Saturday, April 24, 2010

Final funding in place for Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts

As mentioned in my entry last week, April has turned out to be a very good month for the arts community in St. Catharines-Niagara. Finally, after months of delay on behalf of the provincial governent, the green light has finally been given for the new Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

Last year, you may recall, both the federal, provincial and municipal governments joined forces to provide the funding for the Civic complex, to complement the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in downtown St. Catharines, which would be home to the arts programs at Brock University. All that was missing was the provincial funding for the Brock University portion of the complex, and that seemed to take a long time to show up at the arts door, but show up it did this week, courtesy of MPP Jim Bradley. Basically, the province has kicked in the required 26.2 million over four years for the arts complex, an investment as part of the provincial government's Open Ontario plan to generate opportunities for jobs and economic growth.

The Brock portion of the complex will be a state-of-the-art facility for more than 500 full-time students and faculty, thereby freeing up needed space at Brock's main campus for other programs. The real bonus is we'll have students and their friends, teachers and others working or attending classes downtown, and that is sure to be an economic boost to the downtown core as it struggles to reinvent itself.

Everyone is happy with the arrangement, as well they should be, but I find myself almost wanting to pinch myself, hoping it isn't actually a dream. I mean, how long have we waited for such a major investment in our downtown core? The last one I can recall on this scale was the much-delayed MTO government office complex and new bus terminal from the mid-1990s. I still have concerns, though, and will certainly be keeping my fingers crossed that nothing else gets in the way of the new arts complex.

I do hope, and I am sure this question has been addressed at some point, that funding will continue if or when a new government might come in to replace the McGuinty Liberals at Queen's Park. We were all worried after the MTO move was announced and then the government of the day changed hands, and the NDP finally agreed to the building of the MTO complex and the employees moving down here from Toronto. That is something I am sure most people don't want to go through again with the Performing Arts Centre.

So, let's celebrate a great victory not only for the arts community but also for the downtown as a whole, as this new complex will do wonders for our beleaguered downtown core. But let's also be vigilent; making sure all committments are met and the new complex comes in on budget and hopefully also on time. Sure, it is still some time off, much as the new hospital in West St. Catharines is still some years off. But hope is a wonderful thing, and many of us in the arts community hope and pray this is the time for this new complex to finally happen.

Full steam ahead, and let's enjoy the ride!

April 24th, 2010.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

From the Niagara Symphony to In the Soil

What a week it has been in the arts community in Niagara! And for your humble scribe, busily getting things done for the accountant for tax time and lots of other mundane tasks, there has been very little time to write about it all since last weekend. So let's try to get caught up on at least a few of the things happening over the past week.

Last Sunday afternoon, as I wrote in my last entry, the Niagara Symphony presented their final Masters concert of the current season. This was the second and last appearance by Toronto-born conductor Bradley Thachuk, one of three remaining conductors vying for the position of Music Director of the Niagara Symphony next season. To put it mildly, Bradley's first appearance in his Pops! programme a few months ago was not an unqualified success. From too much chatting with the audience to trying an ill-concieved guitar solo that fell flat to presenting himself onstage in jeans during the second half, the performance just didn't come together last time. This time, in tails (albeit looking like they might be his fathers'...) Bradley meant business, and for the most part he delivered.

The program began with the requisite Chase the Sun by Carrabre, which as Bradley correctly noted at the concert, by now the orchestra would know backwards and forwards. As does the audience, I might add. His comment about having this great idea to project the words of the piece on a screen while the orchestra played the music - which Diane Whittry did in fact do in January - brought some laughter from the audience and was a fun moment at the concert. The big piece in the first half was the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, the 'Emperor', with young Toronto pianist David Louie as soloist. Both conductor and pianist showed they could add something to the already well-worn Piano Concerto No. 5, and Louie especially was quite exceptional. Watch for good things from this young pianist in the future.

The second half was entirely taken up with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, which Bradley mentioned was more or less his orchestral calling-card nowadays. He knows the work well, and save for some over-the-top conducting theatrics in the final movement, his conducting showed an assurance not seen the last time he appeared with the orchestra. From what I can see, Thachuk appears to be a more effective Masters conductor rather than Pops! conductor, which is unusual given his age. Sure, he still appears a little on the young side and short of some of the requisite seasoning you like to see in a music director of an orchestra such as the Niagara Symphony, but really, he has no apologies to make for the fine performances he drew from the orchestra and soloist last Sunday. This was a far cry from the ragged sound of the orchestra in his Pops! appearance.

The problem I find with Pops! performances, by and large, both here and elsewhere, is the conductor feels compelled to let his or her hair down, as it were, and try to become too much the friendly, funny neighbour. Most of the candidates so far have fallen victim to that, and I only hope Diane Whittry, when she makes her Pops! appearance at the beginning of May, doesn't go down the same road. There is a fine line between relaxing the rules and having a bit of fun with the music and going over the deep end and losing all decorum altogether. Maybe I'm in the minority on this, but I like my conductors to still control the situation, even if it is a Pops! performance.

Anyway, one more Pops! performance to go for this season, and then we see who ends up leading the orchestra next season. It has been an exciting ride so far, and the ride isn't over yet.

