Saturday, April 30, 2011

Some thoughts on the Royal Wedding and In The Soil

I had planned to write about In The Soil midweek after attending the preview on Wednesday evening, but with the weather on Thursday and a myriad of computer problems rearing their collectively ugly heads again this week (look at this!  I just discovered my computer was manufactured by Yugo!), my plans were waylayed until now.  So I'll briefly touch on In The Soil here first before getting to yesterday's Royal Wedding.

There is lots to enjoy still with our own Homegrown Arts Festival, which continues until tomorrow, May 1st, at various locations in downtown St. Catharines.  One of the most interesting, and one I briefly touched on last week, is The Living Archive, running from 3 to 7 pm today and tomorrow at 104 St. Paul Street, downtown.  This is a FIXT POINT production for In The Soil, and they invite you to donate a story about St. Catharines; perhaps a memory of something special that happened here you remember or a particular business or building you remember that is no longer there.  You can donate your story in person at 104 St. Paul Street, or you can call the toll-free hotline at 1-877-269-9133, or log on to

Lots of musical entertainment abounds this weekend downtown, and you can access all the information at  One of the highlights tomorrow is the Barley & Hops! Rock n' Roll Brunch sponsored by the Merchant Ale House.  This outdoor brunch with plenty of beer, food and entertainment takes place at the former site of Jerry's Alley at the corner of James and St. Paul Street.  If it rains, and unfortunately it just might, you can repair indoors to the Merchant Ale House.  The brunch runs from about 11 am and is only $ 5 at the door, plus your food and drink. 

Enjoy the spring weekend in Niagara and the wonderful sounds of In The Soil!

Now, I can't let this week pass without a few comments about yesterday's Royal Wedding of William and Kate, now known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  The early-morning spectacle (our time) was well worth getting up for, although for me I am up at that hour every day anyway, so it was no trouble for me.  The perfect balance of pomp and circumstance was struck, I think, and there was enough accessibility for everyday folks, given the security no doubt on hand, I would imagine people cannot complain too much.

The ceremony itself was rather brief, all things considered; it was all the related pomp and pageantry that took up most of the time on the broadcast, and that's fine.  But you have to admire the service for how beautifully it was handled, with nothing over-the-top.  I found most of the music, typically British church-choir proper, of course, to be particularly enjoyable, especially John Rutter's new piece premiered at the wedding.  It was also nice to see James O'Donnell, the Master of Music at Westminster Abbey, in full flight conducting the choir.  He was in St. Catharines just a couple of months ago and sadly, his wonderful organ recordings are all but gone from the catalogues now.  There are plenty still available of the choirs of both Westminster Cathedral and the Abbey, and most of those are readily available on order through my website at, or emailing me directly at

It you can wait until late May, the offical Royal Wedding album will be released May 23rd by Decca Records, and it will also be readily available through A Web of Fine Music.  I am taking pre-orders now, so don't hesitate to get in touch if you are interested.  The soundtrack will include music from the day, including hymns; pictures of the wedding; wedding vows, blessings, readings, and a special collector's booklet.  Musicians featured on the recording include, of course, James O'Donnell and the Choir of Westminster Abbey, The Chapel Royal Choir; The London Chamber Orchestra and the Fanfare Team from the Central Band of the Royal Air Force.  Should be a great-sounding package!

As for the dress and the kiss?  Hey, the dress looked fine to me, and since she has to wear it, if she's happy, I'm happy.  Some have complained the kiss didn't look all that romantic, but would you want to go overboard with about 2-billion people watching you?  You'd likely wait until a private moment, too, I would think.

Overall, it was a great day, and time will tell if tourism gets a boost from the big event; I suspect it will, and that is great news.  London has had a tough time of it of late, and I have always enjoyed my visits there, including the Abbey.  I am overdue for a return visit, so we'll see when that happens...

Have a great weekend!

April 30th, 2011.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

In the Soil ready to kick off in Niagara this week - Can you dig it?

