Sunday, December 27, 2009

A busy December makes for a good Christmas season?

So here we are, a couple of days removed from Christmas Day, and I am finally able to get some time to catch up on the computer after a very hectic last couple of weeks. My apologies for not writing just before Christmas, but the days were long enough as they were as I struggled to keep up with orders coming in to my online business, A Web of Fine Music (

By way of wrapping up the Christmas week and embarking on the in-between week leading up to New Year's, I thought I would look at the month that was from a business standpoint, as this was a critical one for many retailers, myself included.

The economic downturn of the past year caused sales to decline for most of us, and speaking for myself I found all but one month this year below the sales of the same month the year before. The numbers for December won't be tallied until the end of the month, of course, and I can't speak for other retailers as to how their holiday sales were. But I can tell you my seat-of-the-pants feeling on both sides of the question appears to suggest business was better this December than last. It won't be enough to erase the losses racked up the rest of the year, but it is an encouraging start to a much-anticipated turnaround.

For me personally, this has been a very difficult year: in addition to sales being down most of the year, I lost my father unexpectedly in April, and my beloved cat Pushkin, who was my constant companion for 15 years, in October. I was also hospitalized three times during August and September for unscheduled surgery and resulting infections. So my expectations going into the Christmas season, both economically and emotionally, were not good. I must say, however, from what I have seen so far, my skepticism was unfounded.

While the number of individual sales might be only slightly better than last year, I found the total dollar value of purchases made was up from last year, indicating people had more confidence and spent their money more confidently. Other retailers I have talked to have echoed those sentiments, indicating to many of us the economy is indeed rebounding as we head into the second decade of the 21st century. Let's hope so, because retailers need a good year to make up for the last one, and besides, pumping more money into the economy on the consumer rather than the government level is always preferable. I would suggest, however, you spend your dollars wisely and whenever possible, locally.

The music business, as I have written before, is not a healthy business to begin with, so flat sales would not be a welcome sign this Christmas. However, in spite of the ever-increasing use of digital downloads and digital file-sharing, there appears to be even now a healthy market for hard copy recordings out there. I hope so, as I specialize in finding CDs and DVDs for people throughout the Niagara Region and beyond, and I can only be as healthy as my customers allow me to be. So thank you for your continued support over the past several years, and let's work together to make 2010 a rebound year not just for A Web of Fine Music, but for other retailers as well.

You can always contact me at or directly through email at for any musical enquiries you might have and orders you want to place.

Finally, just before I wrap up today, I want to thank so many people, many of whom I don't know read my weekly or twice-weekly blog entries in this space. I am constantly amazed when someone gets in touch, as one did just the other day, to say they enjoy my entries and what I write. It's nice to know; otherwise I begin to feel I am in a vacumn as far as my blog entries are concerned. Keep those comments coming, and by all means, join the list of "followers' to my blog, so I get a better idea how many people are actually reading my material. As for me, I will try to keep up the pace of coming up with interesting things to discuss in this space as often as possible in the new year.

Happy New Year to you!

December 27th, 2009.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Busy week before Christmas in Niagara

I had planned my usual Wednesday entry this week, but I have been so busy keeping up with work with my website, A Web of Fine Music ( that I just couldn't get to my blog until now. That's good, of course, because we didn't know what to expect this year with the economy being what it is, but so far, so good, with a few days left to go. If time allows I will have a Wednesday entry this coming week, including some last minute Christmas gift ideas of a musical nature. But for now, let's get caught up on all the concerts last week and this before things shut down for the holidays...

The Niagara Symphony held their annual Holiday Pops! concerts last Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. Saturday was almost a sell-out; Sunday definitely was, and that was good to see. The Niagara Symphony always puts on a good Christmas show, and this is one of the best I can remember attending. Much of the credit must go to conductor Timothy Hankewich, the British Columbian now living in Indiana and presently Music Director of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra. Tim completed his second turn with the Niagara Symphony last weekend, so unless he wins the Music Director's post over his rivals, we likely won't see him again. That will be a pity, as I think if anyone has a shot at this position and brings the most well-rounded credentials to the post, it has to be Hankewich. I was impressed with his Masters debut earlier in the season; his Pops performance last weekend pretty much sealed the deal for many in the audience, I think. He arranges music imaginatively; appears to be able to communicate his thoughts with the orchestra; is engaging with the audience; and he even sings, for heaven's sake! His turn at the mic, accompanying The Mantini Sisters on the finale, his own arrangement of "Yule B Swingin'" raised a few eyebrows in the audience. Sure, he's a better conductor than a singer, but hey, Placido Domingo is a better singer than a conductor. Anyway, we still have a long way to go in this conductor's search, and in fact the wild card now is Diane Wittry who comes from the Allentown and Norwalk Symphony Orchestras. Her first turn on the podium is next, with the third Masters concert coming up January 24th. The other three candidates have had at least one performance so far; her two are in the new year, so we will see what she brings to the podium next month. Overall, though, a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas concert!

Next, I was fortunate enough to attend the Brott Music Festival's debut performance in Niagara: the 10th anniversary performance of Handel's Messiah at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street. While much was written and said about the arrival of Boris Brott and his National Academy Orchestra beforehand, in the end they came with their A-game on the schedule and clearly delivered the goods. The orchestra, made up of young up-and-coming musicians who will likely go on to bigger things with major symphony orchestras elsewhere, get to play alongside established veterans who act as mentors. Last weekend, I noted Helen Hong on violin and Gisela Depkat on cello, two of the mentors in the chamber-sized orchestra. It was interesting to note the violins were all standing for the performance, which made for a nice change, while the rest of the musicians all sat; also, the vast majority of the musicians were female. In fact, I counted only four males in the ensemble, so I don't know what that tells us. Do more women aspire to be classical musicians than men, or are they simply better, thereby meaning more of them got into the orchestra? One wonders...anyway, the musicians were on their game last week, and they had to be, as they were accompanied by the singers known as Arcady. I have heard their recordings before, but this was the first time to hear them in person, and they are an impressive group. You would be hard pressed to find a more accomplished group of singers in the country today, and that is saying something, because we are blessed with some outstanding choral groups in the country, and especially here in Niagara with Chorus Niagara and Choralis Camerata setting their own high standards of performance. As for Boris, he is always a larger-than-life presence onstage, and it was a real treat to be able to sit so close to the orchestra and see the many nuances you don't usually encounter sitting further back.

I hope the Brott Music Festival uses this performance as a spring board to more performances in the Region in the future, as I think there is plenty of room in the arts environment here for more performances. I noted only a few empty seats at St. Thomas, so obviously people wanted to come and hear the concert in that wonderful acoustic known as St. Thomas. Thanks, Boris, for a musical Christmas present last weekend!

Finally, let's look to this weekend, and the much anticipated Christmas concert by Chorus Niagara. This, of course, is the off-year for Messiah, so the trick is always to come up with something else interesting enough to bring people in on what many may consider an "off" year since they are not doing Messiah. Artistic Director Robert Cooper appears to have pulled another musical rabbit out of his hat, as the second half of tonight's performance features the Canadian Premiere of Swedish Composer Nils Lindberg's Count Basie-esque big band suite known as A Christmas Cantata. I have heard good things about this work, and obviously so have many others, as the performance tonight is completely sold out. So if you want to take a chance and show up at Calvary Church tonight, they might be able to squeeze you in, but that might be a bit too optimistic at this point. At any rate, it should be a festive way to end the Christmas concert season in Niagara. Oh, and if you are going tonight, I will be in the lobby at intermission and after the show with lots of great Christmas music to sell, both choral and instrumental.

See you tonight!

December 19th, 2009.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Get set for Christmas with the Niagara Symphony!

I don't know if you have had this problem this year, but I have not really been in the full-scale Christmas spirit yet. Perhaps it's the weather; perhaps it is the poor economy this year. Whatever it is, I am slow getting that warm glow that comes with feeling good about hearing Christmas carols again and seeing all the lights and decorations. Mind you, nothing takes away the Christmas spirit for many of us more than a trip to the mall, which I did last Saturday. All those people rushing about, not necessarily thinking about "goodwill towards men." All of which means for some of us, shopping online from the comfort of home has many advantages at this time of year.

Of course, I would be greatly amiss if I didn't take this golden opportunity to plug my own online music business, A Web of Fine Music, at I have lots of great Christmas music in stock, both old and new, and I will be writing about some of my favourites in the coming days. I will also have a good selection of these seasonal favourites on hand this weekend when the Niagara Symphony presents their second Pops! concert of the season, titled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.

This is usually when the music weaves its magic and I finally begin to feel the Christmas spirit overtake me, and I suspect tonight and tomorrow afternoon will see the return of that absent feeling. The Niagara Symphony always presents a great Christmas concert, and this year promises to be no different. As the conductor search continues, we welcome back Timothy Hankewich to the podium for his second and last appearance this season, leading the orchestra and special guests The Mantini Sisters through a slew of holiday classics, including the ubiquitous sing-alongs with the audience members.

On the program this weekend will be one of my favourite orchestral holiday classics, Leroy Anderson's A Christmas Festival. I remember our high school band performing this every year at our Christmas concert at Neil McNeil High School in east-end Toronto, but I suspect this performance will be a little more, um, polished than we were way back when. I happen to have copies of the Festival to sell this weekend, by the way; a newer recording with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the classic 1959 recording with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Also on the program will be Hankewich's own interpretation of "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" and some other Hankewwich creations.

