Friday, June 24, 2011

Niagara Symphony set to rock Niagara this week!

It's not too often we find a lot of material to write about the Niagara Symphony in the off season, as musicians, like teachers, tend to take a break for at least part of the summer.  Many will perform in summer festivals around the area, but even then, the pace likely is somewhat slower than during the winter months.  That being said, the Niagara Symphony is hard at work with a couple of big events over the next few days.

It was announced a few days ago the Niagara Symphony has accepted an invitation to perform with singer Chantal Kreviazuk Saturday night this weekend at the sold-out Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The conductor will be none other than the new Music Director for the Symphony, Bradley Thachuk.  In addition, the concert will be video-taped as part of a documentary produced by Corkscrew Media for HBO Canada and Country Music Television for future broadcast.  And that's not all:  the concert will also be recorded by Corkscrew Media for a live audio CD to be released later.

This is not the first time the Winnipeg-born Kreviazuk has performed with a live symphony orchestra.  During an interview this morning, she said many western-Canadian orchestras have backed her up in the past and even now, the sound of a full orchestra behind her is simply magical.  I can imagine that; just compare the sound of the strings swelling in the background, for example, rather than just a keyboard or small group backing you up.  Sure, it is not as nimble as a small backup group, but the big sound makes a big difference in many performances I find.

This is great news for the symphony, coming off a successful 63rd season that saw Music Director Designate Bradley Thachuk share the podium with several guest conductors.  In the fall, Maestro Thachuk takes the helm officially, and will conduct most but not all the season's performances.  These are, comparatively speaking, heady days for the Niagara Symphony; it was not too many seasons back the organization was wallowing in debt, looking for an Executive Director and then, a new Music Director.  It was not easy being enthusiastic over the orchestra in those days, but I am glad to say most of the dedicated patrons stuck by their orchestra and now, as the new season approaches, new bums appear to be filling the seats.  Not only that, we're seeing many more younger bums, too!

All is not perfect, of course.  But it never is with an arts organization in this day and age.  But considering what the Niagara Symphony has been through the past several seasons, the problems they face now seem almost trivial in comparison to recent history.  Building the audience base and lowering the demographic, while not impossible, will prove difficult for the symphony, but with a young conductor and motivated musicians, good things can and will come in the near future.

Unfortunately, as I understand it the concert with Chantal Kreviazuk is sold out, but the good news is lots more concerts at the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre are to come, and you can check out the listings on my website,, by going to the Calendar page.

Even though you might not be able to catch the weekend performance unless you already have your tickets, the Niagara Symphony will be performing their annual Canada Day concert at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines next Friday afternoon beginning at 4 pm.  Associate Conductor Laura Thomas will lead members of the orchestra in a free concert, part of the city's day-long party celebrating Canada's 144th birthday.  The theme of the day, incidentally, will be Cowboys and the Wild, Wild West, which should prove interesting.

Guesting with the Niagara Symphony on Canada Day will be Elton Lammie of the Ridgeway-Fort Erie area; he is well-known to Niagara audiences now for his operatic voice that was showcased in a musical competition a few seasons back.  In addition to singing opera, Mr. Lammie adds some down-home renditions of classic country and western tunes, so that should make for a varied musical menu on Canada Day.

The best part of all?  It's all free at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines, so make a point of joining in for the fun and support our Niagara Symphony as well as the city's celebration of Canada's 144th birthday.

It's never too early to get your subscriptions to the Niagara Symphony's 64th season, of course.  Just call the Brock Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or log on to the orchestra's website at for more information on the season.  It's also never too early to add music to your collection, either tied in with the symphony season or just something you're looking for.  That's where my website comes in:  At A Web of Fine Music, we pride ourselves on supporting the Niagara Symphony as well as providing you with the music you want!

Enjoy the Canada Day holiday weekend.

June 24th, 2011.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stratford Festival scores with two magnificent musicals this summer

It's that time again; time to start reviewing performances at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for the summer season.  I look forward to this every year, as theatre is one of my great loves and as I discovered earlier this year, I'm closing in on 30 years of attending shows at both festivals, so I've seen more than a few.

