used in the TV series.  Known of course as Highclere Castle, the imposing Georgian mansion appears amongst the rolling hills about halfway between Windsor and Bath.  As we drove up the winding drive in our tour bus the tour director cleverly played the opening theme from the TV series rather loudly on the bus sound system.

It was effective if not somewhat predictable.

But the visit was amazing.  Tour groups are allowed only at certain times of the year and although you cannot see every corner of the Castle you get to see a good part of it.  And what you see in the TV series and now the movie Downton Abbey is a somewhat glossy version of what actually greets you upon arrival.

The first thing you notice is that due to the high volume of tourist traffic through the estate, the carpets are rather threadbare in many spots.  You don't see that on the show!  There are some rough spots on the walls and such, as one would expect from such an old building.

For the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries the Carnavon family lived in the old brick and freestone house, but it was in 1838 the 3rd Earl of Carnavon sought to transform the home into the grand mansion we know today as Highclere Castle.  The structural work on the interior of the Castle was completed in 1878 and once built, the Castle became a centre of political life during the latter part of the Victorian era.

The scenes that regularly played out in the series and now the movie were a part of life during the early part of the 20th century, although during the First World War Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnavon transformed the Castle into a hospital, with patients arriving in late 1914 from Flanders.  It also became home to evacuee children from London at one point.

The Castle returned to a private home after the war and in 1922 the 5th Earl of Carnavon and Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, really the first global world media event.  To this day there is an extensive Egyptian display in the basement of the Castle the public can visit.

Today the current (8th) Earl and Countess of Carnavon live partly in the Castle and partly in another home on the grounds nearby but remain closely involved in the Castle's day to day life and future.  It is not unusual even today to see the Countess on the grounds near the Castle on pleasant days.

But back to the movie.  Although it helps it isn't necessary to be a fan of the TV series in order to follow or even enjoy the movie version.  I still have to defer to Sophie to figure out where a particular character figures in the story line.

The filming is stunning, especially the drone shots of the Castle and grounds from above.  The dining scenes are especially fun to watch, if you are at all interested in proper dining etiquette.  Incidentally, the basement of the present Castle no longer houses the kitchen facilities as depicted in the movie.  All that would be shot off-site I'm told.

While Sophie marvels at the elaborate decor and ladies' gowns, I instead take a keen interest in the men's formal wear of the period, as outlined in my blog post in this space last week.  It is all very grand, and all very proper, as you would expect.

As a fan of movies not utilizing an overabundance of computer-generated special effects, I found the near total lack of same here refreshing, as well as the total absence of any foul language at all.

As mentioned earlier, all ends well with the Crawley family bound and determined to soldier on and keep the old gal going for awhile longer and one guy actually gets the girl in the end.

Oh and the music: sweeping, familiar and as comfortable as your old slippers.  John Lunn's score is lush and appropriate without every being over the top.  Just a perfect complement to what we're watching on the screen.

Now I know the film was released world-wide last September and we loved it then.  But paying a return visit this past Friday evening at The Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines allowed us to savour the glory of a bygone age yet again and perhaps see some things we missed in the first viewing.  It was well worth a revisit.

Clearly Downton Abbey the movie is not for everyone, as was the case with the TV series.  But for those of us who love British period pieces aired on PBS we're in our glory.

If you have not succumbed to the magic of Highclere Castle, now might be a good time to catch the movie and perhaps if you're ever over in England, actually visit in person.  It will be an unforgettable experience either way.

Have a great weekend!

January 12th, 2020.




Sunday, January 5, 2020

The first post of the New Year takes a detour with my New Year's Resolution

So here we are already five days into the New Year and I am working hard to make my New Year's resolution a reality.  With that in mind we'll dispense with the usual arts reporting in this space this week to reveal something that has been on my mind for quite some time now.  It doesn't deal directly with the arts per se, but in a roundabout way it does...

