Monday, November 5, 2007

Another change at the top for the Niagara Symphony

Well, here we go again...after a lengthy search about this time last year for a new Executive Director, the Niagara Symphony is about to embark on another search. It has been a tumultuous year for our local symphony orchestra, as shortly after the season ended last spring, new Executive Director Denise Stone went public with the dire financial straits of the orchestra. In short, if they couldn't raise $ 500,000 in about five weeks, the 60th anniversary season would not get underway in the fall. There was a mobilization of fundraising forces resulting in a partial goal achieved: enough to cover the new season had been raised, thereby putting the symphony on a more sound financial footing. They didn't raise all they had hoped to raise, but had staved off closure of the orchestra - at least for now.

Just after this 60th anniversary season got underway, Denise announced she was leaving the symphony effective the end of this week, and once again Candice Turner-Smith would become Interim Executive Director. No doubt the stress of the past several months has taken its toll on Stone, as she prepares for a new challenge as Emergency Services co-ordinator for the City of St. Catharines. This is likely a good fit for Denise, as she was head of the Red Cross locally before taking the top job with the Niagara Symphony. So where does that leave the orchestra? It would be premature to say they are back in good financial territory, although the dark days of the last few months appear to be history. But once again they are faced with uncertainty at the top, and one wonders what phychological effect that might have on the musicians, not to mention the patrons who support them. I am sure the lengthy search process now underway will produce another bumper crop of qualified candidates; I only hope this will be the final search for some time. Stability at the top is crucial for the musical - and financial - health of this organization. Symphony Board President Patricia Hodge stated Ms. Stone "successfully led the organization through significant challenges and the NSA is in a stronger position thanks to her leadership." Hodge goes on to say: "These are exciting times for the orchestra, and we will be looking for a leader to continue to enhance our strategic plan, to further develop community partnerships and increase our audience base." We wish the board well in their search, and Denise Stone in her new responsibilities with the city.

On a different but related note, the next Masterworks concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra's season comes up this Saturday night, November 10th at the Great Hall of Hamilton Place. Titled "Lest We Forget", the Remembrance Day concert, beginning at 7:30 pm, includes the Egmont Overture and Incidental Music by Beethoven, as well as the Concerto for Harp and Orchestra by the late Canadian composer Oscar Morawetz, and the lovely Mathis der Maler symphony by Paul Hindemith. Should be a nice evening of music with the HPO, and once again I will be in the lobby before, after and at intermission of the show with a table of musical treasures for sale through A Web of Fine Music. If you are going, please stop by and say hello - I'd love to see you!

Mike Saunders
November 5th, 2007.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Symphony season is now well underway!

This is always a busy time of year for those of us who support local symphony orchestras, choirs and the like. Usually by October, most seasons are underway or just about to, and that is indeed the case for both the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and the Niagara Symphony. Both began their new seasons within the last few weeks. Since I have been busy the last week or so updating the website for A Web of Fine Music, which you can find at, I thought I should update you on the upcoming events for both orchestras. By the way, if you want more information on the full seasons for both orchestras plus many other events coming up over the next several months, check out the newly-updated Calendar page on the website.

Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra:
The HPO season kicked off in September with their new Artistic Director, James Sommerville, taking the podium for the first time - officially. I say officially since he conducted the final concert last season after the announcement had been made of his appointment. At the September concert, the first of the Pops series, he was joined by The Canadian Brass for a fun evening of music-making with the orchestra. Of course, James had many years ago auditioned to join The Canadian Brass and was rejected, a fact that came up more than once during the concert that evening. Still, they presented James with his very own pair of Canadian Brass sneakers, which means he is now an honourary member, I gather. The first Masterworks concert was the first week of October and unfortunately I had to miss that one, but I hear it went very well.

This weekend, the second Pops concert takes place at Hamilton Place, as the orchestra is joined by the tango group Quartango. This promises to be an interesting evening of latin favourites played both by the group in the solo spotlight and joined by the orchestra, conducted by guest conductor Andre Moisan. The concerts get underway a half-hour earlier this season, by the way, so that means they begin at 7:30 pm. Normally I would be in the lobby at my table with a collection of CDs for sale, but with both the HPO and the NSO performing at the same time, I have to be at the Niagara Symphony this weekend. But I will be in the lobby for the next Masterworks concert on November 10th, titled Lest We Forget. More on that concert next month.

Niagara Symphony:
The financially-troubled Niagara Symphony appears to have regained their financial footing over the summer months with an aggressive fundraising campaign. Although they are not out of the woods yet, the future looks much brighter than it did back in May when they thought the 60th anniversary season would not even arrive. But it did, with the first Masterworks concert getting the season underway earlier this month at Brock Centre for the Arts. The attendance level was very high, which indicated much interest in the new symphony season, and even St. Catharines' own Town Crier, Mark Molner, welcomed patrons to the new season. Even Niagara Regional Chair Peter Partington was there with his lovely wife to present the orchestra with a cheque for $ 20,000, raised during the recent regional chair's golf tournament. Thanks, Peter!

The season continues this weekend with the first Pops! concerts, both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Brock. The concert is titled "On The Town: Joplin, Gershwin, Bernstein", and that pretty much describes the concert. The orchestra will present everything from Scott Joplin rags to music from Porgy & Bess and West Side Story. Although it is a pops concert, maestro Daniel Swift points out the music is still notoriously difficult to play. They'll be joined onstage by vocalist Susan Lexa, singing a number of Gershwin classics such as The Man I Love, Someone To Watch Over Me and many others. Should be a good concert. And if you go, look for me at the symphony table in the lobby before and after the concerts and also at intermission. With the holiday season fast approaching (Christmas is two months from today!), we'll have plenty of tempting gift ideas for anyone on your shopping list, or even for yourself. See you there!

