Friday, April 26, 2013

From food to art, we have you covered in Niagara this weekend!

What a weekend to get out and enjoy all that Niagara has to offer!  Where to begin as far as weekend events are concerned...well let's give it a try.

I spent some time this afternoon at the Scotiabank Convention Centre for the 3rd annual Niagara Food & Wine Expo and as usual, it was a tasty event.  Lots of new vendors this year, including Rosewood Estates Winery with their wonderful Mead, AG Inspired Cuisine at The Sterling Inn, and Paris Crepes Cafe Bistro among the many notables on location.  I took the time late afternoon to catch the show while listening to lovely Juliet Dunn and her husband perform on the mainstage, as the crowds had not yet started to build.  It will continue Saturday and Sunday, with admission at the door if you don't already have your tickets.  Go with an appetite!

Also this evening the 5th annual In The Soil Arts Festival kicked off in downtown St. Catharines, with a stellar program of music, media, theatre, dance, poetry, installations and one-time, out-of-the-box performances throughout the downtown area through until Sunday.  Some of the festival highlights this year include The Sadies performing at the Mikado Bar and Lounge Saturday at midnight; Christine Fellows from Winnipeg performing Sunday afternoon at 3 at The Hub, and the Arts Hop Workshop, a free family event with lots of events planned including a performance by Chorus Niagara's Children's Choir at The Hub Sunday afternoon at 1 pm.

In addition to musical performances, there will be art exhibitions as well, including the launch Saturday afternoon, as I reported in this space last week, of Sandy Middleton's photographic essay on New York City, with an opening reception at NAC from 2 to 4 in the afternoon.  You can also visit any number of downtown restaurants for special deals throughout the festival weekend.

For Festival Passes, contact Brock's box office at the Centre for the Arts at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 between 11 am and 6 pm.

The Niagara Symphony (NSO) features their final performances in this season's Family and Pops! series, with the 75-minute no-intermission family performance Saturday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Centre for the Arts, Brock University, and the full-length Pops! performance at 2:30 Sunday afternoon.  The concerts feature Maestro Bradley Thachuk leading the NSO in a concert titled The Magical Music of Disney, which will feature a multimedia extravaganza on stage for both performances this weekend.  Also featured is St. Catharines native Vanessa Fralick, daughter of NSO principal trombone Steve Fralick and french horn player, Janice Fralick.  Vanessa is currently the acting associate principal trombone of the St. Louis Symphony and is currently one of two finalists in an international search for a position in the trombone section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

I will not be at the Family concert in the afternoon on Saturday due to the fact it is performed without an intermission, but I will be in the lobby before, after and during intermission of the Pops! concert on Sunday afternoon, so if you go be sure to stop by to see what music I have available for purchase this weekend.  Incidentally, I will also be attending a special "Sneak Preview" for the 2013-2014 season announcement at the Centre for the Arts Saturday evening, so I will be reporting on that in this space in the near future.

Finally, the Avanti Chamber Choir wraps up the Department of Music Viva Voce! choral series Saturday evening at 7:30, as the choir directed by Harris Loewen perform a springtime concert that includes the Gloriana Dances by Benjamin Britten and Frostiana by Thompson, among other works.  The concert takes place at the acoustically warm-sounding St. Barnabas Anglican Church on Queenston Street, and tickets will be available at the door.

So there you go, lots to see, hear and experience in Niagara this weekend, along with enjoying the sunshine and perhaps even getting some work done in the yard.

Enjoy your weekend!

April 26th, 2013.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

I Happen to Like New York...right here in Niagara!

As Spring lurches into full view, in spite of snow coming down yesterday, there is no shortage of arts-related events coming up to suit just about every taste.  Oddly, all of the events I will be writing about this week are linked by the locale that offered inspiration to all of them:  New York City.

I have not been back to the Big Apple since about 1998, when I travelled there for a few days in February with old friend Father Michael Basque and we traipsed around the streets of New York in the cold from morning till night.  The days started early with mass at 7:30 each morning at St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue, celebrated by the Cardinal, no less.  We found a deli for breakfast afterwards and never looked back for the rest of the day.

