Sunday, December 27, 2009

A busy December makes for a good Christmas season?

So here we are, a couple of days removed from Christmas Day, and I am finally able to get some time to catch up on the computer after a very hectic last couple of weeks. My apologies for not writing just before Christmas, but the days were long enough as they were as I struggled to keep up with orders coming in to my online business, A Web of Fine Music (

By way of wrapping up the Christmas week and embarking on the in-between week leading up to New Year's, I thought I would look at the month that was from a business standpoint, as this was a critical one for many retailers, myself included.

The economic downturn of the past year caused sales to decline for most of us, and speaking for myself I found all but one month this year below the sales of the same month the year before. The numbers for December won't be tallied until the end of the month, of course, and I can't speak for other retailers as to how their holiday sales were. But I can tell you my seat-of-the-pants feeling on both sides of the question appears to suggest business was better this December than last. It won't be enough to erase the losses racked up the rest of the year, but it is an encouraging start to a much-anticipated turnaround.

For me personally, this has been a very difficult year: in addition to sales being down most of the year, I lost my father unexpectedly in April, and my beloved cat Pushkin, who was my constant companion for 15 years, in October. I was also hospitalized three times during August and September for unscheduled surgery and resulting infections. So my expectations going into the Christmas season, both economically and emotionally, were not good. I must say, however, from what I have seen so far, my skepticism was unfounded.

While the number of individual sales might be only slightly better than last year, I found the total dollar value of purchases made was up from last year, indicating people had more confidence and spent their money more confidently. Other retailers I have talked to have echoed those sentiments, indicating to many of us the economy is indeed rebounding as we head into the second decade of the 21st century. Let's hope so, because retailers need a good year to make up for the last one, and besides, pumping more money into the economy on the consumer rather than the government level is always preferable. I would suggest, however, you spend your dollars wisely and whenever possible, locally.

The music business, as I have written before, is not a healthy business to begin with, so flat sales would not be a welcome sign this Christmas. However, in spite of the ever-increasing use of digital downloads and digital file-sharing, there appears to be even now a healthy market for hard copy recordings out there. I hope so, as I specialize in finding CDs and DVDs for people throughout the Niagara Region and beyond, and I can only be as healthy as my customers allow me to be. So thank you for your continued support over the past several years, and let's work together to make 2010 a rebound year not just for A Web of Fine Music, but for other retailers as well.

You can always contact me at or directly through email at for any musical enquiries you might have and orders you want to place.

Finally, just before I wrap up today, I want to thank so many people, many of whom I don't know read my weekly or twice-weekly blog entries in this space. I am constantly amazed when someone gets in touch, as one did just the other day, to say they enjoy my entries and what I write. It's nice to know; otherwise I begin to feel I am in a vacumn as far as my blog entries are concerned. Keep those comments coming, and by all means, join the list of "followers' to my blog, so I get a better idea how many people are actually reading my material. As for me, I will try to keep up the pace of coming up with interesting things to discuss in this space as often as possible in the new year.

Happy New Year to you!

December 27th, 2009.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Busy week before Christmas in Niagara

I had planned my usual Wednesday entry this week, but I have been so busy keeping up with work with my website, A Web of Fine Music ( that I just couldn't get to my blog until now. That's good, of course, because we didn't know what to expect this year with the economy being what it is, but so far, so good, with a few days left to go. If time allows I will have a Wednesday entry this coming week, including some last minute Christmas gift ideas of a musical nature. But for now, let's get caught up on all the concerts last week and this before things shut down for the holidays...

The Niagara Symphony held their annual Holiday Pops! concerts last Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. Saturday was almost a sell-out; Sunday definitely was, and that was good to see. The Niagara Symphony always puts on a good Christmas show, and this is one of the best I can remember attending. Much of the credit must go to conductor Timothy Hankewich, the British Columbian now living in Indiana and presently Music Director of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra. Tim completed his second turn with the Niagara Symphony last weekend, so unless he wins the Music Director's post over his rivals, we likely won't see him again. That will be a pity, as I think if anyone has a shot at this position and brings the most well-rounded credentials to the post, it has to be Hankewich. I was impressed with his Masters debut earlier in the season; his Pops performance last weekend pretty much sealed the deal for many in the audience, I think. He arranges music imaginatively; appears to be able to communicate his thoughts with the orchestra; is engaging with the audience; and he even sings, for heaven's sake! His turn at the mic, accompanying The Mantini Sisters on the finale, his own arrangement of "Yule B Swingin'" raised a few eyebrows in the audience. Sure, he's a better conductor than a singer, but hey, Placido Domingo is a better singer than a conductor. Anyway, we still have a long way to go in this conductor's search, and in fact the wild card now is Diane Wittry who comes from the Allentown and Norwalk Symphony Orchestras. Her first turn on the podium is next, with the third Masters concert coming up January 24th. The other three candidates have had at least one performance so far; her two are in the new year, so we will see what she brings to the podium next month. Overall, though, a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas concert!