I have always prided myself on dressing reasonably well and trying to look respectable when out in public.  Oh sure, there are days even I let the bar slip a little bit, as we all do, but recently I have been making a concerted effort to raise the proverbial bar regarding my personal style and I hope I'll be successful.

If I have a particular style it is probably classic, traditional wear most days, save for the odd day when I just feel like wearing slim jeans and a sport shirt, especially on weekends.

But about a year ago I made a discovery.  One of my longstanding guilty pleasures has been to scour resale and thrift shops for real vintage finds.  I've done pretty well over the years, including one in Windsor, England in August of 2018 when I found a spectacular self-tie bow tie in bright red with white dots.  It prompted me to finally learn how to properly tie a bow tie, something that had eluded me for many years.

With that small mountain climbed, let's get back to my find of about a year ago.  I have always admired properly tailored formal wear, such as a tuxedo, and always secretly longed for a vintage set of full evening dress.  I don't really have any reason to own full evening dress, but then so few of us do nowadays.  In fact, if you poll most men they will scratch their collective heads and ask "what's that?".

In a nutshell, full evening dress is a proper black tailcoat extending at the back to about the knee, matching tuxedo pants with a braided stripe running down the outer seam of both legs, and the usual accessories that define the outfit as being "white tie":  a marcella cotton white pique vest, formal wing-collar shirt and matching self-tie white bow tie.  To complete the ensemble properly you add patent leather pumps or shoes.

I found the tailcoat but alas, no pants.  The coat needed some alterations but otherwise was in exceptional shape considering it dated from about the mid-1940s and was tailored by the venerable Eatons store.  Continued scouring of my local shops turned up the appropriate high-waisted pants at my local Goodwill for only $6.  Then I had to work on the accessories.  I had the shoes, but an online search revealed a great deal in the U.K. for the white pique vest and matching tie, which was promptly delivered back in the spring.

The proper shirt proved somewhat problematic, as good quality vintage shirts in my size seem to be hard to come by.  But I did find a modern-day equivalent that works just as well I had my friends at Herzog's downtown order in for me, and voila, we were done!

Or so I thought.

The tailcoat proved to be slightly bigger than I would like it to be and although I was prepared to alter it properly, before I could fate stepped in and changed everything.  Unbelievably at the very same thrift shop I found the first tailcoat at I found a second, somewhat better fitting one complete with pants.  It was ridiculously affordable and so there I was with two sets of full evening dress.

My December visit to my local tailor revealed the second, somewhat smaller tailcoat was considered to be the better fit, so we went with that one and had jacket and pants altered properly.  When I looked inside the inside pocket along with another Eatons label I found the custom tailoring information.  It appears to be local, and dates from...November 11th 1940!  The thing is way older than I am!

Now came the first wearing of the new/old ensemble.  As I've reported in this space before I have hosted the Midnight Mass broadcast for CKTB Radio for over 30 years now and although it is a radio broadcast, from the very start I always opted for a tuxedo to add some elegance to the proceedings.

This year I upped that level considerably with my 1940-era full evening dress.  I must say I felt completely comfortable in it and plan to wear it every year I am still able to do the broadcast on Christmas Eve at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

For me it was an easy decision to rescue the ensemble from an uncertain future of possible halloween costuming or worse still, the landfill.  I wondered how many society events this ensemble had been to and where.  Last week on my Facebook page I posted a picture from the Welland House Hotel in downtown St. Catharines where in the once-celebrated Crystal Ballroom New Year's Eve revellers can be seen in full formal regalia:  ladies in proper gowns and all the men without exception in full evening dress.  I wondered if my outfit might actually have been worn that night as a first event.  Who knows?

I have spent much of the past year researching the traditions of full evening dress so I could get it right and I think I did.  But in my ongoing research I found numerous pictures of Hollywood stars at the Academy Awards show from the early 60s with all the men in full evening dress, and they looked fantastic.  Just today I watched the 1935 Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat and it was such a pleasure to see the men dressed so well.  Astaire of course pioneered not only stylish dressing in formal wear but also in a suit and tie.  He was classic and he was always correct.

