Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Downtowns - Part Two

Last spring I wrote of the changing face of both Niagara Falls' and St. Catharines' downtowns, as they both embarked on a road to reinvent themselves for a new generation. In both cases, it was the arts and culture sector to provide the inspiration if not the nuts and bolts of each core's rejuvenation. Here we are, almost a year later, and I thought it was time to examine the two situations once again.

In St. Catharines, we have government infrastructure money flowing into the downtown core to build a new parking garage on Carlisle, opposite the bus terminal. That project is now underway with the tearing down of the crumbling old structure. We now have two-way traffic in much of the downtown core, and the wine route is set to come right through the downtown in the near future. In anticipation of the future performing arts centre in tandem with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University, many are seeing the future of downtown St. Catharines enjoying a renaissance in the near future. Some new restaurants and shops have opened up, while others, most notably Elliott & Co. have prepared to close their doors, unable or unwilling to wait for the major work to be completed downtown.

It is never easy bringing a major project like the performing arts centre and school of fine & performing arts to fruition, and that has especially been the case lately. While the city-owned performing arts centre received funding last summer from all three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal, thereby almost assuring the project would be going ahead, there has been a significant snag that has developed on the school of fine & performing arts end. Brock University has not recieved their funding committment from the provincial government yet, and the project cannot go on without it. If the school section doesn't materialize, the performing arts centre proposal could go the same route, leaving exasperated city residents to wonder what if...and what went wrong.

Granted, we have to remain positive about this whole thing, and remain confident the provincial government will see their way clear to provide the anticipated funding needed to bring the whole complex beyond the planning stage and on to the building stage. But the unexpected turn of events earlier this year, when Brock President Jack Lightstone said the project is on hold for the time being until funding comes through, sent a chill through those of us who can almost taste the sweet success brought about by the funding announcements of last summer. I think it will happen, and not be delayed all that much in the long run. But there is concern the delay in funding could delay the whole project, and that would be really unfortunate. Let's continue to remain posititive, shall we? And that includes both sides of the performing/school arts centre. We need both to help inject new life in our downtown core, and I have every confidence this is only a temporary delay the parties will overcome sooner rather than later.

Now, on to Niagara Falls' much maligned Queen Street, which for many years has resembled a dishevelled matron on her last legs, just gasping for air. In the last couple of years, the Historic Niagara group headed by Mordechai Grun has taken it upon themselves to almost single-handedly revitalize the Niagara Falls downtown core. The results are nothing short of spectacular. Many new shops, cafes and the like line both sides of Queen Street, with only a handful of empty storefronts left to contend with; a far cry from a few years ago when walking downtown was more than a little depressing with all the empty storefronts staring you in the face. But now, Grun and company have worked out lease arrangements with a lot of creative and artistic types, along with those with a strong business background who can make things work downtown. Just last evening we were down at one of our favourite places to dine in Niagara Falls now: Paris Crepes, which recently won an award for their spectacular new restaurant design. On a Saturday night in January, the place was hopping, even by the time we left about 8:30. Granted, many, like us, were taking advantage of Paris Crepes' January 50% off special offer, but still, it was encouraging to see so many people out and enjoying their time in downtown Niagara Falls. When you sit in the restaurant and look out to Queen Street, you almost feel like you are in Paris! And that is just one of several new restaurants and cafes that have opening up in the last little while. The restaurant business is a notoriously difficult business to make successful, but so far, so good.

The only rumblings of discontent recently surrounds the possible departure of Gypsy Theatre from their home at the lavishly refurbished Queen Street theatre, a former movie house long since abandoned before Grun dumped a significant amount of his own money into it to make things work. The unfortunate thing for Gypsy Theatre is that after only one season in downtown Niagara Falls, they are having trouble attracting large enough crowds to fill the seats and make the theatre a viable operation. Time will tell on this one, and I hope they manage to work out an arrangement that keeps them at the downtown theatre, as live theatre is always the heartbeat of any downtown, I find.

