Monday, July 28, 2014

Celebrating all that's British at the Elora Festival this past weekend

My apologies for not writing over the weekend, but I was in dire need of a break and escape, so I did both by heading to Elora for an overnight escape with my far better half and caught one of the final performances of the 2014 edition of the Elora Festival.

This was the final weekend for the 35th edition of the Elora Festival, and from both an artistic and attendance standpoint, the season appears to have been a roaring success.  For three weeks in July each year, artists from around the globe or around the province visit this picturesque little town north-west of Guelph to make music and entertain audiences.

Our second trip of the season saw us once again at the Gambrel Barn on the outskirts of town for the Last Night of the Proms concert Saturday evening.  As Master of Ceremonies John Fraser put it in his opening remarks, it is a chance for us all to don our "rose-coloured glasses" and celebrate all that is British for an evening.

For the first half, though, I worried the audience was not in tune with the celebratory nature of these annual musical love-ins from London; the audience applause was polite and they kept their British and Canadian flags well hidden from view much of the time.  The music perhaps didn't inspire much patriotic fervour, mind you, as it ranged from music from Handel's Zadok the Priest and Let the Bright Seraphim to evergreens like Loch Lomond and Londonderry Air.  A nice touch was the addition of the theme music from Downton Abbey, which proves British musicians can still provide us with a catchy, listenable tune when they choose to.

Perhaps the highlight of the first half - the first of many, actually provided by John Fraser - was his clever, roundabout way of tying the large gaseous planet Jupiter, as in Host's Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity from his Planets Suite, to the Mayor of Toronto.  Much laughter ensued at the Toronto Chief Magistrate's expense.

The second half opened with perhaps a bit too much Gilbert & Sullivan for my liking, featuring several excerpts from Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore.  The highlight was a fetching rendition of I'm Called Little Buttercup, with the soloist being one of the members of the Elora Festival Singers, no less.  Many of the solos were done by members of the Elora Festival Singers, in fact, and each and every one of them would qualify for a solo career in their own right given their talents on display on Saturday night.

Things started to get revved up by the time Elgar's beloved Land of Hope & Glory, from his Pomp & Circumstance March # 1 hit the programme.  Much flag waving and of course, standing for the chorus was in order, and I think we all did our best impression of a Proms audience at Royal Albert Hall at this point.  Of course, there was the requisite Jerusalem and Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations, but after that I started to feel conductor Noel Edison was losing control of things with Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia of Sea Songs.

Here, with an interpolation of the familiar Darth Vader music from Star Wars ushering in the hooded dark knight himself to conduct the remainder of the suite, things started to get a bit silly.  But not a single person in attendance seemed to mind the collective forces on stage letting their hair down and having a grand old time just making music and having fun.  We never did find out who played the role of Darth, incidentally...

The forces of the Elora Festival Singers augmented with members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Elora Festival Orchestra, all conducted by Noel Edison all performed admirably, but the evening was strung together quite nicely by that most passionate of Canadian patriots, John Fraser, who regaled us with stories throughout the evening ranging from when he sang Gilbert & Sullivan in his youth to his belated arrival at the evening's concert thanks to his need for a belt to hold his pants up.  No, I won't explain the story here; you had to be there to hear it for yourself.

So, although this was not the final concert of the season, it was certainly a highlight of the final weekend for the Elora Festival, and sent everyone off into the evening humming many familiar tunes on the way home.  If nothing else, it proved you can have a lot of fun with classical music if it is in the right hands:  it takes talent to take chances like we heard on Saturday night.

I love visiting Elora for the Festival each year, and in fact have a secret desire to, once I actually do retire, spend the entire three weeks in Elora and attend each and every performance.  A pipe-dream, perhaps, but a darn nice one...

In a future column I'll write about some of the more interesting non-musical attractions in Elora, should you wish to visit sometime in the future.  Being a very artistic community by nature, there is always something interesting going on in the town.

Incidentally, the Elora Festival Singers will be down this way this coming holiday weekend for a supper concert at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The concert takes place at 6 pm on Saturday, August 2nd, as part of the Music Niagara concert series now underway.  For more on Music Niagara and to order tickets, go to or call 1-800-511-7429.

Enjoy the wealth of great music all around us this summer!

July 28th, 2014.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Shaw Festival Speakers Series now underway

In addition to attending the myriad of shows at the Shaw Festival, many patrons enjoy expanding their experience at Shaw by attending some of the additional events that happen each season, and that includes the Speakers Series known as Beyond the Stage.