Mike Saunders
October 25th, 2007.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wrapping up another fine season at the Stratford Festival of Canada

I know I am late getting around to my notes from Stratford, but better late than never, I suppose. It has been a disappointing year for me: not the productions, the ones of which I saw being uniformly excellent; what was disappointing for me was the fact this was the first year in twenty-five years I did not attend all productions during the season. Lots of reasons for that this year, the main one being duty calls: major work around the house this summer took up most of my summer vacation time. So, I took one for the theatre, as it were, and limited myself to a couple of weekend trips totalling four productions. Let's look at those now...

Oklahoma! (Festival Theatre; runs to November 4th):
The Stratford Festival just has a knack for staging spectacular versions of classic musicals, and this ranks right up there with the best. The music is by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and the cast does the musical justice. Dan Chameroy is a big crowd-pleaser as Curly; the object of his affection is Blythe Wilson's Laurey Williams and she matches him every step of the way. Most of the supporting cast is first-rate, with Nora McLellan almost stealing the show as Aunt Eller and David W. Keeley as nasty Jud Fry. The only quibble I had was the character of Ali Hakim, played here by Jonathan Ellul. He does the best he can with this thankless role; I fail to see why all the ladies are attracted to him. Overall, the staging is bright and exhuberant, and the sets are magnificent. It rates a full four stars, and you still have time to escape to Oklahoma this year!

My One and Only (Avon Theatre; runs to October 28th):
The second musical at Stratford this season is at the smaller Avon Theatre, although the production doesn't suffer a bit from the smaller space. Like the production of Anything Goes! a couple of seasons back, this so-called 'new Gershwin musical' just makes you feel good. The sets and costumes are exceptional; the choreography is nothing short of breathtaking. As for the cast, Laird Mackintosh is suitably nice as Captain Billy Buck Chandler, the daredevil pilot smitten by the bathing beauty Edythe Herbert, current star of a 1930s Hollywood-style swimming and dancing extravaganza, played by Cynthia Dale who goes from strength to strength each season at Stratford. His real-life partner, Dayna Tekatch is a real spark-plug as Chandler's mechanic sidekick Mickey, who eventually falls for the nasty Prince Nikki, played with much bravado by David W. Keeley. Others in the cast worth watching for are Mark Cassius as Mr. Magix and Marcus Nance as Reverend J.D. Montgomery. Michael Lichtefeld has the cast moving about the stage with total precision, and Berthold Carriere handles conducting duties in the pit. Tommy Tune was the man behind the original production of this Gershwin recreation, which was a huge success on Broadway back in the 80s. This new production need not apologize to anyone - it is a sure fire hit and rates a solid four stars. My One and Only continues at the Avon Theatre until October 28th.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Avon Theatre; runs to October 27th):
This play, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, still resonates with today's audiences and has not aged at all over the years. Set in racially-divided Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression, widowed lawyer Atticus Finch raises his children in a difficult environment. His decision to defend a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman causes tremendous strain within his tight-knit family, but the eyes of his children are opened to the racial intolerance around them during the trial. Peter Donaldson, one of the solid male leads for many years at Stratford shines as Finch, and his assistant Heck Tate is handled well by Keith Dinicol. The real star of this production, however, is young Abigail Winter-Culliford as Finch's daughter Scout. She very nearly steals the show herself. Susan Schulman is the director for this production, and the subject matter she handles with great care. Sets and costumes are evocative of the era and complement the production perfectly. Some pretty touchy subject matter here, dealing with an era when blacks were less than second-class citizens. But it serves as a reminder of how far we've come, and how far we have yet to go. Three stars and worth a visit before the end of the season, To Kill a Mockingbird runs to October 27th.

A Delicate Balance (Tom Patterson Theatre; ran to September 23rd):
Unfortunately, this production closed much too soon, as many more would likely have wanted to see this jewel of a production of Edward Albee's famous play. There is another bittersweet aspect to A Delicate Balance, as William Hutt was scheduled to come out of retirement to play Tobias opposite Martha Henry's Agnes, but he died suddenly in June. David Fox did a fine job as Hutt's replacement, but you could only imagine what the production would have been like had Hutt played the role. Both Hutt and Henry had played opposite each other in many productions, almost always with spectacular results. That's not to take anything away from this production, to be sure, as it still manages to shine with all cast members putting in exceptional performances. Fiona Reid is a standout as Agnes' alcoholic sister, Claire, and Michelle Giroux is suitably bitchy as daughter Julia, escaping yet another failed marriage. It is especially interesting to watch James Blendick's subdued portrayal of neighbour Harry - truly worth the visit in itself! I hope Stratford finds a way to revive this production in the future and give it a longer run - it ended far too soon. Even without William Hutt, it rated four stars.

So, that's it for my visits to Stratford this season. Next year, lots of interest is already building as a new era begins following the passing of the torch by Artistic Director Richard Monette. His tenure at Stratford has been marked by tremendous highs and some excruciating lows, but he always entertained us over the years. Farewell, Richard, you will be missed!

Mike Saunders
October 18th, 2007.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three Great Losses in the Arts World

Since I last wrote, we have suffered three significant losses in the arts world, so I thought I would share a few memories on three huge individuals - two of whom made their names here in Canada - we lost in recent weeks.