Last weekend I made my first pilgrimage to Stratford for the season, and this weekend I visit Shaw for the first time this season.  So, let's take a look at the first two shows at Stratford so far, which happen to be the big musical offerings this season.

A lot of people have been anticipating the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, and with good reason.  This was a landmark show when it first appeared in 1970, a couple of years after Hair, and together they really paved the way for the later rock musicals like Tommy.  Oddly with Jesus Christ Superstar, the stage musical was an outgrowth of the original album, so it should come as no surprise there is really no book to speak of here, except, of course, The Bible, which provided the story on which the musical is based.  The story, as you probably are aware, deals with the last seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you have seen J.C. Superstar before, you know there is absolutely no spoken dialogue at all; it is a musical in its purest form.  All of which means you find yourself awash in song after song for almost two hours, many of which have become standard popular music repertoire.  This is, to be perfectly honest, a welcome change from some later A.L. Webber shows, which seem to present one or maybe two great songs and the rest is largely forgettable.  That's why I have never been a fan of the musical Cats, for example, although I know I am in the minority there.

Who hasn't, over the past 40 years, heard songs like "Everything's Alright", "Herod's Song" and of course, "I Don't Know How to Love Him".  Now, it is nice to hear them all in their original context within the show; and for the record, they all sound just as good today as they did 40 years ago.

This new Stratford production, directed by Artistic Director Des McAnuff, is a spectacular show.  It holds surprises at almost every turn, with many clever touches that never go over the line.  However, unlike Stratford's earlier production of Evita, this new show doesn't rely as heavily on those 'spectacle' aspects to wow the audience; the music and the story themselves more than handle that part, thank you very much.

The cast is impressive:  Paul Nolan appears as Jesus Christ, and Josh Young as an acerbic Judas Iscariot, who betrays Christ.  Young is a huge presence on stage, almost overshowing Nolan in the title role.  Chilina Kennedy makes a dynamic Mary Magdalene, and Brent Carver is wonderful to watch as Pontius Pilate.  But special mention goes to the irrepressible Bruce Dow, who makes the most of his time on stage as King Herod, albeit a slightly over-the-top King at times.

Jesus Christ Superstar will thrill many and offend almost no-one, which shows how far we have come in forty years.  Many will feel as comfortable with this show as they do pulling on a familiar old pair of jeans.  It plays at the Avon Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Now, once you get over the wailing guitars and soaring harmonies of Jesus Christ Superstar, you can head down to the Festival Theatre, as I did on Sunday afternoon, for the even bigger musical spectacle this year, Lerner & Loewe's classic Camelot, directed by Gary Griffin.  Lots of money was invested in this show, and it does show, as the sets and costumes are almost always spectacular, yet never overdone.  Griffin's direction never goes over the edge and keeps everyone in line for an enjoyable and substantial musical experience.

Everyone who knows the musical will remember that original production from 1960 that introduced the world to a dashing young singer with a fabulous stage presence, Robert Goulet, as Lancelot.  In this new production, the role goes to Jonathan Winsby, who although doesn't possess quite the good looks of Goulet years ago, certainly makes up for it with a great voice and commanding stage presence.  His love interest, of course, and Guenevere, played by Kaylee Harwood, who possesses a wonderfully sweet and strong voice and as such, makes quite the impression on stage.

As King Arthur, Geraint Wyn Davies presents the legendary character with a good deal of humility and humour, and his heartbreak when he finds out about Lancelot and Guenevere appears genuine.  Other strong performances in the cast include Dan Chameroy as Sir Dinadan and Mike Nadajewski as the appropriately-named Mordred.  It is great to see Lucy Peacock, however briefly, as Morgan le Fey, and Bruce Dow as Squire Dap.  But special mention must go to Brent Carver, who imbues the duel roles of Merlyn and King Pellinore with a great deal of colour and humour.  He is always a pleasure to watch.

