Saturday, February 27, 2010

Surprise announcement from the Niagara Symphony

So there I was, sitting at my desk Friday afternoon, starting to think about what I was going to write on my Saturday morning blog entry, mulling over several possibilities, when an e-mail came in from the Niagara Symphony, and I had my entry. In a way, the announcement I received yesterday afternoon was a bit of a surprise, to say the least, so let's look at it now.

The Music Director competition is now down to three candidates from four, with the announcement John Morris Russell, whom many considered a strong candidate for the position, has withdrawn from the competition, citing an inability to fulfill the commitment needed to properly guide the orchestra into the future. Maestro Russell states: "the future of the (Symphony) depends on a musical leader who can devote himself or herself wholeheartedly to the huge tasks at hand, and I no longer believe I can make the kind of commitment (the Symphony) will need to move forward".

In issuing the press release, Niagara Symphony Executive Director Jack Mills expressed disappointment with Maestro Russell's decision, but noted he was not surprised, given the conductor's increasingly busy schedule both in Canada and the United States. Mills writes in the release the Maestro's schedule for next season would only have allowed him to conduct one concert in the entire season.

So, some questions here. Was the availablility of Maestro Russell beyond this season not known going into this competition? Obviously not all his dates would be set two years in advance, but if it looks like he could only conduct one concert next season if he won this competition, we're no further ahead than we are right now. Or was the chemistry simply not there with the musicians in Maestro Russell's mind and he did the honourable thing and withdrew from the competition to give the others a better chance of winning? We'll probably never know, but one has to wonder.

I liked what he brought to the table, and what he achieved with the Symphony in a relatively short period of time. Maestro Russell is an energetic, forward-thinking conductor who shows great promise, and it is surely a loss to Niagara that he decided to withdraw. But perhaps it is all for the best, as we need someone now to devote their time to reshaping this orchestra and making it their own, and that cannot be done while conducting the occasional concert here and there.

The question has to be raised, in light of this development, where do we stand with the remaining three conductors in the race? All three have commitments to other orchestras at the moment, with Diane Wittry conducting two other orchestras at the present time, for example. Are these three remaining candidates willing and able to devote the time and effort necessary to making the Niagara Symphony a better orchestra? All three clearly have the tools; but do they have the time? I think we are right in asking the question before the end of this search for a new Music Director.

There is a vital need to get this right this time. I like all three of the remaining candidates, so we have no shortage of talent available to us. But we need the commitment, and we need it soon. I hope the remaining three candidates are serious in their desire to lead the Symphony into the future.

We have one more Masters, April 11th with Bradley Thachuk conducting, and two final Pops! performances May 1st and 2nd with Diane Wittry conducting. So we still have time to get this right, but not that much time. After all, May is only two months away, and the decision on a new Music Director comes soon afterwards, I'm told.

Tickets are still available for the remaining concerts this season through the Brock box office, by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Should be an interesting finish to this season-long search!

February 27th, 2010.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Niagara Symphony has some Canadian fun on the weekend

This past weekend, the Niagara Symphony presented their third Pops! concert of the current season, with a concert titled "Winter Carnival". Conducted by John Morris Russell of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and featuring Canadian soprano Mary Lou Fallis performing selections from her successful CD Primadonna on a Moose, it was a fun concert of winter-themed music for a February weekend.

This was Russell's final appearance with the Niagara Symphony as their current conductor search continues, and he seemed to want to make the most of it. His conducting was precise, if not overly flamboyant, and his patter with both the audience and Mary Lou was unscripted and generally light and easygoing. I thought personally he talked a bit too much for this concert, as both he and Mary Lou were conversing throughout the concert and it appeared at times to be a bit too much and a bit too unscripted. However, much humour ensued and most of the audience members didn't seem to mind all that much.

Mary Lou Fallis is still one of our undiscovered gems, I think. Her one-woman shows are full of interesting insights on the music she's presenting, and this small slice of one of them was a good sampler. Her voice is quite lovely, making you wonder why she is not a fully engaged 'serious' opera singer. Her clever props are just short of going a bit too far, such as asking audience members to make up a horse-and-sleigh ensemble for her version of Canadian Sleigh Song.

