Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Remembrances of Paul Reid and radio that was

A bit of a diversion again this week, but one I have been meaning to write for some time.  The impetus for my column this week came earlier this month when Robert Williston sent out an email requesting help locating a copy of Paul Reid's Christmas album for his Museum of Canadian Music.  It is a wonderful and valuable resource for Canadian music of every description, based in Calgary, Alberta.  Their website,, has been compiling a collection of Canadian Christmas music this season, and the Paul Reid was one they simply couldn't find.

No surprise there.  I picked up a copy of the original release on RCA Records, dating from 1974, sometime in the late 70s at the old A&A's Records & Tapes on Yonge Street in Toronto, probably paying about $ 4.99 for it, plus tax of course.  As lovely and enchanting as Paul Reid's own Christmas memories are on the disc, the real gem is his reading of The Littlest Angel.  I have heard several other recordings of the story as well, including Fred Gwynne for heaven's sake, but none came close to tugging at the heartstrings as Paul Reid did.  The album grew out of his annual radio broadcast in early December on CJAD in Montreal and became hugely popular with his many listeners at the time.

It has been out of print for many years now, and I had my copy transferred to CD along with his earlier recording, A Letter to My Love, released on Columbia Records in 1967, which I picked up many years ago as well.  Listening to both over the last few days brought back a lot of memories for me, and I thought I would share some of them with you this week.

Paul Reid began his career in Peterborough at CHEX Radio, moving to Hamilton in 1954 to host a show that included his trademark poetry readings at CHML.  It launched his career and ten years later in 1964, he got a call from CJAD in Montreal, the powerhouse AM English-language radio station then part of the Standard Radio group.  He stayed there many years, raising his young family and becoming one of the most recognizable radio personalities in the city.  He was lured back to Hamilton in the late 70s, but the maxim "you can't go home again" played out, and he returned to Montreal to host an evening show on rival CFQR Radio from 1980 until his untimely death in 1983.

That is a capsule overview of Paul's career; the full bio and lots of other great information is provided by his son Mike on the website, which is well worth a visit.  But the information there is merely a launching point for me as I offer a few heartfelt remembrances of my own of a great broadcaster we lost far too early in his career.

I knew of Paul originally through his first album, A Letter to My Love, recorded at the height of his popularity in Montreal.  I was not aware of his radio career personally; that came much later when I heard he had returned to Hamilton, and late one evening as I was driving back home to Toronto from attending a show at Hamilton Place, I decided to finally tune in and hear him on the air for the first time.  I never forgot that night; that familiar, gentle voice enveloping me in a serenity suggesting no matter what else is going on around you, Paul says everything will be okay, and he was right.

I didn't realize it at the time, but Paul influenced my early career in radio when I moved here to St. Catharines to host the evening show, Niagara by Night in the spring of 1981.  It was primarily music and I was all of 24 at the time; eventually, though, I moulded the show to reflect my personality and that included the occasional story and even poetry late at night, as Paul had done for so many years.  I could never hope to carry on the legacy he had established; no-one could.  But without thinking about it at the time I was honouring him by carrying on the tradition in my own small way.  I miss those days of radio when personality still reigned and you had some measure of creative control over your show.

For several Christmas seasons, either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I hosted my own special show of music and stories, all chosen by myself, on CKTB Radio.  I always included Paul's fabulous recording of The Littlest Angel, of course.

Back in the 70s when Paul returned to Hamilton, I was spending a lot of my time in the evening listening to another radio personality making the evening hours something special in his own unique way.  Bill Robinson hosted The Robinson Connection for several years on the old CKEY590 in Toronto, where I lived at the time, and it often had the same effect on me.

Later on in the 80s, my radio career becoming established in St. Catharines, I still drove to the family home in Toronto after I signed off Friday nights at midnight, so I spent many a late night driving with two other early radio influences for me, both on overnights at our parent station, CFRB in Toronto.  Weekends for many years were hosted by another former CJAD stalwart, Rod Dewar, whom I never met but thought I new through his radio show in the early morning hours.  It took months before I actually knew his name, as he rarely if ever actually said it on the air.  This intrigued me at a time when everyone else was giving theirs after almost every break.  I think it was someone else on the station promoting Rod's show coming up when I finally found out his name!

A few years ago when Rod passed away I found out much more about his legacy at CJAD in Montreal; but for me, one joke told in the middle of the night years ago while I was driving home to Toronto has stayed with me all these years:  a couple goes to a hotel and while there orders the 'honeymoon salad' - lettuce alone...okay, maybe you had to be there but I laughed that night in the car and never forgot it!

The third and final voice that influenced me in my early years is still around today; most recently as the voice of Home Depot Canada on their radio spots up until a couple of years ago if I remember correctly:  Fred Napoli.  Fred was for many years on CFRB's FM sister station, CKFM, but when I began listening to him he was, like Rod, hosting the weekend overnight show on CFRB.  Fred's voice is one-of-a-kind:  gentle, genial and knowledgeable.  He has lived life to the fullest and it shows in that wonderfully weathered voice of his.

Fred has been famous for many years for his many stories he told on the air, many of which I heard on those long, lonely drives to Toronto.  Many of them were included in a book entitled "Re-Inventing My Self", published around 1988 by Talent Seven Limited Publishing.  I ordered a copy of it, autographed no less, and treasure it to this very day.  If you ever manage to find a copy, grab it and enjoy - you won't regret it.

I have always wanted to meet Fred, and shake the hand of a man who, like the late Paul Reid and Rod Dewar, influenced me greatly in my early, formative years as a radio broadcaster.  To the best of my knowledge he still lives in the Dundas, Ontario area, so maybe someday...

Funny how an email out of nowhere brings the memories flooding back of voices from the past; four great broadcasters each making their marks on their industry with their great command of the English language and an ability to weave magic through the airwaves late at night with their own special skills.

Have a great New Year!

December 29th, 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

As I write this, the shoppers are about to finish up at the malls around Niagara, and everyone will settle down to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with friends and family, I hope.  However you choose to celebrate and whatever your particular celebration might be, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season with the best of wishes for 2013.

For me, it is a long-standing tradition I spend Christmas Eve preparing for the annual Midnight Mass broadcast at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines.  Luckily for me it is about a three-minute walk from my house, so if I end up going down to the wire at least I don't have far to go when the broadcast starts, especially if the weather is bad.

This will be the 80th consecutive broadcast of Midnight Mass on 610/CKTB in St. Catharines, where I have hung my many hats for over 31 years now.  Almost 25 of those years have been spent handling the duties on Christmas Eve; in fact I am only the third person to host these broadcasts since they began, and that makes me very proud.  How much longer can I go?  I'd like to think I can make it all the way to the 100th broadcast, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.  At any rate, you can listen tonight starting at 11:30 for the traditional carol service, followed by the Midnight Mass at, well, midnight.  It goes to about 1:30 or so, which makes for a late night for your humble scribe, but all in a day's work, they say.

Years ago, I had to write the script from scratch every year on my trusty old Underwood manual typewriter, which I still have, by the way.  But it was a long, laborious task using lots of correcting fluid and testing my patience for about three hours.  Now, of course, with computer technology being what it is, I can write the script in much less time by simply revising the previous year's script.  I always add new elements each year, but the basic framework remains the same throughout.  I think I have moved to my third generation computer since I starting using them to write the script many years ago.

There have been lots of disasters along the way, including computer crashes, negotiating an unfamilier laptop one year, and the worst year of all, of course, back in 1998 when I fell a couple of days beforehand and ended up in the hospital, imploring the doctor to let me out for the broadcast.  I had to make do with makeshift notes that year as I had destroyed my writing arm, but with the aid of painkillers I made it through and went straight home to bed afterwards.

Last year was basically very smooth and problem-free, and I hope we can build on that tonight,  providing of course I get the script written in time, so that is next, followed by a peaceful walk in the night air to relax and then change for the trip to the Cathedral.

The music I listen to while writing on Christmas Eve is very important to me, and I rarely deviate from the formula.  I usually listen to a couple of very old, traditional carol collections by the Percy Faith Orchestra (Music for Christmas) and The Philadelphia Orchestra with the Temple University Concert Choir (The Glorious Sound of Christmas) before graduating to more serious fare for the latter part of the evening.   Last year I starting listening to a couple of lovely new recordings, Christmas Noel with the Netherlands Bach Society and On Christmas Night, with the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge.  They provide the perfect backdrop for the evening before I move on to two of my favourite recordings of all time for Christmas, Vaughan Williams' On Christmas Night with the City of London Symphonia and Joyful Company of Singers conducted by Richard Hickox, and the ever-popular Christmette, or Mass for Christmas Day by Michael Praetorius, with the Gabrieli Consort and Players conducted by Paul McCreesh.  The sound on this disc is amazing, and I never tire of hearing it year after year.

As much as I enjoy the evening and the broadcast itself, the favourite part of Christmas Eve for me is yet to come.  As I gather up my things to head home about 2 am, I walk quietly to my home, passing silent homes, some still with lights on inside and out.  I always have my tea once arriving home and listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas with the Vince Guaraldi Trio to relax me for bed.  Nothing ends the night better for me.

So, that is the plan for me this evening.  I hope whatever you do this evening, whomever you spend it with, it is a very special time for all of you.  This time comes but once a year, and once the commercialism is over with, the real meaning of the season is there, waiting for you without fail, year after year.

Merry Christmas to you and yours from my house to yours; may the day be as special to you however you choose to celebrate it tomorrow!