The Mantini Sisters will be special guest performers, and they are tremendously popular around these parts for their music and great charitable work with Wellspring Niagara. So all in all, it promises to be a great kick off to your holiday celebrations, but keep in mind, the Christmas concert always sells well; in fact the Sunday afternoon performance is already sold out. Some seats are still available for the Saturday evening show, tonight, but I wouldn't wait too long to book them. You can call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or take your chances at the door this evening.

Now, where's my infamous Santa hat?

December 12th, 2009.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Handel's Messiah - Part Two

Last weekend, I wrote of the two different presentations of Handel's celebrated oratorio Messiah in Niagara this season. It is funny; the year Chorus Niagara doesn't do Messiah, two other groups fill the void.

As I wrote on Saturday, Choralis Camerata directed by Laura Thomas presented Messiah twice on the weekend; Saturday evening in St. Catharines and Sunday afternoon in Fonthill. I didn't attend the Saturday performance but did attend the Sunday afternoon performance, and I found the choir and orchestra presented a thoroughly enjoyable performance of the work. The chorus particularly was more assured this time out, having only performed the work for the first time a couple of years ago. They perform Messiah the years Chorus Niagara takes a break. For a very reasonable price, Laura Thomas and Choralis Camerata presented a high-quality interpretation of the work for a capacity crowd.

Now, to this weekend. Boris Brott, well known around these parts for his highly-successful Brott Music Festival in Hamilton and surrounding area three seasons of the year, has for 10 years now presented their own Messiah in the Hamilton/Burlington area. In fact, Saturday evening they perform at St. Christopher's Church in Burlington and Monday evening at West Highland Baptist Church in Hamilton up on the mountain. In between, Boris brings his celebrated National Academy Orchestra and the Arcady Singers to St. Catharines for the first time ever, performing Sunday evening at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street. This has long been one of my favourite churches locally, in spite of the wooden chairs that punish you over the long haul! The acoustic is quite nice and the setting is absolutely wonderful. This should prove to be a perfect setting for the performance, although the size of the venue limits the number of tickets that can be sold, I would think.

That being said, ticket sales appear to be good and everything is in place for Sunday evening. I talked with Boris while he was in Ottawa earlier this week, and he is certainly looking forward to introducing his young orchestra and company to a new audience here in Niagara, and I think by and large, the feeling is mutual. There may be some who wonder if we really need a second presentation of Messiah in the Region, but I say 'Why not?' Not everyone can go to one or the other, and fewer still can go to both; this gives more people an opportunity to enjoy this Christmas and Easter staple and perhaps even be exposed to the work for the very first time.

There is certainly room for two different presentations of Messiah, and I think it will be a comment on the artistic values Niagarans place on the Christmastime tradition if last weekend and this weekend provide strong ticket sales. Last week did, and I have no doubt this weekend will as well.

Let's put politics aside for once and just enjoy the occasion. We are blessed with choral riches in Niagara anyways; this Christmas it is all the richer, and we're all the better for it. Let's fill those seats on Sunday evening at St. Thomas as many did last weekend with Choralis Camerata's fine peformances. There will always be room in this town for two Messiahs!

For tickets, check out their website at and we'll see you there.

December 10th, 2009.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lots of great choral music all around us this weekend!

If you, like me, love great choral singing, this is a weekend made in heaven here in Niagara. We have two performances of Handel's Messiah with Choralis Camerata as well as a Christmas CD concert with the Niagara Vocal Ensemble. By Monday, if you are not yet in the Christmas spirit, I suggest you have your pulse make sure you have one.

Let's start with Messiah. Even though Handel originally wrote the oratorio as an Easter work, and in fact it premiered in Dublin in April of 1742 at the New Music Hall, it has for years been thought of as a Christmas staple. In fact, there are more Messiah performances than anything else at this time of the year, no matter where you go in this province. Along with the classic Toronto Symphony/Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, we have December performances in such places as Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton and Elora, with their appropriately-titled 'Village Messiah'. There are many more, of course, but these are the ones at least within driving distance of Niagara.

Of course, here in the Region we have the rather interesting prospect of what I have dubbed 'duelling Messiahs': as in the past, since Chorus Niagara is not doing the oratorio this year (Robert Cooper wisely alternates years so we have something different to look forward to every other year), Laura Thomas and her choral group Choralis Camerata pick up the musical gauntlet and run with it those years Chorus Niagara is doing something else. So it is this weekend, as Choralis Camerata presents their Messiah performances tonight at First Grantham United Church on Linwell Road in St. Catharines, and Sunday afternoon at Saint Alexander Roman Catholic Church in the heart of Fonthill. The chamber choir performs with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Sinfonia, conducted by Laura Thomas. Laura has done great things with this choir in a very short period of time, and her Messiah promises to be a most enjoyable performance. I will have to miss the Saturday evening performance, but I hope to be at the Sunday afternoon performance in Fonthill, with music to sell in the lobby on behalf of A Web of Fine Music. Needless to say, plenty of Messiah performances on CD and DVD will be available along with other seasonal recordings.

New this year, and quite unexpectedly, we have a second performance of Messiah in St. Catharines a week from Sunday, as the Brott Music Festival enters the fray with Boris Brott and the National Academy Orchestra. They perform Sunday evening at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street, and I am interested to see how it is received just a week after the Choralis Camerata performances. Boris does what Boris does, of course, and I am sure it will be a wonderful performance; let's see how the audience responds this year. Should be interesting!

Meantime, also this weekend on Sunday afternoon at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street, the Niagara Vocal Ensemble presents their Christmas concert, titled Winter in Niagara: Seasonal Music from Niagara and Beyond. The choir is directed by Dr. Harris Loewen from the Department of Music at Brock University, and performs music by both Canadian and international composers for this concert, including W. H. Anderson, Holst, Warlock and many others. I have heard the choir many times in the past and they are an exceptional ensemble.

This concert also features the release of their brand-new Christmas CD, titled Voices of Niagara 2: A Niagara Noel. Local composers such as John Butler and Tim Phelan are both featured on this new disc; I have not heard it yet but as soon as I do I will review it in this space so you can consider it as a musical Christmas gift for either yourself or someone special on your list.

Incidentally, the choir will be joined by several alumni members for this holiday concert at St. Barnabas, and Lesley Kingham is the piano accompanist. Tickets are available through the Brock box office, but you should be okay to just pick them up at the door.

So there you go: three Messiahs in a week and the Niagara Vocal Ensemble right smack in the middle of it all. Choral fans have nothing to complain about this week!

December 5th, 2009.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Niagara Symphony serves up some tasty Hot Cross Buns last weekend

As noted in my last blog entry on the weekend, the Niagara Symphony's second Masters concert was held Sunday afternoon at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University, with John Morris Russell conducting the orchestra in a concert titled, I mentioned on the weekend rather unfortunately, Hot Cross Buns - English Style! Not that I have anything against the music on the programme or its connection to hot cross buns, which I happen to love, incidentally. I just thought it was a rather unwieldy title.

That being said, the orchestra was in fine form for this concert, with Russell wringing every ounce of music out of the players. And I must say, they didn't seem to mind the exercise one little bit. I also mentioned on the weekend it would be interesting to see how Russell handled the smaller-sounding works on the programme; whether he would be able to 'finesse' the music. I am happy to report that he did, in fact, show a fair amount of finesse in regards to the music, even if his broad conducting strokes produced a little more volume than necessary at times.

The William Boyce and Johann Christian Bach works were taught and crisply played; the Vaughan Williams Oboe concerto lovingly handled and beautifully played by soloist Christie Goodwin; and the Haydn London Symphony was an exhuberant depiction of life in London in Haydn's time. Even the ubiquitous Carrabre piece, Chase the Sun, conducted by all four candidates this season, seemed more tolerable this time out.

Now, the case can be made, perhaps, John Morris Russell is a bit too 'showy' in his conducting style for the orchestra. Certainly, his Beethoven 5th Symphony at the end of last season was a no-holds barred affair that even had the audience working up a sweat along with him and the orchestra. But perhaps, too, that is not a bad thing right now. For me, it all comes down to what you achieve with the orchestra, and the sound I heard from the orchestra again with Russell on the podium indicates he and the musicians get along together, and they respond to his style of conducting. They were on their collective game this past weekend, and the results were obvious: they were prepared, and they came to play. What more can you ask of an orchestra and their conductor?

To be sure, we have a long road ahead of us with this season's conductor search with the Niagara Symphony. In January we finally get to meet and hear what the fourth candidate, Diane Wittry, can bring to the podium, for example. Plus, the upcoming Pops! concert in December, always a crowd pleaser, promises to be very interesting this year with Timothy Hankewich on the podium again. His first Masters outing this season was very impressive indeed. But at this stage of the competition, I would have to say John Morris Russell is the man to beat; or, put another way, the job is his to lose. We'll see how things unfold...

The Sunday afternoon Pops! concert December 12th is sold out, incidentally; the Saturday evening, December 11th is filling up fast, but there are still good seats available, so to plant yours in one of theirs, call the Brock box office soon at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

December 2nd, 2009.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Niagara Symphony and Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects entertain this weekend

It's another busy weekend in Niagara, and I don't necessarily mean at the malls; the Niagara Symphony presents their second Masters concert Sunday afternoon, and Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects continues with their first presentation of the season in downtown St. Catharines. Today we'll look at both events and hopefully tempt you into attending both.

