Sunday, September 28, 2014

Great kickoff to the Walker Cultural Leader series at Brock University

I wrote last April about the final performance in the Walker Cultural Leader series, featuring Catherine Wilson and her ensemble from Toronto in a delightful performance at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.  At the time I wrote the concert was great; the audience was rather pitiful as turnout was very low.

That was a shame, as the series, and in fact everything offered through the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock is of a uniformly high calibre, yet attendance always seems low, at least those I have attended in the past.

This past Friday evening the new season got underway with the Department of Music presenting renowned Canadian baritone Brett Polegato in recital at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.  The recital was just part of the contribution Brett made to the Walker Cultural Leader series:  he also offered group coaching with Voice Students at Brock on Thursday; and a Voice Masterclass for Music Students on Saturday morning.

The Friday evening recital, open to the general public, was better attended this time than I have seen in the past, and perhaps that reflects the fact Brett is a Niagara boy coming back home to perform for a home-town crowd.  Or perhaps he simply generated more interest due to his stature as one Canada's premiere operatic baritones.  No matter.  Those who did attend were treated to an exceptional performance by an exceptional talent.

Brett, joined by pianist Robert Kortgaard, provided a recital full of some of his favourite music, some of it well-known and a lot of it quite the opposite.  The programme ranged from Poulenc's Le Bestiaire song-cycle to three settings of Shakespeare sonnets to Ravel's rarely-heard Histoires Naturelles.  Rounding out the programme were three familiar songs by American composer Aaron Copeland, including his upbeat Ching-a-ring Chaw.

Several encore pieces included a wonderfully humorous piece by Ivor Novello, and it has been a very long time since I heard anything by Novello on any recital programme, let alone a bring-down-the- house encore piece.

All in all, it was a great evening, and a great start to the Walker Cultural Leader series, which continues next Spring with a public presentation and exhibitions by acclaimed Canadian painter Janet Werner.

The series is being funded thanks to the Marilyn I. Walker Fund, an endowment created in 2008 when Marilyn Walker donated $15-million to Brock's School of Fine and Performing Arts.

Meantime the Department of Music performance calendar has finally been released, and it features once again the Encore! Professional Concert Series.  The four-concert series begins November 21st with the Madawaska Ensemble; continues January 30th with Quartetto Gelato; February 27th with Sarah Jerrom and Friends performing The Yeats Project; and concludes March 27th with Trio Surgite.

The Viva Voce! series under the direction of Harris Loewen continues as well, with performances November 15th by the Avanti Chamber Singers and November 29th by the Brock University Choirs.  The Choral Series features those same two groups in performances in February, March and April.

The University Wind Ensemble conducted by Zoltan Kalman performs on two Tuesday evenings:  December 2nd and March 31st.  And the music@noon series, sponsored by the RBC Foundation, offers recitals by faculty, special guests and students and alumni at Brock in free concerts open to the public.

I will be posting the entire series of events coming up with the Department of Music this week on the Calendar page of my website, at

In the meantime, you can find out more about the great music coming up this season by going to  You can find out about other MIWSFPA programmes and events by going to

I wrote last spring about the lack of information out there on just what great work is being done at the School of Fine & Performing Arts, and the fact a more concerted effort needs to be made to get the word out prior to the entire series being moved next season to the new downtown venue currently under construction.  While I still think more needs to be done in that regard, at least there appears to be a little more information out there this season.  Let's hope that continues.

Let's celebrate the arts in Niagara with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University!

September 28th, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

A tale of two symphony orchestras

This weekend, we begin to put the carefree summer days behind us and look towards the changing colours of fall, along with the autumn ritual in Niagara of the wine festival, which of course kicks off this weekend at Montebello Park.

But for those who love symphonic music, this weekend also marks the beginning of the new concert season for both our Niagara Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic.  So let's take a few moments this weekend and preview the two respective seasons, both of which bring with them some notable events along with some great music.

Here in Niagara, the Niagara Symphony (NSO) kicks off their 67th season Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, with the first of the season's Masterworks concerts.  Maestro Bradley Thachuk leads the orchestra in a concert entitled "Fantastique!" featuring the appropriately-titled Fruits of the Harvest by gifted pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear, Berlioz' expansive Symphonie Fantastique, and Edvard Grieg's only piano concerto, featuring the 15-year-old Canadian pianist Anastasia Rizikov.