December 24th, 2012.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Looking for last-minute musical gift ideas this season?

Here we are, a couple of days before Christmas, and judging from the traffic out there so far today, I gather a lot of people still have some Christmas shopping to do.  Not to sound smug, but I started planning for a special surprise for my far better half back in August, so everything is now done other than one or two small items not critical to the day.  So I am ready and at your service to help you in your hour of need!

I always get last-minute calls asking for music for holiday gift-giving, so this year I thought I would write about some in-stock items through my website,, perfect for that musically-inclined person on your list.  If any of these interest you, email me directly at or call 905-682-9303.  I even deliver in the greater St. Catharines area - what could be easier?!

Every year, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tours North America prior to Christmas, and this year's tour brought them to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton back in November.  They have recorded non-holiday CDs over the years, but primarily they are known for their elaborate holiday-themed live shows.  Their recordings often provide the soundtrack for equally elaborate light shows for homes owned by over-enthusiastic technological wizards, too.  The new disc this year is actually an EP, meaning extended play.  That means it isn't a full length CD; there are only 5 tracks on this new one, but it also has a lower price.  Fifteen dollars all in takes the last one home.

Who doesn't love the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas?  I don't think this has ever been out of print since the first year the TV special aired back in 1965.  My first-issue CD in my personal collection has the music from the show and is great.  But later versions include bonus tracks, including the latest generation digipack version, which includes three bonus tracks from other Charlie Brown shows, including Thanksgiving.  This disc is one you can put on almost any time of the year, really, but Christmas is the perfect time to enjoy this wonderfully inventive music all over again.  Still in stock and only fifteen dollars right now!

A CHORAL CHRISTMAS - The Rodolfus Choir; Ralph Allwood, director
A more traditional choral Christmas release new this year on the Signum Classics label, this disc nonetheless proves rather interesting as it features a wide selection of Christmas music you don't often hear on disc.  Composers such as Kenneth Leighton, Philip Radcliffe, William Byrd, Morton Lauridsen and Francis Poulenc are all included here.  Works range from Lullay my liking by Holst to Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock and Today the Virgin by John Tavener.  If you are looking for standard Christmas choral fare, look below for The Cambridge Singers, but if you want a bit of a challenge this year or sing in a choir yourself, this might be a great disc for yourself or to give.  Only twenty dollars!

A new compilation this season culled from earlier holiday releases by John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers, this disc still packs a lot of great material for very little money.  And Rutter is more identified with Christmas choral music than just about any other director alive today.   Rutter originals on this disc include Candlelight Carol and Of a Rose, a lovely Rose from his Magnificat, and his tasteful settings of Murray's Away in a Manger and the French traditional carol Angels We Have Heard on High are particular highlights.  If you love The Cambridge Singers or have someone on your list who does, this is a great disc.  Only twenty dollars.

CHRISTMAS STAR:  CAROLS FOR THE CHRISTMAS SEASON - The Cambridge Singers and Orchestra; John Rutter, cond.
I've always considered this to be the 'neglected' Christmas disc by The Cambridge Singers.   It has been around for several seasons now, but somehow seems overlooked for other, more familiar titles by the choir.  Too bad, since this collection of holiday favourites really is a nice collection.  The disc kicks off with the German traditional carol Good Christian men, rejoice, arranged by John Rutter, and continues with Rutter settings of such classics as Ding dong! Merrily on High and Joy to the World, as well as more contemporary fare such as Rutter's arrangement of the Mel Torme classic The Christmas Song.  This is a very traditional Christmas choral album, and well worth only twenty dollars.

HANDEL:  MESSIAH (COMPLETE) - Karina Gauvin, Robin Blaze, Rufus Muller, Brett Polegato; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir; Ivars Taurins, cond.
This brand-new two-disc set finally presents the period-instrument ensemble Tafelmusik's celebrated Messiah on disc.  They know this music so well and have performed it live for many years at their home base in Toronto, even presenting a Sing-along Messiah where audience members are seated according to their voice, and are given a copy of the score in order to follow along with the chorus.  I did that once years ago, singing baritone if I recall, and it was great fun.  This new recording was made at Toronto's Koerner Hall last year, and now finally is available.  Beautiful sound with a wonderful acoustic, and the playing and singing is vibrant and polished.  Two-disc set available now for forty dollars.

For many, Perry Como simply embodies the Christmas spirit.  His smooth, effortless delivery was a perfect backdrop for whatever your hectic schedule throws at you over the holidays, and his television specials every year were must-see events.  This new three-disc set from Real Gone Music compiles holiday hits he performed on record, radio and his television shows over several decades.  Just about everything he ever recorded for Christmas is on this set, including Silent Night, Frosty the Snowman and God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen among many others.  This is a great set to give or to get.  Brand new this year and available now for fifty dollars.

That should give you some gift ideas as we head into the home stretch.  On Monday, I will write about my favourite time of the year, Christmas Eve, and what I will be listening to Monday evening.

Happy shopping!

December 22nd, 2012.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Finding the Christmas spirit in difficult times

I was debating just what to write in this space this weekend, although I knew from the outset it would be holiday themed.  I knew I would touch on the Niagara Symphony Holiday Pops concerts this weekend, the second of which is this afternoon at 2:30 in case you are interested.  But I have been preoccupied with the news the past few days and by way of a cathartic exercise, I will write here what thoughts I have assembled thus far and get it out of me into the open.

By my calculations there have been three shootings in the United States this week alone:  one at a mall, one yesterday at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, and of course, the terrible tragedy at a school in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday morning.  While the Newtown killings are by far the worst we've seen for some time, especially since 20 small children have died at the hand of a young gunman whose mental state is being called into question, all deaths due to gunmen in public places such as we saw this week are tragic.  A life is a life, be it young or old.

Thankfully the Alabama shootings only involved two people injured save for the gunman, killed by police on the spot.  Should he have been killed as quickly as he was?  Probably not, but I understand the reaction given the events of Friday morning.  But the larger question following the past year of gun violence in the States has to be asked:  should anyone be allowed to have in their possession a gun or should restrictions be placed on them?

I know this is not an easy question to answer, and I for one do not claim to know the answer.  But I do know putting more guns in the hands of more people in order to properly defend themselves, as suggested by some in the States, is clearly not the answer.  Gun control would help, of course, but that would be a bitter pill to swallow for our neighbours to the south.  We have gun control here in Canada, but some still acquire guns and use them to kill people, but certainly not on the scale people do in the States.  Still, something has to be done and unless we can come up with a better solution, stiffer gun control laws wouldn't hurt.

The mental stability of the people involved in these shootings is always called into question and you have to ask how these people manage to fall through the cracks and people don't provide the help required before it is too late.  Some way must be found to detect, somehow, something is wrong with an individual before it is too late and the inevitable happens.

When I was at the Niagara Symphony concert last evening I watched people in the lobby, safe in the knowledge we are generally safe in the world we live in, able to go home and continue to prepare for Christmas or whatever celebration they have this month.  But life can change in an instant, as we saw this week more than once.  Christmas won't come to the people of Newtown, Connecticut this year, nor for many years to come as they continue to grieve their loss, I suspect.

My heart aches for these people and what they must be feeling right now.  But I also continue to have faith in mankind that we will find a way out of this, hopefully sooner rather than later.  We have to; we owe it to our own children to find a way before it is too late.

This Christmas, as you gather your family around for the holiday season, enjoy what we have and the celebrations that ensue.  Enjoy the gifts, the music, the decorations.  But take more than a moment this season to be especially thankful for what we have and what we ourselves thankfully have not had to endure.  The people of Newtown need our prayers, our support, and whatever help we can give them in order to get through this tragedy.

This Christmas, let's try to practice "Peace on earth; good will toward men."  We need it now more than ever.

December 17th, 2012.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas events in Niagara this month

For some reason I have been feeling rather "Grinchly" so far this season, finding it harder than usual to get into the Christmas spirit.  I usually have no problem at all, but this year, things are different and I have no idea why.  But today I spent a few minutes inside Creations by Helen for some gift ideas and I am finally starting to feel a twinge of that ol' Christmas spirit.  So, let's capitalize on that and take a look at what holiday-themed events are still to come this month in Niagara.

Tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, Chorus Niagara presents their Christmas concert and yes, this year it is Handel's Messiah.  For some, Christmas just doesn't begin until Handel's Messiah is here, and I must admit I count myself amongst those souls.  One year, I even did two in one day!  I attended the Chorus Niagara Sunday afternoon performance in St. Catharines and then in the evening, drove to Guelph for the Guelph Chamber Choir performance at the River Run Centre.  I loved hearing two different approaches to the same work in the same day, but now that I am somewhat older and (hopefully) wiser, I doubt I will do that again soon.

Chorus Niagara presents Messiah every other year so you can appreciate the work more, and that seems to be a successful strategy Artistic Director Robert Cooper has followed for several years now.  Usually in their non-Messiah years, another group in the area would pick up the slack and present theirs, but this year Chorus Niagara has the playing field all to themselves.

Soloists joining Chorus Niagara tonight and tomorrow include David Trudgen, counter-tenor, Isaiah Bell, tenor, Jacqueline Woodley, soprano and Anthony Cleverton, baritone.  The Talisker Players accompany them along with Chorus Niagara organist Lynne Honsberger.  Tickets should still be available for both performances at the door if you want to take a chance, although seating will be tight for either performance.

Tonight's performance is in Grimsby at the modern Mountainview Christian Reformed Church; tomorrow afternoon at the almost as modern Calvary Church on Scott Street.  If you go, don't forget to stand during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus, by the way.

