Saturday, June 29, 2013

First visit to Shaw Festival for the summer season

As we move into the summer season, my regular treks to Niagara-on-the-Lake have begun to see what's up at the Shaw Festival this season.  Hopes are riding high following all the successes, both artistically and financially, last season, and ticket sales appear to be very strong so far this year.

My first foray of the season was to the Court House Theatre for the new adaptation by Canadian playwright John Murrell of Shaw's Geneva, which was one of his more problematic plays written later in life.  The new version, titled Peace In Our Time:  A Comedy, continues at the Court House until October 12 and is going to be one that I suspect flies under the radar this season.

While John Murrell has given the original play a much broader, freewheeling adaptation than what was originally envisioned by Shaw in Geneva, making it much more contemporary and pointed in terms of humour, it is still based on a Shaw play.  That being the case, there is still lots of dialogue here, especially in the first act.  It can get a little tedious during the first act even with the sharper dialogue, but by the second act the cast has hit their stride and things pick up considerably.

The story begins in a dysfunctional diplomatic office prior to the Second World War, with every person visiting the office having a particular axe to grind as far as human indignity is concerned.  Each person is met by American-born Belle Browning, played with great flair here by Diana Donnelly.  She eventually represents the International Committee for Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations, the predecessor to today's United Nations.  Belle exemplifies the all-American "We can do it!" attitude even in the face of atrocities committed around the world by tyrants in control of nations without any thought of accountability.

The final act takes us to The Hague and a trial of three of the world's most notorious dictators, all of whom come off here as clowns and buffoons:  Neil Barclay as Italy's Il Duce; Ric Reid as Germany's Der Fuhrer; and Lorne Kennedy as Spain's El Generalisimo.  This is where the play takes on a surreal dimension and becomes much more animated and colourful.  All three actors play their respective characters rather broadly, with Barclay especially so as Mussolini.  Reid's Hitler comes off as even more of a clown due to his physical comedy, and Kennedy as Franco is the strongest of the three.  Sound like the Three Stooges on trial?  That's pretty much what we see here and it makes for some very funny moments.  Kennedy especially makes the best use of his limited time on stage, coming as he does very near the end of the trial.  Comedic master that he is, he mines the role for every comic gem in a rather short period of time.

The rest of the cast is all very strong, with good performances especially from Shaw regulars Michael Ball, Moya O'Connell, Jeff Meadows and Patrick Galligan.  Claire Jullien makes for a very sexy Dona Dolores Ochoa, by the way.

Blair Williams directs with his usual sure hand and great sense of comic timing, and the design by Camellia Koo is sparse enough with the small Court House stage so nothing gets in the way of the actors on stage.

While the early June performance I attended was not very full, I suspect this might become a bit of a sleeper this season at Shaw.  It rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars and runs at the Court House Theatre until October 12th.

The Lunchtime presentation this season is a pairing under the collective banner Trifles, and presents two one-act plays by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill.  Glaspell's is titled, in fact, Trifles; O'Neill's is A Wife for a Life.  Normally we see a very funny comedic turn for the Lunchtime show, but that's not the case this season.  Both plays are rather dark and dreary affairs, both in appearance and content.

Both plays are the very first efforts for both authors and both concern marriage and turn on the actions of an absent wife.  In Glaspell's case, the wife can no longer bear her role due to the circumstances she found herself in so she has left; the story was adapted by Glaspell from her short story "A Jury of Her Peers"which dealt with an infamous 1900 murder case she covered as a journalist in Iowa.  With O'Neill he writes of his experiences on a six-month gold mining expedition in Honduras in 1910.

Both plays share the same set and actors; in each case the set is a pretty primitive, desolate space around the turn of the last century when creature comforts are almost nonexistent.  In Trifles the space is a lonely farmhouse kitchen; in A Wife for a Life the scene is a prospector's lonely cabin.