Okay, so I maybe overdid it a bit with the heading there...what the heck, a fun arts festival like In the Soil knows how to laugh at itself, so why not have some fun now, too?

Yes, the third annual In the Soil - Niagara's Homegrown Arts Festival kicks off Wednesday of this coming week in downtown St. Catharines, running through to May 1st, and already the festival is causing more than a little buzz in the community.  If you are not familiar with In the Soil, it is a nice, friendly, down-to-earth grassroots sort of festival of many facets of the arts right here in Niagara, with most performances taking place in various locations in downtown St. Catharines.  The previous two festivals have done very well both financially and artistically, proving once again if you give people a decent reason to get out in the evening and come downtown, they will.  In the Soil is more than decent; it is the perfect tonic as we launch headfirst into Spring 2011!

I will be attending the festival launch this coming Wednesday evening at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, so I hope to write more that evening about all the exciting events coming up.  For now, though, by way of a preview, a couple of things I can tell you about right now.  One of the most interesting aspects of this year's festival is a theatre showcase at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse theatre.  Known as a "Three Play Crop Rotation", three plays will run in repertory during the festival, with admission to each show only ten dollars at the door. 

Former Welland resident Katie Hood is set to premiere The Animal Show, a touching and quirky tale of an animal rescue worker.  Twelve Fold Theatre's Richard Varty, a hard-working Brock theatre student, has written and will direct an ensemble of emerging artists in Room for Improvement.  And professional locals, Stolen Theatre Collective will take on The Nona in what promises to be a rather physical and musical show, I'm told.

Another new concept this year is provided by Toronto-based company FIXT POINT, who will be in town with an extension of their Tale of a Town series.  Their project, The Living Archive, is phase one of The Tale of a Town - St. Catharines, which is inspired by countless hours of oral histories gathered from local residents about the recent history of St. Paul Street.  The group will open a storefront space at The Foss Building at 104 St. Paul Street throughout the festival to illuminate some of the stories they've collected so far from the likes of Mayor Brian McMullan, Walter Ostanek, Kurt Swinghammer, Marilyn I. Walker and many more.  Some of the stories collected touch on some of the storied sites in St. Catharines, including the recently transplanted Art's Restaurant, the late, lamented Diana Sweets, and Jerry's Alley among others.

Also recently announced, a group from Toronto will share the stage with local youth talent at the festival on Friday evening at 7 at Robertson Hall at 85 Church Street in the Folk Arts Centre.  The three local emerging bands participating are Tyganda, Check Lester and Autumn Crush, some of whom are still in high school.  They get to share the state with Toronto's conceptual punk pioneers known as...wait for it:  "F**ked Up.  Okay.  Nice to know they can grab your attention with that name, eh?

Here is where I verify my membership in the age-old club known as Old Fogeydom.  As good as they apparently are, and as successful as they obviously have become, why do they have to use a name like that to identify the band?  I mean, what do you think of when you see that?  Exactly.  Now I know, I know, the name is just a name and all that, and look at The Barenaked Ladies years ago unable to perform at a Toronto event since the mayor of the day, June Rowlands, thought the name "Barenaked Ladies" was offensive.  What an embarrassment that turned out to be!  But still, there must have been SOME other name they thought of before settling on that one.  Hmmm, maybe they are on to something here, as they just got more electronic ink than they otherwise would have had, had they used a different name.  Okay, fine.  End of tirade on my part.  But jeezzzzz...

In the Soil kicks off April 27th and will feature over 250 artists in 15 events, and new this year is a $ 25 festival pass available for all downtown events, subject to capacity.  For more information, go to

Happy Easter weekend!

