Saturday, May 29, 2010

New Music Director & Principal Conductor for Niagara Symphony named

Well, as I promised in my blog posting earlier this week, I have details on the new Music Director & Principal Conductor for the Niagara Symphony Orchestra, announced at a media conference on Friday morning at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.

And the winner is...Bradley Thachuk! Yes, the Toronto-born and fairly well-travelled young conductor beat the odds and signed the contract in front of media and several Symphony musicians the the conference, and was hailed as the new bright light who will lead the Orchestra into the next decade. The contract is for three years, with the first year being Music Director Designate & Principal Conductor, then taking over the reins fully for the remainder of his contract.

Next season, beginning in October, Bradley will share the podium with other conductors, most notably Uri Mayer, Conductor Laureate of the Niagara Symphony, who will conduct the final Masters concert in April, and Associate Conductor Laura Thomas, who will conduct the second Masters in November. Maestro Thachuk will conduct two Masters and two Pops concerts, as he finishes his responsibilites in Fort Wayne, where he presently is living and working.

At the media conference yesterday, everyone spoke in glowing terms of the new acquisition, and Thachuk himself said he is "honoured to accept this appointment as the 7th Music Director of the Niagara Symphony...I am delighted to return to Canada and make my home in Niagara, and eagerly anticipate the chance to get to know our valued patrons, supporters and community partners." He also added he intends to double the audience base for the Symphony by reaching out to the younger audience while not alienating the traditional, older patrons. That will be tricky business, as any Music Director is likely to tell you, but clearly he knows the job that has to be done to keep this orchestra going and grow the audience. Maestro Thachuk also said he would be introducing Facebook, Twitter and other social media to the Symphony's marketing tools, in order to help reach those elusive new, younger patrons. That makes sense, as most younger people today use social media far more than conventional media, whether you like it or not!

So, my thoughts on the announcement? Well, I am disappointed my choice for the position, Diane Wittry, didn't win, of course, as I feel she would have done great things with the orchestra, but I am also pragmatic enough to realize making the orchestra sound good is only one of the responsibilites the Music Director carries. He has to reach out to the community, which is why I think his decision to take up residence here in Niagara is key to his getting the post full time. Timothy Hankewich has many responsibilites elsewhere, and Wittry already conducts two American orchestras, and as I noted in an earlier posting, that could present a problem when it comes time to choose our new Music Director, as the winner clearly has a lot of work to do here and cannot be a part-time player in the community. I wasn't privy to the details of the selection process, but I suspect the other two candidates might have had to give up too much to come here, and I understand that. Uprooting family and moving here is a big decision, so I applaud Bradley for making the committment right off the top.

He said all the right things yesterday and pushed all the right buttons, and everyone seemed happy enough afterwards. But now that the contract is signed, sealed and the Music Director is delivered, now the real work begins. I have said all along a conductor with more seasoning would be needed for this position, but I am willing to give Maestro Thachuk the benefit of the doubt on this given what he said yesterday, and see what he does do and doesn't do in the coming years. I liked what I heard yesterday; so now it is time to put the competition behind us and rally behind Maestro Thachuk and build a better Symphony. After all, he can't do it alone!

May 29th, 2010.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Back from vacation in time for announcement from the Niagara Symphony

In my last blog entry, I mentioned I was taking a week off from all things electronic - computer (email, website, blog) and phone for a rest, and I would catch up to the world later. Well, I'm back, and I can honestly say this is something everyone should do once in a while. Let me explain.

By the end of April, I was feeling totally burned out from a heavy workload from my website business, A Web of Fine Music ( and my producer duties at CKTB Radio. The days are long and with taxes, finishing up my father's estate and other personal matters to deal with, I had simply run out of gas. Now normally on vacation, I will keep in touch with the world and check emails and answer the phone every day, so I am on top of things even though I am off on vacation. This time, I wanted out, and that meant totally shutting off from the world. I didn't even watch the television news all that much, although I read the paper every day, as always. The result of all this down time is I actually feel rested and ready to greet the world at my electronic door once again. So by all means, contact me through my website or email me directly at if you are looking for anything musical you can't find anywhere else. I am happy to help any way I can.

