Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What are you doing New Year's Eve?

It is the end of 2013, and if you are like me looking forward to the end of it, let's say in unison "Bring on 2014!"  It has been quite a year, really.

Now, I don't want to dwell on the past year, which for me personally has not been a good year.  But I will say I am looking forward to some better luck in 2014, as are a lot of people, I suspect.  I saw a Facebook posting from a former colleague of mine in the radio business, lamenting the number of people who are complaining about such a lousy year; she would rather people look more optimistically towards the New Year rather than dwell on the past.

I tend to agree with that assessment.  We can all do with a little more looking forward and a little less looking back, so from this humble scribe, we say "Here's to a better 2014!"

So, what are you planning to do this evening anyway?  Time was, everyone seemed to go out on New Year's Eve and celebrate, but that seems almost out of fashion these days, doesn't it?  I mean, the last thing I would want to do tonight, for example, is bundle up and freeze in the New Year with Demi Lovato and friends down in Niagara Falls.  I know lots will, and more power to them.  But I have never gotten into that big celebration event thing on this night, partly because for about 20 years or so, I worked New Year's Eve until well past midnight, so I almost don't know how to go out and celebrate on this night.

I recall one year about 15 years ago I spent New Year's Eve at a National Ballet of Canada Gala in Toronto and yes, it was fun.  But as Peggy Lee once sang in that classic hit from 1969, afterwards I thought to myself, "Is That All There Is?"

So, I suspect I am not the only one planning a quiet night in tonight, especially with a cold wind howling outside as I write this.  There is something to be said for curling up on the couch in your PJs with someone near and dear to you, and simply ignoring the world.  Heck, I often go to bed by 11 as I do most nights anyway, figuring, quite correctly I feel, 2014 will still be here when I wake up in the morning.

As I was thinking about this night earlier today, I started to think of the utter lack of music written specifically for this evening.  Oh, there has been music written for this night to be sure, but compared to a week ago, not that much really.

I have three New Year's Eve-specific songs in my personal collection I usually pull out this evening if nothing special is planned, and you'll laugh when you hear the archaic pieces I am referring to.  First up, a classic song recorded by several singers over the years, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?".  The version I have is by Johnny Mathis of all people and is a romantic ditty about a guy hoping to get the girl on this so-called night of nights.

Second up is a Nat King Cole song from an old Capitol album titled "The Great Songs!" from the early 60s, featuring the orchestra and chorus arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins.  It is only one song on the album that has to do with this night, and it is a Jenkins original, in fact, titled "Happy New Year".  It is about the saddest song for this night you can imagine, about a guy who doesn't even have a girl he wishes to get on this night.  The Great Songs, eh?  Maybe not this one.

Finally, Abba recorded a song called "Happy New Year" on the album "Super Trooper" years ago, and yes, I have a soft spot for this recording to this day.  Maybe it is the two females in Abba looking so good on the album jacket, but hey, a guy can dream, can't he?

See what I mean?  Not much has been written over the years for this night, and yet music is always a part of the celebrations.  Oh sure, if you go really old school you listen to Guy Lombardo's Auld Lang Syne (come to think of it, I do have a recording of that somewhere) but that might be going too far back.

So maybe a movie instead to flesh out the evening.  It had better be good, though, as I don't plan to stay up late...

Happy New Year, and here's to a great 2014!

December 31st, 2013.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A tail (not tale) of three cats

I promised on Facebook yesterday I would relate the bittersweet story of our cat situation this weekend, so we'll dispense with my usual coverage of the local arts scene for this weekend and return to that subject again in the new year.

First, let me say my wife and I are pet people; we love pets, especially cats, although we have had a dog we lost to cancer several years ago.  Pets may come and pets may go, but they leave an indelible mark on your heart you can never forget.  So it is - and has been - with the myriad of pets we have allowed to own us over the past dozen years or so.

Since we don't have children, the cats are essentially our kids, and we do what proud parents do:  celebrate the good times with them; deal with the bad times, and through it all, love them unconditionally as they do us.  What more symbiotic relationship can there be than a man or woman and their beloved pet?

Let me introduce you to the current brood we share our home with in St. Catharines.  First we have Pia, short for Olympia (my wife is Greek, need you ask), although I often referred to her as Princess since she ruled over her kingdom when she first arrived on the scene in 2006.  She was the runt of a litter abandoned in a field in Niagara, and suffered a torn lower lip before she arrived with us, sewn up and ready for a new life.  Tiny, she was only about 5 pounds even fully grown, all white with a dark spot on the top of her head, and two different coloured eyes.  She had what some would call a "delicious temper", but others might call it attitude.  Upon arriving on the scene, she promptly whipped the two elder statesmen of cats we had at the time, Pushkin and Tom Kitten, into line.

Next on the scene in 2008 was Sweet Pea, a female tabby who came to us via a friend who found her abandoned in Short Hills Provincial Park, and couldn't keep her due to the fact she had dogs of her own.  We took Sweet Pea in and she proceeded to dominate the other cats in short order, although oddly, she had a soft spot for old Tom Kitten and they often played together in the sunroom.  Sweet Pea, sort of the "Grand Dame" of the cat world, was sort of a den-mother to the others, cleaning up the litter box mess after the others used it, among other things.

The third addition to the brood came via our neighbours who adopted him from the Niagara Falls Humane Society a couple of years ago, and he was not comfortable with their older tabby, Hobbs, nor with being outside in the neighbourhood.  Shalom, a small black male cat with rather a rather dainty character, would routinely visit many of the houses on the street, crashing on their couch and mooching food, all the while ingratiating himself to one and all.  He did the same in our house, often spending more time inside than outside, playing with our other two cats, Pia and Sweet Pea.  Sweet Pea was particularly fond of Shalom, so after much discussion with our understanding neighbour, it was decided Shalom would stay with us permanently.

In August of this year, not long after I lost my full-time position with my previous employer in fact, Pia took a turn for the worse that resulted in a visit to the local emergency clinic on Labour Day weekend.  There she stayed for a few days, and we discovered this tiny, young little cat had diabetes.  How could it be?  There was no logical explanation for it:  clearly she was not overweight and she was only about seven years old.  But diabetes was the diagnosis, so we were faced with insulin injections twice a day and a special diet, along with regular checkups to check blood glucose levels and such.

This we managed rather well until late November when Pia, after going off insulin for a few days to see if she was in fact in remission, went into a tailspin with her blood glucose levels shooting up in short order.  Getting the diabetes back under control proved problematic and very tricky.  Pia being so small, the dosage had to be minuscule.  Things improved somewhat until late November when Pia's condition worsened considerably.  We were faced with the eternal dilemma:  pull the plug or work on finding another treatment that might stabilize her condition.

After much soul searching and observing she still had quite a bit of fight left in her even in her weakened state, we decided she wasn't yet ready to go.  We were referred to the emergency pet hospital in Oakville where a planned ultrasound was delayed until they could stabilize her condition.  When done we discovered the diabetes was likely hereditary, and the prolonged high blood glucose levels had likely resulted in kidney damage.  It was not going to be an easy fix, but we faced the situation and decided to go ahead and try to correct things if at all possible.  Five days later, she was released and we took Pia home.

The recovery was slow but sure, with a different type of insulin helping to stabilize the situation for about a month.  Now, while all this was going on, a week after Pia came home I did the unthinkable:  while putting the garbage out one afternoon, Shalom managed to slip out the door behind me and escape my grasp, thanks to being chased by another cat over our fence.

The evening of December 10th was spent scouring the neighbourhood looking for Shalom and actually coming close to catching him one street over, but he was clearly ill at ease with the situation and bolted over the neighbour's fence, and in the dark of night, a black cat was not to be found anywhere.

Immediately posters were put up around the neighbourhood, 70 flyers were distributed to homes and businesses in the area, the Lincoln County Humane Society and St. Catharines Pets Alive, among other organizations, were notified of Shalom's disappearance.  I was regularly walking the neighbourhood, treat bag in hand, trying to find him, and calls from observant residents and business owners came in on a regular basis, all to no avail.

The stress level for both Sophie and I was considerable, as we had just brought Pia back home after almost losing her and then this happened.  The Christmas season was not shaping up as a good one any way you look at it.  And for good measure, Sophie had to be rushed to St. Joseph's Health Centre in Stoney Creek for emergency laser eye surgery to correct a torn retina the week before Christmas!  That went well, thankfully, but certainly not what we were expecting - or needed - at that point.

While the search for Shalom continued, Pia took another downward turn on Christmas Eve, resulting in a very sad Christmas Day when we felt we had no choice than to let her go that night.  She held on until Boxing Day, once again rallying briefly and starting to eat again for awhile, but clearly, she was out of fight this time.  For a little while in the late afternoon on Boxing Day, we took a drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake to look at the lights, with Pia bundled up in a towel seated in Sophie's lap.  She was watching everything as we drove along, becoming animated at the sight of all the colourful displays.  It will always remain one of the magical, treasured moments of our time with Pia.

We waited until her scheduled visit to the vet on Friday morning in order to properly assess the situation, and it was not a good report.

Pia's blood glucose levels were at their highest point ever, and she had advanced kidney disease.  We could go back for another ultrasound and try more treatments, but at that point we knew the best thing for our little girl was to say goodbye to her, which we very reluctantly did Friday afternoon.  It was one of the toughest things we have had to do as Pia was always a very special cat in so many ways, having survived so many hardships in her young life up to that point.  She is now gone, but will never, ever be forgotten.

When we arrived home about 5 pm, teary-eyed and emotionally wrung out, I decided what I needed most at that moment was a walk to clear my head.  So out the front door I went, and was greeted with the plaintive cry of a cat somewhere nearby clearly in distress.  The noise came from my neighbour's house, where Shalom had begun his tenure in our neighbourhood, and there, behind the wooden lattice work of their front porch was a cat looking back at me.  I coaxed him out and upon doing so, I realized this could only be Shalom; but I had to be sure, so hurriedly I went back to our house and with a struggling, scared cat in my arms, managed to unlock the door and present the evidence to Sophie in the kitchen.