April 23rd, 2011.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Niagara College Teaching Brewery now open for business

I thought that title would catch your eye! Let me be the first to admit two things: first, this column will have nothing whatsoever to do with music or the arts this week, which does occasionally happen; and second, I have never become a beer drinker. My Dad used to brew the stuff in the basement at our home in Toronto years ago, and from all reports from all the kids in the neighbourhood who seemed to frequent our place when a new batch was ready for tasting, it was pretty potent stuff. Me, I never developed a taste for it, really, but then, I am more of a tea drinker than anything else these days. That being said, I was invited by my good friend Lynn Ogryzlo, local food afficionado of the highest order, to attend the opening of the new Teaching Brewery at Niagara College this past Wednesday evening and stay for the Brewmaster Dinner planned that evening. Lynn has the inside track on these things at the College as her husband Jon is Dean of the Canadian Food & Wine Institute at Niagara College. It was an evening of great food, interesting beer and a significant upgrade of my own knowledge of the drink forever associated with Canadians. When I arrived late afternoon, just after the skies started to finally dry up, I was immediately ushered into the new brewery location on campus, where the First Draft Campus Brew is made. There, Kevin Somerville, who is an on-site Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Manager for the new operation, gave us the grand tour and described in minute detail how the process works and we achieve a fine local brew you can buy on-site and take home with you. It is a fascinating story, and although I couldn't possibly absorb all the information, I managed to grasp at least a basic understanding of the brewing process as it applies to the Niagara College operation. Kevin, young though he is, knows his product well and should go far in the beer industry should he choose to. After awhile it was off to the newly-renovated and reopened Benchmark Restaurant, a space I have enjoyed many a fine dinner at in the past before the most recent makeover. The head chef and professor in the Culinary Arts programme at Niagara College, Michael Olson, presided over the Brewmaster Dinner much as a proud father shows off his young family to visitors, making sure to introduce individually each of the ten student chefs hard at work in the kitchen for the event, as well as the regular and volunteer wait staff for the evening. Michael also went to great lengths to explain each course as each individual brewmaster described the beer they had provided to be paired with each dish. Okay, so what did we have, you ask. I can't believe I'm doing this, but here is a rundown of the evening's food and beer pairings, just in case you are wondering what you missed: First course: Terrine of Quebec Foie Gras with Spent Grains Brioche and Bok Jelly, paired with Niagara College Teaching Brewery Educator Dopple Bock. The Foie Gras was to die for, the Dopple Bock very dark and rich, and I actually enjoyed it! Second course: Erie Whitefish "Waterzui" with Hothouse Peppers, Yukon Gold Potatoes and Sweet Shallots in an aromatic coriander citrus beer broth, paired with Muskoka Summer Weiss beer. The whitefish was wonderfully moist and tender, and the broth was very fragrant and light. The beer was about as light and summery a brew as I've ever experienced. Palate cleanser: Wort Sorbet, light and refreshing and using a byproduct of the brewing process. Third course: Roast Tenderloin of Black Angus Beef on Barley Root Vegetable Stew and roasted Garlic Lemon Hollandaise, paired with Neustadt 10W30 Brown Ale. The tenderloin was just that, very tender, but I would have preferred it cooked just a little more, but it was a magnificent dish. The appropriately named beer, very dark and robust, proved a bit too bitter for my tastes, but you can't help but love the name! Fourth course: Black Forest Bok Washed Niagara Gold Cheese with Rye Toast and Thyme Honey, followed by Dark Prinz Espresso Torte with Laurel Cream, paired with Russian Gun Imperial Stout. The first dish, summery and light, was a delight, with the Niagara Gold Cheese truly extraordinary; the espresso tort was so rich many couldn't finish even the small slice supplied, but it was worth trying for sure, and yes, I did finish mine! The Imperial Stout was a beer that ensured a strong finish to the evening, and although it was quite dark, I found it smoother and easier on the palate than the Neustadt. So, there you have it, my culinary column, which has to be a first! But, I love good food and some of the wonderful places to visit for same in Niagara and beyond, so as Shakespeare wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on!" Perhaps I will write about food again sometime. In the meantime, my heartfelt thanks to Lynn and husband Jon for inviting me, and Michael and his charges for putting on a spectacular show. Although they can't promise a grand dinner on that scale all the time, the Benchmark Restaurant is a great destination for either lunch or dinner, and the new brewery operation makes it all the more worthwhile to pay them a visit at Niagara College. Bon appetit! April 15th, 2011.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Arts and tourism centre stage in Niagara this weekend