So, two downtowns, and different yet similar paths to bring them back to life. In both cases, there have been setbacks, but overall, the progress is and will continue to be significant. Let's keep our fingers crossed for both downtowns. Niagara Falls and St. Catharines have much to lose and everything to gain from the success of both ventures. Good luck!

January 31st, 2010.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Niagara Symphony has a horse race on its hands!

When I last wrote in this space, just prior to Sunday's third Masters concert with the Niagara Symphony, I suggested with such a distinguished musical pedigree, it will be interesting to see how that will translate in front of the orchestra and audience as Diane Whittry takes the podium. She is, of course, the fourth and final candidate to publicly audition for the vacant Music Director's position with the Niagara Symphony. We have seen the other three gentlemen at least once so far, but Diane was considered a wild card of sorts, since we had not seen her at all before Sunday's performance.

Well, judging from Diane's sparkling Masters concert debut, we now have a genuine horse race here. I must say, though, all four candidates have impressed, and it is frankly good to see so much strong young conducting talent out there, especially those wanting to lead the Symphony. But while the three gentlemen have ranged from merely competent to very impressive, this reporter has found Ms. Whittry to be downright exceptional. If her Pops performance in May is even half as good as her Masters debut, we are in for a real treat.

Let's start with the musical introductions. No cue cards, no dry analytical descriptions. Diane's introductions were relaxed, informal, informed and entertaining. They were also brief enough not to bore you and long enough to get the point across. We knew we were in for something special when she explained T. Patrick Carrabre's ubiquitous Chase the Sun to such an extent it actually was interesting to listen to again. Here was an American taking such an interest in a Canadian composer, I am sure many in the audience found out things about Carrabre we never knew before. We also found out there are words tied to the music, which she cleverly decided to project on a screen above the orchestra to help with the appreciation of the piece. I am still not a big fan of the piece, but at least now I have a much greater appreciation of it and the composer.

The explanation of John Rutter's Suite Antique was equally informative, and the orchestra played the quiet music with more intensity than we are accustomed to hearing. Flute soloist Douglas Miller gave his customary polished approach to the solo passages, and Diane even let Doug do a solo encore that totally blew many away in the audience. The Handel Water Music was very competently played, if not particularly memorable, but it was the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that really sealed the deal for many on Sunday, I suspect.

It is always wonderful to watch the high-wire act of a conductor conducting a major work without the score, and Diane did that with the Beethoven on Sunday. Clearly she knows the work inside out and what the many nuances are, and she finessed the work to such an extent you could imagine almost any larger-market orchestra onstage on Sunday. While John Morris Russell managed to create a larger-than-life sound with his Beethoven No. 5 last season, this No. 7 in the hands of Whittry and Co. was much more natural, much more in keeping with what Beethoven himself likely had in mind.

Overall, the Symphony played with assurance and confidence, with the strings in particular sounding better than I have ever heard them before. Oh sure, there were a few bad notes beyond the strings, but overall, the Symphony appeared to be responding to Diane and she was taking us all along on a musical joyride. Even the placement of the violins onstage made for a different sound altogether, and although I am sure some of the musicians were out of their comfort zone, the end result was a richer, more balanced sound for the audience. Such attention to detail has separated Diane from the rest of the pack.

The verdict? Well, we won't know anything until the end of the season, of course, but as I said earlier, she has another opportunity to impress with her Pops performances in May. If she does, she will have to be considered the frontrunner for the position of Music Director of the Niagara Symphony. She is an accomplished musician in every sense of the word, able to communicate her thoughts to our musicians and the audience members as a whole; let's hope, though, if she does win the post, she stays for awhile. I think we'll all be the better for it.

January 27th, 2010.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Niagara Symphony gets rolling again this weekend

This Sunday, January 24th, the Niagara Symphony presents the first concert of 2010, and the third Masters performance of the season. This is a highly anticipated performance, I think, as we get to see the fourth and final candidate vying for the vacant Music Director's position with the Niagara Symphony. We've seen the first three conduct either a pops or masters concert so far, and in the case of Timothy Hankewich, both. This weekend the lone female candidate for the position, Diane Whittry, takes the podium in a program that includes Handel, Carrabre and of course, Beethoven.