Other highlights of the upcoming season include one of my all-time favourite violin pieces, Vaughan Williams' evocative The Lark Ascending featuring violinist Atis Bankas at the January Masterworks concert, and vocalist Sarah Slean joining the orchestra for the final concert of the season in May, performing Lamento by Hatzis.  That finale to the Masterworks series includes the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and his Egmont Overture.

The Pops! series kicks off in October with singer Patricia O'Callaghan joining the orchestra for a concert entitled A Night of Leonard Cohen.  The annual Home for the Holidays concert takes up December, of course, and the Jeans 'n Classics Band join the NSO for a tribute to Abba in February.  The Pops! season concludes in April with a tribute to the ever-popular Gilbert & Sullivan.

This is the final season at Centre for the Arts at Brock University, of course, and the NSO plans to go out with a bang with the Beethoven concert in May, as they prepare to head off next fall to the new Partridge Hall in the new Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  As such, there will be much sponsor promoting going on this season prior to the big move, the result of which means I will not be present at NSO concerts this season, setting up in the lobby as in past years.

While I am disappointed with the turn of events, perhaps it is for the best, really, as next season a whole new dynamic will have taken shape for the arts in Niagara anyways, and there were no guarantees I would be able to do the same in the new location, either.

So while I won't be present at the concerts this season, that by no means suggests I will not be supporting the symphony throughout the season in this space as well as on my website.  In fact, the entire NSO season is included on the Calendar page of my website at as in past years.

For more information on the season, go to their website at, and for tickets, call the Brock box-office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Meantime, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) kicks off their new season this weekend as well, Saturday evening at 7:30 pm in the Great Hall at Hamilton Place.  The opening concert features Canadian pianist Andre Laplante performing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, and the orchestra playing the Dvorak Symphony No. 7, and Torque's work known as Kulesha.  The guest conductor for this concert will be Alastair Willis, one of the candidates auditioning for the position of Music Director now that James Sommerville has left the orchestra.

Jamie will be back, however, as both conductor and soloist for the season finale in May as the orchestra performs the Schubert Unfinished Symphony and the Brahms Symphony No. 4, while Sommerville both performs and conducts the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4.

The rest of the season sees performances by 20-year old violin prodigy Blake Pouliot, cellist Yegor Dyachkov and violinist and mathematician Corey Cerovsek.  Works include the Mendelssohn and Glazunov Violin Concertos for the Masterworks series.

The Pops series includes a Tribute to Ray Charles in October and the traditional Home for the Holidays concerts in December, as well as a Sci-Fi Spectacular concert featuring music from Star Trek, Twilight Zone and many more in March.

This will be a pivotal year for the HPO as they audition candidates for the position of Music Director, and you remember how much fun that was here in Niagara a few seasons back!  But the guest-conductor lineup looks interesting, with 6 candidates vying for the top job, including the aforementioned Alastair Willis who leads off the parade for this season on the weekend, along with appearances throughout the season by Gregory Vajda, Stilian Kirov, Theodore Kuchar, and Alain Trudel.

The auditioning process actually began towards the end of last season with the lone female candidate, Gemma New conducting the April concert.

Trudel is the big name in this conductor's lottery, I would think, but all of the candidates are accomplished in their own right, and as we saw here in Niagara a few years back, the outcome can often be rather surprising.  So I wish all the candidates best of luck this season, and we'll see who gets the most votes in the end.

Two other non-candidate conductors will also be appearing with the HPO this season along with, of course, James Sommerville returning in May.  Martin MacDonald conducts Home for the Holidays in December and David Martin conducts the Sci-Fi Spectacular in March.  If all this sounds rather confusing, not to worry; rest assured everything will work its way out and you will be enjoying some great concerts with the Hamilton Philharmonic this season!

For more on the HPO season, log on to their website at, and you can also call the box office for tickets at 905-526-7756.  I hope to have the entire Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra season listed on the Calendar page of my website shortly, at

So, let the symphony seasons begin!

September 19th, 2014.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Season set to get underway for Centre for the Arts at Brock University

This weekend, the 2014-15 Hot Ticket Professional Entertainment Season gets underway up at Brock University, before the whole thing moves downtown to their swanky new digs on St. Paul Street next fall.

