Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Top Five noteworthy arts events of 2010

Tomorrow evening is New Year's Eve, so the week leading up to same we tend to collate a number of lists of 'best of' and 'worst of' for the year, along with Top Ten lists of everything from news events to most popular food trends for the year. Not to be outdone, I humbly present this week my Top Five noteworthy events in the arts during the past year in Niagara and beyond. I could have done a Top Ten, I suppose, but these are the real noteworthy events as I see them, and anything else would have been just padding out the list. So, let's get to it...

The return of actor extraordinaire Christopher Plummer to the thrust stage at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, in a breathtaking production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. As I wrote at the time, this production had it all: amazing special effects that didn't detract from the play but rather augmented it; a stellar supporting cast; great design and direction; and of course, Christopher Plummer, who presented a beautifully crafted Prospero. This was a production for the ages, and one we'll likely not see again. Hope you got tickets this season...

Staying with live theatre, the continuing evolution of first-quality, exciting and vibrant live theatre in downtown St. Catharines courtesy Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects and their Artistic Director, Kelly Daniels. Yes, Virginia, there is great theatre in the heart of downtown St. Catharines in the dead of winter when the Shaw Festival is hibernating. The last three productions for Lyndesfarne, going back to the fall of 2009, have shown the quality of theatre we're capable of producing in our own backyard: Ric Reid's delightfully manic and funny take on Steven Berkoff's hilarious one-man show, "Shakespeare's Villains" this past fall; Kelly Daniels and Ric Reid romping through Michelle Riml's comedy "Sexy Laundry" in the spring; and in the fall of 2009, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's gritty play "The Beauty Queen of Leenane", starring Daniels and featuring a great performance by Shaw actor Jennifer Phipps. Yes, there is great theatre to be had in downtown St. Catharines; the challenge now is to get that word out and fill more seats in the new year.

The announcement this past May of the new Music Director Designate for the Niagara Symphony, Toronto-born Bradley Thachuk. After a season-long search for a new Music Director and an audition process that saw four eminently-qualified candidates for the position show what they could do as each conducted a Pops and Masterworks concert, the audience was asked to vote for their favourite following each concert. How much influence the audience had on the final selection process is open to speculation, I suspect, but the final outcome, announced at a press conference at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University in May, seemed to please most people, and Brad said all the right things that day as he accepted the position. This season, we don't get to see Maestro Thachuk every time out, since he has to fulfill his final committments in Fort Wayne, Indiana this season, but he is conducting about half the season. Next season we get all Bradley all the time, and then we truly get to experience what this energetic young conductor has to offer. A sidelight to the entire selection process for me personally was a lovely email from candidate Diane Whittry thanking me for my comments in this space following her two outings with the Symphony last season. A classy touch, I found.

The second most noteworthy event in the arts has to be the November 'Flash Mob' unfolding amongst unsuspecting food court patrons at the Seaway Mall in Welland on November 13th. The people at Alphabet Photography, who devised the idea as a sort of video 'thank-you' for their clients, never imagined the thing would go viral within days, with about 30-million hits the last time I checked on YouTube. What a thank-you! What great promotion for Alphabet Photography and especially for Robert Cooper and Chorus Niagara. Cooper arranged the music for that specific location, and the photographers and chorus members executed the game-plan flawlessly. The result, singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's oratorio "Messiah", is four minutes of sheer pleasure: watching the faces of the stunned food court patrons; the quick appearance of digital cameras to record the event; and the sheer exhuberance of a skilled choir who simply knows this music backwards and forewards. The downside to this whole story? The numerous copycat versions now out there, with each of them apparently claiming the idea was theirs. Go figure. But we were first here in Niagara. Bravo to everyone involved for creating some Christmas magic in the most unusual place: a shopping mall food court. What can they do for an encore!?

The summer announcement by all four levels of governement: federal, provincial, regional and municipal, to work together and bring significant funding to the table to help make the dream of a downtown performing arts centre a reality in St. Catharines. The announcement, though not totally surprising, was still significant considering the scope of the funding and the determination from all levels of government to see this thing through to its conclusion. There was some tension as we waited, on the edge of our collective seats, no less, for the funding to come from the provincial government for the Brock portion of the project, which will see the construction of a centre for their arts programs and students in the heart of downtown St. Catharines. We are still a few years away from seeing this project reach completion, but significant strides have already been made, giving downtown merchants the incentive to improve their own premises as we work collectively to make the downtown a destination place once again. This project has the potential to totally transform not only our own downtown, but the entire peninsula. Handled properly, we can bring more performances to Niagara from outside the area, as well as showcasing our own homegrown talents such as Chorus Niagara, the Niagara Symphony, and a host of smaller arts organizations. The trick will be making it affordable both for the tenants and the patrons. We have time to do this right, and we had better, for we have all waited so long for this project to move forward at a pace not seen before. Let's show everyone how good a job we can do on this!

So there you have it, my Top Five for the year 2010. I hope your 2011 is just as interesting, and I wish you all a Happy and prosperous New Year. I have lots more to write about in the New Year, including some announcements I will be making in due time, so please keep reading this space, and please always send your comments in; I love the feedback!

December 30th, 2010.

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