Saturday, July 21, 2018

Stage Kiss at Shaw Festival a fun play, but not perfect

Much anticipation accompanied my latest visit to The Shaw in Niagara on the Lake, as the Festival was staging a modern play dating back to just 2011 by Sarah Ruhl, entitled Stage Kiss.  The play within a play concept has been mined many times before, of course, but looking at the classic juxtaposition through a more modern lens was one I was especially looking forward to.

Stage Kiss, at the compact and cosy Royal George Theatre, is in exactly the right space.  It would be totally lost on the huge Festival Theatre stage; here the intimacy of the space helps to magnify the intimacy shared by the two lead actors known simply as She and He.

In a nutshell, Stage Kiss introduces us to Fiona Byrne as She, who has been out of the acting profession for about ten years to raise a family, and Martin Happer as He, an actor who has not been working all that much as of late.  They both need this job, and as it turns out, each other too.

Both He and She were formerly lovers in what passes for real life in this play, a parody of actors actually in that former state.  At a dank rehearsal hall, both He and She come together to audition for the two lead parts not knowing the other was going to be there.  Indeed, neither has kissed the other in years and with good reason.  Things did not end well for them years ago, apparently.

But here they are, together again, kissing on stage in a play that portrays two actors falling in love and...kissing on stage.

It begs the question:  can actors kiss and not feel some sort of chemical interaction between them?  Or can those same kisses ignite passions either for the first time or all over again?

The answer appears to be the latter.  Yes, He and She fall in love all over again in spite of past history suggesting they will not succeed.  Problem is, She has a husband and a daughter; He has a girlfriend, who just happens to walk in on them in the second act as they awaken in his scruffy apartment and does not immediately put two and two together, discovering it does not add up to three.

There are lots of complications in this play within a play, not all of them deftly handled by playwright Ruhl.  But taken at face value it can be a lot of fun as the audience feels they are in on the gag and voyeurs of sorts at the same time.

The cast, under the clever direction of Anita Rochon, does a magnificent job with the script for the most part and have great fun in the process.  Fiona Byrne hits all the right notes as She; Neil Barclay is solid and quite understated as the Director of the forgotten 1930s melodrama the actors are auditioning for.  I couldn't help but think, however, he was just a bit more understanding and tolerant than some directors I have come to know over the years...

Other supporting cast members putting in solid work are Jeff Meadows as Kevin, the gay actor who perhaps has a non-professional connection to the director although it is never clearly spelled out, and Rong Fu as He's girlfriend Millicent.  She has one big scene in the play and makes the most of it.  Meadows, by mocking a gay actor's supposed inability to kiss a woman in a sensual way is hilarious to watch but one can't help but think he is doing a great disservice to those in the profession who actually find themselves in that position.

That leaves us with the role of He, and here I have a problem with the performance I attended.  I could imagine Martin Happer in this role and being a genuine love-interest to Fiona Byrne's She.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason the performance I attended featured understudy Sanjay Talwar in the role of He, rather than his usual role of She's husband.

Talwar is a talented, solid actor with lots of memorable performances at Shaw and elsewhere on his resume.  This, unfortunately, is not one of them.  He gives a solid performance here as He, but for me there simply was no chemistry between him and Fiona Byrne's She.  True he is only the understudy but still, in a pivotal role such as this I feel the entire dynamic of the play was altered more that I would have liked.

In Talwar's place in the role of the Husband, Andrew Lawrie gave a credible performance.

Oh well, no idea if it was an unscheduled absence on the part of Happer or not, but he was clearly missed at the performance I recently attended.

So, is Stage Kiss worth the visit?  If you want a fun afternoon or evening of light theatre that doesn't make you think too hard and get a behind-the-scenes look at the world of theatre, sure, it is well worth the visit.  But if you're looking for more proverbial meat on the bones as it were, I suggest you look elsewhere this season.

Stage Kiss continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 1st, and rates a moderate 2 out of 4 stars.

Enjoy the weekend!

