Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remembering three giants at the end of 2008

It is New Year's Eve as I write this (yes, I know, I don't get out much anymore...) and a new year is less than two hours away. As we prepare to usher in 2009 with whatever measure of optimism we can muster in these tough economic times, I wanted to salute three individuals from three different areas of the media we lost within the last couple of months. All three made an imprint on your humble scribe...

Toronto media giant Ted Rogers died in early December at the age of 75. He was, of course, head of the media empire that bears his name, as well as owner of the Toronto Blue Jays. He was also my very first "Big Boss" in radio; when I started at CHFI-FM in Toronto in 1973 as a young hotshot producer, making the princely sum of $ 3.00 an hour (then the minimum wage, believe it or not!) he owned a small but lucrative chain of radio stations in the province. His empire has since grown by leaps and bounds, of course, but back in those days it was not unusual to see the Big Guy around the halls of the radio station. I vividly remember one occasion when the entire station staff was taken out to a swanky Yorkville restaurant for a Christmas lunch one year and I was introduced to him as one of the young weekend producers of the various programs we had on air at the time. I must have made an impression on him, as the music director at the time took me aside afterwards back at the station and said Mr. Rogers told him to watch me, as I was going places. Hmmm, all the way to St. Catharines, it seems! Honestly, though, that brief meeting had an impact on me, when I realized the Big Guy noticed me amongst a group of the station employees. I don't know if I ever really fulfilled his promise, but I have always been grateful for the encouragement he offered me that day many years ago.

Musician and broadcaster Bob Sprott passed away back in October of kidney failure at the age of 82. Bob was a real gem and certainly a bit of an enigma. Bob was a trumpeter who fronted his own band in his teens, filled in for an ailing trumpeter with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when Glenn Miller actually lead the band, and then shunned it all to get a real job and raise a family when he realized big band music was on the way out. Bob returned to his native Toronto and eventually found his way into a radio studio to host a radio show about his one true love: the big band music he knew so much about. He has been called Canada's greatest authority on big band music, and I don't doubt the claim. I first met Bob when he was doing his show at CKTB Radio here in St. Catharines many years ago. He didn't drive, so he would take the bus from Toronto to St. Catharines, lugging his big box of LPs (never CDs!) and taping his show before catching the next bus home. He did it all for free, never receiving a dime for his work, which was exceptional in its thoroughness. He eventually ended up at AM 740 in Toronto, where I caught his show one night quite by accident when I left my evening shift at CKTB early that night. It was great to hear that craggy old voice again, talking with the utmost authority about the music he loved the best: big band music. I always remember his salutation on the show: a cheery "Hi, there!" was always at the ready. Bob never performed as a musician regularly after he got out about 1954, but you'd never know it by the passion he displayed for the music he played each week. Bob was more than a little eccentric, to be sure, but it just added to the charm of this grizzled old musician doing the show for love, never money. Take care, Bob, and may heaven swing a little more now that you're there.

Singer-actor Eartha Kitt died Christmas Day at the age of 81. Of the three, this is the one person I never met, and I sure wish I had. Reading her biography is a lesson in how to rise up from the most humble of beginnings to become a giant of television, movies and recordings for decades. It is her star turn as "Catwoman" in the 1960's era Batman TV series that introduced her to a whole new generation of fans, of which I was an enthusiastic member. Let's face it, a slinky woman in tight leather with a sexy, gutteral voice...I became interested in women at that point in my life, what can I say? Thanks, Eartha, for that! Of course, her lengthy career went all the way back to the early 50's with her first recordings for RCA Victor. Incredibly, her debut disc from 1954 is out of print now, but the follow up is available. I can't quite figure out the logic in that. But a number of good examples are available, including her landmark live recording from 1965 recorded at The Plaza. Any and all of her available recordings are obtainable through my website, A Web of Fine Music, which you can fine at Any of them will introduce you or re-acquaint you with a voice so unique and a style so sexy that you'll wonder where the sexy screen sirens of today are. Eartha Kitt knew she was viewed as an extraordinary character: Orson Welles, no less, once dubbed her "the most exciting woman in the world." Yes, for a time she was, and for a long while yet, she will be remembered fondly for her rich repertoire on stage, screen and in nightclubs the world over. And oh, that voice!

Happy New Year, everyone, and thanks for sharing some moments with me every week in 2008; here's to a thoughtful and interesting 2009!

December 31st, 2008.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Tis the celebrate!

So here we are, the Saturday before Christmas, and I was busy...shovelling snow. Ah yes, a true Canadian winter, to be sure! I must admit I enjoy a white Christmas as much as the next person, but please, we have enough already! Oh well, it it helps to put people in the mood for the season that is very much upon us, all the better.

The wonderful thing about this Saturday for your humble scribe is I officially finished my Christmas shopping today. It was not without some drama, of course, as is almost always the case. But all things considered, being out in the fray this afternoon was not really all that bad. Thankfully, I was not under time constraints and most of the shopping was already done, so I didn't have the proverbial "deer in the headlights" look about me...well, no more than usual, let's say. I found most people to be in a reasonably good mood, despite the economic times we find ourselves in, and the store staff actually attentive and not too frazzled.

What I found most appalling today were the drivers. Patience and intelligence don't even take a back seat at this time of year: it is likely locked in the trunk of the car with the Christmas gifts! I really don't understand how people drive the rest of the year, given the haphazard examples I saw this afternoon. That being said, I arrived home in one piece and none the worse for wear, so I can't complain too much.

The next few days will be busy for me, as I keep on top of orders for my business, A Web of Fine Music, which is why I wanted the shopping done and out of the way before the final critical days for taking and processing orders before Christmas. I was worried going into this Christmas season, given the economic climate lately, but so far I have not seen a huge change from past seasons, which is good. I won't know the final numbers until the end of the month, of course, but my gut feeling at the moment is the season will be at least as good as last year, and for that I can't complain. Incidentally, I still have a good stock of Christmas music available to purchase. Just go to for a complete list of titles I am recommending on my Mike's Picks page, or if you don't see it there, send me an email at I can't guarantee Christmas delivery on special orders this close to Christmas, but I might have what you are looking for in stock or be able to get it reasonably quickly if we're lucky.

Beyond the shopping and such, do remember to take some time to give back to the community if you possibly can, and don't forget the less fortunate in our society. A donation to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold, for example, would be useful and very much appreciated. At the Superstore at 4th and Louth, for example, you can donate five dollars to the food bank right at the cash as you check out; it's that easy. Let's work together for a better Christmas for everyone!

Although pretty well all the Christmas concerts are done now, there is one coming up Tuesday evening I will be involved with, if you have some time in the evening. Laura Thomas and I have teamed up to present a Christmas concert at St. Catharines Place and The Heatherwood Retirement Homes, on Scott Street in St. Catharines this Tuesday evening at 7 pm. It will be about an hour, and although it is for the residents, everyone can attend. It promises to be an enjoyable evening of Christmas music, stories and fun hosted by yours truly. Hope to see you there!

In closing, this will be my final entry before Christmas, so let me take this time to wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas, and may all your dreams come true. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

December 20th, 2008.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Performing Arts Centre coming to downtown St. Catharines?

It has been quite a week, busily preparing for Christmas, while digesting the information that finally, wonders of wonders, our learned city fathers might actually be getting the ball rolling on building a new performing arts centre in downtown St. Catharines. Let's hope it's true!

There is a fair amount of skepticism out there, as we've heard some of this before, of course. The difference this time is the participation of Brock University and their desire to build a new school of fine and performing arts as part of the complex. If it were not for that, this idea would still be nothing but an idea. Another big contributing factor in all this is the recent announcement Marilyn Walker was contributing 15-million towards the school. This is a very generous donation from a family known in this area for more than their share of generous donations. The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts will be a fitting tribute to a most deserving family.

So, what does it all mean? Well, it means we are a lot closer than we've ever been, and likely within reach, even with these tough economic times we all now face. A major infrastructure project like this will often be viewed favourably by most levels of government, providing they are not footing the whole bill, of course. In this case, with a 15-million donation already and other sources of funding at the local level seemingly falling into place, you have to feel good about the project's chances for survival.

Make no mistake, it is still going to be an expensive project, as we saw last week when St. Catharines City Council unanimously approved the 101-million project. One-hundred, one million! That is major league redevelopment, my friend, and just what we need in the downtown core. The spinoffs from this project are enormous, providing of course everyone remains on the same page and each level of support remains in place.

Now, I am not going to be one of those who says this will be the saviour of our crumbling downtown in St. Catharines, any more than two-way traffic will be. It can certainly be a catalyst to change, but more needs to be done if we are to turn the downtown around. More residential housing is needed downtown, and of course, more businesses catering to the crowd the centre will bring downtown. That won't be easy, given the economic times we find ourselves in, but at a slow, careful pace, I think we can do it. Another factor that will hopefully come into play in all this is hope, and pride in our downtown. These intangibles will help tremendously in the process of moving forward with this project.

As a New Year beckons in less than two weeks time, let's all work together to make this happen. It is an exciting new chapter in the redevolpment of downtown St. Catharines that will ultimately serve the entire peninsula. Everyone in the region will benefit from this; indeed, far more than the proposed summer venue for the National Arts Centre and Toronto Symphony Orchestras in Niagara-on-the-Lake ever could. Like the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph, this has the potential to anchor the downtown as a destination for many groups both within and outside the arts communities.

Let's be careful, but diligent in proceeding on this. But let's be positive as well. Good things can come from working together to bring this dual venue to the downtown, so let's get started. The future awaits!

December 16th, 2008.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Christmas, buy local!