It was Shalom, 17 days missing, and also missing a small chunk of his tail.  Obviously another cat had put the bite on him while he was on the lam, so a quick call to the vet and ten minutes later he was on the examination table there.  He checked out fine, although he had lost a little weight, and his tail, following treatment, really looks awful at the moment.  We are hopeful he will heal, but have to give it some time.

So, from saying goodbye to Pia to one hour later returning with our prodigal cat for an examination?  As a noted author once penned, "It was the best of times and it was the worst of times."  The evening was spent quietly with Shalom and Sweet Pea getting back together again, and Sophie and I both numb from exhaustion after a bittersweet Christmas miracle on December 27th.

I can't say thanks enough to all the people who cared enough to help look for Shalom, with tips, ideas and looking themselves for our missing cat.  What a tremendous team effort in a neighbourhood that knows the value of a pet in your life.  To all of you, Sophie and I are forever grateful.

We are also eternally grateful to Dr. Locking, Dr. Wagar and the rest of the caring staff at Fairview Animal Clinic, as well as all the staff we met at the Niagara Emergency Pet Hospital and the Oakville/Mississauga Pet Hospital for all their efforts caring for Pia over the last several months.

Yes, it has been a tough week and we lost Pia.  But we are at peace with the decision now, knowing we did the right thing at precisely the right time.  You have to accept that and move on, and Shalom returning at that exact time was, if not providence, certainly a turn of good luck much needed right now.

You can't put a value on what a pet brings into your life; nor can you quantify the return on the investment you make in them over time.  But you can be thankful for the time you have with them and be thankful for how much they enrich your lives.  We do that each and every day, and that makes every day very special in this household.  I hope the same holds true for you and your household.

So, with all these vet bills we have to deal with, Daddy needs to find a full time job more than ever now, so after New Year's the search will continue at an even more accelerated pace.

Speaking of which, about that walk I was planning for myself last evening...

Happy New Year, from Mike, Sophie, Shalom, Sweet-Pea, and yes, Pia too.

December 28th, 2013.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Some thoughts on this Christmas Eve

Here we are, on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve in Niagara.  Last year if I recall correctly, it was more green than white out there, at least in the early evening.  But this year, we do have that much-coveted "White Christmas".  Let's enjoy it and all this time of year brings with it.  But also, a few other things we should keep in mind, too.

This year, I find a lot of friends and acquaintances have been dealing with loss of some kind.  At least three in recent weeks I know personally have suffered the loss of a family member; several more have lost a beloved pet, which for most of us is every bit as difficult to deal with, especially over the holidays.

Some may say they are just pets, but to pet owners, they are part of the family, and we should never forget that when someone you know loses a pet for whatever reason, especially at this time of year.  Certainly we all grieve in different ways, but we grieve nevertheless.

In spite of the economic improvement we are reminded about by our elected officials at this time of year, the fact remains many people are in a very bad financial situation, often through no fault of their own.  Job loss at any time is a terrible blow to deal with, but at this time of year it can be especially difficult.  Not everyone is gainfully employed and as such, have limited resources at their disposal to celebrate the holidays.

The mounting client list at such agencies such as The Salvation Army or Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold tell the tale:  more and more people find it difficult to make ends meet on their own, and they reach out in desperation for a helping hand from the community at large.  It is not only our preference to help out; indeed it is the duty of each and every one of us to help out.

Let's not forget those displaced individuals hit hard by the ice-storm of the past weekend, especially in cities such as Toronto, where at last word over 200,000 people were still without power and could be until the end of the week.  These people need help, as well as being kept in our thoughts and prayers at this time of year.

Right now at this very moment, hospitals throughout the area are not empty.  Patients often don't get to go home for Christmas, so they should be remembered as well as the many shut-ins unable to travel easily for whatever reason at Christmastime or any time.

There is much to love about this season, and much for each and every one of us to celebrate.  But let's not forget the less fortunate amongst us as we go about our holiday celebrating with friends and family.  It is the Canadian thing to do, certainly, and the right thing to do.

We all have much to be thankful for and with which to count our respective blessings.  We live in the greatest country in the world, and we are - or at least should be - very proud of that fact.  Canada is just not another country to the rest of the world, it is Canada, a place people often risk their lives for in order to come here.  We have so much to offer the world, and we have to remember that.

For myself on a personal level, yes, this season has brought with it a set of hardships I have not experienced before, having lost my full-time job earlier this year, and finding it difficult to keep my own spirits up at Christmas.  But I am hopeful the new year will bring with it a new job, new optimism, and the return of our beloved Shalom, a little black cat who went missing two weeks ago this evening.

I am especially thankful this evening for my sister and her family being down in Niagara from their home in Kenora for a few days, and we will celebrate a family Christmas for the first time in many years together.  This celebration could not have come at a better time for me.

I am also very thankful my previous employer, CKTB RADIO, has agreed to allow me to host the annual Midnight Mass radio broadcast this evening beginning at 11:30 pm.  This is something very near and dear to my heart, as this will be the 81st consecutive broadcast live from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines.  There have only been three hosts for these radio broadcasts since the first one in 1932:  Edward T. Boyne began the tradition, followed by Johnny Morrison, and he passed the reigns to me for my first broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1989.  So this will be number 24 for me, and I hope to at least make it to my 25th next year if not more.

So yes, we all have plenty to be thankful for, and we should remember that the rest of the year when the holiday spirit might not seem quite so evident.

However you celebrate, whatever you celebrate, and whomever you celebrate with at this time of year, I wish you good health, happiness and the richness that comes from friends and family near and dear to you gathering together for another Christmas.

From my house to your house, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

December 24th, 2013.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas music...good and bad...

I'm having a quiet evening in, with the weather expected to turn nasty later this evening, and I started thinking about some of the Christmas music I have loved - and not loved - over the years.  Much of it I have enjoyed hearing year after year, but as a general rule, anything newer than say, 20 years ago, isn't worth the time to listen to.

I know this certifies me as a charter member of the Old Fogey's Club International, but let me explain.  I was watching the Michael Buble Christmas Special (Third Annual!) on CTV earlier this evening, and I got to thinking as good as he and his musical guests were and are, there just seems to be something missing in recordings and live performances today.  I found Mariah Carey especially vexing, as she just doesn't seem to instill any heart into her renditions of timeless classics.  Slickly produced, yes.  Heartwarming, no.

So who ranks up there with some of the best Christmas performers and their respective recordings we likely all grew up with?  Without a doubt, the all-time champ has to be Bing Crosby, whose White Christmas recording originally on Decca has never been out of print, I believe.  Yes, I have a copy in my collection.  Even Sinatra's A Jolly Christmas on Capitol, which I am listening to while I write this, has its moments of archaic pleasure through the arrangements of Gordon Jenkins.

Others we've enjoyed over the years?  Andy Williams and Perry Como, both Christmas icons with their own Christmas TV specials for many years, and unfortunately both passing away in recent years, defined what great Christmas music pop music should be.  Both artists have nice collections available on Real Gone Music now, with the Perry Como set especially nice as it compiles on three discs all of his classic Christmas recordings along with some rare radio broadcast performances.  The Tony Bennett Christmas Album from Sony still sounds great, thanks to the exceptionally smooth and swinging arrangements of ex-Canadian Robert Farnon.

Instrumentally, the Vince Guaraldi Trio's classic recording A Charlie Brown Christmas is another disc that has never been out of print and with good reason.  It just makes you feel good.  New this year, and this I admit might be gilding the lily a little bit, is the fact accompanying the disc is a build-it-yourself Snoopy doghouse!  Even the original Mannheim Steamroller Christmas disc from 1984 has its nicer moments, including a very nice version of Silent Night recreated last weekend with the Niagara Symphony at their Holiday Pops concerts.

Oh, there are plenty of others, too.  Percy Faith's first two Columbia albums of Christmas music are newly-available on a two-disc set from Real Gone Music, with the second disc out of print for years until now.  The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir apparently masquerading as the Temple University Concert Choir, recorded in 1962, still sounds great today.  Arthur Harris did the arrangements on this one, and they have always been some of my favourites.  The disc is still in print, and I still have it in stock if you would like it for the holidays.   The second volume, incidentally, has sadly been out of print for years now.

I could go on and on with some of the classic discs of Christmas music I love and have had in my personal collection for years now.  But how about the ones I personally try to avoid?  Oh, the anguish even talking about them!  Some of these may surprise you but in no particular order, here are some of my Christmas recordings I dearly try to avoid at this time of year, and most of which get far too much airplay in order for me to properly avoid them.

Rockin' Round The Christmas Tree - Brenda Lee
I used to like this little piece, but really, it is played so often you can't help but be sick of it by the last week of November, when most radio station playlists have run it through the system countless times already.  The only thing worse than Brenda's classic take on this is any other version of it.  I heard a new version this year with a bunch of tenors doing it, and sorry, it just sounds stupid.  The mere thought of a bunch of tenors "rockin' round the Christmas tree" defies logic.

Feliz Navidad - Jose Feliciano
Okay, it sounds rather contemporary, as it dates from about 1971, so radio stations love it, but by about the 50th refrain of "I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas" I just wanna turn the thing off...

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Jimmy Boyd
This oldie from 1952 just sounds silly; how would you like to be in the chorus on this one singing for scale while this little kid with not much of a voice gets top billing?  And when will be get a song about Daddy Kissing Santa Claus?  Oh wait, we did thanks to comedian Kip Addotta.

Santa Baby - Madonna
The original from Eartha Kitt in 1953 borders on awful, but you know she was having us on back then, singing about the crass commercialism she personified with her stage persona.  But Madonna, you sort of think she believes it all.  In these more austere times, no thanks, Madonna.

Santa Got Run Over By a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
Worst Christmas sing-along song...ever.