Elsewhere around the Region this weekend, Canadian singer Michael Ciufo presents his Christmas concert tonight as part of the Niagara Concerts season in Niagara Falls at the auditorium on Epworth Circle.  The concert begins at 8 pm and tickets should still be available at the door.  Sunnday afternoon Canadian singer John McDermott pays his annual visit to the Centre for the Arts, Brock University at 2:30.  McDermott is always a crowd favourite wherever he goes, so this concert will likely be close to a sellout.  You can call the Brock box office for tickets at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or take your chances at the door tomorrow afternoon.

There is another Christmas Choral Concert this weekend in Niagara, and that is Sunday night at 7 pm at the Niagara United Mennonite Church on Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The Rotary Club of NOTL presents their 12th annual concert featuring choirs and other groups from area churches including St. Mark's Anglican, Bethany Mennonite, Niagara United Mennonite, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, Grace United, as well as the Evergreen Singers and the Wandering Minstrel.

The annual fundraiser is only $ 20 a ticket, with proceeds going to community programs in Niagara, Pathstone Mental Health, and RAFT.  As well, a share of the proceeds will go to the Rift Valley water collection program in Kenya, where rainwater harvesting tanks are constructed to help the rural poor to collect rainwater due to limited rainfall and contaminated ground water.  Tickets are available from any Rotarian or at the door tomorrow night.

Although I have written before in this space about the newest Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects show for the holidays, it bears repeating as the show continues at the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls through to December 16th.  It's a live stage adaptation of the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life, although adapted by Jon Osbaldeston and director Barbara Worthy as a radio play based on the 1946 Lux Radio version.  All the actors present the action as you would see it if you were sitting in the radio studio rather than listening at home, complete with the requisite sound effects man right there on stage with them.

Many of the actors are Shaw Festival stalwarts, including Patty Jamieson, Jenny L. Wright, Jeff Meadows and Ric Reid, along with several more local actors, some of whom handle several characters throughout the production.  One of the nicest parts of the production, for me at least, is the fact they have modelled the broadcast on a CKTB Radio studio setting circa 1946, so if you have memories of those long-lost days of live drama on the radio, this production is the one to see.

Tickets are still available and can be purchased through the box office at905-374-SHOW or by logging on to

Looking a little further ahead in the month, the annual Christmas Pops concert with the nso comes up next weekend, titled A Holiday Wonderland.  Niagara Symphony Associate Conductor Laura Thomas has programmed a varied concert featuring tried-and-true holiday classics as well as some surprises, including the rarely-heard Beatlecracker Suite, based on Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite but featuring music of The Beatles.  It is quite a clever work I have long admired and had in my collection at home, and I am currently offering the original version on a new Classical Beatles collection available through my website,  Email me through the website or directly at if you want a copy for the holidays.

The concerts are Saturday night at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30, both at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.  Tickets are available at the door or in advance through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  As always I will be set up in the lobby before, after and at intermission at both concerts with lots of holiday music available for purchase.

Finally, the Gallery Players of Niagara present Glissandi Christmas with guest narrator Guy Bannerman for two performances December 21st at Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and December 22nd at Fonthill United Church.  Both are evening performances at 7:30, and feature a number of Christmas classics as well as Bannerman narrating Howard Blake's The Snowman.  For tickets, call 905-468-1525 or go to

That's a lot of music for the holidays, but hopefully some of the events will find their way into your busy schedule this month.


December 8th, 2012.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Two gift ideas this holiday season

So here we are on the first of December and some people are just now getting in the mood for the holidays.  I don't know about you but I am having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this year;  I have no idea why, as usually by now I am raring to go and have the Christmas music playing already.  But not this year; the Christmas spirit hasn't moved me quite yet.

If you are in the same boat as I and still have people to buy for who are musically inclined, maybe I can help.  My website, A Web of Fine Music, is at your service to provide you with music of every description from pop to classical, jazz to rock.  Just let me know what you're looking for and I will do my very best to find what you're looking for in time for the big day.  You can send your request through the order form on the website ( or send me an email directly at  Things get pretty busy this month so I would suggest not waiting too much longer to get your requests in, by the way.

In the spirit of the season, I am also offering a couple of suggestions here this week; a book and a CD both sent to me separately I think might interest the music lover on your list.  The first is a new book by Nicholas Soames titled The Story of Naxos, dealing of course with the budget classical music label that has redefined the classical music industry since it arrived on the musical scene back in the late 80s.

Independent record labels have come and gone all the time in my musical career that has spanned almost twenty years now, but none has managed a strangle hold on the music industry quite like Naxos has.  It began life as a label that recorded all the standard classical repertoire using primarily unknown artists looking for a big break and willing to forego the traditional contract and renumeration in favour of the Naxos model that gave you more exposure in exchange for less money.

Naxos was the brainchild of Klaus Heymann, a German businessman who simply loved classical music so much he pioneered a classical record label based in Hong Kong that brought digital recordings of classical music to the masses at affordable prices.  Initially dismissed by the classical music establishment when the label debuted in 1987, Heymann quickly showed his business and artistic acumen, recruiting artists many of whom have come to be known far and wide for the quality of their recordings for the label.  Eventually moving into opera, early music, contemporary music and more specialized repertoire, Naxos has recorded music by composers both well-known and little-known, with many world premiere recordings along the way.

Now, Naxos is probably the largest classical music label in the world and has branched out into distributing other labels' recordings as well, from Collegium and Chandos to many smaller outfits that otherwise would get no distribution whatsoever.  I have found in my years selling classical music the label has gone from simply providing a number of recordings at an attractive price-point of under $10 initially to a music powerhouse it is impossible to ignore.  The price has gone up over the years, of course, but the Naxos label is still very attractively priced and very comprehensive in what they offer in the marketplace.

Heymann at 75 is still at the helm of the company 25 years after he started it, and I can only hope there is a succession plan in place at Naxos for when the inevitable happens and Heymann cannot or doesn't want to lead the company any more.  All his trials and tribulations, triumphs and pioneering efforts are all described in vivid detail in this new book written by Nicolas Soames, a former classical music and judo journalist, which is a rather odd combination I am sure you'll agree.  For the past 18 years Soames has run the Naxos Audiobooks division, providing spoken word recordings of literary classics from Homer and Dante to James Joyce and many more.

The book is a good read and will be most welcome under the tree by any classical music lover on your list.  While I don't offer books for sale through A Web of Fine Music, I could certainly get you a copy of this one in time for Christmas gift-giving if you are at all interested.

The CD I wanted to spotlight this week is actually a two-disc set of Haydn String Quartets, Op. 22 with the Eybler Quartet on the Analekta label, which incidentally is also distributed by Naxos!  The Eybler Quartet is made up of Alsslinn Nosky and Julia Wedman on violins, Patrick Jordan on viola and Margaret Gay on violoncello.  Based in Toronto and playing on instruments appropriate to the period of the music it performs, the group has a passion for exploring string quartet repertoire of the past century and a half, including lesser-known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler.

Their last recording on Analekta featuring music by Mozart and Backofen was released a couple of years ago and I still vividly remember attending a CD release party for it at the Robertson Hall on Church Street.  The music was quite simply exquisite on that disc, with the Backofen being of particular interest due to the relative lack of recordings of Backofen's music in circulation today.

No such problem here on this brand-new two-disc set of the String Quartets of Haydn, Op. 33.  The set of six string quartets date from the summer and early autumn of 1781, with the first documented performance of the quartets in the chambers of the Russian Grand Duke Paul (later Tsar Paul I), to whom the works are dedicated and thus lending them the popular nickname the "Russian" Quartets.

The sound on this set is wonderfully warm and expressive and the Eybler Quartet have produced a fine new recording of these quartets for modern audiences on period instruments.  There is a vivaciousness to the music and the playing here that is infectious, and you can't help but smile when you listen to the set.  I find if I put it on while writing or reading, the Op. 33 Quartets provide a lovely backdrop to what I am doing.  Listening more intently with the music front and centre increases the rewards considerably.

The Eybler Quartet's 2-CD set of the Haydn String Quartets, Op. 33 is available now through A Web of Fine Music and yes, there is still time to get your copy before Christmas if you hurry.  You might even want to make one copy a gift and keep one for yourself!

Happy listening!

December 1st, 2012.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lyndesfarne scores a hit and other Niagara notes

Last week I touched briefly on the new Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects holiday show, a radio play adaptation of the Frank Capra film classic, It's A Wonderful Life, based on the 1946 Lux Radio version.  I had attended a media preview last week where one scene was being rehearsed to whet my appetite for what was to come.  Last night's opening of It's A Wonderful Life proved to be a pretty special evening.

Having worked at CKTB Radio for 31 years now (yes, I know, it is a long time!) I was very pleased to see a big CKTB banner across the stage, and old-style microphones with the CKTB flash attached to them.  The station is the sponsor for the run of the show and it proves to be a great fit, as they have tailored the script to reflect the area and the station, giving the play some added local flavour.  More on that local flavour a bit later on.

Director Barbara Worthy knows her way around old-time radio; so much so she along with Jon Osbaldeston have adapted the play so as to recreate a 40s or 50s era radio drama, complete with the requisite sound effects man at the side of the stage, as is the case to this day on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.  Both Worthy and Osbaldeston have taught a course at Brock University on the very subject of recreating old radio dramas, so they know what they want.

