Saturday, November 26, 2011

Niagara Symphony and John Laing Singers both perform in separate concerts this weekend

We're fast approaching the time of year when there are almost too many concerts and theatrical events to handle, but with some careful planning you can catch a number of worthy musical events in the coming weeks, many of which will put you in the mood for the holidays.

This weekend for example, the Niagara Symphony Masterworks 2 concert takes place Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Brock University.  Now, the concert itself isn't holiday themed, per se, but the off-stage attractions certainly are.  This is the annual Silent Auction event, held every year to help raise funds for the Niagara Symphony and hopefully strike a few names off your gift list.  Last year I successfully bid on a couple of winery group tour events that just were not gathering many bids, so both I acquired at ridiculously low prices.  But that is the magic of the event.  You never know what you'll find, and what you will successfully bid on, until the end of the concert.

Along with original art, gift items, cultural events and attractions, winery tasting tours and more, there is the  annual opportunity to successfully bid to conduct the Niagara Symphony and be a "Maestro for a Moment."  I toyed with bidding on this last year, and this year just might.  But I don't know if I would have the nerve to actually get up and conduct the orchestra, given the fact I have no prior experience doing so.  Oh sure, they provide you with a lesson and a baton, but the rest is up to you and I don't know if I could withstand the jitters to be successful.

All that aside, there is also a concert to enjoy onstage tomorrow as well, leading off with the sublime Symphony No. 35 by Mozart, the one known as "Haffner."  The concert ends with Mendelssohn's wonderfully evocative Symphony No. 4 in A Major, known of course as the "Italian."  In between is the Canadian premiere of "Shadows" by Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a globally-commissioned piano concerto featuring the pianist who performed the world premiere of the concerto recently, Jeffrey Biegel.  Jeffrey gained some sort of notoriety in recent years for recording for Naxos the Piano Concerto by Leroy Anderson, performed by the Niagara Symphony just last season.  I have the concerto in my personal library, and the Naxos recording is readily available through my website at any time, by going to and sending a request on the supplied order form.

Tickets should still be available for the concert either through the box office in advance or at the door. In advance, call the box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  Normally I would be set up in the lobby with lots of music for you to purchase from A Web of Fine Music, but with the Silent Auction taking up so much space in the lobby before the concert and at intermission, I will simply be there as a listener and prospective bidder, so I will hopefully see you there!

Also on this weekend in the Hamilton area is the critically-acclaimed John Laing Singers, who perform a concert Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon titled ""Sumptuous, Satisfying, Sublime and Simple."  The Saturday concert is all but done as I write this, of course, but if you are in the Hamilton-Burlington area tomorrow afternoon you can catch the performance at 3:30 at St. Matthew-on-the-Plains Anglican Church on Plains Road in Burlington.  I have never been inside the church but have had an opportunity to see it from the outside and it looks impressive.

The concert will feature Christmas music from a wide diversity of sources, from Bach to Poulenc, Vaughan Williams and Sandstrom, as well as carol settings from Poland and Peru.  Guest artists joining the John Laing Singers will be soprano Charlene Pauls and organist Paul Grimwood.  This is the first Christmas concert designed by their new artistic director, Dr. Roger Bergs, who takes over from the retiring John Laing himself.

Tickets are available in advance by calling 905-628-5238 or going online to, or picking them up at the door prior to the concert.

Incidentally, the John Laing Singers have a wonderful Christmas disc out titled "Merrily Sing We" that I love to listen to throughout the holiday season.  I have copies available through A Web of Fine Music ( or email me directly at

Enjoy the weekend!

November 26th, 2011.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Update on the new Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines

There has been much anticipation about the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre, set to rise on the vacant site at the corner of St. Paul and Carlisle Streets in downtown St. Catharines.  This week, city council heard a presentation from Gary McCluskie, lead architect from Diamond + Schmitt Architects in Toronto on the project, and there was both good news and bad news on Monday evening.

The good news is council unanimously endorsed the design and budget for the project; the bad news is the endorsed project is both smaller and costlier than originally planned.  Smaller insofar as fewer seats in each of the four venues in the complex and less office space and front-of-house space than originally proposed.  Most people seem to agree the reductions are manageable, although Janis Barlow, representing the user group committee providing input on the project, has suggested in no uncertain terms any further reductions would clearly reduce the viability of the centre.  In other words, smaller is not always better.