I don't know about you, but I have mixed feelings about the move downtown, and I am speaking personally here.  I like the venues up on the hill at the Centre for the Arts, but for me, being able to walk to the new downtown complex from my house is just going to be so nice.  Now I know, I know, not everyone lives downtown (although more should seriously consider it!) and that means you will have to drive downtown and park.  But hey, we have a new parking garage steps away on Carlisle, so there should be no shortage of parking nearby.  And a bonus, it will be covered, too!

But I am getting ahead of myself here.  In the meantime, we have a great line-up of artists to enjoy at the Centre for the Arts up at Brock University, and it all begins Saturday evening with the first of two performances of Eric Begosian's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Talk Radio, starring some local guy I've heard a little about, Tim Denis.

Tim is one of the theatrical minds behind Lakeside Players, the small but ambitious theatre troupe that once occupied the tiny theatre space at the Port Mansion in Port Dalhousie.  When a good part of Port Dalhousie was largely demolished to make way for the maybe-someday-to-be-built condo tower project, Lakeside Players was put in limbo as they tried to find a new home.  So now they get to open the Hot Ticket Season at Brock, and that is great news for local theatre lovers.

Tim, a gifted actor/director who often goes without sufficient sleep to feed his love of live theatre, directed and starred in a production of Talk Radio a year or so ago in the Hamilton-Burlington area, and now he brings the controversial play home to Niagara for one night and one afternoon performance this Saturday and Sunday.  It has been selling very well, I am told, but tickets should still be available for either Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon performances at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.

Talk Radio, parts of which were based on the 1984 assassination of radio host Alan Berg, tells the story of fictional Cleveland-area shock jock Barry Champlain who is on the brink of having his controversial show go into national syndication.  He has enemies on both sides of the microphone, it seems, and therein lies the basis for the story.

Denis, popular host of the morning show at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines, and whose show I myself produced for a number of years, knows exactly what is needed to keep Talk Radio from going off the rails, and provides sure-handed direction for the production.

If this two-performance run is a success, who knows?  Perhaps Lakeside Players will have found a new home at one of the smaller downtown venues next season.  In the meantime, you can order tickets for the show by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or going to

Elsewhere this season, the Hot Ticket series includes a little something for everyone, from live theatre to popular and jazz music to children's theatre to dance.  This is what makes the Centre for the Arts such a local treasure:  the variety and wealth of talent taking to the stages at Brock over the course of the season is quite impressive.  You can imagine how much more they'll be able to do next season when things do move downtown.

Some of the other performances this fall include Stuart McLean:  The Vinyl Cafe - Live on Stage for two performances on October 2nd and 3rd; the Official Blues Brothers Revue on October 15th; Colm Wilkinson:  Broadway & Beyond November 26th; and Natalie McMaster & Donnell Leahy:  A Family Christmas for two performances December 11th and 12th.

In the new year, things kick off with Jill Barber on January 14th; La Bottine Souriante January 29th; and Jann Arden February 25th.

For a complete listing of the season's performances, go to, or you can go to the Calendar page of my website,

Centre for the Arts at Brock University - bringing the world of the Arts to Niagara, and soon to celebrate the Arts right here in downtown St. Catharines.

See you at the theatre!

September 12th, 2014.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Why great customer service is so important

There are some things that matter more to some people than others; for me, great customer service trumps almost anything else.  Often you find customer service that is simply okay, and then there are times customer service stands out so much you can't help but notice and feel good about it.

This past weekend, I had two such experiences with exceptional customer service, and I am happy to share those experiences in this space in order to salute those who know the difference between simply doing a job and doing a job particularly well.

My own personal experiences this weekend came by way of a thoroughly aggravating couple of weeks with my two-year-old Apple iPhone 4s, which I acquired to help me in my previous career in radio broadcasting.  In that field, you are always connected and have to drop what you're doing at any moment in order to make things happen before anyone else.  As such, I decided a smartphone would benefit me in my job, and being an Apple guy, the iPhone was the logical way to go.

For the most part, I have been happy with the phone, although the email setup I was using was rather clunky and many times I would discover to my chagrin my email had never reached its destination.  In the past year that was not as serious an issue since I was no longer in a job where always being connected was basically a job requirement.

When I signed my three-year contract for the iPhone in August of 2012, I also decided to shell out the  extra cash for the AppleCare Plus plan, in case something happened to the phone like, say, I dropped it on the pavement.  It turned out to be a pretty wise decision on my part.