July 21st, 2018.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Music Niagara's 20th Anniversary Season now in full swing

Last Saturday evening I was invited to the Opening Gala for the 20th anniversary season for Music Niagara, the little music festival that could, and does great things each and every year.  Rather than hold the inaugural concert at St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake as was the case last season, this year they opted for the larger, more modern confines of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre.

While not oozing history like venerable St. Mark's does, the large and airy community centre, located next to the public library on your way into town along highway 55 proved to be an ideal location for the season kickoff.  It also has the advantage of a proper stage and requisite sound system in order to make the concert a pleasure to see and hear.

The featured artists for the gala were the acclaimed Hannaford Street Silver Band, a Toronto-based professional-calibre brass band making its home base at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.  To say they entertained the audience royally would be an understatement - their full, rich sound and precision made for a totally enjoyable evening of music-making.  Whether playing a spirited Suite from Bizet's opera Carmen or more contemporary works by The Beatles or Harry James, they come prepared to play and executed the programme with panache.

That being said, I was a little disappointed by the length of time it took to actually get the concert underway.  A scheduled start time of 7:30 did indeed bring the musicians to the stage, but so too a few opening remarks from Music Niagara's founding Artistic Director Atis Bankas, a welcome from the concert sponsors, a concert introduction by James Tupman and further welcoming remarks by the conductor.  All told, it was almost 20 minutes before we even got to stand for our national anthem.

Now I know all artistic pursuits reliant on sponsorship from many levels of government and corporations want to acknowledge them in person as well as in the programme, and make sure everyone is fully informed before the concert begins, but this time it just seemed to be verbal overload before we actually got to the music.  I am not criticizing the content or the necessity of it, but I think a little more brevity or at the very least spreading it out over the evening a bit better might have been a better option.

As for the size of the audience, I was glad to see a very good turnout for the concert - not a full house by any means but it is a larger venue to fill and there was another event just down the road at Jackson Triggs to contend with.

This, however, brings up a concern I have written about before and will touch on again here - the aging population of concert-goers for events such as this.  Music Niagara is not alone in this regard; indeed all classical and similar events are struggling with some measure of declining attendance as their core audience simply dies off.  I don't claim to have the answers to how to solve the problem, but clearly all arts organizations have to pay heed to the changing attitudes of the music-loving public and tailor their approach to better serve it.

I worry there will come a time when an organization such as Music Niagara and many others face a crisis of declining attendance.  It is certainly not immediate and no need to push the panic button now, but it might be wise to devise a game plan sooner rather than later as to how to successfully address the aging population of concert-goers and attract more of those younger individuals who increasingly expect to be entertained online for free through such channels as YouTube.

For now, though, it is wonderful to see so many welcome the 20th season of Music Niagara at many venues in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Music Niagara is a jewel of the Region, offering a wide variety of musical styles to suit most tastes, so if you have never been, what's holding you back?  Try it, you might just like it!

Coming up today, for example, a concert entitled Great Romantics will feature Norbert Heller and Alexander Dobson along with Artistic Director Atis Bankas performing music by Dietrich, Brahms and Schumann.  The concert begins at 3 pm in the Market Room of the Court House in the centre of town.

A good introduction to some of the music and artists featured during the festival can be had at the regular Sunday in the Park concerts at Simcoe Park in the centre of town.  The events are held in the bandshell and are free of charge.  Just bring a lawn chair and pack a picnic lunch if you wish and enjoy the music.  Tomorrow's noon-hour concert features The Retro Ramblers, a barbershop quartet performing classics from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Tomorrow afternoon at 3 pianist Victoria Kogan performs next in the Great Romantics series, along with the Gould String Quartet.  The concert, at lovely St. Mark's Church, will feature a programme of music by Liszt, Wagner and Schumann.

Tickets for all Music Niagara concerts and events are available online by going to www.musicniagara.org or by calling the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.  You can also access the entire lineup online at www.musicniagara.org.

Music Niagara offers some of the best, affordable high-quality summer entertainment in a picturesque setting in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  For many it remains a gem yet to be discovered.  Why not take some time this year to introduce yourself to the joys of live classical music at a very attractive price?

Music Niagara continues until August 11th.