And that brings me to my New Year's resolution.  Inspired by my journey of the past year to get full evening dress right, I have now decided it is time to take my cue from Mr. Astaire whom I've always admired and simply dress better from here on in.

It doesn't take a lot of money to do it, as I proved this past year on my odyssey.  But it takes a keen eye and style smarts and in the New Year I plan to hone my present wardrobe to reflect this newfound desire to look my very best whenever I'm out in the public eye.  I have all the ingredients in my closet; now I just have to edit better and say goodbye to some trusted pieces that are showing their age somewhat.

And the original tailcoat that is slightly too large for me?  My equally style-conscious historian Chris in Toronto wants it so we'll do the ceremonial hand off in the New Year sometime.

I have lots more to write about this subject and in fact I might just start work on a new blog entirely devoted to men's fashion from my perspective.  But for now I will take the occasional detour in this space to look at the good, the bad and the outright ugly in men's fashion.  I hope you'll indulge me.

Now, if anyone needs an emcee with a great full evening dress ensemble at his disposal, I'm your man...

Happy New Year!

January 5th, 2020.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Merry Christmas to all...

With a couple of days to go before Christmas, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on this season that as of late has perplexed me no end.  But in spite of that, I look forward to it every year...sort of.

I wrote at the beginning of the month how I loathe Christmas music until December and that still holds true for me.  I didn't start listening by choice until December 1st, which is the natural start time as far as I'm concerned.  Now, of course, I am fully into it and will be for a couple more days at least.

I am blessed with a sizeable Christmas music CD collection and although I have my favourites, I try to listen to as many as I can over the holidays.  But Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime isn't one of them...

Other than early Christmas music at the start of November, the main problem I have with this time of year is just how rushed we feel and how everyone forgets the magic of the season as they try to search for the perfect gift for someone on their list.  I'm not a last-minute shopper, so thankfully I am done for this year.

But getting to that point is rarely pleasant and I know I am not alone in that sentiment.  We do this to ourselves every year and I suspect we'll never change.

For me, I simply have to have it all done before the last weekend before Christmas because of the work I've always been involved with.  Between radio, retail sales and now working at the post office, I have been in jobs that involved lots of extra work over the holiday season, thereby limiting the time available to get ready to actually enjoy the season.

And that's the rub.  Personally I have not enjoyed the holiday season for several years now because of the extra workload, and long for the day I retire so I can actually sit back and enjoy the season and let others worry about getting everything done on time.  I have just over two years to go before I reach that goal and I can almost taste it!

But there comes a point for me when I am immersed in the season and the true meaning of Christmas, and that comes late Christmas Eve when I host the annual radio broadcast of the Midnight Mass from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria on my former radio home, CKTB Radio.  Even though the work involved to get to that point is stressful most years, when I am actually doing it I am relaxed and usually at peace with myself.

I should be, of course, as I have hosted the broadcast for over 30 years now.  That's nothing compared to the time the broadcast has actually been on the air each Christmas Eve.  This will be the 87th annual broadcast, and it is always an honour to make history one more year, each year.

Truthfully I don't know how long I have left to host the broadcast but that decision is largely out of my hands.  Health, changing tastes and such may change things in the future at some point but for now I look forward to that quiet walk home from the Cathedral about 2:30 in the morning when the city is asleep and I am soon to join the club.  I always look up to the sky and marvel at the peace we have on earth at that very moment, fleeting though it may be.

Peace on earth might be fleeting in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas Eve of course, and I've witnessed my share of people in too much of a hurry to actually live the words "Peace on Earth, good will toward men"...or women for that matter.  That driver in the black Lexus ahead of me on Lake Street on Friday, for example, was not exactly full of the milk of human kindness as he (or she) tailgated the vehicle in front and tried to get around traffic the driver perceived to be too slow.

