Saturday, May 30, 2009

Summer Theatre season is now underway!

With the passing of the Victoria Day weekend a couple of weeks back, one of the true signs of summer is upon us once again - the summer theatre season in Ontario. Many smaller and not-so-small communities offer summer theatre fare that is generally lighter in nature, perfect for the casually-dressed cottage and vacation crowd who want to get out for some light entertainment. Over the years, I have attended many of the summer theatres around the province, including Muskoka, Kawartha Summer Theatre, Lighthouse Festival Theatre and one of my all-time favourites, the Red Barn Theatre at Jackson's Point.

Many years ago when I lived in Toronto, I would make the hour or so trek from our home in Scarborough up to Jackson's Point for a production at the Red Barn, situated next to The Briars resort. It was always a very idyllic setting not far from the mayhem of Toronto. When I moved to St. Catharines, I still managed to get up there the first one or two summers, first driving to Toronto and then leaving from there for the theatre; returning to Toronto at the end of the evening for an overnight stay before coming home. The Sibbald family always had a close association with the Red Barn, and they knew a thing or two, having The Briars located right next door to the theatre to catch that crowd who might need exceptional accomodation. I have not been back to either location for about 20 years now, and now, the Red Barn is no more.

In April of this year, a fire destroyed the historic Red Barn theatre structure, but not the indomitable spirit of the people who work there. Artistic Director Jordan Merkur writes on their website, in truly pheonix-like fashion, the theatre will rise from the ashes and will be rebuilt. In the meantime, the 60th anniversary season will go on, with peformances at Georgina's Stephen Leacock Theatre in Keswick. The season gets underway June 18th with The Glass Menagerie and concludes August 30th with a gala jazz concert featuring Louise Pitre from Welland and John Alcom. I will be listing the entire season on my website, found a, on the calendar page. I wish them luck as they rebuild a venerable Canadian theatrical institution.

Elsewhere in Ontario, I visited lovely Port Dover a couple of weeks ago while on vacation and picked up the season brochure for the Lighthouse Festival Theatre. I have not been down there since they rebuilt their theatre, which took place a few seasons back. I toured the lobby and theatre area while I was there, and the transformation is simply breathtaking! It is both modern and traditional at the same time; and really a pleasure to visit. I have not been into the theatre space proper yet, but hopefully I can catch a performance this season. They have a couple of rather racy productions this season: it kicked off May 19th with Norm Foster's Skin Flick, which runs to June 6th. That's followed by Michele Riml's Sexy Laundry (that's the title of the play, by the way, I don't know this personally!), opening on June 9th. Again, I will be listing the season on my website on the calendar page.

I have just read about the new season at the Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne, with a new artistic director at the helm. Thom Currie takes over from his mentor at Showboat, David Savoy. The new season gets underway June 18th with Memories of the Rat Pack, a musical revue, and includes another production of Sexy Laundry (!) as well as Born Lucky, another musical revue that closes out the season. Showboat Festival Theatre performances are at the lovely Roselawn theatre on Fielden Avenue. Again, I will be listing the season on my website.

All summer theatres have reason to be concerned this season with the economy not being as healthy as we'd like, but hopefully people will still feel the need to get out for summer entertainement as in the past, so we'll see how things go. Shaw and Stratford also have concerns, but early signs are promising that economics might not hit them too hard this year. Let's hope so; I think summer theatre in Ontario is a great seasonal tradition we'd all miss if it were allowed to whither away and die.

May 30th, 2009.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

New Performing Arts Centre one step closer...

Friday morning, May 22nd, I received word a 'big announcement' was to be made in the lower-level parking lot in downtown St. Catharines at 11 am, involving municipal, provincial and federal government members. I almost passed over the news release, but then I thought, "what else could it be?" than the much-anticipated announcement of the new performing arts space in downtown St. Catharines. So off I went, doing the 10 minute walk from my house in record time, just in time to catch the opening festivities including the singing of O Canada. With Regional Chair Peter Partington, St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullen, MP Rick Dykstra, MPP Jim Bradley and President of Brock University Jack Lightstone all in attendance, it quickly became obvious it was indeed time to stop thinking and start doing as far as the new performing arts centre is concerned.