As the Christmas shopping season shifts into high gear for the next three weeks, I thought I would take a few moments to comment on something I have always believed in, and hope others will pay heed to: the need to shop and buy local.

As orders come in for my business, A Web of Fine Music (, I have heard two interesting comments this past week. One, a customer didn't want to order online, but would rather order from a local business. When I told her she could do both with my business, namely order either online or over the phone, she was at first a little skeptical and then pleased. I have not secured her order yet, but I am working on it. The second customer asked if I could obtain a particular recording for her which she found on, as she would rather deal with a local business. I thanked her for doing so and said I would do my best to get the disc she wanted; she then said she would get back to me. So far I have not heard from her. Hmmm, did she really want to buy locally, do you think?

Often, I find people simply pay lip service to the notion of buying locally; they say they would if they could find what they wanted or if the price were better or whatever. I've heard all the stories. The fact remains, we need to support local business if they are to survive. I had one person call and ask if the former store I was associated with for ten years, Downtown Fine Music, was still around. It closed five years ago, when I started A Web of Fine Music! Now, if that is the first time the person has noticed the store no longer exists, and they want music, where have they been buying their music these last five years? And why, as I often notice at this time of year, do people contact me in December and not the rest of the year, fully expecting me to be there year after year, waiting for their next order?

The music business is not a healthy business nowadays, with music stores almost entirely a thing of the past due to digital downloading and shopping online. But a bricks and mortar establishment can only survive if you patronize it. Using it as nothing more than an information source will not put cash in the till and pay the bills. Still, people have the right to shop where they wish; in that case they should not be surprised if a business fails in between their yearly purchases.

I always try to buy locally in every shopping trip I make, be it for food or hard consumer goods. It isn't always easy, but the search is almost always worth it. You may pay a little more if you shop locally, but consider the cost if you don't: your dollars go outside your community to benefit others in another country. Would it not be better to keep those dollars here, investing in your own community? This Christmas I have made a concerted effort to shop locally whenever possible and even keep the products locally made if at all possible. With food, for example, I have purchased local granola that is simply the best around, from Happyspoon Gourmet Granola produced right here in St. Catharines, and chocolate candy apples from Moyer's Apple Farm in Vineland. Just two examples of supporting the local economy while finding unique gifts you won't likely find in a mall.

It is always interesting and often fun to make these new discoveries; many times I have become good friends with the producers, and that is a wonderful feeling. You get a better sense of what you are buying, and you can see the benefits of what your purchases do first hand. So this year, whatever you are buying as Christmas gifts, try to shop locally. Even if the item is not locally made, even supporting an independent local merchant will help, thereby ensuring they will be there again the next time you come calling. And when you want music, your local sourse is A Web of Fine Music, and you can find our website at

Happy shopping!

December 6th, 2008.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

No shortage of holiday concerts coming up this season!

Well, it must be the Christmas season, as barely a day goes by that another musical event is not scheduled to help put in in the mood for the holidays. Last week, we looked at some of the recorded music; this week, a brief look at some of the musical events coming up, starting this weekend:

Let's start with tonight, November 29th, when a much-anticipated performance takes place at Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Catharines. "Duo Chori I" presents the Brock University Men's and Women's Choruses in sacred motets and secular partsongs by Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mendelssohn and others. Canadian composers featured include Sirett, Somers and Telfer. Tickets are $ 10 for adults, and available at the door.

Tomorrow, Sunday, the Niagara Symphony Masters II takes place up at Brock's Centre for the Arts at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at 2:30: Canadian conductor (Conductor Laureate, in fact), Uri Mayer conducts the symphony in the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, featuring Eric Hall from the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra as soloist; also the Mendelssohn First Symphony, Weber's Andante and Rondo Ungarese for bassoon, and Murray Adaskin's Diversion. It promises to be a special event, with the Niagara Symphony's birthday party following the performance in the lobby, and a huge selection of silent auction items ready for your bidding both at intermission and after the performance. Tickets are available through the Brock Centre for the Arts boxoffice, at (905) 688-5550, ext. 3257. Meantime, their annual Christmas celebration, Holiday Pops! takes place the weekend of December 13 and 14, and we'll have more on that in December.

Now, I want to take a moment and offer up an apology to Chorus Niagara, as they prepare for their biennial performances of Handel's Messiah, coming up on December 13 and 14. The Saturday evening performance is at Mountainview Christian Reformed Church in Grimsby; the Sunday afternoon performance is at Calvary Church in St. Catharines. In my monthly newsletter for November, I mentioned it would be a difficult decision, choosing between the Chorus Niagara and Niagara Symphony performances, both scheduled for that weekend. Of course there's no conflict: you can do one on Saturday and the other on Sunday. But I was thinking of the fact I couldn't be at both at the same time, which I would if I could, believe me. I hate missing a Messiah fix at Christmas. So to all members of Chorus Niagara: I apologize. I meant no harm by the comment, but hey, at least I know they're reading the newsletter! Anyway, tickets for both Messiah performances, and you should really catch both, are available through the Brock Centre for the Arts boxoffice. Closer still is the Chorus Niagara Children's Choir performance, Christmas Joy '08, coming up Saturday afternoon, December 6th at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines. Tickets for that performance are available by calling (905), 945-2049.

Other performances next month include Suing Niagara Women's A Capella Chorus Christmas Concert at Paroisse Immaculee Conception Church in St. Catharines on December 8, which is a Monday evening. Tickets are available by calling (905) 354-4745. And next weekend, December 6th and 7th, Choralis Camerata, led by Laura Thomas, will have their two Christmas concerts, featuring Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, Saturday night at St. George's Anglican Church in downtown St. Catharines and Sunday afternoon at St. Alexander Church in Fonthill. Tickets are available by contacting I hope to be at the Sunday afternoon performance in Fonthill, so look for me set up in the lobby with a selection of Christmas recordings for purchase. And down the road in Hamilton, the John Laing Singers have their annual Christmas concert on Saturday evening, December 6th at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. Featured will be Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, excerpts from Vaughan Williams' Hodie, and a world premiere Christmas Cantata by John Laing himself. Tickets are available by calling (905) 628-5238. And their Christmas CD, Merrily Sing We! is available through my website, Just go to the Mike's Picks page and you'll find it there.

That's it for this week; we'll have more holiday concerts on a later entry around mid-December. But don't forget, for a complete listing of all concerts coming up, check out the Calendar page on my website, at And lots of Christmas CDs for sale on the Mike's Picks page, too, with more coming in about a week.

Have a great Christmas season, and remember to take time to enjoy all it has to offer!

November 29th, 2008.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Are you ready for Christmas yet?

I was sitting there one day this week, and it hit me - Christmas was five weeks away! Where has the time gone? It seems like just yesterday I was out in shirtsleeves doing yardwork and now, everything is Christmas for the next several weeks. I guess I had better get a move on here.

Now, I usually look forward to Christmas and revel in the magic of the season and especially the music of the season. Last year, however, I just didn't find the Christmas spirit until almost the last minute. Perhaps it had to do with my Dad being in the hospital right through the holidays last year, and when I wasn't working I was at the hospital with him. Nothing like hospital food to turn you off the holidays, right? So this year, I want to get into the spirit of the season early, and I have already started listening to Christmas music to try and make that happen. I have also been to several Christmas Bazaars this season already, with another at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in about an hour after I finish in the office. There is something about those smiling faces behind the table pushing everything from yesterday's appliances and magazines to some amazing gift baskets and baked goods to help spur you to start enjoying the season. I often don't buy too much; just the feeling of being around kind souls with warm smiles is enough to do it.

As for the music, I have already found a favourite this year, and it is a new one: the latest in the Naxos Leroy Anderson series, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1908. The new one is titled, not surpisingly, "Sleigh Ride and other Holiday Favourites". This all-orchestral collection featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin conducting sounds terrific, and includes some very familiar Christmas music, as well as some non-seasonal pieces by Anderson that still sound great. The Christmas Festival medley, still performed by school bands the world over, sounds fresh and sparkling here; even Sleigh Ride sounds pretty spirited. But I also love Anderson's Suite of Carols for String Orchestra, which he produced in 1955. If it has been awhile since you have enjoyed some of Anderson's great seasonal music, this disc is a must have. It is getting great reviews in the press, and is bargain priced at $ 12.00 plus tax on my website, Just go to the Mike's Picks page and you'll find it there. I plan to add more Christmas titles this weekend to the page, including the classic Dean Martin Christmas disc featuring A Marshmallow World, finally back in print again. Next month the picks will be all Christmas, of course, including one I am looking forward to hearing when it comes in this week: A Buckingham Palace Christmas. This choral disc looks quite interesting, and I'll have more to say on it once it arrives and I have a chance to listen to it.

I also delve into my extensive collection of Christmas CDs for discs that are unfortunately long out of print, but still sound great: The Philadelphia Orchestra with the Temple University Concert Choir is still one of my favourites. It came out on Columbia in the early 60's with a lovely gatefold album jacket with extensive liner notes and some of the best arrangements (by Arthur Harris) I have ever heard. I found it on CD a number of years ago, but now it appears to be history. What a shame! A fun disc I found at Lee Valley in Burlington a couple of weeks ago still brings a smile to my face: A Toolbox Christmas. Yes, all your Christmas favourites played on actual tools, like the electric drill, saw and other generally unmusical tools. Don't laugh - it actually sounds good! Glad I picked it up when I was down there.

Next week, we'll look at some of the live performances coming up to get you out of the house and amongst friends for live music at Christmas. For now, if you have a favourite Christmas disc you remember but have not been able to find, let me know and I will see if it is available and I might even be able to get it in time for Christmas. Just email me at And don't forget, my website for A Web of Fine Music ( has extensive listings for events coming up this month and next in the area and beyond, and lots of tempting musical treasures on the Mike's Picks page.