Before that I made several trips to New York City, with the first being in 1983 when I flew into Newark airport on a super-budget flight out of Niagara Falls, New York where the payment was collected during the flight by the flight attendants going up the aisle with a cart and a cashbox.  The best part of that trip was the return flight, when I was seated at the very back of the plane and darned if the attendant never made it all the way to the back of the plane!  Nothing like a free flight, I always say.

The next trip I stayed at the storied Hotel Edison which was famous in those days for the dinner-theatre presentation of Oh Calcutta!  on the main floor.  I didn't bother with that show since I had already seen it in Toronto, but I caught a ticket for a great box seat at the Martin Beck Theatre where Dustin Hoffman was starring in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  Great show I remember vividly to this very day.  That was also the trip I was invited by the great big band arranger and leader Larry Elgart to have dinner with him and his wife at their cosy brownstone, after interviewing him some months before when he was touring up this way.

I tried Bed & Breakfast in New York on my next visit in 1991 with the girl I was seeing at the time, and if you want a secure place to stay, stay in a New York City resident's apartment.  Several deadbolts and a heavy steel rod protruding from the floor that locked into a slot on the door, so that thing was not opening at all from the outside.  I always remember arriving on the night the Tony Awards were on and our host, with the memorable name Patch Carradine, urged us to sit and watch the show with him.  The apartment was typically eclectic and the king-sized bed was fabulous.  Strange thing, though, was the noise from the street which almost totally dissipated about 11:30 and you felt you were out in the country.  Very odd...

So what's coming up, you ask?  Well, my neighbour, noted artist and gifted photographer Sandy Middleton spent some time with her husband Mark in New York City last year, and no doubt took lots of pictures.  So many, in fact, they are now part of a retrospective titled, naturally enough, I Love New York, and opens at the Niagara Artists Centre in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines April 27th.  The opening reception is Saturday afternoon from 2 to 4 pm with refreshments available; it runs to May 10th and should be a must-see exhibition this spring in Niagara.

Sandy's exhibition opens during the fifth annual In The Soil Arts Festival, incidentally, which begins April 26th and runs to the 28th with over 85 events planned at several venues around the city.  The festival, brought to you by Suitcase in Point Theatre Company and festival partners has become a staple of the early spring in  St. Catharines and just keeps getting bigger and better each year.

For festival passes and more information, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or log on to

Up in Niagara-on-the-Lake the first show to go into previews at the Shaw Festival is Frank Loesser's musical ode to all things New York, Guys and Dolls, which began last week.  It opens May 11th and runs to October 12th at the Festival Theatre.  The show follows in the tradition of past musicals My Fair Lady and Ragtime and offers great storytelling, unforgettable characters and memorable music.

The original production of Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway in 1950 and ran for 1,200 performances, winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical.  It was also made into a movie by MGM in 1955, starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra.

Based on the short stories of humourist Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls pays tribute to his quirky and innovative use of language - a bouncy New York brogue that mixes slang terms with proper English.  For tickets to this and all Shaw shows this season, call 1-800-511-SHAW or go to

Once again this season I will be reporting on all Shaw and Stratford shows in this space, with the ratings listed on the calendar page of my website at

Finally, I received word a couple of weeks ago The Essential Collective Theatre's Artistic Director Stephanie Jones, just back from her exclusive apprenticeship at New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Acting, home of the Meisner technique, will be offering Niagara's dedicated actors a six-week course in the Meisner technique beginning May 7th at the Sullivan Mahoney Court House Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.

Jones, who trained under Ron Stetson, senior instructor and renowned Meisner teacher, says she found Meisner's series of interdependent exercises "one of the best practical ways to support an actors' command of dramatic text.  Meisner emphasized acting as doing.  It is not important for the students to be experienced, but the need to be dedicated and passionate about the craft."

The Neighbourhood Playhouse hosts a wealth of celebrated alumni including Diane Keaton, Jeff Goldblum and Robert Duvall.

For more information and to book your place, call 905-684-6255 or email Stephanie Jones directly at

Now, after all this talk of New York, I am craving another visit, and breakfast at another unforgettable New York deli!

Enjoy the week.

April 21st, 2013.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Legendary Maestro Arturo Toscanini

In this day and age we rarely see the type of dictatorial and colourful conductor on the podium such as the legendary Arturo Toscanini.  He was quite simply, one in a million; a true trailblazer who demanded nothing but the best from his musicians and from himself.