It was announced all three levels of government will kick in $ 18-million each towards the new performing arts centre, with the remainder raised within the community. Brock University already has a pledge of $ 15-million from the Walker family towards their new school of fine and performing arts, to be known as the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, which will be built alongside the public space. The location will be, of course, the old Canada Hair Cloth building behind St. Paul Street, with the new complex extending right up to street level on St. Paul Street, according to artist renderings. It looks great, and combined with the lower-level parking lot space, should provide enough room for everyone and their vehicles. I have heard the main parking for the centre would be the revitalized Carlisle Street parking garage, but we'll have to see if ultimately that is part of the final plan.

Without question, this will be one of the most significant infrastructure projects ever for not only St. Catharines, but for the entire Niagara Region. Even though the centre will be in St. Catharines, it will have the potential to draw people from all over the region and beyond to come to the centre, and help out other parts of the region as well with added tourism and hopefully investment dollars as well. In St. Catharines itself, the resulting influx of people to attend performances at the new centre cannot help but bring more tourism dollars as well as investment dollars into the city.

However, let's not sit back and think this is the cure for all the ills that plague many downtowns in this day and age. It will go a long way to help the situation, but as I have stated before, it is only one very significant piece of the puzzle. Now we need others to come on board and share the vision of a revitalized downtown St. Catharines providing places to live and to shop, safe streets to walk and parking for all those people expected to arrive for performances on a regular basis. The new centre will not do it all alone anymore than the Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts has done it for downtown Brantford. As lovely as that beautifully-restored showplace is, the area around it is still largely undeveloped. That's a shame, and I hope the same doesn't happen here. We have already seen signs of improvement in many areas of downtown St. Catharines, and that will have to continue for this vision to be fulfilled.

The wine route coming through the downtown core will not hurt, of course, but I can't see it being integral to the overall plan, as we have no wineries in the downtown and in fact, the one brewery we have is leaving St. Paul Street soon as well. As far as the return to two-way traffic is concerned, well, I think it will look nice and be more convenient in a lot of ways, but frankly, I don't think it will make much of a difference either. People will only come downtown if we give them reason to, and the new performing arts facilty will do just that. Now, we have to give them reasons to stay and spend money in the downtown once we get them here.

Here's to the future looking brighter and more musical in our downtown St. Catharines - let's get those shovels in the ground soon and make this dream a reality; the time is now

May 23rd, 2009.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Niagara Symphony appoints a new Executive Director

The news came in late this week the Niagara Symphony has found and appointed a new Executive Director, after a lengthy search process that began many months ago. The new man at the helm (and I find it interesting it will be a man at the helm for the first time in many years) is J.M. (Jack) Mills. At least, he will be come August 1st.

Mr. Mills comes with some pretty impressive credentials on his calling card: he holds a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Ottawa; an honours degree in Music Education from the University of Toronto; and he is currently a management consultant in both the not-for-profit and private sectors. He has extensive experience in orchestra and concert facility management, including: President and CEO of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra; various senior positions with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, including Managing Director of both the orchestra and programming for the NAC, Managing Director of Finance, Administration and Facility Operations, and Acting Director General of the National Arts Centre. The list continues with these positions held by Mr. Mills over the years: Executive Director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Denver Symphony Orchestra and Senior Administration for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Oh, and let's not forget the senior administrative positions with the Canada Council for the Arts and the fact he has been a freelance musican and concert producer in the past, too.

Whew! That's quite a list! I wonder how many other people applied for the position and how their qualifications compare. But as far as Patricia Hodge, President of the NSA Board is concerned, in a release sent out this week, "...Jack had the qualities and executive experience to lead this organization and we're thrilled he has accepted the position." In other words, there is no comparision; Mr. Mills is clearly the right man at the right time for the job at hand, according to the Board.

Let's hope so. This is a difficult time for any arts organization given the financial meltdown North America has experienced the past year. And especially so for the Niagara Symphony, as they struggled to get their financial house in order under the joint leadership of Candice Turner-Smith and Alan Dyer the past 20 months or so. The two have been largely successful, but being interim leaders of the organization is never a good thing, as you know a period of transition is underway, with more surely to come. But I hope the main thing to come out of this appointment is stability and forward movement for an organization very much in need of both right now.

