Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Hits Past & Present

So, here we are on that final weekend of October; a weekend when we used to turn the clocks back one hour and revert to Standard Time. Now, we do that in early November, which makes for a little extra daylight for the kids to go about their rounds trick or treating on Halloween. Mind you, I have seen the little ones out just after 5 pm, when I have not even got the candy out yet.

These days, I don't even bother shelling out to the kids on Halloween; not because I am a grinch, but because I rarely get anyone coming to the door. The last couple of years, I got one bag of goodies to give out, which would cover at best a dozen kids, and by the end of the evening, I had all of it to myself. So now I don't bother; I figure if I want my Halloween candy fix I can head to the store on Monday and stock up on what's left at about half-off the price.

I got to thinking today of some of the music we associate with Halloween, and how we have a dearth of newer recordings appropriate for scaring the pants off the little ones as they come to your door. So, we always fall back on the tried and true standards, much as we do at Christmas.

Back in 1994, I picked up a disc on the Rhino label titled simply Halloween Hits, and it proved to be a pretty complete collection of Halloween material for any get-together. But you have to realize, being pretty complete means on this disc at least, we have only ten cuts and the entire length of the disc is barely half an hour. No wonder it is now long out of print! But you'll recognize much of the material on it, leading off as it does with the classic recording of Monster Mash by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, a giant hit when it first came out in the late 50s during the sci-fi and monster movie era. Oddly, it became a big hit twice more over the years, and now you can barely get through Halloween without hearing it on almost any radio station or in the shopping mall. It is one of those songs, like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" that transcends time and just seems to go on forever.

Other tracks on the disc reflect the changing times somewhat and the fact most of the material is over 40 years old now: "Haunted House" by Jumpin' Gene Simmons; "The Blob" by The Five Blobs, a 1958 hit from the movie of the same name I grew up with as a kid (incidentally, the song is by Burt Bacharach of all people, and the movie starred "Steven McQueen" in one of his very early roles); "The Twilight Zone Theme" (not the familiar one but the - I think - better one by Bernard Hermann) recorded here by Neil Norman & His Cosmic Orchestra; Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater"; Vic Mizzy with the main title from "The Addams Family"; "I Put a Spell on You" with Screamin' Jay Hawkins (whose act, you might recall, was to start singing this song while climbing out of an open casket); The Ran-Dells with "The Martian Hop" and believe it or not, Lewis Lee with "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes". Whatever happened to Lewis Lee, eh? Couldn't have been the material he was recording...could it? Anyway, the newest track on the disc, from the 80s is Ray Parker Jr. with the theme from "Ghostbusters". And that's as new as it gets.

Some the material is pretty dated now and a lot of it is truly awful, but we keep coming back to these, um, gems for Halloween every year, because not much else has come along over the years. Good thing Halloween only happens once a year.

In classical music, a lot of the material was not intended for Halloween, of course, it just worked out that way. Could you imagine J. S. Bach taking some of his 20 offspring out trick or treating while someone played his familar Toccata & Fugue everyone associates now with Halloween? The mind boggles...but Bach never imagined the work would become one of his biggest hits, thanks in no small part to Leopold Stokowski's lush orchestration of the work for the Disney classic "Fantasia". From the same film, Mussorgsky's Night on Bald (or Bare) Mountain will always be associated with Halloween, as will Paul Dukas' greatest hit, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. In the world of classical music, Harry Potter films seem to be the greatest supplier of appropriate music for Halloween now, especially since Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" isn't heard with much regularity anymore after being associated for many years with Alfred Hitchcock. And what could be creepier than that association? Speaking of marches, the March to the Scaffold from Berlioz' opium-inspired Symphonie Fantastique still sounds great at this and any other time of year, but you rarely hear it now without some kind of association with Halloween.

What will our kids do in the future for scary inspiration? I suppose Lady Gaga is doing her best to keep the "creep" factor at a high level, and teen sensation Justin Bieber can be considered a little scary to some, given his mammoth popularity in a relatively short period of time. But associations with Halloween over the long term? I doubt it.

So, enjoy the night of October 31st, however you choose to celebrate it, and if that includes music, you have a wide variety of choices from the world of classical and pop music for the night. Of course, for all your musical requirements, scary or otherwise, A Web of Fine Music is here to serve you. Granted, it's too late to fill orders for Halloween this year, but for anything else you may be looking for, contact me through my website at or email me directly at

Happy Halloween!

