Tuesday, June 30, 2009

News and Notes to begin the month of July

As a new month is set to get underway, I find myself with a wealth of things to write about, from Shaw festival performances to Stratford performances upcoming to lots of sad news from the world of entertainment over the past week. So rather than present everything here in one long entry, I will be breaking the information up over the next couple of weeks while I enjoy a little bit of vacation time.

I spent the past weekend catching three performances at the Shaw Festival, my first of the season. I will have more to say on them in early July when I begin my annual summer theatre reviews, but suffice it to say, Sunday in the Park with George, Born Yesterday and from Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30, Brief Encounters, provided a varied palette of theatrical experiences over two days. Overall, I enjoyed them, but there are problems. More on that next month. This coming weekend, I take an extended stay in Stratford to catch my first shows there this season, including Three Sisters, Bartholomew Fair, Julius Caesar, Cyrano de Bergerac and Macbeth. Nothing like some light theatrical entertainment for a summer weekend, right? I am looking forward to getting back to Stratford again; it is truly one of the most wonderful places in the world to visit for an extended stay.

Last week, of course, we heard of the loss in one day of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. The world is still coming to grips with the loss of these two disparate entertainers, as am I, and I will present my thoughts on the loss next week, including - in Michael Jackson's case - a curious parallel in the world of classical music I have been thinking about the last few days. But I am getting ahead of myself. There was another unusal piece of news last week totally overshadowed by the passing of Jackson and Fawcett.

In my June newsletter, FINEMUSIC NEWS, which you can subscribe to by writing to me at music@vaxxine.com and asking to be added to the mailing list, I included in my upcoming events listings the Big Event coming up next week at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake: a performance by Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman. Measha would appear in a program titled An Enchanted Evening along with pianis Michael Kaeshammer and Broadway performer Marcus Nance, performing music from the Shaw mandate - essentially music from the first half of the last century - under the stars on the grounds of historic Fort George. I no sooner went to press with the newsletter and I received word from Shaw the performance has had to be rescheduled from July 12th to August 9th.

The reason is astounding when you think about it: Measha underwent emergency open-heart surgery on June 10th! According to the press release Shaw sent out last week, Measha began experiencing acute pressure in her throat, and was rushed by ambulance to a Toronto hospital where she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and hypertension and then released. The next day proved no better: she reported to her family doctor of continued pains in her chest and she was immediately sent back to hospital. Further tests revealed she had a dissection in her aorta and doctors immediately performed open-heart surgery to repair it. Apparently she is now recovering and is doing quite well, all things considered. Needless to say, many performances had to be cancelled, including the Shaw date next week, but I am amazed she will be back performing as soon as August 9th following open-heart surgery just last month!

If you have tickets to the July 12th performance, you have likely already been contacted by the Shaw Festival box office about exchanging your tickets for the August 9th performance. If not, you can contact them directly at 1-800-511-7429.

I saw Measha Brueggergosman perform with Chorus Niagara a few seasons back at the Lake Street Amouries in a performance of Verdi's Requiem and even then, she commanded the stage like few others could. I would imagine this outdoor performance will be no different, and I also suspect a rousing standing ovation will be in order to celebrate her return to the stage after this recent setback.

Just think about it, though. Canada has begun to be a world leader in world-class classically-trained singers, and two of our biggest names have had serious medical issues: Ben Heppner and now Measha Brueggergosman. It just goes to show they are human just like the rest of us, and indeed, their careers carry more responsibility than you might think. It is wise when they step back from the stage and take the time to recover, rather than risk their careers. Of course, with Measha she really didn't have much choice in the matter.

Let's wish Measha a swift and full recovery and look forward to a triumphant return on August 9th. What was a Big Event will now be THE musical event of the summer!

June 30th, 2009.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why do I need Facebook or, Can you have too many 'friends'?

Every now and then, I find the need to veer off the largely musical course we take on this blog and venture into what I call the "High Rant District", where I get something off my chest before said chest explodes. Today is one of those days...so brace yourself for the tirade that follows...

When I started my business, A Web of Fine Music (www.finemusic.ca) just over six years ago, I bought my first computer. Yes, I was a late starter in this game. At the time, I thought with the phone and email, fax machine and talking in person, my communication needs were pretty well met. Then, a well-meaning friend set me up for MSN, which, you may remember, means you can 'talk' back and forth online....like with email. Only different. Okay, I gave it a try, but I found the distraction just too much, so I eventually disabled it.

About a year later I found myself in possession of my very first cell phone. Not that I wanted one, but with Dad aging at the time, I thought it best to have one so he could reach me if he needed to. I still have it, a bare-bones pay-as-you-go model from Bell that looks like it should have a hand crank to keep it going. Again, I thought I was set for any eventuality.