The cast is drawn largely from the Shaw Festival with Lydesfarne Theatre Project's Artistic Director Kelly Daniels' husband Ric Reid leading a cast that includes Jeff Meadows, Patty Jamieson, Jenny L. Wright and Aidan Daniels, Kelly and Ric's son among others.  Together they all have a lot of fun with the script and hamming it up with the audience just the right amount.  Meadows especially is very good with an expressive face and manner that recalls Dick van Dyke during his heyday.  Jenny L. Wright manages to pull off sounding like the 18-year-old Mary she portrays early in the radio play.

One addition to the cast on opening night was Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, never one to shy away from the spotlight, who played the Mayor of Bedford Falls in the final scene, having some fun selling Niagara Falls to the newly revitalized George of Jeff Meadows.  He only appears opening night, I'm told, so he won't have much use for that wide-stripe 40s-era suit they borrowed from the Shaw Festival wardrobe department for him.  But he does look good in a fedora...

Overall, you have to like what they have done with It's A Wonderful Life.  It makes you feel good and helps to launch us into the Christmas season, which for me this year for some reason is rather late happening.  Some of the music by John Hogg is a little syrupy, but that just adds to the old-time sound and feel of the show.  The Niagara Star Singers, who perform off the top as radio in-studio musical guests, although not note-perfect, certainly reflected what would have been common entertainment on the radio during that era when all acts were live in the studio.

The CKTB studios have been totally renovated several times over since the days when two concert grand pianos graced the main-floor studio, which is long before my time there, I might add.  But wouldn't it be nice to see this radio play recreated live in the studios at 12 Yates Street some time?  Well, the next best thing is to hear this stage version on the radio, which you will be able to do on Christmas Day, as one of the performances during the run will be taped for rebroadcast, which should be a treat to hear again.

Lyndesfarne is taking a gamble moving their theatre operations to the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls, but let's hope people come out and support the show from now until December 16th.  Performances are Wednesday to Saturday evenings at 7:30 and matinees Fridays at 11:30 am and Sundays at 2 pm.  For tickets call the box office at 905-374-SHOW or online at

Now, other things happening this weekend in Niagara include Brock University Choirs directed by Harris Loewen this evening at Knox Presbyterian Church at 7:30; the concert is titled Cantemus and tickets will be available at the door.

The Niagara Symphony performs their second Masterworks concert tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, with Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducting a programme that includes a Niagara Symphony Premiere, Ronald Royer's Travels with Mozart, as well as the Suite No. 4 in G major by Tchaikovsky, known as Mozartiana.  Mozart's music will also be featured with the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro as well as the Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms.  In addition to the music, the nso annual Silent Auction will be taking place in the lobby; this is an annual fundraiser for the orchestra and always very popular.

Because of the silent auction I won't be set up as usual in the lobby as space will be at a premium, but I will be there nonetheless and I hope to see you there as well.  Tickets are still available by calling the Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or purchasing them at the box office prior to the concert.

Enjoy the weekend!

November 24th, 2012.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Concerts, CD release events and more coming up in Niagara

I was heading to the market in downtown St. Catharines this morning and ran into an old friend of mine who was rather displeased with the fact two concerts are scheduled tomorrow at the same time, and he can only be at one.  It is a common problem, especially at this time of year with so much going on.  But I am sure the conflict is not intentional; probably just an oversight as scheduling was worked out for a particular concert.  Still, as this person said today, they are all chasing the same audience, so why compete directly with each other?

Well, I can't do much about that, but I can bring you news of a few events coming up this week and next that might catch your attention as you plan your late November outings.  One of the concerts my friend was lamenting not being able to attend tomorrow afternoon is with the fine musical group Mercredi Musique, who will perform at Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Catharines at 3 pm.  The local string ensemble will perform music by Bach (Orchestral Suite No. 1 and Concerto for 2 Violins) and two pieces by Mozart, the adagio from the Clarinet Concerto and his celebrated Symphony No. 40.  Tickets are available at the door or if you need information in advance, email them at

We have a couple of CD release events coming up this week as well.  The first is tonight, as the Avanti Chamber Singers under the direction of Harris Loewen present a concert titled Magnificat, featuring quite literally Magnificat settings by the likes of Vivaldi, Schutz and Tremain as well as works for St. Cecelia's Day by Purcell and Gero.  So a nice musical mix with two local composers represented in Ronald Tremain and Eric Gero.  The concert is at the acoustically perfect St. Barnabas Anglican Church on Queenston Street this evening at 7:30, and will feature the release of their debut CD as well. Once again, tickets are available at the door, and the CD presumably will be as well.

The second CD release event comes up on Thursday of this week, November 22nd, at Stella's Dining Lounge from 7:30 to 10:30 pm, and features the talents of local double-bass virtuoso Duncan Hopkins. He will be joined by Perry White on tenor sax and Reg Schwager on guitar, as they play music from Duncan's new release, Bleak Midwinter.  Admission is only $ 5 at the door, by the way, and you should be able to get the CD there as well, or by going to  I am going to see if I can get a supply to sell on my website as well, at  If you are interested drop me a line at and I will reserve a copy for you.

Next weekend we have a trio of holiday-themed performances as the season fast approaches.  Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects opens their holiday show It's a Wonderful Life, a stage version of the classic movie, at the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls.   I attended a media preview at the theatre Friday morning and it looks like a sure-fire winner.  Local director Barbara Worthy handles directorial duties here, and music is provided by John Hogg.  The cast includes many Shaw Festival regulars, including Jeff Meadows, Patty Jamieson, Ric Reid, Jenny L. Wright as well as Jon Osbaldeston in a live stage adaptation of Frank Capra's much-loved Christmas classic.  I hope to write more about the show in the coming week or so after I have a chance to see the whole show, but if you want tickets in the meantime, go to or call 905-374-SHOW for tickets and information.

Also next weekend, both sides of the border have productions of Menotti's classic children's opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors scheduled.  On this side of the border, Primavera Concerts of St. Catharines will present a version with the acclaimed Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison on Friday night, November 23rd at Mountainview Christian Reformed Church in Grimsby, and on Saturday night at the lovely Ridley College Chapel here in St. Catharines.  For tickets, go to or call 905-736-2150.

Across the border, Nickel City Opera returns with their version of the Menotti classic with full sets, chorus and dancers accompanied by the 'Mighty Wurlitzer' played by Ivan Docenko at The Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of next weekend.  The complete opera only runs about an hour, so you can easily catch dinner before the show and still be home with plenty of time to curl up on the couch and watch a good movie!  For tickets, go to or, or call 1-716-692-2413.

I remember picking up an original RCA LP of the original television production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, which first aired in 1950.  Yes, in those early days of television you could actually see a live opera premiere on television.  Not taped, mind you, performed live!  That LP made it to CD years ago but last time I checked it was no longer available, unfortunately.  Amahl is a simple and enchanting holiday classic, which I saw performed live by the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble years ago in Toronto.

So there you go - lots to see and do in the coming week, and none are going to break the bank before Christmas arrives.  Enjoy!

November 17th, 2012.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

News and notes in the arts this weekend

I've collected a few notes on the arts locally and beyond the last couple of weeks, none of them big enough for a full column, so I gathered them all together for this week's column to update you on a few items of interest.

First of all, it was nice to see the release this week from the Shaw Festival indicating Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell will be receiving on honorary doctor of laws degree from Kingston's Queen's University for her landmark achievements in Canadian theatre, theatre arts and her promotion of new visions of Canada on the world stage.  The degree will be conferred during the fall convocation ceremonies November 20th in Grant Hall, one of the oldest buildings on the Queen's University campus.  In addition to leading several on-campus workshops, Ms. Maxwell will also give the convocation address after receiving her honorary degree.

Maxwell will be in good company at the convocation, as honorary degrees will also be bestowed on the author of the popular Doonesbury comic strip, Garretson Trudeau, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.  Should be a nice way to cap a very successful Shaw season for Jackie Maxwell!

Meantime over at the Stratford Festival, Antoni Cimolino took over as Artistic Director November 1st, succeeding Des McAnuff.  One of the first things Cimolino did was unveil a new logo for the festival, a very stylish rendering of Stratford Festival, and the return of simply referring to the Festival as the Stratford Festival rather than the rather cumbersome Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which had been in place for a few years now.

This I think is a good move, for as Cimolino noted when he announced the change, "'Stratford Festival' is the name we have used for most of our 60 years.  It is simple and direct, it resonates with people and it carries our legacy of quality and success.  The name connects powerfully with audiences and allows us to best convey the breadth and depth of the seasons we are planning to present."  It makes me wonder, though, how popular the Stratford Shakespeare Festival moniker had been internally since it was adopted, as they readily changed it back again the moment McAnuff was gone. wonders.

Anyway, Cimolino plans to focus his tenure on establishing the Festival as a place to become immersed in the theatre experience, for in addition to the plays themselves, he will introduce The Forum, a wide-ranging series of events allowing audience members to experience a deeper theatrical experience on several levels.  This will help to further his desire to place the Festival more at the centre of society.  This could be a tall order, but we'll see what transpires.  I have a lot of confidence in the new Artistic Director having seen the quality of his work over the years, so let's see what he comes up with during his tenure.

A further note from the Stratford Festival indicated tickets will go on sale to members only online starting tomorrow (Sunday) and general public access to tickets begins January 5th.  In addition, a new Facebook app will allow people to purchase tickets through their personal Facebook page.  The free app can be downloaded at  Facebook fans will also be able to buy their tickets a full day earlier than the general public.

