Saturday, May 25, 2013

News and notes on the Arts in Niagara

Catching up on some news and notes this week on the arts in Niagara after taking some vacation time this month, but before I do that, a big thank you to everyone who came out this morning for the annual Rankin Cancer Run/Walk in the north end.  I was part of Team Bensson, walking for our own Iron Mike Bensson of 97.7 HTZ-FM, who hosted the ceremonies onstage this morning.

Mike had a serious bout with cancer himself earlier this year and is now back in the saddle at HTZ-FM, but all of us at the station wanted to show our support this year by participating in the 1K walk, each of us donning red Team Bensson t-shirts.  We did our part, as did hundreds of others running or walking for someone who can't; the size of the crowd and participants was simply breathtaking, and congratulations to all who organized the event.  It all went off without a hitch and looks like everyone had a great time.  Thanks to all!

Now, the Niagara Symphony wraps up their current season Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, with the final Masterworks concert of the season.  This will be the inaugural concert in the multi-year Beethoven Project, featuring Buffalo Philharmonic concertmaster Michael Ludwig as special guest artist in a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  Mr. Ludwig and the rest of the BPO just returned from a triumphant visit to New York's Carnegie Hall, with JoAnn Falletta conducting.  The reviews I've seen have been quite favourable, so congrats to the orchestra from the Queen City for doing us all proud earlier this month.

Also on the concert this weekend will be the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, known as "Eroica".  This is the one Beethoven originally planned to dedicate to Napoleon Bonaparte but eventually thought better of it, and history suggests he probably made the right decision on that one.

Maestro Bradley Thachuk leads the orchestra this weekend, and once again to conclude the season your humble scribe will be in the lobby before, after and at intermission with a wealth of great music for sale, including a couple of great Naxos recordings featuring the self-same Michael Ludwig.  Hope to see you there, so if you don't have tickets yet, contact the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or pick them up at the door.

By the way, late last month the NSO announced the lineup for their 66th season, set to get underway September 29th with the first Masterworks concert of the 2013-14 season.  The 12-concert programme includes everything from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade to the Schubert Symphony No. 9 to Matt Dusk and a musical tribute to James Bond.  Soloists will include Peter Longworth, Lauren Segal, Christopher Newton and Sultans of String, in addition to crooner Matt Dusk.  Looks like an ambitious season, and new subscribers can begin buying their tickets to the new season starting this Monday, May  27th.  For more information on the complete season, go to, or check out the calendar page on my website at

Also this month we have had a good deal of information pertaining to the new Performing Arts Centre set to go up on that empty lot at the corner of St. Paul and Carlisle in downtown St. Catharines.  You might recall plans were derailed last year when all the bids on the project came in well over-budget with the original design.  So back to the drawing-board went the bean-counters and the design team from Diamond Schmitt Architects to come up with a more affordable design.  As reported in this space back in March when the new design was unveiled, not that much appeared to have changed to the casual observer, which was obviously the plan.  Actually, most people thought the redesign actually looked better than the original in some respects, so thanks to the team from Diamond Schmitt for pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat on this one.

Last week, the bids submitted were opened at City Hall and a collective sigh of relief went up as all the bids came in well under budget this time.  The lowest bidder, Bird Construction, came in at $36.85 million, and a staff report to be discussed by city council Monday evening will recommend Bird be awarded the construction contract.  This means there is some wiggle room to add-in some extras that were taken out with the redesign, in many cases less-costly materials in order to cut the overall price tag of the project.

According to my esteemed colleague at The St. Catharines Standard, columnist Doug Herod, some of the added-in extras we might be able to afford now are better exterior lighting and signage, concession upgrades, better theatrical and visual equipment and so on.  Overall, not big things per se, but together making for a much better theatrical experience, particularly in the largest venue, Partridge Hall, where the Niagara Symphony will perform.

So I would assume at this point everything is a go, with work expected to begin shortly after the contract is awarded this week.  Let's keep our fingers crossed and keep an eye on the city's webcam to watch the progress on the City of St. Catharines website.

All of this pales in comparison with the other much-talked about Diamond Schmitt project that opened to the public earlier this month, the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Mariinsky 11, as it is called, opened to much public fanfare and acclaim with a lavish three-day music festival from May 2nd to 4th, including performances by such musical luminaries Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Mikhail Petrenko and many others, assembled by Mariinsky Artistic and General Director Valery Gergiev.

I've seen pictures of the new design and it is both huge and impressive:  851,850 square feet that fills an entire city block and consists of a masonry base of Jura limestone, large structural glass bay windows and a gently curved metal roof with a glass canopy to give as they put it, "a contemporary expression rooted in St. Petersburg's architectural heritage."  How would you like that in our downtown, eh?  Actually, I have heard some grumblings from some who feel the huge new complex is out of synch with the rest of the area, but really, how can it not be?  The adjacent original Mariinsky Theatre dates from 1860, so things have changed more than a little since then.  The original theatre will still remain in operation, by the way.