Next, I was fortunate enough to attend the Brott Music Festival's debut performance in Niagara: the 10th anniversary performance of Handel's Messiah at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street. While much was written and said about the arrival of Boris Brott and his National Academy Orchestra beforehand, in the end they came with their A-game on the schedule and clearly delivered the goods. The orchestra, made up of young up-and-coming musicians who will likely go on to bigger things with major symphony orchestras elsewhere, get to play alongside established veterans who act as mentors. Last weekend, I noted Helen Hong on violin and Gisela Depkat on cello, two of the mentors in the chamber-sized orchestra. It was interesting to note the violins were all standing for the performance, which made for a nice change, while the rest of the musicians all sat; also, the vast majority of the musicians were female. In fact, I counted only four males in the ensemble, so I don't know what that tells us. Do more women aspire to be classical musicians than men, or are they simply better, thereby meaning more of them got into the orchestra? One wonders...anyway, the musicians were on their game last week, and they had to be, as they were accompanied by the singers known as Arcady. I have heard their recordings before, but this was the first time to hear them in person, and they are an impressive group. You would be hard pressed to find a more accomplished group of singers in the country today, and that is saying something, because we are blessed with some outstanding choral groups in the country, and especially here in Niagara with Chorus Niagara and Choralis Camerata setting their own high standards of performance. As for Boris, he is always a larger-than-life presence onstage, and it was a real treat to be able to sit so close to the orchestra and see the many nuances you don't usually encounter sitting further back.

I hope the Brott Music Festival uses this performance as a spring board to more performances in the Region in the future, as I think there is plenty of room in the arts environment here for more performances. I noted only a few empty seats at St. Thomas, so obviously people wanted to come and hear the concert in that wonderful acoustic known as St. Thomas. Thanks, Boris, for a musical Christmas present last weekend!

Finally, let's look to this weekend, and the much anticipated Christmas concert by Chorus Niagara. This, of course, is the off-year for Messiah, so the trick is always to come up with something else interesting enough to bring people in on what many may consider an "off" year since they are not doing Messiah. Artistic Director Robert Cooper appears to have pulled another musical rabbit out of his hat, as the second half of tonight's performance features the Canadian Premiere of Swedish Composer Nils Lindberg's Count Basie-esque big band suite known as A Christmas Cantata. I have heard good things about this work, and obviously so have many others, as the performance tonight is completely sold out. So if you want to take a chance and show up at Calvary Church tonight, they might be able to squeeze you in, but that might be a bit too optimistic at this point. At any rate, it should be a festive way to end the Christmas concert season in Niagara. Oh, and if you are going tonight, I will be in the lobby at intermission and after the show with lots of great Christmas music to sell, both choral and instrumental.

See you tonight!

December 19th, 2009.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Get set for Christmas with the Niagara Symphony!

I don't know if you have had this problem this year, but I have not really been in the full-scale Christmas spirit yet. Perhaps it's the weather; perhaps it is the poor economy this year. Whatever it is, I am slow getting that warm glow that comes with feeling good about hearing Christmas carols again and seeing all the lights and decorations. Mind you, nothing takes away the Christmas spirit for many of us more than a trip to the mall, which I did last Saturday. All those people rushing about, not necessarily thinking about "goodwill towards men." All of which means for some of us, shopping online from the comfort of home has many advantages at this time of year.

Of course, I would be greatly amiss if I didn't take this golden opportunity to plug my own online music business, A Web of Fine Music, at I have lots of great Christmas music in stock, both old and new, and I will be writing about some of my favourites in the coming days. I will also have a good selection of these seasonal favourites on hand this weekend when the Niagara Symphony presents their second Pops! concert of the season, titled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.

This is usually when the music weaves its magic and I finally begin to feel the Christmas spirit overtake me, and I suspect tonight and tomorrow afternoon will see the return of that absent feeling. The Niagara Symphony always presents a great Christmas concert, and this year promises to be no different. As the conductor search continues, we welcome back Timothy Hankewich to the podium for his second and last appearance this season, leading the orchestra and special guests The Mantini Sisters through a slew of holiday classics, including the ubiquitous sing-alongs with the audience members.

On the program this weekend will be one of my favourite orchestral holiday classics, Leroy Anderson's A Christmas Festival. I remember our high school band performing this every year at our Christmas concert at Neil McNeil High School in east-end Toronto, but I suspect this performance will be a little more, um, polished than we were way back when. I happen to have copies of the Festival to sell this weekend, by the way; a newer recording with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the classic 1959 recording with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Also on the program will be Hankewich's own interpretation of "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" and some other Hankewwich creations.

