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.