Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Celebrating Canada Day with music

Tomorrow, July 1st, is of course, Canada Day, and people from one end of the country to the other will celebrate with friends and family, either staying home to entertain or getting out to attend Canada Day festivities in their community. Here in St. Catharines, the city is hosting a day-long entertainment extravaganza at the downtown Market Square, culminating with the Niagara Symphony directed by Associate Conductor Laura Thomas from 4 to 5 pm.

I got to thinking this week, of some of the great music we associate with Canada Day you occasionally still hear on the radio or if you're lucky enough to have recordings, in the comfort of your own home. I remember in my radio days working on Canada Day, playing Canada Is by Roger Whittaker, who was a frequent visitor to our country and has always loved it. Other songs come to mind, some more associated with Canada Day than others, but appropriate nontheless: music from Anne of Green Gables; This Land is Your Land, and here in our province, the ubiquitous Ontariariario! You have to be a certain age to remember that one, or, try to forget as the case may be.

The newer television campaign for the province, featuring different artists singing There's No Place Like It in several different versions, has certainly been effective, and I count myself amongst those who were more than a little intrigued by the latest one, featuring a percussion group fronted by singer Aline Morales, who is a newer resident to Ontario, moving to Toronto from Brazil a few years ago. Her sweet, clear voice is perfectly matched to the music, and her friendly nature was verified when I tracked her down last month for a radio interview and she proved to be a delight to talk to. She is working on her first CD, incidentally, and I will certainly be writing about it in this space when it comes out.

Today, though, I want to remember most especially a Canadian icon known to kids across the country in the late 60s (like me) and who unfortunately is not receiving much recognition for his contributions to binding the country together with music over the years. Does the name Bobby Gimby mean anything to you? If it does, you remember his cross-country treks during our Centennial year, 1967, leading scores of young children in singing his self-penned tune CA-NA-DA! Ah yes, the memories are flowing back, now, aren't they?

I recently read a wonderful account of Bobby's life and times in music in an online entry from Carleton University's freenet source, which quotes from a copyright article from The Canadian magazine back in 1967, authored by Frank Rasky. Gimby was a "wholesome, unabashedly patriotic bandleader" writes Rasky, who adds Gimby was "the Pied Piper of Confederation". How true that is! He and his unbridled enthusiasm for this country is just what government types were looking for when Confederation celebration plans were coming together in 1967. His song succeeded in bridging the gap between young and old, French and English; it didn't matter. The pictures of Gimby, caped and leading children in the song with his heraldic "King Arthur" trumpet - four feet long, festooned with bangles and beads and even pennies - brought this country together like few others before or since. His enthusiasm could be used today, if you don't mind my saying so.

Bobby Gimby was born near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1918, and died in June, 1998, in his 80th year. Sadly, his music is nearly forgotten now and to the best of my knowledge has never shown up on CD; I still have a pristine copy of the Quality Records double-gatefold LP that came out in 1967, resplendent with Gimby, holding his famous horn, leading children over a grassy knoll. Now that I am setting up my small studio with facilities to transfer old out-of-print albums onto MP3 files and then transferring to CD, this is one album I hope to transfer very quickly, as I long to hear the album that defined an era in Canadian history, and harkened back to an earlier time.

If there is an old album you miss hearing because it is not available on CD, in the near future I hope to offer the transfer service to the general public as well. If you're interested, email me directly at or through my website,, and we can look into it. Keep in mind, though, I have to verify the LP is indeed currently out of print and not available on CD. Otherwise, I will do my best to get the CD for you as a commercial release.

Happy Canada Day!

June 30th, 2010.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lots of music to enjoy this summer throughout Ontario

With the end of June almost upon us, the start of summer music festivals is all around us again, so I thought this weekend we'd take a brief look at some of the offerings in the Region and beyond, as you start to plan your summer outings. As for me, I am on a couple of weeks holidays as of now, but other than a couple of day trips and a couple of visits to Stratford and Shaw it will be a stay-at-home vacation.

This week, Canada Day will be celebrated just about everywhere, and locally the City of St. Catharines has a lot of entertainment planned at the downtown Market Square during the day on July 1st. There is a blues festival planned, and at 4 pm, the Niagara Symphony will lift the spirits of those dragged down by the blues as Associate Conductor Laura Thomas leads the orchestra at Market Square. All events are free that day, by the way.