Of the two, the O'Neill comes off as a little more interesting, as Benedict Campbell deals with the fact his young wife has left him for a younger man and that man he discovers just happens to be Jack, who shares the cabin with him.  When Jack explains he has been waiting for word from his lady to come join her for good, the old prospector has to decide if he should give Jack the note that has arrived for him from the lady or burn it.  He knows if he gives it to Jack he has lost his wife forever.

All the performances are quite good, with Campbell especially so; Graeme Somerville and Jeff Irving are also strong in both plays.  But the content is not exactly uplifting so you will be leaving the theatre not with a smile but certainly thankful you didn't live back in the bleak times these poor souls did.

Trifles, directed by Meg Roe, continue at the Court House Theatre until October 12th and rate 2 out of 4 stars.

June 29th, 2013.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Laura Secord weekend in Niagara

This is a big weekend, I am sure you are aware, for fans of Laura Secord.  And no, I am not talking about the iconic chocolate shop, athough there are plenty of fans of that including myself.  Incidentally, my mom worked at the Laura Secord shop in downtown Toronto at College and Yonge Streets shortly after getting married to dad in 1949.  She was told she could eat as much as she wanted while at work in the shop, with the owners knowing full well that desire would not last long once you are around it all day long.  But already I digress...

Early this morning hundreds of local history buffs and other interested souls began the 32 kilometre trek from the Laura Secord Homestead in Queenston to the DeCew House in Thorold, more or less retracing the steps of Laura herself 200 years ago.  The Laura Secord Bicentennial Walk is turning into a big deal, and I know a lot of people who are taking part in the walk today, including our Chief Engineer at CKTB RADIO, Joe Gurney, who is totally geeked out this year with a tracking device so you can log on to a website to see where he is at any given moment.  Last time I checked around the noon-hour today, he was over the half-way mark in the walk.  Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati and his wife Tweeted from the walk as well, so everyone is either on the walk or taking a keen interest in it.  I was planning to do the walk myself this weekend but life sort of got in the way I am sorry to say.

More information on the walk can be had by logging on to

Tied in with all this, the War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee has a lot of events planned in Thorold this weekend at several locations including the Battle of Beaverdams Park in downtown Thorold, including the Provincial Town Crier Championships Saturday and Sunday.  Our own mighty Town Crier, Mark Molnar is in the thick of it in Thorold this weekend, and we wish him the best of luck as he goes up against the best of the best from around the province.

Everyone is getting into the act to mark the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 it seems, with Niagara Falls MP and Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announcing yesterday the Royal Canadian Mint has issued a special Laura Secord Bicentennial coin and Canada Post a special stamp to mark the Bicentennial as well.  The nice thing about all this is Canadians are actually, genuinely taking an interest in the Bicentennial, and everyone seems excited by the many events taking place.

The balance of this year and next will continue to see any number of Bicentennial events planned, since the War of 1812 concluded in 1814, of course, so we can legitimately observe all the anniversaries through to next year.  You can be sure everyone will be taking advantage of the promotional opportunities presented right here in Niagara.

Doing their part to help celebrate the Bicentennial, Music Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake launches their 15th season this summer with an early musical celebration to mark the Laura Secord Bicentennial this evening at St. Mark's Church in the Old Town.  Tonight at 7:30 pm Music Niagara presents a concert version of the entire score of a new work by Mark Richards, commissioned by Music Niagara no less.  Laura Secord:  An Opera will be presented as a fully-staged opera in 2014, but this year it is a somewhat scaled-back concert version.  Last year, incidentally, Music Niagara presented a workshop performance of the first two acts, so the work in progress continues.

The dramatic new creation tells the story of Laura's life and adventures in the early stages of the War of 1812, and tonight's performance of course takes place two-hundred years to the day after Laura made her famous walk - without a cow along for the walk, contrary to legend.  The opera is composed by Mark Richards, currently on the faculty a the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, teaching courses in music theory, music history, the music of Beethoven and even film music.

The performance will be conducted by Joel Ivany, founder and artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, a Toronto music collective, with Nicole Bellamy as music director.  The cast includes Miriam Khalil as Laura; Jason Lamont as James Secord and Lt. Fitzgibbon; Tessa Laengert as Elizabeth; Peter McGillivray as U.S. Cpt. Chapin; Andrew Love as General Vincent; and Maria Soulis as the elderly Laura.  The Laura Secord Opera Project is supported by Walter M. and Lisa Balfour Bowen.