The series got underway this weekend with The War to End All Wars?:  Commemorating World War One, featuring acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan.  MacMillan is the author of Paris 1919 and was in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Saturday morning to give an intimate talk at the Royal George Theatre about her latest book, The War that Ended Peace:  The Road to 1914.

Unfortunately the author will not be presenting her discussion again on Sunday, but there are two events scheduled on Sunday you might still want to attend.  In the Studio Theatre Sunday morning at 11 there will be a reading of The Accrington Pals, Peter Whelan's play set during the First World War and based on real-life events.

In the afternoon, the Studio Theatre will play host to a conversation with actor and director Paul Gross, perhaps best known for the popular television series Due South several years ago, but also widely respected as a writer.  His World War One film Passchendaele will be the topic of discussion Sunday afternoon at 3 pm.

Tickets should still be available for the Sunday events, priced at $ 25 for the speaker event and $ 20 for the reading.  You can book your tickets online at or by calling the box office at 905-468-2172 or toll free, 1-800-511-SHAW.

On the subject of the Speakers Series, there are two other events planned for later in the season at Shaw.  On September 13th, the Festival Theatre will play host to Thought for Food at 11 am.  The panel discussion will focus on providing a better understanding of the farm-to-table movement, moderated by culinary writer Lucy Waverman.  The panel will include Linda Crago of Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm; Bill Redelmeier of Southbrook Vineyards; and Stephen Treadwell of Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine, now based in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The event will be presented in association with the Niagara Wine Festival, which of course will be in full swing by then.

On October 4th, the Festival Theatre plays host to At the Heart of the Matter with author Lawrence Hill at 11 am.  Hill, author of the provocative and best-selling novel The Book of Negroes, will be giving a lecture about his most recent work, Blood:  The Stuff of Life.  The non-fiction book is a meditation on blood as an historical and contemporary marker of identity, belonging, gender, race, class, citizenship, athletic superiority and nationhood.  Many of these themes show up in Shaw productions over the years, of course.

There will also be a Q&A and book signing following the lecture, incidentally, on October 4th.

Again, tickets are available through the Shaw box office for the September and October Speakers Series events.

By and large, the Shaw Festival is having a banner season so far, and the two productions I have had the pleasure of seeing so far have been great:  The Charity that Began at Home at the Court House Theatre and When We Are Married at the Royal George Theatre.  In August, we head to the Festival Theatre for what clearly appears to be the hit of the season, Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer.

If you have not been in awhile or worse still, have never been, you owe it to yourself to attend a performance this season at Shaw.  They do indeed produce world-class theatre with an ensemble cast that is second to none anywhere.

So, do you need any other reasons to get out this summer and enjoy some great live theatre?

July 19th, 2014.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

From Elora Festival to Music Niagara - great choral music is yours to enjoy!

This past Sunday we travelled up to Elora for the first of two concerts my wife and I will be attending this season, and we came away just amazed at the performance we enjoyed at the Gambrel Barn.

The Gambrel Barn is where the town stores their salt reserves in the winter, I'm told, along with other town uses.  At first blush, you would not expect the venue to be acoustically sound, but it is.  Wonderfully so, in fact.  As a result, many of the Elora Festival events are held there each year during the month of July.

Opening weekend has just passed and we had the pleasure of attending the performance by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, England, directed by Stephen Layton, a long-time friend of Festival Artistic Director Noel Edison.

Layton has the dry wit you expect from a proper Englishman, commenting at one point on the "frail English" inability to cope with our hot summer weather here in Ontario.  We didn't find it that hot, really, but it clearly affected one member of the choir who had to be helped by St. John Ambulance personnel in attendance during the performance.

The performance, a full 90-minute programme with no intermission, ranged from William Byrd and Thomas Tallis to J.S. Bach to more modern composers such as Arvo Part and Morton Lauridsen.  They also presented a setting of Judas, mercator pessimus by a member of the choir, Owain Park.  Park also happens to be one of the Organ Scholars for the choir.  As an encore, imagine a fine English choir cutting loose with a clever, witty rendition of The Teddy Bear's Picnic and you can imagine the response of the capacity crowd on Sunday afternoon.

From start to finish, the performance was breathtaking in its precision and clarity, as well as the simplicity of the presentation.  This is a choir you need to hear again and again in order to fully appreciate what great choral music can sound like.

In Canada, the Elora Festival Singers are one of the finest choirs you'll hear on any given day, but it was a special treat to hear this fine English choir on Elora's home turf on the weekend.

Here in Niagara, both the Elora Festival Singers and the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, England will be performing as part of our own local music festival, Music Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Music Niagara also got under way on the weekend, and they continue just beyond the Elora dates, running to the second week of August.  In Elora, they wrap up the three-week Festival July 27th.

