Friday, December 30, 2011

Saying goodbye to 2011...and a couple of theatrical titans

Everyone compiles and/or reviews year-end lists at the end of December,  as we look back on the year that was and reflect on the impact those events might have later on.  I've done that and I suppose most people have as well.  But as I review the many arts-related events that have unfolded this past year, especially locally, there is no shortage of things to reflect upon.

The final designs of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre and adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts would have to top this list around these parts.  The excitement builds, as does for some the anxiety of how we keep the proverbial bums in all those seats once it opens.  The folding of the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council in the spring has to be considered one of the low points in this area, as it probably could have - and should have - been avoided.  Plus, the start of Bradley Thachuk's tenure as new Music Director of the Niagara Symphony this season would have to be considered a newsworthy event in the arts as well.

There are others, of course.  Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first annual Busker Festival in August was an absolute hit with the public and will be a tough act to follow; and speaking of Lyndesfarne, their fall show at the Sullivan Courthouse Theatre, Willy Russell's "Educating Rita" was a very special show indeed.  Of course, we would certainly be remiss if we didn't mention the 50th Anniversary season for the acclaimed Shaw Festival, which brought in record crowds for some exceptional live theatre, highlighted by the huge hit production of Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady", never staged at Shaw before, oddly enough.

But two events I will remember for a long time involved Stratford Festival pioneers Peter Donaldson and John Neville, both of whom passed away this past year and both of whom I would like to remember here for a few moments.

Peter Donaldson was a consummate pro:  he excelled in drama, comedy and even musicals.  He was a mainstay at the Stratford Festival for many years and there is not a single performance I ever saw him give that was not exceptional in one way or another.  His dramatic acting was without equal; yet he know how to get the most of a comic turn with the best of them.  And one performance in particular a few seasons back in the Stratford 'family' show "The Scarlet Pimpernel" remains forever etched in my memory banks.  It was not his best performance, to be sure, but the aplomb he brought to the heroic character with dazzling fights and feats of daring onstage thrilled many that season, I know.  It was typical of Donaldson:  a role you might not think he was right for initially and after you see it, you can't help but imagine anyone else doing a better job with it.  Donaldson was just that good, over and over again.

Peter had been battling cancer for many years, finally succumbing to the disease in January of this year.  He was only 58 and had so many more years ahead of him as a great actor.  Sadly, lung cancer claimed him far too soon.

The second passing received surprisingly little press, I found.  The former Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now called, John Neville, passed away in November at the age of 86.  From his time at London's Old Vic in the 50s through to his memorable years when he came to Canada, first as Artistic Director of Edmonton's Citadel Theatre from 1973 to 1978, Halifax's Neptune Theatre from 1978 to 1983 and later as Artistic Director at Stratford from 1985 to 1989, Neville met many challenges head on and never flinched.  He made a lot of friends and theatrical fans along the way, too, including this reporter who unfortunately never had the honour to meet him, only know him through is exemplary work at Stratford.

When Neville came to Stratford first as an actor and ultimately as Artistic Director, he always exuded a calm demeanour and almost patrician air I found, in addition to perfect diction and a voice that was truly one of a kind.  My best memory of Neville was in the title role in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Festival Theatre.  I recall the production caused no small amount of controversy at the time, but it is one of those roles I will always remember him for.

He came to the helm of the Stratford Festival at a critical time:  in dire financial straits at the time with some pretty uninspiring theatre before he arrived, Neville turned the Festival's fortunes around in just three seasons with the savvy that comes from someone who has seen the best of times and the worst of times.  He was the first Artistic Director to stage a musical on the main stage, for example.  Now, you can't imagine going to Stratford without seeing one on the Festival Stage.  He also programmed Shakespeare's three late romances in one season; it proved to be a gamble that for the most part paid off handsomely.  I remember all three of those productions to this very day!  This past season I came across a poster for the final season during Neville's time as Artistic Director and it is amazing what good memories remain to this day of so many of them from that one season alone.   John Neville made the Festival a far better place in his time there, and they have never really looked back since.