The Mantini Sisters will be special guest performers, and they are tremendously popular around these parts for their music and great charitable work with Wellspring Niagara. So all in all, it promises to be a great kick off to your holiday celebrations, but keep in mind, the Christmas concert always sells well; in fact the Sunday afternoon performance is already sold out. Some seats are still available for the Saturday evening show, tonight, but I wouldn't wait too long to book them. You can call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or take your chances at the door this evening.

Now, where's my infamous Santa hat?

December 12th, 2009.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Handel's Messiah - Part Two

Last weekend, I wrote of the two different presentations of Handel's celebrated oratorio Messiah in Niagara this season. It is funny; the year Chorus Niagara doesn't do Messiah, two other groups fill the void.

As I wrote on Saturday, Choralis Camerata directed by Laura Thomas presented Messiah twice on the weekend; Saturday evening in St. Catharines and Sunday afternoon in Fonthill. I didn't attend the Saturday performance but did attend the Sunday afternoon performance, and I found the choir and orchestra presented a thoroughly enjoyable performance of the work. The chorus particularly was more assured this time out, having only performed the work for the first time a couple of years ago. They perform Messiah the years Chorus Niagara takes a break. For a very reasonable price, Laura Thomas and Choralis Camerata presented a high-quality interpretation of the work for a capacity crowd.

Now, to this weekend. Boris Brott, well known around these parts for his highly-successful Brott Music Festival in Hamilton and surrounding area three seasons of the year, has for 10 years now presented their own Messiah in the Hamilton/Burlington area. In fact, Saturday evening they perform at St. Christopher's Church in Burlington and Monday evening at West Highland Baptist Church in Hamilton up on the mountain. In between, Boris brings his celebrated National Academy Orchestra and the Arcady Singers to St. Catharines for the first time ever, performing Sunday evening at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street. This has long been one of my favourite churches locally, in spite of the wooden chairs that punish you over the long haul! The acoustic is quite nice and the setting is absolutely wonderful. This should prove to be a perfect setting for the performance, although the size of the venue limits the number of tickets that can be sold, I would think.

That being said, ticket sales appear to be good and everything is in place for Sunday evening. I talked with Boris while he was in Ottawa earlier this week, and he is certainly looking forward to introducing his young orchestra and company to a new audience here in Niagara, and I think by and large, the feeling is mutual. There may be some who wonder if we really need a second presentation of Messiah in the Region, but I say 'Why not?' Not everyone can go to one or the other, and fewer still can go to both; this gives more people an opportunity to enjoy this Christmas and Easter staple and perhaps even be exposed to the work for the very first time.

There is certainly room for two different presentations of Messiah, and I think it will be a comment on the artistic values Niagarans place on the Christmastime tradition if last weekend and this weekend provide strong ticket sales. Last week did, and I have no doubt this weekend will as well.

Let's put politics aside for once and just enjoy the occasion. We are blessed with choral riches in Niagara anyways; this Christmas it is all the richer, and we're all the better for it. Let's fill those seats on Sunday evening at St. Thomas as many did last weekend with Choralis Camerata's fine peformances. There will always be room in this town for two Messiahs!

For tickets, check out their website at and we'll see you there.

December 10th, 2009.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lots of great choral music all around us this weekend!

If you, like me, love great choral singing, this is a weekend made in heaven here in Niagara. We have two performances of Handel's Messiah with Choralis Camerata as well as a Christmas CD concert with the Niagara Vocal Ensemble. By Monday, if you are not yet in the Christmas spirit, I suggest you have your pulse make sure you have one.

Let's start with Messiah. Even though Handel originally wrote the oratorio as an Easter work, and in fact it premiered in Dublin in April of 1742 at the New Music Hall, it has for years been thought of as a Christmas staple. In fact, there are more Messiah performances than anything else at this time of the year, no matter where you go in this province. Along with the classic Toronto Symphony/Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, we have December performances in such places as Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton and Elora, with their appropriately-titled 'Village Messiah'. There are many more, of course, but these are the ones at least within driving distance of Niagara.

