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.

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