In later years, Neville starred in the title role in Terry Gilliam's epic The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, and later still he became famous for his role as "The Well-Manicured Man" on the cult series "The X Files."  But for me, his time at Stratford holds the greatest memories for me.

Neville had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some time, finally succumbing in Toronto in late November.

A lot of great theatrical notes this past year, and some tragic losses, too.  Peter Donaldson and John Neville remain for me, two of the most tragic as 2011 draws to a close.

Happy New Year!

December 30th, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

How do you spend Christmas Eve?

We are almost at the end of another furious holiday buying season, with most people going down to the wire Christmas Eve afternoon, I gather.  I have been done my shopping for almost a week now, since I know this final week is so busy with my duties at CKTB RADIO and running my music business, A Web of Fine Music.  Saleswise, I don't think this will be my best December ever, but it should at least be respectable.  I will tally up the numbers next week once I have a chance to catch my breath and analyze the proverbial tea leaves then.

For me personally, Christmas has been a much too hectic and stressful time, and I have made efforts to alleviate that stress over the past several years.  I have had some success, but those successes are still rather small.  That said, I look forward most of all to what comes after the commercial aspect of the season is done and before the big day actually arrives.  That, of course, means Christmas Eve.

For 21 years, I have had the pleasure and honour of hosting the radio broadcast of Midnight Mass, live from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines, as I will again this year, my 22nd consecutive.  Since 1989, I have not missed a single broadcast, although I did come close in 1998 when I slipped on ice and fell a few days before Christmas, thoroughly destroying my right arm and landing me in hospital.  I had to beg the surgeon to release me in time for the broadcast, which I did in a very poor state of health before collapsing in bed very late.  I should have stayed in hospital, of course, but you know how it is when you feel you simply have to do something that means a lot to you.

In the early years, I wrote the script from scratch every year on an old Underwood manual typewriter I still own.  By the turn of the new century, I was dipping my fingers into the computer technology age, with somewhat mixed results.  Nowadays, with a completely modern Apple iMac computer and the ability to save the script each year and simply update the pertinent information each time, I have managed to cut down my scriptwriting time by over half.  That is one good thing about computers, I will concede.  This year will be somewhat different, though, as I plan to have the script written in the afternoon rather than Christmas Eve itself as in past years.  With Christmas falling on a Sunday this year, I don't expect a very busy December 24th this year, and I certainly won't be out until early evening making final deliveries as in past years.  So I might actually be able to relax and enjoy some peace and contentment Christmas Eve before the broadcast begins at 11:30.

Over the years I have made music a very important part of my Christmas Eve ritual, putting aside the more popular fare for more traditional choral music reflecting the solemnity of the moment and the impending joy of Christmas morning.  Often I would pull out my historic 1959 recording of Handel's Messiah with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting, now long out of print, unfortunately.  I have also for many years enjoyed the glorious Archiv recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players of the Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning by Michael Praetorius.  It has a sound that simply takes your breath away and I never tire of it.

More recently, I have enjoyed a Chandos recording by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia along with The Joyful Company of Singers, performing Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols/The First Nowell/On Christmas Night.  It is a simply beautiful recording of glorious carol singing by an expert group.  It is still in stock at  I will be adding two new recordings to my Christmas Eve listening this year, both of which are also currently available through my website A Web of Fine Music.  The first is A Steinway Christmas Album by pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who appeared last month with the Niagara Symphony.  It is a stylish piano collection of familiar and not-so-familiar carols and seasonal music, ranging from Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride to December from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons.  The second is a Chandos Super Audio recording by the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, entitled On Christmas Night.  Familiar material such as Coventry Carol and Silent Night are here, of course, as well as less-familiar choral pieces such as The Lamb by Sir John Tavener and Out of Your Sleep by Sir Richard Rodney-Bennett.  The sound is amazing and expansive, and the singing is superb.  Any of these discs in stock would make great additions to your personal Christmas music collections, and are still available through my website, by using the order form provided, or by simply emailing me directly at