Camelot is an ageless musical that just seems to get better with age, and this new Stratford production does it full justice.  It continues at the Festival Theatre until October 30th and rates, again, a strong three out of four stars.  Overall, I would give Camelot the edge for guaranteed crowd-pleaser status this year, but both productions will do well and fill a lot of seats this season at the Stratford Festival.  You can't go wrong with either one!

Incidentally, while you can pick up soundtracks to both shows at the Theatre Store, you can order them locally through my website, A Web of Fine Music, which you can find at

June 18th, 2011.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Legends of Ballet with Veronica Tennant in Hamilton June 13

Every now and then I like to write about one of my true loves, dance, and an event coming up this week serves as a launching-point for sharing some memories of a very special lady and her love of dance.

This coming Monday evening, June 13th at 6 pm, Veronica Tennant presents Legends of Ballet:  Dance-Film; A Fresh Look.  This close up and personal evening with Canada's now-retired Prima Ballerina features her award-winning Vida y Danza, Cuba, her personal experiences in Cuba and with The Ballet National de Cuba.  Also screened will be clips from her other films, including A Pairing of Swans with Evelyn Hart and Rex Harrington, her dance documentary, "Celia Franca:  Tour de Force", as well as exploring the art creativity of marrying dance and the camera, which she knows more than a little about!

The event takes place at the Hamilton Club at 6 Main Street East in Hamilton, and tickets are $ 110 per person for one lecture or $ 200 for two.  That price includes a light evening snack and beverages, and a full charitable tax receipt will be issued.  Tickets might still be available by calling 905-512-1453 or emailing

I have had the pleasure of knowing Veronica for many years now on a casual basis, although I have not run in to her for a few years now, unfortunately.  During her years as Prima Ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada from 1964 to 1989, I interviewed Veronica many times about her work, and always tried to schedule my performances around her schedule, whenever possible.  She was then, and is now, one of the most approachable, elegant, endearing people I have ever met, and I miss the Tennant evenings at the ballet which ended over twenty years ago.  Boy, that makes me feel old!

When Veronica retired from the National Ballet of Canada with a gala performance at the old O'Keefe Centre back in 1989, I made a point of being there, and it remains one of the few times I stood at the end with a lump in my throat and tears welling up in my eyes.  Over the years, her art and talent had touched me so much.  In later years, as she and husband spent time at their summer home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I would run into her at Shaw Festival openings almost every year, and even just on the street while shopping in the old town, you would often find her doing just as we were doing.

It's hard to imagine a bigger Canadian star in the arts world than Veronica during much of her ballet career, although Karen Kain, the present Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, quickly rose to that level herself after joining the company in 1969.  In those days, you had the enviable task of choosing a performance at the National Ballet that featured Veronica, Karen, Frank Augustyn, Rex Harrington and a host of other great dancers of the day in lead roles.  They all contributed mightily to the world-class stature of the National Ballet of Canada in a time when people couldn't even imagine a performance venue devoted solely to ballet and opera; all performances back then were at the cavernous and acoustically-challenging O'Keefe/Hummingbird/Sony Centre at Front and Yonge Streets in Toronto.  Now of course, we have a new breed of ballet stars making their mark with the company at their new home at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which I might add, is designed by the same firm we've hired to design the new performing arts centre in downtown St. Catharines:  Diamond + Schmitt.

Those were heady days back then, and I had the pleasure and honour to regularly attend performances with the National Ballet from about 1978 to about 2005.  I miss those special evenings with all the magic unfolding onstage, but life goes on and there is so much to handle on a local level now I rarely make the trip to Toronto anymore unless it is a family or friend event I am invited to.  No matter, the memories are there, as they always will be.  And the memories of Veronica Tennant burn brightest of all.

If you ever have a chance to meet this talented producer/director and filmmaker, such as this coming Monday evening in Hamilton, it will be an experience you'll long remember!

June 11th, 2011.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A blow to the arts in Niagara

It seems just as we're on the upswing with support for the arts in Niagara generally, and St. Catharines specifically, something comes along to set the whole movement back again, and this week, arts organizations received some very unfortunate news.