If you want to go tonight, tickets are available by calling the Music Niagara Box Office, c/o the Shaw Festival, at 905-468-2172 or 1-800-511-7249.  A portion of the ticket price will go towards the restoration of the Charles Secord headstone in the churchyard at St. Mark's Church on Byron Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

For information on the entire Music Niagara concert season this summer, go to  I will also be posting the dates this week on the calendar page of my website, at

Enjoy the weekend!

June 22nd, 2013.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

First visit to Stratford Festival this season last weekend

Last weekend we made our first trek to Stratford to see what the Festival has in store this season, and two of the more notable offerings this season provided a weekend full of entertainment.  So, as we kick off another season of writing about the shows at both Shaw and Stratford, let's get going!

I was very much looking forward to Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit at the Avon Theatre, directed by Brian Bedford, who knew Coward personally.  The play, subtitled by Coward "An Improbable Farce in Three Acts" dates from 1941, when the world was at war and very much in need of a bit of comedic diversion.  While it is a farce of sorts, as Bedford notes in his Director's Notes, it isn't the kind of farce that depends on dashing in and out of bedrooms and slamming of doors.  Rather, it is what the characters say - and how they say it - that makes it funny.

All in all, Blithe Spirit is a fun romp through the upper-class Condomine household, but three acts ultimately proves to be one too many.  Maybe it is the shorter attention spans people possess now, but three acts and two intermissions seems so out of step with the times nowadays.  The story could probably have been condensed into two acts with little lost as a result.

That being said, what is there is typical Coward:  witty, clever, and in the proper hands great fun.  Bedford knows his way around this type of play and directs here with a sure hand.  He has assembled a talented cast of Stratford regulars to bring the farce to life, beginning with Ben Carlson as Charles and Sara Topham as his wife, Ruth, living the good life in the English country home they reluctantly share with Charles' first love, Elvira, played by Michelle Giroux.  Now, she doesn't actually live there in body, but in spirit; Charles is the only one who can see her, of course, which presents no end of problems for both Charles and Ruth as the play wears on.

Add to the mix Wendy Thatcher and James Blendick as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman and Seana McKenna as the bicycle-riding medium Madame Arcati and you have the makings of a fun evening's entertainment.  But at the end of it all I was still left wanting; there seemed to be something missing.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but for a farce, even by Coward, this one presented more chuckles than outright guffaws.

Blendick is used sparingly in his role as the Doctor, unfortunately.  His rolling voice is always welcome on the Stratford stage.  Incidentally, I can't quite figure out why, when he returns to examine Charles about his condition following unscheduled visits from the ghost of Elvira, he is the only one still in evening attire.  Thatcher is always steady and reliable in any role I've seen her in and this one is no different.  McKenna is always a treat to watch, and very nearly steals the show here.

Sets and costumes by Simon Higlett and Katherine Lubienski respectively are suited to the times and very elegant, with the set design particularly elegant.  The stage effects to conjure up not one but ultimately two ghosts are very well done (no, I won't explain how we end up with two ghosts by the end of the play; you'll have to see it for yourself) with the ending of the final act being particularly entertaining.

Blithe Spirit might seem a little dated now, which might explain the rather smallish crowd at the June performance I attended, but those who do go will be treated to a solid, well-acted ensemble piece that rates a genuine three out of four stars.  Just don't expect special effects to be anything more than just quaint by today's standards.  I for one find that aspect of the play rather refreshing.

Now, for special effects, you go to see the musical Tommy, which was the second half of our Stratford weekend last week.  The problem here is the special effects are so spectacular, so over-the-top in some respects, they tend to overshadow everything else about Tommy.  Credit director Des McAnuff for pulling out all the stops with this production, but it all appears to these eyes and ears to be just too much.