Wonderful Christmastime - Paul McCartney
Maybe he really needed the money for some reason back then, but really, Sir Paul, you mailed it in with this one.  You should lose your knighthood over this piece of musical tripe.

Sleigh Ride - Leroy Anderson
This one might raise some eyebrows...actually, I love the piece and the virtuoso trumpet "whinny" at the end, but every orchestra (including our own Niagara Symphony) programs this every year at their Christmas concert; it would be nice to hear the Leopold Mozart A Musical Sleigh Ride or even the much more restrained and elegant Sleigh Ride by Frederick Delius for a change.  Besides, I couldn't help but think at the NSO concert last weekend, the fill-in percussionist just looked so "thrilled" to be ringing those sleigh bells for almost 3 minutes straight.  He had a look that suggested he was thinking "I spent how many years taking music in university for this?!"

Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
Same rule applies here as it does with Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree.  Too much airplay and you get sick of it.  Besides, not much "rockin'"going on with this song anyways...

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas - Gayla Peevey
Like little Jimmy Boyd, the shelf life of Gayla Peevey, who recorded this in 1953, was very short, but not short enough, unfortunately.

Twelve Days of Christmas - Bob & Doug McKenzie
Pretty much any version of this song is annoying, what with financial planners declaring each year how much it would cost to actually pay for the things and people listed in the song, but the Bob & Doug McKenzie version is the worst of the lot for those of us tired of the Great White North stereotype portrayed by these two and their love of beer.  Not all of us love our beer, uh, gentlemen...

So there you go, my Top Ten of songs to avoid this and any holiday season.  If you want any of the good ones (oh, what the heck, any of the bad ones, too!), I am always at your service at www.finemusic.ca, or email me directly at music@vaxxine.com.

Happy Holidays!

December 21st, 2013.

Friday, December 13, 2013

More holiday events in December

Last week I offered a variety of concerts and other holiday-themed events based primarily in the Niagara area; this week I will look a little further afield and see what else is going on you might want to catch this season, along with a couple more local events I missed on last week's entry.

Niagara Falls History Museum
The wonderfully renovated Niagara Falls History Museum presents a Christmas concert Saturday evening of this weekend featuring the Baker Street Victorian Carollers directed by Richard Crossman.  Four part harmonies and timeless music should make for an enjoyable evening in the intimate setting of the small theatre space at the museum.  Tickets are only $ 10 each and only available in advance, so I would suggest calling first thing in the morning to make sure there is space available.  Call 905-358-5082 or go to www.niagarafallsmuseums.ca.

Shaw Festival
Last week I wrote about the 13th Annual Christmas Coral Concert coming up this Sunday evening at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I received late word this week members of the acting ensemble will present the annual dramatic reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with musical accompaniment at St. Mark's Anglican Church at 41 Byron Street.  The performance takes place December 22nd at 3 pm, with proceeds to benefit Bethlehem Housing and Support Services.  For tickets, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2172 or pick them up at the door.

Wellington Winds
Now moving further afield from Niagara, Music Director Daniel Warren and the acclaimed Wellington Winds present Joyeux Noel with the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir, directed by Amanda Brunk, on Sunday, December 15th at 3 pm.  Along with Carol of the Bells and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, they will also be performing The Adoration of the Magi and something called Donkey Sleighridge, among other musical offerings.  Tickets should be available at the door at Knox Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, or in advance by calling 1-519-669-1327 or go to www.wellingtonwinds.ca.

Elora Festival Singers
There are two performances of the choir's popular Festival of Carols concert, both on December 18th.  The first is at 5 pm; the second at 7:30 pm, and both at the lovely home base of the Elora Festival Singers, St. John's Church in Elora.  I love the sound of this choir and the warm acoustic of the church as well as the organ when talented individuals like Michael Bloss take command of the keyboard.  For tickets, call the box office at 1-519-846-0331 or go to www.elorafestival.com.

Guelph Chamber Choir
The Guelph Chamber Choir under their longtime conductor Gerald Neufeld will present their annual performance of Handel's great oratorio Messiah at the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph on Saturday, December 21st at 8 pm.  I have caught their Messiah in the past and the hall just resonates with the choir and musicians every season.  It is a Messiah well worth driving up to Guelph for!  Tickets are available at the door or by going to www.guelphchamberchoir.ca.

Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra
Finally, the HPO presents their annual Christmas concert, entitled Home for the Holidays, on Saturday, December 21st at 7:30 pm at the Great Hall of Hamilton Place.  The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Music Director James Sommerville will welcome special guests the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the acclaimed Hamilton Children's Choir.  For tickets, call the box office at 1-905-526-7756 or go to www.hpo.org.

So there you go, lots of great opportunities to get out and enjoy some wonderful music this holiday season!

December 13th, 2013.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Christmas concerts all around us!

We are well into December now, and there is no shortage of holiday (can I say Christmas?) concerts available in the Niagara area as well as further afield.  So this weekend, I thought I would round up a listing of some of the more notable musical events coming up this month you might want to catch.  This is by no means a complete list; a more complete listing can be found on the Calendar page of my website at www.finemusic.ca.  Happy holidays!

Chorus Niagara
Niagara's premiere choral ensemble presents their annual Christmas concert tonight, in fact, at Calvary Church in north St. Catharines at 7:30 with "A Canadian Christmas Carol."  Artistic Director Robert Cooper has programmed an evening of Canadian carols (yes, there are plenty of them!) as well as poetry, prose and images of the season, with Chorus Niagara being joined by narrator Benedict Campbell and organist Lynne Honsberger.  For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or you can pick them up at the door this evening.

Niagara Symphony (NSO)
Next weekend the Niagara Symphony hosts their Family Series concert Saturday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.  The highlight of the shorter concert will be Raymond Briggs' The Snowman, and the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, along with a full complement of seasonal favourites, all conducted by Associate Conductor Laura Thomas.  The narrator for The Snowman is Niagara/Toronto broadcaster Frank Proctor, and the soprano soloists are Carlo Rescigno and Alexandre Brillon.

Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30, the NSO presents their Holiday Pops! concert, with Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducting the orchestra with guest vocalist Joey DeBenedetto along with the Chorus Niagara Children's Choir.  Local broadcaster Tim Denis is the narrator for both concerts, entitled "A Radio City Christmas!" and will be featured on the classic Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.  Lots more music on the programme as well, including the ever-popular Christmas Festival by Leroy Anderson.  For tickets to all the NSO concerts, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  Once again, I will be in the lobby before, after and during intermission with a table brimming with great music available for purchase, too!

Rotary Christmas Choral Concert
The 13th Annual Rotary Christmas Choral Concert comes up December 15th at 7 pm at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Area choirs will be participating in the inter-denominational event, including the Bethany Mennonite Church, Niagara United Mennonite Church, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Grace United Church and the Evergreen Singers, as well as the St. Vincent Catholic Church Choir.  The ever-popular Bethany Handbell Choir as well as the St. Michaels School Glee Club and a host of instrumental musicians will also be taking part.

This is a fundraiser for the Rotary Club of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and tickets are only $ 20 for adults and $ 10 for children under 12.  Proceeds go to the St. Georges Outreach Breakfast Programme in St. Catharines.  For tickets, call the Shaw Festival box office, or pick them up at any of the participating churches or Simpson's Pharmasave & Simpson's Apothecary in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Gallery Players of Niagara
Niagara's premiere chamber music ensemble presents "A Glissandi Christmas" Friday evening, December 20th and Saturday, December 21st, both concerts at 7:30 pm.  The Friday concert is at Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake; the Saturday concert is at Rodman Hall Arts Centre in St. Catharines.  Guest narrator will be Shaw Festival actor Guy Bannerman on Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and a selection of poems and short stories.  Musicians are Deborah Braun, harp; Douglas Miller, flute; and David Braun, violin.

Tickets will be available at the door at both concerts, or you can purchase them in advance at 905-468-1525, or log on to www.galleryplayers.ca.

Centre for the Arts, Brock University
The seasonal favourite The Nutcracker is presented by Ballet Jorgen Canada Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the David S. Howes Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, and at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, the Leahy Family Christmas comes up December 19th at 7:30 pm, and local favourite John McDermott brings his holiday show back to Brock on Secember 21st at 2:30 pm.  There is always lots of great programming available at the Centre for the Arts beyond the seasonal offerings, of course, and you can find out the complete listings by going to my Calendar page at www.finemusic.ca.

For tickets go to www.Arts.BrockU.ca or call 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or toll free, 1-866-617-3257.

That's it for the local listings; mid-week we'll look at some of the out-of town concerts and events still to come this month.

Enjoy the weekend!

December 7th, 2013.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

HPO & NSO set to entertain this weekend

Last evening I wrote about the Shaw Festival Film Series kicking off this afternoon in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  But if you are looking for some live music instead, or perhaps want to do it all, well you can this weekend.

Both the Hamilton Philharmonic and the Niagara Symphony perform this weekend with widely varied programmes with a twist, and both very worth your time and consideration.

First of all, this evening the Hamilton Philharmonic along with Music Director Jamie Sommerville present Tom Allen's Classical Goodtime Variety Show.  Needless to say, the special guest artist is Tom Allen, the ever popular CBC Radio 2 host who happens to weave music and words together better than anyone else on the public broadcasting airwaves in this country at the moment.

I miss Tom in the mornings now, but always enjoy his take on music history after lunch most days, even though the back half of the show after about 2:30 usually means I tend to tune out most days.  But he is good, and will certainly be a welcome addition to the concert this evening at Hamilton Place.

Along with well-known pieces such as Handel's Water Music and the Overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni, Tom will also host his popular orchestral cage match, where the audience decides whether they want to hear Berlioz' March to the Scaffold from Symphonie Fantastique or the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah.

The concert will also mark the final time Jamie Sommerville will play the French horn with the HPO before his time with the orchestra comes to an end; he will play the much-loved Rondo from Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major, by the way.