Enjoy the holidays, and may music be a big part of it!

November 22nd, 2008.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A gift that will keep on giving...

Since I last wrote in late October (sorry about that, but life got in the way...) a wonderful new development has given hope to those of us who still hold on to the hope a new performing arts centre might indeed someday come to downtown St. Catharines. This new development comes by way of a very generous pledge of $ 15-million late last month from philanthropist Marilyn Walker. This is the same family that made the Walker Family YMCA a reality several years ago in St. Catharines, among numerous other projects that only better our way of life here in Niagara.

This endowment - the largest donation Brock University has ever received - will help build the foundation, if you will, for a much-anticipated school of fine and performing arts for Brock, which has indicated it wants the new facility in the downtown core. This should stimulate interest and plans for an accompanying performing arts centre, also in the downtown core. How long this process may take is anyone's guess, but lets face it, after the numerous delays and false starts to get the ball rolling over the years, this is the first concrete step towards making the dream a reality. Let's put pressure on our civic leaders to get the lead out and get moving while we have the momentum! I have talked to St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullen and he appears to be giving more than mere lip service to the project, and might actually be the one to put the shovel into the ground to start construction, if everything plays out as it should. Now, wouldn't that be a nice change from all the civic politicians who say they want to revitalize downtown, but have no clue how to go about it. This mayor and council at least seems prepared to do the grunt work involved in making the dream a reality.

If you still harbour doubts a performance space in the downtown core can help to revitalize the area, one need only travel a little north to Guelph, where a spanking new state-of-the-art facility opened in October of 1997, right in the heart of downtown, and their core continues to thrive. True, the downtown was always strong there even beforehand, but the performance space gave another reason to come downtown, and people do on a very regular basis. This was achieved by all three levels of government working together, as could be the case here. I was there at the opening in Guelph of the River Run Centre 11 years ago, and I still remember the optimism people felt on that first day. That optimism is still there; there's no reason we cannot duplicate it here.

The likely location has to be the old Canada Haircloth building fronting the lower-level parking lot, which I understand the city has been working towards expropriating for just such a purpose. Look at the advantages of the location: ample parking in the lower-level lot; easy access and great visibility from the nearby 406 highway, and a location right in the heart of downtown on the main street. Add to that the close proximity of the highly-regarded James Street shopping district and a wealth of excellent restaurants already within a short walk of the location, and everything is there. All we need to do is water this seed and make it grow!

I don't think anyone will complain if we invest in our future by way of a proper performing arts space tied to Brock University; after all, the much talked about Seymour-Hannah Sports Complex just west of the downtown was also an investment in another sector of our community. In spite of some initial grumblings about the cost of the facility, I think everyone will agree the extra rink space is a boon to the city and has helped to bring in events we might not otherwise be able to host in St. Catharines. The new performing arts centre can do no less for the downtown.

So that brings us back to the $ 15-million endowment made last month by Marilyn Walker. What a grand gesture by a wonderful lady who believes in our city! Let's start believing in it, too. Can a Marilyn Walker Performing Arts Centre bring new life to our much-maligned city centre? You bet it can, and we had better not waste time making it a reality. Let's all work together on this and before you know it, Guelph won't be the only mid-size Ontario city able to point to it's city centre as a model for others to follow.

November 15th, 2008.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Autumn is here and there's music in the air!

One thing about October in Niagara: there is no shortage of musical events to keep you indoors and occupied on those cool autumn evenings. But we also get a chance every now and again to be outdoors for a musical event, even in October. Such was the case last Friday evening as The St. Catharines & Area Arts Council held their annual James Street Night of Art in downtown St. Catharines. The event was well attended again this year, and the weather even co-operated as well! The free event is held on the street itself, between King and St. Paul Streets, which is blocked off to vehicular traffic for the event from 7 to 9 pm. Performers also use many of the stores and cafes along both sides of the street for intimate performances throughout the evening.

While I was there, the tabla duo performing at The Fine Grind Cafe was especially interesting, as was the young lady painting inside the window of Gifted Presence. There was something for everyone, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the evening. I would like to see this repeated in the spring as well, so it becomes a twice-yearly event, but only time will tell.

Tomorrow night, October 22nd, a Gala Organ Concert takes place at St. Thomas' Church on Ontario Street in downtown St. Catharines featuring the organist and choir director of Westminster Cathedral in London, England, James O'Donnell. He'll be performing music by J.S. Bach, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Messiaen, Mendelssohn, Couperin, and Louis Vierne. It promises to be a wonderful concert, and I know there are lots of organ lovers in the city and region who will want to attend. If you want tickets, they are $ 20.00 in advance and $ 25.00 at the door; the concert begins at 7:30. Advance tickets are available at Henderson's Pharmacy in Thorold, and at the church office at 99 Ontario Street. The church is wheelchair accessible, by the way; I would suggest you get there early since there will be no assigned seating. By the way, I will be there with a good selection of cds featuring O'Donnell as organist and conductor of the Westminister Cathedral Choir, so be sure to visit my table and say hello. A Web of Fine Music is a proud supporter of the arts in St. Catharines!

Last but by no means least, the first Pops concert of the Niagara Symphony's new season gets underway this weekend at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre of Brock University. The symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Gregory Burton, will present a tribute to Arthur Fiedler, the long-time conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. Featured soloist is clarinetist Zoltan Kalman. The program will be a typical Boston Pops type of concert, with Broadway and show tunes, movie music, and of course The Stars and Stripes Forever. Oh, and let's not forget Leroy Anderson's Chicken Reel! It promises to be a fun concert, and there are two performances this weekend: Saturday night at 8 pm and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 pm. Tickets are still available through the Brock Centre for the Arts Box Office, by calling (905) 688-5550, ext. 3257. Oh, and I will be there as well, with my customary table set up in the lobby before, after and during intermission of both concerts. If you are a subscriber to the new Fine Music Newsletter from A Web of Fine Music, don't forget to email your answer to this month's trivia question to be eligible to win a pair of tickets to the Saturday evening performance. If you have not received the newsletter yet, you're welcome to subscribe by just sending your request with name and email address to Please title the request Newsletter Subscription Request.

That's just one week's worth of events this fall in Niagara. We'll keep you updated on all the events coming up on the Arts Calendar page on the A Web of Fine Music website, at And if you have an event coming up you'd like publicized, please send me the information at least two weeks in advance at

That's it for this week; see you Wednesday night and this weekend for some wonderful music making in Niagara!

October 21st, 2008.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Last spin at the Stratford Festival this season!

Well here we are, midway through the month of October, and I still have shows to write about at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season. I didn't get to all the shows this year; time constraints prevented me from attending the Studio Theatre productions this year, but all of the mainstage productions I attended over the course of the season. My final two reviews close out the Stratford Experience for this season...

Romeo and Juliet (Festival Theatre to November 8) ***
This is a stylish and interesting interpretation of Shakespeare's classic story by Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff, although it is a little unnerving at first. I say that if, like me, you are not a fan of modern dress Shakespeare. But wait, as what at first appears to be Romeo and Juliet meets The Sopranos, with slick street clothes and knives and pistols brandished on stage by good-looking young punks, is quickly transformed in the first act into period dress for what you might call the "meat" of the play. As the final scene in Juliet's crypt unfolds, we find the main characters again donning modern dress; as I say, it is all a little unnerving until you realize what McAnuff is doing here: driving home the theme of timelessness of the story. The hatred, bigotry and sensless violence knows no bounds or time period, and here, in modern dress the characters actually look like some people we might know from the evening news.

The cast is very strong here, with Gareth Potter as a bit of a cutie as Romeo; Gordon S. Miller as Benvolio; Lucy Peacock a standout in another smaller role as Juliet's nurse; and Evan Buliung as a mercurial Mercutio. But dominating over all is Peter Donaldson as Friar Laurence; a role usually relegated to the background takes centre-stage here with Donaldson's commanding stage presence. The only weak link I found was Nikki M. James as Juliet who was, well, rather weak I thought. I still remember Seana McKenna's wonderful Juliet of a few seasons back; in spite of the fact she has not seen 16 years of age for ages, McKenna made you forget that fact in her portrayal. Still, James grows into the role as the play proceeds and she does display a fair amount of sweetness and innocence needed to pull off the role of Juliet. So, is this the best Romeo and Juliet I've seen? No, no it isn't. But it is a darn fine production, and a very thoughtful interpretation.

Caesar and Cleopatra (Festival Theatre to November 8) ****
I've really left the best one for last this season, both for attending and reviewing. This is the George Bernard Shaw interpretation of the story, and it seems rather odd watching a Shaw play at the Stratford Festival! That being said, this is one spectacular show, with jaw-dropping costumes and minimal yet impressive sets. At intermission, you can't help but marvel at how quickly the first act sped by, due in no small part to the number of laughs offered in the first act. The second act is less humourous, of course, but still possessing wonderful comic moments. It takes a skilled cast and director to pull all this off, and here, director Des McAnuff is driving a Rolls Royce cast led by Christopher Plummer as Caesar. He is funny almost to a fault; a genial, elderly looking Caesar who is still agile on his feet and possessing a kind heart. He is paired with Nikki M. James as Cleopatra, and as was the case with Romeo and Juliet, she appears a little shrill at first before growing into the role as the play progresses. Other cast members worthy of mention are Steven Sutcliffe as Britannus, Caesar's secretary, and Gordon S. Miller as a surprisingly strong Apollodorus, an artist. Some of the best moments on stage come when Plummer shares the stage with Peter Donaldson as Rufio, Caesar's chief officer. The two of them together - what a team! Honourable mentions go to Brian Tree as the Blind Musician and Diane D'Aquila as a campy Ftatateeta, nurse to Cleopatra. If you can find the time between now and November 8th to make it to Stratford, beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket to this show, as you never know when the opportunity to see Plummer live onstage will come again. It's a gem of a show!