The Niagara Symphony will be presenting their second Masters concert at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University Sunday afternoon at 2:30 pm. This is an important concert for the symphony, as they also hold their annual Silent Auction in the lobby before the concert and during an extended intermission. This is a major fundraiser for the NSO, and I always see lots of great gift ideas throughout the lobby. So if you are going, plan to shop a bit and support our Niagara Symphony. They are on the right track with the rebuilding process with several talented individuals now in the front office, so let's show our support for them this weekend. I will be there for the concert, but due to space limitations, I won't be selling at my customary table. But you can still get in touch with me through my website at or by direct email, at if there is anything you want.

The concert itself features the first official appearance by John Morris Russell from the Windsor Symphony. John, you might recall, conducted the last Masters concert last season, featuring a very robust - some would say somewhat over the top - version of the Beethoven 5th Symphony. He is the third candidate to strut his stuff on the podium for the official candidate selection process, and he has some tough acts to follow. His concert, with a rather unfortunate title "Hot Cross Buns - English Style!" features music by William Boyce (Sinfonia No. 5 in D major); Ralph Vaughan Williams (Concerto in A minor for Oboe & Strings with featured soloist Christie Goodwin); Johann Christian Bach (Sinfonia in D, Op. 18, No. 4); T. Patrick Carrabre (the ubiquitous Chase the Sun); and Franz Joseph Haydn (Symphony No. 104, the "London" symphony).

I am looking forward to hearing the Boyce, especially, as we so rarely hear his music anymore. I have a lovely CD in my collection of many of his short works and they are just delightful. And a Haydn symphony is always welcome, especially a late one like the London symphony. With the Carrabre piece, Chase the Sun, this is being performed at all four Masters concerts this season so we have a chance to hear all four conductors' interpretations of the work. It isn't my favourite piece of music, mind you, but it is short enough that we can manage four times in one season.

I quite like Russell; he seems like a friendly sort with a definite style all his own, and he seems to know what he wants. Whatever you thought of his Beethoven at the end of last season, there's no denying he got a lot of great playing out of the orchestra, so it will be interesting to hear him perform less grand works that need a little more finesse. Anyone can pound the living daylights out of a Beethoven symphony and it will survive the ordeal; these works will show the measure of the man, I think.

Tickets are still available from the Brock box office, by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257. See you there!

Now, before we go, a few words about a theatre presentation well worth your time between now and next weekend. I attended the opening night performance of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first production of the season, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written in 1996 by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. This is a gritty, often bleak and sometimes funny look at the hardscrabble life of a 40-ish spinster, played by Artistic Director Kelly Daniels, and her constant run-ins with her conniving and mean-spirited mother, played by Shaw Festival stalwart Jennifer Phipps. Rounding out the cast is another Shaw regular, Graeme Somerville as the daughter's love interest, and his younger brother, played by Craig Pike.

Essentially, Daniels' character of Maureen feels life is passing her by as she tends to the constant needs of her aging mother, knowing full well once Mom is gone, she will have nothing else in her life to turn to. No man, no family, no life. Enter Graeme Somerville in a standout role as Pato, who would very much like to rescue Maureen from her daily drudgery. After one stolen night of bliss under the same roof with Mom - the morning encounter between Phipps and Somerville is a highlight - the two lovers start to make plans for a life together, away from Mom. That, of course, doesn't sit will with her, as she will no longer have her daughter at her beck and call day in and day out.

What follows is considerable nastiness on the part of both mother and daughter and the passing through Maureen's fingers a chance to escape to Boston for a new life with Pato. Her bitterness is palpable and certainly understandable; her reaction to it certainly not. Phipps has always been one of my favourite Shaw actors and here she puts in a standout performance. Daniels is very impressive as daughter Maureen, and Pike shows promise in the smaller role of Pato's younger brother. Another Shaw alumni, Donna Belleville directs the play with great care and precision, and the lighting is perfectly suited to the production.

This is an example of a small community-based theatre company doing everything right and hitting all the right buttons, proving once again there is indeed great live local theatre to be had once the Shaw Festival is done for the season. The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, and more information and tickets are available by going to their website,

November 28th, 2009.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Both Stratford and Shaw report success in 2009

Earlier this month, I received the news from both tbe Shaw and Stratford festivals on closing numbers following the 2009 seasons, and generally the news is good, in spite of these recessionary times. Maybe people just wanted to get out and forget about it all, I don't know. But generally speaking both festivals did well, all things considered.

The Shaw Festival's Executive Director Colleen Blake reported attendance results for 2009 of 253,000 or 63.5% of capacity. Given the tough economic times and the fact they began rehearsals in March at 20% behind the year-to-year sales target, this is good news. Especially when you consider the 800 performances in 2009 brought in box office revenues of 13.7 million and the percentage total is just 6 1/2 % behind the 2008 attendance of 70% of capacity.

The recession obviously had an impact on the Shaw season, along with other tourism partners throughout the Niagara Region, but funding from both the federal and provincial governments to bolster marketing initiatives aimed at key Canadian and American markets proved to help this season. It's interesting to note the Shaw's box office revenues drive an overall economic impact of close to $ 100 million annually for the Niagara Region, so that should quiet the nay-sayers who pooh-pooh funding for the arts. They bring in the money, and the tourists, plain and simple.

Tickets for the 2010 season go on sale to the general public starting January 11th; Shaw Festival Members already have the opportunity to buy tickets for the upcoming season.

Meantime, over at the Stratford Festival, generally good reviews and a $3.5 million boost in marketing funds from both the federal and provincial governments meant the festival wrapped up its 2009 season on an upbeat note. The final weekend of the season, earlier this month, saw sold-out performances of their two most popular shows this season, the musicals West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, both of which had their runs extended. While advance ticket sales were described as "sluggish" (a nice way of saying they were behind targets) they eventually picked up and the fall season was unexpectedly busy. Board chair Richard Rooney called the season "a triumph" and I don't think many would dispute that.

The 2010 season kicks off in April, with the box office reopening in January.

I generally found Stratford had the more solid season this year than Shaw, which was hampered by the collection of ten one-act Noel Coward plays, Tonight at 8:30, which although interesting, failed to light a fire under a lot of theatre-goers. But the fact both festivals finished the season strong with better numbers than expected at the start of the season bodes well for next season. Perhaps the economic recovery is indeed upon us, slowly but surely, and we'll see more bums in the seats next season. Let's hope so.

November 21st, 2009.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Theatre is all around us in November!

Last week I wrote of the many theatrical and musical events coming up this week alone; there are plenty still to come, of course, as we continue along to Christmas which is a little over a month away, if you can believe it.

Last evening, I attended one of the events I wrote about last week; Stephen Sondheim's very complex musical A Little Night Music is being staged by students of the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre. The production opened Thursday evening for four performances, the final performance being this evening at 7:30. Plenty of tickets will be available at the box office up to performance time, I would imagine.

This is a tough musical to stage, as there is so much going on and the storyline is so intricate. But director Virginia Reh has done a credible job sorting everything out while putting her own spin on the musical. The set design by David Vivian, although unwieldy at times due to the number of scene changes, works quite well and is very attractive. It doesn't look anything like any student production you've ever seen before, and that's good.

Now, being Dramatic Arts students, they are still cutting their teeth on theatrical works and finding their way, so we don't have a professional production here as you would have seen a couple of seasons ago at the Shaw Festival. That being said, I thought the students have nothing to worry about here: they all show great promise and managed the intricate plot and scene changes quite well. True, not all of them will become household names in the future, but a few might, and it is encouraging to see them tackle such a difficult piece.

The music, although limited to only one 'hit' song, "Send In The Clowns", of course, is still vital and witty even a quarter century or more after first hitting the stage in the early 70s. Sondheim did some of his best work on this musical, and it deserves another look, so if you have the time tonight, you might want to take it in.

Still to come later this week, I will be attending the opening night performance of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first main stage production of the season: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Donna Belleville, the play dates from 1996 and has garnered numerous awards including the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play.

Along with Belleville, a couple of other Shaw Festival ensemble members are in this production: Graeme Somerville and Jennifer Phipps. Rounding out the cast are Lyndesfarne's Artistic Director Kelly Daniels and Craig Pike. This promises to be a strong start to another interesting season of Lyndesfarne, and that's good to see. We need more winter theatre in Niagara, and they are doing their level best to provide it.

The play opens Saturday night, November 21st, with the opening night performance benefitting the St. Catharines General Hospital Foundation. It runs to December 6th at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines. For tickets, call the boxoffice at 905-938-1222.

November 14th, 2009.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lots of music around Niagara this week

Now that November is here, we start that increasingly hurried and harried descent towards Christmas, which means, among other things, there will be no shortage of musical events to take in around the Region. This week I thought we'd take a look at a few of the events this weekend and over the coming days you might like to take in.

First and foremost, this weekend is the kickoff of the the Chorus Niagara season. Niagara's premiere choral group, directed by Artistic Director Robert Cooper, presents Haydn's oratorio The Creation Saturday evening in Grimsby and Sunday afternoon in St. Catharines. Die Schopfung, or, The Creation, is one of Papa Haydn's two greatest choral works, and was composed during 1795, set to a libretto by Baron Gottfried von Swieten, and based jointly on the Book of Genesis, as well as John Milton's allegorical study of the creation and fall, Paradise Lost.

Haydn wrote The Creation basically to take advantage of the popularity of the genre pioneered by Handel, who made the oratorio a staple of choral concerts with his many oratorios, most notably, of course, The Messiah. Haydn's uplifting work has stood the test of time as well, and certainly deserves a wider audience than it seems to have had the last few years. I can't remember the last time it was performed locally or within driving distance of Niagara.