Now, what do I come back to? I receive a press release on the weekend counting down the days to the much-anticipated announcement the Niagara Symphony will be making regarding their new Music Director following the season-long search that ended earlier this month. It was an exciting experience for everyone involved, and in an earlier blog entry, I laid out my cards on the table and suggested Diane Wittry was the clear choice for the position from my vantage point. The podium is but one part of the job, of course, and there is much else for a music director to do besides conduct the concerts. Availability is also key, so whoever wins the job must be able to jump in with both feet to take the helm at the start of next season. Who that will ultimately be is anyone's guess at this point.

Today, I received word the announcement comes at Brock University this coming Friday morning, and presumably the winning candidate will be in attendance for the event. I will also be there, and will report on the announcement with my usual commentary in my next entry on Saturday morning. For now, though, just trying to catch up on work while taking my electronic holiday, and looking forward to hearing from you whenever you want to drop me a line.

Enjoy the week!

May 25th, 2010.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Chorus Niagara winds up their season this weekend

This is a busy weekend for your humble scribe, as I prepare for a week's vacation from all things electronic. I am not going anywhere; just stepping back from the computer, the cell phone, and all that both entail in your day-to-day life. But today is the final day to get things done on the computer before I shut it - and me - down for a week of much needed R&R. It has been a difficult year, and I am ready for a rest, so outside of day trips to wherever I feel like whenever I feel like, the backyard is my destination of choice for the next week.

That being said, I do want to write a few words about this weekend's concerts with Chorus Niagara; the season finale is tonight at 8 and tomorrow afternoon at 3, both performances at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. They don't usually use the Brock venue, but with this weekend being a Gilbert & Sullivan Extravaganza, they might need all those seats. This will be basically a semi-staged concert performance; essentially the chorus and soloists will move around the stage some, but the usual sets and staging is not there. Should be fun, though, and well worth a visit.

Sir Arthur Sullivan was a competent classical composer of his day, and once he met up with William S. Gilbert, they essentially became the Rodgers and Hammerstein of their day before the turn of the last century. Rarely a season went by without a G&S operetta opening in London, all brimming with singable tunes and much fun and frivolity. True, their songs were often repetitive, and their so-called patter songs often sound a little dated today, but they are often updated with more current lyrics to breath new life into them, as was the case a number of years ago when Brian McDonald staged a slew of G&S favourites at the Stratford Festival and packed the Avon Theatre for several seasons in the 80s.

The number of G&S successes were many, from The Gondoliers to The Mikado to, of course, HMS Pinafore. There were some less-successful but no-less enjoyable offerings as well, such as Trail by Jury, and all will be showcased in the Chorus Niagara performances this weekend. It's too bad Gilbert & Sullivan didn't get along all that well, apparently, because their musical collaboration was one of the great success stories of the late 19th century when they were in their heyday.

When you come right down to it, the G&S phenomenom predated and set the course for the musical theatre as we know it today, so in that regard even though some of their material is rather dated today, they blazed a trail many have since followed with equally great success.

Sir Arthur went on to write a grand opera called Ivanhoe and was knighted by Queen Victoria. He died after a long illness in 1900. Sir William was also knighted, by King Edward VII in 1907; he died in 1911 while attempting to save a drowning woman. But both will always be remembered for their 14 operettas that defined an era during the glory days of the British Empire.

Enjoy the Chorus Niagara performances this weekend down at Brock, and if you still need tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257. Or, take your chances at the door for either performance. I won't be there this weekend, but if you want a great reminder of the concert, I have a great recording of Gilbert & Sullivan excerpts in stock at A Web of Fine Music, and you can email me at or through my website, But keep in mind, I am closed for repairs, as I call it, until next weekend.

Have a great week!

May 15th, 2010.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Niagara Symphony has some tough decisions to make

In my last post, I wrote of the Pops! concerts last weekend that wrapped up the Niagara Symphony season, with the final appearance by music director candidate Diane Wittry on the podium. Well, now that the season is done and the Niagara Symphony has to collate all the responses to patron surveys for the entire season, now is as good a time as ever to review not only the concerts last weekend but the season as a whole.

