Saturday, March 24, 2012

Shaw Festival gearing up for another great season

I recently wrote about the latest developments at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as another season is about to get underway.  Closer to home, our very own Shaw Festival is also gearing up for another great season - their 51st - that includes some pretty impressive shows already in early rehearsals for the new season.

First and foremost, of course, is the big musical this season, Ragtime, at the Festival Theatre.  The musical, depicting three families in turn-of-the-century America, illustrates an era of innovation and change set to the rhythms of ragtime music.  To get the interest already going on the marquee musical, the Shaw Festival is launching Get Ready to Rag!, a contest to find the next great ragtime pianist.  The Festival is inviting amateur piano players over the age of 13 to upload video clips of themselves playing their favourite ragtime composition to The Shaw's Facebook page.  The winner will receive a Yamaha Clavinova digital piano valued at over $ 2000 and have the opportunity to perform for a live audience on Ragtime's opening night in May.

Contestants have three minutes to wow the judges and will be assesses on talent, enthusiasm and showmanship.  The judges, incidentally, include The Shaw's Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell; internationally-renowned musician Michael Kaeshammer; jazz singer and broadcaster Heather Bambrick and The Shaw's Music Director, Paul Sportelli.

The Grand Prize, in addition to the Yamaha Clavinova and the chance to perform in the lobby at the opening night performance of Ragtime, includes four tickets to the opening night performance and overnight accommodation in Niagara-on-the-Lake courtesy of Vintage Hotels  So all in all, it is a pretty nice prize package.

The contest, open to Ontario residents only, by the way, closes April 30th; the winner will be announced May 10th.  For complete eligibility requirements and full contest rules, visit and click on the Shaw Festival contest tab.  Good luck if you plan to enter!

Now if you just can't wait for opening week to catch some of the new shows this season at Shaw, you can book for a preview performance at a reduced rate.  The Shaw Festival is currently promoting a Niagara Neighbours Spring Celebration, with tickets to preview performances of French Without Tears; A Man and Some Women; Present Laughter and Misalliance available for only $ 39, or $ 20 for students on select performances.  If you want and early performance of Ragtime, they will be available for only $ 58.  The offer ends April 9th, just before the preview season begins April 10th, and you must use code 11455 to book.

You can book your tickets by calling1-800.511.SHAW or go to

See you at the theatre!

March 24th, 2012.

Friday, March 16, 2012

News from the Niagara Symphony and MasterWorks 3

The Niagara Symphony is set to perform again this weekend with the third in the MasterWorks series of concerts, Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.

They are not taking the bait to programme a St. Patrick's themed concert this year, which is all very well and good, as it can wear a little thin after awhile anyways.  But the concert promises to be a good one with a nice variety of music planned and Guest Conductor Kevin Mallon taking the podium for this one.  On the programme is a work we rarely hear anymore, and I can't even remember the last time I heard it:  the Overture to Colas et Colinette by Quesnel/Ridout.   I remember I had an old CBC Lp of the music years ago, but it is long since lost to the dusty record bins of my memory.

A couple of earlier works are on the programme as well:  Domenico Cimarosa's L'Italiana a Londra (The Italian Girl in London) and Mozart's beautiful Concerto for Flute & Harp, K. 299.  That performance features the two soloists for the afternoon, Douglas Miller, Principal Flute; and Deborah Braun, Principal Harp for the Niagara Symphony.  Both are exceptionally gifted local artists who have made their musical mark elsewhere as well, and it will be a treat to hear both soloists together this weekend.

Finally, a Beethoven symphony wraps up the concert, his familiar Symphony No. 8 in F Major.  The Niagara Symphony has been performing a number of Beethoven's works the last few seasons, and in fact next season they plan to launch The Beethoven Project, but more on that later in this report.

Speaking of Beethoven, I will be in the lobby before, after and during intermission with a wide selection of great music for sale from A Web of Fine Music, including the classic 1963 Beethoven Symphony Cycle with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.  It is a great-sounding set despite its age, and is still available at a very special low price.  You can order through my website as well, of course, at or email me directly at

Tickets are still available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or pick them up at the door on Sunday afternoon.

Now, the Niagara Symphony made news earlier in the week with the release of their upcoming 65th season in 2012-2013.  There will be some significant changes to the programming schedule next season, and most appear to be all for the better, I think.  First, there will be an expanded MasterWorks series to five concerts including the MasterWorks finale next season, the start of the multi-year Beethoven Project I mentioned earlier, which is basically designed to showcase the orchestra's talents as they prepare to take up residence at the much-anticipated Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  To kick off the Project, next year the Symphony will feature the Violin Concerto with soloist Michael Ludwig, and the Symphony No. 3, known as the Eroica.

The Pops! series will see changes as well with the discontinuation of the slow-selling Saturday evening performances, which are usually lightly attended.  That being said, there will be a Saturday evening Holiday Pops concert in December to help share the load of all those wanting to celebrate the holiday season.  The patrons used to going Saturday evening now will have priority choice of tickets for Sunday afternoon before they go on sale to the general public.  But that is not to say all those Saturday evening attendees now will all have to cram into the Sunday concerts.  Maestro Bradley Thachuk has also added a Family Series, which will provide two of the remaining Pops! concerts, in February and April 2013, on Saturday afternoons as well.  This should work well, I suspect, as many Symphony patrons just don't like being out late at night, especially in the colder months, and I can't say I blame them, really.

Musically, there appears to be a good variety of tried and true and some more adventurous fare, ranging from the aforementioned Beethoven to Grieg, Copland, Barber and Shostakovich, and even Canadian composer John Estacio.  The Pops! concerts, along with the usual holiday fare in December, includes one called Light Opera to Broadway in October, Heroes and Villains in February and The Magical Music of Disney in April.  For that one, I can only hope Maestro Thachuk resists the urge to wear Mickey Mouse ears for the concert...

