Saturday, January 28, 2012

Niagara Symphony presents a couple of winter bonuses

Here we are in the dead of winter, or what is passing for winter in Niagara this season, and you feel the need to get out of the house and hear some great music, right?  Well, the Niagara Symphony has you covered on a couple of fronts in the coming days, so we'll cover both of those this week in the column.

First of all, this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 the Niagara Symphony presents a Bonus Masterworks concert with not one, but two Thachuks on stage.  Maestro Bradley conducts, of course, and his twin brother Steven is the guitar soloist on the Guitar Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi.  So don't be concerned if you appear to be seeing double on Sunday afternoon.  Also on the programme is the Symphony No. 44 by Franz Joseph Haydn, In Memoriam Alberto Guererro by R. Murray Schafer, and one of my all-time favourite works by Tchaikovsky, the lovely Serenade for Strings.

There is also a special price for the concert, since a lot of regular patrons will be down south at this time of year, so the Symphony wisely chose to offer a specially-discounted price to get people through the doors, and hopefully more than a few newcomers as well.  Just $ 25 gets you a seat to the concert and even birthday cake afterwards to celebrate the Niagara Symphony's 64th birthday.  Not a bad deal when you consider what a trip to Toronto, Buffalo or even Hamilton would cost at this time of year.  So save the trip and consider supporting your Niagara Symphony, why don'tcha?

As always, I will be in the lobby before, after and at intermission with lots of great music you might just want to take home with you, so be sure to stop by and take a look and say hello.  One of the interesting new items I have with me, by the way, is a fabulous new EMI Classics box set of 50 discs covering 150 ballets, titled oddly enough, A Festival of Ballet.  You can grab it now before it shows up on the website in February.

Tickets should still be available for the Sunday concert, so either purchase them at the box office prior to the concert or call the box office in advance at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

On another front, In This Life - Chantal Kreviazuk makes its broadcast debut on HBO Canada and The Movie Network this coming Monday evening, January 30th at 6:45 pm.  It will also air on HBOC HD at 6:45 pm and HBOC 2 HD at 8:45 pm.  The one-hour documentary runs throughout the week and celebrates the life and career of renowned singer Chantal Kreviazuk, including footage of her exclusive engagement last summer with the Niagara Symphony, performing at the outdoor theatre at Jackson-Triggs Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I remember when this concert was announced and it garnered a lot of attention at the time, so this promises to be an interesting look at one very special artist as she connects with her audience on many levels.

The Niagara Symphony is at the half-way mark of what is shaping up to be a reasonably well-attended season, so that is good news.  One of the mandates of Maestro Thachuk was to grow the audience, and perhaps we are starting to see those efforts begin to bear fruit.

See you at the Symphony!

January 28th, 2012.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Coffee, Tea or Bach?

This weekend, a most interesting concert will be taking place at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street in St. Catharines, Sunday afternoon at 3 pm.  Primavera Concerts, one of the more creative local musical presenters, are presenting The St. Catharines Chamber Music Society in a concert titled simply, "Coffee!"

Now, I am not a coffee drinker.  I have always been an avowed tea drinker, save for my first few years in the radio business almost 40 years ago when everyone around me drank coffee, so I did, too.  Yes, the ubiquitous "double-double" was my drink back then, which I believe was a quarter a cup at the local greasy-spoon next door to the radio station in Toronto back then.  One day, I thought about it and decided I really preferred tea to coffee, so why drink coffee just because everyone else does.  I have been something of a lone wolf ever since then, even forsaking more convenient tea bags for traditional loose-leaf tea I feel gives me a better cup of tea.  I even use an automatic tea-making machine every morning at the radio station made for awhile by TriniTea in the United States.  I love the fact it brews the tea and keeps it warm in the pot on it's own hot plate element, so throughout the morning I have a hot cup of tea waiting for me.  I know, I am more of a tea aficionado than most, but I can't sacrifice quality for convenience, even when it comes to tea.

But I digress.  Even though the concert is titled "Coffee!", I won't feel left out Sunday afternoon, since the concert is being presented in a coffee-house setting with coffee and cake being served.  Next to tea, cake is very near and dear to my heart.  That explains why I am a regular at the 'Y', by the way...anyway, what more could you want than great music, the drink of your choice and...cake?  Sounds like a deal, right?

