Saturday, April 18, 2009

In the Soil: Niagara's Homegrown Arts Festival is underway!

Earlier this week, I attended the launch of the In the Soil Arts Festival, an ambitious undertaking spearheaded by a small group of local Niagara arts lovers who felt it was high time we celebrated the great talent we literally grow right here in the fertile Niagara Region. The launch was held at Stella's Restaurant April 14th with what they called a "Soil Sampler", featuring performances by some of the artists you'll see during the week-long festival.

I unfortunately got there too late to hear some of the artists on the program for the festival, but we have ample opportunity now to hear many of them at several locations in downtown St. Catharines, as the festival kicked off Friday evening and continues through next Friday, April 24th, with a special "Jury's Pick" showcase at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University. In all, over 70 performing and visual artists will be performing during the one-week festival, with the finalists whittled down from a list almost twice that long when all the applications were sorted through.

For a full list of artists and performing times, go to their website at and click on The Artists link. The best part of all is the price: only $ 5 per event downtown, and only $ 20 for the Friday night showcase at Brock. You can't beat prices like that for such a wide array of talent, all of it local and much of it largely undiscovered.

So, will Niagarans embrace a spring arts festival? We'll have to see, but I have to think if all goes well, we have the makings here of a great new tradition in Niagara. As the earth reawakens for another season, we reawaken our senses with a wide array of artistic talent, all home-grown. The timing is perfect: we all want to get out after a long, hard winter - especially this year - and this is the perfect vehicle for it. After all, the Guelph Spring Festival, for example, started out in the late 60s due to the vision of one man, Nicholas Goldschmidt, and now it is established as one of the premiere regional arts festivals in Ontario. The In the Soil Arts Festival could become just as well established if we all decide to support it year after year.

So once you get the yardwork at least started for another season, why not celebrate the season with some of the talent from the In the Soil: Niagara's Homegrown Arts Festival? Enjoy!

April 18th, 2009.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Niagara Symphony announces four conductors to vie for Music Director's post

Last week I wrote about the Niagara Symphony set to announce the four candidates to audition next season to become the next Music Director of the venerable orchestra. The four candidates were announced from the stage at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University on Sunday afternoon, April 5th. NSA Search Committee Chair, Christopher Newton, says "The next twelve months provide us with a great opportunity to include the community-at-large in helping to select a new artistic leader." That they will, as all four candidates will conduct one Pops and one Masters concert next season, and all will conduct one short piece at one of their concerts so we can compare sound and style, if you will. This is by no means a novel approach, but I think it is an approach that makes sense at this stage of the orchestra's history.

On Sunday afternoon, two of the candidates were in attendance: one in the audience; the other guest conducting the performance. And what a performance it was! John Morris Russell, the present Music Director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, put the orchestra through their paces with three works, including a fairly muscular performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 5. It's a work we've heard dozens of times in the past, and one I think every conductor really wants to get their teeth into given the chance. John Morris Russell not only got his teeth into it, he wouldn't let go like a pit bull showing dogged determination. I think many people in attendance - myself included - didn't think the orchestra could sound so big and, well, full. But they did, and you can credit Morris for working hard to impress a few people in the early going. It was perhaps not the most refined performance of the work, but hey, when you go for the gusto, you sometimes give up a little finesse, right?

Of the four candidates, I would have to think Russell has the inside track in the early going, at least, as he still has his two performances to go next season to prove his work last week was no fluke. Generally, the feedback last week from most quarters was very favourable; talking to Russell after the performance, he seems genuinely interested in the position and the future of a performing arts centre eventually taking shape in downtown St. Catharines.

For the record, the other three candidates are: Timothy Hankewich, Music Director of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra; Bradley Thachuk, Associate Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Music Director of the Fort Wayne Youth Symphony; and Diane Wittry, Music Director of both the Allentown Symphony Orchestra and Norwalk Symphony Orchestra. So that means Russell appears to be the only conductor leading a Canadian orchestra in the running for the position, although Thachuk was actually born in Toronto. In all, there were over 100 applications for the position, which speaks well of how other conductors view the position here in Niagara and how well situated geographically they would be.

So now, we wait and see what plays out next season with four eager young conductors ready to put the orchestra through their paces twice each. At the end of it all, we should have a pretty good idea what's in store for all of us once the new Music Director takes over in the 2010/2011 season. Should be fun...let the battle begin!

April 10th, 2009.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

News from the Niagara Symphony comes this weekend

This weekend, the first weekend of April, the Niagara Symphony presents an ending, and a beginning. The ending is the final concert of the current Masters series, Sunday afternoon, April 5th at Centre for the Arts, Brock University. Guest conductor John Morris Russell takes the podium to conduct the Spring Dance from Chan Ka Nin's Four Seasons Suite, Beethoven's wonderful Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47. The guest artist is violinist Catherine Manoukian, truly a young artist to watch in the future.

But the Niagara Symphony will also be looking ahead to next season, as they announce on Sunday the four finalists in the six-month search for a new music director, following the hasty departure of Daniel Swift just prior to the beginning of the season. We're assured the four candidates are pretty impressive; we'll find out next season when each will conduct one Masters and one Pops! concert, and that takes us to an announcement around May of 2010 of who the new music director will be. This is never an easy process, and takes a lot of time and effort. This time around, especially, the Niagara Symphony knows they have to get it right: in this day and age, we can't do this again for awhile! So Christopher Newton, Chairman of the Niagara Symphony Music Director Search Committee will announce the four finalists at the beginning of Sunday afternoon's concert. I am interested to hear the results of the search: I have been kept in the dark along with everyone else as to who the four candidates will be.

I remember going down this road several years ago, twice in fact; first when Michael Reason was chosen for the post, and then a decade ago when Daniel Swift assumed the post. Each time, the new music director brought a lot of hope and promise for a better future, and fresh new ideas to the season. With both of those music directors, their promise was fulfilled, at least for a time, and each decided to leave the post for other opportunities further afield. That is not a bad thing, really, as fresh blood can do amazing things for the players of a symphony orchestra. This year, in fact, the revolving door of guest conductors has produced largely impressive results from the orchestra, kept on the edge of their collective seats as they learn the wants and desires of each guest conductor. It has been a fun, if rather uneven, experience this season.

Also this Sunday, I will be in the lobby before, at intermission and after the performance with my customary selection of recordings available for sale, including a couple of complete Beethoven symphony sets, conducted in different eras by Herbert von Karajan. I'll also have a good selection of Catherine Manoukian's recordings for sale, courtesy of the good folks at Marquis Records. Be sure to stop by and say hello if you're at the concert.

Of course, both the Beethoven sets and one of Catherine Manoukian's discs are currently available on the Mike's Picks page of my website, found at, ready for purchase right now. Manoukian is a gifted young artist, and I am sure after hearing her on Sunday you'll want to get at least one of her discs for your collection. Her Chopin for Violin collection, made up of many of Chopin's familiar piano pieces transcribed for violin, is my particular favourite, and you'll find that featured on my website.

Hope to see you at the concert on Sunday, and let's see what the news is on a new conductor for the Niagara Symphony!

April 1st, 2009.