The Lewiston Council of the Arts in Lewiston, New York, has their annual festival getting underway in early July, with Blue Mondays, International Fridays and the annual Summer of '69 concert on July 16th. There are too many events to list here, but if you're in the Lewiston area this summer, you can pick up a brochure at most merchants and take in some great entertainment.

In Toronto, the Summer Music in the Garden series at Harbourfront Centre begins Canada Day and runs through to September 19th, with 20 free outdoor concerts involving more than 88 artists. The concerts take place Thursday evenings at 7 and Sunday afternoons at 4. For more information, call the Harbourfront Centre at 416-973-4000 or visit for complete details.

Here in Niagara, we have the Hillebrand Jazz & Blues at the Winery coming up in July and August. The jazz weekend is July 10th, with Emilie-Claire Barlow, Denzal Sinclaire and Richard Underhill among the artists featured; the blues weekend is August 14th. For more details, contact the winery at 905-468-6217.

Of course, the big musical event in Niagara in the summer is the Music Niagara concert series at various locations throughout Historic Niagara-on-the-Lake. The series begins July 17th with a gala opening concert featuring pianist Andre Laplante performing music by Chopin and Schumann, and continues through to August 14th, with classical, jazz and other musical styles offered throughout the festival. Call 905-468-3804 or toll free, 1-800-511-7429 for more details.

Over in Hamilton, the annual Brott Summer Music Festival is already underway, with lots of musical events planned throughout Hamilton and Burlington right through to August 20th. From High Tea with music by pianist Valerie Tryon to the finale performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony with Boris Brott conducting the National Academy Orchestra and the Arkady Singers and Brott Festival Choir, the summer will be filled with some great music in the Hamilton area. For tickets, call 905-525-7664 or toll free, 1-888-475-9377, or go to for all the details.

One of my favourite festivals, and one I plan to attend in about three weeks, is the Elora Festival in Elora, just north of Guelph, which kicks off July 9th and runs through to August 1st. Performances range from jazz with Chris Donnelly to classical with pianist Andre Laplante to a show called Give My Regards to Broadway at the Gambrel Barn. If you go on a weekend, plan to say overnight and do as I did last year, attend one of the Sunday morning services at St. John's Church in Elora, to hear the Elora Festival Singers in a lovely, intimate setting. They have a new CD out, too, on the Naxos label: it's choral music by contemporary choral composer Eric Whitacre, and it is just a lovely disc. You can pick it up by going to my website, or emailing me directly at For a limited time, it is on sale for a special low price to coincide with the Elora Festival. For tickets, call 519-846-0331 or toll free, 1-888-747-7550, or log on to

Finally, the 10th anniversary season of the Stratford Summer Music Festival gets underway July 19th, and running to August 22nd at several venues in and around Stratford. Everything from Ben Heppner to Quartetto Gelato is scheduled this year, with lots of variety. I hope to finally attend a performance this year while I'm in Stratford covering the Festival. For tickets, go to or call 519-271-2101 or toll free, 1-866-288-4313.

That's just a sampling of what's coming up musically this summer within a short drive of home. I plan to finally update the calendar page on my website at this week, so you can go there to view a comprehensive list of events coming up over the summer months.

Enjoy some music this summer!

June 26th, 2010.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New book looks at local popular culture in Niagara

I don't often write about books in this space, but this new book I picked up on Monday is worthy of a mention in this space, partly because I was interviewed for the book a couple of years ago. It is titled Covering Niagara: Studies in Local Popular Culture, and is edited by Joan Hicks and Barry Keith Grant at Brock University.

There was a book launch on Monday afternoon at the Pond Inlet down at Brock, and I was pleased to see so many familiar faces from the Niagara cultural and educational circles come out for the unveiling of the book, published by Wilfred Laurier University Press.

Essays by several different contributors examine some of the many forms of popular culture in Niagara, ranging from blackface minstrel shows in the 50s to local bicycle parades around the turn of the last century to popular movie-going down through the years and even musical instrument stores such as Ostanek's and Thorold Music. The section I was interviewed for, by Laura Wiebe Taylor, is titled Where is the Local in Local Radio? The Changing Shape of Radio Programming in St. Catharines.

Having been an employee of CKTB Radio, now part of the Astral Radio family, for over 29 years, I guess the editors figured I had been around long enough to offer a perspective on the industry on a local level over a broad period of time. It's times like these I realize I must be getting older; I often find myself training up-and-coming producers who were not even born when I started at the station! Sheesh...