Enjoy your weekend!

July 14th, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Foster Festival kicks off new season with a Greatest Hit

Late last month the Foster Festival launched their third season at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines with what's being called a Norm Foster Greatest Hit.  It would be hard to narrow down any of Foster's classic plays as such, but after seeing the current production of Wrong For Each Other yesterday afternoon, I'd have to agree it is right up there with the best of them.

Foster's plays allow us to look in the mirror and see ourselves, or at least much wittier versions of ourselves.  Norm has this unique gift of being able to distill life experiences both good and bad into a two-hour play most anyone would enjoy, which is precisely why he is the darling of the summer theatre circuit throughout the country.  You would be hard pressed to find a summer theatre season anywhere without at least one Foster play on the bill.  Essentially, staging a Norm Foster play in the summer is guaranteed win night for most theatre companies.

In fact, the Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne is producing Screwball Comedy starting next week, for example.  You might recall, that play premiered last season at the Foster Festival.  And that's the wonderful thing about having a festival dedicated to producing Foster's plays and hosting his premieres:  we act as an incubation theatre of sorts, eventually feeding the rest of the country another new Foster classic they can bet the proverbial farm on.

Once again this season the Foster Festival is premiering two new plays after Wrong for Each Other closes after tomorrow night's performance:  the second show opening July 18th is Come Down From Up River, and Renovations For Six closes out the annual festival with the opening on August 8th.  Both of those productions will be directed by Foster Festival Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone.

This first show, however, is directed by Shaw Festival veteran Jim Mezon, who has given us many thought-provoking productions in Niagara-on-the-Lake over the years.  Of Foster, Jim writes in his Director's Notes, he "writes us.  He writes who we are, what we want and need, what we fear, what angers us, what confuses us, what gives us joy...and he does this without cynicism."

There is a common thread in all of Foster's plays, of course, and that is an overriding sense of decency.  They may come off as jerks, stuck up or just plain unlikeable in the beginning, but their sense of decency shines through before the two hours is up and you can't help but see yourself - and others you know - in many of those characters.

All of which brings us to Wrong For Each Other.  The play, dating from several years ago, stars Daniel Briere as Rudy Sorenson and Julia Porter as Norah Case.  Rudy and Norah, we soon discover, where married years ago, divorced four years ago, and have not seen each other since.  Until now, when Rudy, it turns out, more or less stalks his ex-wife and sets up a "chance" meeting in a restaurant in order to see his former love once again.

I know, especially in this day and age any suggestion of stalking is looked upon as something more than a little creepy, but Rudy, we discover, is not acting out of malice but rather out of that genuine desire I think we all have to come to grips with the end of a relationship we are not quite ready to let go of yet.

While in that big-city restaurant at lunch-time, Rudy and Norah decide to put the past aside and share lunch together.  Alas, Rudy just can't avoid probing the things that went right and wrong in their relationship, and that makes Norah just a little uncomfortable.

Truth be told, Rudy in the flashback scenes when he first meets and tries to woo Norah, comes across as such an awkward round peg in a square hole sort of guy we are left to wonder what Norah actually saw in him in the first place.  But love, as they say, is blind, and who can explain love anyway?  Not I, for sure!

Norah and Rudy do fall in love, marry, and try to have a child together.  The loss of that child brings more than heartbreak to the relationship, it brings depression upon Norah, and tests the strength of the marriage when Rudy ends up having a fling outside of matrimony.  Ultimately, they divorce and that should be the end of it.

But not as far as Rudy is concerned.  He still carries the torch for his former love, and for most of the play the compliment is not returned.  But at the end?  I won't give that away...

Director Mezon has done a fine job of keeping things simple and focusing on the characters themselves, so set changes are kept to a minimum.  He allows both Briere and Porter the freedom to delve into their respective characters and find the real people who loved and lost not that long ago.

Julia Porter and Daniel Briere are both making their debut with the Foster Festival in this play and their work together is quite good.  Hopefully we'll see them again in future seasons.

In spite of the subject matter in Wrong for Each Other, there are plenty of laughs to go around and Norm Foster is in rare form here.  He never allows the subject matter to become too maudlin and the audience looking for the exits.

