Saturday, May 28, 2011

Architecturally speaking, a stellar week in Niagara!

I am now officially excited.  I know it doesn't take much, really, but let me explain.

Much has been written about the equally much-anticipated performing arts centre coming to downtown St. Catharines in a couple of years.  This past Wednesday evening, Niagara residents were given their first look at several proposals on the table from Toronto's Diamond + Schmitt Architects.  Gary McCluskie, lead architect on the project, addressed the large crowd at the Dunlop Drive Senior Centre in St. Catharines Wednesday evening with a wealth of valuable information that left this reporter finally excited about this project and almost giddy with the realization this thing is finally getting off the ground.

McCluskie spoke in terms everyone could understand, and spoke with a knowledge of the local area landmarks that I frankly found reassuring.  In other words, he gets it.  He knows what's important to us and what makes a performing arts centre an important part of the community.  Speaking with him afterwards, his genuine enthusiasm for the project is quite evident, as if he were right here in the community sharing in the excitement with us.

There is a long way to go on this, of course; the preliminary designs are just that:  preliminary.  But the focus of this first community meeting was to tap into the community's thoughts and feelings and try to get a sense of what works for us.  McCluskie promises more such meetings to come, and that will help feed the optimism that we are indeed on the right track with this project and everything is working out the best possible way. 

One look at some of the other examples of their work in recent years on display at the meeting suggest we have hired the gold standard for designing attractive, viable and workable performing arts centres the world over.  The new home of the Detroit and Montreal Symphony Orchestras, for example, and even the New Mariinsky Theatre in Russia are some recent examples on display for our perusal, as well as, of course, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

So as I say, I am now officially excited.  Let the fun ride now begin!  But that's not all this week.  That same afternoon I attended a media conference at the new Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls at which the Falls Management Company, operators of the Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara, announced plans are in the works for a 7,000-seat Entertainment Centre for Niagara Falls.  The new facility, to be likely situated on land adjacent to the Fallsview Casino Resort and connected to it, will be a magnet for both top-flight entertainment and economic development in the tourism sector year-round in Niagara.

It comes at a price, of course.  Try about $ 311-million to construct the new facilty.  But FMC thinks it can be done, and is confident their feasibility study conducted at their expense by Deloitte will bring people on-board to build a complex able to house international-scale concerts as well as sports and entertainment events that should keep the facility open well over 300 days of the calendar year.  What it won't have, we discovered this week, is a rink to house the Niagara IceDogs or any other sports team that wears skates, so that means St. Catharines' bid to build their own 5,000-seat 'spectator facility' to house the IceDogs should not be affected by it.

What would concern me, though, is the aim of both facilities to book major international acts such as Celine Dion, for example, on an ongoing basis.  Build it and they will come...but how many bums will there be in the seats, you have to ask.  There are only so many entertainment dollars to go around for most Niagarans, and both venues working on bringing lots of entertainment and sports events to the area on a regular basis might be doable, but at what cost?  Do other local events suffer as a result as so many other events are then competing for our entertainment dollars?  We'll have to see.

If this new vision from FMC becomes a reality, it will certainly put Niagara on the map as a destination for world-class entertainment to complement the already world-class accomodation, dining and tourism events already in place.  The concept is extremely exciting, and I wish them well as they work towards the completion of this project.  If it happens, we'll all gain from the added economic impact on an area that depends more and more on tourism dollars to increase our standard of living.

Finally, a couple of quick notes of things also happening this week I attended that brought with them their own level of excitement.  Friday afternoon I was on hand for the launch of the new Food & Wine Expo that filled a large exhibition space at the new Scotiabank Convention Centre and will be open throughout this weekend.  It is a marvellous showcase for the food and wine industry here in Niagara, and I can imagine this becoming bigger and better in coming years.  But for now, get out and see what Niagara has to offer from our area restaurants and wineries in one convenient convention space in Niagara Falls.

I was also on hand for the Open House down at the Welland campus of Niagara College on Thursday evening.  In spite of wet weather, everyone came out to see the realization of a vision for expansion at Niagara College on a scale never seen before.  The $ 80-million makeover is part of the College's $ 90-million master plan to add 1,700 new student spaces at Niagara College.  The new facilities are simply breathtaking, and the lucky students there now and those who will attend in the future will now have all the tools necessary to help prepare them for the future, as the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus has done for several years now.

What an exciting week in Niagara!  Could anyone have imagined this much investment in the area even ten years ago?  Likely not, but all of these projects will work together to make Niagara an even more attractive destination for those to live, work and play.  What could be better than that?