So, however you choose to celebrate or observe the night of December 24th, I hope you do it with music.  For my part, I want to take this opportunity to thank you both for your patronage of A Web of Fine Music and reading my blog postings in this space every week.  It is nice to know you are out there, and I appreciate the support on both fronts.  Whatever this season means to you and however you choose to observe it, I wish you only the best for the season and the coming New Year ahead.  Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, whatever you are celebrating and however you choose to celebrate it.  Celebrate with music, and hopefully great music for the season courtesy of A Web of Fine Music!

Happy Holidays!

December 23rd, 2011.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

T'was the weekend before Christmas...

I know that title suggests I am going to wax poetic this weekend, but that isn't necessarily the case.  I will, however, offer up three ideas for holiday entertainment this weekend you might want to take in, assuming of course you are through with your Christmas shopping.  If you are, congratulations!  If not, I have some concluding thoughts just for you...

I have often written about the quality theatre Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects provides at the Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  Well today, you have two opportunities to catch some nice theatre and help support the fledgling company at the same time.  This afternoon at 3 and again this evening at 7, Shaw Festival actor Ric Reid will be reading the holiday classic "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas.  It is just a reading, rather than fully acted out, but Ric can handle it with great panache, so you'll be more than well entertained.  This also happens to be a benefit for Lyndesfarne; your ticket includes a glass of wine and hors d'oeuvres, and a chance to win a case of Jackson Triggs wine!  For more information and tickets, call Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects at 905-938-1222.

The second of two Christmas concerts by the Niagara-area chamber group Glissandi takes place this evening at 7:30 at Fonthill United Church in Fonthill.  "Glissandi Christmas" features Deborah Braun on harp, David Braun on violin and Douglas Miller on flute.  They are joined by Shaw Festival actor Guy Bannerman for an evening of poems and short stories intertwined with seasonal music.  The Christmas spirit will be celebrated with narratives by Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and many others.  Tickets are available through the Gallery Players website, or by calling 905-468-1525.

Finally, down in Hamilton this afternoon and this evening, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra will present their annual Holiday Pops concert, titled "A Gospel Christmas."  The Toronto Mass Choir joins the HPO and Music Director James Sommerville for gospel arrangements of favourite Christmas carols along with some familiar orchestral selections.  Performances at the Great Hall of Hamilton Place are this afternoon at 2 and this evening at 7:30.  There is even a special dinner/show combo special offered for the evening show, with a three-course dinner at Incognito Restaurant and Wine Bar along with a ticket for the evening show.  Just call the box office for more details, at 905-526-7756, or go online to

Now, as I write this, many people are out holiday shopping this weekend, as I will be briefly this afternoon.  But for all intents and purposes, my Christmas shopping is done.  But do you give any thought to how and where you do your Christmas shopping?  I know you've heard this before, but I can't stress enough, especially in these challenging economic times, to show support for local business and service organizations  who are there ready to serve you all year 'round.  The local economy should be important to you, even if you might find a slightly lower price elsewhere.  I say this because all too often people head out of the area and many cross the border in order to save a few dollars.  But what you save now might cost you later.

Think about it this way:  if something has to be returned or proves defective in some way, a local business you support throughout the year will be more inclined to accommodate your requests after the sale because, quite simply, you have invested in the business by buying there throughout the year.  I can't stress enough how important this is.  I speak, incidentally, as both a retailer myself and a consumer.  Just this morning I picked up my last two official Christmas gifts at the St. Catharines Farmers' Market.  I see these people all year 'round, so why would I not buy from them for the holidays as well?  It just makes sense.  Oh, and by the way, the items I purchased were well priced and exactly what I was looking for.