It was truly a shock to hear of the sudden death of Richard Bradshaw, the visionary leader of the Canadian Opera Company, at the age of only 63. He suffered a heart attack at Toronto's Pearson International Airport while returning with his family from a vacation, oddly enough. This was a hard loss to take for everyone, as Richard had only the year before completed a 30-year dream to bring a new opera house to Toronto. Torontonians had been waiting for this to happen almost forever, and it took his drive, charisma and persistence to bring everything and everyone together to finally get it done. But his legacy is more than just the new opera house, of course. He has helped produce some of the most cutting-edge operas seen on any stage anywhere. I still remember his productions of Salome, Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung and even Mario and the Magician, all of which helped to put Toronto on the opera world's map. I never met him personally, but attended many a press conference to announce the next season's offerings for the COC, and he was always charming and entertaining. But you knew, behind all that charm was a man driven to succeed. And succeed he did. There are some people I would love to have sat down to dinner with - Richard would have been very near the top of the list. Born in Rugby, England in 1944; died in Toronto in August, 2007. His legacy will live on with the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Toronto.

"A pioneer of the arts in Canada" is how National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director Karen Kain described the ballet's first musical director, George Crum, who died at the age of 80 in early September. He served as conductor and musical director for the company for a total of 33 years, beginning when the ballet company was formed by Celia Franca in 1951 until he retired in 1984. The last time I saw George conduct with the company was after his retirement, when he conducted Veronica Tennant's farewell performance in Romeo and Juliet in 1989. That was a night I will always remember for so many reasons. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing George more than once, and he always proved to be a great talker, full of stories of people he knew and productions he conducted. For the first ten years I attended National Ballet performances at the old O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, George was almost always in the pit conducting the orchestra. Afterwards, even though able conductors followed him, it never seemed quite the same not seeing his imposing physique taking bows with the dancers at the end of the peformance. Take that final bow, Mr. Crum, you richly deserve it!

On the international stage, talent was rarely bigger - in every sense of the word - than celebrated tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died earlier this month at the age of 71. He had done it all - performed in some of the most important opera houses in the world and in some of the best-loved operas ever; as well as performing in just about every non-operatic venue you could imagine. Truly, he brought opera to the masses more than anyone else since Caruso early in the last century. Perhaps I came to Pavarotti's recordings and career later than I should have, but I often found in the last few years he had become nothing but a caricature of himself, not taking himself too seriously at all. That's not a bad thing, but I missed those early, spine-tingling performances in the early 60s when he was The Voice to watch in opera. I did hear one live recording - terribly produced, I might add - that if nothing else proved the young Pavarotti to be a sensational, virile tenor destined for great things. He did not disappoint, although often in his later years his health would prove to be his nemesis, as he was forced to cancel many performances due to illness, including a fundraiser in Hamilton a number of years ago. He took some heat for that cancellation, I recall, but this was Pavarotti, so what are you going to do, eh? I met him at a press conference in Toronto in the 80's and he was ever the showman, beguiling the press and others in attendance as he promoted an upcoming performance. There are lots of Pavarotti discs currently available and more on the way, to be sure. But to get the real Pavarotti, long before international stardom came through the Three Tenors phenomenom, you have to go back to his earlier London/Decca opera recordings to hear the voice that earned him the moniker "The King of the High C's". We'll likely never see nor hear his type again.

Mike Saunders
September 27th, 2007.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Three Mainstage Shows Provide Great Theatre at Shaw Festival 2007

With the month of August drawing to a close, let's conclude our look at the offerings this season at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake with three big shows at the Festival Theatre:

Mack And Mabel, with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; revised by Francine Pascal (Festival Theatre until October 28th):
This Jerry Herman musical opened on Broadway in 1974, starring Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston. It received eight Tony nominations that year, but only ran for sixty-six performances. A revised book by Francine Pascal accompanied the British premiere in 1995, and this is the version we see this season at the Shaw Festival, the first full production of the musical in Canada. This is a real challenge to stage, as the story of Mack Sennett is not all hearts and flowers, as it were. He was pretty rough around the edges, to say the least, and the show doesn't attempt to hide that fact. In the pivotal role as the cigar-chomping moviemaker, Benedict Campbell is onstage almost the entire time, dominating the storyline from beginning to end - I suspect Mack Sennett would be pleased about that. Campbell is gruff, funny, touching and at times you even feel sorry for him; it is hard to love someone who can be as nasty as Sennett was but Campbell manages to tug at our heartstrings for awhile, at least. His love interest cum star vehicle around which most of his comedies are written is Mabel Normand, played with great flair by Glynis Ranney. She reaches the heights of stardom and the depths of depression during her time with Mack, and after seeing the musical it is easy to see why. Getting anything remotely resembling commitment from Sennett is akin to trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, as epitomized in the only memorable song from the score, I Won't Send Roses. The supporting cast is very good, all buzzing around Sennett at his command like bees around the hive. He may be nasty, but he's their meal ticket and they know it. Look for standout performances by Jeff Madden as Frank, Neil Barclay as Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Millard in dual roles as Swain and William Desmond Taylor, the oily character who entices Mabel away from Mack's studio to make 'real movies'. Overall, Mack and Mabel is a clever but ultimately sad show - in the end, you feel for both of them and can't help but conclude they deserved each other. If nothing else, it will make you want to read more about Sennett and his era, and I am sure the old filmmaker would be pleased about that.