May 28th, 2011.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shaw Festival and new Performing Arts Centre part of this coming week in the arts

Even though we are well into our first summer holiday weekend of the season (well, okay, it is still spring, but for most this is the unofficial start of summer...), your humble scribe is already looking ahead to the coming week that includes two important arts-related events on the local calendar.  We'll address both in this space this week.

First, Wednesday evening, May 25th, many of us with an interest in the local arts scene will want to be on hand at the Dunlop Drive Seniors Centre at 80 Dunlop Drive in St. Catharines for a presentation by the architects involved in the design of the new performing arts centre in downtown St. Catharines.  The Open House runs from 6 to 7:30 pm, with a presentation of proposed designs by the project architect from Diamond & Schmitt Architects Inc., Gary McCluskie.  The firm wants the public's opinions on three sketched layouts being proposed so they can get a better feel for what works and what doesn't within the community here. 

The new performing arts centre will house an 800-seat concert hall, a 285-seat recital hall, a 180-seat film theatre and a 150-seat dance performance hall and community theatre space.  That's the main performance spaces; also included will be a 1,000-square-foot multi-purpose room, central offices, as well as the lobby and front-of-house space and of course, backstage area including receiving and storage and dressing room area for performers.  So essentially, a lot to pack into that downtown space.  It has to be user-friendly, of course, so that is where we come in.  We have a say in all this, and this Wednesday evening is the first opportunity to do just that.

We have a long way to go on this, but the wheels are turning and we are moving forward, so that is a good sign.  Let's get out and show our support for the project this week and let them know we are on board and ready to go!

Also Wednesday evening, the Shaw Festival kicks off - officially - their 50th season.  Previews have been ongoing since April, of course, but all the fine-tuning comes to an end on Wednesday and much like spring training gives way to the 'real' games of baseball at the beginning of April, this Wednesday is the start of the Shaw's 'regular season.'  And what a season it promises to be!

In all, there are 11 productions on four stages this year, ranging from the flagship Festival Theatre to the smaller Court House Theatre, the Royal George Theatre, and the more recent Studio Theatre space just across from the Festival Theatre.  The season ranges from looks back to their illustrious past to looking ahead to bold new horizons for the Shaw Festival.

One of the most-anticipated openings will be the musical version of Shaw's play Pygmalion, known of course as My Fair Lady.  This Lerner & Loewe classic has never been performed at Shaw before, hard as that is to believe.  But it makes a grand entrance at the Festival Theatre this season.  Also at the Festival Theatre are Shaw's Heartbreak House and J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton.

On the Court House stage, Lennox Robinson's Drama at Inish - A Comedy will be one to watch.  Also at the Court House will be Shaw's On The Rocks, and the first Shaw-produced musical from day one:  Maria Severa, written by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli of Shaw, and directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell.

Over on the Royal George stage, a new mounting of their first-ever play 50 years ago, Shaw's Candida takes pride of place, as well as Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Molnar's hilarious one-act lunchtime show, The President, starring Lorne Kennedy.  Anyone who saw this show a couple of seasons back will want to return to the mayhem again - it is an astounding performance by Kennedy and his cohorts!

Finally, at the Studio Theatre space, TopDog/UnderDog by Suzan-Lori Parks shares the space with Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling, which seems rather appropriate after this very wet spring we've been experiencing here in Niagara.

All in all, it promises to be an exciting season, and I am personally looking forward to returning for shows again this year; it will be my 30th year reviewing shows at Shaw, unbelievably!  Once again this year, I will be providing reviews in this space throughout the summer, as well as ratings on the calendar page of my website ( and updates on my monthly newsletter, Fine Music News, which you can subscribe to by emailing your email address to me at

Other news from Shaw this week is the fact they are collaborating with Vintage Hotels of Niagara-on-the-Lake to secure property which overlooks Lake Ontario and the Niagara River now home to the Anchorage Motel and Restaurant.  The Shaw has entered into an agreement to purchase this property within the next five years in order to use the site as an additional performance space.  That is exciting news, although the loss of the Anchorage will not be good news to many, I suspect.  Oh well, time marches on...more news on this as it develops.

Enjoy this week in the arts!

May 21st, 2011.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chorus Niagara closes out the season with Feel the Spirit

It's hard to believe the choral season in Niagara is all but done this weekend, but it is.  Chorus Niagara performs their final concert of the season this evening at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines with a concert titled Feel the Spirit.  The concert takes its name from the John Rutter suite of spirituals he recorded with his Cambridge Singers just a few years ago.