A lot of the music is largely forgotten now, but with Mary Lou's research and wonderful sense of humour, she presents them as these little musical gems we should have known about all along. I particularly enjoyed We Dye to Live, a unique advertising vehicle for the Parker Dye Works in Toronto, and Take Your Girl Out to the Rink with a nice tie-in to the Rink at the Brink in the introduction. However, the discription of Lacrosse Our Own National Game neglected to mention the fact St. Catharines was home to the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame at the St. Catharines Museum complex until it was brought to their attention at intermission on Sunday afternoon. All of the music Mary Lou presented came from her Opening Day Records disc, Primadonna on a Moose which, if you didn't pick up a copy at the concert on the weekend, you can still order through my website, A Web of Fine Music (

As for John Morris Russell, I still feel he's a serious contender for the post of Music Director of the Niagara Symphony, however I no longer feel he's the frontrunner. Now that we have seen all four conductors in action, I find his conducting style a little too extroverted for the Symphony, and although the musicians responded with generally solid playing, I wonder if his almost over-the-top 'friendly neighbour' style of Pops conducting might wear a little thin in the long haul. But, the competition is not done yet, of course, so we'll have to wait and see what happens this spring.

We're down to the short strokes in both the season and the competition for a new Music Director; just one more Masters and Pops! concert remain to see our candidates in action. In April, Bradley Thachuk conducts his Masters concert, and the final Pops! performances in May will feature the final appearance of Diane Wittry. Then, the furrowing of brows and comparing of notes will get underway as the powers that be come to a decision on who the next Music Director of the Niagara Symphony will be. Still too early to call? I think so, but from my vantage point some clear leaders have emerged in this season-long competition. Only time will tell...

February 24th, 2010.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Niagara Symphony gets set to have some good Canadian fun this weekend

The Niagara Symphony is all set and ready to go this weekend with the third Pops! concert of the current season, with John Morris Russell returning for his final appearance with the Symphony this season. The concert, aptly titled "Winter Carnival", features guest artist Mary Lou Fallis, soprano. Many of the selections on the programme will be taken from her successful 1997 CD "Primadonna on a Moose" for Opening Day Records.

I met Mary Lou many years ago when I was hosting an entertainment-based interview show on CKTB Radio in St. Catharines, and she was appearing at the time with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall. I remember this wonderful wit, reminiscent of the grande dame of musical comedy, Anna Russell, who also spent much of her life in Canada. The show Mary Lou was doing at the time was the first of her Primadonna shows, based on her own life as a singer. She has done two sequels as well as other one-woman shows based on the music of Mozart and Bach.

The material from her Primadonna on a Moose CD is largely culled from Canadian parlour songs popular around the turn of the last century, with most if not all largely forgotten today save for her CD and concert performances of some of the material. Some of the songs you'll hear this weekend include two of my personal favourites: "Lacrosse, Our Own National Game" and "Oh, What a Difference Since the Hydro Came." Plan also to join in on the Great Canadian Sing-along that closes the programme, which includes such favourites as "Alouette" and of course, "O Canada".

The rest of the programme is similarly themed, with music ranging from Arnaud's Olympic Fanfare to the Skater's Waltz by Walteuful and the Overture from La veuve by Calixa Lavalee, who wrote the music to "O Canada", of course. So there will be a lot of familiar material and even more that isn't really all that familiar, but will be fun to listen to all the same.

This will be the final appearance for John Morris Russell, as he conducted his Masters performance earlier in the season, so that means we have two conductors having auditioned the requisite two times, and one more performance each for Bradley Thachuk and Diane Wittry. Russell is presently Music Director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, so he is the one conductor living the closest to the Niagara Region at the present time. All four candidates would have to make some choices as to what to do should they win the competition to lead the Niagara Symphony starting next season, as they all live outside the area. I would think Russell likely could keep both posts if he wanted to, since it is a few hours' drive away, but with the other three, there is either serious commute time or the realization something has to give if they are to assume the post here. I suspect whatever way this goes, we likely won't have a full-time conductor living here in the area in the foreseeable future, but we might be surprised once the decision has been made who the next conductor will be.