If you want to go, the concert is tonight at 7:30 at the Great Hall at Hamilton Place, and tickets should still be available through the box office by calling 905-526-7756, or online at www.hpo.org.  You can also take a chance in person tonight, but with this concert I am not sure I would be willing to take that chance.

Meantime, our own Niagara Symphony Orchestra kicks off December with their Masterworks 2 concert tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, with a concert entitled simply Reminiscing...  Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducts the NSO and welcomes guest soloist Lauren Segal for the concert.

Lauren Segal is one of the new crop of up-and-coming Canadian opera singers to watch for in the future, and you can catch her this weekend performing one of my favourite song-cycles of all time, Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer.  Many singers have recorded this music over the years, from Fischer-Dieskau to another Canadian singer of note, Catherine Robbin, who made a lovely recording of the song-cycle for CBC Records many years ago.  That recording is still a treasured part of my personal CD collection.

Also on the programme tomorrow afternoon is John Estacio's Variations on a Memory and Schubert's wonderful Symphony No. 9 in C major, known as the "Great".

This is also the weekend for the annual Niagara Symphony fundraising Silent Auction in the lobby, before the concert and during the extended intermission.  You never know what you might find at the Silent Auction, but it is guaranteed to be worth a look.  Last year for example, I successfully bid on Power of Attorney and Will preparation for two courtesy of Patrick Little, a Niagara Symphony board member.  That to me was a deal of the century, so that's an example of what you can find on the tables in the lobby.

What you won't find in the lobby this weekend is me; because space is tight I am not setting up this weekend, but I plan to be there, so by all means keep an eye out for me if you have any questions on music or looking for something as a holiday gift this season.

For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext, 3257, or pick them up at the door before the concert, and prepare to do some Christmas shopping!

See you at the Symphony!

November 30th, 2013.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shaw Festival Film Series set to get underway

I promised last week I would update the winter film series this weekend, so let's get right to it, as the series starts up again for the ninth year in a row at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Essentially, the film series is divided up into two sub-series: the more popular Feature Films that screen Saturday afternoons at 3 pm and the more esoteric Documentary Films that screen Friday evenings at 6 pm.  All screenings are at the comfortable Festival Theatre, which is an ideal location for a film in order to escape winter's chill for a while.

The Feature Films begin this Saturday afternoon, in fact, with the screening of Golden Globe and Oscar winning filmmaker Susanne Bier's romantic comedy Love Is All You Need, starring Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm.  The feature films continue until February 15th of 2014.

The rest of the Feature Film series lines up this way:

December 7 - Unfinished Song
December 14 - Short Term 12
December 12 - The Hunt
December 28 - The Sapphires
January 4 - The Way Way Back
January 11 - Don Jon
January 18 - Blue Jasmine
January 25 - Philomena
February 1 - August:  Osage Country
February 8 - Enough Said
February 15 - Inside Llewyn Davis

You'll notice Philomena in there, which is just opening in theatres now in Niagara, so you can see the series has a nice mix of new and not quite so new to keep you entertained.

The six-film Documentary series kicks off January 3rd at 6 pm with Twenty Feet from Stardom, an American documentary film by veteran documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville.  The film shows us a glimpse into the lives of the unknown backup singers whose voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music.

The rest of the Documentary Film series lines up like this:

January 10 - Casting By
January 17 - We Steal Secrets:  The Story of Wikileaks
January 24 - Scatter May Ashes at Bergdorf's
February 7 - Good Ol' Freda
February 14 - Muscle Shoals

Again, the films are fairly contemporary, and I have found the documentaries to be generally more interesting than the feature films, but that's just my opinion.  Make of it what you will!

New this year is a fundraising event featuring A Royal Affair, the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated historical drama film directed by Nikolaj Arcel.  The fundraising event benefits the Festival Film Series and is scheduled for February 22nd at 7 pm.  There will be a post-show reception with food and wine available, and will be held in the Macdonald Heaslip Lounge at the Festival Theatre.  Tickets for the film and reception are $ 85; for the film only, just $ 25.

Returning this year will be the enormously popular Gathering Niagara's LunchMarket at the Feature Film Series, which is a great way to extend your film experience at Shaw.  Local food trucks and vendors set up before the Saturday afternoon screenings about 1:30 pm.  This feature is still fairly new to the film series, but has proven to be very popular indeed.  No overpriced popcorn, as far as I can tell, by the way...

The tickets for either series are $ 12 per film, with a Festival Film Pass available for $ 130, and an 8 film "Stocking Stuffer" pass going for $ 88.  You can also purchase a pass to all six documentary films for $ 60.  For tickets to either series as well as individual tickets and of course the fundraising event on February 22nd, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2172, or log on to www.shawfest.com/films.

You can also access the complete film lineup by going to www.shawfest.com/films or go to the Calendar page of my website at www.finemusic.ca.  You can access film descriptions at tiff.net/filmcircuit.

Both film series have proven to be very popular beyond Niagara-on-the-Lake, so be sure to leave yourself lots of time to get parked and find a good seat, and even hit the food vendors beforehand if you are so inclined.

See you at the movies!

November 29th, 2013.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shaw Festival news

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the 2014 season announced at the Stratford Festival, and I knew before the month was out I would be doing the same for our very own Shaw Festival, who are currently riding a tide of good feelings following a very successful 2013 season in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The 2014 season will be the Shaw's 53rd season, and for me it is hard to believe it has already been two years since the big 50th anniversary season with that fabulous production of My Fair Lady.  But for the Festival, as celebratory as that season was, it was perhaps best to put it in the rear-view mirror since they experienced a financial loss that season due to the increased costs incurred in celebrating the milestone.  As mentioned in an earlier column, 2013 was very much a bounce back season for Shaw, so it is onwards and upwards for one of the greatest theatre companies in North America, and they are right here in our own backyard.

One of the nice things for the coming season will be the return of several familiar faces to Niagara-on-the-Lake, including Deborah Hay, Fiona Reid, Mary Haney, Kate Hennig, Kevin Hanchard, Gordon Rand, Thom Marriott, Fiona Byrne, Jonathan Tan, Norman Browning and the one and only Jennifer Phipps.  All great performers, true, and it will be wonderful to welcome them all back.  But consider this:  did you miss them, really?

I don't mean that as a slight to any of them in any way.  My point is, Shaw casts their shows so well and has such a deep pool of theatrical talent to draw from, they find the right people each and every year.  One of the nice things about having two great theatre festivals in the province, Shaw and Stratford, is that many of these performers can and do travel from one to the other and back again.  Going to one festival does not preclude them returning to the other in the future, and I think that kind of genial democratic approach is to be admired.

Certainly part of the travel might be due to the roles offered, but partly it is the different personalities and how they interact with each other.  Theatre is all about teamwork on every level, and so a clever and perceptive artistic directer knows how to assemble a cast from their own talent pool and where they have to go to hire the rest.  All the performers know each other and many have worked with fellow actors at both festivals over time.  I like that.

Often, an actor very closely associated with one festival heads to the other and you just have to see them to see how the harmonic convergence works out.  I remember years ago the late, great Stratford actor William Hutt was lured to Shaw by Christopher Newton for one magical season, and I remember that performance to this very day.  So too, Shaw's Goldie Semple, whom we lost far too early in her career, appeared several seasons at Stratford as well.  What's more, in each and every case, these actors appear right at home in their new theatrical setting for that particular season.

So, what's on tap for Shaw in 2014?  Here's the lineup:

CABARET - Previews start April 10; opens May 10 and closes October 26.
The big news here is the return of Deborah Hay to play the pivotal role of Sally Bowles, playing opposite Juan Chioran as The Emcee.  The show is directed by Peter Hinton, who wowed audiences this past season with Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY - Previews start May 15; opens June 7 and closes October 25.
Philip Barry's romantic comedy stars Moya O'Connell, Gray Powell and Patrick McManus, and is directed by Dennis Garnhum.

THE PHILANDERER - Previews start June 26; opens July 12 and closes October 12.
Bernard Shaw's evergreen story of a philandering rake is directed by Lisa Peterson, and stars Gordon Rand as the charismatic Leonard Charteris opposite Moya O'Connell's Julia Craven.  Also appearing are Marla McLean, Michael Ball and Ric Reid, among others.

A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR - Previews start June 28; opens July 12 and closes October 11.  This play by Tennessee Williams is very seldom staged, which means it is a perfect vehicle to rediscover at Shaw.  The all-female cast brings this one-act play to life with Kate Hennig, Deborah Hay, Julian Molnar and Kaylee Harwood making up the female foursome here.  The play will be directed by always reliable Blair Williams.

THE CHARITY THAT BEGAN AT HOME:  A COMEDY FOR PHILANTHROPISTS - Previews start April 25; opens May 10 and closes October 11.  Written by St. John Hankin, this rarely-seen comedy will star Fiona Reid, making her first Shaw Festival appearance in ten years as the misguided matriarch Lady Denison.  Also in the cast are Julia Course, Martin Happer, Graeme Somerville, Laurie Paton, Sharry Flett, Donna Belleville, Jim Mezon and Neil Barclay.  Now that is a great cast!  Directing will be Christopher Newton, so this one will certainly be a must-see.

THE SEA - Previews begin June 3; opens July 11 and closes October 12.  This Edward Bond play marks the first time the playwright is presented at Shaw, and once again Fiona Reid appears in the cast, along with Patrick Galligan, Wade Bogert-O-Brien, Peter Millard, Julia Course and many others.  Eda Holmes directs this comic view of pre-WWI England.

ARMS AND THE MAN - Previews start April 4; opens May 9 and closes October 18.  Bernard Shaw's classic comedy about love, war and so much more stars Martin Happer, Kate Besworth, Graeme Somerville, Laurie Paton, Norman Browning, Peter Krantz and Claire Jullian, and will be directed by Morris Panych.