October 15th, 2008.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More late-season offerings at the Stratford Festival

With October now upon us, it won't be long before our two major theatre festivals close up shop for another season; both Shaw and Stratford continue until early November, although Shaw has extended the run of at least one of its plays until mid-November. I still have a few shows to look at down the road at the Stratford Festival, so this week and next, let's see what is worth the trip to Stratford this month.

The Taming of the Shrew (Festival Theatre to October 25) ***
Shakespeare's oft-misunderstood comedy receives a very interesting interpretation here by director Peter Hinton. Hinton, who also wrote and directed Shakespeare's Universe at the outdoor theatre this season, has a passion for period Shakespeare, and this production bears that out. At a theatre that has given us countless modern versions of this classic, from Richard Monette's celebrated 50s Italian-American take on it about 20 years ago to the wild, wild west version of a few seasons back, this is about as traditional a production as you'll find anywhere. That being said, there is still plenty to recommend this production, beginning with the prologue which essentially places the story as a play within a play; the actual Taming of the Shrew is all a dream...or is it? The sets are spare but effective; the period costumes make this a 'truer Shrew' than we've grown accustomed to seeing. The casting throws us some surprises, too: while you expect to see Lucy Peacock in the lead role of Katherina, perhaps, here she takes the smaller role of tavern wench Grumio, which she plays to wonderful comic effect. I don't know if this is Hinton's decision or hers to simply take smaller roles this season, but the change takes some getting used to. In that central role is Irene Poole who plays the role with a great deal of strength and stage presence. One interesting aspect to her characterization is she plays the role with a limp; such is Hinton's attention to detail, one line in the play referring to Katherina's limp transforms her into a strong yet at the same time more vulnerable appearing Katherina. Again, it takes some getting used to. Other strong performances in the cast include Evan Buliung as a charismatic Tranio; Juan Chioran as Gremio and Stephen Ouimette as a crowd-pleasing Baptista Minola. Overall, this is a very satisfying Shrew, and one more in keeping with Shakespeare's original vision of the play, I suspect.

The Music Man (Avon Theatre to November 1) ****
Who doesn't enjoy seeing Meredith Willson's wonderful musical The Music Man? Even if you have witnessed more than one questionable school productions in the past, treat yourself to this absolute gem of a production. It really is a spectacular show, although not in the showy sense of last year's My One and Only or Anything Goes of a few seasons back. It's very colourful, even though the sets are largely neutral in tone, and everything works in perfect harmony. In the lead role of Harold Hill, director Susan H. Schulman has cast Jonathan Goad. At first I thought it was an odd choice, given his straight acting roles in the past; but here, Goad rises to the challenge and shows remarkable stage presence and musical abilities we have not often seen before. He is joined by equally strong cast members such as Fiona Reid as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn; Michelle Fisk as Mrs. Paroo, and an enchanting Leah Oster as Hill's eventual love interest, Marian Paroo, of Marion the Librarian fame. Berthold Carriere conducts a spirited orchestra from the pit, and keeps things moving at a very good pace. All in all, this is one musical you will not regret seeing; it will certainly leave you humming a few familiar tunes on the way out of the theatre.

October 9th, 2008.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A New Season begins Sunday for the Niagara Symphony

This Sunday, October 5th, the 61st season begins with the Niagara Symphony at Brock Centre for the Arts. It will be a celebration of music and optimism for the new season underway; it will also be the beginning of a new era for the Symphony - without longtime music director Daniel Swift. Swift made, well, a swift exit from the Symphony last month to take a job elsewhere, and it is now reported he is returning to the Canada Council as an officer responsible for orchestras and opera companies in the Music Office at the Canada Council for the Arts. Daniel left the Canada Council to take the post as music director with the Niagara Symphony in 1999. He will be missed, obviously, and now the long process of choosing his successor begins.

That will mean guest conductors this season, auditioning new candidates next season, and hopefully a new music director chosen to begin the 2010 season, which will by my calculations be the 63rd season for the Niagara Symphony. It is never easy choosing the successor to any conductor; choosing one to replace one as accomplished and popular as Swift will be especially difficult. Add to that the fact the Symphony is already without a permanent executive director, and you have what appears to be a cultural entity floating in limbo for an entire season.

That, fortunately, is not the case. The Symphony is fortunate to have secured on a part-time basis Candice Turner-Smith as acting Executive Director, and she has provided a sure hand to guide the orchestra through troubled waters since last season's hasty exit of Denise Stone, who had the post for less than a year. The orchestra is doubly fortunate to have Associate Conductor Laura Thomas to jump into the musical fray to conduct the season opener this Sunday. Laura is a most accomplished musician on many fronts, with conducting being but one of them. I am confident Laura will conduct Sunday's concert with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

So here we are, three paragraphs in and I still have not talked about the music or even the soloist for the concert, and that is unfortunate as the concert promises to be a great start to the season, even without Daniel Swift at the helm. The very large Symphony No. 5 in D Major by Ralph Vaughan Williams is the major work on the program, and that promises to be a significant workout for the musicians. Add to that the beautifully melancholic Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 by Sir Edward Elgar with young Canadian cellist Denise Djokic as featured soloist, and the concert looks doubly interesting. The final work on the program is the rarely-heard but still well-known (courtesy the late, lamented CBC Radio 2 of yore) Overture to an Unwritten Comedy by Healey Willan, and you have a full afternoon of romantic, large-scale orchestral music to challenge both the musicians and audience. It promises to be an adventure for all concerned.

If you don't have your tickets yet, there is still time. And if you have thought of subscribing for the entire season, all the better. Why not see what develops this season with the variety of guest conductors soon to be lined up? And if I may shamelessly promote my business, A Web of Fine Music, I will be in the lobby again this season with my music for sale before, at intermission, and after each concert this season.

It may be the end of summer and the start of October; it is also the start of a new musical adventure. Let's share the musical journey together!

October 3rd, 2008.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More Stratford Festival Reviews

Before the end of September, let's take a look at three more of the shows currently onstage at the Stratford Festival. We'll complete the list for the season in early October.

Love's Labour's Lost (Tom Patterson Theatre to October 4) ***
I can't count the number of times I've seen a production of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, usually performed by the Young Company at Stratford, and in most cases they are pretty good. I remember one production, mind you, that still gives me nightmares it was so bad, so many years ago...

This new production, however, is one of the better ones you'll see. Michael Langham is listed as the director, but I hear the late Richard Monette had to step in to complete the directorial duties during the planning stages for this production, although no credit appears in the program to this effect. This is always a Young Company staple, as the young actors have appropriate parts alongside some chosen veterans. Although some of the young members flubbed a few lines at the performance I attended, I found the Young Company to be particularly strong this year. The senior members are anchored by Peter Donaldson as Don Adriano de Armado, and he is a joy to watch here. Another standout is newcomer John Vickery as the schoolmaster, Holofernes. He is proving to be a real find this season, if his comic abilities are anything to go by. Overall, this show will not disappoint, even though most of us have seen it at least once or twice before.

Hamlet (Festival Theatre to October 26) ****
Yes, Hamlet is back at Stratford, and what an inspirational Hamlet this production is! It is one of the must-see productions at Stratford this year. The sets and costumes are from the Edwardian era, which at first glance might seem a bit odd, but everything is very clean and sleek, and I found I didn't mind the more modern setting as much as I usually do. The dramatic effects, I found, highlight the action rather than get in the way of them.

We are blessed with a very strong cast here, and they all perform beautifully. Not since 1986's production on the Avon stage with Brent Carver in the title role have I seen such a dynamic portrayal of Hamlet. After years of seeing Ben Carlson at the Shaw Festival, I frankly didn't think he had it in him, but he is great here; he appears scheming yet with an innocence that's quite disarming. Support is offered by James Blendick as The Ghost of Old Hamlet, his father; Scott Wentworth as nasty as ever as his uncle Claudius, and Juan Chioran in a relatively small but effective part as Osric. And I was especially pleased to see Maria Ricossa back again as Hamlet's mother Gertrude. All in all, a very satisfying production directed by Adrian Noble. If you see just one of Shakespeare's offerings this season, make it this one. You won't be disappointed!

Cabaret (Avon Theatre to October 25) ****
The Stratford Festival last staged Cabaret on the Festival Stage in 1987 with Brent Carver as the Emcee and I thought that production was a benchmark production at the time. This new production is just as good, although things do tend to get a bit crowded on the smaller Avon stage at times. I found the first act to be especially long, and then the second act just flies by. The other notable thing about the production is yes, there is a slight bit of nudity in the first act, which apparently has caused some to leave the theatre at intermission in disgust. Let's just say Bruce Dow as the Emcee proves to be a cheeky fellow here...but really, you can't do a show like Cabaret without a bit of flesh showing through, can you?

Director Amanda Dehnert works with a strong cast here, led of course, by Bruce Dow as the sinister Emcee. Others in the cast include Sean Arbuckle as Clifford Bradshaw and Cory Obrien as Ernst Ludwig, who works for the SS and is proud of it. Special mention goes to Nora McClellan as a particularly effective Fraulein Schneider and her suitor, Frank Moore as Herr Schultz. And what can you say about Trish Lindstrom as Sally Bowles? Some might wish for the return of Cynthia Dale to the Stratford musicals, but Lindstrom possesses a fabulous voice and a great stage presence. If you have only seen the movie version of Cabaret, this stage production, like the original from 1966, will prove to be very different. That being said, it will stay with you for years to come. Go see it!