This is, after all, a rock opera, not unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, which McAnuff also directed at Stratford in past seasons and other late 60s/early 70s groundbreakers such as Hair and Godspell.  Here, the music and lyrics are by Pete Townshend, who shared book credits with Des on this as well as the original production.  McAnuff knows how to present a spectacle and make no mistake, this is every inch a spectacle.  But is it a great musical production?

For my part, I am not a big fan of The Who; they were just not a part of my growing up.  But I can see the quality in the music and the fact audience members all around me were reacting to the music like they were old friends.  But am I sounding too much an old fogey when I say why does it have to be so loud?  Right from the opening notes which start with a bang, startling everyone in the capacity crowd at the performance I attended, it is one loud piece of theatre.  The second act perhaps a little less so, but overall you might want to consider sitting a little further back in the theatre for this one.

The cast here, as was the case in the earlier Jesus Christ Superstar, is exceptional.  They have strong voices and stage presence, with Robert Markus as Tommy being particularly good.  The rest of the cast is made up largely of lesser-known names to those who frequent the more serious Stratford offerings, but many of them double up for roles in Tommy as well as the other musical this year, Fiddler on the Roof, so they are all exceptionally talented performers.

A lot of work went into the design and execution of the several pinball machines used in the production; all of them had to be built from scratch to withstand performers standing and even dancing on them at times, and in order to work exactly the way they need to when they are needed.  Computer technology is very much on display here, and I won't give away some of the more spectacular effects used in the show other than to say watch out for the flaming pinball machine.

So, is Tommy worth the trip?  If you love special effects you will simply love this show.  If you love Stratford shows generally you probably will, too.  But I found the musical aspect of it to be rather soul-less, as the computer technology overtakes just about everything else about it.  I know I will be in the minority on this; the show will pack them in for the entire season, guaranteed.  The money-maker is here for Stratford this season, so "Who" am I to complain about that?  It rates a respectable three out of four stars.

Blithe Spirit runs at the Avon Theatre until October 20th; Tommy until October 19th.

June 15th, 2013.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Two musical legends in Canada in the news this week

Two musical legends are in the news this week, both from different genres but sharing a love of music and their home and native land.

I was at the Y this morning doing my usual imitation of something resembling exercise and afterwards, a gentleman I see frequently at the Y mentioned he was related to the jazz great Kenny Wheeler, and telling me the grand old master of jazz music is visiting family in St. Catharines this very week.  Kenny is 83 now and still going strong.  He hopes to record again soon and still practices regularly when at home in the U.K.  Imagine, at 83 the fire is still there and the desire to become better every time out on stage.  What an inspiration.

I met Kenny briefly years ago on one of his frequent trips home to St. Catharines, where he spent several of his formative years at St. Catharines Collegiate playing trumpet, perfecting his craft.  He came to Downtown Fine Music when my friend Peter owned the store years ago, and while browsing the CDs I was introduced to him.  At that point I was not as conversant in jazz as I am now, so I didn't really realize what was taking place at the time.

When Kenny left for the London music scene years ago, he took gigs all the time as most musicians would in those days, so it was not at all uncommon for Kenny to show up on any number of great recordings from a myriad of performers, both jazz and otherwise.  Just the other day, in fact, I turned up a two-disc set of German bandleader Bert Kaempfert's Live at London's Royal Albert Hall concert from 1974, and there in the orchestra credits in the trumpet section was the name Kenny Wheeler.  I wonder if he ever remembers those two concerts that filled the RAH so many years ago.

Anyway, welcome home, Kenny, and enjoy your time back here in St. Catharines this week!

The other Canadian music-maker in the news this week is Ontario-born conductor Mario Bernardi, who passed away last Sunday morning in the Toronto retirement home where he lived with his longtime wife, mezzo-soprano Mona Kelly.  He was 82.

Bernardi was during his long career certainly one of the most well-respected conductors anywhere, and it all began in Kirkland Lake, the place of his birth in 1930.  He was raised in Europe, however, moving with his mother to Treviso, Italy at the age of six.  After World War II he studied music at the Venice Conservatory; he also studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where he launched his musical career as a pianist/soloist, coach and conductor.  For a time Mario worked for the Canadian Opera Company in its very early days before crossing the Atlantic again in 1963 to become coach and assistant conductor with London's Sadler's Wells Opera Company, now known as the English National Opera.  He eventually rose to the rank of musical director there.