October 29th, 2010.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Niagara Symphony launches their Pops! season this weekend

Even though we have lots to do around the house this weekend, including raking leaves, yardwork, painting and general cleaning up after a busy week, I know I won't be alone when I say all that will have to work around the launch of the Niagara Symphony's Pops! season Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Granted, most people do one or the other, but I, of course, do both, as I set up my table in the lobby for CD sales from A Web of Fine Music; if you plan to go to either concert, I hope you'll stop by for a visit and say hello.

Earlier this month, the Niagara Symphony launched their Masterworks series with a well-attended concert of music by Robert Turner, Faure, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, with guest soloist Shauna Rolston. The new Music Director Designate for the Niagara Symphony, Bradley Thachuck, made his debut at the concert and turned in a pretty impressive performance, particularly in the Brahms Symphony No. 2 that closed the program.

Maestro Thachuk is on the podium this weekend as well to launch the Pops! season with a programme titled Symphonic All-Stars. In these tough economic times it is hard to pay for a guest soloist for every concert, especially when you have some great musicians already performing within the ranks of the orchestra. So, Thachuk and Co. wisely chose to forego the extra expense and showcase some of their own musicians who certainly deserve the recognition. So, over the course of the concert, we'll be hearing from Laura Thomas on Anderson's The Typewriter, for example; we'll also hear trombonist Steve Fralick on Hoagy Carmichael's Georgia On My Mind; cellist Gordon Cleland on the Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper; violinist Xiaoling Li performing the Tango from the movie "Scent of a Woman"; concertmaster Valerie Sylvester performing the theme from John Williams' score to the movie "Schindler's List"; flute players Douglas Miller and Patricia Dydnansky performing the Rondo, Op. 25 for two flutes by Franz Albert Doppler; and the entire trumpet section on Leroy Anderson's popular Bugler's Holiday.

Lots of other orchestral music will fill out the programme, too, including music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Kander's music from "Chicago" and Richard Hayman's popular "Pops Hoe-Down". So all in all, it promises to be a lively concert! Now, none of this is exactly cutting edge, but it's guaranteed to fill the seats for both concerts, which will serve to introduce a lot of people - some of them new visitors, it's hoped - to the new Maestro, Bradley Thachuk. After all, the real challenge now is to fill those seats and broaden the audience base.

The Saturday evening concert begins at 7:30; the Sunday afternoon is at 2:30; both performances are at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. I suspect tickets will be easier to come by for the Saturday evening performance, but you can check on either one with the box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or stop by before the concert. And as mentioned, I will be there in the lobby before, at intermission and after the concert both days with lots of music you'll hopefully take a liking to, so be sure to stop by the table. Of course, you can also check out the latest Mikes Picks on my website,, and email any and all requests you have to

See you at the Symphony this weekend!

October 23rd, 2010.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

James Street Night of Art all set to go Friday!

Every year at this time, the St. Catharines and Area Arts Council teams up with a number of local business partners to present the James Street Night of Art, and this year the event comes up tomorrow night, Friday October 15th from 6 to 9 pm. I look forward to this every year, despite the fact the weatherman (person?) doesn't always appear to be a lover of art.

I can't remember what the weather was like last year, oddly enough, but I do recall the year it poured rain as we all walked from venue to venue downtown with umbrellas, determined souls that we were. This year actually looks promising, with clear skies on the sked making for a lovely sunset to accompany the festivities.

Basically, the entire block of James Street from King to St. Paul is blocked off to vehicular traffic and then taken over by art-loving pedestrians for three full hours. There is music, theatre and visual art in various forms performed both inside and outside all along the street. The idea is, you get a program going in, see what times performances are, and basically just meander from one art station to another, taking in as much or as little as you like. It's sort of like an art buffet, if you will, and it is all absolutely free.

I've caught a recital at The Watering Can, visual art in the window of Sandercott & Evans, and enjoyed a sublime hot chocolate while listening to authentic Indian tabla music at the Fine Grind Cafe. And those are just three of the highlights over the last few years; many more each year happen that I don't even get to see myself, and each and every one of them is well attended.