Anyway, I will be reading Taylor's essay on radio before the rest, of course, and with some time off over the next couple of weeks, I plan to spend a good part of it on my backyard patio pouring over the rest of the book, too.

I mentioned the music stores receiving attention from Nick Baxter-Moore, which is part of the section titled Local Connections. Ostanek's should be part of any popular culture retrospective in Niagara, as Walter and his store staff have served countless music lovers over the years with any number of musical instruments. Also in the section is a wonderful essay by Terrance Cox on the local jazz scene, with a special emphasis on local jazz legend who has been on the international scene for more than a generation: Kenny Wheeler. Wheeler returned to Niagara a couple of years ago to give a concert at Laura Secord Secondary School and provide some musical guidance for the jazz music students there, and it proved to be a memorable return to his hometown. Terrance recounts the events with a great deal of affection for a jazz legend who has never forgotten his roots.

I could write volumes about the book, but frankly, you should just head to the Brock University bookstore and pick up a copy for yourself. I would imagine it will be available at other book retailers as well, and retails for $ 34.95. And if, after reading about Kenny Wheeler, you want to sample some of his ground-breaking recordings that are still available, drop me a line through my website ( or email me directly at and I will be happy to provide details of what's available and order Kenny's recordings in for you.

Happy Reading!

June 23rd, 2010.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Shaw Festival season gets underway in Niagara

Last weekend I got my first trips to the Shaw Festival underway, catching a couple of shows at the small but inviting Royal George Theatre. It was great to get back again, and in fact, I return this weekend to the Court House Theatre for Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. I'll report on that one later on in the month. For now, though, let's look at the play Harvey and the musical One Touch of Venus, both of which run until October.

Harvey, by Mary Chase, is the lighthearted tale of a man and his best friend, an invisible rabbit named, well, Harvey. Harvey lives in the imagination of one Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric young man who causes his well-to-do family no end of embarrassment and frustration as they try to keep him away from visiting society folk who just wouldn't understand his situation. Their efforts fail, of course, and in the end, following a disastrous visit with William Chumley, an aging doctor who runs Chumley's Rest, the rest of the family have their eyes opened to the wonders of Elwood, and accept him rather than try to change him. They realize, as Elwood says in the play, "Some people are blind." When they open their eyes and see the world around them, things change for the better.

Harvey opened in New York in 1944 and ran for over four years, winning the1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A Broadway revival in 1970, starring James Stewart, ran for only 79 performances; Stewart also starred in the film version in 1950, directed by Henry Koster.

I liked this production immensely. Peter Krantz, who sometimes disappoints me with his characterizations, shines in this production, perfectly cast as Dowd. He is surrounded by a strong cast including Mary Haney as Veta Louise Simmons and Norman Browning as the gruff but funny William Chumley. Jennifer Phipps puts in a short appearance as Mrs. Eugene Chauvenet, and makes the most of the moment, and Donna Belleville is equally memorable as Betty Chumley, the doctor's wife. My only disappointment was Zarrin Darnell-Martin as Veta Louise's daughter, Myrtle Mae Simmons, who comes off overly harsh in the play as someone with no compassion for Elwood and wanting to sell the house from under him.

The sets and costumes are all first-rate, with the scene changes particularly well done and fun to watch. Harvey continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 31st and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

The second show of the season for me was also at the Royal George, the musical One Touch of Venus, with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, and book by Nash and S.J. Perelman. Eda Holmes directs this production, and it is a pleasure to watch as the ensemble cast is very strong.

Many may not be familiar with the musical, but will know at least one of Weill's songs from the show, the evergreen "Speak Low", which is one of those classic, steamy love-songs we associate with a bygone era. I have always loved the song, and still remember Canadian singer Riki Turofsky's sensual turn on her disc of Kurt Weill songs that came out years ago on LP.

One Touch of Venus ran longer than any other Weill musical, opening in 1943. It ran longer even than his 1941 hit, Lady in the Dark, and made Mary Martin a star. The musical is based on F.J. Anstey's The Tinted Venus, which tells the whimsical tale of a statue of Venus who comes to life briefly and falls in love with Rodney Hatch, played by Kyle Blair with great spirit. Hatch is the first person Venus sees, and he can't believe his luck, even though he is betrothed to another. Alas, the love affair does not last, as Venus, eventually realizing getting married and settling in the suburbs to raise a family isn't for everyone, least of all her. She ends up a mere, beautiful statue again in the end, with Hatch left with wonderful memories of what could have been.