I don't have specifics on the performances scheduled for Music Niagara yet, but I would imagine the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge will present a similar programme when they appear at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake this evening, in fact as well as Wednesday afternoon at 4 pm.  The Elora Festival Singers present a Picnic Supper performance at St. Mark's on Saturday, August 2nd at 6 pm.

I have written before about the wonderful experiences to be had each summer at both of our premiere music festivals in Ontario, and there is still time to experience either one or even both before they are done.

The Elora Festival presents Week Two with performances ranging from The Irvine Twist Trio Wednesday evening and the Elora Festival Singers in a performance of Rachmaninoff's Vespers on Thursday evening.  On the weekend, Canada, Fall In! commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I will be presented twice on Saturday afternoon, and Richard and Lauren Margison perform together Saturday evening.  For more performances, check out the Calendar page on my website at, and for tickets and more information, call 1-519-846-0331 or go to

Music Niagara continues this week as well with several performances scheduled, including the ever-popular group Quartetto Gelato at St. Mark's Friday evening and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada Sunday evening at Jackson-Triggs winery.  For more information on performances, again you can check out my Calendar page at, or call Music Niagara at 1-800-511-7429.  You can also log on to their website at

Enjoy some great music this summer!

July 15th, 2014.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Revitalization of downtown St. Catharines: an update

It has been awhile since I wrote in this space about the ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown St. Catharines, so I thought this weekend I would spend some time on the subject following an evening walk around our city centre following a lovely dinner at Dani's Bistro on St. Paul Street.

The first thing you'll notice downtown these days is the pedestrian mall that has part of James Street closed to vehicular traffic from the entrance to Market Square to King Street.  I hear the odd complaint about it, but overall, it appears to be a roaring success this year, due in no small part to the fact people actually have the entire summer to enjoy it this year.

The city in their collective wisdom this spring approved the closure of James Street much earlier than last year's test closure, and as a result the crowds have been coming out for the entertainment, the atmosphere and the social interaction.  A nice addition this year is better picnic tables, Muskoka chairs and some pretty snazzy park benches.

The entertainment has been great, leading off with guitar virtuoso Pavlo a couple of weeks ago, and in spite of some torrential downpours, people are still showing up to catch a show or two during the week.

No doubt the extra patio space provided by Gord's Place is helping their business this summer, and it adds to the musical and culinary atmosphere downtown.

The Tuesday market running from noon to 8 pm provides another opportunity to come downtown and enjoy some great food and entertainment, too.  I have come down a couple of times already and the attendance appears to be growing.  The weather is not cooperating on Tuesday, but the people are still coming, so that is a good sign.  The Tuesday evening market continues for the rest of the summer.

Moving on to St. Paul Street, I was struck by the number of newly renovated storefronts compared to the last time we did this walk.  If anyone doubts the ripple effect of all the investment in the Meridian Centre, the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts and the Performing Arts Centre, take a walk along St. Paul Street like we did this evening.  Sure, there are still some empty storefronts down there, but some nice additions and new facades are literally changing the face of St. Paul Street for the better.

One of the most striking changes is at 81 St. Paul Street, once the home of Downtown Fine Music.  When the store closed, a series of night-time hot spots came and went, each one looking less inviting than the one before.  Now, after considerable renovations I witnessed this spring, Royal LePage has opened a new downtown office in the space and it looks just magnificent.  This, dear reader, is how you revitalize a downtown core.

Like the beautifully retro facade of The Boot Shop on James Street, the Royal LePage facade looks striking, while still being understated and elegant.  We need more storefronts like this along our main street, following the lead of Verity, Christina's, Gwen's Teas and so many others.  The wine route now runs through downtown St. Catharines, so let's make it worth the drive through our city core.

I also had a chance to see the work close up on the new pedestrian walkways going in to the Meridian Centre from St. Paul Street, and they will provide that vital link to the spectator facility while providing ample opportunity to see what we have to offer downtown on your way to or from an event at the new facility.  Seeing the sign up on the Meridian Centre does my heart good, too, since I now am a proud employee of a company that believes in community and proves it every day in Niagara and beyond.

I still feel an important yet simple adjustment to downtown traffic flow will benefit the Meridian Centre greatly once it opens this fall.  We have to get moving on making William Street a two-way street, so using the Ontario Street parking garage is not a traffic nightmare on game or concert nights at the Centre.  Surely this can be achieved with not much capital outlay on the part of the city.

It is unfortunate the old City Lights restaurant is rotting away; surely someone could provide a new vision for that space.  But just around the corner you find just that:  a new vision for La Scala on Queen Street.  What an inviting patio on a summer evening!  That will be a destination before this summer is out for sure.

