Saturday, January 29, 2011

Niagara Symphony presents Afternoon Delights

This weekend the Niagara Symphony season continues Sunday afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, with the third Masterworks concert titled, appropriately enough, Afternoon Delights. The conductor will be Music Director Designate Bradley Thachuk and the soloist will be Austin Hitchcock, Principal Horn for the Niagara Symphony.

It seems like it has been forever since we last attended a Niagara Symphony concert; in reality the Christmas concert was only about 6 weeks ago, but with Christmas and New Year's and all the business over the holidays, it seems much longer. All the more reason to get down there and enjoy some great music and support the Niagara Symphony over the winter months when many head south for the winter.

Maestro Thachuk leads the orchestra in a performance of the much-loved Beethoven Symphony No. 6, the Pastorale, subtitled "Recollections of a Country Life." Anyone who has seen and loved the Disney film Fantasia will know this music well; however, that truncated version of the work doesn't really begin to to the work justice, lovely though the adaptation may be. The fully-fledged symphony is one of the most evocative works in the symphonic repertoire, and I am very much looking forward to hearing the Niagara Symphony perform the work tomorrow afternoon.

Also on the programme will be the Horn Concerto in E-flat major by Richard Strauss. This heroic work features Principal Horn player Austin Hitchcock, recently returned from an extensive tour with the Canadian Brass to Venezuela, working with that country's extraordinary outreach programme, El Sisterna. This is a difficult work to perform and not many recordings are currently available of it, so this will be a golden opportunity to finally hear the work live.

As always, I will be in the lobby before, after and during intermission with lots of great music for you to purchase, or to take your special orders. Be sure to stop by and say hello!

Tickets are still available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or in person tomorrow afternoon before the concert.

See you there!

January 29th, 2011.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing about events at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University

You never know, sometimes, where life can lead you; nor can you possibly know when a new opportunity may present itself, usually when you least expect it. For the last few years I have been writing on local events in the arts community in this space, and I am constantly amazed the number of people who read it and take the time to comment on it. I always look forward to people's feedback, no matter what form it may take. That leads me to this week's blog entry.

I received an email last fall from Michael Chess, the Marketing Production Coordinator at the Centre for the Arts at Brock, asking if I would be interested in writing the program notes for an upcoming concert. After some initial hesitation, I agreed, and shortly afterwards found myself on the phone making arrangements to interview the people appearing at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre Sunday afternoon of this weekend: Voices of Showtime and guest artist Peter Appleyard. I had to do the interviews separately, and with Peter I was able to record the interview in the studio at CKTB Radio, so I was able to listen back to the interview for writing the article and also to air the edited interview on the morning show, which I produce. We aired the interview, in fact, this past Monday morning.

Voices of Showtime is a vocal group that loves the great music of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and they perform it in a somewhat jazzy style I find reminiscent of the Singers Unlimited. They swing just that little bit, and truly love the music they sing. The group goes back a number of years now and primarily perform in the Toronto area, where the group is based, although individual members come from far and wide to perform with the group. This is a rare tour date for Voices of Showtime, and I am looking forward to hearing what they have to offer tomorrow afternoon. Peter Appleyard I have spoken to a few times over the years, and in fact I emceed the first jazz fundraising concert down at Willowbank in Queenston a number of years ago, where Peter was the headliner. He is still very much a going concern, and he told me in the interview he has absolutely no plans to retire from making the music he loves. That's great news for us, as he is every bit as vibrant and dynamic now as he was when I first met him many years ago.

Tickets are still available for the show Sunday afternoon by calling the box office at Brock: 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or you could likely pick them up at the door before the concert, which begins at 2:30 pm.

This week, I was asked to write program notes for a second concert, so the first one I wrote must have been well received, I suppose. Canadian singer Louise Pitre will bring her musical tribute to Edith Piaf and all things French to the Centre for the Arts at Brock on March 27th, as she performs with her trio at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre. I emailed Louise this week and talked to her on the phone today from her farmhouse near Alliston, Ontario. I will again be writing the notes based on that interview, and ultimately editing the interview for broadcast on CKTB Radio at a later date.

Louise has become a tour-de-force in her own right, and the concert of French chansons promises to be a great concert, even if you are, like me, largely unilingual. Somehow, I suspect the language barrier will be a problem while listening to Louise any more than it would have been years ago while listening to Edith Piaf.