Then came texting, which I have never gotton on to, and likely never will. Why would I want to write short-form messages on a tiny phone keypad when I have...email? Or push (dial?) a number to actually talk to someone over the phone? But I am told there are people, mostly less than half my age who run up tremendous bills texting friends for no apparent reason other than to try to top the world record set earlier this month by someone who only started texting a few months ago. Do we really have that much to say? One suspects not.

So that brings me to the true object of my rant today: Facebook. Let me get this straight. I can have a page with pictures and a profile and when the mood strikes me, I can let the world know what I am doing at any given moment, should I wish to? So I can, say, let the world know that last bowel movement was a good one...or the one in the stall next to me was. Hope I remembered to wash my hands first before I sent that posting...

I know I am taking it to the extreme here, but really, is that not what it really amounts to? Every time I check my Facebook home page, which I got when people invited me to become a friend on Facebook, there is something inane written there, like "I am sitting here looking at the rain..." Good for you! But do I really need to know about it? What I find particularly annoying is I also receive the responses sent to this person who sent me the initial message. And they are not any better than the original comment! It's like someone responding to a general-circulation email and sending it to all the people who received the original email. You don't have to do that! Just send a specific email back to the person you are responding to, silly!

I started thinking about all this about a month ago when in the space of one week, I was invited to become a friend of someone on Facebook no less than five times, which means I have to log on to Facebook each time and accept their invitation. I am afraid not to, since I don't want anyone to feel slighted. But the whole operation seems to me to be a waste of time that could be used to do other things...like work.

Do we really need all this added communication between 'friends'? Do people need to be on their cell phones constantly, even when avoiding human contact while dealing with an in person sale in a store somewhere, for example? How about the idiots who drive with one hand with the other holding a cell phone to their ear. Are they really paying attention to either, or neither? And let's not get going about people who are walking down the street, talking on their cell phone, and everyone cannot help but here the conversation going on. That, in my mind, is noise pollution.

What this all boils down to is this: in a society that needs mass communication every hour of every day to stay in touch with people and what's going on in the world, are we really all that better off? Are they really communicating, or filling the space with empty words and talk? We use all these words, but what do they really mean? Very little, I find. But we have this seemingly incurable need to answer every phone call, respond to every email or text message, and accept that Facebook and MySpace are here to stay. Can we get on without them? Of course we can.

It is like the salesperson who can't survive without his cell phone for doing business. They did before cell phones became widespread, so why is it so vital now? Or is it simply that it is more convenient? Perhaps, but I doubt the world would end if all these so-called 'communication' tools somehow ceased to exist. What did our parents do with such little contact as a party line on a rotary dial telephone and a pen and paper and envelope? The managed quite nicely thank you.

I know, I know, I will not change the world here, and that is fine. I just wanted to say my piece, through another communication tool, namely my blog, and let the world know we could get on without all these communication tools if we really wanted to. Oh, and I am told Twitter is the next big thing. Good! Another way to communicate in even shorter spurts without saying anything much at all! Just what the world needs...

Don't let it all overtake you and start to run your life. That, I fear, is what is happening. Let's not lose the age-old tradition of actually communicating verbally face to face or at least over the phone and actually say something worth hearing. Life wouldn't stop if that's all we did!

June 20th, 2009.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Remembering when classical music was mainstream...

The other evening, I was in the car doing some errands, and as I often do in the evening, I tune in to Classical 96.3FM for musical companionship while I am out and about. I heard the finale to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto recorded in the 50s with Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is a classic, big sound from RCA Victor, and the disc, paired with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, is still available as an import item through my website, www.finemusic.ca.

I got to thinking as I was listening to this wonderful-sounding recording - still sounding wonderful over fifty years after it was recorded, even - will we ever see the days when benchmark recordings such as this one are made again; and, will classical music ever be as mainstream as it was at that time? The answer to both questions, sadly, is likely never. But think about it: over fifty years later, the recording still sounds as fresh and vital today as it did half a century ago; it has not aged much at all. I can't think of many recordings made today that could stand that test of time.

Back in the 1950s, RCA Victor was a powerhouse classical label, with most of the greatest artists of the last century recording for them at one time or another: Eugene Ormandy, Arturo Toscanini, Van Cliburn, Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch, as well as Heifetz. Orchestras included the Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia Orchestras, to name just three, and not even touching on the great European artists and orchestras signed to the label in those days. Nowadays, RCA, along with most other major labels, have relegated their classical divisions to rump status, only occasionally recording new CDs now, and endlessly mining their back catalogues for timeless material that likely will never be equalled.