Legend has it he retired from conducting in the early 50s when he simply couldn't remember the entire score he was conducting from memory, something he seemingly had done for years.  He simply put his baton down, walked away and never took it up ever again.  Although he lived on for a time after that incident, passing away in 1957, his time was done and the world moved on to other, often less interesting orchestral and opera conductors.

While Toscanini has never been out of the public eye even in death, he is enjoying a bit of a revival of sorts at the moment, with a couple of nice box sets newly available.  More on those later, but first a little about the man himself.

He was born in Parma, Italy in March of 1867, and at the age of 19 graduated from the Parma Conservatory as a cellist.  The following year, 1886, the 20-year-old cellist was asked to take the baton for Verdi's Aida, and by the end of the tour he had led 26 performances of 11 different operas, all from memory.  He conducted many opera premieres, including the first Italian performances of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, Tristan and Isolde and Die Walkure, as well as the premiere of Puccini's La Boheme.  He was the principal conductor at La Scala, Milan, from 1900 to 1908 and first appeared at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1915, where he conducted the premiere of Puccini's La fanciulla del West.

In 1937 Toscanini was invited by NBC to conduct a series of broadcast concerts in the United States with the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, specifically created for the purpose.  Toscanini also conducted a series of well-remembered concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London from 1935 to 1939, many of which are newly released on a 5-disc box set from EMI Classics a couple of months ago.  The recordings show their age at times, but still hold up remarkably well today.

Many of his celebrated Wagner recordings are newly available this month on a RCA Victor 5-disc set at a very attractive price of just $ 30.00, and this material will be of great interest to those who love Wagner, and especially Wagner conducted by Toscanini.  Titled appropriately enough, Toscanini conducts Wagner, the set includes selections from Tristan, Die Meistersinger, Die Walkure, Parsifal and many others, with performances by soprano Helen Traubel and tenor Lauritz Melchoir among the gems  found inside the set.  The set will be released at the end of the month, and both it and the EMI Classics set mentioned earlier are available through my website at, or emailing me directly at

As great a conductor as he was and revered for his opera recordings as he was, they only tell part of the story.  His opposition to Fascism in his native Italy and Nazism in Germany was legendary.  He refused to play the Giovanezza, a Fascist anthem in 1931 for example, and in 1938-39 conducted without fee at a festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, where the orchestra was made up of musicians who had fled Nazi persecution.

Toscanini was also a collector of all things musical, and descendants of the conductor auctioned off a lot of his cherished possessions last fall in London at Sothebys.  Included were his 1910 Steinway piano Model D, which was in good condition and still playable the auction house noted, along with several batons, a desk set, leather music case and more than 30 autographed scores of his own compositions.  Of particular interest were letters from Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and other composers of the day, as well as a handwritten score of a Mendelssohn overture and a self-caricature by Enrico Caruso.  The entire collection was expected to bring in an estimated 1.6 million, and not everyone seemed happy about that.  Some felt they should have been donated to the New York Public Library's Toscanini archive and I am inclined to agree, but what can you do?  It is believed to be the last substantial property expected to come directly from Toscanini.

Finally, no essay on the great conductor would be complete with some of his quotable quotes and stories, many of which include women, another of his famous passions.  He once said:  "I kissed my first woman and smoked my first cigarette on the same day; I have never had time for tobacco since."  But the famous story of an encounter with a certain unnamed soprano during rehearsals years ago showed nothing, not even a beautiful woman, could deter him from making music as he wanted it presented.  The story is vividly recounted in John Boyden's book Stick to the Music:  Clearly unable to understand The Maestro's instructions, the singer who also happened to be rather well endowed we're told, was victim of Toscanini's fury before too long.  Dashing onto the stage, he seized her by her largest assets and yelled "If only these were brains."  Certainly not proper decorum now or even then, but that was the measure of the man, it seems.

Still, his humility was evident in an interview when he said:  "I am no genius.  I have created nothing.  I play the music of other men.  I am just a musician."  Perhaps, but what a memorable musician!

April 13th, 2013.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

News and Notes around Niagara...If I had a Million Dollars...