Wrong for Each Other continues with evening performances tonight and tomorrow night at the PAC, and then preparations will be underway to stage the second play of the season, Come Down From Up River opening July 18th.

For tickets for this and all Foster Festival performances, go to www.fosterfestival.com or call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Theatre box office at 905-688-0722.

See you at the theatre!

July 12th, 2018.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Summer Music is all around us!

Now that we're into the month of July, most of the summer music festivals in Ontario are either in full swing or just about to get underway.  I thought this weekend we'll take a look at some of the best being offered in the coming weeks.

First and foremost, our local home-grown music festival, Music Niagara officially kicks off tonight at  the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre just off Highway 55 on your way into the Old Town.  This is the 20th season for the little festival that could, the brainchild of long-time artistic director Atis Bankas, and runs through to August 11th at various locations in and around Niagara.

Tonight's Gala Opening concert features an opening reception at 6:30 followed by a performance at 7:30 featuring the renowned Hannaford Street Silver Band, certainly this country's premiere brass ensemble, playing light classics, jazz and traditional favourites.  Tomorrow the annual Sunday in the Park series kicks off at Simcoe Park in the heart of Old Town, with a concert entitled Where Have all the Folk Songs Gone? starting at 12 noon.  The event is free and you're encouraged to bring a picnic lunch and lawn chairs and enjoy the music.

There are plenty of concerts coming up over the next month or so, ranging from classical to jazz to even some bluegrass.  Artists range from the Clarion Quartet, Isabel Bayrakdarian, the Gould String Quartet, pianist Andre Laplante and violinist Juliette Kang, among others.  There are also opera performances planned, including Mozart's Don Giovanni on Monday evening at 7:30, and the Elmer Iseler Singers present a 40th Anniversary concert next Thursday evening.

I'll be attending the opening concert tonight, and will be reporting on the festival again over the course of the summer in this space.  For tickets and more information, go to www.musicniagara.org, or call the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.

The 31st season of the Brott Music Festival is underway in and around Hamilton and Burlington, and there are always plenty of events planned to suit most every taste.  Since 1988 Maestro Boris Brott has presented a varied programme featuring the National Academy Orchestra, made up of music students across the country and professional mentors coming together to make music of a very high calibre.

Coming up this week, an Opera's Greatest Hits evening is planned for July 12th at 7:30 at the First Ontario Concert Hall in downtown Hamilton, featuring arias, duets and ensembles from the world of grand and comic opera, by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi, Tchaikovsky to Britten and even some Sir Arthur Sullivan for good measure.  Soloists will be the 13 cast members of the upcoming opera production of Mozart's Magic Flute.

If you like Big Band Music, the 40s come back to life July 15th at 7 pm at Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum in Ancaster with young conductor Martin MacDonald leading the orchestra along with local favourite, pianist Valerie Tryon as soloist on the ever-popular Warsaw Concerto.

The aforementioned production of Mozart's Magic Flute happens at First Ontario Concert Hall on July 19th at 7:30 pm in what is described as a Steampunk adaptation.  Mixing old and new, the opera is fully staged and sung in English, featuring some of the brightest opera stars around today.

And on August 2nd, Star Wars - The Force Awakens will fill the L.R. Wilson Hall on Main Street West in Hamilton, featuring music from many of the Star Wars films.  Audience members will also be able to compete in a "Name that Film/Character" trivia contest.  Many of the familiar characters will make appearances as well, and audience members are also encouraged to come in costume.

For more information on these and all Brott Music Festival concerts, go to www.brottmusic.com or call the box office at 905-525-7664.

As mentioned in this space last month, the 39th annual Elora Festival kicks off July 13th and runs to the 29th at many venues in the lovely little town of Elora, northwest of Guelph.  The Festival will partner with the Canadian Opera Company for the Opening Night Gala at the Gambrel Barn just on the outskirts of town, featuring The Elora Singers, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Festival Orchestra, along with soloists Isabel Bayrakdarian, Danika Loren, Andrew Haji and Samuel Chan.  The programme features a host of opera favourites from Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Turandot and other opera classics.