As a retailer, I will say in the music business, this is the busiest time of year, but I am never too busy to help you and find exactly what you are looking for to please the music lover on your Christmas list.  It is tight for ordering special requests now, but it is possible in some cases, but I also have stock that might just be what you're looking for.  I also offer gift certificates for those hard to buy for people on your list.  My website, A Web of Fine Music ( is ready to help you out throughout the year.  I offer a complete list of Mike's Picks selections and a complete Calendar of Events throughout the year, but if you don't see what you are looking for, simply use the order form provided on the site or just email me directly at  And being a website, that means we never close!

Happy Holidays from A Web of Fine Music, and from all local retailers who benefit from your loyalty throughout the year!

December 17th, 2011.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Getting into the Christmas spirit this weekend in Niagara

I am a little tired tonight following a very long day, but I have some thoughts I want to share before putting my head down to rest in advance of a very busy weekend in Niagara for this reporter.

I don't know about you, but I have had a heck of a time getting into the Christmas spirit this year.  Maybe it is the weather; maybe it is all the news the last few weeks that works against getting all warm and fuzzy as usual at this time of year.  I don't know...but I do know this journalistic Grinch had his hard heart softened up more than just a little today as I was heavily involved again this year with the annual Great Holiday Food Drive put on by Astral Radio stations at 12 Yates Street in St. Catharines.  My full-time job is, of course, morning show producer on Newstalk 610/CKTB, who along with 97.7 HTZ-FM and 105.7 EZ Rock, joined forces on the front lawn to fill a couple of St. Catharines Transit buses with food and toys for Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold.  It was, to put it simply, an amazing day.

When things wrapped up at 6 pm and the last bus pulled away with Santa himself at the wheel, under police escort of course, residents of St. Catharines-Niagara had come through with an astounding total of $ 238,000 in food and cash to help out those less fortunate in the community at a difficult time of year for many.  What can you say after a display of human caring of that magnitude?  Yes, it warmed my heart for sure, as it did many others.  But more than that, it helped make Christmas a more bearable time for many in the community who really need our help.  On behalf of all of us involved today, thanks to everyone who took part and helped out a very worthwhile cause again this year.

Now, if you feel like doing a little holiday celebrating this weekend, the Niagara Symphony joins forces with Chorus Niagara for a triple-bill Christmas celebration at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Brock Centre for the Arts.  The concert, titled Home for the Holidays, features Niagara's premier 100-voice ensemble teamed up with your Niagara Symphony, directed by Chorus Niagara Artistic Director Robert Cooper.  It promises to be a truly festive event, with one of the many highlights being a reading of the ever-popular Brother Heinrich's Christmas by former CBC As It Happens host, Barbara Budd.

What is especially interesting is the fact there are three, rather than the customary two performances of the Holiday Pops! concert this weekend:  Saturday afternoon at 2:30 and evening at 7:30, and Sunday afternoon at 2:30.  All three will be near sellouts I would imagine, but your best bet for tickets at this stage would likely be the Saturday evening performance.  For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or log on to  If you're going, it is suggested you bring a new, unwrapped toy or gift card to benefit Gillian's Place, formerly Women's Place in St. Catharines.

Needless to say, I will be in the lobby for all three performances before, after and at intermission, with lots of great musical ideas for gift giving for yourself or others on your Christmas list.  Yes, lots of Christmas music, too.  But if you don't see exactly what you want, I will do my very best to find it for you in time for the big day on the 25th.  Time is getting tight, but I always find myself working some musical magic in the final two weeks leading up to Christmas.

Finally, one other event coming up on Sunday might be worth your attention as well.  Suitcase in Point Theatre presents their annual Christmas Cabaret Sunday evening at The Merchant Ale House in downtown St. Catharines.  Performance times are 7 and 10 pm, with admission Pay What You Can, although $ 10 is respectfully suggested.