I see that kind of thing play out all the time over the holidays, as people are not paying attention to what they are doing, be they walking or driving.  In both cases I have only one thing to say:  put down your phone and concentrate on what you're doing!

There.  That felt better.

The thing is we all deal with our own issues at this time of year and not everyone celebrates the season the same way.  I get that.  Not everyone cares about the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and I get that too.  But we can all be civil to one another and show respect not only at this time of year, but all year long.  Now just happens to be a good time to start.

So as we hurtle to the finish line in a couple of days, take time to enjoy the reason for the season, whatever shape it might take for you and your family.  Christmas, Hanukkah, whatever.  Celebrate with family and friends certainly.  But show kindness to others you don't even know.  Reach out and call someone you haven't talked to for awhile.  Hug someone dear to you.  Allow that car in the next lane in front of you just because.  We can all do little things to make this a better world.

This Christmas, make it special in little ways that matter a lot.  And be thankful for all you have and all you can give.  Because we can all do better at this time of year.

Have a great holiday season and we'll meet in this special place again in the New Year.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

December 22nd, 2019.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Foster Festival spices up your Christmas with laughter

If you're like me you're up to your eyeballs with things you need to do before Christmas.  I'm not talking just about shopping, either.  I'm pretty much done with that now, thank you very much.  But it's everything else you have to deal with at this time of year that makes, for me at least, a very stressful season.

The problem is my work situation is such I have so much to do at this time of year than at any other and it darn near seems overwhelming at times.  It's always been that way, and I can't see things changing until I retire.  Then, I plan to sit on a bench down at The Pen Centre and watch people rush by trying to keep up with the season while I smile.

I can hardly wait.

But until then, you find a smile where you can and many of us will this week at The Recital Hall in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  That's where The Foster Festival, who collectively dragged many people kicking and screaming indoors downtown during the summer months for their annual festival of all things Norm Foster only to realize they really, really like it each summer, are doing it again in December.

No, it's not a three-play run for the winter, although that would be nice.  Rather, it is a one-play winter season that just happens to coincide with a time of year many of us could simply use a break...and a laugh or two.

The World Premiere of another Foster original, Aunt Agnes for Christmas opened December 11th and  runs until next Sunday the 22nd at the PAC, and I simply have to find the time to attend a performance before the run is through.

Part of the PAC's Hot Ticket season, Aunt Agnes for Christmas is described as part Mary Poppins with a dose of Auntie Mame thrown in for good measure.  The ups and downs of family life at this time of year results in a romp that still packs a heartwarming Christmas message.

The Trimble household is facing Christmas in just two days and George and Sally and their two kids are also facing...George's Aunt Agnes paying them a visit.  Trouble is, George didn't realize he actually had an Aunt Agnes to begin with.  From there you can imagine the fun Norm Foster has leading us through the holiday season with one unexpected event after another, much like we all seem to do ourselves at this time of year.

Director Patricia Vanstone has assembled an all-star Niagara cast for the show headed by former Shaw Festival star Nora McLellan in the title role, along with real-life spouses Kelly Wong and Cosette Derome, who last graced the Foster Festival stage in Renovations for Six as the elder Trimbles.

There are two young local actors playing the Trimble's 9 and 14-year old children, Kate Peters and Hayden Neufeld.  Sets and costumes are by Peter Hartwell, again no stranger to Niagara theatre audiences.

From what I've heard so far the show is a hoot and just what we need to get through the holidays, but you'd better act fast as tickets are selling quickly and in fact, tomorrow's matinee performance is already sold out.

For me, well I am going to try to shoe horn a performance in hopefully next weekend when I know I will need a good laugh and maybe even a hug as we make the mad dash towards the finish line.

Who's with me?!

For tickets, including special pricing for PAC and Foster Festival subscribers, call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or go to www.fosterfestival.com to order online.

The gift of Norm Foster this Christmas season.  What could be better than that?

Have a great weekend!

December 14th, 2019.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Handel's Messiah is all around us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great weekend!

December 8th, 2019.