WHEN WE ARE MARRIED - Previews starts May 7; opens June 6 and closes October 26.  Real-life couple Thom Marriott and Claire Jullien are one of the trio of couples in this comedy by J.B. Priestley.  Also in the cast are Patrick Galligan, Kate Hennig, Catherine McGregor and Patrick McManus, among others.  Joseph Ziegler will direct.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK - Previews start June 28; opens July 25 and closes October 12.  Jackie Maxwell directs this Sean O'Casey play that marks the return of Shaw stalwart Mary Haney, who appears along with Jim Mezon, Benedict Campbell, Andrew Bunker, Corrine Koslo and many others.  It will also feature original music by Paul Sportelli.

THE MOUNTAINTOP - Previews begin July 16; opens July 26 and closes September 7.  This play by Katori Hall features the return of Kevin Hanchard, last scene at Shaw in Topdog/Underdog and The Millionairess.  Here, he plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Alana Hibbert as a young hotel maid named Camae.  The play will be directed by Philip Akin.

So there you have it.  I can hardly wait to see many of these plays next season!  If you want more information on all shows and of course, buy your tickets, go to www.shawfest.com.

Next week, we'll look at the always-popular winter film series at Shaw, which gets underway next weekend.

November 24th, 2013.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hitchcock tonight at the Niagara Falls Museum

Okay, maybe the title of my posting is a little misleading, but it caught your attention, right?  Actually, my far better half and I ventured to the newly-renovated Niagara Falls History Museum at 5810 Ferry Street this evening for the final film in the Hitchcock series, which has been going on through the fall months.

Tonight's film was a somewhat lesser-known Hitchcock film, The Wrong Man, from 1956.  Starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, the film is apparently based on a true story, and Hitch just happened to take it to heart, producing what was for him at least, a rather touching look at how a case of mistaken identity can not only change lives, but can very nearly destroy them, too.

If you have not seen the film you really should rent it or in modern parlance, download it to your computer (from a reputable source, of course).  It is a little longer than some of Hitchcock's classic films, but even at 105 minutes it seems to be cut too short at the end.

Shot in glorious black and white in New York City, although much of the inside scenes were shot on a soundstage somewhere, it really takes you back to a much simpler time with different values and people's misconceptions looking downright archaic in this day and age.

What I liked about the film is the very fact it is from an age when cell phones were not readily available, so you had to wait to find a rotary dial phone, for example.  A time when men routinely wore a shirt, tie and suit wherever they went, and of course, a fedora was pretty much standard equipment.  The men just look great, frankly, and I miss that in modern day society.  Heck, even the criminals are reasonably well-dressed in this film!

Yes, the women dress conservatively and well, too, but that is almost expected from that era.

The film series is a relatively new experiment at the newly expanded and renovated Niagara Falls History Museum, and I think they might very well be on to something here.  The room for the film screenings is, shall we say, cosy, but full to capacity on this night for the free screening.  The museum itself is absolutely spectacular and certainly a credit to the City of Niagara Falls and indeed the Region.  If you have not been, you really should spend some time down there, and now is a perfect time with the tourist season done for another year.

As for the film series, this round is done now, and programmer Joan Nicks, who introduces each film, has planned a science fiction film series for the winter months, starting in February.  Sci-fi films are not really my thing, so I might sit the next series out, but if you are interested, here is the lineup for the next series:

February 6, 2014 - Blade Runner/Ridley Scott, 1982
February 20, 2014 - Solaris/Steven Soderberg, 2002
March 6, 2014 - Moon/Duncan Jones, 2009
March 20, 2014 - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy/Garth Jennings, 2005
April 3, 2014 - To Be Announced (but Joan promises it will be a surprise!)

The science fiction film series will tie in neatly with a new exhibition opening at the museum January 16 to April 20, titled Space.  According to the handout this evening, you'll be able to stretch out under the stars in a portable planetarium and see a moon rock on loan from NASA brought back to earth from an Apollo mission.  Now that, I could get interested in.

Anyway, a great turnout tonight for the final Hitchcock film, and it was nice to meet up with local traveller George Bailey, formerly of the Niagara Parks Commission, and my own personal history idol, Niagara Falls and NPC Official Historian Sherman Zavitz.  You just never know who you'll run into at the museum on a rainy, cold Thursday night!

For more information on the Niagara Falls History Museum, go to www.niagarafallsmuseums.ca, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

November 20th, 2013.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A week's worth of great art in many forms in Niagara and beyond

I was looking at the line up of events over the next week the other day, and I was amazed by the variety of the interesting things you can see and do in Niagara and beyond.  So I gathered together a bunch of them for my weekend arts blog entry to dispel the theory once and for all there is nothing to do at this time of the year than get ready for Christmas.  Incidentally, for me, that season will be starting rather late this year...

The first event is actually well underway now:  the annual STRUTT Wearable Art Weekend is upon us again, livening up an otherwise blah November weekend with wild creations and revelry designed to dispel any notion Canadians don't know how to have a great time.

Earlier this evening The Sound of Light featuring the Gallery Players of Niagara performed at the W.S. Tyler Factory in the Samuel Building, where even earlier a Wearable Art Expo was on display, showing off pictures of wearable art from the previous ten seasons or so of STRUTT.  The pics come from the creative lens of NAC member Brian Youngblut, and will be on display throughout the event this weekend.

Of course, the Big Event is the Saturday evening Runway show, also in the Samuel Building of the W.S. Tyler Factory in St. Catharines.  This is literally a spectacle that knows no bounds, and having one of the most creative artistic souls in the city living right next door to me in Sandy Middleton, I know almost first-hand how seriously people take the Runway show and all the events surrounding it.

If you want to check your logic at the door and escape for a night of visual and musical stimulation (musical score performed live by The Sadies, by the way), contact the Brock Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for tickets to the event on Saturday evening.  The doors open at 8 and the show gets underway at 9.  It should be about as much fun as socially-acceptable Canadians allow themselves on any given weekend.

I wrote about the Avanti Chamber Singers concert coming up Saturday evening at 7:30 in an earlier blog post on choral concerts in the month of November, but I want to revisit it again here since there is more news now on the CD being released officially at the concert tomorrow night at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street.  The concert is titled "Blessed Are They".

The latest "Voices of Niagara" CD, Vol. 4 in the series and titled "Gate of the Year", presents a creative compilation of music, structured to take the listener through the seasons of the church year.  As with past releases in the series, each track has a Niagara connection of some sort, with most being recorded for the first time.

Composers represented on the disc include local composer John Butler with his Requiem; Nathaniel Dett, the Chair of the Dept. of Music at Brock University, Matthew Royal; Gail Poulsen of the Niagara Symphony; the late Professor of Music, Ronald Tremain, and others.  Many of these will be performed at the concert tomorrow evening, along with music by Durante and Mozart.

The Avanti Chamber Singers, directed by Harris Loewen, used to be known as the Niagara Vocal Ensemble.  They will be joined by organist Lesley Kingham and musicians from the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society.  The choir is presented by the Department of Music, part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts at Brock University.

Tickets are available at Ryson's Music in downtown St. Catharines, or tomorrow night at the door.  Needless to say, the new CD will also be available for purchase at the concert.

Elsewhere this weekend, I don't often get the chance to write about the ambitious season offered by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, but this weekend they are embarking on a special project they call Haydn 68, wherein they will present all of the quartets of Haydn this season, and who for all intents and purposes invented the string quartet.

The first Haydn weekend brings twelve quartets to audiences at the Music Room in Waterloo, all performed by the acclaimed Attacca Quartet.  There are four concerts in all this weekend, presenting three quartets at each concert, at 2 pm Saturday and Sunday afternoon and 8 pm Saturday and Sunday evenings.  There is a whopping discount for attending all four in the weekend, by the way, so keep that in mind.

For tickets, call 1-519-886-1673 or email kwcmw@yahoo.ca.

Once the weekend is done, we're not done with great theatre and music in Niagara, either.  Next Wednesday, November 20th, Essential Collective Theatre presents Sky Gilbert's An Evening with Lucky Jim Lacroix, featuring Jason Cadieux and Stephanie Jones.

This is Hammer Theatre's production of Gilbert's newest work, an up close and personal look at ex-contract killer Lucky Jim, played by Cadieux, who has agreed to give a talk at the local community centre.    Looks like an interesting show, and if you have seen Gilbert's earlier show CRACk, also presented by ECTheatre, you pretty much know what to expect.

Shows take place at the Sullivan-Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines and are staged Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, with a Sunday Pay-what-you-can matinee at 2 pm.   There is a warning, by the way, adult themes and strong language are part of the show, but hey, if you have been following the Rob Ford saga in Toronto this week, there isn't likely much you haven't already heard.

For tickets visit www.ectheatre.ca or pick them up at the door before the show.

Finally, the ENCORE! Professional Concert Series for the Department of Music at Brock, part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, continues next Friday evening, November 22nd with Night Songs, featuring faculty pianist Karin Di Bella along with guest artists from the Niagara Symphony, Vera Alekseeva on violin and Austin Hitchcock on French horn.  The concert features music by Russian, French and Italian composers from the early 20th century, along with a trio for violin, French horn and piano by Johannes Brahms.

The concert takes place at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University next Friday at 7:30 pm.  You can purchase tickets in advance at the Brock box office or at the door the evening of the concert.

I love the programming offered by the Department of Music at Brock, as it is always so varied and well programmed, so if you have not already done so, you should try to catch at least one of their many concerts offered over the course of the season.

So there you go, no reason to feel the least bit bored this week in Niagara!

November 15th, 2013.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

News from the Stratford Festival

I have been falling behind with my updates on what's been going on in the arts world as of late, so I will do my best to rectify that situation in the coming weeks as I bring you up to date on the news coming out of many of our arts organizations in Niagara and beyond.

The Stratford Festival has been busy lately even though the season is over, as planning is already well underway for next season, and already we are getting updates on a regular basis as to what is coming up next season at Stratford.