Let's begin with the concerts last weekend, which were by all accounts the best-sounding concerts not only of this season but of many seasons past as well. I don't know what magic Wittry has at rehearsals, but it is clear at the performances, as was the case with her Masters appearance back in January, she knows how to get this orchestra to play at a level previously unheard in this reporter's memory. Sure, there were some ringers in the orchestra this time, to fill out sections needed to perform the jazzy, swing arrangements that dominated the program. The lead trumpeter was new and pretty impressive, as was the lead saxophonist. Actually, when was the last time you heard five saxophones in the Niagara Symphony? We had them last week and it was a treat. In fact, the entire brass and reed sections had the bulk of the 'heavy lifting' in the concerts, and they didn't disappoint. Everyone brought their A-game, although strangely, I found the Saturday evening performance to be slightly sharper than the Sunday afternoon show.

As for Wittry, she not only looked striking in a floor-length skirt, she commanded the orchestra with an ease you don't often see these days. Her conducting was impressive, and her comments to the audience were short, to the point, and not containing too much information. She also nicely avoided the temptation to become too friendly like the neighbour you can't seem to avoid in the summer in the backyard. Her program choices were safe, but with just enough edge to them to keep people interested, and the arrangements were largely top-notch.

The audience was also treated to local jazz talent Juliet Dunn on a number of selections, and she revelled in the opportunity to sing with a full orchestra. Juliet is young, but with enough jazz chops already to her credit she handled the swing tunes with total ease. Watch for more from Juliet in the future.

So, where does this leave the Niagara Symphony at the end of the season? Well, it has to be considered a total success, as all four candidates impressed with their skill, although the weakest performance remains Bradley Thachuk's awkward Pops! performance back in November. That weekend did his chances no favours, to be sure. If nothing else, this season has shown us there is a wealth of young conducting talent out there just waiting for a plum opportunity such as leading the Niagara Symphony into the future.

The choice now has to be made as to who assumes the post next season, and I frankly wouldn't want to be part of the decision-making process within the Symphony, as the choices are all strong and each brings with them their own unique talents that can benefit the orchestra. But from my vantage point, here is how the season played out as far as how the conductors did:

Timothy Hankewich was very impressive in both Masters and Pops! programs, and even sang with the Mantini Sisters at the Pops! concert in December. His arrangements were exemplary, and his rapport with both the orchestra and the audience appeared to be solid. Perhaps he would have been better served to have his two appearances separated by more time, as his two appearances were at the beginning of the season and some might have forgotten about him by now. I do know, however, he was recently asked back for a second interview, so the Orchestra hasn't forgotten about him.

John Morris Russell took himself out of the running after his second appearance, saying he simply didn't have the time to devote to the orchestra next season, only being able to conduct one concert next season if he were chosen. Too bad, as I thought he was the front runner going into this competition, but really, you have to be here full time in order to make your mark on the orchestra, so he is now out of the running entirely.

As mentioned earlier, Bradley Thachuk conducted a weak Pops! performance with an unfortunate guitar solo attempt and an orchestra that just didn't seem to be primed and ready to perform at either performance. He redeemed himself with an impressive Masters concert, conducting a very respectable Sibelius Second Symphony. He hails from Toronto, so that will work in his favour, and he is young, but I still think he needs more 'seasoning' before he arrives at this level, so I would wait on Bradley until the next time there is a conductor's search, whenever that may be. After all, Daniel Swift missed out on his first chance, and the second time he won the podium in the later competition. Bradley has lots of years ahead of him, and although I don't think he has anything to apologize for this time, I feel his time simply hasn't come yet.

So that brings us to Diane Wittry, who conducted a spectacular Pops! finale last weekend, and her Masters concert in January made many sit up and take notice. I mentioned at one point before her first appearance I hoped Diane was not looked upon as the 'token female' in the competition, partly in jest of course. But she turned out to be the real deal, and the timing of her concerts couldn't have been better: she was the last of the candidates to conduct the orchestra, and she conducted the last concert. She knows enough about these things to know, surely, she had to grab the brass ring at the last Pops! concert and grab it she did. The orchestra never sounded better. I like the ideas she brings to the table, and she is clearly more qualified a candidate than we have seen in quite some time. For me, she is the clear choice to lead the Niagara Symphony into the future.