The two performances of The Creation are in Grimsby and St. Catharines: Grimsby Saturday evening at 7:30 pm at Mountainview Christian Reformed Church, 290 Main Steet East; and St. Catharines at Calvary Church on Scott Street at 3 pm. Tickets are still available for both performances by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or from any chorus member. I plan to attend both performances with many copies of The Creation for sale, both sung in German and English, as well as many other choral recordings you might be interested in. You can also go to my website at and check out my Mike's Picks page, or simply email your request to me directly at Hope to see you this weekend!

Later in the week, the Brock University Department of Dramatic Arts presents A Little Night Music, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. This was the musical that spawned the hit Send In The Clowns, of course, but there is plenty of other inspired music in the show as well. The Shaw Festival staged a wonderful production of A Little Night Music last season, and I was amazed at how witty and creative the score was, yet we only know one song from the show.

The show is directed by Virginia Reh and designed by David Vivian, and plays the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm. I am looking forward to attending the Friday evening performance, in spite of the fact it is Friday the 13th. Break a leg, guys...or on second thought, given the date, don't take that literally!

Also this week, Garden City Productions opens their fall show, Grease, a musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey about the way rock n' roll changed North American sexuality and culture during the transition years from the conservative decade of the 50s to the more individualistic decade of the 60s. Everyone remembers the movie version, of course, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John; the stage version has also stood the test of time and is a staple of community theatre groups all over North America to this day. Garden City Productions has a long history of presenting fine productions of popular musicals, and this production promises to be no different.

The director/choreographer is Kent Sheridan, who last appeared with GCP back in 2006 when he debuted in their successful production of Chicago. Performances run November 12th to the 29th, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 2. For tickets, call the Brock Centre for the Arts Box Office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Lots of other things going on around the Region for the next couple of months, so we'll regularly look at what's coming up so you won't miss a thing. Enjoy a night out on the town soon!

November 7th, 2009.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Where's the great Halloween music of today?

Here I am, sitting at the computer later on a Saturday night, and it happens to be October 31st. As of this writing, at 10 pm, I have had the grand total of one child come to the door trick or treating. That was over four hours ago! I don't know about you and your neighbourhood, but it seems to me all the fun seems to have been drained from Halloween, and now the parents are so frightened by the event, it has almost become a non-event.

Oh sure, we can head out to organized Halloween parties at restaurants, clubs and sometimes even private homes. But for the kids, for whom the evening really should be for, it is almost a case now of 'let's get this over with' as quickly as possible. Too bad, as the kids will not be growing up with the memories we had as kids. I remember going out every year in my neighbourhood in Toronto, intent on covering the entire neighbourhood for goodies. I never made it, of course, but I always had at least one and often two full pillowcases full of great stuff. I also had a Unicef box to collect change for less fortunate children in places I had never heard of before. Now, even Unicef boxes at Halloween are a thing of the past. Sigh.

Other than parents still throwing away all the stuff you collected a couple of weeks after Halloween and not telling you about it, much of the old Halloween traditions are fading into obscurity. I was thinking of this over the evening, as I watched a so-called 'scary' movie that was only scary insofar as it was so boring I was falling asleep during the first hour. Give me Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a really cheesy horror movie and I will use my imagination to figure out just how scary the movie is, thank you very much.

This brings us to the subject of Halloween music. Or rather, the total lack of it in the last twenty years or so. Probably the last really big Halloween hit was the Theme from Ghostbusters, which effectively killed the career of singer Ray Parker Jr. But in the 50s and 60s, we enjoyed a steady supply of truly awful Halloween hits we simply could not do without. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is the Monster Mash with Bobby "Boris" Pickett and The Crypt-Kickers. That song became a hit not once, not twice, but three times over a couple of decades and is still with us today. Pickett may not be remembered for anything else, but he'll aways be remembered for that song.

There were others, too, all of which I have been listening to this evening while the doorbell didn't ring: Haunted House with Jumpin' Gene Simmons; The Twilight Zone Theme by Bernard Hermann rather than the more familiar one by Marius Constant; The Purple People Eater with Sheb Wooley; the opening theme from The Addams Family TV Show; Martian Hop with The Ran-Dells; Lewis Lee and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes; Screamin' Jay Hawkins and I Put a Spell on You; and of course, The Blob with The Five Blobs.

Those last two bring back personal memories for me: The Blob, written incidentally by a young up and coming songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David back in 1958, accompanied one of the worst horror movies of its era, but one that I remember scared the pants off me when I first saw it, and starred a very young 'Steven' McQueen. Screamin' Jay Hawkins was still singing his one and only hit for years after it first appeared on the charts, and I remember interviewing him back in the 80s when he was still doing club dates, all due to that one song that featured him opening up a casket at the beginning, sitting up and singing the song. Ah, they don't write them like that anymore...

We can go back even further, of course, to Paul Dukas' famous The Sorcerer's Apprentice and even the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach everyone associates with Halloween and horror movies for great musical inspiration for the night. But today? Not much of anything. Where are the great writers and performers of cheesy songs we'll remember with our kids on Halloween for years to come? Not in our lifetime now, it seems.

Oh well, we can always revel in the hits of the past, as everyone does the rest of the year now anyway. Halloween is like any other day of the year now: remember the music we grew up with rather than make new memories today. What a legacy to leave to our kids!

Anyway, if you still long for some of those old hits from Halloween past or from any other memorable event from your past, I invite you to drop me a line at and through my music service, A Web of Fine Music ( I will do my very best to scare up a copy of it for you. Now, in the meantime, I have all these Halloween treats to get through myself. At least there is one advantage to only one kid coming to the door tonight...

October 31st, 2009.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

First Pops concert of the season a mixed bag for Niagara Symphony

This past weekend, as I noted in my last posting, the Niagara Symphony got their Pops! season underway with a concert of mixed blessings featuring the second of four young conductors vying for the podium this season. Toronto-born Bradley Thachuk lead the orchestra through their paces Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon in performances that included quite a few highs and a few lows.

First, let's look at the lows. Saturday evening, the orchestra just didn't sound 'together' for some reason; their playing was at times ragged and uneven. On a few occasions they all came together as one, but for a lot of the time it seemed like conductor pitted against the orchestra. The programming, while at times imaginative, such as with the clever Beatles medley "Love Is All You Need" and a fine interpretation of Freddie Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody", arranged by Thachuk himself, was also often lost on some of the older members of the audience, I found, who likely had no idea who Sting or The Police were. But Thachuk did go out of his way to explain the music, comparing popular versions of classical themes with snippets of the modern-day recordings before allowing the orchestra to play the original classical theme.

The most unfortunate part of Saturday evening's performance proved to be the opening to the second half, when Thachuk, clad in jeans and a casual shirt, strode onstage with his electric guitar to lead the orchestra in Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze". The only problem was, the amplifier refused to co-operate, leaving Thachuk fuming and leaving the stage to rid himself of the guitar while the orchestra kept playing the music. That of course, raised the age-old question often posed by musicians themselves, I gather: if we are playing fine while the conductor is temporarily unavailable, do we really need a conductor to begin with? I remember the classic line from Garrison Keillor's "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra" where the first violins felt the loss of the conductor would simply give the audience an unobstructed view of the musicians! Anway, both conductor and orchestra recovered from the incident and made a go of it in the second half of the program.

On Sunday afternoon, always the better attended concert in the Pops! series, the orchestra sounded much more together and Thachuk seemed more at ease on the podium than the previous evening, providing us with a much more satisfying musical experience. The performance was still not letter-perfect; the guitar solo on "Purple Haze" went off without a hitch this time but was just a bit too loud for this listener, for example. But overall, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves more on Sunday, and that included the audience, which very enthusiastically applauded at the end of the performance. It was clear Thachuk had made a good impression on this occasion, and I suspect many could see him fronting the orchestra on an ongoing basis.

The orchestra was particularly strong in the two Rachmaninoff pieces on the program, both given a lot of love and care by Maestro Thachuk. The orchestra responded with very strong performances of the Adagio from the Symphony No. 2 and the Adagio from the Second Piano Concerto, featuring Niagara Falls' own Blair Salter as the piano soloist. She is all of 22 years of age, but handled the work with a lot of sensitivity, making for a satisfying performance of the famously romantic movement.

As for me, well, I may be in the minority when I say this, but even with the good response from the audiences on the weekend, I personally feel we need someone with a bit more 'seasoning' if you will, than Thachuk currently provides. He proved to be an engaging personality with a desire to please, but the orchestra's inability to come together on Saturday evening worries me. Had he earned the respect of the musicians or not? We just don't know. Don't get me wrong, he is a good guy who knows his music and plays a mean guitar, and he might very well win the competition at the end of the season, but I want to see what they other candidates bring to the table first before I endorse Bradley. The fact he is Toronto-born is obviously going to play in his favour, as it has been many years since we had a Canadian-born conductor lead the orchestra for any length of time, but that should not be the only criteria. His credentials are a little thin in my opinion, having been Associate Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Music Director of the Fort Wayne Youth Symphony. Enthusiasm is definitely an asset, but more experience won't be a bad thing, either.

Next up, Masters 2 will see the return of John Morris Russell, who conducted the finale last season, in a program titled "Hot Cross Buns - English Style". Music will be by William Boyce, Vaughan Williams, Johann Christian Bach, and Haydn. The performance will be on Sunday, November 29th, and tickets are available by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

October 28th, 2009.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Niagara Symphony Pops season gets underway

As promised, a few words today on the start of the Pops season for the Niagara Symphony, which begins tonight and tomorrow afternoon (Saturday and Sunday) at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. We have the second of the four candidates for the music director position to conduct these concerts as well: Bradley Thachuk, who hails from Toronto originally.