This year, the actual James Street boundary is stretched to include BBBlooms and Critelli's Fine Furniture on King Street, and Transitions New Lifestyle Furniture and Coffee Culture on St. Paul Street as well. Performances range from barbershop quartet singing to jazz with the Shea D Duo to Earthbeat African drumming and even Deanna Jones channeling Keith Richards in a dark alley. Visual artists include Melani Pyke painting nine canvasses in one evening in the window of the Arts Council offices at 31 James Street, and media art lights up the night at the site of the former Russell Hotel at the corner of James and St. Paul.

In other words, there is literally something for everyone, and it is all absolutely free of charge. Sure, you pay for whatever refreshments you choose to consume, but other than that, you're free to go from one end to the other for three hours. This is a deal you shouldn't refuse if you have even a passing interest in the arts. If nothing else, it will open your eyes - and ears - to the myriad of arts groups and individuals working here in Niagara, and in particular in downtown St. Catharines,

I would suspect once the new Performing Arts Centre becomes a reality in a few years, some of the performances might be transferred to the lobby area there, and probably by then the entire evening could be expanded in scope. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, right? Let's enjoy the intimate, cozy arrangement we have right now while we can.

New this year is an art party scheduled at Rodman's Hall VERVE following the James Street Night of Art events, although you'll have to drive to that one at Rodman Hall. For complete details on the 5th annual James Street Night of Art, to to; you can also join the event page on Facebook as well. Now that's something that wasn't there when it all began five years ago!

If you don't have plans yet for tomorrow night, make plans now to attend the James Street Night of Art from 6 to 9 pm. I can guarantee you the trip will be well worth it!

October 14th, 2010.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Remembering John Lennon and the rest of the Fab Four

Much has been written and spoken in the days leading up to the October 9th birthdate of John Lennon, the late, lamented singer/songwriter and former member of The Beatles until 1970. If he had lived, he would be 70 today, and that is certainly pause for thought for aging baby-boomers everywhere. Who knows what he might have created and/or accomplished in his life had it not been cut short in 1980 by Mark David Chapman, who remains behind bars for his crime.

But rather than write another retrospective on the life and career of John Lennon, I want instead to write about a less-obvious connection between The Beatles, quite possibly the most influential band of the 20th century, and classical music, which underwent significant changes during that same century. Truth be told, they are not strange bedfellows, mutually exclusive of influence on each side.

When The Beatles formed in Liverpool, England, in 1959, they began by covering pop tunes of the day at first, but quickly graduated to performing their own material. Much of that early material came from the songwriting team of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, two of the most gifted young songwriters of their time. Although huge hits such as She Loves You and Hard Day's Night owe little if anything to classical music. some of their other, and later material, did. One has only to listen to one of the most-recorded songs of any era, Yesterday, written by Lennon and McCartney, to notice the use of a string quartet, quite rare for the music of the time. I have no idea whose idea that was, be it from The Beatles themselves or perhaps their producer, George Martin. But the end result is so beguilingly simple as to be too obvious to comprehend. The song, simple in sound, is quite complex in its construction, and that is the genius of The Beatles: they could take a complex idea and boil it down to a level that would be accepted by the mainstream pop audience of the day, yet all the while mainting the music's integrity.

Other songs made effective use of strings: Penny Lane, for example, in the late 60s, which also employed a baroque trumpet to great effect. Eleanor Rigby, with those pulsing strings, is a classic example of pop meeting classical and both sides benefitting from the marriage. The jury is still out on the large orchestral forces employed in The Long And Winding Road, however. While powerful in a way, most today tend to think it was over-produced and over-orchestrated. Be that as it may, even that song showed a strong connection to classical roots.

On the other side of the coin, many classical composers and performers embraced The Beatles' music from early on, employing the tunes into large montages or writing variations on one of those famous themes. Perhaps the grand-daddy of all these adaptations is the Beatlecracker Suite, recorded in the mid-1960s with the Arthur Wilkinson Orchestra on Capitol Records. Although the suite, taking up a whole side of the original LP, is only a smidgen over 10 minutes, It is the sheer brilliance of the arrangements, melding The Beatles' tunes with the Nutcracker Suite by Thaikovsky that make the work still sound fresh and vital today. Unfortunately, that original recording on Capitol remains unreleased, and a newer recording on a collection of familiar classical themes was only discontinued this past year. It was great to hear the recording, though, and I proudly own both versions in my personal collection.