Meantime, the second annual In the Soil: Niagara's Homegrown Arts Festival kicked off this week, and by all accounts it will be building on the success from last year and be even more popular this year. There are performances all over downtown St. Catharines for another week, with a special showcase performance Friday evening at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Centre for the Arts, Brock University. At that performance, Juno-nominated Great Lakes Swimmers will be joined onstage by a number of local acts for a varied programme of music for all ages and tastes.

This past Thursday evening, I attended the Silva Culture Variety Show at the Sullivan-Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, which featured a number of local acts many of us have not been exposed to before, including Patrick Guay from Ridgeway and Dr. Hussain Khan from St. Catharines performing on the tabla. I unfortunately couldn't stay for the second half, which included Carly Erber of St. Catharines, the one known as "the Swiffer Lady", and I am very disappointed to have missed her part of the show. The show was co-hosted by Barbara Worthy and Deanna Jones, and they kept the show moving throughout. Overall, it was a promising start to the local festival that is gaining momentum each year. If you get a chance, catch a performance or two before it wraps up next weekend; the performances are very affordable and presented throughout the downtown each evening.

For a complete listing of what's coming up, check out their website at Tickets are available at the door for all performances on a first-come, first-served basis, with the exception of the Friday evening Showcase at Brock; tickets for that performance are available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

The other significant news this week was the announcement funding is now in place for the Marilyn I. Walker Centre for the Fine & Performing Arts, the Brock portion of the new Performing Arts Centre to be built downtown. It is a relief all the funding is now in place, but now the hard work really starts: getting shovels in the ground and making the dream a reality. I will write more about this development in my next entry, but suffice it to say, let's get this thing going soon!

April 17th, 2010.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lots to see and do in Niagara this weekend!

Now that spring appears to have officially arrived in Niagara, what with the buds appearing on the trees and my lawn already getting very green from all the rain of the past week, there is no shortage of outdoor activities to keep us occupied this weekend. However, once you're done and ready for some entertainment, I have a couple of suggestions for you this weekend.

Last evening I was at the opening of Lakeside Players' latest show at the Port Mansion Dinner Theatre in Port Dalhousie, Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, which runs to May 16th. It's a great show, with fine acting by locals including Mike Ceci, and directed by Paul Wintemute, one of the original founders of Lakeside Players. Plaza Suite, though written in 1968, still holds up well today, and the ensemble does the script credit with generally strong performances all around. With limited budgets and a tiny theatre space in which to work, it is next to impossible to re-create the elegance of the Plaza, but they do their best and it comes off fine thanks to the strong cast. Lots of opportunity to see this show before it closes, but call ahead for tickets at 905-934-0575. There are also dinner show and Sunday brunch show packages available.

After this season, Lakeside Players will have to find a new home, due to the planned redevelopment of old Port Dalhousie which appears to be a go on all fronts at this point. Let's hope this theatre group, founded only five years ago, finds a new home somewhere in the peninsula if not right in St. Catharines.

On Sunday afternoon, the final Masters concert with the Niagara Symphony takes place at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. This will be the final audition appearance by Toronto-born conductor Bradley Thachuk, as he is one of the three remaining candidates vying to assume the post of Music Director of the Niagara Symphony next season. It promises to be an interesting concert, leading off with the ubiquitous Chase the Sun by T. Patrick Carrabre, and this will be the final performance of the work this season. Also on the programme is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, the 'Emperor', featuring young Canadian pianist David Louie, and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Sibelius.

Last time out for the Pops performance, I found the orchestra sounded somewhat ragged and disorganized under Thachuk's baton, so it will be interesting to see how they do with some weighty orchestral works in the final Masters concert of the season. I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Sibelius, as this will be a real test of how the conductor interacts with the orchestra.

I will be there as always, with my customary table set up in the lobby with a great selection of music available to buy, including well-priced recordings of both the Sibelius and Beethoven works. Lots of other great recordings available for purchase as well, so be sure to stop by and say hello before, after or during intermission at the concert tomorrow. You can also order through my website, A Web of Fine Music, at, or simply email me directly at

There are still tickets available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

See you on Sunday!

April 10th, 2010.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An update on the downtown performing arts centre in St. Catharines

This past Tuesday evening, I attended the Annual General Meeting of the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council, of which I am a proud member, and along with the usual dry business conducted at these things, there was an enlightening discussion on the (hopefully) soon to move forward performing arts centre in downtown St. Catharines. The usual general meeting stuff I won't go into here; if you are at all interested you likely attended the meeting, and if you don't, well, you likely didn't.

That being said, this was a decidedly well-attended event this year, with standing-room only inside that smallish office in the Charter House on James Street downtown. When the subject of the performing arts centre came up, people were all ears. After all, the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council has been a big booster of this project from the very beginning.

Speaking about the progress of the new downtown venue, we heard from Dr. Rosemary Hale, that indefatigable supporter of the centre and Dean of Humanities at Brock University; Alexandra Hlinyanszky; and Greg Redden of the City of St. Catharines Downtown Development and Revitalization Committee. All three spoke openly about the project and whatever obstacles we still may face in its construction, but it was Dr. Hale, whose enthusiasm knows no bounds, who kept everyone entertained and informed throughout the talk.