Hotel Peccadillo, based on the play L'Hotel du Libre-Echange by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres, adapted by Morris Panych (Festival Theatre to October 7th):
Certainly one of the more uproarious offerings at the Shaw Festival this season, Hotel Peccadillo is a fun and fast-paced French farce, but not at the furious pace we have grown accustomed to with British farce, such as the memorable One for the Pot starring Heath Lamberts years ago. Still, you have to keep your eyes on the action, as there is a lot of opening and closing of doors and running back and forth on the simple but creative set. The receding hallway in the hotel scenes with several doors running along both sides is clever, if at first a bit disconcerting. There is not much of a plot to worry about here, but suffice it to say the cast holds everything together with great style, and director Morris Panych gives them plenty to work with. In a nutshell, several characters move from the office of Dr. Pinglet, played by Patrick Galligan, to a little hotel, all seeking sexual liasons with a partner they shouldn't be with. The ensuing mayhem is documented onstage with clever commentary by Lorne Kennedy, who walks through the play as the author Feydeau, providing a calm respite while the actors search for their heart's desire. Several standout performances here, including a very sexy Goldie Semple as the wife of Dr. Pinglet, who is chasing afterMadame Paillardin, the wife of one of his patients. Galligan as Pinglet is having the time of his life here, even spending a good part of the play in heels! Some may consider Hotel Peccadillo a little low brow, but if you check your commen sense at the door on the way in, you should have a good time with this one.

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (Festival Theatre to October 27th):
Shaw Festival Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell provides a wonderful staging of this Shaw classic, performed twice before at the Festival. The staging is very clean and unadorned, but everything that is needed is there - nothing more. There are several strong peformances in the cast, including Norman Browning as the Archbishop of Rheims, which I found took some getting used to; Peter Krantz as Chaplain John de Stogumber; and Ric Reid as Robert de Baudricourt and The Inquisitor. The weakest performance, I found, was Harry Judge as the Dauphin - I don't see the attraction to such a weak individual. In the title role, Tara Rosling gives a very believable performance, and an audible gasp goes up from the audience when the sentence is handed down - how could they be so cruel to such a good soul? I still remember the Christopher Newton production in 1981 with Nora McLellan as Joan - what a magnificent production it was! But this one ranks right up there with a Joan you can't help but feel for, and a timeless story we should revisit often.

So that's it for the Shaw Festival this season. Just to recap with my four-star ratings for each production this season, which appear on my website

A Month In The Country ***
The Philanderer ***
The Cassilis Engagement ***
Tristan **
Summer and Smoke ***
The Kiltartan Comedies **
The Circle ****
Mack And Mabel ***
Hotel Peccadillo ***
Saint Joan ***

Next month, we'll travel to Stratford and check out some of the productions offered at this year's Stratford Festival.

Mike Saunders
August 28, 2007.

Monday, August 20, 2007

More Reviews from the Shaw Festival 2007

This month, we'll continue our look at the current crop of offerings at the Shaw Festival this season. I've now seen all the productions this season, so we'll finish the month with reviews this week and next:

Tristan, with book, music and lyrics by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey (Court House Theatre until October 6th):
This is the world premiere of a new work by Shaw Festival music director Paul Sportelli and actor/lyricist Jay Turvey, adapted from the story "Tristan" by Thomas Mann. Tristan is directed by Eda Holmes. It has been highly anticipated as the final offering at the Shaw Festival this season, and it is an ambitious piece. Having said that, I found the production a disappointment, particularly in the first act, which seemed exceedingly dull for the most part. On the whole, Tristan is a very sweet piece, charming in a way, but ultimately unsatisfying. The second act manages to take flight and that picks up the pace somewhat, but not enough to save the day. The story takes place at a sanatorium in the German Alps in 1903, when the well-to-do with health problems would go to recuperate from whatever supposedly ails them. Some are hypochondriacs, while some have legitimate illnesses. None, it seems, want to leave the plush environment that includes five meals a day (including two breakfasts!) and walks along with other recreational activities. No wonder one guest, Vladimir Brodyagin, played by Peter Millard, proudly proclaims he has been there 'recovering' for four-and-a-half years, and might be able to leave in another nine months! One can only imagine what all this coddling cost them back then. Enter this situation Gabrielle Kloterjahn, played sweetly by Glynis Ranney, accompanied by her overbearing husband, successful businessman Heinrich, played with authority by Mark Uhre. Wouldn't you know it, no sooner does Mr. Kloterjahn leave than his wife catches the eye and fancy of writer Detlev Spinell, played by Jeff Madden. It is never clear why he is there; at the outset it is mentioned he is not there out of need; why then is he there? Anyway, their mutual attraction is never allowed to fully catch fire, as Gabrielle's tuberculosis advances after she vigorously plays the piano for Spinell. On paper, it is a story with potential; in this production, it somehow falls flat. There are some solid performances and the staging is clever, but if you go to only one or two shows at Shaw this season, I would take a pass on Tristan.

The Kiltartan Comedies by Lady Augusta Gregory (Court House Theatre until October 6):
This is the annual lunchtime theatre offering at Shaw this season; usually it is a brief, one-act play or a couple of even shorter playlets strung together over an hour and usually they prove to be uproariously funny. This, unfortunately, is not the case this year. The Kiltartan Comedies is made up of two short works by Lady Augusta Gregory, directed by Michelle Chevrier. Both set in rural Ireland, the characters range from interesting to banal, with the major exception being Mary Haney as Mrs Tarpey in the second play, Spreading the News. As always, Haney imbues her characters with great colour and spirit, and she almost singlehandedly lifts the play off the page. The rest of the cast labours admirably, but with little comic effect. The main impediment here is the thick Irish brogues, which are challenging to listen to much less speak. The Kiltartan Comedies have their moments, but overall, left me wanting. Go for a nice lunch instead.