A quick look at Diane's CV indicates she brings with her quite a distinguished musical pedigree: born in California, she is both guest conductor for several orchestras and Music Director of both the Allentown and Norwalk Symphony Orchestras. She's also written a book, "Beyond the Baton" about artistic leadership for young conductors and music directors, and is now the focus of a yearly National Conducting Workshop to help emerging conductors. So in other words, she is an accomplished musician; now we see what she does in front of an orchestra and audience here in Niagara, and as always, we'll be asked to assess the results.

The musical lineup is interesting, if not overly safe this time out: titled A Winter's Oasis, the program features principal flutist Douglas Miller on a rarely-heard John Rutter orchestral suite, titled Suite Antique. I have always enjoyed this lilting work, and am quite looking forward to hearing what Diane and the Symphony do with it. Also on the programme are selections from Handel's Water Music and of course, T. Patrick Carrabre's Chase the Sun, which all four conductors are performing at their respective Masters concert. Frankly, by the end of the season I'll be quite happy if I never hear the work again! Not that there's anything wrong with it, per se, it's just that four times in one season is more than enough, thank you very much.

The programme concludes with the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. I have noticed a preponderence of Beethoven symphonies as of late, going back to John Morris Russell's Hummer-sized Beethoven # 5 to end the season last year. Perhaps it is a tribute to the master himself, but it seems any conductor worth his or her salt has not proven themselves until they have conducted at least one of the Beethoven symphonies; they seem to be the acid test to determine the viability of any conductor these days. Somewhere I suspect Beethoven is smiling...

If you are planning to go and don't yet have a ticket, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for tickets for the performance tomorrow. It begins at 2:30, with a pre-concert talk 45 minutes before the concert. And as always, I will be in the lobby before, after and during intermission with lots of music to tempt you, including music performed on the programme and lots of other great recordings. If you don't see what you want, let me know what you are looking for and I will do my very best to find it for you, or you can email me at Of course, my website,, has many of the selections on the program tomorrow on the Mike's Picks page.

So everything is set: rehearsals are all but done; so let the music begin!

January 23rd, 2010.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A look at visual artists in Jordan Village this weekend

I don't often write about the visual arts in this space, as I am more into music and the performing arts, frankly, and those areas are my areas of expertise (or so I like to think!). However, I do have an appreciation if not always a full understanding of what visual artists are trying to communicate through their work, and find their work endlessly creative and fascinating to look at. Last summer when Art City was launched in downtown St. Catharines, I took the tour on a lovely summer evening along with many others, and discovered a wealth of talent out there just waiting for us to 'discover' them. It was quite enlightening, and I hope we have the opportunity again this summer if Art City returns to the downtown core.

This afternoon, while many were visiting Jordan Village for the launch of the Niagara Icewine Festival, I was visiting the Jordan Art Gallery right beside one of the Festival tents, for the launch of an art exhibition by our neighbour here in St. Catharines, Sandy Middleton. Sandy works full-time as a photographer and designer, and her company, Tansy & Co. produces a line of art that reflects her love of home design as well as expertise in the field of photography. Working in these two media, Sandy has created over the past while everything from handmade printed lampshades and linen pillows to tote bags and image art in old window frames. There seems to be no end to her artistic reach, and the subject of today's art launch at the Jordan Art Gallery is another example of her fresh thinking: now we have photographic images superimposed, if you will, on aluminum. You really have to see it to fully appreciate the effect, and you can do that through to January 30th at the JAG or anytime on her website,

While Sandy's present exhibit is only for a short time, her association with the Jordan Art Gallery will continue, as she has become a partner along with other artists who have permanent displays of their work at the gallery, which has become sort of a collective for contemporary artists working in all media here in Niagara. Among the artists sharing space at the gallery are Lillian Aylesworth, Janny Fraser, Joyce Honsberger, George Langbroek, Mori McCrae, Michelle Teitsma and Jan Yates. I had a chance to view many of their works on display at the gallery, and it is a testament to the variety of media used by these artists; there is just so much to see and experience in a relatively compact space. And of course, all the art is available for purchase.