Don't get me wrong: I have felt both Candice and Alan held things together admirably well, but now it is time, especially with the conductor search now fully underway, for a permanent Executive Director to be in place. One wonders, though, if Mr. Mills would have chosen the four candidates for the position of conductor auditioning next season with the symphony. or if that even matters. I know from what I have seen and read, all four candidates for the position are well qualified and obviously sold themselves well enough during the interview process. Let's just hope at the end of the upcoming season, we have a new conductor, a new Executive Director and an NSA Board all happy with each other and willing to work together to make the orchestra even better than it is now.

And that's the key: we have the nucleus of a very good, exceptionally talented group of musicians who have shown they can respond to new ideas and new directions over the past season. You have to think they want this, too. They want the stability, too, so people on both sides of the stage are working for the betterment of the organization. The upcoming season promises to be very interesting to watch...

You know, it's funny. I had a very influential business person in Niagara suggest I should go after the position of Executive Director myself when the position came up some time ago. Although I was tempted to pursue the matter, I'm glad I didn't. For one thing, I couldn't compete with the credentials Mr. Mills clearly brings to the table. I bring passion for an orchestra deserving of same, as do many if not all who are associated with the Niagara Symphony. But I also know we needed someone uniquely qualified to take the reigns of this organization and guide it to new heights, while drawing on a wealth of past experience. That is something I could not do, so I will be happy to be a supporter of the orchestra in the future through my business, A Web of Fine Music.

How my business fits into the overall scheme of things with the new management remains to be seen, of course, but I remain optimistic. We all should be. Mr. Mills gives us all hope of better days ahead, and that, as they say in the Mastercard commercials, is priceless.

Good Luck, Jack!

May 16th, 2009.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother's Day Weekend and Folk Arts Festival now underway!

It is one of the busiest weekends of the springtime in Niagara, as people go out and enjoy the flowers blooming all around us, and perhaps take in some culture with Mom for her special day. So on this special weekend, a few musings and ideas for things to do with Mom.

Walking to the market in downtown St. Catharines this morning, I saw things getting underway on the front lawn of city hall to launch another Folk Arts Festival in St. Catharines. For over 40 years now, people have been coming together to share cultures and traditions in this annual festival of international cooperation, and I think this year I will finally make time to take in more than just one or two open houses. There is lots to do, of course, and all events are free. You pay for the food and that's about it. I went with my Dad to a couple of open houses shortly after my parents moved here a number of years ago, and I must admit my attendance has been spotty at best since then, so this might be the year to make amends. It's great fun, the food and entertainment is wonderful, and you meet a lot of new friends. What more could you want? Information on all events are readily available through the internet or picking up a brochure at many businesses in St. Catharines.

When I got to the market, it was chock full of people picking up their weekly supplies as well as those getting flowers or other goodies for Mom tomorrow. The riot of colours and selection is what I love about springtime in Niagara! There is literally something for everyone, from cut flowers to potted plants to even artificial floral arrangements if that's what you need. It is a special place to be any Saturday morning, but this Saturday, our Market Square is especially fun to visit.

If you want to take in a performance or two this weekend with Mom, a couple of suggestions for today and tomorrow for you: today you can enjoy the final performance of the season for Primavera Concerts, the ambitious little music festival that holds their concerts at the acoustically perfect St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street in St. Catharines. The concert at 3 pm this afternoon (Saturday) features Trio Lyra, made up of Erica Goodman on harp, Suzanne Shulman on flute and Mark Childs on viola. Tickets are available by calling 905-684-4416 or likely at the door this afternoon. I love St. Barnabas Church; it reminds me of some of the old churches I would visit in England. Plus, how many churches now keep a resident cat? Barney has lived at St. Barnabas for as long as I can remember, and he is one special cat! I like what Primavera Concerts does, too; they program varied, accessible concerts with accomplished Canadian musicians, all of whom deserve our attention and attendance. I am looking forward to seeing what Primavera Concerts comes up with next year.