The Pops series is always a bit of a cunundrum for me, really. The Saturday evening performances rarely sell well, with most people preferring to come Sunday afternoon instead. But the Saturday evening performance has its fans, too, so it would be hard to discontinue it if that would even be considered at some point. At least this season the symphony has wisely chosen to move the start time up from 8 pm to 7:30 pm. I think that makes a lot of sense as the audience begins to age, and it is a trend followed by other orchestras around the area as well, including Hamilton. Let's face it, we don't party like we used to, so bed often comes earlier than it used to for some of us.

That being said, this concert promises to be a bit of a party anyways, as it features a wide variety of music, both classical and popular in nature. The program is titled 'Classics Rock!' and includes everything from Jimi Hendrix' Purple Haze to the adagio movement from the Second Symphony of Rachmaninoff. I like the lineup, as it gives a lot of variety and will hopefully show us yet another side of the Niagara Symphony as their transition year continues. Besides, hearing the Niagara Symphony perform the 50s hit 'Tequila' should be worth the price of admission alone!

As for the conductor, I am looking forward to hearing what Mr. Thachuk brings to the table, as he is a home-grown talent who is now Associate Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Music Director for the Fort Wayne Youth Symphony. He will have youth on his side and lots of ambition, no doubt, but we'll have to see what he does with the Niagara Symphony this weekend as well as later in the season when he conducts his Masterworks program to know if he is ready for the move up the ladder to the head of a full-time professional symphony orchestra. His soloist for the performances this weekend is pianist Blair Salter, who will be featured on the adagio movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. Blair is a St. Catharines native who is currently finishing her Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance at the University of Western Ontario.

There are still tickets available for either performance, I believe, by calling the Brock box office at 905-687-4993. And if you go, be sure to stop by my table in the lobby before, after or during intermission of the show and say hello. I plan to bring a wide variety of music to these concerts, so you never know what you might find! If you don't check out my website at or email me directly at

One other piece of news from the Niagara Symphony this weekend: they have announced their administrative team is now complete with the recent hiring of Karen Bannister to the position of Resource Development Manager as of November 9th. Karen assumes this new position within the organization to move it forward in a business sense, after working in various resource development positions at the Shaw Festival for the past six years. At the symphony, the position was created with the help of and funding from Ontario's Trillium Foundation.

We wish the new administrative team well as the season continues, and look forward to hearing the remaining candidates for the Music Director position as well. Next week, I'll report on this weekend's performances after we've had a chance to hear what Brad Thachuk brings to the table.

October 24th, 2009.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Remembering the life of a gentleman cat

Every now and again when the need is felt, I venture outside of my usual musical realm to write about other things on my mind. I usually warn you in advance so that if you were expecting a musical or arts-related article, you won't be (hopefully) too disappointed.

I had planned to write this past weekend as I usually do, but Friday evening, while preparing to walk down to the James Street Night of Art event in downtown St. Catharines, I started to feel more than a little under the weather, eventually ending up with a nasty cold that is only now beginning to let up. So I was not in the mood to write under those conditions in any event.

However, another event took precedence for me over the weekend that actually goes back several months yet only came to a head this past weekend. My beloved constant companion, Pushkin the cat, with whom I have been through many highs and lows for fifteen years, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in the belly the day after my birthday back in June. At the time, his hefty weight of 21.8 pounds had already been reduced to about 17.5 and at the time I didn't really think anything of it. But the test results showed he had a growth the size of a small orange inside him, and as a result his days were surely numbered. Oh sure, I could have ordered an ultrasound, a biopsy, surgery, etc., but at that point what can you do for a cat over 15 years of age? The advice from the vet was to simply let nature take its course. This I did, but there were times I almost regretted that decision.

Along with that big tumour, a smaller cancerous growth was, we soon discovered, also occupying the right side of his nasal cavity, and this I watched slowly grow over the summer months to the point where just recently the growth had overtaken that side of his face and had distorted his once attractive features. It was painful to watch, and I can only imagine how painful it was for him to even breath properly. Eventually, in September, he began to breath through his mouth with such noise as to suggest an old wheezing man was living in the house. A prescription of liquid prenezone seemed to tame the inflammation for a time, and finally he was able to breath easily again.

This past Friday, his growth on the side of his face making his facial features look even more grotesque, I took Pushkin to the vet to see what could be done. The end was clearly near, but the vet, sensing I was not quite ready for that final decision yet, prescribed an injection of antibiotics to try to control the inflammation and bad things growing inside the nasal cavity. In theory, it should have worked, but all it succeeded in doing was erasing Pushkin's once healthy appetite and reduce him to a whithered shadow of his former self, almost half the size he once was, and doing nothing more than sleeping most of the weekend. Finally, Monday of this week, the decision was made - reluctantly to be sure - to put him to sleep and save my dear friend any further pain and suffering. Since then, I have been on an emotional roller-coaster as I struggle to come to grips with the loss of a great friend who in his own way taught me so much over the fifteen years we were together.

Every time now I see the chair he was curled up in, sound asleep, I have this empty feeling inside of me, wishing he were still there. The bed is more empty than it once was, as in the final weeks he took to curling up next to my chest with his head on the pillow next to mine, as I kept him comfortable overnight. Now, the void both day and night is palpable and heart-renching.
There are those who say a cat is simply a cat; those of us who know better scoff at that notion. A cat is as individual as the person he chooses to live with; in this case, Pushkin was far more interesting, I think, than the person he chose to live with.

I can't help but remember the wonderful times we have shared and the great memories I hold of special moments in our lives. I had the foresight in the latter months, as the illness progressed, to begin taking lots of pictures of my little friend to keep me company once he was gone. But all the while, I hoped he would somehow beat this and survive to be with me for a long time to come. Alas, it was not to be; the cancer was advancing too far too fast, and there was little we could do beyond simply make him comfortable in his final days. This I think we did. It's funny in a way; while I was in and out of hospital with surgery and resulting infections through August and September, Pushkin was always here, waiting for me to come home. When I did, he always perked up and seemed to be doing better. But this past weekend, as I neared the end of my recovery journey, he neared the end of his life journey; it was if he were signalling he had hung on long enough, I was now on my own to move on from my illness as his claimed him.

I would lie to you if I said I had not shed more than a few tears over the past few days; many more since his passing, of course, and I know that will continue for sometime to come. Time heals all wounds, they say, but the wound I now bear resulting from losing the best friend you could ever hope to have will take a very long time to heal indeed. Pushkin was truly one of a kind, a gentlemanly cat who loved people and was loved by all who met him. He is now and always will be missed.

As I struggled to come to grips with my loss this week, I turned to three CDs in my collection that helped through the ordeal: one is a short piece by Arvo Part titled Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. It is a hauntingly solemn piece with a solitary bell floating amongst a sea of strings for most of the short work. I also turned to a lighter-sounding but still reflective CD by French-Canadian composer-pianist Andre Gagnon, titled Impressions. It is all original compositions, most evoking a misty movie scene from years gone by, but the music perfectly tailored to the mood I was in. And the third CD I turned to was a collection of music by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, including his lovely Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending. The recording I have is by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

Pushkin knew of my love of music, and these works are a fitting tribute to a cat I loved dearly, and now miss terribly. I hope he is no longer in pain, and in a better place. As for me, I am going to rest and reflect for a few days; my next entry in this space won't be until the weekend when I get back to work and look at this weekend's Pops concerts with the Niagara Symphony. Until then, I thank you for allowing me to write about a dear friend I now miss so very much.

October 20th, 2009.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

James Street Night of Art set to go Friday night!

Well, the night a lot of people look forward to every year is tomorrow night, Friday, October 16th. It's the fourth annual James Street Night of Art in downtown St. Catharines. This event promises to be the most varied and interesting yet, as the roster of artists representing all media is so broad this year.

I have been to the James Street Night of Art two years in a row now; last year, if I remember correctly, it poured rain constantly, yet the damp weather did not deter people from venturing downtown to the temporary pedestrian mall set up on James Street between King and St. Paul. This year promises to be perhaps a little drier, but much cooler, and I think a winter coat might be in order tomorrow night to keep warm!

No matter; the arts community has proved to be a devoted and hardy lot. They will support the evening no matter the weather, and that is very encouraging indeed. And following the success each month this summer of the Art City event the first Friday evening of each month throughout the downtown core, I imagine a number of first-timers will be out tomorrow night to celebrate the final outdoor event put on by the local arts community through the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council.

Some of the featured visual and media artists include: Jonny Fraser, Beth Gibson, Bev Hogue, Marinko Jareb, Jean Parent and Stephen Remus. Some of the featured performing artists include: Essential Collective Theatre, Niagara Dance Company, Gould String Quartet, Soli Deo Gloria Ballet, Aough Ghaan and The Kempenfelts. Of particular interest to a number of people will be former St. Catharines broadcaster Frank Proctor, with whom I worked when I started at CKTB Radio back in 1981, reading his classic Niagara children's story The Day the Welland Canal Monster Met Santa, which has been newly reprinted this fall. I know I still have a copy of the original edition packed away in my books downstairs somewhere...