The past few seasons Stratford has been running a weekly bus service direct from downtown Toronto to the Festival, and returning after the evening show for a very attractive rate.  It is an interesting option for many people like myself who find it tiring on that long drive home after the theatre in the evening, and other commitments prevent us from staying overnight.  I wish the same service could be offered from here in Niagara, but that likely will never happen.

But it has been announced next season there will be regular bus service provided for theatre-goers travelling in from the Detroit area for a fee of only $ 40 per person.  Considering the amount of gas involved and all the driving, not to mention the Ambassador bridge crossing at Windsor, you can see where that option should prove very attractive indeed.

I don't think I have ever been at Stratford in the summer when I have not run into someone from Michigan state, where the Stratford Festival is almost a religion for some.  I can see this being a very popular run for the Festival.

Speaking of travelling, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino along with Executive Director Anita Gaffney are both in England right now meeting with counterparts at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

One of the news items coming out of that trip, announced earlier this week, is the fact the Stratford Festival next season will launch an annual series of films of its productions to movie houses around the world, making them the first major theatre company in North America to act on this initiative pioneered by the two British theatrical institutions.

Stratford has a long history of recording their productions for DVD sales in their gift shops, such as the ever-popular Brian MacDonald Gilbert & Sullivan productions of several years ago.  Many Stratford shows over the years have also been filmed for broadcast on television here in Canada, as well.

But now, they will take on the world and show just how special our interpretations of the Bard's works really are and how they measure up on the world stage.  The ultimate goal, according to Cimolino and reported this week in the Globe & Mail, is to stage and then screen the complete works of Shakespeare.  This will give schools across Canada the opportunity to replace their foreign productions of Shakespeare's works with Canadian productions on DVD.

This will no doubt prove to be a win-win for the Festival, as they help to nurture the young theatre goers in Canada so they will hopefully become the subscribers of the future, and showing the films around the world generates more interest in the Festival on an international level.

Now, they won't start filming everything, of course, just select productions in each season at least at first, but it is a start.

Looking at the playbill and casting for next season, released just recently, you can easily see where the filming will begin next season, and the obvious first choice would have to be King Lear, which will feature the return of stage and screen actor Colm Feore in the title role.  He has not been back at the Festival in five years, and his name still has drawing power beyond Canada's borders.  Reliable veteran Stephen Ouimette will play the Fool opposite Feore in Lear, by the way.

Feore will also be appearing as Archer in The Beaux' Stratagem, directed by Cimolino at the Festival Theatre next season.  Also appearing in the cast will be Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry and Mike Shara, so that will be one to watch for next season as well.

Other highlights on the playbill for 2014 include two musicals once again:  the ever-popular Man of La Mancha will be onstage at the Avon Theatre with Tom Rooney and Chilina Kennedy as Cervantes and Aldonza, respectively; and Josh Franklin and Chilina Kennedy pair up for The New Gershwin Musical, Crazy for You, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore at the Festival Theatre.

There will be not one but two productions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream next season as well.  One will be at the Festival Theatre directed by Chris Abraham and starring Stephen Ouimette as Bottom along with Evan Buliung and Jonathan Goad sharing the roles of Tatania and Oberon, believe it or not, and Chick Reid as Puck along with Tara Rosling as Lysander.

The second production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be presented as a Chamber Play, directed by Peter Sellars at a location yet to be announced.  There will be a group of four actors playing all of the roles:  Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski.

The rest of the 2014 playbill will feature Alice, based on Alice Through the Looking-Glass adapted for the stage by James Reaney; Noel Coward's Hay Fever starring Cynthia Dale and Lucy Peacock; Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna in Shakespeare's King John; Seana McKenna playing the title role in Brecht's Mother Courage along with Geraint Wyn Davies and Ben Carlson, directed by Martha Henry; Geraint Wyn Davies and Yanna McIntosh in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra; and newcomer Jenny Young will play Queen Christina in Christina, The Girl King at the Studio Theatre, directed by Vanessa Porteous.

So there you have it.  I'm already excited about next season and this past season only ended last month!  Ah, anticipation...

See you at the theatre!

November 10th, 2013.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

News and notes around Niagara this weekend

Even though we're into the dark days of November in Niagara, we still have lots to look forward to, both indoors and out.  We still have some fall colours to enjoy, for example, and for the time being at least, no snow.

Several arts-related items crossed my desk by way of digital media this week, so let's get to them.

First off, one of the finest local theatre companies around, Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, launches their 9th season in Niagara and their 2nd in downtown Niagara Falls this weekend.  The first showing of Willy Russell's ever popular Shirley Valentine was actually this evening with a preview performance; the show officially opens Friday night at the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls and runs through to November 24th.  The story of a housewife who wonders where her life has gone is always a crowd-pleaser, and this new production promises to be no different.

The one-woman show stars Nora McLellan, a theatrical tour de force in her own right and 22-year veteran of the Shaw Festival.  Nora has been nominated four times for Dora awards and will be best remembered in recent years for her amazing performance in the Shaw's production of Gypsy.  The world needs more Nora McLellans!

Anyway, tickets are available for evening and matinee performances by calling the box office at 905-374-7469 or going to www.ltpniagara.com.

Speaking of the Shaw Festival, it was reported yesterday the 2013 season proved to be a winner both artistically and financially, attracting over 270,000 people, which works out to 71% of capacity, to a total of 744 performances in four theatre spaces.

The ten productions brought in box office revenues of over $ 16 million, the highest ticket sales in The Shaw's history.  That means the audience has grown a respectable 10% over the previous season.

Not surprisingly, the increase came primarily from within Canada, with ticket sales growing 19% in the Golden Horseshoe and almost 15% in Toronto alone.  Audiences from the United States and abroad accounted for one-third of ticket sales, indicating the border issues are still a problem for Canadian tourism.

The detailed financial report on the season will be presented January 31st at The Shaw's Annual General Meeting.  I would think that will be a rather festive event early next year...

Finally, speaking of festive events, and I know many of us are unprepared for the onset of the Christmas season, the annual Winter Festival of Lights kicks off this Saturday afternoon at 2 pm in Queen Victoria Park.  Things get underway with a special tribute to Niagara's Korean veterans, organized in conjunction with the Niagara chapter of the Korean Veterans Association.

But the real fun gets underway once darkness falls as the lights come on and another spectacular season kicks into high gear.  This year, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra will be part of the Opening Festivities in the park, taking the stage at 7:45 for a 15-minute set as the orchestra provides the musical soundtrack to the opening fireworks display.

Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducts the orchestra, and you can imagine the precision involved in timing the orchestra to coincide with the fireworks display, but he assures everyone he can handle it and have fun at the same time.  By the way, the reason their set is so short is due to logistics, really. It will be quite cold up on that stage by Saturday evening, and a lot of those musical instruments are very expensive, so you can't take chances on destroying a musician's livelihood in one evening.  So the set will be short and sweet - and free!

Enjoy all that Niagara has to offer this weekend!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A tale of two pianos

Regular readers of this space might recall I wrote back in February about finally discovering the whereabouts of one of the two pianos that once graced the large studio at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines.  There was back in the day, a full-size concert grand from Steinway & Sons, alongside a smaller but still huge Heintzman grand piano.

In the old days, much of the programming on radio stations was produced live and locally, in studio every day.  That meant studios had to be big enough to hold large groups such as choirs or even small orchestras on occasion.  Many stations had at least one piano and a staff pianist to accompany singers during recitals, or provide musical recitals themselves.  So it was CKTB until the early 60s housed these two massive pianos in an equally massive studio at the front of the building, with one of them played regularly by Clarence Colton, who would play and chat and generally fill the air with an amiable sort of patter you simply never hear on the radio anymore.

I discovered quite by accident earlier this year one of those long-lost pianos resided in a house of an elderly couple in the south end of St. Catharines, and of course I had to investigate.  I contacted the couple and went for a visit on a bright, cold February day.  They bought the smaller of the two pianos, the Heintzman, when the station was renovating the studios back around 1967 if I remember correctly, and at the time it was a mess.  Lots of building materials from the renovations covering it and such; in other words, it was in pretty rough shape.

They bought it, restored it, and now it sits in their living room, painted a nice off white, and it looks simply grand.  They told me at the time they believe this was the piano Clarence Colton played years ago in the studio.  But they also mentioned the fact the piano was badly out of tune, and could I recommend a piano tuner in the area?

Turns out I could, and here is where we pick up the story and bring it to a lovely conclusion.  I had planned to write about this some months ago but life got in the way and of course, I no longer work at CKTB Radio, so the story fell by the wayside.  But I thought now, before I am too far removed from my former employer, I would complete the story of the other missing piano.

The piano tuner I recommended was jazz pianist John Sherwood, who tunes pianos by day and plays jazz on them by night.  I met John years ago when he used to play around town and visit the late, lamented Downtown Fine Music every now and again.

I had his business card so I called him up.  After several missed calls back and forth, we connected back in the spring and I told him the story of the piano in need of tuning, and the fact I was still looking for the larger Steinway & Sons concert grand.  Turns out John knew about the Steinway, and in fact, knew where I could find it.

I was amazed - what luck!  John told me HE owned the missing Steinway, and it resided in his home in north St. Catharines!  In may I made some time on a Saturday afternoon to visit John at his home and finally got a look at the Steinway & Sons piano that sat alongside the Heintzman in the CKTB studios years ago.

John told me he bought the piano from Ridley College, where it must have been moved when it left the CKTB studios back in the 60s.  When he found it, again it was in pretty rough shape, and once he moved it out of Ridley he had to do a full restoration from the ground up.  The end result is nothing short of astounding, as it is quite simply breathtaking.  It is black, huge, and sounds amazing.  It takes up almost one room in his large bungalow.

John also showed me the makings of a home studio he is working on, including a classic Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck like I remember working with at CHFI-FM in Toronto back in the 70s, and a full production-studio quality sound board for mixing musical tracks.  It was still waiting to be set up, but all the pieces were there, it was just up to John to find the time with his busy schedule to finish the job.