So that in a nutshell gives you an idea what to expect this weekend and next season.  For more on all the concerts remaining this season, go to my website at and click on the Calendar page, or go to the Niagara Symphony website for more on this season and next, at

See you at the Symphony!

March 16th, 2012.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

News from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this weekend

Last month I wrote about the upcoming seasons at Shaw and Stratford, and the fact the Shaw Festival ended up in the red following their 50 anniversary season last year.  It will be only a temporary situation, I'm sure, as one thing the Shaw Festival has done well over the years is manage their finances in tough economic times and bounce back in short order.

This weekend I received several releases from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of which outlines the results of their Annual General Meeting, held on the weekend.  So let's start with that and then move on to the other two newsworthy items from Stratford this weekend worth noting.

The 2011 Stratford season, which received much praise from many people including this reporter, posted a surplus of almost $ 53,000.  Now, when you are talking about revenue for the 2011 season hitting 59.6 million, up from 59.1 million the previous year, maybe $ 53,000 doesn't sound like much.  But consider the fact the strong Canadian dollar has kept some of the American visitors who regularly come from Michigan and other northern States from attending the festival, as well as the weak economy on both sides of the border, and improved numbers at all must be considered good news.  Let's not forget the HST in Ontario, which likely had an impact on ticket sales as well.

But overall attendance was 455,044 or 65% of capacity, on a par with the previous nine seasons since Stratford celebrated their own 50th anniversary season in 2003.  Plus, support from donors was up 14%, which adds a significant boost to the bottom line.  So most people would have to conclude, given the economy these days, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is on solid financial ground as their 60th anniversary season is set to get underway.

Elsewhere with the Festival this weekend, Artistic Director Des McAnuff was announced as the recipient of the National Arts Centre Award of the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards in recognition of his accomplishments over the past performance year.  Those accomplishments included directing two of the biggest hits at the Festival in recent memory:  Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with Brian Dennehy and Stephen Ouimette, and of course, his highly-acclaimed Jesus Christ Superstar, set to open on Broadway this month with its Stratford cast.

Mr. McAnuff will receive his award in Ottawa in early May.

Finally, and this is literally hot off the press, as it was embargoed by the Festival until noon today, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has named Antoni Cimolino as the next Artistic Director of the Festival, succeeding Des McAnuff when he leaves at the end of the current season.

Antoni Cimolino began with the Festival as an actor in 1988 and in 1992 played Romeo opposite Megan Follows's Juliet.  He directed his first solo Festival production, Filumena, in which the late Artistic Director Richard Monette played a leading role, in 1997.  Cimolino was appointed General Director in 2006, overseeing an annual budget of $ 60 million and 1,000 employees.

This season will be Antoni's 25 season with the Festival, in which he directs Shakespeare's rarely produced Cymbeline, with a cast including Graham Abbey, Tom McCamus, Cara Ricketts and Geraint Wyn Davies.

I have admired Mr. Cimolino's work in the past and his ability to administer such a large organization through some rather difficult times, so this appears to be a culmination of all his dedication and hard work over the past quarter-century.  We all wish him well and look forward to what he has up his artistic sleeve for 2013!

March 10th, 2012.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A musical first weekend in March in Niagara

As always, we have a wealth of musical experiences this weekend in Niagara.  I will highlight just two of them this weekend in my blog, but you can access all the latest information anytime by just going to my website, at  I work on updating the information on a regular basis, but if there is something you don't see that you feel should be posted, you can always email the information to me directly at

Chorus Niagara premieres an ambitious new Canadian work this Saturday evening at 7:30 at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines.  No Mortal Business by Allan Bevan is a dramatic musical work inspired by Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest, long regarded as autobiographical in nature and indicating aspects of the author's life and faith.  The interesting aspect of this work, aside from the Shakespeare inspiration, of course, is the fact Bevan composed the work specifically for the remarkable acoustic of the Cathedral at the corner of Church and Lyman Streets, which just happens to be my home church.  Bevan loved the sound of the church and especially the massive Letourneau organ, known to parishoners as "Opus 12".

The choral work also utilizes a narrator, and tonight the role will be played by one of the great actors in Canada today, Geraint Wyn Davies, who is currently working down on Broadway apparently and has spent the last several seasons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  Those of us who go back even further will remember him for his memorable roles at the Shaw Festival as well.  Mr. Wyn Davies and Chorus Niagara are joined tonight by the Orpheus Choir of Toronto and the Talisker Players.

The other major work on the programme is the Mass in C Major by Beethoven, which is unfortunately not as well represented on choral programmes these days.  In fact, there are not even a large number of good quality recordings of the work currently available, but one with Giulini conducting on EMI Classics is currently available through the Mike's Picks section of my website at

Tickets for tonight's concert should be available at the door if you don't already have them, but I would suggest ordering in advance through the Brock box office if possible by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Sunday afternoon, the Ukrainian Black Sea Hall on Welland Avenue is the scene for the 20th anniversary Women in Music concert, celebrating International Woman's Day.  Hard to believe this is the 20th anniversary, but Laura Thomas, organizer of the event, told me this week it is still very much a labour of love for her and her musical friends making up the group Broadband, who will once again be the featured performers.  Other musical guests will also be featured in a cabaret setting at the Black Sea Hall along with lots of items up for auction as well, with all proceeds from the concert and auction going to help our Hospice Niagara.

Doors open at 3:30 and the concert starts at 4, and Laura tells me the whole event should last about 3 hours.  My far better half, Sophie, always looks forward to this event, so if you have no plans for late Sunday afternoon, this might be something you want to discover for yourself.

Enjoy your weekend!

March 3rd, 2012.