Summer And Smoke by Tennessee Williams (Royal George Theatre until October 27th):
Over the years, the Stratford Festival has mastered the art of presenting Tennessee Williams' stage masterpieces; this season, the Shaw Festival has tried their hand at it, with generally positive but mixed results. Summer And Smoke dates from 1947 and a film version premiered in 1961. Here, a fine, upstanding minister's daughter, Alma Winemiller, played outstandingly by Nicole Underhay, is wooed by John Buchanan, Jr., a young doctor who lives life on the edge. Jeff Meadows presents Buchanan as a suitably complex character, as he progresses from a sexually charged, hard-drinking womanizer to a responsible member of society by the end of the play. In that same time-frame, however, Alma manages to loosen her inhibitions and becomes more agreeable to a bit of a summertime fling. Ah, but it's too late! Alma's parents are an interesting pair, beautifully played by Peter Hutt and Sharry Flett. Flett is particularly effective as a wife slowly losing her reason; Hutt is sensitive as her long suffering husband. This production by Neil Munro is perfectly suited to the small Royal George stage, and is very atmospheric with beautiful sets. The first act might be a little hard to get into, but once you do, the characters make the journey worthwhile.

The Circle by Somerset Maugham (Royal George Theatre until October 28th):
Another winner at the Shaw Festival this year, directed by Neil Munro. The Circle deals with the timeless subject of love lost, love found...and so on. British M.P. Arnold Champion-Cheney has everything going for him - successful political career, prominent position in society, and a loving wife. But is she? Elizabeth Champion-Cheney wants more out of life and seems to find it in young, virile Edward Luton, played with great style by Gray Powell. But does she risk her - and her husband's - standing in society for what she hopes will be true love? Added to this complex scenario is Arnold's father, Clive, played with classic wit by David Schurmann. He happens to pay a visit at the same time his former wife visits with the man she left Clive for! Thus completes the circle...which continues to turn through this 1921 play that does not appear at all dated. It is stylish, beautifully presented with a great set and very good ensemble work by the cast. It's the little details that make this play so satisfying - right down to Aarnold's constant re-positioning of a chair onstage throughout the play - hilarious! As the husband and wayward wife team, David Jansen and Moya O'Connell put in fine performances. This is one play you won't want to miss at Shaw this season!

Mike Saunders
August 20th, 2007.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Shaw Festival serves up some great theatre this summer!

The summer theatre festival season is once again upon us, and again this season, I am spending many a day or evening attending theatre performances at both the Shaw and the Stratford Festivals. So I thought for the next few weeks, I would share with you my capsule comments on some of the offerings at both festivals in case you are planning to attend. We'll begin with three shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake:

The Cassilis Engagement, by St John Hankin (Court House Theatre until October 5th):
Once you get past the author's unorthodox name, you are presented with a period piece that doesn't appear the least bit dated. The story deals with a well-to-do English family coming to grips with their son's choice of woman to marry. She is a commoner, and they know she won't fit in. But Mrs. Cassilis wisely plays the waiting game, allowing the young lady to find out for herself when she visits their country estate for a period of time. Of course, she is bored to tears by the life lead by the well-to-do, and longs for her London home, excitement, and just plain more fun. Former Shaw Artistic Director Christopher Newton directs and he is clearly in his element here: watch for the clever set changes in between acts, beautifully choreographed to the music. Not a single detail is overlooked, and the set is very bright and sunny. Standout performances include Donna Belleville as the busybody godmother The Countess of Remenham; Goldie Semple as Mrs. Cassilis, and Mary Haney is hilarious as the rough-edged Mrs. Borridge. Honourable mention goes to Laurie Paton as Lady Marchmont and David Leyshon as the smitten Geoffrey Cassilis. As for his fiancee? Trish Lindstrom is sweet yet tart as Ethel Borridge, as she discovers what she's in for should she marry into the family. Oh, and one other performance of note: Patrick Galligan as Major Warrington gives another exceptional performance in a season of same for this talented actor. Perhaps not for everyone, but I think most will find this play funny, relevant, clever and beautifully performed. Three out of four stars.

The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw (Royal George Theatre until October 7th):
This is early Shaw; in fact his second play, dating from 1893 but not publicly performed until 1907. Directed by Alisa Palmer, this is a clever and elegant presentation, with nice sets and costumes, good ensemble work and of course, Shaw's trademark biting humour and witty repartee. The only drawback here is the fast pace of the dialogue might be hard for some to follow, as they take things at a very good clip. That said, I think most will enjoy the show, especially if they are fortunate enough to catch a performance with the rarely-performed fourth act. I missed that at my performance, and wish I could have seen it, for at the end of three acts you are left with unanswered questions and wanting more. Shaw termed the play a "topical comedy", and it is clearly that, dealing with the so-called "New Woman" and the sexual desires of both men and women as they face the new reality. Good ensemble work here, including Deborah Hay's understated and elegant Grace Tranfield; Nicole Underhay as a vixen playing Julia Craven; Norman Browning as the stuffy but funny Mr. Joseph Cuthbertson; and Peter Hutt typically extroverted as Colonel Daniel Craven. Ben Carlson is okay as Leonard Charteris, the young lad all the women seem to want to be with, but I personally found him to be a bit too wishy-washy for the part. Still, a good performance overall, and a solid three out of four stars.