All in all, it promises to be another wonderful evening of celebrating the arts and experiencing some new businesses you have perhaps not visited before. Last year, for example, I finally made it into The Fine Grind Cafe for a performance, and I have been an occasional regular ever since. And that is what this melding of art and culture with the downtown business community is really all about, I think: showing they can indeed work hand in hand, sharing space downtown and benefitting each other in the process. Now all we need is you to join us tomorrow night in downtown St. Catharines!

October 15th, 2009.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Remembering a Stratford legend...

Here we are, on Thanksgiving weekend, and there is lots to be thankful for in this country, to be sure. In the area of the arts, we have so many gifted individuals who have given freely of their time and talents to make the country a more culturally diverse place in which to live. Sadly, this week, word came of the loss of one of those pioneers in Canadian theatre.

Douglas Campbell, the Scottish-born Canadian theatrical legend, passed away this past Tuesday in a Montreal hospital at the age of 87. Most will remember him from his many years at the Stratford Festival, which he helped to found that first summer in 1953. The brief season under the temporary tent featured Campbell in All's Well That Ends Well as well as a production of Richard III. He continued to perform off and on at the Festival until the last season I saw him, in 2001. His credits at the festival have included so many roles both on the stage and as director, it is hard to know where to begin.

As for me, I vividly remember his one-man show Blake, based on William Blake, in 1983, and his Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 1988. More recently, a splendid portrayal of Lear comes to mind on the Festival Stage, and his final peformances at Stratford I can recall, Campbell played Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV opposite Graham Abbey. His portrayal, I recall, was vintage Campbell, with that huge voice of his rumbling around the stage, as he mastered the role that almost seemed written for him. It was a fitting culmination to a career at Stratford that saw many highs and very few lows.

There is one off-stage event I also recall, from about 1984, I believe. There was a press conference at a downtown Toronto hotel overlooking the lake one spring day, to introduced the newly-formed Young Company, a group of young classically-trained actors who would cut their teeth, as it were, alongside several Stratford veterans on a production at the then-named Third Stage. In the Young Company group that year was a very young Lucy Peacock, who of course has gone on to great things at the Festival over the years. But also in attendance that day was Douglas Campbell, large as life, just a few feet away from us, and it was magical watching him interact with everyone. I couldn't help but think at the time, why would he take the time to come all the way to Toronto to show off these youngsters at his age? The answer, of course, was simple. Campbell was always a builder, a doer, from his days as the founder of the spin-off company from the Stratford Festival, the Canadian Players in 1954 to so many other projects. He relished the challenge of starting something new, and that fact was proven yet again on that spring day in the early 80s.

There will be others who will remember, as I vaguely do, his CBC television series from the mid-70s called The Great Detective. I remember watching a few episodes back then, but sadly, they are likely all lost to the CBC archives now. Let's not also forget his son, Benedict Campbell, who himself played for many seasons on the Stratford stage before moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake a few seasons back along with his wife, Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell. Benedict keeps the family tradition alive to this very day with some fine performances of his own in Niagara.

But it is the voice, of course, most of us will remember most about Douglas Campbell: that huge sound thundering out to the audience along with impeccable timing. The voice is now silenced, and Douglas is with us no more. He will, surely, be missed by many generations of theatre-goers who admired his many gifts, both on the stage and off it.

Hail and farewell, old friend!

October 10th, 2009.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

So far so good for the Niagara Symphony this season

In my last entry on the weeknd, I wrote of the start of the new season for the Niagara Symphony; their 62nd. I mentioned it showed great promise and the interest generated by the search for a new Music Director was certainly a good thing at this point in time.

Now that I've been to the first Masters concert of the season, I think we can safely assume the orchestra has already found safer ground and is sounding pretty darn good, thank you very much. The first of the four conductors vying for the podium this season is Timothy Hankewich, who hails from British Columbia and presently is Music Director of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra. He had the enviable task of kicking off the season and making an early mark in the hearts and minds of symphony patrons, many of whom will be influencing the final decision on who will lead the orchestra next season.

The program began with a piece all four candidates will conduct at their Masters concert this year: Chase the Sun by T. Patrick Carrabre. This acts as a sort of comparision piece for the audience, although I think most will not really notice the subtle nuances each conductor will bring to the piece over the course of the season. Up next was a jubilant work by Hankewich's mentor, Malcolm Forsyth, titled Siyajabula! We Rejoice! It is full of colour and interesting influences from Forstyth's native South Africa. The solo piece on the program featured the Niagara Symphony's associate concertmaster, Xiaoling Li performing the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218. Like all of Mozart's five violin concertos, this one is melodic and easy on the ears, with interesting cadenzas and a generally sunny disposition. Too bad Mozart didn't appear to like the violin concertos himself. Li was quite enjoyable, although clearly she was not used to the spotlight, not knowing quite what to do afterwards when the obligatory flower bouquet was presented to her.

After intermission, Hankewich took the gloves off and led the orchestra through a pretty bombastic interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. It is not easy to not present Tchaikovsky with a certain amount of bombast, frankly, and this interpretation was particularly noisy, which seemed to meet with the general approval of the audience on Sunday afternoon. Hankewich clearly took command of the orchestra and they appeared to enjoy the workout; I have not often heard them play so cohesively before, and that made for a fairly rewarding afternoon of music making. Hankewich showed he wants this job, and it is now up to the remaining three conductors to unseat the early favourite for the post.

So, where do we stand after this first weekend? Well, I can safely say the conductor search this time round is much more interesting than the last time we went down this road several years ago when Michael Reason won out over a generally lacklustre bunch of conductors that time out. I think we're in for a very interesting season with many more pleasant surprises from the candidates. Hankewich doesn't appear again until December when he conducts the second Pops! concert of the season, the ever-popular Holiday Pops concert. That presents a double-edged sword for this candidate, I think, as he makes his mark early and now it will be up to the others to erase his early lead; however, the season runs to next May, and like a movie that has 'Oscar' written all over it when it first comes out in say, May, could be forgotten when the voting actually takes place for the Academy Awards the following winter. We'll see how things go, but so far, Hankewich has made quite a positive impression his first time out.

Next up, Bradley Thachuk leads the orchestra in the first of the Pops! performances this season, titled Classic Rock, and playing the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre October 24 and 25. Should be quite a fun afternoon or evening down at Brock!

October 7th, 2009.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

News from the Niagara Symphony as a new season starts...

Hard to believe we are already well into the month of October, and Thanksgiving is not that far off. Also not that far off is the launch of the 62nd season of the Niagara Symphony, and with it, a lot of interest and excitement over the prospect of choosing a new Music Director. You might remember last year at this time, long-time Music Director Daniel Swift made, well, a 'swift' exit from the symphony just shortly before the season was about to begin. That lead to a string of guest conductors taking over the podium all last season.

This season, new ideas and renewed hope prevail as the new season is set to get underway Sunday afternoon, October 4th, at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Brock University. Not only do we have the active search on for a new Music Director, but the newly-installed Executive Director Jack Mills is set to make his mark as the new head of the organization. He has his work cut out for him, of course, as the symphony has been floundering for a couple of years now with interim conductors, executive directors and what have you. People have been waiting to see how everything shakes out, and with good reason. In the past, there seemed to be a feeling of 'temporary' status hanging over the entire organization. Now, it seems, a steady hand is at the helm, ready to right the ship as it heads into another season.

I have not met Jack yet, although we've talked on the phone a couple of times, and he has graciously invited me back to sell in the lobby during the concerts again this season, which is great news. I always feel a special connection to the symphony and their patrons, and my business, A Web of Fine Music, will be there once again this season to find the music you are looking for during the symphony season. You can email your orders and requests to me directly, of course, at

Jack has said he wants to make the orchestra a more 'populist'organization and less elitist, and that will be good for the organization, I think. Too many people still think of the symphony as something 'other' people go to, when in reality it is everyone's orchestra, and it will now endeavour to prove that point by reaching out to a broader spectrum of the public in order to grow its audience. Truth be told, the audience is aging, as is the case with most orchestras today, so we have to find ways to reach out and draw new, younger members into the concerts. It is a challenge, to be sure, but I suspect Jack, who has been in this rebuilding situation before, most notably in Winnipeg, is ready for the job at hand.

The first Masters concert of the season this weekend features the first of four conductors vying for the post of Music Director, to be chosen after all four conduct one Pops! and one Masters concert this season and the audience has had a chance to evaluate each candidates' talents. First up this weekend is Timothy Hankewich, presently conductor of the Cedar Rapids Symphony, and a native of British Columbia. Timothy conducts a program that includes Carrabre's 'Chase the Sun', which all four conductors will interpret this season; Malcolm Forsyth's 'Siyajabula! We Rejoice!'; and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. Also on the program is Mozart's fourth violin concerto, K. 218, with guest artist Xiaoling Li, Associate Concertmaster for the NSA. It promises to be a nicely balanced program of new discoveries and tried-and-true classics.

Tickets are still available by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257. And if you go, be sure to stop by my table in the lobby before, after and during intermission to see what I have in store for you at the symphony this weekend!

Also with the symphony, news came out just this week Associate Conductor Laura Thomas, long an indispensible part of the orchestra both as performer/conductor and administrator, was recognized for her "significant professional achievement by an established artist" at the 25th Annual City of St. Catharines Trillium Awards. Laura was given the "Excellence in the Arts" award for her more than thirty years as an outstanding musician, teacher, clinician and conductor. Laura has not only been associated with the Niagara Symphony for many years, she was at one time Music Director of the Niagara Youth Orchestra, and been part of many smaller musical organizations, including the choir Choralis Camerata, of which she is presently Music Director, and a member of the group Broadband. Also with the Niagara Symphony, Laura has also served for many years as director of the symphony's Summer Music Camp and has been a driving force behind the orchestra's 'Composer in the Classroom' program.