The centre-piece of the concert, of course, is the secular cantata # 211, known as the "Coffee Cantata" by J.S. Bach.  This is about as close as Bach ever came to musical comedy; he was a notoriously serious musician who laboured long and hard in churches creating some of the greatest sacred music ever written.  But even Bach knew people had a weakness for coffee, so when he wanted to write a lighthearted piece, coffee was an easy choice for the subject matter.

In Bach's time, coffee was still rather new to Europe and a bit of a novelty.  But there was no denying the drawing power of the beverage, and in fact coffee houses soon sprang up throughout Germany at the time where people would gather, drink, and discuss the news of the day.  It was a much earlier version of our modern-day Tim Hortons, if you will.  The Coffee Cantata, in fact, premiered at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig and was presumably a big hit.  The cantata tells the tale of a father who takes away his daughter's privileges, one after the other, unless she stops drinking coffee.  The daughter is not swayed and continues drinking coffee until her father threatens to prevent her from getting married.  However, the daughter outsmarts dear ol' Dad by making a secret deal with the groom whereby the groom must allow her to drink coffee even after they are married.  History does not seem to record if the groom liked coffee as well, although I would imagine he would.

All of which brings us to Sunday afternoon's concert at St. Barnabas, featuring musicians from the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society, including Jonathon Dick, baritone; Charlotte Knight, soprano; Paul Williamson, tenor; as well as musicians Charlene Nagel and Xiaoling Li, violins; Andree Simard, viola; Gordon Cleland, cello; and Karin Di Bella, keyboard.  It promises to be a fun afternoon of music and food and of course, drink.  In addition to the Coffee Cantata by Bach, other caffeine-related music by the likes of Satie, Weill, Bolcom and others will also be featured, I'm told.

If, after you attend the concert, you decide you need a copy of Bach's Coffee Cantata for your personal collection, I am featuring a fine recording of both Cantatas 210 and 211 in my Fine Music Newsletter this month, out this past week, and will be featured on the website in the Mike's Picks section starting this week.  The performance includes soloists along with the Bach Collegium, Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki on the Bis label.  Just go to and click on the Mike's Picks page this week to find out more.

For tickets to the concert tomorrow, you can book in advance at or pick them up at the door.

See you at the concert tomorrow, oh, and save some tea for me, will you?

January 21st, 2012.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects suffers a setback this season

I have often written about Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects in St. Catharines, the little upstart theatre company that was founded by Kelly Daniels and husband Ric Reid about seven years ago.  I find their productions are of a consistently high quality and the programming is always inventive.  They do, however, suffer the problems that often befall smaller theatre companies without the financial resources to keep a stable of regular actors and other technical staff on hand to fill in when needed.

Such is the case with Lyndesfarne at the moment.  Just after announcing their winter production of John Murrell's Memoir would be moved from Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake to the beautifully renovated Seneca Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls, they have had to cancel the production entirely.

The show, which was scheduled to open at The Seneca February 2nd and run to the 12, has been cancelled due to ill health on the part of Shaw Festival actor Lorne Kennedy, who was to appear in the show.  The specifics of the illness has not been specified, nor should they be, but it is a terrible blow to the company that boldly decided to take advantage of the available theatre space in Niagara Falls at a time of year that part of the city could desperately use the added evening traffic downtown.

The show, according to a press release issued by the theatre company this week, has been postponed indefinitely.  That leaves open a couple of options for those who have already bought tickets to the production or hold season passes to Lyndesfarne.  You can either donate the price of the ticket to Lyndesfarne and they will issue a charitable tax receipt for the amount, or they will issue a refund of the ticket price if that is your preference.  Either way, they are asking patrons to call or write to them with your preference for the outstanding amount.

There is still one more production to go this current season, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, opening at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines from April 10th to the 21st.  The production, performed by the Young Company ensemble of emerging artists, has an admission charge of only $ 10, and tickets are available by calling the box office at 905-938-1222, or going online to

I was very much looking forward to attending Memoir, especially since it was moving to The Seneca in downtown Niagara Falls.  The theatre, renovated a few years ago at considerable cost, has stood empty for much of that time, as theatre companies struggle to meet budgets with audiences reluctant for one reason or another to venture downtown after all the work done in recent years.  I have heard it is now an absolute jewel of a theatre, but it might just remain one of Niagara's best-kept secrets unless someone manages to make a go of it in the near future.