So, another weekend of music-making for the musicians and form-filling for the audience members awaits, but it should all be worthwhile in the end. If nothing else, we get to see four uniquely different conductors and they get to see what a fine orchestra we have and what a fine area they and us choose to call home. If you don't have your tickets yet for the Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon performance, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Let the winter fun begin!

February 20th, 2010.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Remembering three diverse musical greats

Once again, I find myself writing about musical greats we have lost far too soon, it seems. Being in the music business with my website, A Web of Fine Music (, I always keep an eye out for information on musical artists who have made a mark in some way in the past or not-too-distant past.

In the last couple of weeks, I've read of the passing of Canadian icon Kate McGarrigle, jazz drummer Ed Thigpen and British bandleader John Dankworth. All have influenced countless music lovers over the years, as they will continue to do long after they are gone. Here are my humble thoughts on the passing of these three.

I can't say I ever really go into the music of Kate and sister Anna McGarrigle; however, there is no denying the indelible mark the sisters left on Canadian music in particular and folk music in general. I remember a good friend of mine, who was a huge fan of the sisters, anxiously awaiting a concert they were scheduled to give at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto years ago, and despite her best efforts to convince me to go, I decided against it. I wish now I had, as both the performers and the venue are now steeped in Canadian culture, but in my younger days, I just didn't think it all that important.

Kate could be rather testy, I'm told, but was quick with a joke and simply loved making her unique brand of music. Their 1998 release The McGarrigle Hour, was clearly a favourite of many, followed a few years later by The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, a perfectly quirky take on holiday music from a pair of artists who never seemed to follow the tried and true path of music, even at Christmastime.

Kate died last month of clear cell sarcoma just a little short of her 64th birthday. Too young for such a gifted artist, to be sure, but her legacy will live on with her many recordings, both solo and with her sister Anna.

Also in January, we lost jazz drummer Ed Thigpen, known to many simply as "Mr. Taste", which says something of the high esteem in which he was held. Ed wasn't Canadian; he was born in Chicago in 1930, but he lived in Toronto for a time in the early 60s when he was the drummer in the famed Oscar Peterson Trio that defined classic and classy small-ensemble jazz over forty years ago. Thigpen joined Peterson's group in 1959 when guitarist Herb Ellis left. The addition of a drummer to replace a guitarist might have seemed rather odd at the time, but Thigpen, along with bassist Ray Brown, joined as one with Peterson to create some of the most memorable jazz albums of the era.

Some of the recordings best remembered from that period include Porgy and Bess (1959); The Trio (1961) and Night Train (1962). I have been listening to the latter disc several times over the past week, and each time I marvel at the sheer artistry at play here, still sounding so fresh and relevant almost 50 years after it was first recorded. It is still in the catalogue, too, lovingly reproduced and remastered by engineers at Verve Records. If you don't have either The Trio or Night Train in your personal collection yet, they are both readily available through my website, at

The final musical genius I want to touch on today is one I had the pleasure of meeting several times over the years in the 70s and early 80s. Sir John Dankworth died earlier this month at the age of 82. I had no idea he was that old, frankly, as he always appeared to me to be ageless. Along with his long-time wife, jazz singer Cleo Laine, they dominated the traditional British jazz and even pop scene for many years. I idolized Cleo back in those days, yet it was John who quietly guided the ageless singer to many successes both in North America and in Europe. Their Carnegie Hall and Return to Carnegie Hall albums on RCA Records still sound spectacular today. The live concerts they gave during that time, which I caught in Toronto and Hamilton in the late 70s and early 80s, utilized so many of their popular recordings from the two Carnegie Hall concerts, including Streets of London and Turkish Delight, Sir John's clever take on Mozart's Turkish Rondo, concocted with what he always referred to as "typically devilish British ingenuity". His sense of humour was considerable; his musical talent undeniable.