Who knows? This might become another sideline for me: writing program notes for concerts. I never would have thought about that years ago, although I have had a lot of experience interviewing entertainers over the years, ranging from Peggy Lee to the infamous cross-dresser Divine. It is a part of my career I think I am ready to resurrect, so we'll see how things go in the future. In the meantime, if you go to the Voices of Showtime performance Sunday afternoon at Brock, I hope you enjoy the program notes!

January 22nd, 2011.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The best of times and the worst of times for the Shaw Festival

There has been lots of attention paid towards the upcoming season for the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, especially since this will be Shaw's 50th season and plans are in place to truly celebrate the achievement.

Ticket sales are reported to be strong for the 2011 season, and the box office is now open to process orders from the general public as of today. Members and sponser cardholders ticket sales began in November and December, respectively, and Shaw reports the results so far are encouraging, with Member ticket sales ahead of last year's pace by 5%, and group sales reaching the $ 1 million mark, 15% ahead of the same time last year. There is also a remarkable 143% increase in family package sales so far this season, due largely to the anticipation surrounding two key productions this coming season: the musical My Fair Lady and J.M. Barrie's comedy The Admirable Crichton, both appearing on the Festival stage.

Also on the playbill this year are Shaw's most celebrated play, Heartbreak House, as well as Candida, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, On the Rocks, Drama at Inish - A Comedy, and the world premiere of the newly-developed musical Maria Severa at the Court House Theatre. The popular Lunchtime show this year is a remount of The President, which was done a couple of seasons back to rave reviews. On the smaller Studio Theatre stage, we'll see the Canadian premieres of Topdog/Underdog and When the Rain Stops Falling.

But all the news is not good at Shaw early in this landmark year: we have had two significant players at Shaw pass away in the last month alone. On December 30th, we lost director Gina Wilkinson, who was scheduled to direct Shaw's Candida, to cervical cancer. Stepping in to take over directorial duties will be Tadeusz Bradecki, who last directed the spectacular 2009 production of Shaw's The Devil's Disciple.

Just this past week, news spread of the passing of veteran actor Al Kozlik, who suffered a stroke and died at the GNGH on Tuesday. Oddly, Al had just retired from the Company at the end of last season, having played the role of "Firs" in The Cherry Orchard, a part he had always wanted to play. Al came to the Shaw Festival in 1980, the same year Artistic Director Emeritus Christopher Newton arrived at Shaw. They had both been at the Vancouver Playhouse before Newton accepted the position to head up the Shaw Festival, and the two had worked together on countless productions over a period of 45 years. Christopher said in a statement from the Shaw Festival this week: "He was a great trooper, he was a great company member and he was one of those people who simply loved to be on the stage. Whether playing a small or large part, they were always alive, vibrant and fully realized - Al Kozlik was a consummate company member."

Indeed he was; I remember his performances in such productions as The Cassilis Engagement, Detective Story, Getting Married and countless others. Al was one of those important cogs in the theatrical wheel you would notice when he wasn't there; when he was, he added another dimension to the production.

Last year, of course, the Shaw Festival lost beloved actress Goldie Semple to cancer, and in 2009 director Neil Munro, whom I had known casually for many years, passed away suddenly while preparing the production of Born Yesterday, one of the runaway hits of the 2009 season. Oddly enough, Gina Wilkinson came in to replace Munro on that production in 2009, and now she is gone too.

It is funny in a way, but we tend to take some of these great talents for granted as we expect them to be there year after year, entertaining us again and again. They are human, after all, and are susceptible to the same problems we all face in life. But we often seem surprised to find one of our personal favourites is no longer there to entertain us. Such is life as an actor; we let them into our lives year after year, and yet we don't know about their own lives until it is too late.

The Shaw Festival will recover from these two recent losses and I have no doubt the 50th anniversary season will be spectacular. Fortunately for Shaw, the talent pool they can draw from is huge, and every time a new face appears we haven't seen before, they often become "one of the family" too, which is as it should be. We'll mourn the passing of Gina and Al, as we mourned the passing of Neil and Goldie, but as they say in the theatre, "the show must go on!", so on with the shows for the 50th anniversary season at Shaw, and thanks to those who have helped to bring the company this far.

January 15th, 2011.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Happy New Year with friends old and new

Here we are, into a New Year, as we are now officially a week into 2011, and the Christmas rush is but a distant memory again until next year. While I was taking some time over the holidays to rest and recover from the hectic pace of December, I started to think of some of the people I've gotten to know over the past year that have added such a nice musical dimension to my life.