It was in 1968 Mario was lured back home to Canada to help found the National Arts Centre Orchestra, developing the orchestra from the ground up including personally auditioning all the original musicians.    Bernardi left the NAC Orchestra in 1982, leaving an indelible mark on the orchestra as one of the finest orchestras in the country.  He did a lot of guest conducting after that before landing in Calgary and then Vancouver as principal conductor in those cities.  With the Calgary Philharmonic he fashioned the orchestra into a western powerhouse, making several acclaimed recordings with the orchestra for the CBC Records label.  I have several in my personal collection, including a memorable recording of the Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C, paired with the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52.

In Vancouver, Bernardi conducted the CBC Vancouver Orchestra for many years, making still more acclaimed CBC recordings with that organization, including a long out-of-print two-disc set of Canadian and American Music for Chamber Orchestra entitled Entre Amis.  Composers represented included Canadian and American heavyweights such as Healey Willan, Godfrey Ridout, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, along with less-known works by Rudolf Komorous, Ian McDougall and Charles Griffes.  It was a daring release at the time and I have long treasured the copy in my personal collection.

Mario Bernardi was a companion of the Order of Canada, and was also presented with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001.  He also received honorary degrees from universities across the country.

The NACO will unveil a recently-commissioned bust of Bernardi - created by noted Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy - at the NAC's Southam Hall entrance at noon this coming Canada Day.  They will also create a fund in his name to champion the commission of new Canadian compositions for the orchestra; Mario would be pleased to know that.

So two Canadian giants of music from their chosen fields; Kenny Wheeler from St. Catharines and Mario Bernardi from Kirkland Lake.  Who says we can't provide the world with great home-grown talent?!

June 8th, 2013.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Remembering old music formats that refuse to die...

I have been involved with the music business in one form or another for almost 20 years now and before that, I was an avid buyer of music since I was a kid and bought my very first 45 rpm record in 1971.  Lots has changed since then, and this week I am waxing a little nostalgic after reading some interesting news recently.

As a seller of music (barely!) these days through my website, A Web of Fine Music (, I have received many calls over the years from people wanting to sell their album collections.  For some reason, people seem to think since I sell music, I must surely want to buy it too.  That unfortunately is not the case.  In fact, I could probably fill a warehouse with albums, 78s and 45s people want to sell me.  Thanks, but I have plenty of my own at the moment currently occupying more of the basement than my far better half would like.

In almost all cases, these collections are worth very little if anything at all, and most of these callers are rather surprised to hear that.  The grim reality is there is a glut of old recorded music on the market now, and unless it is pristine and quite rare, you might as well not waste your time trying to sell it for anything more than a pittance.  When I used to hold yard sales, for example, the best I could do would be sell LPs for 25 cents a piece.  People love a great deal, but expect top dollar when it comes to selling what they have to sell.  Can you see the problem here?

My stock answer is to just take your collections to Goodwill or Salvation Army or a similar thrift shop; LPs and 45s are always welcome, but 78s are pretty well best used for target practice.  Sorry you have to hear that!  You can always try to sell them to someone specializing in old music formats, but those are few and far between now.  In Niagara, even my old friend Bill Gibbs has hung up the stylus at Atomix Records; there is still Ragged Glory in downtown Niagara Falls but that is about it.  There is usually a used record show and sale in St. Catharines at Market Square that attracts record vendors from around the province at least twice a year, but so far I have not heard of one in the near future this year.

I have had more than my share of interesting experiences with old records myself over the years.  Back in the 80s when the family was moving down to Niagara from east-end Toronto, I contacted the then record guru in Toronto, Peter Dunn, who operated several used record shops around the city, and he came out with a van one evening and gave me a flat fee for the entire lot of about 4,000 LPs in my collection.  Together we loaded up the van one evening and off he drove; I got about 10 cents apiece but considered myself lucky to get rid of all of them in one shot.