I don't get out to art galleries as much as I should, really, but the variety I saw today suggests to me I had better get out more often, as there is so much to experience right here in Niagara by artists of every description. And they are all approachable, creative souls more than willing to discuss their creations with you!

Incidentally, coming up next month is the Heart to Heart Silent Art Auction to benefit the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Ontario. The Heart to Heart theme pays homage to the love and generosity of spirit symbolized by Valentines Day. A portion of sales from this artful auction will be going to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Ontario, with the opening reception and preview set for Sunday, February 7th from 2 to 4 pm; the auction closes Sunday, February 28th at 4 pm. More information on the Heart to Heart auction and the artists involved can be found on the gallery website at

January 16th, 2010.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Remembering some great talents we lost just recently

In my mid-week entry, I wrote about the loss of two local musical and theatrical talents in the area, Don Deyme of Ryson's Music and Goldie Semple of the Shaw Festival. Today, I'll look at three other musical luminaries from two different generations and totally different backgrounds we lost late in 2009 and early 2010.

Back in September, we lost the last half of a classically-trained piano duo who hit it big on the pop charts and never looked back. Art Ferrante, of Ferrante & Teicher fame, passed away September 20th at his home in Florida. He was 88. His piano teammate, Louis Teicher, passed away just last year. With their passing we've lost a long enduring piano duo who made some great music together for many years after first meeting at Juilliard.

Now, great music is a subjective term, of course. I say great music because I was drawn to their arpeggio-packed arrangements in the 60s and 70s like many others were. They specialized in the easy-listening musical genre popularized by contemporaries like Percy Faith, Mantovani and Bert Kaempfert, among many others. The art form is all but lost now, but their recordings survive and still sell well today.

The early F&T recordings in the 50s were full of special-effects designed to show off new-fangled hi-fi systems of the day, but their real fame rested on their recordings with full studio orchestra starting around 1960. The Theme from The Apartment, Exodus and Midnight Cowboy all hit the charts and did very well. The latter hit, from the late 60s, also featured a so-called "dripping guitar" accompaniment along with orchestra that became briefly popular. Always travelling with their trademark Steinways, Ferrante & Teicher also began to pioneer the gaudy stage outfits later popularized by the likes of Liberace and Doc Severinson.

I interviewed the pair by phone back around 1980 when they were appearing in Toronto, doing the club circuit when their recording days were all but done. They could still draw a crowd, however, and they wore gaudy outfits even then. Of course, by 1980 it didn't seem to look all that out of place! I still have a signed 8X10 black and white photograph of them wearing tuxedo jackets so loud they'd make even Don Cherry blush! But their music has stood the test of time, and we'll not likely see their likes again.

The second passing, from the world of opera, was that of Met singer Mary Curtis-Verna, who appeared in nearly 100 performances at the Met from the late 50s to the late 60s. Her voice was large and flexible, and her looks were picture-perfect. Curtis-Verna was also known to have a very tame temperment, quite unusual for sopranos of the time, such as Maria Callas, who was also one of the new hires at the Met for the 1956-57 season. Curtis-Verna taught at the University of Washington after retiring, and was emeritus professer of music there when she died at the age of 88 on December 4th.

As good as her voice was, her temperment seemed to hinder her career somewhat, as critics felt she lacked the fire of some of her contemporaries. But her real talent lay in her ability to totally absorb musical scores on short notice, and as a result, in the space of little over a month, she filled in for three ailing sopranos at the Met, each time on short notice. December 1st, 1957, she filled the title role in Aida when Renata Tebaldi's mother died; December 28th she subbed for an ailing Eleanor Steber as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, after only finding out she would be in the role at 5:30; and on January 4th, 1958, 51 years ago this week, she took over another leading role in a Met performance, replacing an unavailable Zinka Milanov in Aida.