A Month In The Country by Brian Friel, after Turgenev (Court House Theatre to October 6th):
Director Tadeusz Bradecki serves up an interesting bit of theatre here: one you have to warm to over the course of the performance, as the first act is a little slow. It runs about 1 1/2 hours, but the dialogue is very good and the ensemble work is typically excellent. The staging is simple, but beautifully done. This is a Russian play dating from 1850 originally, updated by the Irish playwright Brian Friel which makes it a little easier to swallow for modern theatre-goers. Once again, we have an interesting scenario played out on stage - a woman, Natalya, married to an adoring husband, but attracted to other men as well. During this month in the country, lots of challenges face the dynamic Natalya and her many gentlemen. Some of the performances are a little iffey: for example, I never did take to David Schurmann's Herr Schaaf, a tutor who just seems to get in the way, and Michael Ball as a goofy Afanasy, a neighbouring landlord. Not his best peformance, I find. But others are very good, indeed. Thom Marriott is strong as servant Matvey; Marla McLean does a nice turn as Natalya's ward, Vera; and Patricia Hamilton is very strong as Arkady's widowed mother, Anna. As for the rest, Sharry Flett is typically excellent as Anna's companion, Fiona Byrne is conniving and attractive as Natalya, and Blair Williams is solid as Arkady. This will not be everyone's choice for a good time, but if you see several other plays at Shaw this season, it will make a nice addition to the fold. Three out of four stars.

More from Shaw in my next report next month!

Mike Saunders
July 30th, 2007.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Memories of Living in Toronto Revisited

Over the past month, two sad events relating the the Toronto merchandising landscape caused me to remember growing up in "The Big Smoke". Last month, the original - and the best - Sam The Record Man closed on Yonge Street at Gould. For anyone growing up in Toronto in the 60's and beyond, you included Sam's as a sort of right of passage to adulthood. I still remember spending hours clawing my way through old dusty lps on the third floor - my favourite find was a 1958 recording by Nancy Walker of all people, with a picture of her on the cover sticking needles into a male doll - and the title something like "I Hate Men"! Oddly, I didn't buy it...perhaps thinking it, like Sam's itself, would always be there.

Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Bowing to the pressure of music downloads and a younger population with no idea what buying music really means, the Sniderman family decided to close the venerable musical institution at the end of June. It ends a rich and ultimately sad chapter in Toronto's merchandising history. Who doesn't have stories of 'finds' at Sam's, or attending the annual mayhem known as Boxing Day Sale, which almost rivals the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain for sheer exhilaration? I have stories of finding things at Sam's I thought I would never find, and great buys on Boxing Day in spite of the crowds. But, they are only memories now. Perhaps it is just as well, and maybe the Snidermans knew when to fold them and walk away, rather than see a great institution wither and die away. Oh sure, there is talk of saving the famous two-disc facade, but what good is that when the store behind it is no longer there?

I will always have fond memories of visiting Sam the Record Man. My last visit was a few weeks before it closed, and already the stock had been pretty well picked over. Ah well, better to get your music from A Web of Fine Music now, anyway...

My second memory of Toronto merchandising is rather broader-based, as it involves the passing of "Honest Ed" Mirvish last week. Who in Toronto has not been touched in some way by the Mirvish family? I went to Honest Eds years ago and was amazed at the carnival-like atmosphere and what you could find there. It is a lifeline for the poor and newly-arrived immigrants; but also for ex-Torontonians like myself who just want to remember. On my next trip to Toronto, I will visit the gaudy shrine once again.

Ed, of course, almost single-handedly brought quality live theatre to Toronto when he bought the dilapidated Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street West and started to totally revitalize the area, giving theatre-goers some amazing shows over the years. I remember in my early days in radio attending opening nights at the Royal Alex, watching everything from Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in The Gin Game to Peter O'Toole in The Seagull to any number of brash musicals. Every one showed Ed and son David's theatrical acumen - and risk-taking. My greatest memory, however, was meeting Ed and his lovely wife Anne at intermission, as I and other media types were ushered into their private reception room for a drink and some idle chatter. It was here I realized Ed's wife was a regular listener to my show when I hosted the morning show in Oshawa. God only knows why she listened, as I was so green it hurt, and I sounded just terrible on the air back then. But I was a somebody in that room, and I always looked forward to the visit. I know Anne is grieving the loss of her faithful husband of 60-odd years, and I wish I could just reach out and touch her shoulder to show I care. But I can't, so I will simply offer these memories as my salute to a true patron of the arts and a life-long champion of Toronto on the occasion of his passing. Ed will be missed by so many, and this week, the world is all the poorer for the loss of such a great man.

Ed, your prices may be cheep, cheep, cheep, as one sign at Honest Eds says, but you will always remain priceless. You'll be missed by so many.

Mike Saunders
July 19th, 2007.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Let's all stand and cheer the Black Tie Blues!

On a recent flight back from Winnipeg, I was reading the comments of Kelvin Browne in the Globe & Mail on concert etiquette and when to wear black tie in this day and age. I have always had pet peeves on both of these subjects, so let's explore the dual minefields together...

A question was posed to Mr. Browne about concert etiquette; specifically, while at a TSO concert, the reader didn't know when to clap, what to wear, etc. In this day and age, the short answer, I find, is 'anything goes'. While most arts organizations will jump through hoops to have patrons come through the door wearing anything at all - just come in, for heaven's sake! - I still like the notion of dressing for the occasion. What you interpret that as is your own decision; for me, there are so few opportunities to really dress up anymore, I like to wear a nice suit or sportsjacket and tie to create a sense of occasion. After all, why not present yourself in public in the best possible light?

This brings us to how to conduct oneself in the auditorium once the concert has started. As Mr. Browne notes in his column, some believe attending a concert is like watching TV. Sit down with a bag of snacks, talk to your neighbour, and generally forget there are several hundred other souls also sitting there, some who might actually want to hear the concert. I have often had to politely ask someone nearby to please keep quiet; it is not something I enjoy doing and I try to avoid it at all costs. However, sometimes people just don't get it. I remember a couple of seasons back sitting in front of a lady at the theatre who actually started singing the songs from the musical we were watching onstage! Please, unless you are an off-duty performer yourself, please don't treat the concert hall as your own personal karaoke venue. And while we're at it, could you please unwrap your candies BEFORE the concert starts? Just last week, I was attending a performance at the Shaw Festival, and the lady behind me was talking to her friend until the moment the performance started, and then promptly started unwrapping a candy as the first words onstage were being uttered. What, you can't unwrap and talk at the same time?
I know, I know, I might be accused of being a snob, but really, it's all about good manners as far as I'm concerned.