But the increased costs involved are somewhat troubling.  The original price tag of $ 54 million has now grown to $ 60.7 million, up $ 6.5 million.  Government funding remains the same, at $ 42 million combined from the federal and provincial governments, with the remainder expected to be raised within the community.  To that end, the city has decided to hire a professional fundraiser to narrow that gap and come up with the necessary extra funds.  Let's hope that person is very good, whomever he or she may be, as one worries this might not be the only increase in the cost of the project.  In addition, while I sense many in the community are behind the project as it stands, further increase in costs would not be welcome by the public at large, I suspect.

So, basically, we are left with a smaller complex that will cost more.  Where have we heard that before, eh?  Seriously, though, I doubt many would care about the shrinking office or front-of-house space unless it directly impacts them, of course, and the reduction in seating in each venue is not large, so most will not even notice it, one hopes.

I echo those thoughts, but worry about the costs involved for the tenants we are building the performing arts centre for.  I have stated in this space before we have to keep it affordable for the groups using the facility, but a discussion on this with one member of one of those user groups last month signalled alarm bells for this reporter many tenants might well be priced out of the marketplace if they have to increase ticket prices in order to meet the increased rent to use the facility.  Then where will we be?  A white elephant while those same user groups retreat to their old venues once again?  We can't afford to let that happen, so it is imperative everyone involved realize this has to be affordable for all concerned, on both sides of the footlights.

There is still time to work out the problems and keep this project on the rails, but with final design details nearing completion, I think it would be best to deal with any concerns people have sooner rather than later.  I have long been a big supporter of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre and remain so to this day; but let's keep this a user-friendly facility everyone will be proud of for years to come.  It will be the jewel of our downtown and indeed our Region so long as costs are kept under control and the design is not further watered down.

November 24th, 2011.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

News and Notes on local theatre in November

Last week I wrote about some of the local theatre in the area on right now, from Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, Department of Drama a Brock University and Garden City Productions.  I still have to get to GCP's production of Gypsy before it closes next weekend, and unfortunately this weekend I have too much on the plate to catch anything at all, but I did attend the season opener for Lyndesfarne and want to pass along a few comments here before getting on to other things.

I have often written of the quality of the productions from Kelly Daniels, Artistic Director of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects.  Most shows have a small cast and the set changes are kept to a minimum if needed at all. Most times, the set stays the same throughout the show, which is great in the theatre space they use, the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  The season opener is Willy Russell's entertaining Educating Rita, starring Daniels' husband Ric Reid and Jenny L.Wright, both members of the Shaw Festival acting ensemble.

Ric played Dr. Frank Bryant in two previous productions of Educating Rita over the past number of years, the last one a few years ago when he suffered a heart attack while onstage.  He came through it, of course, and is probably a lot healthier now than he was at the start of the last production.  He also has experienced a lot more about life since the first time years ago as a young man, making this portrayal of Bryant a much more rewarding and richer experience for both him and us.  His co-star in this production, Jenny L. Wright,   has great fun with her role, a 30-something mother in England who feels her education is wanting.  She turns to Bryant for some special tutoring, and in the process teaches him more than he probably teaches her.

Both have interesting perspectives on their respective characters, making for a fairly satisfying theatrical experience for the audience.  The pivotal scene happens in the second act when Jenny, playing Rita, finally overtakes her teacher when it comes to what has been learned, vividly illustrated as each is finally seated in the other's spot on the stage; Frank sits in the guest's chair while Rita takes charge behind his desk.   It is then you see the fundamental shift in focus take place.

Educating Rita may not be the best production Lyndesfarne has given us, but it is a darned good one, and well worth your consideration during the month of November.  You have performances this evening and Sunday afternoon this weekend, and performances again next week from Wednesday to Sunday at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  Tickets for all performances are available by calling the box office at 905-938-1222 or going to

Now, some news to get caught up on at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake before we call it a day today.  The 50th season ended October 30th, and the season was a good one both artistically and financially.  Shaw reported a 5% increase in attendance over the 2010 season, due in no small part to the smash hit musical My Fair Lady at the Festival Theatre.  In fact, My Fair Lady is the best-selling production in Shaw Festival history.

Financially, the numbers tell the tale:  according to Executive Director Colleen Blake, season attendance numbers reached 274,800, an increase of 13,000 over the past season.  Box office revenues translate into an overall economic impact of more than $ 100-million annually for the Province of Ontario, bringing added tourism to the Niagara Region in particular and Ontario in general.