Fast-forward to maybe ten years ago and I was down in Niagara Falls to visit the semi-annual record show and sale in that city, and darned if I didn't find an old MGM recording of Joni James from the 50s I had in my collection years ago.  I thought, "Boy, I wish I hadn't gotten rid of that disc years ago!"  As I opened up the double-gatefold jacket I writing inside!  I had always dated the recordings back then and there was my writing, large as life!  I could not believe my eyes; I explained my surprise to the vendor, asking how he got hold of it, and gratefully peeled off a 10-spot to buy the thing back again.  We both had a great laugh over it and I suspect, he has a great story to share with his colleagues.  I have since paid way more than the disc is actually worth, but I have it back again and that's all that matters.

Today, albums are still available, of course, but it isn't the same.  The albums are special editions that cost considerably more than they once did, and the market is very specialized now.  Gone are the days you could buy an album inexpensively unless it is a used item.  They are usually something like 180-gram vinyl, a quality that is lost on most people unless they are true audiophiles.  Suffice it to say, albums are now the chi-chi music format for a select few.

That being said, it was reported this week LP sales are up about 20% as of last year, selling about 4.6 million units.  Not much in the overall scheme of things, really, but pretty respectable considering the age of the format.  So someone must be buying them; I have no idea whom, though, as in ten years of selling music through my website I have sold only one LP and that was the new Neil Young album last year.

I have to wonder about the wisdom of the record companies in choosing what they issue on vinyl these days, however.  Earlier this year, for example, EMI Music Canada sent out a release sheet announcing Kenny Rogers' The Gambler and Glen Campbell's By The Time I Get to Phoenix would be released on 180-gram vinyl with original restored artwork.  I have no idea how many of these suckers they expect to sell, really, given the wholesale cost to me would translate into about a $ 25.00 selling price at retail.  I don't want to be mean here, but most people looking for Kenny Rogers' The Gambler on LP these days are looking to pay 25 cents rather than 25 dollars, I suspect.

Other than old-fashioned vinyl, other music formats have all but met a painful death in recent years.  You don't see many cassettes anymore except at yard sales or flea markets, and god forbid you actually even look at an 8-track tape - remember those?  You can still find those at yard sales, but if they are more than about 10 cents a piece they are too much money.

CDs are still selling, but from my personal experience the sales are still not strong.  Mini-discs?  Gone.  There is even stuff out now on Blu-Ray Audio, for heaven's sake.  I mean, why bother?  None of these likely will ever become mainstream like laser discs never came close to replacing VCR tapes years ago.  The DVD and Blu-Ray sales are okay but not great, as more and more people rely on downloading movies like they do music nowadays.

I read a couple of years ago the music giant HMV, still going in Canada in spite of the parent company not doing well over in England, used to sell about 70% music and 30% other music-related stuff about five years ago.  Now, the split is about 10% music and 90% other stuff.  They saw the writing on the wall and changed direction while they still could.  For my part, I can't, as I sell only music and it is simply a sideline for me.  I could never make a living in this business and I knew that going in ten years ago.

But my clientele relies on me for exceptional service and the knowledge I have acquired over about 20 years in the music business, and that is something you can't get when you are simply downloading your music yourself.  I know, young people today have an aversion to paying for their music, and that will come back to bite them in time.  But for now, at least, they can pay little or nothing for music downloads of inferior quality to an actual hard copy of a recording.

By the way, while many figure young people today prefer MP3 downloads as their format of choice, that is really not the case.  It was reported earlier this year the majority of music lovers today get their music from YouTube.  Go figure.

So, I will continue to sell music for the time being, and watch the market grow ever smaller, along with the pool of people selling music today.  In Niagara, I am about the last man standing when it comes to anything other than rock and pop.  But being an order service I can get literally anything that is still in print, so if you are on the hunt for something you just can't find anywhere else, send me an email at and I will be happy to see what I can do for you.

Happy listening!

June 1st, 2013.