The work is continuing downtown and it is by no means a finished product.  But you can see the direction things are heading, and that gives us hope we can finally come downtown and eat, socialize, be entertained and do business in a vital, safe and well-maintained city core.  If plans go ahead for a permanent civic square on James Street, that will just add to the friendlier nature of downtown St. Catharines.

Look, nothing is perfect and our downtown will still have blemishes depending on where you are.  But the overall effect and feeling is upbeat right now, and that's the way you want it to be after so much investment in the downtown.

There now, feeling better?  You should, as I do after simply walking around our downtown this evening.  There is so much happening, you have to see it for yourself.

Get downtown and take that walk!

July 12th, 2014.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Shaw Festival scores another winner with Priestley comedy

Last weekend we attended the second of three Shaw productions I will be reviewing in this space this season, and it proved to be a bonafide winner from start to finish.

When We Are Married by Shaw contemporary J.B. Priestley dates from October of 1938, when it premiered at the St. Martin's Theatre in London, afterwards transferring to the Prince's Theatre the following March.  This play also has the distinction of being the first to be televised unedited, courtesy the BBC back in 1939.

This is the second go-around for When We Are Married at the Shaw Festival; the first, directed by Tony van Bridge, dates back to 1990 and I vaguely remember that production as a very fine one indeed.

This new production, directed by Joseph Ziegler and lavishly designed for the small Royal George stage by Ken MacDonald, is a fine way to spend about two-and-a-half hours, but best to check your logic at the door on the way in; there is not much in this classic British comedy that borders on farce almost a bit too much at times.

The premise here is three couples, all pillars of their community in Yorkshire, have gathered together to celebrate over dinner their 25th wedding anniversaries.  Yes, all three couples were married in a single ceremony 25 years earlier and they have remained good friends ever since.  So why not raise a glass together as they celebrate their joint silver wedding anniversary?  Why not, indeed!

Seems there is a problem here, though.  The minister who married the three couples a quarter-century ago didn't follow the rules properly when it came to registering the marriages, so essentially the three couples discover to their collective chagrin they are in fact, not married at all!  The initial shock of this news is predictable; the following shockwaves are not and make for some very funny moments throughout the rest of the play.

All three couples, the Helliwells, the Parkers and the Soppitts, react differently to the news once the reality of the situation becomes clear.  Ask yourself:  would you, given a second chance after being married to your spouse for 25 years, renew those vows when you find out you have been given a legal out?  Most of us, I suspect, would sign up for the future together readily, but these three couples are not so sure about that.

Thom Marriott's verbose Alderman Joseph Helliwell, a fine upstanding citizen to be sure, loses his grip on his wife, played by Claire Jullien, who discovers she can in fact stand up to Joseph and take control of the situation, not entirely to his liking I might add.

Councillor Albert Parker, played by Patrick McManus, is aghast to find his dignified wife, played by Catherine McGregor, is not as content with the marriage as he is, and is she in fact flirting with Mr. Soppitt at one point?

And what of the Soppitts, then?  Patrick Galligan gets a lot of mileage out of his role as Herbert Soppitt, as he discovers he does in fact have a spine when he confronts his overbearing wife, played by Kate Hennig.  The scene when they actually slap each other across the face is uncomfortable to watch today and there were audible gasps going up from the audience at the performance we attended.  But the audiences of the day likely didn't give it a second thought.

It doesn't take long for us to realize that while all the central characters are morally upright citizens of Yorkshire, there are plenty of what director Ziegler refers to as "Yorkshire-isms" throughout the play. So many, in fact, they almost become caricatures of themselves as the play goes on.

Then there are those heavy Yorkshire accents, which prove to be a challenge for the audience at times, particularly with young Jennifer Dzialoszynski, who plays the comely 15-year old maid, Ruby.  She is great in the role, but I for one had some difficulty deciphering her accent at times.

The rest of the supporting cast is good, but the comedy is almost too broad from Mary Haney as Mrs. Northrop and Peter Krantz as the alcoholic photographer Henry Ormonroyd, summoned to take a picture of the big event before the awful truth is known.

But is it in fact the awful truth?  I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say all ends well in this comedy of errors devised by J. B. Priestley.  It is the journey there that provides the laughter.

This won't be the biggest show at Shaw this season, but it is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and will do very well for the Festival.  If you are going to more than one play this year at Shaw, When We Are Narried should be on your list of fun escapes this summer.

When We Are Married continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 26th, and rates a respectable three out of four stars.