So, our Performing Arts Centre might not hold a candle to the new Mariinsky 11, but consider this:  isn't it nice to know the same design firm designing that amazing complex is hard at work designing ours, too?  Bring it on!

May 25th, 2013.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Random thoughts as I return from vacation

Yes, I was on vacation last week, and that might explain why, assuming anyone noticed to begin with, I didn't file my usual diatribe.  There are reasons for that, which we'll cover today in this space before getting back to the routine this coming weekend and cover some pretty important arts developments in Niagara and beyond.

The week prior to my vacation there was no shortage of bad news to absorb, and since my two hats are both arts-related and hard news related in my position as producer of the CKTB Morning Show, the latter weighed me down considerably as the days passed by to the start of my break.  So the latter hat is the one I am wearing as I write this today, the first day I have found I have both the spirit and the time to put words to Blogspot.

We lost two great leaders in our community in the last couple of weeks, one of whom I had the pleasure to work with for many years at CKTB Radio.  Our old "Fuddy Duddy Buddy Dougie", or "Fud Dud" as I called him for short, passed away unexpectedly at the far-too young age of 68, suffering a massive heart attack after his customary swim at the new Kiwanis Aquatic Centre in St. Catharines.  Doug had lost weight in recent years and the last time I saw him he looked great; he was healthy and happy, but you never know when your time is up, it seems.  My condolences to the Hobbs family, all of whom I met at the visitation and the memorial service just over a week ago.

Doug's two great professional passions were sports and music, although which took precedence would be hard to determine.  I sat in with him down at Merritton Sports Park when he was broadcasting the Baby Blue Jays many years ago, and even added some colour commentary of my own, which was particularly gracious on Doug's part since he knew I knew absolutely nothing about sports.  That was just the way he was.  He had fun and it was infectious.  His other love was music, particularly music of the 50s and 60s and especially everything Elvis.  He often said no music worth listening to was created after 1969, so that essentially was his own demarcation point.  No more organized or disciplined music fan existed anywhere.

Doug was always playing his music even when he lost a radio show to showcase it years ago, and had it all digitally transferred and catalogued for the modern age.  One could only imagine how many external hard drives he had employed in later years.  Just a few months ago, in fact, out of the blue I received an email from Doug containing a detailed listing of The Best of the 45 RPM Era, 1950 to 1975.  At the time I remember thinking it rather odd he included the years beyond 1969 in this list, but perhaps he was softening his stand in later years.  At any rate I thanked him for the great work and thinking of me, and that unfortunately was the last contact I had with him.  I will always keep this list handy, just in case, in memory of Doug.

The world needs more Doug Hobbs.  Happy, accomplished, family man and creative mind all rolled into one irrepressible force of nature.  He is now and always will be greatly missed.

That same week we lost another, much younger community leader, Matteo Mancini of Thorold.  Young Matteo was all of 12 years of age and was battling the same cancer that claimed Terry Fox in his final trek across the country.  Matteo inspired an entire community and a whole new generation in his gallant battle with cancer, a battle that ended two weeks ago.  The community showed their collective love and respect for Matteo, his mother and the entire Mancini family by coming out en masse to the Thorold funeral home for two very emotional visitations.  Since it was the same day as Doug's, I decided to go to Doug's in the afternoon and the Mancini visitation in the evening.  It was scheduled from 7 to 9 pm, but ran well past 10 pm due to the volume of people wishing to pay their respects to the family.

I arrived at 7 pm to see the line already snaking out the building, around the front and down the street.  It never ended until late in the evening, and I am told the afternoon visitation was just as busy.  It took over an hour and a half to make it to the receiving line, but I wouldn't trade a minute of it.  It was one of those rare experiences you have to be a part of because you want to be there, rather than have to be there, and I for one did not regret the time spent waiting to pay my respects.  I had a chance to meet Lisa, a friend of the family, in line just ahead of me, and somehow an instant friendship seemed to develop.  Funny how things happen.

Matteo might be gone, but he will not soon be forgotten.  His legacy will be found in Thorold and beyond for years to come, and that I know would make him proud and the family remaining happy.  To all of them I offer condolences and a time of healing as they recover from the loss.

Along with these personal tragedies that week came news of the Tim Bosma case in Ancaster, which resulted last week in news of his untimely death.  The story continues to unfold today, in fact with the charging of a second suspect in the case.  This story hit close to home as well as family members live right here in our community of Niagara.  Again, our condolences to the Bosma family on this day when they remembered Tim at a heart-wrenching service in the Hamilton area where the Bosmas were married just three years ago.

When I returned from vacation this week the news didn't seem to get any better with tornados causing death and hardship in Oklahoma on the weekend; again the story continues to unfold.  Something tells me we are not done with the bad news yet, although the optimistic side of me certainly hopes so.

So with all this news happening around me, I had my scheduled week off at precisely the right time.  I didn't go anywhere, save for day trips to Hamilton, Port Dover, Buffalo and Toronto.  I left my cell phone at home, became as much as possible free of any digital connection whatsoever, and simply shut down for a week and a bit to recharge.  It isn't easy in this day and age to do that but perhaps I am of an age I can disconnect still from social media and other distractions without feeling I am totally out of touch with the world.  I was, of course, but I didn't feel any great loss as a result.