This is turning out to be a banner weekend in Niagara, with two events in two cities taking centre stage in tourism and the arts, respectively. Let's start with Niagara Falls, which hosted a much-anticipated gala opening of the new Scotiabank Convention Centre on Stanley Avenue this weekend. This is a dream literally years in the making, and it is almost hard to believe the dream is now a reality. City fathers in Niagara Falls have been working on a viable plan for literally decades, in hopes of turning what Mayor Jim Diodati says was once a 100-day industry (tourism) into a year-round industry to help drive the local economy. Attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday afternoon, I noted smiles all around, both from attending dignitaries and the general public, who came out in droves to toast the event, packing the lone parking lot out back long before the event started. As a result I arrived a little late, but soon enough to hear Mayor Diodati list the many people, both past and present, who have worked so hard to make this dream a reality in 2011. Far too many to list here, of course, but suffice it to say, it is a wonder all levels of government and interested business groups all worked together to come up with the $ 105-million cost of the new convention facility. Some nay-sayers may wonder about the cost, but from my vantage point, it will quickly prove to be money well-spent. A medium-market convention facility such as this can do quite well for itself, all the while posing no threat to larger convention markets such as Toronto or Ottawa. The one big advantage this facility will have over similar-sized counterparts, aside from state-of-the-art design and equipment, will be all the city has to offer conventioneers while not attending the convention. Think of all the restaurants, hotels and entertainment options already in place, and you can't help but think this will all come together to fill the yearly calendar for convention dates in the city. In addition to Mayor Diodati, I chatted with former mayor and Tourism Chair Wayne Thompson and Convention Centre President and General Manager Kerry Painter, and both are simply brimming with pride at what they have achieved. Time will tell if the good feelings and wishes are well-placed, but I suspect it won't take all that long for people to see the results of all this hard work in action. Following this event yesterday afternoon, I walked down to the friendly confines of St. Catharines' old courthouse next to the Saturday farmers' market for an announcement at the Sullivan Mahoney Theatre prior to a performance of Peg and the Yeti by Carousel Players. Word came yesterday St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley would be making an annoucement, along with Livia Martin, a volunteer with the Ontario Trillium Foundation, of provincial government support for our local arts community. Hot on the heals of the announcement of federal funding for the Marketing the Arts of St. Catharines last month, which I wrote about in March in this space, the provincial government has announced that Inspire! Niagara Arts in Niagara Schools, part of that marketing initiative outlined in March and involving Carousel Players and the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, would receive a $ 19,500 commitment from the Ministry of Tourism through the Cultural Strategic Investment Fund. But that's not all. Both Mr. Bradley and Ms. Martin also announced an additional $ 45,000 grant from the Foundation to help the Carousel Players purchase a new touring vehicle to transport sets, costumes and equipment to schools throughout the Niagara Region, part of the mandate to bring the arts to the schools of Niagara on a regular basis. Talking to Jane Gardner of Carousel Players after the announcement, she says this is a great example of governments realizing the need and also the opportunity to expose young people to the arts at an early age, and help launch the transition to our own crown jewel still a few years away, the much-anticipated performing arts and school complex in the city core. There will be several performance spaces in the new facility, and Jane expects although the space they will occupy, along with several other smaller groups, will be more expensive to rent than their present facilities, the accessibility advantages and modern facilities will make the extra expense worthwhile. Plus, a larger space than they presently have means a chance to fill more seats on a regular basis as well. I know our own landmark facility hasn't even been designed yet, let alone started construction, but the wheels are certainly in motion, and one only has to travel down that stretch of St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines to see the work already done to ready the site for future development. I know supporters of our complex must be looking at Niagara Falls' achievement and looking to the future when they will host dignitaries and the public alike at a shining new complex that will do wonders for our local economy, too. The big difference, aside from the intended use of both facilities, is ours is in the heart of downtown, rather than outside the downtown core as is the case in Niagara Falls. Still, downtown Niagara Falls cannot help but benefit from the economic advantages as well as the facility gets up and running. So what we have here are two facilities in two cities, each with a specific design and use in mind, and each intended to give a shot in the arm to each cities' local economy. That is what several levels of government and private parties working together can achieve: in short, great things. I can hardly wait for the gala opening in downtown St. Catharines not too far in the future! April 9th, 2011.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Niagara Symphony wraps up Masterworks season this weekend