About two weeks ago, just as my AppleCare plan was running out, the iPhone started acting rather oddly, discharging suddenly even while in the dock used for charging.  No explanation for this other than, I thought, the battery might be gone.

So Saturday of the Labour Day weekend, while on my way to a short escape to Port Hope for the weekend, we stopped at the Apple store at Mapleview Centre in Burlington and although the place was predictably busy, I was given very efficient service without an appointment.  After a brief diagnostic, it was determined the battery was fine, but there was something wrong with the phone itself.

It was decided a complete system restore would be undertaken on the phone, which took about half an hour to complete in the store, and it did indeed bring my device back to life.  When I asked how much for the great service, I was told there would be no charge.  This I thought was more than fair on their part and besides, I was just happy to have the thing working again.

Fast-forward to last Wednesday evening, when I was reinstalling apps to the phone and noticed after a couple of days of use and now a lot of downloading, the battery could use a charge.  I charged it overnight and in the morning it was a full 100% charge.  Off to work I went, when I tend not to use the phone during my work hours unless absolutely necessary.

When I returned home about 6 pm, I noticed the phone had discharged while not being used all day and was now in fact, at at 10% charge and in need of more juice.  That struck me as rather odd, but I placed the phone on the dock again and about an hour later noticed it was not doing anything, barely holding any charge again like before the weekend.

I decided, in what for me was a rare show of rage, to drive back down to the Apple store and find out what the heck was wrong with the thing - again.  This time, not much help was available given the hour and the fact I didn't have an appointment again, but they gave me some ideas as to how to proceed from here and suggested I book an appointment to come back.

On my way out, I decided since I was down there anyway, I would pay a visit to Purdy's Chocolates, a new tenant at Mapleview and a company I have been wanting to experience first-hand since I started following them on Facebook a couple of years ago.  There, I ran into young Lina, barely into her first week of work at the location and possessing about the sunniest disposition you could imagine.  In spite of the dark cloud over my head after leaving the Apple store with a still non-functioning iPhone, Lina put a smile on my face with her demeanour, enthusiasm and product knowledge.  Needless to say, I picked up chocolate while there and made a mental note to stop by again the next time I was down that way.

On Friday I decided to take a chance on booking another appointment at the Apple store and found a time open on Sunday afternoon.  While I was not thrilled about having to drive down there on my only day off and a sunny one at that, I did, and it turned out to be a very rewarding experience not once, but twice.

First I met Cameron, a personable young man who knew more about my iPhone than I will ever know.  He quickly determined there was no point trying to restore the present one, but suggested it was perhaps a better option to replace the phone with a new one.  Ah, but my AppleCare plan ran out a couple of weeks ago, I noted, when the problem was just beginning.

After a brief consolation with his manager he was given the go-ahead to replace the phone for free, and even transfer all my data from the old phone to the new one.  However, a problem with the new one presented an unexpected setback, and Cam asked me to give him an hour to sort things out while I strolled the mall.  Great, I thought, more time in a mall on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  But sure, I thought, I am here, so let's get this done I said.

While I was strolling the mall, I decided to pay a visit to Purdy's Chocolates again for some ice cream, and there was Lina again, smiling and remembering me from the last visit.  Once again I was treated like a special customer and once again, I was thrilled with the service.  This time, though, her manager was there as well and I made a point of expressing my admiration for the enthusiasm displayed by her new hire.

The ice cream, by the way, like the chocolate, is addictive and wonderful!

Back to the Apple store to see how things were working out there and in about ten minutes, I was up and running with a new phone, with all my data transferred over and I was good to go.  Once again, no charge, and this time I walked out with a new phone.  That, to me, is worthy of praise.

Now, I know some people are big on Apple and others are not.  But no matter which side of the tech fence you find yourself on, I think it would be all agreed great customer service deepens your relationship with the product and the company that produces it.  For me, the premium you pay for an Apple product pays dividends should you ever have a problem with it.  The company does go out of its way to keep customers happy, and that translates into customer loyalty.

For me, being in a strong customer-service job myself, I know the value of showing how special a customer is to an organization.  My present employer, Meridian Credit Union, stresses Member relations day in and day out, and the reason is simple:  happy Members tell others about the great experience they received from the company and the employees.