September 25th, 2008.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Great Theatre to be had in Stratford, Ontario this summer

I spent last weekend driving through rain to and from Stratford, for my last visit of the season. Although the weather was lousy, the theatre definitely was not. I made three trips to Stratford this season, and since many of the shows continue until November, there is still lots of time to catch some great theatre up that way. Here are three of the shows I've enjoyed this season:

Shakespeare's Universe (Her Infinite Variety) - Festival Pavilion to September 28 ***
This is the new outdoor venue just across from the famous Festival Theatre. As it is not covered, you have to choose your dates carefully, as rain could delay or even cancel the performance, and hot sun makes it important you choose your bleacher seat wisely. That information out of the way, you will be treated to a 90-minute dissertation on Shakespeare and his contemporaries and their collective importance in this day and age. The show is written and directed by Peter Hinton, who also directs this season's marvellous Taming of the Shrew on the Festival stage. The show is interesting, lively and quite educational, all of which is typical of Hinton. Performers of note include Peggy Coffey, Karen Robinson and Michael Spencer-Davis. If you have an afternoon performance planned at the Festival Theatre, this 11:30 show just outside might be a nice addition to the day's activities.

Fuente Ovejuna, by Lope de Vega - Tom Patterson Theatre to October 4 ***
Fuente Ovejuna, in a new English version by Director Laurence Boswell, is one of those rare discoveries at the Festival that happens with great regularity. A play you likely have never seen nor even heard of before, and you leave the theatre wondering why that was the case. This is the story of a group of Spanish peasants ruled by a brutal overlord; they eventually decide enough is enough, and they retaliate. The results are pretty graphic in the second act, as they parade around the stage with the overlord's severed head on the end of a stick, but before that point the play keeps the unnecessary violence and brutality in check. As the overloard, Commander Fernan Gomez de Guzman, Scott Wentworth is at his nasty, snarly best here, trying to have his way with every winsome peasant girl who catches his fancy, which is pretty much all of them. The rest of the cast is equally solid, with James Blendick as Esteban and
Robert Persichini as Mengo being particular standouts. The set design is very simple, but everything you need to tell the story is here; the costumes add a lot of colour to the show at times. This is a pleasant gem of a performance this season!

The Trojan Women, by Euripides - Tom Patterson Theatre to October 5 ***
Back in July, I spent the better part of a week doing what I call the heavy lifting at this season's Festival, attending many of the Shakespeare plays that week. As a change of pace, I threw in a Greek tragedy, and although it was pretty depressing to watch the relentless march to the ultimate burning of Troy in the end, The Trojan Women is 90 minutes of tension without so much as an intermission break. The new translation by Nicholas Rudall makes the play easily accessible to most everyone, and the strong cast is a joy to watch. Martha Henry carries the play on her shoulders, of course, in the role of Hecuba, wife of the King of Troy. She is ably supported by the likes of Kelli Fox as their daughter Cassandra, and Nora McLellan in a relatively small role as Athena, patron goddess of Athens, daughter of Zeus. Most of the play is done in modern dress, and frankly, for me it doesn't really work. It isn't blatantly so, but it just doesn't fit right, for some reason. Other than that, I think it will be a good addition to your Stratford visit, providing you don't make it your only performance this season.

September 17th, 2008.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Changes coming this month to A Web of Fine Music

I have been concentrating on my summer theatre reviews the last few weeks, and I still have my Stratford reviews to get to; however, I wanted to take some time this week and update you on news regarding my website, A Web of Fine Music, which you can find at

For five years now, A Web of Fine Music has been your online source for classical, jazz, popular, nostalgia and just about any other hard-to-find music title you can imagine. Over that time, there have been few changes to the look and style of our website.

This September, I have decided to make some changes to hopefully make the site more relevant to your wants and needs, and to better serve you, our valued customers. Within the coming days, you will find the website has been expanded and changed somewhat. The Arts Calendar page will now be expanded and updated on a weekly basis to better reflect the multitude of events happening in the community. I encourage you, if you know of an event coming up in your area you feel should be included, please forward the information to me at, titled Arts Calendar Listings.

The Mike's Picks page will be expanded and divided up into several musical categories, and this, too, will be updated on a much more regular basis. Here you will find new releases, tried-and-true favourites and recordings relevant to upcoming performances by Chorus Niagara, Niagara Symphony, Choralis Camerata and Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

In addition, next week we launch A Web of Fine Music Newsletter, a monthly compendium of musical information and available recordings coming right to your Inbox! Here, we'll list upcoming concerts and events, other musical information you might find interesting, and a condensed version of this month's Mike's Picks. Plus, each month there will be a musical trivia question you'll be invited to answer and be eligible to win tickets to an upcoming Niagara Symphony performance! If you have not received an email announcing the newsletter launch I sent out earlier this week, you can add yourself to the mailing list by sending your name and email address to Mailing List, at

I hope A Web of Fine Music will continue to be your online source for music and information in Niagara. If you have not visited the site recently, I encourage you to do so, and see the changes for yourself. A Web of Fine Music will continue to offer high-quality at fair prices and personal service the big box stores just can't match.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

September 11th, 2008.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Final two shows at Shaw Festival round out the season

All good things must come to an end, they say, and for me, unfortunately that also includes the end of another Shaw Festival season. They will keep performing until early November, of course, but as of last weekend I had attended all eleven productions on this season's playbill. Overall, it has been a strong, solid theatre season at Shaw. So, here's the final two reviews for Shaw in 2008...

Belle Moral (Court House Theatre to October 5th) ***
This play by Ann-Marie MacDonald was first mounted at the Shaw Festival in 2005; so it is rather odd they would program it again so soon, especially given the fact it is not all that well known. Having said that, even with many of the original cast members back, the production has aged rather well and seems a little more satisfying than the first time out. The new cast members add a new dimension to the production, and that also makes it a worthwhile visit this season. That fact appears to be missed by the lack of patrons at the performance I attended on a recent Saturday evening: the theatre was barely half-full, and the Court House Theatre is very small. Anyway, those of us who have or will go, will largely enjoy the visit. I found the first act to be hard to get into, largely due to the thick Scottish brogues you can almost cut with a knife. The second act, however, is much better and brings the storyline more into focus for a lot of people. Director Alisa Palmer has done a nice job the second time around capturing the loneliness of the Scottish estate that bears the title of the play; the actors themselves rise to the occasion with generally solid performances. Standouts include Martin Happer as The Jackal and Wee Farleigh; Donna Belleville as Flora MacIsaac and Jeff Meadows as the slightly mad Victor MacIsaac. Most especially, Fiona Byrne is very good as strong willed Pearl MacIsaac, who refuses the hand of Dr. Seamus Reid in marriage and accepts the will of her father that she would inherit the estate providing she does not bear a child. Peter Hutt as Dr. Reid is good, but I wondered if he was really right for the role. Overall, it is a good production, but I would give it an advised three stars; don't make this your only show at Shaw this season.

Follies: In Concert (Festival Theatre to October 4th) ***
Ah, the pleasures of Stephen Sondheim! We are enriched with two Sondheim musicals at Shaw this season: earlier I wrote of A Little Night Music, which is packing them in at the Court House Theatre this season. At the much larger Festival Theatre, meantime, you only have three more chances to catch Follies: In Concert; there are only four performances scheduled for the season, and last Friday was the first of them. The full-scale musical Follies opened on Broadway in 1971, with almost fifty performers in the cast. It ran for over 5oo performances, but has not been restaged since. In 1985, Herbert Ross directed the scaled back In Concert version we see here: it is still large by today's standards, utilizing pretty much every musically-inclined actor in the Shaw Festival ensemble. Some have larger roles, and others have relatively small roles, given their stature within the company. Yet, everyone makes the most of their time on stage and there are several standout performances to savour. Of special interest are small parts with big numbers: Goldie Semple as Carlotta singing I'm Still Here and Gabrielle Jones as Hattie singing Broadway Baby both manage to bring the house down. The four main protagonists are two couples with a linked past, as they have wandered from the marriage vows they took years ago and here remember both the good times and the bad. Melanie Janzen as Phyllis and George Masswohl as Ben eventually reunite at the end, as do Jay Turvey as Buddy and Glynis Ranney as Sally. But the winding route that brings them to that conclusion is what makes up much of the plot line here. Essentially, a reunion of performers from the past brings out affection in many and opens up old wounds in others. The full band on stage is great to see and hear, and they perform without an intermission for almost two hours. There are only three performances left for this season and after that who knows when we'll get another chance to savour this rare vintage Sondheim. If you have the time, take this one in. You won't regret it.

September 3rd, 2008.

Monday, August 25, 2008

More Openings at the Shaw Festival this Season!

We're getting down to the final few shows at this year's Shaw Festival: I'll have two for you this week and two more next week, and then we'll be done for the season. Then, off to Stratford for some of their great offerings this season. But now, as they say, "On with the show..."