Also coming up on July 14th Isabel Bayrakdarian teams up with pianist Robert Kortgaard for a programme of Spanish music with songs by Manuel de Falla and others.  The concert is at 1 pm in the afternoon at St. John's Church in the heart of town.  That evening at 7:30 another Canadian opera star, Ben Heppner joins the Toronto Mass Choir at the Gambrel Barn for a concert entitled Oh Happy Day! for some good old gospel music and other songs of praise.

A concert I am looking forward to attending in Elora is a performance by Canadian singer Louise Pitre with The Elora Singers on July 21st at the Gambrel Barn.  Accompanied by pianist Diane Leah, Pitre will present her newest show, Chasing Rainbows:  Louise Pitre sings the Songs of Judy Garland.  Louise is famous for her role in Mamma Mia of course, but has become known as Canada's first lady of musical theatre for a host of other performances as well, not the least of which is the classic presentation of the music of Edith Piaf.

For tickets and information on these and other Elora Festival performances, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 519-846-0331.

Finally, Stratford Summer Music presents their latest season at many venues indoors and out throughout the city of Stratford again this season, beginning July 16th with an Opening Night Gala featuring Fireworks and Music at 9:30 pm.  There will also be the launch of the popular Play Me, I'm Yours Piano Project July 17th at 10 am.  People can play pianos available daily until 7 pm.

Stratford musical theatre star Bruce Dow performs in concert at 9 pm on Friday July 20th, and there is even something called Bach Walks scattered throughout the Festival this season, with the first Bach Walk scheduled for July 29th at 9 am.

Stratford Summer Music presents a huge number of performances each summer right through to late August, and this year promises to be bigger and better than ever.  For a complete listing of concerts and events, log on to www.stratfordsummermusic.ca for more information and to purchase tickets.

Enjoy a musical summer in Ontario!

July 7th, 2018.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Shaw Festival's Grand Hotel struggles grandly...

The Shaw Festival relies heavily on its big-budget musicals to keep the seats filled and patrons happy  they came, hopefully to stay and catch more shows at the Festival before leaving town.  It is always an important element of any theatre season not only at Shaw, but at the Stratford Festival as well.

Most years the musical is a slam-dunk that plays right by the theatre playbook; other years it can be a somewhat more risky affair that only partially satisfies.  The big musical offering this year, Grand Hotel, The Musical, falls into the latter category, but does it with great style.

Set in Berlin in 1928, the musical takes place entirely in the art deco lobby of the Grand Hotel, a still ritzy place only slightly past its prime where guests escape for any number of reasons.  Some are admittedly sinister.

Grand Hotel is based on Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel, updated in 1989 by Luther Davis with music and lyrics by Robert Wright & George Forrest of Kismet fame, and additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.  Almost musical by committee but not quite.  The film version from the 30s starred Greta Garbo, of course, where she uttered her famous line "I want to be alone!"

This new reworking, however, relies heavily on the musical aspect to carry the day, as the characters sing and dance their way through much of the production, only stopping long enough from time to time to remind us how unlikeable many of them really are.  These are desperate, even sometimes nasty individuals you frankly would not want to meet in a back alley or anywhere else for that matter.

The central character who wanders the stage throughout commenting on the events around him is the Colonel-Doctor, played with much angst by Steven Sutcliffe.  He opens the show by shooting up with  heroin, suggesting perhaps the whole show we're seeing is a product of his drug-induced, warped mind.

No matter, at least it takes his mind off the incredibly bad tailoring job done on his costume for the show.  I mean, really, can you not shorten his jacket sleeves so he doesn't look like a kid wearing his dad's jacket?  I know I am nit picking here, but considering the expense of producing a lavish show such as this, it struck me as a jarring oversight.

Sutcliffe's sombre tone as he wanders the stage uttering lines such as "Time is running out!" suggested perhaps he was an allegory for the impending doom of the stock market crash of 1929, ushering in the Great Depression and more misery than even the the inhabitants of the Grand Hotel could imagine.