A product is only as good as the customer service that backs it up.  If you offer a great product, that's wonderful.  But if you fail to back that up with great customer service, your brand loyalty will erode quickly and someone else will pick up the ball and run with it.

That's why I am writing about these two experiences this weekend:  two instances, side by side, in fact, where employees of the the company they represent made me feel welcome, appreciated, and yes, special.  What more could you want from a customer service experience?

So to Apple, thanks for standing behind your product and showing me I am not just another sales number on your flowchart.  Cam proved how important people can be to any organization.  And to Purdy's Chocolates, thanks for a quality product backed up by exceptional service as well.  Lina has a great future ahead of her, both in her present position and while pursuing her future career plans in the health care field.

Let's celebrate great customer service, and feel free to send me your success stories too!

September 8th, 2014

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

One of the prettiest towns in Ontario? Try Port Hope!

Here in Niagara we often hear Niagara-on-the-Lake described as one of the prettiest towns in all of Ontario, and while I don't dispute the lovely setting situated at the mouth of the Niagara River and all the great attractions to be found there, I do have another Ontario town worthy of praise for beauty and   friendliness.

This past weekend, having two days off for the first time this summer, my far better half and I booked a couple of nights at the Plantation House B&B in Port Hope, just a short walk from the downtown core, and a world away from the ordinary.  Proprietor Rose welcomes you with evening tea and dessert to begin your stay, and provides exceptional service throughout your time there.

We enjoyed the accommodations, the food and the quietude especially, which made you feel you were out in the countryside while only steps away from the main street.  There are only two available rooms, but both have their own unique charm at this beautifully kept century home in the heart of town.

Sunday was our day to tour the town, which we have not visited since 2003, and the new residential developments on the outskirts of town indicate Port Hope is becoming home to many commuting Torontonians, I suspect.  The older homes in town are almost always well maintained and full of character, making a drive around town a pleasure if, like us, you enjoy looking at interesting older homes.

Shopping in the downtown core is plentiful, although Sundays will find several shops closed for the day.  But many remain open for tourists, so you will not be left wanting for retail therapy should that be of interest to you.  We enjoyed touring the antique shops, gift shops and the aptly-named Sugar Dust Bakery on John Street, which has only been open a few months now.

The main street, Walton, crosses over the Ganaraska River at the east end of town, taking you to nearby Cobourg and their spectacular waterfront.  The Ganaraska, incidentally, is where the Great Farini walked a tightrope overhead years ago, and eventually made his home there in town until his passing in 1929.  Today the river is better known for the April ritual of sending cardboard vessels through the water in what has become known as "Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny", which attracts spectators and participants every year from near and far.

There is no shortage of great eating establishments in town, and on this trip we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Dreamers Cafe and an Indian Tapas dinner at Cravingz, both in the heart of town.  There are several others, of course, but on this trip those two got our nod of approval, although Dreamers suffers from rather slow service, I found.

Music is very much a part of this artistic and agricultural community, with the 13th annual All-Canadian Jazz Festival coming up this weekend, in fact.  Running from September 5th to the 7th and taking place for the most part at Memorial Park, entertainment will be provided by the likes of the Ganaraska Sheiks, Fathead, Redhot Ramble, Jordana Talsky, Kelly Lee Evans and Susie Arioli, among others.

For tickets, call 1-855-713-9310, or log on to

Later in the season, the Port Hope Friends of Music 40th season gets underway, with performances ranging from clarinetist James Campbell and guitarist Graham Campbell teaming up on October 19th to Ensemble Caprice with Dawn Bailey in concert on December 12th.  In the new year, pianist Andreas Klein performs February 1st, the Amstel Quartet on March 20th and the TorQ Percussion Quartet on May 9th.  Performances take place at either the beautifully restored Capitol Theatre downtown or Port Hope United Church.

For tickets, call 905-797-2295 or go to

What I love about Port Hope is the fact it is still a working, breathing town with locals sharing the downtown streets with tourists year-round.  It is not a town just for tourists, and that to me is important.  You shop where many locals shop and eat where they eat, and you get to know the community.  The people I find are friendly and very accommodating, no matter where you meet them.

If you want a short escape that will transport you to a peaceful place not that far away, head east on the 401 and turn off at Highway 2, then follow it into town and you'll find yourself on Walton Street before too long.  It is a trip you will long remember, and might just want to return again soon, as we plan to again this fall!

September 3rd, 2014.