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.