Some of the gospel favourites given the Rutter touch include Deep River, Steal Away, Every Time I Feel the Spirit and of course, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.  Rutter is no stranger to Chorus Niagara, of course, as his works have been performed many times over the years and in fact, he appeared with the Chorus a few seasons back.  He is undoubtedly the finest choral composer/conductor of our generation, and in fact wrote a piece specifically for the recent wedding of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton, the current Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Another nice aspect of this concert is Feel the Spirit will feature a jazz singer well-known in the Region, Tianna H., who along with her group perform regularly at venues both large and small.  I have had the pleasure of knowing Tianna H. for a few years now, dating back to my first narration duties for the annual Black History Month concerts staged by Choralis Camerata.  Her voice is a powerhouse, and her interpretative skills are exceptional, so she will be a great addition to the evening's proceedings.

The other half of the concert is a commission jointly funded by Chorus Niagara as well as choirs in Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa, written by Imant Raminsh.  Titled Quarternity:  A Cantata for Seasons, the work is a lush and harmonic contemporary work exploring the four seasons, much as Vivaldi, Haydn and others have done over the years, as well as the four cycles of life.  In spite of being a contemporary choral work, Cooper assures everyone it is still very accessible to the ear and quite exciting to hear.

Joining Chorus Niagara for the concert tonight will be the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, Cooper's 'other' choral initiative, as well as the Chorus iagara Side-by-Side High School Chorale, which is made up of young singers with a love of choral music, who might someday join the adult choir.  Musical accompaniment is provided by the Talisker Players.

Should be a great wind-up to a season that has seen a series of "highs" for the folks at Chorus Niagara, beginning of course with their now infamous "flash mob" performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, performed at the food court of the Seaway Mall in Welland last November.  To date, that performance has reached 32-million hits worldwide on YouTube, and continuing to grow.  Just a phenomenal achievement!

Incidentally, although I won't be selling at the concert this weekend, you can order the John Rutter Feel the Spirit CD conducted by the composer himself through my website,, where you'll find it listed on the Mike's Picks page.  Or, you can email me directly at  It's a tremendously uplifting recording and one you'll want in your collection after you hear the performance this evening.

Happy listening!

May 14th, 2011.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Niagara Symphony wraps up Pops! season this weekend

Well, here we are, a fine spring weekend, and Mother's Day on Sunday, too.  Any plans for Mom's Day?  Aside from the flowers or perhaps brunch or dinner out with Mom, how about another idea she would be thrilled with?  The Niagara Symphony wraps up their Pops! season this weekend with performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, and either performance would likely fit Mom to a "T".

Music Director Designate Bradley Thachuk returns to conduct the orchestra this weekend in a programme titled "Light Classics to Broadway", and will be joined by Niagara-on-the-Lake native Theodore Baerg and wife Irena Welhasch-Baerg on stage.  Selections will range from Bizet to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Strauss to even some classic Rodgers & Hammerstein II from Broadway.  Lots of operetta on the programme as well, including selections by Lehar from The Merry Widow and Giuditta.

All in all, this should be a nice, light and airy way to end up the Niagara Symphony season, and hopefully make you want more when Maestro Thachuk takes over the podium full-time in the fall to start the new season.  Overall, the Symphony has performed well this year under various conductors, but I still feel they have more to offer, and hopefully Bradley can start to draw it out of them on a regular basis when he takes over next season.  For now, let's sit back and enjoy some great music for a spring Mother's Day weekend!

A couple of quick notes to keep in mind, though.  Tickets are going fast, but some are still available for both performances, so I would suggest you call the box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for tickets in advance if you have not already done so.  And parking will be interesting this weekend, as Brock University is hosting a dance competition all weekend long as well.  Niagara Symphony General Manager Jack Mills sent out a notice this week outlining the situation and making people aware of the extra competition for parking.  But this year, a plan is in place to provide dedicated parking for Niagara Symphony patrons, either in Lot D or Lot B, which will be reserved exclusively for Niagara Symphony patrons.

Normally, I would be in the lobby manning my customary table at intermission, before and after the concerts this weekend, but a prior committment will keep me away from the Saturday evening performance, unfortunately.  I will be there Sunday afternoon, however, so please stop by and say hello, and check out the great last-minute musical gifts for Mom this weekend.

Happy Mother's Day, and enjoy the weekend with the Niagara Symphony!