The rest of the cast surrounding Blair is equally effective, with a couple of oddities. For example, Neil Barcley, a huge talent in more ways than one, is wasted here as Stanley; he barely gets to do much with the role. And Gabrielle Jones as Gloria Kramer, who is Hatch's intended, comes off a little too shrill for me in this production. Shrill, yes, but also effective if you consider why Hatch was attracted to Venus in the first place. As the beautiful Venus that comes to life, Robin Evan Willis is very good; she's a tall woman and looks every bit the part of the goddess of love. Other peformances of note include Mark Uhre as the art afficionado Whitelaw Savory, who has bought the statue of Venus to town and is constantly after Hatch to return the statue when he thinks it's gone missing, and Deborah Hay as Molly Grant, Savory's Girl Friday who almost steals the show with her strong presence and knockout costumes.

The orchestra, led by Ryan deSouza, is compact but effective, and the sets and costumes perfectly suit the producting and the tight quarters of the Royal George Theatre. One Touch of Venus continues until October 10th, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Next up, a visit to The Cherry Orchard...

June 19th, 2010.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

You meet the nicest people in the music business!

I had my weekend blog entry all planned out on Friday, but things changed over the weekend in the nicest of ways, so with that in mind, I will keep my thoughts originally planned for this week until later, and explain this last minute change now.

A couple of weeks ago, I basically put the wraps on reporting on the Niagara Symphony until closer to the fall when things would ramp up for the new season, with Music Director Designate Bradley Thachuk on the podium. However, earlier today I received a lovely email from one of the other candidates for the post, Diane Wittry, thanking me for my kind comments, as she put it, regarding the selection process this season and the final outcome, which I wrote about some weeks ago. Diane writes: "I really enjoyed working with the orchestra. They played with heart and soul and really loved making music together." How true that is. As I mentioned, the orchestra has sounded better than ever this year, and in large part this can be attributed to being on edge as to who the next conductor will be, as you obviously want to be on your best behavior knowing the person waving the baton at you could very well be you next boss.

Now, all the conductors drew inspiration from the musicians in their own way, and without exception, each conductor extracted some pretty impressive playing out of the orchestra, which is why making the final decision was such a difficult process. In truth, no choice would have been a bad one, really, as all four candidates turned out to be exceptional in their own ways.

As for me, I have gotten to know three of the four a little bit over the course of the season, with John Morris Russell, who bowed out of the competion after his two performances, being the first one I met at the end of the last season when he guest-conducted the orchestra. He struck me as a very capable candidate even then, and seemed like an all-round nice guy. I didn't get much of a chance to meet Timothy Hankewich, limiting my impressions to his on-stage persona with the orchestra. But again, he struck me as a pretty good guy possessing a huge amount of talent. I have talked on the phone with Maestro Thachuk several times since he was appointed to the post of Principal Conductor and Music Director Designate of the Niagara Symphony, and we have made a tentative date to meet either when I am in Toronto, where he is now residing, or when he is down here, which is often for the next several months. The more I talk to Bradley the more I like what I hear, so I am coming to expect great things from the orchestra in the seasons to come.

With Diane, outside of a brief introduction to the Maestro (Maestriss?) back in January, I had not had much contact until today when she wrote to me about my blog entries about the competition this season. It was a classy move on her part, and reinforces my feeling Wittry has a very bright musical future ahead of her. Unfortunately, we won't be a part of it. But hey, all of them can't win, and I am sure we'll be pleased once the new season gets underway.

It's funny in a way, I suppose. I sit and write this weekly musical journal, not really knowing who is reading it. But I am constantly surprised by the number of people who do take the time to read what I write, and take the time to let me know they do. I take pride in being as fair-minded as I can possibly be, yet if I have an opinion, I am not afraid to express it. But as with any journalistic endeavour, you have to be careful what you write, and respect those around you and the ones you write about. I like to think I do each and every time I write my blog entry.

So, what's this all come down to? Basically, a humble thank you to you if my blog is part of your regular reading routine. Please feel free to write and let me know your thoughts. Of course, you can always disagree with me; that's part of a healthy discussion on the arts. But I also hope I offer some angles to stories and events others might not have thought of, which ultimately keeps my entries vital and worthwhile reading for you.

Much thanks to Diane, and to you, too. Always write; I look forward to hearing from you!

