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.