Saturday, October 29, 2011

Marilyn I. Walker Centre for Fine & Performing Arts takes shape downtown

Much has been written, by myself and many others, about the forthcoming St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  It is easily the most visible change coming to the downtown core in several generations; however, it is just part of the massive complex soon to take shape downtown.

The less-publicized part of the whole project, so far at least, is the new Marilyn I. Walker Centre for Fine & Performing Arts, located adjacent to the performing arts centre and incorporating the now vacant Canadian Hair Cloth building below St. Paul Street.  Plans have started and stalled over the last while as the provincial government came on board with $ 26.2 from the Open Ontario project, and of course the ball got rolling with a $15 million donation from the Walker family.  Now, plans begin to take shape and we can see the fruits of the last several years' labour finally come to bear.

This past week, members of the media and public were invited to Market Square in downtown St. Catharines to hear from the Dean of Humanities at Brock University, Douglas Kneale, and the lead architect on the project, Michael Leckman, Principal with Diamond + Schmitt Architects in Toronto.  What we saw was a short slide show of what plans are taking shape for the Centre, with ground scheduled to be broken on the site in the spring.

The plans are, to say the least, exciting and ambitious.  There will be new facilities built, of course, but the main focus for many is on the re-purposing of the Canada Hair Cloth building, which will be a very prominent part of the whole complex.  Architect Leckman was excited to report two other, smaller buildings on the present site will also be incorporated into the overall design, so there is really minimal loss of what is already there.  You could not ask for a better outcome on this, and it comes off looking like a win-win situation for everyone involved.

More detailed plans and notes can be found on the website, from Brock University.  You'll be able to see how everything is integrated into the overall design and how it will coexist with the performing arts centre.  Between the two, that entire stretch of St. Paul Street, while not all visible from the street, will be totally transformed within a few years.  If you approach the site from the 406, especially heading northbound, the change will be astounding.  Finally, a use for at least part of the lower level parking lot!

The new complex is set to welcome students and faculty by September, 2014, and will bring 500 new people to the downtown core on a daily basis.  That alone will help to transform the downtown; just think of the events next door at the performing arts centre in the evening and on weekends primarily, and you can see a lot of extra bodies coming into the downtown core on a regular basis.

Now, all we have to do is see if the much talked-about spectator facility will come to pass downtown, and if it does occupy the remainder of the lower level parking lot, that will make for a pretty vibrant downtown, don't you think?

That last plan is still a ways away, of course, but it might just happen.  If it does, we should be able to please the sports, arts and academic crowds in one huge location downtown.  Let's hope it all comes together, but even if the spectator facility does not actually happen for some time yet, this dual-role complex combining the performing arts centre and the School of Fine & Performing Arts will do quite nicely, thank you very much.

We should be able to get all this done; the old Jack Gatecliff Arena was built in the depths of the depression in 1934, and by the turn of the last century we had an actual opera house near the foot of Ontario Street, so all this building is not without precedent.  If our forefathers could do those projects back then, surely we can find the wherewithal to get the job done today.  Let's hope so; I hope we don't grab and hold on to that proverbial brass ring.

Exciting times ahead!

October 29th, 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Niagara Symphony Pops! series gets underway this weekend

The Niagara Symphony Pops! series gets underway this weekend at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre down at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, and it promises to be a fun couple of concerts.  They go this evening at 7:30 and again tomorrow afternoon at 2:30.  In keeping with the time of year, they are calling this a Hallowe'en Spooktacular.

Music Director Bradley Thachuk and Associate Conductor Laura Thomas team up to lead the Niagara Symphony in music ranging from music from Star Wars and Phantom of the Opera to Pirates of the Caribbean; from the March to the Scaffold from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.  In other words, music for next weekend, this weekend to inspire you for kids coming to the door trick or treating.  Heck, the Symphony is even inviting people to dress in costume for the concerts, although I would be rather surprised if many actually do.

Tickets should still be available for either concert, although I would imagine this evening would be easier than Sunday afternoon for getting good seats.  Contact the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for ticket availability, or just show up at the box office before either concert and take your chances.  For both shows, I will be in the lobby with a wide selection of music available for purchase from A Web of Fine Music, many at special sale prices.  If you don't see what you want, let me know and I will do my best to get it for you.