The President (Royal George Theatre to October 4th) ****
This hilarious adaptation by Morwyn Brebner of Ferenc Molnar's one act masterpiece is not to be missed. It runs at a breakneck pace for just over an hour, and you come out wondering how the actors get through it, as you're exhausted just watching it! This absolutely madcap romp stars Lorne Kennedy as a fast-talking, fast thinking president of a major corporation in New York City, just preparing for a well-earned vacation. He wants nothing, repeat nothing, to interrupt him while he's away. But alas, the best-laid plans as always go awry. Here, Kennedy is faced with the awful prospect of disgrace when he discovers the sweet young ward he has been looking after has made some unwise decisions on her own. In particular, she has found a boyfriend and is with child; to make matters worse, her parents are coming to visit - in an hour. So, talking faster than anyone in the audience can possibly believe, Kennedy swings into action to transform the pair into a respectable, well-to-do couple before the parents arrive. The hour takes many twists and turns, but Kennedy guides the ship through comedic waters to a triumphant conclusion. He's aided by expert support in the form of David Schurmann as his assistant Bartleby, Chilina Kennedy as the Marilyn Monroe look-alike ward, and Jeff Meadows as her bum of a boyfriend. They are surrounded by a magnificent art-deco set designed by Cameron Porteous, and the whole thing is directed by Blair Williams. If you have an afternoon show planned at Shaw, make the time to catch this one at 11:30 am at the Royal George. You won't be disappointed!

After The Dance (Royal George Theatre to October 5th) ***
This is Terence Rattigan's bittersweet look at two generations: the so-called Bright Young People who put the "roar" into the roaring twenties by partying and drinking much of the time, and the more sedate and practical generation that followed. The play dates from 1937-38, during the Second World War, when Rattigan himself had left his youthful pacifism behind and was a Flight Lieutenant. As director Christopher Newton writes in his notes, the people in this play have a very tenuous grasp on their political world; they are trapped in a social box and they refuse to acknowledge the approaching catastrophe of war. Of course, affairs of the heart figure prominently during any generation, and that is indeed the case here as well. They are no less complicated in After The Dance than at any other time, it seems. Overall, the play is beautifully staged at the tiny Royal George Theatre; it's very elegant, typical of Christopher Newton. But it does drag a little towards the end, I found. Good, solid work from the ensemble includes Neil Barclay as fun-loving (most of the time) John Reid, Claire Jullien filling in for Lisa Horner as Julia Browne, and Patrick Galligan being typically Patrick as David Scott-Fowler, who is being temped away from his wife by a younger woman. This is a charming, lovingly produced play, and proves to be another winner for Shaw this season.

August 25th, 2008.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

More Shaw Offerings Worth Seeing this Season

With August quickly moving along, we had better get back to the Shaw Festival and some of the great theatre they are offering this season. As always, my ratings are up to four stars...

The Stepmother (Court House Theatre to October 4th) ****
This play by Githa Sowerby is a real gem; amazingly it has only been produced once before this Shaw production this season. The first was at the New Theatre in London in 1924 by a private theatre club. What have we missed all these years! The play is set in middle-class London, with the title character, Lois Relph, an in-demand dress designer, running her own very successful business. Her husband, Eustance Gaydon, is a snake: he has wasted away the family fortune and, while their daughter is planning to be married, he manages to lose his wife's business fortune as well. So while Lois is a successful, independent businesswoman, unusual for the time, her husband is a complete loser; what we see here is the greed of one man ruining a respectable family unit. Blair Williams plays Eustace to perfection; Claire Jullien puts in a great performance as a very dignified Louis. The daughter, Monica, is played by Marla McLean and she does a very nice job. The other significant character in this play, one who has had a past with Lois, is Peter Holland, played by Patrick Galligan. Galligan is chivalrous as always, attempting to rescue another damsel in distress. Although The Stepmother is from the 1920's, it does not appear the least bit dated, and is another rare gem at this year's Shaw Festival.

An Inspector Calls (Festival Theatre to November 2nd) ***
J.B. Priestly, a contemporary of Shaw, has had a number of plays presented at the Shaw Festival over the years, and this large-scale production on the Festival stage continues the tradition. It is directed by Jim Mezon, who stepped in as director when Neil Munro was unable to continue. Mezon marshalls a strong cast in an interesting play with very understated performances. What is really fascinating is the moving stage design; it moves so imperceptively you almost don't even notice it. An Inspector Calls is about the death of a young woman, but not in the tradition of the classic whodunnit. Here, the Birling family, led by Peter Hutt as Arthur Birling, are questioned by a supposed police inspector about the death; if the saying "I am my brother's keeper" is true, this family isn't aware of it. Each denies any responsibility for the death, even though it is clear they could have helped the situation. Towards the end of the second act, the interesting turn of events will certainly leave you scratching your head: was it all real or imagined? In addition to Hutt, Mary Haney has a good turn as the wife, Sybil Birling, and Moya O'Conneli and Andrew Bunker as their two children. The real pleasure is watching Benedict Campbell as the cool and determined Inspector Goole. Quite a thought-provoking play by Priestly dating from 1944-45; definitely worth a look at Shaw this season.

A Little Night Music (Court House Theatre to October 4th) ****
As musicals go, A Little Night Music is very unmusical, if you base it on number of recognizeable songs in the score - there is only one, of course: Send In The Clowns, and that doesn't appear until the second act. But don't let that fact deter you from catching a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience in a very intimate setting. Sondheim's very dense musical writing is very clever and witty, and the cast is up to the task. They are aided in this small space by a chamber-sized orchestra that suits the venue perfectly. The cast includes Goldie Semple as the big star Desireee Armfeldt and George Masswohl as her onetime lover Fredrik Egerman. They come together again to rekindle the flames of passion in spite of the fact ol' Fredrik has a young girl as his bride now. She, however, discovers her stepson is totally infatuated with her! Ah yes, sex and morals, was it ever thus? In spite of the fact this musical is 35 years old now, it does not appear dated in the least. Good performances directed by Morris Panych make for a richly rewarding evening. Who would have thought: two lesser-performed musicals at Shaw this year and both are winners!

August 16th, 2008.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of Music Niagara!

It's hard to believe it has been ten years since the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival began in Niagara-on-the-Lake, founded by Artistic Director Atis Bankas. But here it is again, entertaining audiences from all over Niagara through to August 16th. What is also hard to believe is the fact this is my first year attending the festival!

I received an invitation from Barbara Worthy, one of the organizers of the annual music festival, to attend a performance of my choice and see what all the excitement was about. I took her up on her offer, and I will be back for more! The festival brings together many musicians from all over the world to perform at various venues around Niagara, so the list to choose from is long. We chose the performance by Toronto-based Quartetto Gelato, scheduled for this past Monday evening at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, certainly one of the loveliest small churches in the area.

As is usually the case with peformances in a church, seating was general admission, and even arriving about 20 minutes before the 7:30 start was probably a bit too late. We got fairly good seats, all things considered, and even splurged on the extra cushions being offered for a small donation. I suggest if you go you do the same - those pews are hard after a two-hour concert!

The audience was certainly up for this performance and knew the group well. Several standing ovations during the performance ensured not one but two encores before the evening was done; this despite a very hot and uncomforatable environment on a summer's night. I would have hoped organizers could have opened the doors to the church during the performance to at least get a bit of a breeze going through there.

As for the music, well, it was pretty much as expected: charming, witty and very engaging music that was not the least bit challenging to listen to, but presenting plenty of challenges for the performers. Right across the board, the musicianship is first-rate: accordion player Alexander Sevastian, four-time champion in the International Accordion Competition (who knew?) was astounding, as was clarinettist Kornel Wolak. Leader of the group, violinist and singer Peter de Sotto provided engaging chatter along with breathtaking dexterity on the violin. All in all, an evening not to be missed!

There is still plenty of time to catch a performance or two or three. Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti headlines this weekend's performances; he will be in concert on Saturday evening. For complete listings on the remainder of the festival along with ticket information, log on to their website at And if a recording of one of the performers is what you're after, contact me through my website at, and I will do my very best to get it for you.

Enjoy the music in Niagara this summer!

August 7th, 2008.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Great Things Happening at Shaw Festival this Season!

Let's put talk of lagging tourism numbers and attendance shortfalls at summer attractions on hold for the balance of the season, and simply celebrate what's great about our two major theatre festivals in Ontario: The Shaw Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We'll begin with Shaw for a couple of weeks and look at the season offerings I've had the chance to attend so far. As always, my star ratings range from one (poor) to four (excellent).

Getting Married (Royal George Theatre to November 1st) ***
This is George Bernard Shaw writing about one of his pet subjects, it seems: the convention of marriage and the pluses and minuses of said union. It premiered in the spring and summer of 1908 at London's Haymarket Theatre and coincided with the tenth anniversary of Shaw's marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend. Shaw's married life was unconventional, to say the least, but they remained married until her death in 1943. In those days, it would have been wiser, one would think, to remain in an unhappy marriage rather than seek a divorce, as for most Edwardian women, divorce proceedings were more onerous than they are now. This play could descend into a tedious rant if not for the talents of an all-star cast directed by Joseph Ziegler; instead, it proves to be an entertaining, biting look at the need - or desire - to be married. No doubt controversial at the time, it explores the reasons why anyone would want to get or remain married at all. Look for great performances by Michael Ball, Sharry Flett and Norman Browning, all Shaw veterans. I found Peter Krantz a little overbearing as the infatuated General "Boxer" Bridgenorth, and in spite of a bad case of laryngitis the night I attended, David Schurmann was splendid as Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea. But the real star of the show doesn't arrive until the very last moment of Act One: Laurie Paton as Mrs. George Collins. Throughout the second act, Paton owns the stage and turns in a performance to savour. If you like Shaw, you'll love this show; if Shaw is not your cup of tea, you might want to bury your indifference and give it a try. After all, like a marriage, it seems, it isn't a permanent arrangement...