I have known Laura for many years, going all the way back to when she conducted a jazz band at Winston Churchill Secondary School back in the 1980s, and she has been a great friend and colleague, as well as customer of A Web of Fine Music from the very beginning.

Congratulations, Laura, on a well-deserved honour, and good luck to the entire Niagara Symphony organization as the new season gets underway this weekend!

October 3rd, 2009.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Final look at shows at the Stratford Festival this season

Remember on the last entry, I mentioned the off again on again situation with my medical problems that put me in the hospital in August? I mentioned I couldn't write as often as usual until I am over this thing. Well, I ended up in the hospital for a week again at the end of September, just after my last entry, so again my apologies for not getting my blog updated regularly. I hope to be a little more consistent now that October is finally here.

Just after my last entry, I left for a final weekend visit to Stratford to make up a couple of dates I had to cancel after my surgery in August. So I managed to catch the musical West Side Story and the Racine play Phedre before they closed, so a few brief comments here to present my final reviews for the season.

WEST SIDE STORY, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Festival Theatre until October 31st. Four out of four stars.
I had heard nothing but good things all season long about the Stratford production of West Side Story, and I was not surprised nor disappointed when I finally made it to the show in September. The Stratford musicals are almost always big budget and well worth the effort, with this one being no exception. The spectacular but gritty production of the classic retelling of the Romeo & Juliet story is directed by Gary Griffin, and he makes full use of the thrust stage at the Festival Theatre. It was last produced at the Avon Theatre back in 1999, but I think it is far better suited to the Festival stage with all the action taking place. Lots of good performances here from a spirited cast, including Brandon Espinoza as Riff, the leader of The Jets; Paul Nolan as Tony, who falls for Maria from The Sharks, played by Chilina Kennedy; and Julius Sermonia as her first boyfriend, Chino. he's the guy who does in Tony, of course, but let's not give too much away here. Kennedy is an engaging Maria, with a wonderful stage presence and bright, clear voice. Paul Nolan as Tony, her love interest, is up to the job of winning her hand and heart.

There is not much to dislike about this production, and that is evidenced by the full house at the performance I attended, even in late September. If you have some time, catch this one before it closes. It rates a solid four out of four stars.

PHEDRE, by Jean Racine, translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Tom Patterson Theatre until October 3rd. Three out of four stars.
Not much time left to catch this production, as it closes this coming weekend. Unfortunately, my delay getting to the show means I can't give you much lead time on this one, which is a shame because it is certainly worth a look. Director Carey Perloff has given us a simple yet effective presentation here, with designs by Christina Poddubiuk. Solid acting all round here, including Tom McCamus as Theseus, son of Aegeus, King of Athens; Seana McKenna in the title role, wife of Theseus; and Jonathan Goad as Hippolytus, son of Theseus. Brian Bedford directed the last production of the work at Stratford back in 1990 also at the Tom Patterson Theatre, so this was due for a revival for sure. If you have the time, by all means catch one of the last performances before it closes; just don't make it your only production at Stratford this year. It rates a solid three out of four stars.

October 1st, 2009.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The music world loses two masters of their art

It has been a couple of weeks since I last posted a blog, and I apologize for that, but with the recovery from last month's surgery continuing, I find I still tire rather easily, and since I started back at work this week, it is even more so. So while the spirit was often willing, the mind was weak, and I found myself putting things off until I started to feel better. My apologies for that, but what can you do? The recovery is going well, all things considered, so thanks for asking!

That being said, the classical music world lost two masters of their respective art earlier this month, and I thought I would write about those two events today. The first comes from Tuesday, September 1st, when conductor Erich Kunzel, who led the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since 1977, died of cancer at the age of 74. he had been suffering from cancer of the liver, colon and pancreas for several months, so perhaps it wasn't expected, but it was still very much a shock when I first heard the news a couple of weeks ago. The Cincinnati Pops without Erich Kunzel? It had never occured to me any more than the Boston Pops without Arthur Fiedler years ago.

Erich began his lengthy stay with the orchestra on the invitation of Maestro Max Rudolf, who asked Kunzel to conduct the Pops concerts for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the next year the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra was spun off from the main orchestra. I can't imagine that happening today, what with tighter budgets and such, but back in the 70s it made perfect sense. Ever since, Erich and the orchestra had played every conceivable venue, it seems, from New York's Radio City Music Hall to the Grand Ol' Opry. He recorded more than 85 albums for the Telarc label, almost all of them selling very well over the years. He just seemed to have the midas touch when it came to programming pops music.

What is perhaps less well known outside of Cincinnati was his love of opera, and he conducted Cincinnati Opera on many occasions since 1966. He had planned to return to his opera roots in 2006 to conduct The Tales of Hoffmann, but his hectic schedule prevented that from happening. Patricia Beggs, General Director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera, recalls riding in a cab one day in New York, and when the driver heard she was from Cincinnati, asked if she knew Erich Kunzel. It turns out the cabbie had several of his recordings in his collection; such was the wide-ranging popularity of the man!

Erich will be missed as a giant of pops music, but also as an ambassador for Cincinnati, a city he loved. I can't imagine anyone stepping into his shoes now and carrying on, but we'll see what happens in the months to come.

The second loss in the world of classical music was the untimely death of Fred Mills, a trumpeter who played for 24 years with the Canadian Brass, who died in an automobile accident at the age of 70 in early September. He died in an accident near Atlanta, where he had just returned from a concert date in Europe. Mills had left the Brass in 1996 to become a professor at the University of Georgia, but remained active as a soloist internationally.

Mills was born in Guelph, Ontario, and began his brass studies on a cornet purchased from a travelling salesman, of all people. One wonders if that salesman was ever thanked for the lucky break he unwittingly gave Fred Mills all those years ago! He studied at the Juilliard School in New York and was invited to join the Houston Symphony Orchestra as principal trumpet. he also performed under legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski when he formed the American Symphony Orchestra in 1961; Mills became a founding member of the ASO.

While most of the Canadian Brass recordings cannot be termed classical in the purest term, they knew how to entertain an audience, and seeing them in concert was always more fun than listening to a CD, although the CD usually better demonstrated their brilliant musicianship since you were not distracted by watching them perform onstage. I remember seeing them years ago several times, and the last time was with the Hamilton Philharmonic at the start of James Somerville's inaugural season, although by then Mills was long gone.

Mills, like Kunzel, was a consummate musican and an innovator. We won't likely see their like again, although hope springs eternal. For now, we can remember both with a wealth of CD releases still available. And needless to say, all recordings currently available by both Erich and Fred are available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, found at

September 19th, 2009.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

News from the Niagara Symphony

Well, the Labour Day weekend is upon us, and along with kids starting back to school this week, many of us turn our attention to other pursuits as the summer begins to wind down for another year. Whether you enjoyed or despised the summer we had around these parts is up to you; for me, I thought it was quite lovely, thank you very much...

It is been awhile since I wrote anything about the Niagara Symphony, which is not unusual, since most symphony orchestras are rather quiet over the summer months, save for those with summer concert series planned. But I received word a week or so ago from the Niagara Symphony that new Executive Director, J. M. (Jack) Mills is already putting his stamp on the orchestra. A release came out last week that Judy Armstrong, better known to most people simply as "B.J.", has been appointed the Niagara Symphony's new Education Coordinator.

This is an inspired choice, I believe. B.J. will be helping to promote the symphony in ways it has not been promoted in the past, and hopefully reaching those young, aspiring music players and lovers who obviously will be the musicians and audience members of tomorrow. There will be a lot of work coordinating with Associate Conductor Laura Thomas on the successful Orchestra in the Classroom programme, along with other community outreach programmes.

B.J. comes to the symphony with a wealth of experience as Publicity Manager, Media Relations Coordinator, Education Coordinator and Stage Manager for such arts organizations as the Shaw Festival, the Grand Theatre, Theatre Beyond Words, Carousel Players and Theatre South. She comes by her musical knowledge naturally, as well as education and promotional skills honed from years of working with people of all ages, including work at Glenridge Public School in St. Catharines.

I have personally known B.J. for many years, going back to her days with the Publicity Department at the Shaw Festival, and more recently, as a client with my online music business, A Web of Fine Music ( This should prove a fruitful partnership both for the symphony and for B.J.

This will be a very important season for the Niagara Symphony, of course, as they prepare to audition four candidates for the Music Director's post left vacant last season with the untimely departure of Daniel Swift. All four candidates for the job will each conduct one Masters and one Pops! performance during the upcoming season, which begins early next month. Then, in May 2010, hopefully the new Music Director will be announced, likely at the end of the current season. It should be an exciting season of creative music making, as four very talented conductors vie for the podium next season.

So, things look good for the Niagara Symphony as preparations are underway for the new season. I hope to get in to meet Mr. Mills very soon, and see how A Web of Fine Music and the Niagara Symphony will partner in the new season to bring music to many in Niagara.

Of course, you can always contact me through the website, for all your musical needs regarding the symphony or for anything else you might be looking for, and complete season listings for the symphony can be found on the calendar page on my website as well.

Let the music begin!

September 5th, 2009.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Three more reviews from the Shaw Festival

With summer quickly ebbing away, I thought I had best get back on track here and get caught up on some of the shows I've had the pleasure of seeing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer. This time round, two worth seeing and one you might want to pass on...

