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 music@vaxxine.com. 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 www.finemusic.ca. And if you have an event coming up you'd like publicized, please send me the information at least two weeks in advance at music@vaxxine.com.

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.