Now, the 51st season gets underway in April, 2012, with eleven different productions on four stages, with casting being announced for many shows this past week.  For the flagship musical Ragtime, for example, the musical will showcase Thom Allison and Kate Hennig and will be directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell.  More information on the upcoming season can be found on the Shaw Festival website, at  And if you just can't wait to get your tickets, call the box office at 1-800-511-7429.  If you are a member, you can order tickets now; if not a member yet, you have to wait until January 14th.

Enjoy the weekend!

November 12th, 2011.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Theatre is alive and well in Niagara in November

Now that we're in November and the Shaw Festival has wrapped up for another year, you might think we're deficient in live theatre in Niagara at this time of year.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as many smaller, local theatre venues thrive in the winter months with some pretty inventive programming.  Take the next week for example:  we have two openings this weekend and one next weekend, all of which I will touch on today.

First up is Garden City Productions' fall show, Gypsy, the musical based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee.  The musical has been hugely popular for years now, with a wonderful production at Shaw not that many years ago, in fact, with Nora McLellan as a fabulous Mama Rose.  This new production is directed and choreographed by Di Nyland-Proctor, a local legend when it comes to staging musicals and dance-themed productions.  I have known Di and her husband Frank for about thirty years now, as they were two of the first people I got to know when I moved to St. Catharines in 1981.  Both Frank and Di did work for CKTB Radio back then; Frank as the popular morning man and Di hosted a short little feature each day on cooking, titled, if I remember correctly, Someone's In the Kitchen with Di-nah...ah yes, the memories are flooding back now.  Amazing what you remember as you get older, eh?

But I digress.  Gypsy is a sometimes gritty musical that can be a disaster if not handled properly, but Di knows what to do with it as she has been in productions of Gypsy herself in the past.  This new production with Garden City Productions features Laurel Broczkowski as Rose and Breton Lalama as Louise, among others.  I have a personal connection to this cast as well, as Laurel has been an acquaintance of mine for years now, and Chelsea Di Franco of St. Catharines plays the part of Elektra and lives just up the street from me.

GCP puts on some pretty ambitious shows, and this one promises to be no different.  Gypsy officially opens tonight and runs Thursday to Saturday evenings with a Sunday matinee through to November 20th at the Mandeville Theatre at Ridley College.  Tickets are available by calling 905-682-1353 or going online to

Also opening tonight and one I will be attending, is the season opener for Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects in St.Catharines, celebrating their seventh season with the award-winning English comedy Educating Rita by Willy Russell.  The play was first commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered in June, 1980 at the RSC's Warehouse.  It went on to tour successfully more than once, and was eventually made into a successful movie as well.

Lyndesfarne specializes in small, intimate cast productions best suited to their space downtown at the Sullivan-Mahoney Courthouse Theatre.  There are only two people in the cast:  Ric Reid as Frank and Jenny L. Wright as Rita.  Both are Shaw Festival alumnus, and Ric is also married to Lyndesfarne's Artistic Director and director of this production, Kelly Daniels.

Educating Rita is a story about discovery - a woman's journey and transformation through her education, and a man's desire to live life again.  From what I saw in the preview rehearsal last week, we're in for a treat starting tonight.

Educating Rita opens tonight and runs through to November 18th, Wednesday through Saturday evenings, with a Sunday matinee.  Tickets are available through the box office by calling 905-938-1222, or online by going to

Finally, next weekend the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University presents Tennessee Williams' American classic Orpheus Descending at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock.  It opens Thursday evening and runs through until Saturday only.  Directed by Virginia Reh and designed by Brock Dramatic Arts graduate Michael Greves, the play showcases the talents of students in the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock:  Trevor Ketcheson, Rebekka Gondosch, Cassandra Van Wyck, Robyn Cunnigham, Josh Davidson, Evan Mulrooney, Derek Ewert, Nadia Watts, Vanessa Ancevicius, Brad Deiter, James Lowe, Matt Viviano, Justine Benteau, Mallory Rivest, Lauren Beaton, Anna MacAlpine and Madison Rosca.  That's a good-sized cast, but as I have found in the past, the students at Brock rise to the challenge every time out and I have no doubt this time will be no different.

Orpheus Descending opened on Broadway in 1957 and was adapted for the screen two years later, starring Marlon Brando.  This particular production celebrates the 100th birthday of this great twentieth century American playwright whose works have been prominently featured in recent seasons at both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals.

Tickets are very reasonably priced and available through the Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or going online to

Enjoy the theatre!

November 5th, 2011.