But the piano was the reason for the trip and after he gave me an impromptu recital, I took several pictures and off I went, confident I had finally solved the riddle of the missing pianos from the early days of CKTB Radio.

Ah, but there is still one mystery left to solve, although now I likely won't follow up given the fact I no longer work at CKTB anymore, but John seemed to think Clarence Colton used to play the Steinway piano rather than the Heintzman.  Who knows, maybe he played both?  Without investigating further we'll never know, but if you have any input on this or know yourself, drop me a line and let me know.

But for now, the mystery is solved and I can move on to other things...what a fascinating piece of our local broadcasting history in St. Catharines.  And I am proud to say I was a part of that history for 32 wonderful years.

Things change and we move on, but every now and then it is nice to revisit the past and remember something special, and finding those two great pianos qualifies for me as one of those special moments.

Have a great weekend!

November 2nd, 2013.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Choral music abounds in November!

There is something about the cooler days of November that makes me want to enjoy the glorious sound of a great choir singing some of the great choral masterpieces in a church somewhere.  Although many choirs today utilize a more modern setting if available, I still enjoy sitting in church pews and revelling in the sound of voices filling a beautiful sacred space.

There are three great choirs scheduled to perform this month I want to write about in this space today, and all three are worthy of your attendance if you have the time and inclination.

This weekend, Chorus Niagara kicks off their new season at Calvary Church in St. Catharines, with a programme entitled Handel - Grand and Glorious!  Sure, Handel is known for his oratorio Messiah, but he wrote so much more.  His list of oratorios alone is large, including Athalia, Israel in Egypt, Jephtha, Judas Maccabeaeus and many more; his Coronation Anthems are also exceptional works.  Let's not forget his many operas, orchestral works and more.  In short, Handel was certainly a musical genius.

Many of those choruses, airs and overtures will be featured this weekend as Artistic Director Robert Cooper celebrates his 25th season with the Chorus, and his programming talents in the past suggest this will be a well-balanced and varied programme.

Also performing will be the Talisker Baroque Players along with soloists Isaiah Bell, tenor, and Meredith Hall, soprano.

The concert is Saturday evening at 7:30, and tickets can be had from any Chorus Niagara member, or by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Another choir I have long admired and enjoyed is the Guelph Chamber Choir, directed by Gerald Neufeld.  Smaller in size than Chorus Niagara, the Guelph Chamber Choir still manages to fill a hall with the wonderful sound of voices ringing out, as they will when their new season gets underway Saturday, November 9th at St. George's Anglican Church in downtown Guelph.  I have visited this magnificent church many times for performances, and it is acoustically and artistically a jewel in the Royal City.

The concert will feature a special screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer's haunting 1928 silent film, with live music performed by the choir and organ.  Should be quite interesting.

Incidentally, the National Competition for Canadian Amateur Choirs was held recently, and the Guelph Chamber Choir placed second in the competitive mixed-voice adult choir category just behind Calgary's Spiritus Chamber Choir, the overall winner of the competition.

Gerald Neufeld commented after the announcement "We are an amateur choir but strive for a professional level performance that is achieved by the hard work of the singers in our choir."  And that is the joy of hearing a choir such as Chorus Niagara or the Guelph Chamber Choir:  they are amateurs, albeit very accomplished amateurs, and they sing simply for the love of it.  Doesn't that make the experience all that more special and even richer knowing that fact?

Anyway, the performance begins November 9th at 8 pm and tickets are available through the River Run Centre box office, but calling 519-763-3000 or going to www.riverrun.ca.

Locally, another amateur choir worthy of note will perform November 16th at 7:30 pm at St. Thomas Anglican Church in downtown St. Catharines.  The Avanti Chamber Singers, conducted by Dr. Harris Loewen will be accompanied by the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society Strings and organist Lesley Kingham.

The programme will include the concert premiere of John Butler's beautiful Requiem, and the choir will launch their latest recording, Voices of Niagara 4:  The Gate of the Year.  Naturally, the concert will feature selections from the new CD as well.

The Avanti Chamber Singers is made up of members from Brock University's Department of Music, and they perform regularly in the area, most often at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street.  This concert will be a little different as they moved the venue to St. Thomas, a larger church at the other end of the downtown.

Tickets to the concert are available at the door or in advance from any choir member or at Ryson's Music Studio on Court Street downtown.

So there you go:  three great amateur choirs, two in the area and one outside the area, and all worthy of your patronage during the month of November.


October 31st, 2013.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Music festivals worth visiting this season

Along with the wide variety of musical events throughout the area courtesy the Buffalo Philharmonic, Hamilton Philharmonic and of course, our own Niagara Symphony Orchestra, there are many smaller, more intimate musical events and festivals taking place through the fall/winter/spring months.  I thought this week we'd highlight some of the more prominent ones close by or not that far a drive away, should you wish to escape for some exceptional popular or chamber music in a warm, intimate setting.

I started thinking of this week's column after I read John Law's article in the Niagara Falls Review about the long-running Niagara Concerts series falling on hard times as of late.  Hard to believe, really, when you consider there was a time every concert was a sellout with a waiting list for subscriptions.  Considering the value offered, you can see why:  even today, five shows can be yours for the bargain price of only $ 100.00.

But times change and inevitably, their audience has aged and stopped coming to concerts.  The younger generation has not been brought up on this sort of thing; going to a subscription series of just about anything must seem foreign to many today, living in a faster-paced time when planning ahead seems almost impossible.

So this year, Niagara Concerts' 40th, could very well be their last.  With many older audience members simply unable to attend, finding a new, younger audience to pick up the slack is proving to be a difficult task.  As other arts organizations have found out already, the greying of their audiences continues unabated and reaching out for new subscribers of every age group is now the only way for survival in the 21st century.

The situation with Niagara Concerts has been complicated by July flooding of their local home base in Niagara Falls, the aging Niagara Centre for the Arts inside Kingston College, formerly NFCVI.  The flooding produced mould, which is still being removed, so the first three concerts of the upcoming season have been moved to the ballroom of the Scotiabank Convention Centre.  That turned out to be about all that was available in order to save the current season, so that is where they will be.

The Niagara Concerts season looks like another interesting, varied affair:  Louise Pitre kicks things off tonight, in fact.  The rest of the season includes the Montreal Guitar Trio with the California Guitar Trio November 30th; Big Band Christmas on December 14th; in the new year the venue changes to the old location for the remainder of the season, including The Sounds of Chicago on April 12th and Jesse Peters Trio on May 10th.

I have attended Niagara Concerts performances in the past and they are usually well-attended and exceptional value, so let's hope they can weather the current storm and live to entertain another day.  For tickets and more information, go to www.niagaraconcerts.ca or call 905-358-6174.

Beyond Niagara Concerts, there are plenty of opportunities to hear some great music of almost every description this season, including Gallery Players of Niagara, who perform some of their concerts at the acoustically-perfect St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street in St. Catharines.  Their new season kicks off November 24th with, oddly enough, a concert titled The Spring Sonata.  The Spring Sonata by Beethoven will be featured in a transcription by Patrick Jordan, paired with Arensky's String Quartet scored for violin, viola and two celli.  The annual Christmas concert, Glissandi Christmas, comes up December 20th at Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake and December 21st at Rodman Hall Arts Centre in St. Catharines.  The Christmas concert will feature Shaw Festival actor Guy Bannerman reading Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales", by the way.

The new year kicks off for Gallery Players with a co-production with Primavera Concerts featuring Brett Polegato and the Eybler Quartet on January 19th at Rodman Hall, with a concert titled A Poet's Voice.  There is the annual Movie Night event co-produced with Niagara Artists' Centre at their downtown St. Catharines venue February 15th, with improvised music accompanying the silent film The Crowd from 1928.  On April 6th, the Vesuvius Ensemble paints a portrait of Naples in a concert titled In the Shadow of the Volcano at St. Barnabas Church; the season concludes with The Beethoven Cycle Continues on June 8th, also at St. Barnabas, featuring the Beethoven Piano Trio Op. 1, # 3 and Schubert's Trio Op. 100 in E-flat major.

For tickets to any of the Gallery Players concerts, call 905-468-1525 or go to www.galleryplayers .ca.

The aforementioned Primavera Concerts kick off their new season with that co-production with Gallery Players January 19th; it continues with Forbidden Music February 9th with special guest artist Jacques Israelievitch joining soprano Sharon Azrieli and pianist Shoshana Telner; Jayme Stone's Room of Wonders comes up March 23rd and May 25th sees Jacques Israelievitch returning to perform with pianist Christina Petrowska in an all-Mozart program.

With the exception of the first concert at Rodman Hall, all the Primavera Concerts take place at St. Barnabas Church in St. Catharines, long one of my favourite venues for small concerts, and from performances I have attended in the past, they are always of a very high calibre.  For tickets, call 905-329-9987 or go to www.primaveraconcerts.ca.

Just over the border in Western New York, the Buffalo Chamber Music Society is now underway with their current season, which kicked off earlier this month with a performance by the Attacca Quartet.  The BCMS is celebrating their 90th season this year, with performances held in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall on Tuesday evenings at 8 pm.

The rest of the season includes the New York Woodwind Quintet on November 12th; the Jasper String Quartet on December 10th; the Szymanowski Quartet on January 28th; Quatuor Ebene on February 25th; Artemis Quartet March 18th and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio on April 29th. I just discovered this ambitious chamber music series earlier this year when I was visiting Buffalo and stopped by Kleinhans Music Hall and found their brochure in the lobby.

The Buffalo Chamber Music Society is definitely worth discovering for yourself!  For tickets, call the box office at 1-716-462-4939 or go to www.bflochambermusic.org.

Back on this side of the border, up in Kitchener-Waterloo, the K-W Chamber Music Society serves up a full year's worth of chamber music concerts, most at the KWCMS Music Room at 57 Young Street in Waterloo.  The setting is very intimate, indeed, with only 85 seats, but they boast one of the finest Steinway pianos in Ontario.  The concerts go year-round, so I will only highlight the coming month's concerts in this space.