That kind of reliability would win you a lot of kudos and friends in the opera world, and Mary Curtis-Verna made it work to her advantage for the next several years. When you think about it, that is an amazing talent: knowing all the music and learning the stage directions almost at the last minute - at the Met! Amazing...

Finally, last weekend we lost the young Montreal singer Lhasa, who died at the age of 37 after succumbing to breast cancer. She had just released her latest album last spring, but was unable to tour to promote it due to her illness. Her voice was truly one-of-a-kind and especially evocative, causing many to remark her unique voice and stage presence were truly her own and struck a deep emotional chord in people. Born to a Mexican father and American mother, Lhasa was comfortable with her music and voice, and felt her last album was probably her most satisfying. It's very sad to see a talent like hers go; at 37 it is even harder to accept.

At A Web of Fine Music, we specialize in finding music you want; if any of these artists pique your interest, drop me a line at or through my website at and I will see what is available by them for you.

January 9th, 2010.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

2010 starts with the loss of two local heroes

Over the last couple of weeks I have been collecting obituary notices on some pretty interesting people we have lost lately. I have so many I want to mention, in fact, I am going to do two of them here in this space today and the rest in my usual Saturday entry. The first two today are of a particularly local nature, and both are great losses to the community.

This morning I attended the funeral mass at St. Mary of the Assumption church on St. Paul Crescent in St. Catharines for the late Donald Deyme, who passed away at the relatively young age of 63 this past Sunday. I say relatively young age because, being 52 myself, I find a death at 63 hits me harder than it did even a few years ago. Many will know Donald as the husband of Anne Deyme; together they owned and operated Rysons Music on Court Street in downtown St. Catharines for many years. The business is still a going concern, of course, selling musical instruments and providing musical instruction to a host of young, aspiring musicians for what seems like forever. I hope Anne finds the strength to keep the business open following the loss of her husband, but obviously it is too early to tell what plans she might have. Our thoughts are with her at this difficult time, of course.

I first met Anne and Donald a number of years ago when the irrepressible Anne, a big fan of the CKTB morning show, which I produce every day, asked me to start emceeing some of her events she organized. These ranged from the annual Kiwanis musical showcase each spring to the launch of St. Catharines Idol for a couple of summers and most recently, her latest idea, Fiddlefest in downtown St. Catharines in July. It was often disorganized mayem, but Anne usually managed to get everything under control and keep everything moving. Usually in the background, quietly supplying his support and encouragement, was Don. I never really got to know Don all that well, as he was a very quiet man who let his wife shine in the spotlight, but he was always there doing what he could, either at the events or simply keeping things going back at the shop. I know everyone shares with me condolences sent out to Anne and her family for the loss of her husband of so many years.

Just before Christmas, word came out from the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake that long-time ensemble member Goldie Semple had passed away peacefully at home following a courageous battle with cancer. She leaves behind her husband of 33 years, Lorne Kennedy, another long-time ensemble member, and their 14 year old daughter Madeline.

Goldie Semple was a Shaw ensemble member for 17 seasons, and I think I probably caught every one of her performances over those 17 years. She appeared in last season's production of Brief Encounters and in 2008 played the role of Desiree in Shaw's memorable production of A Little Night Music. Many other productions also spring to mind: the 2001 production of Picnic and Noel Coward's Easy Virtue. That just scratches the surface, of course. She appeared in many productions over the years at the Stratford Festival as well, effortlessly moving between the two festivals at will. She also appeared on stages across the country from Vancouver to Manitoba as well as Toronto, and was co-founder of the Stratford-based theatre company Foolscap. In her spare time, she would compile and perform programs of poetry and music for the Niagara Historical Museum.