Mr. Brown also relates Toronto is the easiest place in the world to get a standing ovation, and we're so insecure we'll applaud almost anything. I concur on both counts. The general rule at a classical concert is, look at the number of movements in the programme and don't applaud until the end. There is a constant desire to applaud the moment there is a void in the hall, and this just isn't the case. Enjoy the silence as the music trails off...don't be the first to applaud, wait until the end of a piece and after a short pause, applaud generously. It's simple. Don't feel you have to applaud EVERYTHING. Years ago, I attended a concert by an orchestra visiting from the U.K. at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, and the audience even applauded the guy moving the chairs around on the stage before the musicians came back out! Bemused, he stood, took a deep bow, and walked off. How embarrasing! As for standing ovations, it is easier to count the number of times I have attended a concert that didn't end with a standing ovation rather than did. People almost always stand now, and that is just too much. In my concert-going career, I have legitimately been moved to genuinely give a standing ovation only a few times. But all too often I am standing now, rather than be the only guy in the hall still sitting in his seat. A standing ovation should be the highest compliment paid a performer or group rather than the norm as it is now.

The other question posed to Mr. Browne in his column in the National Post was when it would be appropriate to wear black tie. Basically, Mr. Browne laments the fact we just don't know when to wear black tie, as we fear being over-dressed. I can understand the uneasiness, as most men would rather avoid a tuxedo at all costs save for their wedding day, and even then only if necessary. Invitations suggesting 'creative black tie' don't make things any easier. What the heck is that supposed to mean? My rule of thumb is to interpret the invitation given the location, time of year, and what the event is. Usually, I am right. If you don't own a tux, obviously you don't want to rent a tux and then find out you're the only one wearing one, so don't be afraid to ask if you are not sure. And if you wear a tux on average once a year, it is best to consider buying rather than renting. I have owned my own for at least twenty years now; I am on my third, in fact, and I have never regretted the investment. It comes back to presenting yourself in the best possible light when you are out in public.

So the bottom line from all this? Be quiet during the performance, don't unwrap your candies after the lights go down, and dress for the occasion. If we all did these things, the concert-going experience would be more of a memorable occasion for everyone involved. Hey, you might even enjoy it more!

Mike Saunders
July 11th, 2007.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Niagara Symphony lives to play another day!

Sunday, June 10th was an important day for the Niagara Symphony, coming as it did as a sort of "decision day" for the future of the organization. Their month long fundraising drive would ultimately determine if the orchestra would survive to play for another season - their 60th - or they would go down to defeat, a victim of lack of funding for the arts.

The so-called "Celebration Concert" scheduled for that sunny, warm Sunday afternoon at Brock Centre for the Arts would indicate if the orchestra's optimistic concert title was fact or fiction. Fortunately for all concerned, it turned out to be fact. The orchestra played to an almost full theatre of regular subscribers and several newcomers - an important sign their message was getting out beyond their usual ranks. All in attendance were treated to some inspired playing and creative programming, ranging from one movement of Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony to pop standards sung by the Mantini Sisters. There was literally something for everyone.

Before the musicians began to play, it was announced from the stage the orchestra - while falling short of their ambitious $ 500,000 fundraising goal, had so far raised one-fifth of that amount, which would go a long way to securing the future viability of the orchestra. It was felt sending out the positive signal the orchestra would indeed survive would secure more funding in the future, as other doners were indeed interested in helping out if the orchestra were to survive. The Sunday concert alone, a free event with donations accepted, netted the orchestra over $ 11,000 on that one day alone! That should help to put to rest the story Niagara is not ready to support an orchestra in the region.

If nothing else, this recent - and ongoing - fundraising initiative has shown management and musicians of the Niagara Symphony who their friends are, and there are many. Let's hope the orchestra does not have to go cap in hand to the public in such a public way again, but with the arts you never know. Fundraising efforts will be an ongoing project for the orchestra and that, I think is a good thing. You can never sit back and assume anything when you are running an arts organization, and that point was certainly driven home the last couple of months with the difficult decisions the orchestra board and staff had to make.

Will this result in a better, leaner and smarter Niagara Symphony? I hope so, and indeed I think so. Everyone - and every organization - needs a reality check once in a while, and the Niagara Symphony's reality check came this spring and summer.

If you want to attend their next concert, it is a traditional Canada Day concert on the afternoon of July 1st at the Market Square in downtown St. Catharines. Lot of other activities are planned but the focus will certainly be on the rejuvenated Niagara Symphony, living to play another day and well into their next 60 years!

Now, on to other things...the Shaw Festival season is in full swing at their three theatres in Niagara On The Lake, and I have already attended several performances. My star ratings will appear on the calendar page of my website, shortly, and coming in July, I will share my thoughts on productions this summer at both the Shaw and the Stratford Festivals. So stay tuned...

Mike Saunders
June 21st, 2007

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fight Erupts During Boston Pops Concert!

This is a funny story! It is not often a classical music concert makes the news; even the opening night of the fabled Boston Pops season, though well attended, is rarely news. But last month, concert-goers experienced an unusual event on opening night: a fight broke out in the audience!