Earlier this month the Niagara Symphony got their season underway with their first Masterworks concert of the season, and generally speaking it was a well-performed and very well-attended start to the new season as Bradley Thachuk began his new tenure with the orchestra.  The McMillan Overture, rarely heard these days, was nice to hear again, and the second half performance of the Dvorak Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" was very well performed and great to hear again.  The Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky that rounded out the concert was interesting, but a little ragged in spots, I found.  But overall, a good start to an important season for the Niagara Symphony.

Maestro Thachuk has said he wants to reach out and find new ways to communicate with the audience and build the audience, and to that end this week many people who attend the Niagara Symphony received an email called "In Your Ear", which is basically a short version of program notes and recommended recordings near and dear to the conductor's heart.  I like the idea, and it is quite well done.  Keep in mind, though, not all the recommended recordings might be available at the moment; with that in mind, you can always contact me through my website at or email me directly at to see if one you're interested in is indeed available.  If it is, I can certainly get it for you; if not, I can usually come up with a suitable substitute.

So, a new and so far promising season gets underway for the Niagara Symphony, and the first with Bradley Thachuk at the helm officially.  Time will tell if the 64th season will turn out to be a vintage year for music-making, but let's hope it is.  The Niagara Symphony needs to grow their audience and at the same time, fulfil the hope and promise generated by the extensive talent search of a couple of seasons ago.

See you at the symphony!

October 22nd, 2011.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Final two weeks at Shaw & Stratford Festivals

My apologies for being a little late getting this written this weekend, but I am battling a cold and as a result I am in slow motion mode for a couple of days while I try to recuperate.  Better late than never, as they say...

We are now, as of this writing, two weeks away from the end of the 2011 seasons for both the Shaw and Stratford Shakespeare Festivals.  If you think you are out of luck this season, you are in for a pleasant surprise, as there are several shows available for your enjoyment still.  To be honest, this is the ideal time to go to either festival, in fact, as the fall colours are still in full blaze, as it were, and the crowds are thinner on the area streets.  Well, perhaps somewhat...but each town, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford offer lots for the visitor even at this late point in the season, from shopping to sightseeing to exceptional dining experiences.

Show-wise, lets quickly review what is still open at both festivals for the remainder of the season:

Shaw Festival - The big show this year, of course, is the 50th anniversary celebration production of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady, the first time oddly enough the festival has produced the classic musical.  I found the show captivating due mainly to the performances, with Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle and Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins.  I found the Stratford production a few seasons back to be more lavishly dressed, but this production had much more meat on the proverbial bones, as it were.  The performances are all first rate.  But as good as this show is, and it is good, don't overlook the other shows still open at Shaw.  Tennessee Williams' classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues until October 23rd at the Royal George Theatre and although is a long sit, is well worth the commitment.  I loved the set and most of the performances, including Jim Mezon as Big Daddy and Moya O'Connell as Maggie.  Also at Shaw, the production of Candida, while not the best effort of this show they have produced over the years, is still worth seeing.  It is the Shaw play that opened the festival 50 years ago, so for that reason alone, I think, it is worth your time this season.  Look for good performances by Nigel-Shawn Williams and Claire Jullien.  Finally, the main stage production of The Admirable Crighton by J.M. Barrie continues to the end of the month as well.  I was less enamoured with this production, frankly, but the staging is exceptional and the performances are great.  Just not a lot of meat in the script, I found.  Maybe Barrie was saving his best for Peter Pan, after all, which debuted a couple of years later.  Several shows have specially-priced tickets available for the remainder of the season, so go to

Stratford Shakespeare Festival - There are several recommendable productions still running at Stratford this year, including two of the season's big hits this year:  Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Webber/Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar.  Twelfth Night is even more musical than ever, with several new songs written for the show; director Des McAnuff has crafted a beautifully modern and sleek production, and due to an exceptional cast it all works.  Look for standout performances by Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch and Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, companion to Sir Toby.  Moliere's The Misanthrope is lavishly designed for the Festival stage, and features some outstanding performances as well, most notably by Ben Carlson as Alceste and Sara Topham as the woman he loves, Celimene.  The two big musicals at the festival this year, Jesus Christ Superstar and Camelot, have been packing them in all season and continue to do so.  Jesus Christ Superstar is pretty much a sellout for the year, but you might be able to score a last-minute ticket or two just before the show starts; Camelot is big and a spectacle in its own right, as befits the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  In JCS, the cast includes Paul Nolan in the title role and Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, and the entire cast will be heading to La Jolla, California for a run after it closes in Stratford, and finally makes it to Broadway next spring.  In Camelot, Geraint Wyn-Davies makes a magisterial King Arthur, and Kaylee Harwood plays his Guenevere, ultimately wooed by Jonathan Winsby as Lancelot.  At the Avon stage, two productions continue:  the adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming.  Grapes is pretty grim, as you can imagine, but some exceptional performances make it all worthwhile, including Evan Buliung as Tom and Chelina Kennedy as Rose of Sharon.  Pinter's The Homecoming is gritty and quirky, and definitely an acquired taste.  But standout performances by Brian Dennehy as Max and again, Stephen Ouimette as his brother Sam make it all worthwhile.  A late-season opener, The Homecoming was lightly attended when I was there in late August, so you might have a good chance to get some great seats for this show.  For all shows this season in Stratford, go to