Tomorrow the Penderecki String Quartet performs; November begins with Leslie Ting and Sarah Hagen on violin and piano respectively on the 1st; G8 on November 7th; Janacek Quartet November 13th; the Attacca Quartet November 16th and 17th; pianist Kit Armstrong on the 18th; Boston Trio on the 21st and the Dave Young Trio performing a concert titled "Oscar Peterson Remembered" on the 28th of November.  That's all just in the next month!

I really have no idea how they manage to squeeze so many concerts into the season, but they do, and the payoff is some great music for residents of Kitchener-Waterloo.  For tickets and more information, call 1-519-886-1673 or go to www.k-wcms.com.

Finally, the Elora Festival kicks off their fall/winter season tomorrow afternoon with a concert I am very much looking forward to attending, as the Elora Festival Singers perform Nine Lessons and Carols for Harvest, a nice seasonal play on the customary Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols concert they are known for.  On November 30th they perform Menotti's ever-popular Amahl and the Night Visitors; December 8th the annual presentation of Handel's Messiah; the traditional Festival of Carols concert on December 18th; the winter Soup Concert featuring the Brahms Requiem comes up January 19th and the winter season concludes with Bach's St. John Passion on April 6th.

The December 8th and April 6th concerts will be at St. Joseph's Church in Fergus, with the rest of the concerts held at St. John's Church in Elora, the choir's home base.  I have heard the choir at St. John's Church in the summer, and they sound amazing in that intimate setting.  If you can make any of their concerts this season, you will be in for a treat, I can assure you!

For tickets and more information, go to www.elorafestival.com, or call 1-519-846-0331.

So there, who says you have to go big or go home?  You can go small and go out and have some great entertainment in the bargain!

October 26th, 2013.

Friday, October 18, 2013

News and notes this weekend around Niagara and beyond...

Since I will be busy Saturday morning teetering in heels to benefit Gillian's Place in the 8th Annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes Event at the Pen Centre, I thought I should write my weekend blog early before I head out, since I might not feel up to the task after another turn around The Pen in heels, so let's get going.  By the way, the walk kicks off with speeches at noon and the walk itself at 12:30 if you'd like to come by and show your support...

This week on my radio programme, Inquisitive Minds, airing Wednesday mornings at 11 on CFBU-FM 103.7, the Brock campus radio station, I had an interesting chat with Brock Professor of Political Science Leah Bradshaw about the decline of the downtown core in many cities and what city fathers and other interested individuals can do to help alleviate the problem.  We got into so many topics, I decided to extend the interview to two weeks, so Leah will be joining me again this coming Wednesday morning as well on the topic.

The reason I mention this is she is very involved with an intriguing one day conference entitled Public Space and Urban Crisis, which will be held Saturday from 9 to 5 at Rodman Hall Arts Centre.  Several panel discussions and speakers will take the floor over the course of the day, including discussions on Urban Space and Architecture at 9 am; Food Deserts, Urban Gardening and Farmers' Markets at 10:45 am; Management of Cities at 1:30 pm; and the Afternoon Keynotes at 3:15 pm.  All the events are free and the public is welcome to attend; in fact, you can come and go as you please as you don't have to be there for the entire day.

Essentially, Leah is a big believer in people returning to live in the downtown area, and the more people who do, the more vibrant the downtown core will become for everyone.  Some interesting ideas will be discussed at the conference for sure, and Leah has some very cogent comments when she joins me next Wednesday morning at 11 on Inquisitive Minds.

Saturday evening in Hamilton, the HPO presents the first of their Pops concerts this season, with multi-faceted conductor/trombonist David Martin joining forces with trumpeter Larry Larson in a programme titled For the Love of the Screen, featuring music from both the big and the small screens.

The two performers Martin and Larson are known as the infamous Men with Horns, and have performed their special brand of musical virtuosity all over Canada.  Music on the programme this weekend includes Gershwin's Summertime, Raskin's Laura, the Tom Jones hit What's New, Pussycat?, the Judy Garland classic Over the Rainbow and a Tribute to Henry Mancini.

The concert begins at 7:30 in the Great Hall at Hamilton Place, and tickets are available through the box office by calling 1-905-526-7756 or by going online to www.hpo.org.

Sunday afternoon at 2:30 our own Niagara Symphony (NSO) presents their first Pops! concert of the season, with Toronto-based jazz crooner Matt Dusk the featured performer with the orchestra.  Also featured will be guest soloist Eleanor McCain, and Music Director Bradley Thachuk will be conducting.

The programme will include a Tribute to Irving Berlin, A Salute to the Big Bands, and several Sinatra classics including Nice and Easy, That's Life, All the Way and The Lady is a Tramp.  Should be a great show, and I hear there will be a youthful jazz ensemble from Welland performing in the lobby before the concert and at intermission.

Also in the lobby, before, after and at intermission, I will be there as usual with a table full of great musical ideas for you to satisfy your musical cravings, from pop to classical.  And if I don't have what you want, let me know and I will do my very best to get it for you.  Be sure to stop by and say hello and see what I have to offer on Sunday afternoon!

The concert takes place at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, and tickets are available through the box office by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or by going to www.Arts.BrockU.ca.

That's just scratching the surface, of course, but should be enough to take your mind off the cooler weather we're expecting this weekend.  And like I always say, there is never a shortage of things to do in Niagara!

October 18th, 2013.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Are YOU man (or woman) enough to sponsor me for Walk a Mile in HER Shoes?

I am deviating once again from my usual arts beat this weekend to write about an event coming up next Saturday that is a lot of fun, but also brings with it a very important message:  we are taking a stand on the issue of violence against women.  Yes, it is time for the 8th Annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes at the Pen Centre, presented by TD Bank next Saturday at noon.

This has become a huge event in Niagara and with good reason.  It is fun, it catches your attention, and it raises a considerable amount of money for a very worthwhile cause.  Last year, for example, over 200 walkers helped to raise $ 81,000 in support of the work of Gillian's Place, empowering abused women in Niagara.  This year, the goal is to have 250 walkers and raise $ 100,000 for Gillian's Place.

Some background is in order here, I think.  Gillian's Place moved to the renovated Victoria School on Niagara Street several years ago from their downtown St. Catharines location when they were known as Women's Place.  The mission didn't change:  provide shelter, help and support to abused women looking to escape their own difficult situations at home and find a better life.  What changed, unfortunately, are the numbers.  Every year the larger facility is full, and that suggest more work needs to be done to educate the public on the importance of this resource in the community and the constant need for funding.

In a perfect world, Gillian's Place and similar shelters around the world would not be needed.  But the reality is, they are needed.  Very, very badly.  And that is where you - and I - come in.

So, what happens next weekend?  Men from every walk of life come together to take a stand against violence against women by donning high heels and walking a mile around the Pen Centre, all the while experiencing their own pain as they struggle to walk in heels for the better part of half an hour.  Simple, right?  Well it is, really, compared to what the women who find the need to go to Gillian's Place are experiencing.   But the benefits of the walk go beyond the time spent teetering in heels and having some fun in a public display of awkwardness.

So here's the deal.  In the past, I walked as part of a corporate team of dedicated like-minded males who  worked at CKTB/HTZ-FM/EZ-ROCK, the media sponsors of the event.  Since I am no longer employed there and still want to help out Gillian's Place, I am walking next week as a team of one, doing my part for the cause.

What that means is I have to fundraise for the walk, and that's where you come in.  I am willing to strap on the heels again if you are willing to sponsor me.  Sound fair?  You don't have to sponsor a lot if you don't want to, although if you do it would be very nice, indeed.  But any amount is appreciated and let me tell you, I will be walking even more proud next weekend knowing I am walking for you as you support this very worthwhile cause.

There are several ways to sponsor, and you can get all the information on the event by going to www.walkamileinhershoes.ca.  Every participant has their own page once they register to walk and I received mine last evening.  Here is the link to my personal page in order to pledge for the walk next weekend:


You can pledge right there online with little or no effort at all, and it is fully secure.  I did it myself last night when I started the page.  Alternatively, go to www.walkamileinhershoes.ca and look for the sponsor a participant link.  There you can type in my name (Mike Saunders) and that will take you directly to my pledge page.  They even have a mobile app available so you can pledge on the go.  Or, if you like doing things the old-fashioned way, I have a paper pledge sheet I am taking everywhere I go this week in hopes of gathering pledges before next weekend.  Just message me or email me at music@vaxxine.com and we'll make arrangements to fill out the sponsor sheet and collect your pledge.

Remember, it doesn't have to be a lot of money.  But it means the world to us walkers and even more to Gillian's Place, so won't you do your part?  If you want to walk yourself, hey, the more the merrier!  They supply the shoes; you supply the feet and the pledges.

As for me, I am toying with making this a real event for my first solo walk next week and wearing my tux on Saturday.  That means I have to find dressy shoes to match...hmmm, what goes with a black tuxedo...well, we'll figure it out.  And if anyone has a line on where I can get a pink scarf, I'm in!  Just let me know.

Okay, did I miss anything?  Call for pledges; locate the website and my personal pledge page; call for more walkers.  Oh, you need to know where and when, right?  Everyone - whether you are walking or not - are invited to come down and have some fun.  We'll start out at Sears Court at The Pen, with registration starting at 10 am; there are special guests on stage at 12 noon and then at 12:30 we begin the walk.  Afterwards, all participants receive lunch and if needed, a massage for those sore, aching muscles you have not used since last year at this time.

So, that's my deal for you this week.  Sponsor me for the walk next weekend, and I promise to put in a good show, post pictures to Facebook after the event, and I promise not to ask you again until this time next year.  Sound good to you?  I thought so.

Gentlemen, almost time to strap up and lurch forward...are YOU joining The Men's March to End Violence Against Women?

October 12th, 2013.