This is something I suggest we all do from time to time.  There is simply too much news in the world these days, and to paraphrase Anthony Newley years ago, I decided to say "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!" at least for a little while.  Try it, and you might just like it.

So having said that, I am back, somewhat refreshed and recharged, and ready to cover the arts beat again for the next while before the next vacation period kicks in.  Onwards and upwards we go with lots of news to cover this coming weekend...

See you then!

May 22nd, 2013.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Choral Weekend in May

I have always love the sound of great choral music in a great setting; usually it is an old church with wonderful acoustics that brings it all together for me, and there have been many memorable experiences for your humble scribe over the years.  In Guelph, for example, there are several old churches in the downtown core I have attended choral concerts at over the years, ranging from The Swingle Singers to the Elora Festival Singers and the Guelph Chamber Choir, always a favourite.

Locally, St. Thomas' Anglican on Ontario Street is probably one of the most reliable venues for choral music performance, and I remember vividly a Chorus Niagara concert there around 2001 as well as a performance of Handel's Messiah a few seasons back conducted by Boris Brott.  But for me, the local gold standard for ambience and sound has to be St. Barnabas Anglican Church on Queenston Street, a church I have visited many times over the years for some great choral performances, one of which even included me as narrator.

This month brings with it several opportunities both locally and beyond to enjoy some great choral music in great settings, beginning with our own Chorus Niagara, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year with a performance of Verdi's Requiem Saturday night.  The performance, beginning at 7:30 pm, takes place at the historic Lake Street Armoury which is just steps away from my house, in fact, and as I went for my evening walk the last couple of days I could see them all hard at work rehearsing in the hall.  This is not the first time they have performed the work there; I recall attending an earlier performance of the Verdi Requiem there many years ago that featured a very young, up-and-coming opera star by the name of Measha Brueggergosman.  What a performance that turned out to be!

This gala evening features over 200 singers and instrumentalists including the Niagara Symphony, Choralis Camerata, Chorus Niagara's Community and Side-by-Side High School Chorales.  The quartet of Canadian Opera stars includes soprano Joni Henson; Anita Krause, mezzo-soprano; David Pomeroy, tenor; and Stephen Hegedus, bass-baritone.  Kudos to Artistic Director and Conductor Robert Cooper for mining the Canadian operatic talent pool for some exceptional young talent yet again.

The performance, generously sponsored by Jeff and Kitty Cairns, will conclude with the lighting of Chorus Niagara's 50th Anniversary Candles as well as a celebratory cake.  For tickets, call the Brock Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or go online to

Meantime, in London Ontario this weekend a very ambitious choral festival is underway starting Friday evening with the Three Cathedrals Choral Festival hosted by St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Ontario.  The Artistic Director of the Festival, Andrew Keegan Mackriell, wrote me some time ago to promote the event and I without hesitation included the information on the Calendar page of my website, which you can find at

Three renowned choirs from Canada and the United States, St. Paul's in Buffalo, St. Paul's in Detroit and St. Paul's in London, Ontario are all taking part in the event through until Sunday at the historic St. Paul's Cathedral in downtown London.  Scheduled events included Friday evening's Choral Evensong followed by a Friday night Pub Night; Saturday features an open rehearsal with all three choirs, guided tours of the Cathedral and the magnificent Cathedral organ, Festival Artists display and sale, afternoon tea and the Saturday evening Festival Concert featuring the three choirs in a programme of choral and organ music spanning several centuries.  Sunday concludes the Festival with Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong, featuring the massed voices of all three cathedral choirs.

Mackriell noted in his press release he had been working on this project for over three years now, soon after he took over as Director of Music and Cathedral organist at London's St. Paul's Cathedral.  He drew inspiration from his native England's Southern Cathedrals Festival, a popular draw for about 40 years now.

If you have some time this weekend and want to head to London for some of the action, log on to for ticket information and full event details.  I hope it turns out to be a great success so we can make this an annual event!

Finally, Toronto's Harbourfront Centre will play host to SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival May 9th to the 12th, with A capella singers from around the globe taking centre stage at the Harbourfront Centre for the four-day festival.  Launched in 2012, the Festival features a wide range of genres, spanning from pop and jazz groups to classical and gospel choirs to world music ensembles.

There will also be vocal workshops for singers of all ages and experience levels, hosted by industry veterans as part of the Festival as well as interactive sessions geared to music fans, amateur singers and professionals alike.

Some of the musical performances over the four days include one of my personal favourite groups, The Swingle Singers from England, The Real Group from Sweden and Moments to Remember:  A Tribute to Harmony Groups of the 50s and 60s, honouring Frank Busseri of The Four Lads and featuring cast members of Forever Plaid.

Sounds like a lot of fun next week in Toronto, so if you want more information, full event listings are available at or, or by calling the Harbourfront box office at 416-973-4000.

Have a great first weekend of May and enjoy some wonderful music with the great spring weather!

May 3rd, 2013.