Both festivals have announced their lineups for next season, of course, and each looks promising.  At Shaw, the big musical will be Ragtime, which has had a checkered history of performances both in Toronto and on Broadway.  In Stratford, the family show will be the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  There have been complaints already about Shaw not having main stage performances of Shaw's plays next season; they will be featured at the Court House and Royal George Theatres next season.  Over at Stratford, there are complaints their playbill includes only three of Shakespeare's plays.  Well, you can't please everyone in both cases, of course, but they have to put bums in the seats, and if it works, how can you argue with their logic?  We'll see how next season plays out and assess the results this time next year.

So that's it; enjoy some great theatre before the month is done and I guarantee you won't be disappointed!

October 16th, 2011.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two Niagara ladies of song making their mark this Thanksgiving weekend

As the Thanksgiving weekend is upon us, I wanted to share a few words about a couple of ladies in Niagara I have had the pleasure of knowing for awhile now, and whose music brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people - myself included.

TiannaH and her group, Jazz with a Twist, perform throughout the Niagara area and beyond throughout the year, doing everything from private and corporate functions to open-air performances in the summer and clubs throughout the year.  TiannaH is a jazz singer who has her musical roots firmly entrenched in the gospel and spiritual music of her ancestors.  For several years, in fact, she was the featured soloist with Laura Thomas' Choralis Camerata choral group, who would perform a tribute to Black History Month each February at a church or two in some part of Niagara.

I know the concert well because I was always honoured to be asked to be the narrator and as such, I had a ringside seat to some of the best spiritual singing you'll hear in Niagara.  Last summer, I took myself down to Charles Daley Park to hear the other, more familiar side of TiannaH, as a jazz singer with her group at the amphitheatre.  She was back again this summer but alas, I missed the performance in August.

If you ever get a chance to catch a performance with TiannaH, do so; you will not be disappointed.  In fact, although it is really short notice, you can tonight at one of her regular haunts, the Jordan House Hotel in Jordan, right where Regional Road 81 (otherwise known as Old Highway 8) turns left and heads down into the Jordan Valley.  She'll be there from 9 to midnight tonight; if you miss that performance there will be many more in the months to come, so keep an eye out for her at a nice bar near you!

The other lady I love to hear is Juliet Dunn, who has made her home in St. Catharines for some time now with her husband Peter Shea, after spending several years living in Paris and travelling the world.  In fact, to this day the pair spend part of the winter months performing on cruise ships in the warmer climes, a gig many other singers would kill for, I suspect.

Juliet's years in Paris have inspired her most recent CD, titled "C'est Si Bon", recorded with her group known collectively as Le Trio Parisien.  The disc covers a lot of musical ground, ranging from the familiar title track to the Piaf classic, La Vie En Rose and Padam, among others.  The disc actually came out about a year ago now, but Juliet told me on the phone this week she had been so busy, they just hadn't had a chance to celebrate the release before now.

Celebrate they did last evening in downtown St. Catharines as Juliet and Peter and their musical friends held a CD release party at Stella's on James Street.  I unfortunately had to miss the event, since it was a busy election night and my more serious job too precedence last evening.  The evening provided a chance to hear music from the disc, of course, and also to find out more about Juliet's ambitious "Twilight Jazz" series, to be held every Thursday night at Stella's featuring performances by some of Niagara's best jazz musicians.  When I get the lineup I will be posting it on the calendar page of my website, at

Also on my website, on the Mike's Picks page in the jazz section, you'll find Juliet Dunn's newest disc for sale.  It is a fine recording and I encourage you to give it a try.  You can order it through my website or just email me directly at and I will take care of it for you.