There is more and more social media all around us, and not all of it good.  I will be writing about this next week, in fact, as I have some thoughts on the matter, but I think it was only a matter of time before arts organizations capitalized on the popularity of social media in all its forms.  It is here to stay, folks, so we had better get used to it.  Some may call it a necessary evil, but I will leave it up to you to decide.

Anyway, that is it for this weekend; if you have not already done so, you can check out the calendar page on my website at for a very complete listing of events coming up in the area and beyond, newly updated for the fall and winter season.  And I am currently working on updating the Mike's Picks page, which soon will be featuring some (gasp!) Christmas titles new this year!  The season is upon us once again...

November 10th, 2012.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Busy weekend in the arts in Niagara!

Some weekends are busier than others around here in Niagara, and this is a particularly busy one for those of us who follow the arts in Niagara.  So today, let's take a quick look at what is going on.

One of the most-anticipated events of the year is the annual STRUTT Wearable Art Weekend, which got underway last evening and continues through tonight with the big grand finale, the STRUTT Runway Show at the WS Tyler warehouse in St. Catharines.  Doors open at 8 pm and the runway show begins at 9.  Given the popularity of the show, mind you, I would suggest getting there earlier than 8 if you possibly can.

The STRUTT Runway Show showcases over 40 unique wearable artworks by artists from Windsor, Toronto, here in Niagara of course, and as far away as Sault Ste. Marie.  I have heard rave reviews about this event, as it celebrates the most absurd creative creatives people can come up with.  It also happens to be the signature annual event for NAC, Niagara Artists Centre, a not-for-profit, charitably registered, member-driven collective formed by and dedicated to serving the working artists and community of Niagara.  How local?  Well, my own neighbour Sandy Middleton is involved again this year and I hear her costume is stunning this year!

Tickets start at $ 35 per person and tables start at $ 400, with all tickets exclusive of taxes and gratuities.    For tickets and information, call 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or go to

This weekend Chorus Niagara kicks off their 50th anniversary season, tonight as part of the Welland & Port Colborne Concert Association season, which is completely sold out.  But Chorus Niagara returns tomorrow afternoon for their own concert season opener, and tickets are still available for that performance.  Titled Our Favourite Things - An Afternoon of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the concert will feature some of the greatest and most memorable Broadway hits by a team that redefined the genre in their day.  Some of their box-office hits included Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King & I, The Sound of Music, and many more.

Joining the Chorus Niagara ensemble this time will be members of the Niagara Symphony conducted by Chorus Niagara Artistic Director, Robert Cooper, and soloists for the performance include soprano Allison Angelo, tenor Adam Fisher and baritone Philip Kalmanovitch.

Both peformances this weekend are at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium at Centennial Secondary School in Welland, and tickets for Sunday afternoon are still available from any chorus member, or through the Brock Centre for the Arts box office, at or by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  It promises to be a great way to kick off the 50th anniversary season for Chorus Niagara!

Finally on Sunday in Niagara Falls, opera will be front and centre at the historic Seneca Theatre on Queen Street in downtown Niagara Falls.  I received an email earlier this week from Dr. Mary-Lou Vetere, a musician in her own right, who along with the Vetere Studio in Niagara Falls is presenting the legendary Metropolitan Opera soprano Aprile Millo and a number of local opera singers in a concert titled Opera Grandissima.  Mary-Lou has been a gifted singer and accompanist herself for many years, and her fellow singers will all help to celebrate all things opera on Sunday.  Aprile Millo was dubbed in one article I read this week as the "Lady Gaga of Opera" and she seems fine with that rather interesting nickname.

For tickets and more information, call 289-213-5626 or pick them up at the door on Sunday.  The performance begins at 7 pm.

So there you go - we've filled your weekend with music and fun and you don't even have to leave Niagara; everything you need is right here!  Oh, and don't forget we also get an extra hour of sleep Saturday night as we return to Standard Time, so remember to set your clocks back one hour before going to bed tonight.

November 3rd, 2012.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Remembering a friend of the arts in Canada

Earlier this month we learned of the passing of a dear friend of the arts and of artists for many years, Walter Carson, who died peacefully in Toronto at the age of 100 back on October 8th.  Walter was a true one-of-a-kind soul, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for what he gave to the arts over the years.

Walter Carson has been called a visionary philanthropist, with a passionate commitment to the Shaw Festival, National Ballet of Canada and other cultural institutions.  At Shaw he was a close friend of the Shaw Festival's founder Brian Doherty, and his renovation of the Royal George Theatre stands as a tribute to both of these old friends.  In the 1990s, Walter helped the festival build a much-needed training, research and creative development centre and always provided yellow roses to decorate the lobby of the Royal George during performances.

Walter was always there when needed by the arts community as a whole, but no more than with the National Ballet of Canada.  Artistic Director Karen Kain released a statement after Walter's passing saying "The National Ballet of Canada in its entire history, has only ever had one patron like Walter Carson.  He helped us achieve what we wanted to do."  She added "He was unfailingly in the audience at almost every performance and was a warm and encouraging presence for the dancers both backstage and in the rehearsal room.  He will be deeply missed by every member of the National Ballet, dancers and staff alike."

Carson's legacy will never be matched, I would imagine.  At the National Ballet alone, he underwrote no less than 12 new productions for the company:  Musings (1991), The Taming of the Shrew (1992), Romeo and Juliet (1995), the full evening programme Inspired by Gould (1999), The Firebird (2000), The Contract (the Pied Piper)(2002), Stravinsky Violin Concerto (2004), In The Night and West Side Story Suite (2007), In The Upper Room (2008), Watch her (2009) and Romeo and Juliet (2011).  I remember in my days going to the National Ballet performances in Toronto seeing many of those earlier productions he underwrote, with the last one being in 2002 with The Contract, which was an amazing piece of stage work.

In addition, in 1996 Walter gave the lead gift in the company's capital campaign to build its new home named in his honour, The Walter Carson Centre for The National Ballet of Canada.  It is a lovely building right on the Toronto waterfront between the Gardiner Expressway and Queen's Quay, and I remember attending the opening there many years ago.  In 1998 he supported the tour to New York City and in 2000, Mr. Carson launched a successful $1-million fundraising campaign for the National Ballet entitled "Inspired by Walter Carson", matching every dollar raised up to $ 500,000.  He instigated a matching campaign in 2005 of $ 100,000 to help The National Ballet meet its Next Stage Campaign goal.  He did the same in 2006 towards new productions.

Walter Carson's legacy also extends to the Art Galleries of Ontario, Hamilton and Windsor, plus arts projects such as Toronto's The Glory of Mozart Festival.  In 2001, he created the annual Walter Carson Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, administered by the Canada Council and worth $ 50,000.  But in addition to his philanthropy towards the arts, he also established the Walter Carson Fund for the Homeless within the United Way's endowment The Tomorrow Fund.

Everything Walter touched quite literally is better now for him having done so.  His own accolades include being appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995, becoming an honourary member of the Canadian Actors' Equity Association in 1997 and receiving an honourary degree from York University in 2005.

Donations in Mr. Carson's memory can be made to The Walter Carson New Creations Fund within The National Ballet of Canada Endowment Foundation.

We likely will never see his type again, and we should all remember him fondly the next time we attend a Shaw Festival performance at the Royal George Theatre or go to a production with The National Ballet of Canada in Toronto.

Thanks, Walter, for being there.

October 26th, 2012.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Theatre and concert etiquette

It's been a while since I last entered what I call the high-rant district, wherein I essay on a topic that sticks in my craw of sorts, but with the end of another summer theatre season nearing, I thought I would  address yet again a pet peeve of mine of long standing.

As a theatre and concert-goer for almost four decades now (yeesh!) there really is not much I have not seen while sitting in the audience.  I'm not talking here about what's going on up on the stage, but rather in the audience.  You wouldn't believe what people think they can get away with when the lights go down - or even before.  So every now and again I like to get up on my proverbial high horse and get a collective litany of social sins off my chest.  It is cathartic, let me tell you, and good for the soul, so here goes.

One of the worst things you can do in a theatre while the performance is underway is to talk - loudly - to the person beside you.  I have heard more than my share of so-called private conversations I have no desire to be privy to, yet people seem to labour under the misconception they are in fact at home in their favourite easy chair watching television.  There are other people around, don't forget, so if you must talk to someone during the performance, please keep it at a whisper and short, and those around you will appreciate it.  While we're on the topic of verbiage during a performance, singing is even worse, and this I find is particularly acute during a popular musical.  Years ago when Stratford staged The Sound of Music at the Festival Theatre, a lady in the row directly behind me decided to sing along with the performers - rather loudly.  I know there are Sing-along Sound of Music productions around now, but this lady was clearly not aware this was not one of them.  A word of advice:  if you were not hired to be IN the production, you are better off not singing WITH the production.

In years past one of my big complaints was the constant unwrapping of hard candies during the performance.  No amount of cajoling from theatre staff has ever remedied this situation, although gentle humour appears to help.  The Stratford Shakespeare Festival during the Des McAnuff tenure has taken to having the Artistic Director voice a rather light-hearted approach to the perennial problem, and it seems to have helped.  I know of one theatre company years ago even offering hard candies - already unwrapped - in a large bowl by the entrance to the theatre.  Clever idea, but given the number of people who still do not wash up after visiting the washroom, not the most sanitary solution to the problem.