Wonderful Town (Festival Theatre to October 5th) ***
Some might consider this musical a bit of a gamble this season, especially since it is on the large Festival stage, and it is not a particularly well-known musical. But don't let the fact you might not have heard of Wonderful Town before deter you: embrace the fact you can discover a gem of 1950's musical theatre. Wonderful Town dates from 1953, and was part of a trio of Leonard Bernstein musicals that examined New York city from many different aspects. The first, in 1941, was On The Town, and the third, of course, was the better-known West Side Story from the latter part of the 50's. While West Side Story dealt with the grittier side of the Big Apple, what with street gangs dominated by the Sharks and the Jets, Wonderful Town suggests even in New York City, people sleep with their doors unlocked and everything is safe and secure. An unrealistic picture, to be sure, even for 1953, but it makes for some entertaining theatre. This is typical Bernstein from the 1950's: brash, vigorous rhythms and catchy tunes, although only three will likely remain with you after the curtain descends at the end of the performance. The best-known piece is "Conga" sung in the original production by Rosalind Russell, and given a great performance here by Lisa Horner. Other standout peformances include reliable Neil Barclay as Mr. Appopolous; Thom Marriott as Wreck; and Chilina Kennedy as Eileen Sherwood, one of the two girls from Ohio trying to make it big in the Big Apple. What a voice she has! Directing the production is Roger Hodgman. Some have complained this season the big musical is not a better-known show; for me, I'd rather the chance to explore a lesser-known work of great merit. Like She Loves Me a few years ago at Shaw, this production deserves a well-attended run.

The Little Foxes (Royal George Theatre to November 1st) ***
This is another in the ongoing plays by Lillian Hellman produced at the Shaw Festival, and this one will not disappoint. Hellman provides some pretty sharp-tongued dialogue for a talented cast and proves to be an earlier version of the TV series "Dallas", if you will. They follow the time-honoured tradition of backstabbing and doing whatever it takes to get ahead and make more money than anyone else you meet along the way. The play is a little slow in the first act, I find, but once it gets going, there's no stopping this cast, led again by Laurie Paton, who is having a season of a lifetime. Paton plays the pivotal role of Regina Giddens, whose husband is very ill but she won't let him die peacefully. She is the woman you don't want as your mother-in-law! She is surrounded by a strong cast that includes Sharry Flett as the lovely and sweet but drunk Birdie Hubbard, Peter Krantz as Oscar Hubbard, and David Jansen as Paton's long-suffering husband in the play, Horace Giddens. The cast is directed with a steady hand by Eda Holmes. I have not always enjoyed Hellman's productions at Shaw, but this one is right on the money.

July 30th, 2008.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Another Summer Entertainment Season is Underway

With events of the last few weeks taking up so much of my time, I found I still hadn't gotten around to talking about summer theatre and related events yet, and it is the third week of July already! So, let's get the ball rolling with some thoughts on Elora, Stratford and Shaw in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

This past weekend, rainy weather notwithstanding, we ventured to one of our favourite places to visit on a summer weekend: beautiful Elora, Ontario. Even though we drove through torrential downpours on the way up and as we arrived, the weather failed to dampen our spirits as Sophie and I arrived at The Vickerage B&B in Elora to visit with Susan, who runs one of the nicer and more eclectic B&Bs you'll find anywhere. We were in town for the Hot Fusion concert that evening at the Gambrel Barn, a town works repository for salt and road equipment in the winter and an acoustically perfect music venue in the summer. Hot Fusion was made up of Toronto-based singer Amanda Martinez, Toronto-based violinist Vasyl Popadiuk, and Newmarket-based singer-songwriter Justin Hines. I had only heard the music of Vasyl Popadiuk before, having hosted an artist chat with him when he played Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catharines a couple of seasons back. I knew what to expect from him, and he delivered: hot gypsy violin of astounding dexterity. I had not heard Amanda nor Justin before, but they were engaging in their own ways and easily won over the enthusiastic crowd. Both performed music from their own cds, as did Vasyl, and as a finale they all performed together with respective sidemen. We were expecting a much hotter, more frenetic musical pace, but overall it was very laid back and as refreshing as the rain outside on a hot summer's day. This was a great concert by three gifted musicians who each work in different musical genres and yet came together to show that music is indeed a universal language. The Elora Festival continues until August 3rd and you can find out more by visiting their website at

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Stratford attending some of their meatier offerings this season, details of which I will recount in the coming weeks. I have also attended about three-quarters of the shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake thus far; again, details of which will come in future reports. Both festivals are having stellar seasons artistically, but attendance appears to be down somewhat from previous years. I am used to that in early June, before families begin to travel when the kids are out of school, but this year the crowds have not been there - quite yet. The latest report from the Shaw Festival's Colleen Blake is that Shaw numbers are up this year so far, in spite of a significant drop in American tourists. More locals staying close to home discovering or rediscovering the festival this year, perhaps? Let's hope so, for Shaw has some absolutely fabulous offerings this season.

Over in Stratford, the performances I attended the first week of July were worrisome as far as audience numbers were concerned: there appeared to be far too many empty seats for big-budget productions - even on a Friday night. A recent report by Michael Posner and James Bradshaw in the Globe and Mail suggests a 10-per cent drop in ticket sales so far this season could cause trouble next season for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now called. What's the cause? High gas prices, likely, will be to blame, as well as border delays. But why has that not, apparently, been the case at Shaw so far this season? At Stratford, the first post- Richard Monette season has produced some excellent theatre; however, there appear to be too few people to attend all those performances at four theatres plus a tent presentation this year. This could - and likely will - result in cutbacks next season with a shorter playbill. It won't be the first time Stratford has had to tighten their collective belt, and it likely won't be the last, either. But as troubling as this season is, next season might be even more so. My B&B proprietor in Stratford tells me while the bookings are not that bad this year, next year will be the one to watch, as many had already committed to their Stratford visits this season before high gas prices became a hot news item again.

So, while both festivals are playing to somewhat less-than-full houses for at least some performances so far this season, it could be the start of a disappointing trend in the future: staying away from arts and culture because gas, food and other utilities take away too much of the family budget. Only time will tell if this proves to be true or not, and there is plenty of time to make up ground before the season ends in the fall, but for now, a close eye on the purse strings at both festivals appears to be in order. If you are considering a visit to either Stratford or Shaw this season, I don't think you will be the least bit disappointed; but if you are only thinking about it, let the coming reports in this space detailing the productions at both festivals hopefully convince you to get out and support the arts this summer. You won't be disappointed!

July 22nd, 2008.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Death of a Radio Station: So Long, CHSC...

Although I usually concentrate on the arts and other cultural endeavours, the radio industry is never far from my thoughts, as I have been in the broadcasting field for over 35 years now. And this week, I am reporting on two sad events that happened in St. Catharines over the past week or so.

The first is the passing of Ed Eldred, the long-time news director of radio station CHSC in St. Catharines, and more recently a community activist with Aids Niagara, among other groups. It was truly a shock to hear of his death earlier this month of natural causes in his apartment. No cause of death has been listed, but he was only 58 years old, so this was totally unexpected. Anyone who worked with or knew Ed knew how warm and friendly he was, and how professional he was in all his career endeavours. I used to attend openings at the Shaw Festival and always talked with Ed at intermission; more recently I chatted with him while he was doing contract work with the St. Catharines and Area Arts Council. After that he went to work for Sitel in St. Catharines.

There will be a public memorial for Ed on July 22nd at Stella's Restaurant in downtown St. Catharines to celebrate his life and many of his achievements. The date is a fitting one, as it would have been his 59th birthday. Organizers also hope to announce plans for a lasting memorial to Ed that evening, which gets underway at 7 pm. If you knew Ed or used to listen to him during his years delivering the news at CHSC, I hope you'll find some time to raise a glass in his honour at Stellas next Tuesday evening. He will be missed.

The second event is the closure of CHSC Radio itself. The rocky road of AM Radio has not been kind to CHSC for many years now, as it struggled to maintain its market position in the face of growing debt and reduced listenership. The beginning of the end came, apparently, in May when bailiffs locked the doors due to failure to pay rent and taxes on the property on Queenston Street. Since then, the station has still been operating, apparently out of the present owner's basement studio in Woodbridge, Ontario. How long that will last is anyone's guess.

The public auction of station assets was this past Monday, as former employees of the once-proud station and other curious bargain hunters walked the halls bidding on everything from office furniture to studio equipment to paper and pens and all sorts of other leftover material. I was there for part of the auction and the scene was not a pretty one: radio consoles that once housed working equipment now sat empty and practically useless. There were very old radio station turntables I worked with in the 70s and 80s, as well as other equipment long discarded by most other radio stations years ago. It was almost like walking back in time and visiting a station circa 1975. The set of WKRP in Cincinnati was not far from what this operation looked like before being gutted by bargain hunters this week.

I came away with nothing, and that is fine. I went mainly to see the remains of a once-proud institution I once applied for a job at when I was planning to move to St Catharines from Belleville over a quarter-century ago. At the time, I remember the station being a formidable opponent for CKTB Radio, where I have worked since 1981. Now, though, only a dead carcass of a radio station remains. How sad it is.

What will become of the building has yet to be determined; will a buyer be found for it and if so, what will they do with the building? Time will tell. But one thing is clear: it will never again house the station that once proudly proclaimed it was "All About This Town".

Goodbye, CHSC. And thanks for the memories.

July 16th, 2008.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Niagara loses a prominent 'Patron of the Arts'

It was with a great deal of sadness I read last evening (July 8th) that James Curtis, known to his friends as 'Jim', passed away on the weekend. I have known Jim for many years since his retirement, and a host of people will remember him from his teaching days in Pelham and area from the 50s to the 80s. With Jim's passing, we have lost a great booster of the arts in Niagara.