July 6th, 2014.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Niagara jazz & blues are alive and well

Now that Canada Day weekend is done, we find ourselves well into the summer music season in Niagara, and with it comes a veritable musical feast for jazz and blues lovers in the Region.  Of course, both jazz and blues are available throughout the year at many popular watering holes such as Cat's Caboose in St. Catharines, for example.

But with summer comes the outside venues, often at area wineries where wine, food and jazz or blues go hand-in-hand to make for a great weekend getaway right here in Niagara.  Here's a sampling of what 's coming up in July and August in the area.

Just over the river in Lewiston, New York, the Lewiston Council on the Arts has many events planned, including the popular Lewiston Jazz Project on Wednesday evenings starting July 9th through to August 13th.  The Lewiston Jazz Project is an art colony of musicians dedicated to composing, arranging and performing; they're primarily a seven-piece group under the direction of pianist/composer Ron Corsaro, and the septet performs original as well as classic jazz repertoire, swing and modern jazz accompanied by guest artists and student musicians.  They meet Wednesday evenings at the Hennepin Park Gazebo in the heart of Lewiston at 4th and Centre Streets, and the events are all free to attend.

More information on the entire Lewiston Council on the Arts program is available by going to or by calling 1-716-754-0166.

Closer to home, Henry of Pelham winery in south St. Catharines presents two Blues in the Vineyard events in July, both to benefit the Niagara Children's Centre.  The first event is July 13th from 3 to 9 pm and features Harper & Midwest Kind, Kelly Riley and Selwyn Birchwood.  The second event is July 20th from 3 to 9 and features Steve Strongman, Jack de Keyzer and Lionel Young.

If you want more information on this very worthwhile event, go to

Perhaps the grand-daddy of all jazz & blues events in the summer here in Niagara is the Trius Jazz & Blues at the Winery at Hillebrand Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I've been to the jazz weekend once or twice over the years and it is always well-attended and the music is always first rate.  The jazz weekend comes up July 12th, and features Robi Botos, Ted Quinland, Kevin Breit, Heather Bambrick, Mike Downes, Bill King, Stich Wynston, George Koller, Julie Michels, Liberty Silver, Richard Underhill, Kelly Jefferson, Jake Langley, Trish Colter and Mark Kelson.

The blues weekend comes up August 9th and features Carlos del Junco, Chris Antonik, The MacKenzie Blues Band and the Ben Racine Band.  Seems like there are more jazz musicians readily available than blues musicians, looking at the lineup, but perhaps that's why the blues musicians are singing the blues...just kidding!

Anyway, if you want more information, call 1-800-582-8412 or go to

Meantime, into the jazz fray comes a new jazz festival, also in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and also featuring some rather high-powered talent.  The aptly-titled Niagara Jazz Festival comes up August 22nd to 24th at various locations in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ranging from the local library to Stratus Vineyards, The Village, Garrison House, Jackson-Triggs, Oast House Brewery and The Old Winery.

This new event joins a crowded field of summer jazz and blues events, particularly in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but Juliet Dunn, Executive Director of the Festival along with her husband, pianist Peter Shea, are confident they can carve out a nice little niche for themselves in Niagara and grow into a marquee event for music lovers throughout the Region.

They are musicians themselves, of course, so they know the people they are bringing on board for the weekend, having engaged many of them for their popular Twilight Jazz series that showcased local jazz talent since 2011.  Dunn and Shea are also wise enough to know a project like this can easily get out of hand if all the bases are not covered, so they are employing the considerable talents of bassist, composer and arranger Duncan Hopkins as Artistic Director for the event.

The music will range from traditional jazz vocals to dixieland and beyond, drawing talent from the considerable pool of resources right here in Niagara.  On tap to perform at the first festival are such names as the Blue Note Tribute Quintet, John Neudorf, Heather Bambrick, John Sherwood, Ashley St. Pierre, Alistair Robertson, Barbra Lica, Brian Dickinson, Brian O'Kane, Brownman Electryc Trio, Chase Sanborn, Dixie Demons, Don Naduriak, Frank's Bus Brass Band and Graham Lear among others.

While much of the talent is local, both Dunn and Shea hope over time the Festival will grow and in turn draw international artists as well as local musicians.  Why not?  Musicians love to perform, and feed off each other's unique talents.

The question remains whether Niagara will come out and support the fledgling jazz festival so we can hopefully see it grow and prosper here in Niagara.  Both Juliet and Peter know their way around jazz and the musicians who make it, and together with local boy who did good Duncan Hopkins, they have the groundwork in place.  Now, it is up to the public to show their support.

If that includes you, more information is available at

Enjoy summer in Niagara...and all that jazz!

July 2nd, 2014.