Overall the cast is strong, ranging from Deborah Hay returning to Shaw as the ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her eighth and hopefully final farewell tour, to Jenny L. Wright as Madame Peepee and Vanessa Sears as Frieda Flamm, or, Flammchen, who is longing for a film career in America.

Jay Turvey puts in a good performance as Hermann Preysing, a businessman with a non-existant moral compass, although as such he doesn't receive much sympathy for his plight from the audience.

The show really belongs to Michael Therriault again this year, hamming it up as Otto Kringelein, who spends his last days of life seeking a more opulent lifestyle he's only heard about before a terminal illness claims him.  Therriault makes Kringelein more likeable than most everyone else in the cast, even as he temporarily loses his cash at the Grand Hotel to one of the other guests.

Kringelein is befriended by that very guest, Baron von Gaigern, played by James Daley.  The Baron is rich in title but little else and needs to get his hands on some ready cash - fast - in order to stave off his Russian creditors.  This brings him in contact not only with Otto but also Elizaveta, knowing she wants to sell her precious necklace to raise funds to finance the remainder of her tour.  He steals it but in the process, caught in the act as he was by Grushinskaya, clumsily declares his undying love for her.

An unlikely romance blossoms, producing some real poignancy in the show when she sings Bonjour Amour.  But when his real intentions are revealed to her the next morning, her readiness to forgive in order to keep him no matter what is both sad and rather unnerving in this day and age.

The cast is ably directed by Eda Holmes and musical direction is by Paul Sportelli.

Grand Hotel is a grand effort that produces some great individual performances, but overall leads to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.  In light of that, I give it two out of four stars.

Grand Hotel, The Musical continues at the Festival Theatre until October 14th.

Have a great holiday weekend!

June 30th, 2018.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Feel like dancing the night away tonight?

I received an email from the Guelph Youth Music Centre earlier this week about a special event coming up tonight, so I thought I would share it with you this weekend in this space in case you happen to be in the Guelph area and would like to take part in a fun fundraiser for a great organization.

First, a couple of confessions to make, both of which drew me to this information when it arrived.  I confess first and foremost, I am probably the poster boy for clumsy, inarticulate dance moves.  Never been good at it and never will.  My far better half and I toyed with taking ballroom dancing lessons years ago but before long, common sense took over and we (well, I mostly) got cold feet regarding the matter.

That said, there is no denying the attraction of watching couples gracefully waltzing, fox-trotting or jitterbugging around the dance floor.  Witness the phenomenal success of television shows such as Dancing With The Stars, for example.  Granted, I think a lot of the attraction for some is the tendency to watch in case a train wreck makes an epic failure on prime-time television.  Perhaps that takes me back to my first comments about my own abilities (read, inabilities) on the dance-floor.

Secondly, I have a strong affinity for Guelph, dubbed The Royal City, dating back to when my sister attended University there and I spent a lot of time exploring the area while visiting on weekends.  Later, while working part-time on weekends at a local classical music shop, I got to know more about the local arts and culture elements in the city, which is truly significant.  I mean, this city knows how to celebrate the arts more than many others, and people are happy to embrace that enthusiasm whole-heartedly.

Many a weekend evening I would make my way to Guelph to attend a performance by the Guelph Chamber Choir or even earlier, attending performances by the long-gone and much lamented Guelph Spring Festival.  I spent many a pleasurable evening at venerable War Memorial Hall where on one happy occasion, I had the pleasure and honour to interview Canada's famous Queen of classical comedy, Anna Russell, who appeared at the Festival back in the 80s.

From there, it was falling headlong in love with such local attractions as the Saturday morning farmer's market downtown or even the Biltmore Factory Outlet store where I purchased many a stylish fedora or homburg over the years.

That brings me, admittedly via a circuitous route, to the Guelph Youth Music Centre.  I first visited the centre, located at 75 Cardigan Street with a beautiful view of the greenery in downtown Guelph, many years ago when it was the location of a season announcement for the Guelph Spring Festival.  I was amazed this artistic jewel was right there under our collective noses, tucked away in the heart of such an artistically vibrant city.