It's hard to believe, but this weekend we are already at the final Masterworks concert of the current Niagara Symphony season. It seems hardly possible we're so many months removed now from that gala opening to the season back in October, when Music Director Designate Bradley Thachuk took to the podium for the first time after winning the competition almost a year ago. Bradley is still only with the orchestra part-time, of course; next season he will spend much more time with the Symphony, although even then, according to the new season brochure, he won't be conducting all the performances. Still, his presence is being felt as the orchestra appears to be responding to his conducting style already this season. Reading some of the FaceBook posts from members of the Niagara Symphony earlier today, I can see there is much anticipation of this Sunday's concert, as those who posted comments genuinely appreciate the talents of Conductor Laureate Uri Mayer. With good reason, too. A couple of seasons back when the Niagara Symphony was scrambling to fill the post on a concert-to-concert basis following the untimely departure of former Music Director Daniel Swift, Mayer stepped in and conducted a solid, more-than-respectable concert that clearly reminded both orchestra and audience members alike what a fine conductor he is. This time out, I think both sides are anticipating the return visit from Mr. Mayer as a very special homecoming to an orchestra he led so many years ago. The programme includes the lovely and too-rarely heard Danse Villageoise by French-Canadian composer Claude Champagne. It was recorded several times many years ago on LP, but I have not seen a recent recording of it for some time now. It is a joyful, rustic dance full of colour and spirit. The concert concludes with the equally evocative Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 by Felix Mendelssohn, the one known as the "Scottish" Symphony. I don't even remember the last time the Niagara Symphony tackled a Mendelssohn work at all, let alone one of his symphonies, so this will be a treat. In the middle, featuring Niagara pianist Blair Salter, will be the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. This is a wonderful concerto in and of itself, not even taking into consideration the so-called "notoriety" of the famous Adagio movement. If you have not seen the movie Elvira Madigan, which came out about 1968 and used this movement in a pivotal scene in the movie, well, you'll just be enjoying the music on its own considerable merit. I recall at the time both the movie and this particular movement stirred up quite a bit of interest, and ever since the Piano Concerto has been tagged "Elvira Madigan," at least unofficially. There is no shortage of recordings of the concerto around today, with the most famous of all being the actual recording used in the film, released by DGG with pianist Geza Anda. It is still in the classical catalogue after all these years, and in fact I will have that recording along with several others for sale at the concert on Sunday afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University. Of course, I'll have the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, too, along with a host of other great recordings for you to buy. Just look for my table in the lobby both before and after the concert, as well as at intermission. Can't make it to the concert but want the music anyway? Drop me an email either through the website ( or directly at and and I will be sure to reserve a copy of either work for you. Tickets are still available for the concert on Sunday afternoon, although the latest word from the Niagara Symphony is paid attendance is at more than 87% of capacity this season, and that is music to the ears of everyone connected with the Symphony after several lean years as management went through several upheavals. But that is all behind us now, the orchestra is sounding good, and there is a new-found optimism amongst its members that they have finally turned the corner. Subscriptions for the next season are already available, of course, but if you only need tickets for the remainder of this season at the moment, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 and book your tickets for Sunday afternoon. or the final Pops! concerts in early May. See you at the Symphony on Sunday! April 1st, 2011.