The problem with unwrapping candies is there simply is no good time to do it during a performance.  Usually it is about thirty seconds after the play has started, which I find doubly annoying since a minute ago while the lights were still up you had the time and the verbal cover of the audience still talking to mask the noise, but no, you had to wait until everything is quiet before you think you need a candy.  Now, how do you unwrap it?  Logic would dictate, one supposes, you quickly unwrap the candy if you absolutely must have one during the performance, but in most cases people try to do it s-l-o-w-l-y, thus stretching out the agony for those around you who would like nothing more than to hear the performance they have paid good money to attend.  Get it over with quick if you must unwrap at all.

More than candies these days, the worst offender to solitude during a performance guessed it:  the cellphone.  People still don't get it:  turn the thing off in the theatre and others will thank you for it.  You are likely not the Prime Minister of the country nor a mafia don who always has to have contact with the world, so do us all a favour and turn the thing off.  At one Shaw performance this season, a gentleman in the row across the aisle from me allowed his new smartphone to ring loudly through several rings, twice, before he stopped it.  Everyone in the theatre could hear it and it was frankly embarrassing.  Of course, he had an old-style phone ring, which made matters even worse.  When an usher talked to him at intermission, he explained, apparently, he just got it and didn't know how to turn the darn thing off.  An honest mistake, perhaps, but his wife shot him a look that made a death stare seem bearable in comparison.

With smartphones all the rage now, and yes I succumbed myself earlier this year, people just can't seem to do without the things even during a performance.  The number of times the darkness of the theatre has been broken by that luminous object as a person tries to "sneak a peek" when others won't notice...believe me, we all notice.  I so often see people scrolling through items on the screen just as the lights go down, I am concerned they might go into social contact withdrawal for the hour or so the lights are down.  C'mon people, give it up for the time it takes to enjoy some live theatre!

Finally, I want to address an area that I am sure will label me once and for all an old fuddy-duddy, or worse.  Has the world lost the ability to dress for the theatre?  I know it is recreational time for you and you are not at work after all, but really, can you not bring even the slightest sense of occasion to going out to the theatre?  Time was you dressed up for the theatre, and some still do.  I am one of them, in fact, as there are now so few opportunities to do so in this more casual age.  But still, doing without cutoff shorts and a tee shirt with a questionable cartoon on it can't be that difficult, can it?  You don't have to go overboard, but treating the theatre as more than merely an extension of your dress-down weekend is not really a bad thing.

While we're at it, a few words about men with hats.  I know, hardly any man has worn a hat other than a ball cap since President Kennedy was inaugurated in 1960.  But some still do and the good sense rules once prevalent still apply today.  With more men rediscovering a nice fedora or panama in the summer, here's a quick primer courtesy of David Rotman, the legendary Toronto hatter on Spadina I used to visit when I first got back into hats myself years ago.  We see in old movies a man removing his hat every time a woman approaches.  Not really necessary, said David.  Simply touch the brim with your forefinger as you nod and smile.  A nice, small gesture that speaks volumes.  But the bigger problem is when to actually remove the hat.  Many men these days who have rediscovered a nice hat don't bother to remove them - ever.  General rule of thumb:  if you go indoors, you remove your hat.  In an elevator?  Remove it there, too.  A few years ago I attended a concert at the Avalon Ballroom at Casino Niagara and a gentleman in one of the front rows continued to wear his fedora throughout the show!  Unless you are Sinatra circa 1963 worrying about your receding hairline, you remove your hat while indoors and certainly while in the theatre.  I hold mine in my lap or slip it under the seat.

At classical concerts, dressing properly in the traditional sense can translate on either side of the footlights, by the way.  Tradition has always dictated formal black in one form or another, with the men always getting the short end of then stick here.  Women musicians will often wear a formal dress or gown, but many can get away with a black sweater and slacks, as it looks formal enough at a distance.  But male concert musicians have to shlep around in a tuxedo of questionable origins.  That's fine enough, I suppose, but consider this:   If you go to a larger centre such as Hamilton or Toronto, for example, white tie and tails is the norm at classical concerts, and the look is always right.  I know, it is an archaic outfit now worn only by concert musicians, conductors and those pretending to be Fred Astaire, but the look really does say something special.  I was at a chamber concert last winter, in fact, and Douglas Miller, principal flute with the Niagara Symphony, was one of the soloists.  He was in white tie and tails and quite frankly looked fantastic.  Much better than the standard-fare tux worn for the Niagara Symphony concerts.  Now, musicians will bristle at the thought of having to go out and buy tails for heaven's sake in this day and age, but trust me, the end result is worth it.  Again, it brings a sense of occasion to the proceedings.

That goes for conductors too, by the way.  Dress down or "jeans concerts" aside, if you have the tails, gentlemen, wear them while on the podium.  You might not look like Stokowski up there with a cloud of white hair, but you'll look pretty darn good, and I have it on good authority the women love the look by the way.  At the debut Masterworks concert this season, for example, Niagara Symphony Music Director Bradley Thachuk tried to look a little more hip wearing a black suit and open collar black shirt.  Fine for a small chamber concert outside of a standard concert hall where everyone might be more casual, but at a classical concert in a concert hall, sorry but tradition for this writer still rules.

There.  I have it all off my chest now and I can get on to other things.  Have I told you about my new smartphone?  Give me time, I will...

October 19th, 2012.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Busy weekend coming up in Niagara

There are some weekends you almost can't keep up with all the things going on in the Niagara Region, and for me personally, it will be filled with events from start to finish.  If you have some time this weekend, you might like to tag along and enjoy some great entertainment.

Perhaps I should qualify this first event as far as the 'entertainment' value is concerned, but it is for a very good cause.  Saturday morning I and a couple hundred other like-minded male souls will be converging on the Pen Centre for the 7th annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes event, to benefit Gillian's Place in St. Catharines.  Gillian's Place, formerly Women's Place of North Niagara, is now located at the former Victoria School on Niagara Street and provides a wealth of services for women in need throughout the community who suffer at the hands of an abusive partner.  In addition to providing shelter from domestic violence, the agency also provides counselling and other services to assist abused women and children in the community.  In the last year alone, they received almost 1,700 crisis calls; Niagara Regional Police, however, responded to over 7,000 domestic violence calls in the past year.  So not everyone either knows about or chooses to use the services provided at Gillian's Place, but those who do find understanding, compassion and considerable assistance to break the cycle of violence and make a new life for themselves.  It is not easy hearing some of the stories each year at the Walk a Mile event, but it serves to drive home the need for Gillian's Place and other like-minded agencies in this day and age.

So, about 12:30 tomorrow afternoon, about 200 or so men will 'walk the walk' in high heels at a fun event that raises money and awareness for Gillian's Place and the services they provide.  It is a fun event, certainly, but more importantly it helps to raise a lot of money needed by Gillian's Place to simply maintain the services they have.  Last year, for example, about $ 83,000 was raised at the event; this year organizers are hoping to break through the $ 100,000 barrier in order to help those in need.  I will be among the walkers, of course, as I have been most years since the event began seven years ago. If you would like to come out and support us guys we would appreciate it; pledging to help out the cause will be appreciated even more.  We'll see you there as we start out from Sears Court to walk the one-mile distance around the Pen Centre just after the noon-hour.  Should be an adventure!

There have been a lot of events planned in Niagara this year to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, of course, and it really ramps up this weekend with events at Brock's Monument at Queenston Heights Park on Saturday, and a special 1812 Bicentennial Celebration Concert to kick off the Niagara Concerts season Saturday afternoon at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls.  The event, starting at 3 pm, features Maestro Kerry Stratton and The Toronto Concert Orchestra with guest clarinetist Kornel Wolak in a concert that will feature a musical composition commissioned by Niagara Concerts in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Queenston Heights.  There is also a gala dinner following the concert, with tickets for just the concert or concert and dinner still available by contacting Niagara Concerts at 905-358-6174 or emailing

Also getting underway this weekend - actually opening night was Friday night - Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects launches their much-anticipated new season at the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls.  Their exit from the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines last season raised a few eyebrows, I gather, but if the audience is willing to follow them to the new location in Niagara Falls, everything will work out fine.  The quality of productions staged by Lyndesfarne is always first-rate, and this season-opener, directed by Artistic Director Kelly Daniels, promises more of the same.  It is, however, a rather unnerving play by Stephen Mallattrat titled The Woman in Black, based on the Susan Hill novel of the same name.  The thriller deals with the story of a young lawyer who travels to a remote village to settle the estate of a widow, Alice Drablow.  There, he discovers the vengeful ghost of a woman who is terrorizing the locals with horrifying consequences.  Just in time for Hallowe'en, too, this play!

I am looking forward to catching a later performance of The Woman in Black, and if you plan to as well, it runs through to October 28th from Wednesday to Saturday evenings and matinees on Wednesday and Friday at 11:30 and Saturday/Sunday at 2pm.  For tickets and further information, call Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects at 905-374-SHOW or go online to

Finally, on Sunday afternoon the Niagara Symphony (nso) presents the first of their Pops! concerts for the season with Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducting a concert titled Light Opera to Broadway.  The concert, starting at 2:30 in the afternoon, features as special guest artists the father and daughter team of Richard and Lauren Margison.  Richard, of course, is one of Canada's brightest lights in the operatic world and his daughter Lauren is now following in his footsteps.  Together they will present a programme backed by the nso that will feature a lot of lighter material designed to be easy on the ears.   This will be a great way to kick off the Pops! series this year at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.

As always, I will be in the lobby before, after and at intermission with a wealth of great music available for purchase through A Web of Fine Music, so I hope you will stop by the table to say hello and perhaps make a purchase or two.