The GYMC was established in 1992 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to education, enrichment and fostering the development of youth through music and the arts.  The Centre acts as a cultural hub for children of all ages and backgrounds in the community, providing a variety of programs and space availability to partner organizations as well as outreach in the community.  Executive Director Gabriella Currie-Ziegler is justly proud of the outreach element the Centre provides within the community on many levels.

So what's all this got to do with dancing tonight, you ask?  Well, after a lengthy absence, the Guelph Youth Music Centre's gala evening "Bella Serata" or, beautiful evening, returns tonight at 7 pm with the theme "We Could Have Danced All Night!"  Organizers have kept many of the traditional gala features people were familiar with in the past, including food provided by some of the area's best restaurants and caterers, as well as splendid desserts, wine, beer and an exceptional Silent Auction.  There will also be classical music performances in the acoustically radiant Recital Hall.

New this time out will be jazz music provided by the Nick Maclean Trio, plus a demonstration and group lesson by professional ballroom dance teachers, offering the chance to dance to live music by the jazz trio.  Toronto-based Maclean founded his Quartet in 2016, inspired by the hard-swinging New York City style he was so familiar with in his formative years, and the Trio has grown out of that Quartet.

Classical music performances will feature "Concorde", the senior string ensemble of the Suzuki String School of Guelph, a founding resident organization of the GYMC, as well as Toronto violinist Tak Kwan, concert performer and director of the GYMC's orchestra programmes, soprano Marion Samuel-Stevens and pianist Ken Gee, Artistic Director of Guelph Musicfest.

There will certainly be the requisite food and wine vendors, and I am happy to report Niagara will be represented by Vineland Estates Winery.

This year's gala is generously sponsored by the Chyc Family Foundation, with additional support offered by a host of local, artistically-minded organizations including Linamar.

Tickets are offered at a special price of $75 each for two or more adult tickets, or singly at $100 each, with a tax receipt issued for a portion of the ticket price.  You can order them online, call the Centre at 519-837-1119 or even pick them up in person at the Centre on Cardigan Street if you are in the area.

This looks like a great evening and I hope all goes well.  As for me, I really have to plan a visit back to Guelph soon and perhaps even revisit the Guelph Youth Music Centre sometime.  I think I hear the city beckoning once again...

Have a great weekend!

June 23rd, 2018.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

It's time for summer music and fun all around us!

With the start of summer now just days away, a lot of people are already thinking of the myriad of summer music festivals in and around Niagara, or just a short drive away.  There are far too many to list in this space all at once, but occasionally we'll touch on them a few at a time over the summer months and give you some detail of what's to come.

This weekend, three festivals will be highlighted, featuring blues, jazz and lots of classical music to cool you down on these sultry summer days and nights.

The TD Niagara Jazz Festival has grown since its inception just a few short years ago to now encompass two full weekends in July plus numerous events before and after the two core weekends.  This is the first year for a two-weekend event, and Festival Executive Director/Artistic Producer Juliet Dunn along with Co-Creator & Artistic Consultant Peter Shea feel the time is right to expand the event to two weekends now.  The 5th Annual TD Niagara Jazz Festival has all the makings of being the marquee music event of the summer right here in Niagara.

The Flagship opening event on the weekend of July 19th to the 22nd takes place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines; the second weekend will feature the hugely popular "Jazz in the Park" events in Simcoe Park in Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake July 28th and 29th.

In addition, new this year will be the inaugural World Music on the Beach event hosted by the TD Niagara Jazz Festival in Port Dalhousie.  Four community stages will be filled with music from around the globe, located from Lakeside Beach at the Rotary and Pavilion stages to Hogan's Alley, to the all-new Lock One Stage (Tow Bridge Stage) honouring the historic first Welland Canal.  The best part of all, this is a free community event for the entire family, featuring music, dance, kids play zones, artisan vendors, wine and craft beer stalls as well as local culinary favourites.

Juliet Dunn says its an opportunity to "show how World Music plays such an integral part in the world of jazz", adding bands will be showcased from Jamaica, Japan, Holland and the Ukraine, as well as local, home-grown World music artists from around the province.