In the late 70s, dual pianists Rostal & Schaeffer joined forces with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to record The Beatles Concerto, a three-movement work along standard classical lines recorded for Angel Records. It was a tasteful take on the music of The Beatles, but sadly has never made it to CD to the best of my knowlege. But again, I own the original LP in my collection, and might even get around to transferring it to CD in the near future. There have been lots of similar recordings since then, of course, with varying degrees of success, but these I've listed are the classic recordings to have in your collection if you're so inclined.

On my website, which you can find at, I include a long list of 'Mike's Picks', interesting recordings you might want to own. Last year I featured that now-discontinued recording of The Beatlecracker Suite, recording by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Later this month, when I put together my monthly newsletter, the Fine Music Newsletter, I'll include those two iconic two-LP sets of Beatles hits: the two that are now simply known as the Red album and the Blue album. The red album chronicles the early years of The Beatles, while the Blue album does the same with the later years. The two are available again on single discs, and now specially combined into a deluxe CD package for the casual Beatles fan or the die-hard Beatles affionado who for some reason doesn't own the original albums after all these years. There is also a deluxe version combining both sets, which I think would be the way to go if you want a great collection of Beatles classics. Look for those sets on the website later this month.

Of couse, you can always visit my website, at, for a complete list of available recordings as well as a complete arts calendar for the area and beyond. Can't find what you want? No problem; just email me your queries at and I will see what I can do about locating that elusive piece of music you remember hearing years ago.

Beyond their own material, many of the classic Beatles tunes have been done so many ways over the years, including clever classical arrangements such as those heard on Peter Breiner's recording of Beatles Go Baroque, still available at a bargain price on the Naxos label, that I think we'll always be listening to their material for years to come. And why not? Lennon and McCartney, along with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, defined an age and changed how we look at popular music. That's a pretty good legacy to keep with you, wouldn't you think?

October 9th, 2010.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Niagara Symphony kicks off their 63rd season this weekend

The anticipation has been building, and finally the opening weekend of the Niagara Symphony's 63rd season is here. On Sunday, the Symphony will welcome Music Director Designate Bradley Thachuk to the fold, as he begins his musical journey of discovery with the orchestra. It should be an interesting odyssey.

I've written in this space much over the past year or so about the search for a musical director last season, and the fact all four candidates for the position appeared to be eminently qualified for the position. Bradley won the day following the May Pops! concerts last season, and shortly afterwards he was presented to the media at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University. Now, all that excitement generated during the search process will now have to be channelled into the new season with rising expectations for the new, young conductor.

Bradley brings a number of qualities to the table, not the least of which is youth; something the Niagara Symphony is banking on to help broaden the appeal of the orchestra and lower the age demographic somewhat. I know the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter will now be part of the Niagara Symphony's marketing strategy, and that is probably a good thing, even though I loathe both forms of social media myself. The fact remains, of course, the younger audience the Symphony hopes to attract will likely be well-versed in both forms of social media, so it makes good marketing sense to try to reach them through those channels. Whether they respond favourable and show up for some of this seasons' concerts remains to be seen.

The opening concert, at 2:30 Sunday afternoon, includes an appropriate opener: An Opening Celebration. Nothing like setting the tone off the top! Also on the programme is the lovely Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms, filling up the entire second half of the concert. The featured soloist for the afternoon is Canadian cello soloist Shauna Rolston, who has been a fixture on Canadian classical music stages for almost 25 years now. She has several recordings to her credit, and should bring some interesting insights to the major work in the first half of the programme, the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky. She'll also perform the lovely Elegy by Gabriel Faure.

Once again this season, A Web of Fine Music is a proud sponser of the Niagara Symphony, and as usual, I will be set up in the lobby before, after, and during intermission, with my table laden with musical treasures I'm hopeful many people will take home with them after the concert. I'll have recordings of both works Shauna will be performing at the concert, as well as the Brahms Second Symphony, plus a number of other interesting titles, so be sure to stop by my table for a good peruse. Of course, if you don't find what you're looking for, let me know either at the concert or via email anytime at, and I will do my very best to locate that elusive piece of music for you. And don't forget, you can check out the complete calendar listings on my website, as well as a large selection of Mike's Picks, by going to

Tickets should still be available for the concert on Sunday, but I would not recommend waiting until the day of the concert if you can help it. Call the Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, and reserve your tickets sooner rather than later. It promises to be a real musical party on Sunday, and I know the Symphony would love to see you there. In fact, so would I.

Happy 63rd Anniversary season, Niagara Symphony!

October 1st, 2010.