A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN by Eugene O'Neill - to October 9th at the Court House Theatre (three out of four stars)
This is a gritty, rather tough production of O'Neill's play, directed by Joseph Ziegler. It's a very long sit, and won't be for everyone; however, that being said, those who do venture into the theatre for this one will be richly rewarded with some very fine performances indeed.

Jenny Young is very tough but also quite good as Josie Hogan, the daughter of Phil Hogan, a hard-working, hard-drinking farmer just barely making ends meet on a farm that yields very little other than grief. As Phil, Jim Mezon is superb; conniving yet thoughtful; very rough yet with a soft spot for his equally rough daughter Josie. They have a special relationship with their landlord, James Tyrone, Jr., who takes a shine to Josie and Phil aims to sort of "help things along" a little bit. James, however, has a drinking problem, and just what is he going to do with that land, anyway? As James, David Jansen appears at times vulnerable and other times quite in control of things.

This is not a happy play, although it does have some lighter moments. But overall, it is a performance you'll have to work at to enjoy; the rewards come from the dialogue between the three main characters and their uniformly strong performances.

IN GOOD KING CHARLES'S GOLDEN DAYS by Bernard Shaw - to October 9th at the Royal George Theatre (two out of four stars)
You always know going in that a Shaw play is going to be wordy with lots of dialogue between the protagonists; usually, though, that wordiness is accompanied by very clever writing and clearly-defined arguments on both sides, leaving the audience with no doubt what is on Shaw's mind. In this late Shaw offering, dating from 1938-39, you get the words, but alas, not much in the way of substance worth remembering. In Good King Charles's Golden Days, subtitled "A True History That Never Happened", Shaw creates an imaginary 'meeting of the minds' as he brings together Isaac Newton, King Charles II, George Fox, Nell Gwynn and James, Duke of York, among others.

You would think those interesting historical figures could make for some real verbal fireworks and sparkling arguments that keep the audience on the edge of their seats. What we get here, unfortunately, is nothing but words, words, words, almost non-stop for the better part of three hours. At the end of it all, you don't really care what the characters think about anything; it's just that dull. Now, at least there are two intermissions to relieve the tedium, but really, that is small comfort with this production.

Oh, the cast is good and give it their best shot, directed with great attention to detail by Eda Holmes, making for a nice job all round in terms of execution, but where does it get you? As King Charles II, Benedict Campbell gives a very assured performance and is really a pleasure to watch. His brother, James, Duke of York, played by Andrew Bunker, is a bit of a hot-head and the total opposite of the King's amiable and more reasoned demeanor. But their one-on-one discussion in the second act brings the play to a screeching halt and seems to go on forever. Other notable performances include Laurie Paton as Queen Catherine of Braganca; Lisa Codrington as the Duchess of Portsmouth; and Ric Reid as George Fox. Of special interest is Mary Haney as Mrs. Basham, who offers a bit of comic relief in a play that dearly needs much more.

The sets and costumes are nice; the performances are strong; but if you want to see just one play at Shaw this season, take a look at the rest of the playbill. This would not be the one and only you'd want to see this season.

TONIGHT AT 8:30: WAYS OF THE HEART by Noel Coward - to October 11th at the Court House Theatre (three out of four stars)
It has been quite a gamble staging all ten of Noel Coward's one-act plays under the collective title "Tonight at 8:30". The three groupings making up a full evening or afternoon performance have been interesting, yet uneven at best. The performances have been strong; there just doesn't appear to be enough meat on the bone for the actors to sink their collective teeth into.
The lunchtime theatre offering of Star Chamber has been the exception, though, as it has proven to be one of the runaway hits of the 2009 season.

The third and final grouping of Coward's plays, opening late in August, have proven to be a little more substantial and interesting than some of the others, presented at the intimate Court House Theatre. Ways of the Heart groups The Astonished Heart, Family Album and Ways and Means together, with an intermission between one and two, and no break at all between two and three.

Blair Williams directs this group and the set is designed by Su LePage. In both cases, clever touches abound, making the three one-act plays sparkle more than just a little. These are still a bit of a stretch as a full evening's or afternoon's entertainment, but there are enough moments to lighten the load and make them worth the sit.

The cast for all three plays are uniformly good, with David Jansen and Claire Jullien stealing the spotlight in the first play The Astonished Heart, as lovers trying to come to terms with their relationship. It is a rather melodramatic piece, and certainly the longest of the three, but worth a look. Just don't be confused by the scene lineup in the programme: it all becomes clear once you see the play.

In Family Album, we see a funny, almost silly look at a family coming to terms with the death of the family patriarch and the ramifications of said death. Not a lot of meat on the bone here, but some good laughs make it bearable. Of particular note is Michael Ball as the butler Burrows, who gets his own brassy entrance and exit music, which lends considerable comic effect to his doddering characterization.

The final play of the trio, Ways and Means, is preceded by one of the truly great set changes you'll ever see, and sets the stage for a fun, almost nonsensical look at two opportunistic souls, played again by Jansen and Jullien, looking for a way to make some quick cash to pay off their considerable debts and set them up for more fun in the future. Both are fun characterizations,with Jullien showing her very sexy side in this play as well as in The Astonished Heart. The ending is not very likely, but then, why worry about it? This one is just played for fun, as it should be.

Overall, you'll enjoy the grouping of three plays in Ways of the Heart; just don't look for a huge amount of substance here, as has been the case with all ten of these Coward trifles.

September 3rd, 2009.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Three more shows to see at the Stratford Festival

Well, even though I am still feeling I'm slow on the uptake following my surgery earlier this month, I am ever so gently getting back to my routine, which includes, of course, catching up on the reviews from Stratford and Shaw. We'll look at three shows at Stratford today, and later this week we'll look at some more from Shaw.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - Avon Theatre to November 1st (4 out of 4 stars)
I knew pretty much what to expect going in with this show, as Artistic Director Des McAnuff handles directorial duties here, and the original Broadway production and subsequent movie version were both huge hits. This Stratford production proves the show has not lost any of its lustre over the years, and is basically a madcap romp with particularly witty music and lyrics, although only one song has survived to this day, the show opener "Comedy Tonight". The set design by John Arnone is quite clever and effective; McAnuff's directing is a little over the top at times, a la Richard Monette, but it seems to fit the spirit of the show.

The characters, of course, are very broadly drawn, with lots of good performances here, including Bruce Dow in the central role of Pseudolus, slave to Hero, who wants nothing more than his freedom and will do almost anything to get it. Other cast members turning in fine performances are Randy Hughson as Senex, a citizen of Rome, Deann deGruijter as Domina, his wife, and Stephen Ouimette in a wonderfully comic role as Hysterium, their slave. As Hero, Mike Nadajewski is quite good, and his love interest, the virgin Philia, is played with great style by Chilina Kennedy.

Most people are familiar with the story, of course: a comic send-up of ancient Rome and Pseudolus the slave guides us through several plot twists and turns in order to bring Hero and Philia together and ultimately gain his freedom. This is not high drama in the least, but another example of Stephen Sondheim's witty and articulate musical craftsmanship, which has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately. Go see this show, and check all logic at the door!

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST - Oscar Wilde - Avon Theatre to October 30th (Three out of four stars)
Described as"The Mozart of English Comedy" by director Brian Bedford in his program notes, and with good reason. There is a delightful lightness to the text and unrelenting energy, as Bedford puts it, much like Mozart displayed in his music. Bedford as director and star is a lot of work, but he pulls it off admirably, supported by a very strong cast.

Robert Persichini gets the ball rolling as a very deadpan Lane, the butler. Mike Shara of St. Catharines is having a fine year at Stratford, this time playing the central role of Algernon Moncrieff, who is in love with Cecily Cardew, ward of his friend Jack Worthing. He also has an imaginary friend, "Bunbury", who is always sick and in need of Algernon's attentions whenever a social obligation comes up Algernon would rather avoid. As Worthing, Ben Carlson is every bit a match for Shara's Algernon; Andrea Runge makes a nice Cecily; and Sara Topham is very good as Jack's interest, Gwendolen Fairfax. Stephen Oiumette puts in a good comic turn as Rev. Canon Chasuble, but all attention centres on Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell as she tries to gain control of all the shenanigans going on around her.

This is a very stylish, beautifully staged production, courtesy of Desmond Heeley, although I can't imagine doing a really bad production of the play. Oh, anything is possible, to be sure, but with this cast, success is almost assured. If you want to see just one show at Stratford aside from Shakespeare, this is the one to see.

EVER YOURS, OSCAR - Compiled by Peter Wylde, from the letters of Oscar Wilde - Tom Patterson Theatre to August 29th (Four out of four stars)
Unfortunately this show is now closed, and my apologies for not getting the review out there sooner, but for those who saw this show, ideally as a companion-piece to The Importance of Being Earnest, it was a performance not to be missed. Bedford alone on stage, with nothing but a podium and a small table to hold his water, and 90 minutes of letters Wilde wrote over the years, each providing insight into the world of Oscar Wilde, warts and all. We travel from his witty writings about English society of the day to the troubling personal life he tried to hide, ultimately proving to be his undoing. Afterwards, the letters showing Wilde's concerns for the less fortunate children he saw were particularly poignant.

Brian Bedford really does this material justice, and presents it with much love, care, and reserve. The capacity audience at the performance I attended knew what to expect, and they were not disappointed. If you missed the show this season, as it had a limited run, more's the pity. It was a rare gem at the Stratford Festival this year.

August 30th, 2009.