Will she win? It depends on a lot of factors, of course, not the least of which is availability. She already conducts two orchestras in the States as it is, so something will have to give, one would think. But if she gets the posting here, and that is a big if even now, she will have to consider either a move up here for at least part of the year and/or giving up one of her other orchestras. Time will tell how all this plays out, but the coming weeks will be interesting, indeed.

I think all the remaining candidates want the job and are willing to do what it takes to get it, and that looks good on us. We have a wealth of choices here; the important thing now is to make the right choice and start looking towards the future of the Niagara Symphony. Now more than ever, we can't afford a temporary music director; we need someone ready to roll up their sleeves and bring this orchestra to the level we know they are capable of, given what we heard this season.

Let the fun begin!

May 8th, 2010.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Niagara Symphony and the sad tale of the Good Shepherd

It is the first of May today, or May Day as many will remember it; a time for dancing 'round the Maypole if you wish, and generally lots of springtime revelry. The first annual May Day celebrations are on today at historic Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, incidentally, hosted by Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs.

Also this weekend, the Niagara Symphony wraps up their current season with the final two Pops! concerts of the season, conducted by Diane Wittry and featuring vocalist Juliet Dunn. The concert, titled "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing!" features a slew of swing-era jazz hits performed both instrumentally and vocally with the orchestra backing up Juliet.

This will be the final chance for one of the candidates for the Music Director's position with the symphony to "seal the deal" as it were, and make their case for being offered the post next season. Wittry impressed many at her Masters debut in January; her conducting style was relaxed and fluid, her direction firm and her comments to the audience both enlightening and entertaining without going overboard. I liked what I saw then, and I am very interested to see how the Pops! programme goes. As I mentioned in an earlier entry here, conductors tend to try to be overly friendly and enthusiastic at Pops! concerts, and I do hope that will not be the case this weekend.

The programme includes such stalwarts as the Theme from New York, New York and All The Way, along with a number of swing-era standards like Take the A Train, String of Pearls and In The Mood. It should give the orchestra - particularly the brass section - a real workout. If nothing else, most if not all of the music will be readily identifiable to most in the audience, so you'll likely leave the theatre in a very good mood if you plan on going.

Juliet Dunn is making quite a name for herself these days; the Niagara-based jazz singer and her pianist/accompanist husband play regularly throughout the peninsula, and for the past several months have been out of the country performing on a cruise ship travelling the world. I talked to Juliet on Friday and she tells of cruising through the so-called "pirate alley" near Somalia, and how nervous they all were sailing through that stretch. I suspect she'll have some stories to tell this weekend with the Niagara Symphony!

Tickets are still available for the concerts, although better seats for this evening's performance at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Centre for the Arts, Brock University. The Sunday afternoon performances tend to sell out faster, but you can try that one as well if you like. Tickets are available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or at the door if you dare. I will be in the lobby before, after and at intermission, by the way, with my table full of great music from the era and other great music available for purchase from A Web of Fine Music. Can't find what you want? Call me or email me at or go to my website at and I will do my best to find what it is your looking for. See you at the concert!

Now, just one added note before I go; I sometimes write about things outside the realm of music, which is my forte, of course. However, I share a love for good food with my good friend Lynn Ogryzlo, the local food and wine writer for Niagara this Week, who shares her thoughts weekly on her Niagara Cooks blog ( A couple of weeks ago, she wrote of the untimely demise of the Good Shepherd farm in Vineland, which closes for good at the end of business today. You can read the whole sad story on Lynn's blog, but suffice it to say Franz and Denise have developed a great following over the years with their organic, safe meat and chicken products. They are being forced to close, and that is very unfortunate. I, along with many others, plan to visit the farm today to offer our support, and if you have the time and have never been, I would suggest you do as well. They are open to 4 pm today, and I am sure many will be out to lend their support to Franz and Denise on this very sad day.

Enjoy your weekend!

May 1st, 2010.