There is another opportunity to hear Juliet in an entirely different venue each weekend now, too, as she has nicely settled in to the early morning 6 - 9 am spot hosting the weekend morning jazz programme at Toronto's JazzFm, 91.1.  I caught a bit of her show last Saturday, and she sounded great on her first time on the air there.  Juliet sounded absolutely giddy about the regular gig when I talked to her this week, but of course, let her get used to those cold January mornings driving to Toronto early in the morning and we'll see how she feels!  I know; I do it every day on my way to work down at CKTB Radio here in St. Catharines.

Happy Thanksgiving, and let's give thanks for some of the great talent we have right here in Niagara!

October 7th, 2011.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A busy first weekend of October in Niagara

I usually like to get my weekend blog entry done first thing Saturday morning, but the day has been so busy already, the first chance I have had to sit down and write is now, so here goes...

There has been no shortage of events this weekend in Niagara, three of which I will recount here as I will be involved in all of them.  The first, actually, I already have been, and I have the sore feet to show for it!  Now, I know this doesn't have anything to do with the arts, per se, but it has everything to do with giving back to the community and helping out a charitable organization worthy of our help.

This morning I was down at the Pen Centre as preparations were underway for the sixth annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes event, benefitting Gillian's Place in St. Catharines.  If you know of Gillian's Place, you know of the important work they do in the community; if you don't, you should know they provide shelter and vital help to women escaping abusive relationships in St. Catharines.

A couple of years ago when the former Women's Place moved from their cramped downtown quarters to the renovated Victoria School on Niagara Street, I toured the facilities at the opening and was impressed with the new facility and the exceptional care they provide for clients who come to them.  There might indeed be a day when these services are not needed, but until then, places like Gillian's Place will need our help to raise funds and awareness for this problem.

So once again this morning, myself and many, many other like-minded men strapped on stilettos, pumps, and just about anything else with high heels to walk the one mile perimeter of the Pen to raise funds or awareness for Gillian's Place.  It is quite an event now, with record crowds turning out both to participate and to watch at the Pen.

I arrived just in time to pluck a promising-looking pair of black high-heels in a men's size 8 that I thought would do the trick, and after some buckle hassles, I was ready to go, teetering back and forth.  I did the walk with no problem, but I am finding as I get older (!) my back is aching by the end of it, but that is a small price to pay for the help we try to give to Gillian's Place cause.  I can rest the next day, sort of, but for clients of the shelter and the workers, there really is no rest.

After the walk and the awards had been given, it was announced a record number of donations came in this year:  $ 74,500 was raised for Gillian's Place, about $ 20,000 more than last year.  Phenomenal!  I offer a teetering tip of the hat to my fellow participants and supporters, as well as the tireless volunteers and workers from Gillian's Place who really need our help.  Well done, boys!

Now, on to other things happening this weekend in the arts I want to highlight.  Sunday morning at 11 am, the public is invited to the Shaw Festival rehearsal halls for a free, one-hour presentation by actors Sharry Flett and Guy Bannerman on manners and related topics from the past to the present day.  Shaw Festival actors know more than a little bit about this, of course, as they deal with it all season long as they present plays from the past and the present that will at some point involve manners in some shape or form.

The presentation is part of the provincial Cultural Days events planned for this weekend throughout Ontario, and this one in particular interests me, as an avid theatre goer for many years now.  The discussion is free and no tickets are required; just go to the stage door at the festival theatre prior to 11 am to attend the event.

Later on Sunday, the Niagara Symphony will kick off their new season, their first with Musical Director Bradley Thachuk on the podium full-time.  It promises to be a gala event as a season full of musical promise gets underway, and I am hoping the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre is almost full to the rafters to welcome our Niagara Symphony back for another season.

On the programme Sunday afternoon are three orchestral works:  an Overture by Sir Ernest MacMillan; the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky, and in the second half, the ever-popular Symphony No. 9 in E Minor by Antonin Dvorak, the one known, of course, as "From the New World."  All three works will test the orchestral prowess of the Niagara Symphony, and will offer a suitable launching pad for  what promises to be an exciting symphony season down at the Centre of the Arts, Brock University.

Once again this season I will be attending, too, with my table set up in the lobby before, after, and during intermission at the concert with a wide selection of music for you to (hopefully!) purchase.  I will have an added surprise tomorrow, as well, but that won't be disclosed until I am set up before the concert.  So if you go, be sure to pay me a visit and say hello.

Tickets are still available for the concert, and can be had by stopping at the Brock box office before the concert or calling them at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Who says there is nothing to do in Niagara after the Niagara Wine Festival is done for the season?

October 1st, 2011.