Of course, here in the Region we have the rather interesting prospect of what I have dubbed 'duelling Messiahs': as in the past, since Chorus Niagara is not doing the oratorio this year (Robert Cooper wisely alternates years so we have something different to look forward to every other year), Laura Thomas and her choral group Choralis Camerata pick up the musical gauntlet and run with it those years Chorus Niagara is doing something else. So it is this weekend, as Choralis Camerata presents their Messiah performances tonight at First Grantham United Church on Linwell Road in St. Catharines, and Sunday afternoon at Saint Alexander Roman Catholic Church in the heart of Fonthill. The chamber choir performs with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Sinfonia, conducted by Laura Thomas. Laura has done great things with this choir in a very short period of time, and her Messiah promises to be a most enjoyable performance. I will have to miss the Saturday evening performance, but I hope to be at the Sunday afternoon performance in Fonthill, with music to sell in the lobby on behalf of A Web of Fine Music. Needless to say, plenty of Messiah performances on CD and DVD will be available along with other seasonal recordings.

New this year, and quite unexpectedly, we have a second performance of Messiah in St. Catharines a week from Sunday, as the Brott Music Festival enters the fray with Boris Brott and the National Academy Orchestra. They perform Sunday evening at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street, and I am interested to see how it is received just a week after the Choralis Camerata performances. Boris does what Boris does, of course, and I am sure it will be a wonderful performance; let's see how the audience responds this year. Should be interesting!

Meantime, also this weekend on Sunday afternoon at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street, the Niagara Vocal Ensemble presents their Christmas concert, titled Winter in Niagara: Seasonal Music from Niagara and Beyond. The choir is directed by Dr. Harris Loewen from the Department of Music at Brock University, and performs music by both Canadian and international composers for this concert, including W. H. Anderson, Holst, Warlock and many others. I have heard the choir many times in the past and they are an exceptional ensemble.

This concert also features the release of their brand-new Christmas CD, titled Voices of Niagara 2: A Niagara Noel. Local composers such as John Butler and Tim Phelan are both featured on this new disc; I have not heard it yet but as soon as I do I will review it in this space so you can consider it as a musical Christmas gift for either yourself or someone special on your list.

Incidentally, the choir will be joined by several alumni members for this holiday concert at St. Barnabas, and Lesley Kingham is the piano accompanist. Tickets are available through the Brock box office, but you should be okay to just pick them up at the door.

So there you go: three Messiahs in a week and the Niagara Vocal Ensemble right smack in the middle of it all. Choral fans have nothing to complain about this week!

December 5th, 2009.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Niagara Symphony serves up some tasty Hot Cross Buns last weekend

As noted in my last blog entry on the weekend, the Niagara Symphony's second Masters concert was held Sunday afternoon at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University, with John Morris Russell conducting the orchestra in a concert titled, I mentioned on the weekend rather unfortunately, Hot Cross Buns - English Style! Not that I have anything against the music on the programme or its connection to hot cross buns, which I happen to love, incidentally. I just thought it was a rather unwieldy title.

That being said, the orchestra was in fine form for this concert, with Russell wringing every ounce of music out of the players. And I must say, they didn't seem to mind the exercise one little bit. I also mentioned on the weekend it would be interesting to see how Russell handled the smaller-sounding works on the programme; whether he would be able to 'finesse' the music. I am happy to report that he did, in fact, show a fair amount of finesse in regards to the music, even if his broad conducting strokes produced a little more volume than necessary at times.

The William Boyce and Johann Christian Bach works were taught and crisply played; the Vaughan Williams Oboe concerto lovingly handled and beautifully played by soloist Christie Goodwin; and the Haydn London Symphony was an exhuberant depiction of life in London in Haydn's time. Even the ubiquitous Carrabre piece, Chase the Sun, conducted by all four candidates this season, seemed more tolerable this time out.

Now, the case can be made, perhaps, John Morris Russell is a bit too 'showy' in his conducting style for the orchestra. Certainly, his Beethoven 5th Symphony at the end of last season was a no-holds barred affair that even had the audience working up a sweat along with him and the orchestra. But perhaps, too, that is not a bad thing right now. For me, it all comes down to what you achieve with the orchestra, and the sound I heard from the orchestra again with Russell on the podium indicates he and the musicians get along together, and they respond to his style of conducting. They were on their collective game this past weekend, and the results were obvious: they were prepared, and they came to play. What more can you ask of an orchestra and their conductor?

To be sure, we have a long road ahead of us with this season's conductor search with the Niagara Symphony. In January we finally get to meet and hear what the fourth candidate, Diane Wittry, can bring to the podium, for example. Plus, the upcoming Pops! concert in December, always a crowd pleaser, promises to be very interesting this year with Timothy Hankewich on the podium again. His first Masters outing this season was very impressive indeed. But at this stage of the competition, I would have to say John Morris Russell is the man to beat; or, put another way, the job is his to lose. We'll see how things unfold...

The Sunday afternoon Pops! concert December 12th is sold out, incidentally; the Saturday evening, December 11th is filling up fast, but there are still good seats available, so to plant yours in one of theirs, call the Brock box office soon at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

December 2nd, 2009.