Of course, back in those days, classical music was very much a part of many more lives than it is now: you could turn on the television and see Arthur Fielder lead the Boston Pops from Symphony Hall in Boston, for example. You could catch Leonard Bernstein explaining classical music to everyone, for heaven's sake. You could even watch live opera broadcasts on television! When was the last time you saw that on network television? Oh sure, we occasionally get a bunch of opera has-beens in a concert performance, but a full-scale opera staged for television? Not likely. Think back to Christmas, 1951, and imagine the magical experience of watching the world premiere performance of Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl & The Night Visitors, which premiered on television. The recording, also on RCA Victor, is now, sadly, out of print. You don't get that opportunity any more, and we're all the poorer for it.

There was a time, not that long ago in fact, when a conductor could be so larger-than-life, known to so many people, he could be parodied in a cartoon and everyone got the joke. It was, of course, Leopold Stokowski, hilariously sent up by Bugs Bunny in a classic Loony Tunes short where he was simply referred to as "Leopold". Everyone knew who was being parodied, and I imagine the real "Leopold" enjoyed the joke along with the rest of us. And speaking of cartoons, let's not forget Bugs and Elmer Fudd in their classic send up of Wagnerian Opera, which in fact, won an Oscar so many years ago. Now, most people who even bother to watch cartoons have no grasp of classical music at all, let alone opera.

The same people who bought these classic recordings and enjoyed the music on television and radio back then also took time to attend live classical concerts, either in stately concert halls or in summertime open-air venues like Tanglewood, for example. But they went, enjoyed, and would often buy the music on record afterwards. Now, we might catch a performance of Andre Rieu or someone on PBS, and find a way to download the music for free, if we bother at all. No wonder the industry is in such a state of flux these days.

A musical genre only survives if you feed it and nurture it. Sadly, today, most don't. And the end result is little or no new classical recording taking place, sparsely-attended classical concerts made up largely of seniors, and few people actually wanting to buy the music they hear at the concert. That is why, dear reader, record stores are a thing of the past in most cities, and my own online music business, A Web of Fine Music, may not last into the next year unless business picks up.

Funny what springs to mind while listening to one old, classic recording, eh? Let's not let the business die. It would be a shame ot lose such a rich part of our musical heritage.

June 13th, 2009.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A tale of two cities' downtowns...

Both Niagara Falls and St. Catharines are struggling with revitalizing their respective downtowns, each with results you can see now, and more expected in the future. It's a good sign; long-gone are the days when downtowns are left to languish as a sort of ghetto while everyone heads to the suburbs and the malls. There appears to be a renewed interest in saving our downtown cores and revitalizing the areas with new ideas and hopefully, more people visiting and living there. It is a long process, but I think we are starting to see results.

Last evening, for example, I was in downtown St. Catharines for the second Art City evening. This is a new initiative this year to bring art in many forms to many of the business spaces downtown on the first Friday of each month through the fall. The first two James Street Night of Art events, held in late October the last two years, has proven people will embrace a new idea and come downtown if there is something for them to do once they get there. From 6 to 9 pm, visual artists, musicians and others set up shop in many of the shops and cafes downtown to show what they are doing, and you can simply walk from location to location at your leisure to take in as much or as little as you like.

Last evening was a perfect evening for a stroll downtown, and since it is only about a five-minute walk from my house, there really was no excuse not to go this time. I was glad I did, as the variety of art offered to view was interesting to say the least, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. It was a wonderful sight, seeing people strolling downtown in the evening, as we discovered new ideas to peruse at the next location. This is an idea that, while not new, as our first Art City event, believe it or not was way back in 1975, has the potential to grow into something more as we continue to work on bringing culture to the masses downtown. The proposed performing arts centre will only further this concept and allow it to grow even more.

For more information on Art City and what businesses are participating, contact the St. Catharines Downtown Association or log onto their website at mydowntown.ca. You can also get in touch with the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council which is located in the heart of it all in downtown St. Catharines.

Meantime in downtown Niagara Falls, they are turning their Queen Street area into a haven for artists of every description, as old storefronts are converted into art galleries and new restaurants and cafes cater to the crowds who visit. It is an astounding transformation in a very short period of time, and it can only get better. This weekend, the second annual Springilicious food and wine event is taking place on Queen Street, along with three stages set up for entertainment right through Sunday evening. Many food vendors from the area and elsewhere in Niagara Falls are taking part.

Also in downtown Niagara Falls, the old Seneca Theatre on Queen Street has undergone a major renovation and is now home to Gypsy Theatre's summer theatre season, which began earlier this month with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats. I will write more about the theatre once I get a chance to visit sometime this summer but for now, suffice it to say revitalizing the old Seneca was long overdue, and from what I hear, the results have been worth the wait.

So there you go - nothing to do in the evening or on a weekend in Niagara? Where have you been?! There has never been more to do in the area, so get out there and be a tourist in your own backyard!

June 6th, 2009.