Video shot the night of the concert clearly shows two men struggling in the balcony - one with his shirt pulled off - as several people stood around them. It apparently all started when one of the men refused to stop talking during the concert and the other took exception to it. Tempers flared and a heated verbal exchange moved to fisticuffs, with at least one woman screaming.

So what do you do when you are conductor Keith Lockhart, and you suddenly hear a brawl in the balcony behind you? He stopped the concert until police, already on security detail at the concert, hauled the offenders out of Symphony Hall and probably gave them a stern talking to. No charges were laid. Gee, police on security detail at a Boston Pops concert. Go figure...

This is the first time in the 122-year history of the Boston Pops something like this had ever happened. In a statement afterwards, management said "It was an unfortunate incident, but thankfully this kind of behaviour is truly out of the ordinary at a Boston Pops concert". I prefer the comments of one official from the orchestra, who, noting the fight broke out during a medley of tunes from the movie musical "Gigi", said "It has that effect on some people."

Well...I have been to many classical and pops concerts in my time, as well as many live theatre performances, and I have never witnessed anything like this. I experience my share of bone heads who think they are at home watching television, forgetting there are others around them who can hear everything they say - usually rather loudly. I have also had to endure misguided souls who so love the music, they want to sing along with the orchestra - loudly! And don't get me started on those who eat, drink and perform other bodily functions during a performance, all of which I have reluctantly tried to silently endure. I'll have more to say about this in a future posting, but for now, let's hope decorum returns to Symphony Hall in Boston...

Now, on to an update of the situation with the Niagara Symphony here in our neck of the woods. In my first posting, I outlined the financial crisis faced by the orchestra and how they were going to go about rectifying the situation. It is a slow process, educating the public on the plight of the Niagara Symphony, and they have limited their fundraising timespan to only five weeks. Not a lot of time to come up with a projected $ 500,000 to Save Our Symphony.

Members of the Niagara Symphony have performed concerts at many venues around Niagara, from the downtown Market Square to stately Rodman Hall. Each time, the audience is asked to donate what they can to help the cause. While this is going on, Executive Director Denise Stone and her team have been meeting with municipal and regional officials to secure public funding for the orchestra. This has proven to be a tough sell, but some progress has been made, and if nothing else, municipal and regional staff are more aware of the situation than they were a month ago.

The word on the street appears to be mixed. Some do not like the idea of public funding of the arts, which is not surprising. But overall, many people are stepping up to the plate to help out any way they can, and that is indeed encouraging.

Other arts organizations have shown their support for the Niagara Symphony as well. The Pembroke Symphony Orchestra from Adelaide, Australia heard about the campaign and are hoping to make a stop on their North American tour in Niagara next January to perform a benefit concert for the orchestra. Recently the Kiwanis Music Festival Gala Concert, which I hosted as MC, and the Niagara Youth Orchestra both invited the Niagara Symphony to attend their events to solicit donations from patrons. Nice touch.

There is still time to donate and show your support for the Niagara Symphony. This Sunday, June 10th at 2:30 pm, there will be a Celebration Concert held at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Brock University in St. Catharines. The performance is free and seating is general admission, but donations will be gratefully accepted, and we hope at that time to get an update - certainly a positive one - on the financial situation with the Niagara Symphony.

So, the bottom line is this: do you want the Niagara Symphony to continue? If so, plan to attend on Sunday afternoon and show both your moral and financial support for the orchestra. As noted in my first posting, the orchestra gives so much to the community; now it's our chance to give back to the orchestra.

See you on Sunday!

Mike Saunders
June 5th, 2007.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Niagara Symphony launches Save The Symphony campaign!

Last week, the Niagara Symphony - comprised of 52 professional musicians - announced they needed to raise $ 500,000 in five weeks in order to survive to play another day. While many might have suspected the symphony was struggling with debt, few thought the problem was so acute. The symphony management blame the shortfall on lower private and corporate donations and very low government funding of the arts. Where have we heard that before?

This is not simply a money problem; it is also a problem of perception. Will donors be reluctant to help out the symphony now, fearing they may not last so why bother? I hope not. While government funding of the arts in North America has never been at the level many arts organizations in Europe receive and likely never will be, surely we can do better. I know, I know...the hew and cry from many sectors is that governments at all levels have enough trouble funding basic services such as health care, so why should they be expected to help fund an arts organization they likely will never have any use for? I understand the sentiment, but it is misguided. Take, for example, public transit. Not everyone uses public transit, but your tax dollars help to fund the service so it is there for those who need it. The money collected at the farebox will never cover the cost of the system, just as money collected at the box-office will never cover the cost of putting the Niagara Symphony on stage for the season. For myself, I have no problem helping to support public transit, which I occasionally use, or the Niagara Symphony, which I attend. But I also have no problem helping to fund the new four-pad arena that recently opened in St. Catharines, which I likely will never use.

But its more than just the dollars and cents at work here. Arts help to shape the community in which we live, just as sports and other leisure activities do. They add to our quality of life, and how do you put a price on that? You can't. Still, we all contribute for the betterment of the community as a whole, rather than just those parts of it that directly interest each individual. And I consider that an investment in the community rather than a cost I should not have to bear.

The Niagara Symphony has taken some heat from many factions since their announcement last week, regarding the amount of money they need and how soon they need it, as well as why it took so long for them to go public with the problem. Clearly, the symphony board will have to come up with a better plan than they have if they expect to see government and public funding forthcoming over the next five weeks or so. But I would rather work towards a solution to the problem as a team rather than just walking away and saying 'it's not my problem - let someone else fix it'. Let's get on board and Save The Symphony - the Niagara Symphony is more important to this community in Niagara than many people think.

Mike Saunders
May 16th, 2007.