My favourite recording by the pair is a long out-of-print Philips album titled Shakespeare...and all that jazz" recorded in 1964. Dankworth did the arrangements, perfectly suiting Cleo's amazing voice on musical settings of Shakespeare's words with It Was a Lover and his Lass and Witches, Fair and Foul. It still sounds great today, and I'll always consider this one of their best efforts.

Kate McGarrigle, Ed Thigpen and Sir John Dankworth: all three contributed so much to music over the years; we'll be all the poorer without them. Hail and farewell, dear friends.

February 18, 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine's Weekend in Niagara is a busy one!

So here we are, on the cusp of another Valentine's Day, and a long holiday weekend in Ontario to boot, thanks to Dalton McGuinty's "Family Day" on Monday, and you're wondering what you can do to suprise the special someone in your life. Well, aside from the usual items like flowers, chocolate or a dinner out, how about some live theatre? There are two opportunities this weekend to explore the subject of love in its many forms and perhaps even learn something in the process.

Let's begin with a production having its final performance tonight, in fact, down at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University. Charles Mee's play Big Love is a modern adaptation of one of the oldest plays in the western world, Aeschylus' Greek tragedy, The Suppliant Women. It's being presented by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University and is directed by Gyllian Raby; the play opened Thursday night and the final peformance is tonight (Saturday) at 7:30 pm at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.

In the story there are 50 brides betrothed to their cousins; however, they do not want to be married and as a result seek asylum in a neighbouring country. It doesn't help, as they discover they will be forced to go through with the marriages anyway; they all make a pact to kill their husbands instead. All, in fact, but one of the 50 agrees to the pact. A good part of the play, being presented by the undergraduate students in the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock, deals with the ensuing trial, where themes of love, justice and passion are all debated. I know, not the most romantic evening given some of the subject matter, but hey, you could go to the play tonight and discuss it over a long, romantic brunch together on Valentine's that could be romantic!

The second play opening this weekend (tonight in fact, following previews Thursday and Friday) is Michelle Riml's play Sexy Laundry, presented by Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects at the Sullivan-Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.

This was not the play originally intended for this run; Artistic Director Kelly Daniels had planned to direct her husband Ric Reid in The Woman in Black by Stephen Mallatratt. However, Ric suffered a heart attack back in the fall, so Kelly had to find something different that would not be as stressful on her husband given his condition. So, Riml's Sexy Laundry it is, directed now by Jon Osbaldeston, who was to appear with Reid in The Woman in Black. Sexy Laundry has been getting a lot of play lately, with both Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne and Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover mounting the play this past summer.

The play, featuring Daniels and Reid, married in real life, of course, as Alice and Henry Lane. The couple has been married for 25 years and frankly, the flame is barely flickering now. So Alice decides a romantic getaway is in order to reignite the flame; however, convincing her set-in-his-ways husband it is such a great idea takes some doing. Sexy Laundry takes place entirely in the bedroom with both characters in their pajamas, but it never crosses the line. It is, after all, a mainstream play put on by a theatre company that prides itself on presenting quality local live theatre in downtown St. Catharines.

For Big Love, call the Brock box office for tickets: 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or show up tonight and pick up your tickets prior to the performance. For Sexy Laundry, which runs through to the end of February, call the box office at 905-938-1222. Both plays will add some thought-provoking conversation to your Valentine's Day celebrations. Enjoy!

February 13th, 2010.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Celebrating Black History Month in Niagara this weekend

Here we are, already almost a week into the month of February 2010, and there is so much to see and do in Niagara. This weekend, for example, to celebrate Black History Month, Laura Thomas and her choral group Choralis Camerata will present their annual Follow the Freedom Trail gospel concert not once, but twice.

This evening (Saturday), the choir is at Mountainview Christian Reformed Church on Main Street West in Grimsby, a large, modern church with lots of seating available. Sunday afternoon, the choir shifts to a somewhat more traditional setting at St. John's United Church in Stevensville, near Fort Erie. Saturday evening the performance is at 7:30; Sunday afternoon's performance is at 2:30. Along with the choir, Teresa Holierhoek is the featured soloist along with members of the Niagara Symphony; the narration for both performances will be provided by - wait for it! - your humble scribe, Mike Saunders. I hope that won't stop you from attending, however...