Tickets for the concert are still available by calling the Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or you can pick them up at the door.  Keep in mind, though, with most of the Pops! concerts now being held just on the Sunday afternoon, seats will be more at a premium this year.

So, just a few of the many events planned throughout the Region this weekend.  If you ever laboured under the misconception there is nothing to do around here, this weekend should certainly dispel that notion!

So, everything from high heels to batons this weekend in Niagara.  Enjoy the fun!

October 12th, 2012.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fall getaways to Shaw and Stratford

It's been a few weeks since I last wrote about our two main theatre festivals in Ontario, and with both having just about three weeks to go before the season ends, I thought I would revisit both this week and look not only at what is still playing at each, but also how each festival did this year.

Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake has a few shows continuing until near the end of the month, and all are well worth seeing if you have not already done so.  The lunchtime show at the Courthouse Theatre, Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, closes tomorrow in fact, so only one more chance to catch this relative rarity.  I rather enjoyed this early look into Bernstein's creative mind, giving us hints of what would come a few years down the road with such shows as On The Town and West Side Story.  The music is very early Bernstein, to be sure, but you can see the early genius here, and the cast is absolutely first rate.  I only gave the show two out of four stars simply due to its limited appeal and the fact it would certainly be an acquired taste; that being said, I thought it was nice the festival decided to bring the show back even for just a little while.

The big musical this season is, of course, Ragtime, and it lived up to all the pre-show hype and then some.  Ragtime is a great musical, but it took the creative vision of Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell to bring all the creative forces together to make this production of the musical with a troubled history really work.  If this production had opened on Broadway in 1998 I think it might have fared better than the original show that received its world premiere in Toronto two years previously.  An exceptional cast and staging make this show a clear winner and worthy of a four out of four stars rating.  You had best hurry to get tickets to this one, as it closes at the Festival Theatre October 14th and word has it the show will not be extended.

Two shows continue until later in the month:  William Inge's powerful drama Come Back, Little Sheba continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 19th and Shaw's Misalliance closes out the Shaw season October 27th, also at the Royal George.  Come Back, Little Sheba offers some of the finest performances at the Festival this season, with Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid simply outstanding in their respective roles.  This was one of my favourite shows of the season and rated a perfect four out of four stars, and you really must see this show before it closes October 19th.  Misalliance, directed by Eda Holmes, is a very stylish take on the classic Shaw play that is easier to handle than many of Shaw's wordier plays, and runs only two-and-a-half hours.  I loved the sets and costumes for this play as well as many of the performances, in particular Tara Rosling's exotic and sexy Lina Szczepanowska.  I gave it three out of four stars and it closes October 27th.

For tickets to any and all of the final shows at Shaw this season, go to

Over at the Stratford Shakesepare Festival, they celebrated their 60th season with some hits and a couple of misses this season, with some of the big draws still playing through the month of October.  At the Avon Theatre, Gilbert & Sullivan's ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance continues until October 27th.  It is a fairly high-energy show, but not one of my favourites this season.  I felt the show was suffering an identity crisis and was more than a little silly in spots...well, more than even a G&S show should be, really.  It rated a two out of four stars for me; a fun show but better offerings even this late in the season can be had.

One of the early winners this season at the Festival Theatre was Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, continuing as well until October 27th.  Director Chris Abraham had a lot of great talent to work with on this show, and top to bottom it is a solid offering.  Things get off to a slow start and even Tom McCamus as blowhard Horace Vandergelder can't keep things moving on his own until his comic foil, Dolly Gallagher Levi, played by Seana McKenna comes on the scene.  McKenna very nearly makes the entire show, and when the two of them are together on stage the real magic begins.  One of the best shows of the season, The Matchmaker rated a solid three out of four stars.

I was very much looking forward to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing this season, primarily because former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton was the director here, and he did not disappoint.  I talked to Christopher just last week about this show, and I was left with the impression it was not the easiest show he has ever worked on, but you would never know it from the end result.  This has lots of nice little touches that all go together to create a wonderful production with a very strong cast.  I liked it a lot in spite of the fact I fell ill during the show; still and all, it rated a strong three out of four stars.

The so-called family show at Stratford this season was You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the musical about the round-headed kid in the yellow shirt with the black zig-zag pattern on it, created by Charles M. Schulz about sixty years ago now.  This was a gentle show designed for both kids and adults, and it has a lot of nice creative touches in it, including some nice choreography by director Donna Feore.  But I felt overall it missed the mark somewhat, and rated only two out of four stars.  It is not a bad show, but I felt the appeal of this one might be somewhat limited.  Still, it continues at the Avon Theatre until October 28th.

Finally, the other big musical this season was the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic 42nd Street, which continues at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.  Director Gary Griffin has a fine cast to work with here, but I still felt the return of Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock was rather muted, as really, her immense talent is wasted in this role, I feel.  Great to see Cynthia back in Stratford though, so that is a good thing.  The rest of the cast is very strong, with a special mention going out to Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Peggy Sawyer, the young up-and-comer who takes over for an ailing Brock so 'the show will go on.'  I gave the show three out of four stars; not the best show at Stratford this season but a crowd-pleaser all the same.

For tickets to any of the remaining shows at Stratford this season, go to

So, overall how did both festivals do this year?  Almost the exact opposite of last season, in my estimation.  Shaw celebrated their 50th season last year with a great production of My Fair Lady and some other shows that did well, but many were not exceptional.  Stratford, on the other hand had a great season last year with hit after hit, and artistically speaking, I felt had the stronger season last year.  This year, however, they had some misses along with the hits, so Shaw came away with the crown this season.  I don't know if it was the pressure of living up to expectations due to the anniversaries each celebrated:  Shaw last season and Stratford with their 60th this season, but Shaw just seemed to hit the mark more often than not this season.  Both had great seasons overall, mind you, but Shaw just did that much better this year I found.

Speaking of Shaw, they recently announced their 2013 season and the big musical next season will be the 1950 classic Guys and Dolls, which played at Stratford several seasons back as well.  Also on the playbill next season will be Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan also on the Festival Stage, and Matthew Barber's Enchanted April, adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim.  Over at the Court House Theatre, Blair Williams directs Peace in our Time:  A Comedy, adapted from the Shaw play Geneva by John Murrell; Jay Turvey gets to direct The Light  in the Piazza, based on the novella  by Elizabeth Spencer; and rounding out the Courthouse lineup is a double-bill for the lunchtime show:  Trifles  and A Wife for a Life, by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill.  At the smaller Royal George Theatre, Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara will be directed by Jackie Maxwell; Morris Panych directs W. Somerset Maugham's Our Betters; and Brian Friel's Faith Healer will be directed by Craig Hall.  Finally, at the Studio Theatre, Eda Holmes directs Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.  So once again next season, there will be no Shaw play on the mainstage, and in fact only one purely Shaw play on the playbill, although Peace in our Time is based on a Shaw play.

So, there you have it, my final thoughts on the 2012 seasons at Shaw and Stratford.  I am already looking forward to returning to both for 2013!

October 6th, 2012.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Niagara Symphony launches their 65th season this weekend

Along with everything else going on this weekend with Niagara Wine Festival events and Niagara Falls Night of Art tonight in Niagara Falls, the Niagara Symphony launches their 65th season Sunday afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, with the first MasterWorks concert of the season.

Music Director Bradley Thachuk will be on the podium conducting an interesting and challenging programme of Russian and Canadian music, with the major work being Stravinsky's 1919 version of his Firebird Suite; also on the programme will be the Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 by Tchaikovsky, and John Estacio's Frenergy, which is a MasterWorks premiere.  The concert begins at 2:30, with the customary pre-concert chat about 1:45 in the theatre.

This season will prove to be an ambitious one for Thachuk and the Niagara Symphony, as they begin a number of new initiatives designed to pull in more subscribers and more importantly, younger subscribers.  That's not to say the music will be watered down at all; far from it, as many challenging works are on tap for the entire season, with the final MasterWorks concert in May being an all-Beethoven programme that includes the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, known of course as the Eroica.  I've often considered Beethoven in general and this symphony in particular to be sort of the Mount Everest of symphonic music from the early 19th century, as any modern orchestra worth their collective salt wants to show they can tackle these complex and durable works.

The all-Beethoven programme in May launches The Beethoven Project, a multi-year series designed to culminate in the opening of the new Performing Arts Centre downtown, which will be home to the Niagara Symphony as well as several other local arts organizations.  I am not sure yet if the delayed date of completion of the new centre will affect those plans at all, but time will tell.  No matter, in the lead up to the big opening in 2015 we have some great music in general and Beethoven in particular to enjoy, and that is never a bad thing.

On other news fronts from the Niagara Symphony, they have rebranded themselves this year to mark the 65th anniversary season with simply nso, all lower case, with a newly-designed logo and soon-to-come website, which you'll find at  The actual offices of the nso have also changed for this season, having moved over the summer to 259 St. Paul Street in order to be closer to the new Performing Arts Centre as construction gets underway.

Also this week, we learned the Executive Director of the nso, Jack Mills, is leaving after three years at that helm that saw the search for a new Music Director and selection in 2010 of Bradley Thachuk to lead the orchestra, and do much to rebuild the audience base and confidence in the orchestra after many years of difficulties on a number of fronts.  I liked working with Jack and had a great deal of respect for him and what he brought to the position, so I wish him all the best as he moves on to his next adventure.

In Jack's place as of now is actually a familiar face as the new Managing Director of the nso, Candice Turner Smith, who held an interim leadership position with the orchestra from 2007 to 2009 and kept things together until Jack arrived.  Candice has great arts management credentials and it is exciting news she will be at the helm as we head closer to the new home of the nso in 2015.