It was interesting to finally get some detail about what the actual makeup of the venue will be, as it will house both the performing arts centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock. What we'll see is a 900-seat main theatre, plus a couple of smaller spaces for local theatre and dance events more suited to the smaller space. The larger theatre would obviously be used by the Niagara Symphony, Chorus Niagara and other groups, along with roadshows that might be passing through on their way to another date elsewhere. I can see great potential here, and an opportunity to expand the number of events available to the public on a regular basis, although I think the suggestion we could have something booked into one of the theatres almost every night is a little overly optimistic at this point.

One question came up about the small space provided (200 seats) for local theatre, which would be a shared space for dance performances. The concern appeared to be the fact it would only seat 200 people. Well, local theatre operators will tell you some weeknight performances would be lucky to have even that many bums in the seats; and as a result I think the size is certainly sufficient. If need be, the larger theatre might even be available should the ticket sales warrant it.

My main concern has always been and continues to be the cost of operating such a venue. I have seen through personal experience while regularly visiting the other downtown performing arts centre I have used on occasion for comparison purposes, the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph, it can sometimes be too costly to rent for the groups it was intended for. Most seasons, for example, the Guelph Chamber Choir splits up their performance season at the River Run Centre for almost guaranteed sellouts like Handel's Messiah at Christmas, and local area churches for other performances. Such will be the case when the choir performs Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 on May 1st at the large and warm-sounding Church of Our Lady in downtown Guelph. I don't know if it is a fact in this case the cost of the River Run Centre prohibited the performance taking place there or simply the choir wanted to to this work in a church setting; but I know there have been instances in the past when this has been the case for groups that should be using the Centre and are not always doing so. In that case, we have to be very careful we don't price this new venue of ours out of the local marketplace.

Of course, we are getting ahead of ourselves here, as we don't even have the proverbial shovels in the ground yet. But hopefully soon, if the remainder of the funding comes forth from the provincial government for the Brock portion of the complex. So we have lots of time to work out the problems, but let's start sooner rather than later in this regard. After all, there would be nothing worse than seeing an empty complex downtown more nights than when it is occupied.

Now, if we can only draft Rosemary Hale to run the place once it's built...

April 9th, 2010.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Musings for an Easter weekend in Niagara

This being Easter weekend and all the pre-Easter concerts are done and done, I thought I'd round up a few random thoughts on a number of topics I have had swimming around in my head the last few days, and we'll get back to the usual business of talking about music next week.

First of all, have you ever seen an Easter weekend like this one when it comes to the weather? I don't know if it is global warming or not, but judging from the smiles on the faces of almost everyone I meet these days, I say let's enjoy it for the time being! Two years ago, when Easter was near the end of March, we still had some snow on the ground here in Niagara; this weekend people are wearing shorts, and in spite of the proliferation of bare white skin, no one seems to be complaining too much. Bring it on!

I have written much over the years about the state of the recorded music industry and whether it is at death's door or not, and the fact last year was a terrible year for sales for just about anyone due to the recession. Well, so far this year, things are looking up ever so slightly. The first quarter sales for my music business, A Web of Fine Music, are up slighly on last year's totals, with the first three months this year posting modest gains over the same months last year. Why? I have no idea. Hopefully more consumer confidence has something to do with it, and perhaps more people willing to actually buy hard copies of music again. I hope so; being my business' bread and butter, I want people to buy CDs and DVDs for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of music and Easter, I don't have anything hot on my CD player at the moment pertaining specifically to Easter; however, on my website ( you'll find my feature item this month in the Mike's Picks section is a wonderful 7-CD box set of Great Choral Favourites featuring a host of English orchestras and choirs. Along with Mozart's Requiem and Bach's St. Matthew Passion sung in English, the set includes Mozart's own arrangement of Handel's oratorio Messiah, which premiered, incidentally, not at Christmas but at Easter in 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. Of particular note is a wonderfully English recording of Stainer's The Crucifixion, his celebrated oratorio for the Easter season performed last weekend by Choralis Camerata. The entire set sells for only $ 40 plus tax, and is well worth it. You can order it through my website or order directly from me by emailing

Finally, April is Cancer Awareness Month, and pretty soon we'll be seeing the yellow daffodils on sale wherever we go; this year I plan to buy my share of yellow dafs to honour those who have died in the last year from cancer, which hits everyone in one way or another in their lifetime, it seems. Either directly or indirectly, I know of few people who have not been affected by the disease. For me personally, I have lost two senior, dear cats to cancer in the last six months alone, and this week I attended a funeral for a very dear and long-standing friend who had battled the disease for a number of years and finally succumbed last weekend at the young age of 56. It has been a hard week for a lot of people, this writer included, so rest easy now, Linda, your battle is done.

Have a wonderful Easter with those you love, and make sure to tell them you do love them. It seems especially timely this year. Oh, and chocolate, too. My lenten abstinence from chocolate ends tomorrow and I can hardly wait!

Happy Easter!

April 3rd, 2010.