Just a few news items to pass along this week as I work to play catch-up after taking last weekend off to escape for Easter to Sherwood Inn up in lovely Muskoka, on the shores of Lake St. Joseph.  Had a lovely time, thank you very much...

The big news this week involves the kickoff to the public fundraising drive for the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre.  At a splashy event this week, the City of St. Catharines announced the fundraising chairman for the project is Peter Partridge, a well-known and very well connected investment advisor and patron of the arts in St. Catharines.  If he is not attending a cultural event he is likely involved in the organization of an event, especially if it involves his talents as a choral conductor.

Peter and his wife Janet, along with the rest of the Partridge Family (no, not that one...) have graciously stepped up to the plate and donated the first $1 M to the $5 M fundraising campaign, which is a phenomenal gesture to get the ball rolling on a very important local arts project.  Government cannot and should not be expected to foot the entire bill for things like this, and that means we all have to step up and do our part in whatever small way we can.  I hope we can get this wrapped up long before the scheduled opening of the PAC in 2015.  But you and I and many others, both privately and corporately need to do our part.

I've known Peter and Janet for many years now, beginning when they worked together on a classical music programme on our sister radio station, the country-music (yes, country!) station QR-FM.  I was working the evening shift at CKTB RADIO back in those days and we often crossed paths in the evening as they worked in the music library to put together and record another show using good old-fashioned record albums.  Remember those?  If I remember correctly, the show aired weeknights, but I can't quite recall exactly when.

Later, I got to know both the Partridges well as they frequented the store Downtown Fine Music in St. Catharines, and later when I started up my web-based music service A Web of Fine Music, which you can still find at  Peter and Janet are the perfect pair to get this project underway, and we wish them well in the future.

For their work and generous donation, the main concert hall that will house the Niagara Symphony and other large-scale productions will be known as Partridge Hall in their honour, and I think that is only appropriate.  It has a nice ring to it, don't you think, Partridge Hall?  Just a thought, but are we not lucky a person or family with the name, oh, I don't know, maybe Krapp hadn't come forward to claim naming rights?  No offense to the Krapp families in the area, but you know...just an aside on your humble scribe's part.

Speaking of generous donations, it was announced today the Stratford Festival is the recipient of $ 1M in funding from the provincial government through Celebrate Ontario, to support the 2013 season's productions of The Merchant of Venice, Fiddler on the Roof and Tommy, all three expected to be popular shows at the Festival this year.  As Executive Director Anita Gaffney noted in today's press release, "Every ticket sold at the Festival generates an additional $270 in spending, for a total of about $140 million in economic activity each year."  Those are significant numbers and help to illustrate how important our two major summer theatre festivals are to their local economies.

By the way, both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals now have previews underway, and as the start of their respective seasons approach I will be writing more about them in this space as as been the case in past seasons.

Finally, a couple of quick notes of a local nature this week, as Essential Collective Theatre Company presents the second and final performance of the one-woman show My Pregnant Brother this evening in English at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines at 8pm.  The play, written and performed by Johanna Nutter and directed and dramaturged by Jeremy Taylor, was presented in French last evening.  Tickets should be available at the door this evening.

And a local musician and customer of mine over the years, Mark Steiger, has some of his compositions featured in St. Jacobs Sunday afternoon, as the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society presents the Open Harmony String Quartet at 2 pm at Gallery Momo in the "Mill" on Front Street between King and Isabella.  The concert features Mozart's Divertimento in D, the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia arranged for cello and double-bass, and Mark Steiger's Astraeus and - Looking in Windows (in two parts) and A Set of Waltzes and Tangos, tba as I understand it.

Mark has been busy on the local music scene as both composer and performer, and has been a teacher with his own guitar studio for many years as well.  I didn't realize he studied composition with Ronald Tremain at Brock University and with Alexina Louie at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.  I was once approached by Mr. Tremain to join the board of his music series years ago, and I interviewed Alexina Louie around the same time when she was premiering a work with the Toronto Symphony.  Small world.

Anyway, best of luck to my friend Mark, and if you want to catch the concert, tickets should be available at the door in St. Jacobs tomorrow afternoon or in advance through the KWCMS website in Waterloo.

Enjoy the week!

April 6th, 2013.