I haven't seen any details on who is presenting and benefitting from the Stevensville performance on Sunday, but this evening's Grimsby performance is presented by the Niagara West Tourism Association, and proceeds benefit arts and culture groups in Grimsby, including the Grimsby Museum, Grimsby Archives and the Grimsby Historical Society.

The music will come from the so-called Underground Railway, the human pipline that brought American slaves north to Canada and freedom, led most often by Harriet Tubman, who lived for awhile right here in St. Catharines. Slaves escaped to other places, too, of course, but Canada was truly the promised land for these people, and although many didn't make it all the way, many more did, and built new lives here in Canada and in fact, many right here in Niagara. It is a vital part of our history from a couple of centuries ago that should be remembered for several more centuries, as we acknowledge what these people had to endure at the hands of those who thought themselves better, more deserving souls.

The music, as you'll discover if you attend one fo the concerts, paints a vivid portrait of how these slaves often managed to outsmart their masters while providing vital information to escapees looking for safe passage out of the United States. Even the quilts popular at the time told their story for the slaves on their journey; it really is quite amazing. Some of those quilts are on display at the concert in the sanctuary of each respective church.

Teresa Holierhoek is again the soloist this year, and she is a joy to hear. A voice you have to hear to believe, and she lives with her family right here in Niagara! Also joining the jazz ensemble is Doug Miller, playing both flute and saxophone, and Laura plays percussion as well as conducting. Together with the choir, the music is jazzy and spiritual at the same time.

There is so much more we can learn during Black History Month, and the concerts this weekend will provide a fitting start should you want to delve even further. I hope to see you at one of the concerts, and of course, for music by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, featured on my website at, send me an email either through the website or directly at and I will hook you up with some of the most inspiring music you'll ever hear.

February 6th, 2010.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Putumayo re-releases CD to aid people of Haiti

It has been almost a month now since the devastating earthquake tore apart Haiti, and the aid is continuing to arrive from almost every corner of the globe. It is impossible not to be touched by the scope of the tragedy and how these people with an indomitable spirit are coping with such total devastation. If you're like most people, you have felt almost helpless, save for sending money through any number of charitable organizations aiding in the rescue of inhabitants and the long rebuilding process now underway. The Canadian Red Cross and World Vision Canada are two organizations worthy of our financial contributions to aid those most in need in Haiti right now.

I received an email from one of my suppliers last week, and it offers an intriguing way to help out in Haiti: buy a CD and 100% of the proceeds go to help the people of Haiti through the Red Cross. Dan Storper, the founder and CEO of Putumayo Records, based in New Orleans, has decided to re-release his CD titled "French Caribbean", which features five tracks on it featuring performances by Haitian musicians. Dan was in Haiti in 1976 and was quite taken by what he saw: a proud nation struggling to make do with little in the way of resources available to them. To be sure, Haiti is one of the poorest nations to begin with; this devastating earthquake and resultant tremours means it will be a long journey back for the island nation, but as Dan says, Haiti will rise again!

Many of you know the Putumayo line of recordings, and most of them offer wonderful music performed by local musicians who otherwise would not get their material recorded. Dan has blazed a trail for over thirty years now, providing us with the real, so-called "world music". This gesture on his part is just another way the label and musicians involved can give back to people in dire need right now.

I have an opportunity to order in a number of these CDs to sell through my website, A Web of Fine Music ( The selling price will be $ 20.00 plus tax, and for that price you get a great CD of music by musicians from the area, including Haiti, and the money goes to help these people who need our help the most right now. If you're interested, send me an email either through my website ( or directly at, and I will make sure to reserve a copy for you when they come in. I will also be featuring "French Caribbean" on my website this month and in my upcoming February newsletter, FINE MUSIC NEWS. You can sign up for the newsletter by simply sending me an email with your request, and I will gladly add your name to the mailing list.

Together, we can help to make a difference in Haiti, and enjoy some great music by some of their local musicians at the same time.

February 3rd, 2010.