Over Christmas I had a couple of brief visits from our local renaissance woman of music, Laura Thomas, who was busy buying some great music for the holidays from A Web of Fine Music. I have known Laura almost since I moved to Niagara almost 30 years ago, and we've been good friends ever since. If ever there was someone with connections to the local musical establishment here, she is the one. Unfortunately I missed her annual Open House this year, but hopefully next year I'll be better organized. Happy New Year, Laura, and best wishes for a musical New Year! By the way, Laura is conducting the next Pops! concert in February with the Niagara Symphony, titled "Hey Niagara, You've Got Talent!", at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, February 26th and 27th. The concert will be featuring talent from across the Niagara Region, so it promises to be an interesting mix of musical entertainment.

Laura is also Artistic Director of the local choir Choralis Camerata, and for several years now they have staged a concert to coincide with Black History Month in February, and each year I am honoured to join the choir for the performance as narrator, as the music explores the history of the so-called Underground Railroad that began in the deep south and ended around Fort Erie. The featured soloist for the concert each year is Teresa Holierhoek, who sings spirituals with such passion she often brings the house down at these concerts. She is a rare talent who sings jazz the rest of the year under the name of TiannaH with her group Jazz with a Twist. The group expands and contracts in size depending on the size of the venue and of course, the budget they are working with. I finally got a chance to hear TiannaH and her band at the weekly summer concert series at Charles Daley Park in Lincoln this past summer, and she is a treat to listen to.

Upcoming performances by TiannaH and co., by the way, include next Friday evening at the Niagara Icewine Gala at the Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, and then Saturday and Sunday the 15th and 16th at the Winter WineFest on Main Street in Jordan all afternoon long. Teresa lives with her family in the Vineland area and is steadily making a name for herself in jazz circles locally for her full, rich voice and stage presence. She also happens to be a pretty neat person, too, and I count her among the great musical finds for me over the past year.

The third person I have gotten to know over the past year, who in fact performed with the Niagara Symphony just last spring, is Juliet Dunn. Juliet, along with her husband Peter Shea, perform throughout the Region and elsewhere on a regular basis, and they make their home right here in St. Catharines. For the Niagara Symphony performances last spring, Juliet was delayed getting back to Niagara due to the closure of the airports in parts of Europe due to that volcanic ash problem that developed, but she made it just in time and wowed the audiences at both performances.

I only really got to know Juliet when, out of the blue, she stopped by our CKTB Radio studios one morning after we were finished the show, and dropped off a couple of her CDs for us to listen to. Seizing the opportunity, I immediately booked her for a spot on the show that week to promote her Christmas CD, titled, not surprisingly, "Christmas in Niagara." The next day, I had the pleasure of hearing Juliet and Peter perform at Chapters at the Fairview Mall for December 24th last-minute shoppers, and she became a client of my website, for some last-minute Christmas shopping of her own.

Just this past week, I ran into Juliet again as we were both leaving the Y; me after a workout and her after teaching a gentle Zumba class. That's Juliet: always moving and always on the go. But her voice is wonderfully expressive and she herself possesses a genuine good nature that is simply infectious. If you ever get a chance to catch a performance by Juliet and husband Peter, make a point of doing so. And if you want one of her CDs, I currently have their first release, "C'est si bon", featuring Juliet with Le Trio Parisien, on my website on the Mike's Picks page. You can order through the website or by emailing me directly at I can also supply the Christmas disc as well, but don't have it featured on the site now that Christmas is over. You can also go to Juliet's own website,

Finally, on New Year's Eve we were out to dinner at one of our favourite local hotspots, Paris Crepes on Queen Street in downtown Niagara Falls, and providing the musical entertainment all evening long were Beth Bartley and Mark Crawford, otherwise known to local music fans as Vox Violins. Beth and Mark perform regularly around the Region, and on this night it was great to hear them in a relaxed, joyful setting on New Year's Eve at a great venue. They are also active in the local musical scene in the teaching end as well: Beth is a music instructor at Ryson's Music on Court Street in downtown St. Catharines, for instance. I have known both for a number of years now, and their association with Paris Crepes is a relatively new one, as the restaurant is part of the current renaissance of downtown Niagara Falls. They've been open for well over a year now, and are fast becoming one of the real dining jewels in Niagara.

So, to begin the year, a musical tip of the hat to some local talent I have known either for a long or a short period of time, but in all cases, glad to know them all, as they contribute so much to the local fabric in Niagara on a regular basis.

Happy New Year!

January 8th, 2011.