I have long been a fan of both Goldie and Lorne, a consummate theatre couple if ever there was one. Goldie's many qualities onstage and off were easy to admire; her talents immeasurable. I always found her peformances deeply felt and usually very elegant; oftentimes she was one of the sexiest women onstage. I still remember her daring portrayal of the title role in Camille on the Festival stage about 20-odd years ago; a production that briefly featured full frontal nudity. But she handled the scene with great care and it was not the least bit offensive.

The theatre community has lost a giant in Niagara-on-the-Lake; the Niagara music community has lost a quiet leader. But we'll collectively carry on, keeping them in our hearts as we head into 2010.

January 7th, 2010.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Where is all the Happy New Year music?

So here we are, January 2nd, and Christmas and New Years' have now passed for 2009 and we have the cold reality of January 2010 staring us in the face with nary a holiday to look forward to until Family Day arrives in Ontario mid-February. Hopefully your holiday season has been a pleasant one, and you are ready to get back to the more mundane routine of life once again.

In an earlier entry in December I noted the sales for A Web of Fine Music were quite strong for the season, although the numbers would not be in until the end of the month. Well, New Year's Day I did the calculations and I am happy to report this was my third best December since I started A Web of Fine Music in 2003. I am pleasantly surprised, as the economy has not been good this year and the music industry as a whole has not been particularly healthy for some time now. But the signs were encouraging in December, and I hope the good feelings extend into the New Year for not only my business but all businesses that have been struggling during this recession. I thank all of you, my loyal customers, for all your support and of course your sales this year in general and this Christmas season in particular.

Now, I don't know why, but last evening I was thinking about the profound lack of music appropriate to the New Years' celebration. We have hundreds if not thousands of Christmas songs and carols to listen to in December, but relatively few pertain specifically to New Years' Eve or Day in any way, shape or form. I did a search this morning and with just the song title Happy New Year, I turned up 275 entries, everything from The A-Teens to Zauberberg as performers. Now, 275 isn't bad when you think about it, but it is a far cry from the wealth of Christmas music readily available.

Last evening I was listening to some music appropriate to the day, which numbered just one single, solitary title: it's a Gordon Jenkins tune titled Happy New Year, and the only performance I've ever heard of it is on an old Capitol disc released in the early 60s titled Nat King Cole Sings the Great Songs! Well, maybe most of them were about 4o-odd years ago, but many of them have not stood the test of time, including Happy New Year. It's a pretty melancholy, bitter-sweet song of a love gone wrong and the poor sap is alone on New Year's Eve while all around him celebrate with their "stupid little horns". Not Gordon Jenkins' best effort, to be sure, but it was a product of its time and frankly, I kind of felt for the guy in the song many years ago when I was in the same lonely boat on New Years' Eve. It was released on a Capitol/EMI two-fer disc, paired with Thank You, Pretty Baby, from the same era, and should still be available if you're interested. Nat sounds great, by the way, although it was not too many years before cancer would ultimately claim his life and his golden voice.

Other New Year songs? Of course, the most popular of all is Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne, performed since early in the last centrury to welcome New Years' Eve at 12 midnight by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. I still have an old live recording made by Guy and the band from the early 70s not long before he died, although sadly it has never made it onto CD that I can see.

Beyond that, you have to really start to look. I always enjoy the song Happy New Year with Abba, first appearing on their Super Trooper album in the 80s and still readily available. I also recall an old RCA lp from about 20 years ago featuring the Vienna Choir Boys with a New Year Carol on it, but that is the only recording of it I've ever seen. So you see, there is not really that much to choose from.

Now, although I am a retailer of music, I would never suggest you run out and stock up on music appropriate for New Years' Eve or Day, since most people make do with Guy Lombardo at midnight and their own favourites the rest of the time and leave it at that. However, if you fancy hearing some of the New Years' songs that have been recorded over the years, drop me a line at or through my website, and I will see what I can find for you. And remember, all through the year I am at your service to find just the right song or classical work you are looking for. Don't wait until December, why not enjoy great music all year long?

Happy New Year!

January 2nd, 2010.