June 12th, 2010.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Summer theatre season kicks into high gear in Niagara

Well, with the start of June, thoughts turn away from winter afternoons and evenings spent in concert halls and turn instead to indoor and outdoor theatre venues. There are a variety of choices for summer music enjoyment in Niagara and beyond, and we'll look at some of those later in the month. This week, though, we'll begin looking at some of the many choices for summer theatre in the Region and beyond, and there are plenty of choices.

First up, I attended the opening night performance last Friday evening of Lakeside Players' final play at the Port Mansion Dinner Theatre in Port Dalhousie. Lakeside is one of the groups of amateur thespians soon to be displaced as the reconstruction of Port Dalhousie takes place (or destruction, if you're on that side of the fence regarding the revitalization project soon to get underway). Tenants of the Port Mansion will have to find another venue for their performances, and who knows where that might be. It is a shame to lose such a cozy, intimate space such as Port Mansion. It is tight seating on a busy night, but that's part of the fun of summer theatre in Port.

The final offering by Lakeside Players is a winner: Norm Foster's The Love List, starring Tim Denis as Bill, Paul Wintemute as Leon, and Sarah Stevens as Justine. The play is directed by Brian DiMartile. Basically, Bill is a lonely guy who wishes he could meet his ideal match; Leon wants to help by using a matchmaking gypsy to set him up with someone, and presents a so-called 'love list' so you can list your top ten attributes you want in a woman. Wouldn't you know it, the 'ideal' woman for Bill just shows up that very night, and over the course of the play both Leon and Bill discover you might be sorry what you wish for. The play is great fun, although with some adult content to be aware of, and all three members of the cast are in top form. Stevens, especially, puts on a great show and makes the evening that much better. The Love List, another of the Norm Foster summer comedies he is known for, runs at the Port Mansion Dinner Theatre until July 4th, with show only, dinner/show and Sunday brunch/show packages all available. Call the boxoffice at 905-934-0575.

A couple of weeks ago, the Shaw Festival season got underway, although preview performances of many plays have been running since April. Opening Week is always exciting, and I remember my years attending all the openings at Shaw, although now I spread the performances over the entire summer so I can pace myself better. Open now at Shaw are the following: An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, directed by Jackie Maxwell, at the Festival Theatre until October 31st; The Women by Clare Boothe Luce, directed by Alisa Palmer, also at the Festival Theatre until October 9th; Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, adapted by Tom Murphy and directed by Jason Byrne, at the Court House Theatre until October 2nd; Harvey by Mary Chase, directed by Joseph Ziegler, at the Royal George Theatre until October 31st; and the musical One Touch of Venus, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ogden Nash, who also wrote the book with S.J. Perelman, directed by Eda Holmes, also at the Royal George Theatre until October 10th. Still to come at Shaw this season are Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma; Shaw's John Bull's Other Island; Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal; the lunchtime offering of Half an Hour by J.M. Barrie; and Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, at the Studio Theatre.

I hope to start attending my Shaw shows next weekend, and will be writing about them in this space shortly afterwards; my ratings will also appear on the calendar page of my website at For tickets to all Shaw shows, go to, or call 1-800-511-SHAW.

This coming week, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival gets their Opening Week underway, although again, preview performances have been going on since April. Opening this week in Stratford are the following: Shakespeare's As You Like It, directed by Des McAnuff, opening June 7th at the Festival Theatre; Cole Porter's musical take on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate, opens June 8th at the Festival Theatre, directed by John Doyle; Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, directed by Marti Maraden, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, opening June 9th; the musical Evita, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, opening at the Avon Theatre June 10th and directed by Gary Griffin; the musical based on the life and times of Jacques Brel, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, opening June 11th at the Tom Patterson Theatre and directed by Stafford Arima; and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, directed by Tim Carroll, opening at the Avon Theatre June 12th. Still to come at Stratford this season: Shakespeare's The Tempest; Christopher Hampton's Dangerous Liaisons; For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again by Michel Tremblay; Do Not Go Gentle by Leon Pownall; Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and George F. Walker's King of Thieves.

I will be in Stratford throughout the summer months, starting later this month, and my reviews will be appearing in this space as well, beginning at the end of the month. Again, my ratings will appear on the calendar page of my website, For tickets to all Stratford shows, log on to or call 1-800-567-1600.

Let the summer theatre season begin!

June 5th, 2010.