The cabaret is titled Lethal Reindeer Games II - No One is Safe! and declares war on Christmas...sort of.  Only the best team of reindeer detectives can save the holidays from the usual gang of bad guys, we're told, and through sketch comedy, surprise guests and lots of Christmas cheer, it all works out in the end.  Oh, and a nice touch is a suggestion to bring a non-perishable food item or more for Community Care.

So there you have it.  Lots to do this weekend to rid your soul of any remaining Grinchiness this holiday season.  Enjoy!

December 9th, 2011.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

All Hail Handel's Messiah!

It is the time of year for pilgrimages to concert halls around the country for a performance of Handel's beloved oratorio, Messiah.  If you scan the arts listings for almost any community with either an orchestra or choir or both at this time of year, there is bound to be a performance of Messiah somewhere.  But how often do you even think of Messiah at Easter, much less see a performance at Easter?

This is the odd history of arguably Handel's most famous work.  He wrote it between August and September 1741, based on a libretto supplied by clergyman and writer Charles Jennens, who had been trying to persuade Handel to return to English oratorio following his last two Italian operas, which were poorly received.  An offer to participate in a season of oratorio performances in Dublin, Ireland the following year provided the impetus Handel needed to return to a musical form he knew very well.

So it was Messiah, based on the birth and Passion of Christ, premiered at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th, 1742, with revisions coming in 1745 for the famous Foundling Hospital performances.  It remained immensely popular until his death in 1758 and has been a standard-bearer for Christmas performances the world over to this very day.  The sacred, non-dramatic oratorio was a first for Handel, with a text divided by Jennens into three parts:  the first deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment.  The second goes from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection and the final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death.

Around these parts, we have the advantage of two choirs who perform Messiah regularly.  Chorus Niagara performs the work every other year at Christmas, with Artistic Director Robert Cooper wisely choosing to leave you wanting alternate years so he can create another Christmas program to fill the seats.  However, those who need their Messiah fix every year can catch a performance during those alternate years with Laura Thomas' choir, Choralis Camerata, as is the case this year.

Robert Cooper is leading the Niagara Symphony and Chorus Niagara next weekend in a Christmas programme at Centre for the Arts, Brock University, as the two groups join forces again on the stage of the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.  I will write more about those performances next week, but this weekend, your Messiah fix is provided by Choralis Camerata with two performances.  The first is tonight at 7:30 at First Grantham United Church in north St. Catharines; the second is tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 at the modern and expansive St. Alexander Roman Catholic Church in Fonthill.  Tickets for both performances are available at the door.

I try to catch at least one Messiah performance every year, but some years it just won't happen, which might be the case this year.  Once a number of years ago, I decided to do two performances in a single day in separate cities for some unexplainable reason, so in the afternoon I was at the Chorus Niagara performance in St. Catharines and Sunday evening I attended another performance at the River Run Centre in Guelph with the Guelph Chamber Choir.  Theirs is a very traditional performance done every year, but Gerald Neufeld always presents a finely-tuned performance I have enjoyed many times in the past.  Cooper  for his part, always works to present a different angle to Messiah, partly I suspect to keep the audience interested, but more importantly to keep the singers on their toes.  It usually works.

If you need a recording of Messiah, there is no shortage of available recordings ranging in price from $ 20.00 to almost $ 100.00, depending on the label and performance.  One of my favourites "old-school" performances dates from 1959 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the RPO and Beecham Choral Society on RCA Victor.  The full-length work is out of print, I believe, but I do have stock on the highlights disc if that interests you.  A more contemporary, smaller-scale recording that is highly-recommened is on the Naxos label, with the Choir of New College, Oxford, directed by Richard Higginbottom.  It has been around for a few years now, but remains one of the better contemporary recordings of Messiah currently available.

Messiah recordings of every description, along with everything else musical you want or need for Christmas are always available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, at  Just send me a request on the order form provided or email me directly at  Oh, and don't forget to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus!

December 3rd, 2011.