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.