One of the nice touches is a secure 'Bike Valet' area, so patrons can ride their bikes to Port and walk around and enjoy the sights and the music without having to worry about their bikes.

The day-long World Music on the Beach event takes place on Sunday, July 22nd during the first weekend of the Festival.

For more information and to order Festival tickets and passes, go to www.niagarajazzfestival.com or call 1-844-548-5299.

Over the border in Lewiston, New York, the Lewiston Council on the Arts has announced their summer schedule, including everything from the ever-popular Summer of '69 concert in the park to the 34th annual Key Bank Chalk Walk Competition.  The summer schedule runs from July 9th to August 20th, with events scattered throughout the fall season as well, ending in November.

One of the more popular events for several years now have been the Blue Mondays concerts in the Gazebo on Centre Street.  In its 24th year now, the Blue Mondays series has been the recipient of Blues Beat Magazine's prestigious "Muddy" award and for many is considered one of the best Blues venues in Western New York.  Best of all, the concerts are all free, so pack a picnic dinner and grab your lawn chair and catch acts such as Marsha McWilson on July 9th all the way to Maria Aurigema on August 20th.

The aforementioned Summer of '69 concert takes place on Friday, July 13th at 6 pm, and again is a free event.  The annual concert reunites Lewiston-area rock musicians who have moved on since their heyday in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Featuring the Lewiston All Stars, Loved Ones, the County Orphanage, the Invaders and special guest, Grammy Award winner Gary Baker.  All the participants gather on stage for a grand jam finale.  The Summer of '69 concert is in the Hennepin Park Gazebo at the corner of 4th and Centre Street.

The 52nd Lewiston Art Festival closes off Centre Street to vehicular traffic and visitors can amble the streets to view works by more than 175 artists and crafters.  The Art Festival takes place the weekend of August 11th and 12th all day, and is also free.

Want more information on events happening this summer with the Lewiston Council on the Arts?  Go to www.artcouncil.org or call 716-754-0166.

Finally, one of my all-time favourite summer music festivals is set to kick off July 13th and run to the 29th in the lovely town of Elora, Ontario.  The 39th season now encompasses three weeks of musical performances of every description and this season will honour the memory of Michael Purves-Smith, the founding Artistic Director of the predecessor to the Elora Festival, the Three Centuries Festival, in 1979.  He passed away back in January of this year.

The Festival features performances by a wide range of artists from Isabel Bayrakdarian to Chantal Kreviazuk, but the heart of the Festival remains the glorious Elora Singers, the choir-in-residence of the Elora Festival.  They present their own Choral Concert Series, of course, including a choral tribute to Leonard Bernstein on July 21st featuring the Chichester Psalms to The Elora Singers Unplugged on July 22nd.  They also perform more sacred music at the Choral Evensong performance on July 26th and as part of the weekly Sunday Service on Sunday mornings at St. John's Church.  This to me presents the Singers in their purest, most radiant form, and I never miss a chance to attend the 11 am service during a weekend visit to the Festival.

The Opening Night Gala concert in the Gambrel Barn on July 13th is in partnership with The Canadian Opera Company and features The Elora Singers along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Isabel Bayrakdarian, Danika Loren, Andrew Haji and Samuel Chan, followed by a public reception and of course, fireworks to cap the evening off.

Something new this year for the 39th season is a special fundraiser being held at the newly refurbished and restored Elora Mill Hotel and Spa, closed for many years.  The July 18th event features cocktails at 5:30 pm and dinner at 7.  It promises to be the Big Event of the summer season in Elora.

The Elora Singers are certainly Canada's preeminent chamber choir and hearing them on their home turf is for me, a summer must-do each year.  If you are so inclined, and you should be, Elora is a pleasant two-hour drive from Niagara just northwest of Guelph.

For tickets and more information, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 519-846-0331.

So there you go - a trio of summer events designed to get you out of the house and out of your rut, and enjoy some great summer music and culture not that far away from home.  We'll look at some other great ideas shortly in this space.

Enjoy your weekend!

June 16th, 2018.