Jim was born in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1932, and in 1952 he graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in Philosophy; he also became an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 1950. From 1955 through to 1974 he was a much-loved teacher of both history and music at Pelham District High School in Fenwick, and until his retirement in 1988 he was a member of the history department at E.L. Crossley Secondary School near Fonthill. He was a gifted writer, and in fact he authored a manuscript, "Our Living Past", an extensive survey of world history centering on mankind's intellectual and artistic achievements. This was used by countless numbers of his students over the years.

Perhaps many people will remember Jim as a lover of music, although they may not know he was a student of famed harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. He played both piano and harpsichord, of course, and was a choir member in his community as well. His support of the Niagara Symphony goes back many years, having served on the Board from 1979 to 1992, and in fact he was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2002. Until recently, he and his wife Audrey were always present at the Niagara Symphony Masterworks concerts at Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catharines.

In his retirement years, Jim amassed an amazing collection of mostly classical CDs, including probably the largest private collection of Bach's Italian Concerto and the Goldberg Variations. His love of Glenn Gould was legendary, and in later years his admiration for Bach specialist Angela Hewitt knew no bounds. For me personally, many a day was filled with searching for a rare, hard-to-find Bach recording by either Gould or Hewitt along with any number of other CDs he simply had to have. In the 1990s at Downtown Fine Music and in later years through my website, A Web of Fine Music, Jim was a frequent visitor and caller to enquire about something he had heard or read about. There were times his enthusiasm would get the best of him, but he was always a gentleman and a pleasure to know.

If you have time this evening, I would suggest you pay a visit to the final hours of Jim's visitation at the James L. Pedlar Funeral Home at 1292 Pelham Street in Fonthill from 7 to 9 pm. There will be a celebration of Jim's life in the chapel on Thursday morning at 11am. I hope many of the people who have been touched by this most uncommon man over the years will come out and pay their last respects. He gave so much to his community; it is time for the community to come out and say thanks!

Take care, Jim, you will be missed.

July 9th, 2008.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Niagara Symphony confirms the show will go on!

I wrote about the latest fundraising efforts of the Niagara Symphony about a month ago, and at that point the drive was winding down and there was speculation the goal of $ 150,000 had not been met. Last week, the symphony confirmed they had, in fact, failed to reach their projected goal, but also confirmed the 2008-2009 season is indeed a go.

The campaign, led since March by Shaw Festival artistic director emeritus Christopher Newton and wealth management consultant Peter Partridge, had lofty expectations. But you have to reach high when you shoot for the stars, as it were, and although the goal was not completely met, the symphony is happy with the results: at the end of May, a total of $ 86,000 had been raised, meaning, according to acting executive director Candice Turner Smith, they will not be able to retire an accumulated debt of $ 66,000. They were, however, able to pay off a $ 75,000 line of credit incurred earlier this year to stabilize the orchestra and put them on a firm financial footing. Turner-Smith says the debt, comprising only 10 per cent of the operating budget, will eventually be paid down with a debt-reduction plan now in place.

The really good news out of all this is the fact audience attendance rose 14 per cent last season, mostly with single-ticket purchases. Although the subscriber base has not increased, let's hope those single-ticket buyers liked what they saw and heard last season and decide to get on board for the full season that begins again in October. If that means you, keep in mind new subscriptions will be accepted after June 27th, when present subscribers no longer have the right to renew their same seats for next season. Single tickets, incidentally, go on sale starting August 21st. And although ticket prices will rise eight per cent for the coming season, the orchestra is still comparatively a bargain compared to other neighbouring orchestras.

The other thing to consider is the repertoire, and music director Daniel Swift has crafted another interesting, varied program of 12 concerts, made up of both Masterworks and Pops performances. In fact, I had lunch just this past week with a friend from Buffalo who feels the Niagara Symphony programs far more imaginatively than other orchestras in his area, and were it not for the price of gas these days, he would be inclined to come over for concerts more often.

That raises another interesting conundrum for the Niagara Symphony as well as other arts organizations in the area: with fuel and food prices rising, will people still be willing or able to spend on arts and culture in the region? Let's hope so, because the Niagara Symphony and other arts organizations in the area have a lot to offer, and need our help to keep the music playing.

You can show your support for the Niagara Symphony this coming Tuesday, July 1st at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines as they perform their annual Canada Concert from 2 to 3 pm. It's free, fun, and a great way to celebrate our country's birthday. Come on out, and enjoy the music!

June 28th, 2008.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Senior Star Regional Competition a Great Success!

Last evening (June 18th) I was in downtown Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the second annual Senior Star regional competition, held at Club 4555 on Queen Street. In May, I was asked to MC the event, and I made my first visit to Club 4555 in late May for a planning session for the event. It is a lovely space; pretty funky in a quirky sort of way, but an indication of what is slowly but surely happening with dear ol' downtown Niagara Falls.

The Senior Star competition is a national appreciation of seniors by Chartwell Seniors Housing Reit, operators of a number of seniors residences across the country, including Willoughby Manor in Niagara Falls. They feel, basically, it was time to give some of our talented seniors the star treatment and give them their own Canadian Idol-like venue in which to perform. Last year, the national finals were held at the swank Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. This year the regional competitions will again send their top winners to the national final and we'll crown another Senior Star for 2008.

Getting back to last evening, we had five contestants originally, with a sixth joining the competition just before we began. There was a heavy dose of old-time country performances last evening, and in fact the winner, Richard (Dick) van Trigt, is a fan of the Grand Ol' Opry from away back. Dick performed a medley of Eddy Arnold's "Make The World Go Away" and Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore". He was in fine form and easily took the regional crown for the second straight year. He comes by his country roots naturally, as he has taken part in the Oakville-area Polka Fest, performed at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall during Senior's Week, and in fact he is the founder of Opry Niagara Classic Country Music Association, which meets every Wednesday evening from 7 to 11 pm at their meeting place on Garner Road in Niagara Falls. Last evening, he left Club 4555 for the Opry gig with one of the other country performers last evening, Gabe LaPointe.

The judges last evening were the Mayor of Niagara Falls, Ted Salci, musician Martin Wall and local choir performer Carol Martin. While the three judges of American Idol have nothing to fear from this trio, they spoke from the heart and genuinely seemed to enjoy all the performers last evening. For the record, the others who performed last evening were Winston Harper, Marie Sharpe, George Bruklis and Liam (Bill) Black. Everyone came prepared and ready to go, and I felt any of them could have walked off with the top prize if it were not for Dick's obvious experience on stage and on television, where he hosted a show in New Brunswick for three years some time ago. The one other notable "performer" last evening was the Town Crier for the City of Niagara Falls, Derek Tidd, who kicked the proceedings off with a "cry" of epic proportions. I say notable performer because, besides being an official town crier, he also happens to be 84 years old, and has a set of pipes on him the envy of many, including myself!

All in all, it was a great evening of music and fun, comraderie and showing what our talented seniors can do. All the best to Dick in the finals, and my thanks to Chartwell Reit for the chance to be a part of it at Club 4555 last evening.

January 19th, 2008.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


It was with a great deal of sadness we learned last week of the passing of talk radio pioneer John Michael, following a heart attack. News reports listed his age as 72, but we were never sure of his age at CKTB Radio, where John ended his lengthy career in 2003. That was his second tour of duty at the station, having first arrived in the mid-80s full of fire and brimstone. He left a few years later, returning to CJRN in Niagara Falls, where he had been since the early 60s. But it was not long before John returned to CKTB and he ended his radio career with a splashy live broadcast from a local restaurant in September of 2003.

John had a career that took him from his native England where he began as a copy boy for the Reuters news agency to the Chicago Tribune's London office, where he covered part of the Queen's Coronation in 1953, to Canada in 1961. He moved from one radio job to another, eventually settling with his young family in Niagara Falls. There, his controversial and caustic style of talk radio began to take shape, and he developed a huge and devoted following. He also caught the attention of the CRTC and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters on more than one occasion due to his often times controversial views.

So what does all this have to do with me, and you? Well, in my career as a radio broadcaster I had the opportunity to work with John during both of his tours of duty at CKTB, and although I often disagreed with his views on things, I always admired his honesty, passion for radio, and his way of "stirring the pot" to generate calls from listeners. But more than that, I grew to admire his off-air demeanor more, which was totally different from his on air persona. He was quiet, very friendly and really cared about those around him. Many times, he and I had great conversations about the business of radio and, of course, the business of music as well. John loved music and incorporated it into his show at every opportunity.

That brings us to the other point about my connection to John: his love of music. During the 90s I had a consulting association with Downtown Fine Music in St. Catharines, and the store supplied some music to John to use on the show, in exchange for an occasional mention on the show. Given what his advertisers were spending, we thought it was a cheap way to get a mention on John's show. And what mentions we got! If John played a song and mentioned in passing you could buy it at the store, the phone would literally ring off the wall with orders: such was the power of John's recommendation. At one point, the store stocked up on every available copy of "The Collection" by Mr. Acker Bilk, causing the supplier to call and ask why we were ordering so many. The reason? John regularly ended his show with "Sailing", a lovely, lilting song he remembered from years ago, and to which he danced an imaginary dance with his wife, Maggy, describing the many ways they would display their love for each other. The thing is, the love was always genuine, it was never schtick. And the listeners simply had to have a copy of the CD! I still have a few copies of the CD here for sale through the website, A Web of Fine Music (; it is long out of print, sadly. Ah, the power of a recommendation!

Anyway, that was then and this is now. John will be missed by many; especially by his family who meant everything to him. But he will not soon be forgotten by anyone he touched either in person or through the magic of radio. His last day was spent doing one of his favourite pastimes in retirement: gardening. Thanks for everything, John; the gardening is now done. It is time for "Sailing"...

June 10th, 2008.