This raises concerns over a larger problem in downtown Niagara Falls, which has had trouble keeping shops open along historic Queen Street the last while due to lack of people coming into the core.  I plan to write more about this in a future column after I have some time to visit the area again and talk to some people, but for now, Lyndesfarne pulling out of The Seneca is yet another blow to an area of Niagara that deserves a much better fate.

Why do people still avoid the area?  We'll investigate and report back soon.  As for Lorne Kennedy, a man whose work I have long admired at Shaw for many years?  Get well, sir, your considerable talents are missed more than you will ever know!

January 14th, 2012.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

New Year's Levee tradition continues in Niagara

A few years ago I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to attend a New Year's Levee here in Niagara, usually held on New Year's Day, of course.  I have not missed this annual event since, as it is a perfect way to welcome in the New Year.  This year we had not one but two on the same day, and one more to go next weekend.

There was a time in St. Catharines when the Mayor and Council held a levee separate from the traditional military levee held at the Lake Street Armouries with the Lincoln & Welland Regiment.  But a few years back they decided to combine the two events into one, and it proved to be a popular decision.  That's probably about the time I started to attend, in fact.  So every New Year's Day from 11 to 1, people gather at the Armoury to welcome in the New Year, talk, snack, and imbibe if so inclined.  There is the now legendary drink I believe is referred to as Bull's Milk which is a rather potent brew, I'm told, offered to a select few in the know as it were.  But for most of us, the punch bowl is the place to be for some liquid refreshment to start the year.

I have never attended one of these events and not run into several people I know either personally or professionally or both.  It is certainly encouraging to see so many people come out after a rather late night the night before welcoming in the New Year.  It is just one of those feel-good events you shouldn't miss.

This year, however, there was stiff competition from 1 to 4 in the afternoon at Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where Ontario's Lt. Governor, David Onley, hosted a levee to kick off the 1812 Bicentennial events in Ontario.  The coming couple of years will be full of special events to commemorate the many historic events that occurred between Canada and the United States from 1812 to 1814; this will prove to be one of the major commemorations anywhere and a lot of it originally happened right here in Niagara, of course.

So Mr. Onley decided it was a good time to move the traditional levee he would hold on New Year's Day out of Toronto to where the famous battle began, and it too proved to be a tremendously successful event.
We arrived about 2:30 and the old fort was packed with people on a windy, wet day.  There was mud - oh there was mud! - but everyone managed to get around the grounds with little trouble.  The estimates beforehand were for 500 to 1,000 people attending, but the final tally was at least twice that, so obviously people around Niagara are in the mood to recognize the Bicentennial in the coming years.

We missed the reception line for meeting the Lt. Governor altogether, unfortunately, and by the time we made it to the tent where the speeches were to take place, all the food was gone and although there was wine, there were no more wine glasses!  So we had to participate with the various toasts with something resembling an "air glass."  No matter; it was a wonderful day and a nice kick off to the year 2012.

I had the pleasure of talking to the Lt. Governor by phone this week and he was astounded by the turnout and thrilled with the enthusiasm shown by all who attended; no doubt he will be back in Niagara several times more in the coming years as the commemorations continue.  He is a delight to talk to and I hope some day to actually, finally, meet him in person.  But for now, the celebrations are underway and everyone seems ready to participate.

There is another levee planned for the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls next Saturday from 10 am to 12 noon, I'm told, also tied into the Bicentennial celebrations.  The Mayor and Council in Niagara Falls will be in attendance along with other dignitaries, and everyone is invited to attend.  I hope to make it out on Saturday myself and finally see this new facility everyone in Niagara has been talking about.  It will be just one of many such celebrations coming up throughout Niagara, so keep an eye out for others along the way.

Let's make this special year even more so by taking part in as many events as possible; many are free to attend, and why shouldn't we celebrate our glorious past right here in Niagara!

January 7th, 2012.