The other event this weekend worth noting is Sunday afternoon, and it is the final performance of Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year, performed by Lakeside Players at the Port Mansion Dinner Theatre in old Port Dalhousie. Slade's classic tale of two people who meet once a year at a small inn for about a quarter of a century is always a treat; Lakeside Players have grown into a wonderful group of local amateur actors doing great things in an intimate theatre space that might be gone before you know it if the controversial Port Place development proposal finally goes ahead as planned. For tickets, call the Port Mansion Theatre and Restaurant at 905-934-0575.

As for me, I will be picking up flowers in the morning, and driving to Toronto where both Mom and now Dad are buried, and remember the wonderful times our family shared together. Yes, sad in a way, but the memories will always be there, standing the test of time, never fading from our memories...

Enjoy the spring weekend in Niagara and most importantly, don't forget Mom this Sunday!

May 9th, 2009.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Some personal thoughts on the month of April

It has been a couple of weeks since I last wrote in this space, and since the last posting a lot has happened in the life of this reporter. I usually try to confine my comments to music and arts-related topics, but occasionally I venture outside those parameters when the need arises. This is one of those times.

The last weekend I wrote, my father was in the hospital after taking a bad fall at the retirement home we moved him to last year. I thought at the time it wasn't that serious, but during the course of that weekend it became apparent the injuries were more severe than first thought. As a result, early Monday morning, April 20th, Dad passed away peacefully in his sleep. Not wanting to get into specifics of the accident, let me just say it drives home the fact we should all be more careful when we grow older, and keep a close watch on those in our care who do fall in their later years. It sometimes results in nothing more than a few bumps and bruises; however, oftentimes the results are more far reaching. This was the case with my Dad.

So, work and work-related tasks all took a backseat to dealing with family matters for a couple of weeks, as we made arrangements for the funeral, which was last Friday. The time since has been full of reflection on my part and beginning the long process of putting Dad's affairs in order now that he is gone. Fortunately for me, Dad cared enough to put as much in place before he left as he possibly could, so the jobs I have to do are much easier than they could have been. But it raises some salient points I think we should all consider in the weeks and months to come:

Do you have a will?
Is your funeral preplanned?
Is your life insurance in place and paid up?
Are your financial affairs in a joint arrangement with someone in a position of care should something happen to you?

Dad didn't take care of all of these things, but much of it he had, and as a result my life is a lot easier in this post-passing period I am now in. Once I finish with Dad's affairs, I plan to begin the process of getting all my affairs in order, and I would suggest you do the same.

Dad was a kind, gentle man who lived his life simply and without fanfare. Yet, his impression on those around him was great; in his former home on Towering Heights and in only a year and a bit at St. Catharines Place, Dad made a huge impression on those around him, and everyone has felt the loss of a great man I had the honour of calling my father. He will be missed by many, but most of all by me; there is an emptiness inside me now I feel each and every day.

While this event was unfolding, I found the news one of my dear colleagues at CKTB RADIO, recently-retired newsman Les Walton, suffered a massive stroke and after a couple of days on life support, passed away peacefully April 23rd with his family at his side. Les was my age, 52, and that hit me pretty hard when I received the news. I attended the visitation last weekend, which was one of the best-attended visitations I can ever recall; everyone, it seems, both within the radio industry and outside it, wanted to pay tribute to a great newsman we lost far too soon. I missed the funeral last Monday, unfortunately, as I was clearing out my Dad's room at St. Catharines Place with the help of family members. From what I hear, the crowd filled the church in Merritton to overflowing.

Les was the consummate newsman: firm but friendly; getting to the heart of the story quickly; knowing what mattered when writing up a story. He possessed the most resonant voice I have ever heard, and now it is silenced forever. Rest easy, good friend. you will be missed.

So, that is what has been on my mind the last couple of weeks. I hope you'll forgive me for writing on this topic today, but in a way, I had to. It helps with the healing process, I think, as we try to get back to a semblance of normalcy in our lives after some very personal upheaval.

By the way, just so I keep some musical content in my entry this week, I will be attending the Niagara Symphony Pops! concerts this weekend, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. Associate Conductor Laura Thomas has fashioned an interesting collection of music under the title A Passage to India, and it promises to be a wonderful diversion for yours truly. Tickets are still available for both performances through the Brock box office; if you go, stop and say hello in the lobby, as I will be set up both times with my usual collection of musical treasures available for purchase through A Web of Fine Music.

See you there!

May 2nd, 2009.