Once again this season I hope to be welcoming patrons in the lobby before, after and at intermission at nso concerts, with a wealth of musical treasures available for purchase, starting with tomorrow afternoon's concert.  I look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces and many new ones as the season progresses.  Do stop by and say hello, and you might even find a CD or two you want for your own personal collection.

By the way, this week I issued a special edition of my FINE MUSIC NEWSLETTER, highlighting much of this information and listing in my Mike's Picks section a number of affordable recordings tied to performances coming up this season with the nso.  If you are not on the mailing list, email me at and I can send you a copy of the current newsletter and add you to the mailing list.

Let's celebrate 65 years of music-making with YOUR Niagara the nso!

September 29th, 2012.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

DAPA welcomes you to downtown St. Catharines

Last week I mentioned in this space I would be attending the annual DAPA season announcement at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, which was scheduled this year to dove-tail nicely with all the Art City activities going on around the downtown last Saturday.  Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the entire presentation, but I was able to get a quick look at what's to come for the 2012-2013 season for those of us who enjoy live theatre and dance throughout the fall/winter/spring season.

For the uninitiated, DAPA stands for the Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts, an umbrella organization for seven of Niagara's more innovative performing arts companies, all of whom use the space at the Courthouse Theatre for their activities.  Missing this year is Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, one of the larger tenants in the space, as they moved earlier this year to the Seneca Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls.  Time will tell if the audience moves with Kelly and her theatre company, and I will be writing more about them in the coming weeks.  But the remainder of the companies ulitizing the theatre space at the Courthouse Theatre, Carousel Players, Essential Collective Theatre, neXt Company Theatre, Niagara Dance Company, Stray Theatre, Suitcase in Point and Theatre Beyond Words will all be filling the space with some creative ventures throughout the coming months.

In all, 19 different productions, festivals and special events will be presented, 16 of which will operate out of the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre.  According to Jane Gardner, General Manager of Carousel Players, "This year many of our companies are premiering new work by Niagara writers and choreographers" including Carousel Players themselves, who will be opening their season with Water Under the Bridge on October 13th.   It's described as a new participatory play for children set in 1812 and is written by St. Catharines-basd writers Carrie Costello and Michaela Washburn.

Essential Collective Theatre, specializing in producing contemporary Canadian playwrights, will present White Crow by local writer Dawn E. Crysler over two weeks from November 22nd to December 2nd.  The play tells the story of a young girl struggling to keep the family farm running while coping with the early onset of her father's dementia.

neXt Company Theatre presents Khalida, a new play written and directed by David Fancy, a professor at Brock University, about a man in flight from the Middle East who finds himself in an oil-producing country in the economic North.  The play runs from February 26th to March 2nd at the Courthouse Theatre.

Niagara Dance Company will be expanding its programming of contemporary dance works, workshops and mentorship opportunities for Niagara performers and choreographers with Merge, a new Cultural Capital of Canada project featuring choreography with a theme of "Crossing Boundaries" by local artists Elizabeth Chitty and Artistic Director Mary Jo Mullins.  The production runs from November 16th to the 18th at the Courthouse.

Meantime, Stray Theatre presents The Country by Martin Crimp, one of Britain's most exciting playwrights.  The story involves a couple who have uprooted themselves and moved out of the city in order to get away from...something.  But have they?  We'll find out when The Country plays from October 18th to the 27th at the Courthouse.

Suitcase in Point presents a new Sketch Comedy Workshop Presentation that builds on their very popular Cabaret series, which will run February 2nd of next year.  They will also be hosting the 5th annual In The Soil Arts Festival in venues throughout St. Catharines from April 26th to the 28th.  This is fast becoming one of the premiere spring music festivals in the area, and just keeps getting better every year.

Finally, Theatre Beyond Words presents their ever-popular Potato People:  Tales from the Garden 2013 for family audiences from March 8th to 9th next year.  They also have a new work in the development stage called Mr. Punch, based on the writings of Neil Gaiman.

All seven professional theatre and dance companies came together in 2008 to form DAPA, in order to develop and promote audiences in downtown St. Catharines in advance of the opening of the new performing arts centre downtown.  That venue, of course, has been delayed due to projected cost overruns on the bidding process, so the projected completion date is now the fall of 2015.  That can't come soon enough for most of us, but I think everyone realizes we can't afford to screw it up, so if it takes some extra time to get things done right, so be it.  The people I talked to Saturday evening remain optimistic about the future of the centre, so that is a good sign.  Let's keep thinking positively on this and hope for the best.  it might not be the fancy shrine we were first promised, but at least we'll have a modern, purpose-built performing arts centre in the downtown core, and that remains the target.

In the meantime, lots of great theatre and dance await us at the Courthouse Theatre in the coming season, so let's get out and support our performing arts organizations!

September 23rd, 2012.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Final two shows at Shaw and Stratford

It's hard to believe we've arrived at the end of another season of writing about my two favourite theatre festivals in Ontario, Shaw and Stratford, but here we are, three months after I began writing for another summer season.  I have two shows left to write about, one from each festival, and then I will take a short break before doing a final overview later in the month on how each festival performed this year.

Let's begin with the final production I saw at the Shaw Festival this year, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, in a new version by Richard Eyre.  This production, which continues at the Court House Theatre until September 29th, is directed by Martha Henry and stars many of the finer actors at the Shaw Festival this season.  Henry, who is more closely associated with her acting and directing duties at Stratford, made this trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake count as she has given us one of the better Heddas we've seen in a long time.

Now, Hedda Gabler is not for everyone, I'll say right off the top.  It will be a bit of a tough go for some people, but if you are prepared for that going in, and I suspect most will be, you will be rewarded with a richly detailed and nuanced production with just enough tension as Henry holds the directorial reigns taut.  Granted, things get a little too melodramatic towards the end, but you almost can't avoid it with this play, as it puts many a modern-day soap-opera to shame.

I love the sets and costumes designed by William Schmuck, which nicely set off the production in the intimate setting of the Court House Theatre.

It is the cast, though, that truly makes this show special, with Moya O'Connell in the title role simply magnificent.  I'm told she took great pains to even be able to play the piano herself in this production; testament to her dedication to getting the role just right.  She does, giving Hedda the right balance of cleverness bordering on insanity without quite going over the edge.  Hers is a chilling character study of a woman bent on destruction, that of others around her and ultimately, herself.

O'Connell is backed up by Jennifer Phipps in a typically splendid turn as Berthe; Mary Haney as Juliana Tesman and Patrick McManus as Hedda's husband, George Tesman.  But that role of George Tesman does provide some problems, however, as you are struck by how far apart on an emotional and intellectual level the two characters truly are in this production.  How they were attracted to each other, much less marry, is a mystery, really.  He is a scholarly man who is more interested in words rather than women, it seems, and she is icily aloof, making you wonder how they even noticed one another to begin with.  In a modern setting, perhaps, it would be like Penny and Sheldon actually hooking up in Big Bang Theory!  Not going to happen...

The other performance of note is Jim Mezon as the crafty and cooly calculating Judge Brack, who knows what he wants from Hedda and how to get it.  His interest in her is purely unemotional, as evidenced by his coldness when he quietly leaves the final scene in the play.

This Hedda Gabler, the second Shaw production of the play, will leave audiences spellbound.  It is an exceptionally well-crafted work and well worth your attention before it closes on the 29th of the month.  Hedda rates a very strong three out of four stars.

Now, on to the final show at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season.  Shakespeare's Henry V was getting a lot of attention early on this season when I talked with locals in the know and the feeling was this would be a lavish production for the 60th season at Stratford, and Artistic Director Des McAnuff's swan song before leaving at the end of this current season.

Thankfully, McAnuff has shunned the excessive stage effects and given us a pretty stark and brutal interpretation of the play.  Often edited to omit the execution scenes, McAnuff here opted to show the execution of Lieutenant Bardolph, for example, in a particularly effective and chilling manner at the end of Act One.  Bardolph, one of the late Falstaff's companions, is a genial fellow who is well played here by Randy Hughson, and his execution is an image you'll take with you long after the play ends.

In spite of the brutality in Henry V, McAnuff wisely accentuates some of the more humorous and lighter moments in the play, especially when Catherine, the daughter of the French King is being wooed by King Henry V.  Catherine, played with great charm by Bethany Jillard, is a delight as we watch her try to learn English in order to converse more clearly with the victorious Englishman.  Her attempt to understand 'elbow' for example, is a delight to watch.

As Henry, Aaron Krohn is both brutal and charming, and in command of the stage throughout the production.  He is clearly smitten by Catherine and appears genuine in his desire to woo her properly.

Others in the cast worthy of mention include James Blendick with that wonderfully mellifluous voice of his as the Archbishop of Canterbury; Tom Rooney as an effective Pistol; Lucy Peacock as Pistol's wife and Ben Carlson as the Welshman, Captain Fluellen.  Also worthy of praise are Keith Dinicol as Captain MacMorris, and Irishman, and Juan Chioran as the French ambassador Montjoy.  I was also interested to see Deborah Hay, long a Shaw Festival stalwart, in a small but effective role as Alice, Catherine's lady-in-waiting.

This Henry the V will certainly add to the lustre of the 60th anniversary of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and be a suitable sign-off for Artistic Director McAnuff.  It runs to September 29th on the Festival Theatre stage, and rates a very strong three out of four stars.

Enjoy the theatre!

September 14th, 2012.