In an email distributed to members yesterday (me being one of them), it was announced the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council has ceased operations, following the June 1st meeting of the Board of Directors.  The reason given, plain and simple, is the organization is no longer able to function as an arts council.  As the email explained, the Arts Council has experienced a number of years of uncertainty regarding its mandate and its role in the arts community.

That may be so, but the real telling admission in the email is the fact the Council has not been able to achieve financial stability in recent years, and they now find themselves in a position of insolvency with, as they put it, "little prospect of significant revenue over the next 6-12 months."  So, in other words, they have their collective backs against the wall and had to do something, and dissolving the Council seemed the only option available.

As a result, the space at 31 James Street will be vacated and all relevant documents will be stored, although just where is not specified.  They did, however, state the electronic mailing list they have compiled over the years is their one remaining asset of value and they are currently looking for a new home for the mailing list, obviously with the wherewithall to maintain and make appropriate use of it.  In the meantime, members have the option to have their contact information removed immediately from the list; if not, there will be an opportunity when the list is handed over to another organization for people to unsubscribe should they wish to at that time.

So, all the appropriate steps appear to be taken, and the news is very unfortunate, indeed.  I do, however, wonder why the Board, when drawing up the email, did not BCC the recipient list thus keeping the information private as to who is on the list.  Printing it out as I did so I could write my blog entry today, all the recipients' names appeared on a page-and-a-half before the email actually starts.  Not a big deal, but I think keeping the recipient list suppressed might have been a better option.

As a member of the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council and a keen follower of the arts in Niagara, I can't help but feel dismay things have come to this.  It was little more than a month ago I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Council and paid my dues for the year as usual, and even though I arrived a few minutes late for the meeting, I don't recall any words being spoken at the meeting in this regard.  As a result, I think many will be shocked by the news contained in the email.

It has been well-known the Council has had a difficult time of it the last couple of years keeping an Executive Director to guide the membership with a steady hand, and perhaps that was part of the problem.  But dissolve the organization entirely?  I don't think any of us saw that coming, and I wish we did know so people could react in a positive way to perhaps save the organization before it came to this.  Just a thought on my part, but you have to wonder, why were we not informed of all this beforehand?

So, at a time when the arts community in Niagara and specifically in St. Catharines seems geared up for bigger and better things with the new performing arts centre taking shape downtown, their collective voice has been stifled due to lack of funds.  I hope, in the aftermath of all this, some good will come of it, and perhaps someone or some people will step up to offer another opportunity for a collective voice for the arts community in the Garden City.  It is not a body blow, but it is a definite setback the organizations don't need right now.

On another, somewhat related note, I received word the Friday evening performance of Lakeside Players' new show, Breaking and Entering by Vin Morreale, Jr., had been cancelled due to low ticket sales.  I had planned to attend the show, and now will try to move it to another, later performance of the play.  The problem here, clearly, is trouble getting the word out the Port Mansion Dinner Theatre is still open and doing business in Port Dalhousie.

With all the talk over the past year the redevelopment of Port Dalhousie was finally moving ahead, and in fact last year was the last season for Lakeside Players at the present location, it is understandable people figured there was no more live theatre in Port Dalhousie to speak of.  But they are carrying on in the true spirit of live theatre, and hope past and present patrons of Lakeside Players will take notice and come back to the Port Mansion for one more season.

I understand the show, directed by Paul Wintemute, is great, and I can't wait to find out first hand.  Yes, the space is small at the Port Mansion, but that is really part of the charm of taking in some good quality summer theatre right in our own backyards.  The quality programming continues this season; now all they need are the proverbial bums to fill the seats.

If you're interested in rediscovering or even discovering Lakeside Players for the first time this summer, call the box office at 905-934-0575, ext. 226 and book either a show-only or dinner or Sunday brunch and show package before the show closes on July 10th.  You'll not be disappointed!

June 4th, 2011.