Saturday, December 27, 2014

The importance of shopping local

Now that Christmas has come and gone for another year, we are faced now with the ever-popular Boxing Day or more accurately, Boxing Week sales.  From what I have seen so far, people are out there looking for the best deals on things they often don't really need to begin with.

I admit I did partake of a little Boxing Day shopping myself today, as I had some time to spare in the afternoon, and yes, I came away with a couple of things, although what I really went shopping for had nothing to do with an after-Christmas sale at all.

One year ago today, we lost our dear cat Pia, who had not been well for some months, and she bravely made it through Christmas, succumbing to her illness on the 27th.  It was a tragic loss, yet it was tempered almost immediately afterwards by the return of our little black cat, Shalom, who had gone missing 17 days previously, surviving somehow out in the winter weather last December before returning home.

So today, I wanted to find a nice photo frame for a special picture of Pia in order to commemorate the anniversary, and I found just what I was looking for.  It wasn't on sale, and that was not the point.  I wanted that for today and I had the time to go out and find it; it just happened to be on Boxing Day.

The Christmas shopping season has been by all accounts a good one for most merchants I have spoken to; not spectacular, but certainly respectable.  It is tough here in Niagara as we are so close to the border and even with a weaker Canadian dollar, many in Niagara still cross the border to shop stateside, especially for the holidays.

So how about you?  Did you cross the border once, twice or maybe more?  Did you stay here in Niagara and visit one of our major malls or newer outlet malls for your Christmas shopping?

This year, I decided to buck the trend and follow a different path.  I avoided every mall and outlet mall for my Christmas shopping in order to concentrate my purchases at smaller, locally-owned and operated businesses I tend to count on the rest of the year.

The reason for this is quite simple.  Over time, you develop relationships with these merchants, and that means they will often go that extra mile to make sure you are completely satisfied with your purchases not only at Christmas but any time of the year.

A couple of Saturdays ago, for example, I spent most of my afternoon after I finished work strolling the shops in downtown St. Catharines and came away with some really unique and clever gifts for the holidays.  Oh sure, I bought a pair of shoes at The Boot Shop for me, but that's okay.  That particular day they were reducing prices by 25%, with savings from those sales being donated to the YWCA in Niagara.  I didn't need the shoes quite yet, but knew I would eventually, so why not do it when I can get a better deal and the money I save goes to help others who really need it in the community?

This is what I love about shopping local:  you see the results right here in the community.  I help to support a local business, and they in turn do their part to help others in the community.  You don't always get that with a national chain no matter where it is located.

Another stop on my downtown shopping excursion was at a Pop-Up store on St. Paul Street operated by a local Artisan Collective, showing many one-of-a-kind gift ideas at very fair prices.  The shop, located next to Rise Above, was only in operation for about 10 days in December but the crowds when I was there that weekend suggested to me this sort of a collective mindset could actually gain widespread support in the area if it is marketed properly.

The following Saturday I visited several businesses around St. Catharines and Thorold where I knew I would find some interesting things, and I was not disappointed.  Not one of them was a national chain.  For the record, here is a partial list of businesses I visited on that excursion:  Henderson's Pharmacy in Thorold; Your Deli and St. Joseph's Deli on Facer Street; Della Terra on Martingale Road; Bamboo Natural Food Market on Martingale Road; The St. Catharines Farmer's Market; and The Guilty Burger on St. Paul Street.

Sure, I could have just parked the car at the mall and walked indoors from store to store, and I admit I do that when the mood strikes me.  But this year, I wanted to do something different.  I wanted to shop local and support smaller local businesses so they'll still be there for me in the New Year.

It has been said if everyone just spent $10 dollars locally the local economy would benefit immeasurably.  It is not that difficult to do, so if you have not tried it yet, what is holding you back?

I am quite frankly tired of hearing people brag about their super deals from over the border, for example, including most of their groceries on a regular basis, yet these same people will complain there is not the selection of stores here at home to interest them.  Or they say prices are way lower over there.

Okay, I agree, prices are often lower over there, though not always.  But have you considered why?  The minimum wage is lower in the States for one thing, and worker's benefits are usually better in Canada, which is a cost the business owners here have to shoulder moreso than over the river.

A funny thing happens when you don't support local businesses:  they eventually close and often are not replaced by new businesses.  You can't have it both ways; you have to support local businesses so they will be there when you need them.  Otherwise, a community suffers through lack of tax revenue and that affects services you and I really count on.

I don't want to get preachy here, but even if you diverted a small amount of your out-of-market shopping to shopping local, we would all benefit.  A pipe dream?  Let's hope not.

I want our local businesses to not only survive but to prosper.  To do that, I have to show them I support them not only at Christmas time but throughout the year.  It just makes good economic sense.

If you are looking for a New Year's resolution worth making and keeping this week, this would be a good place to start.

Happy New Year!

December 27th, 2014.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas music - my love/hate relationship with the genre.

With Christmas Eve less than 24 hours away as I write this, I gather you, like me, have had more than your fill of Christmas music by now.  Perhaps you are thrilled with wall-to-wall Christmas music on your favourite radio station about the end of November; or perhaps you are a little tired of it all by now, as I am.

Time was, radio stations eased you into the Christmas music a little at a time, starting with about one an hour or so at the start of December.  It would gradually build to a grand Christmas crescendo about the 24th of December and continue that way until midnight on December 25th before magically disappearing again for another 11 months.  I know; I spent 40 years of my radio life listening to the sounds of the season in various iterations at several different stations.

But the current all-Christmas all the time format starting in late November is a bit too much too soon for my tastes, unfortunately, and I am about to explain why.  Consider this a holiday rant from a certified curmudgeon.

The problem I have with the "new era" of presenting Christmas music is it wears thin far too soon, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the music "universe" (radio-speak for how much music they actually play in the musical rotation) is far too limited.  Secondly, radio people often don't actually listen to what they are playing and how often it plays.

This second fact came to light in a big way for me this year as I now work in an environment - as many do - where the radio station of choice is a local "lite-rock" format that plays day in and day out. While I am enjoying the break from hearing Taylor Swift shaking things up several times a day for almost a month, what replaces it is just as repetitive.

And that brings us back to my first point.  The music selected is far too confining and leaves out many great recordings by many great artists you might just like to hear at Christmastime.  Why?  A consultant in a far-way city has determined this is what the audience likes to hear, and so that is what the station plays...and plays...and plays.

Now don't get me wrong on this.  I love a wide variety of Christmas music and my eclectic musical tastes are reflected in a very large library of Christmas discs by a wide variety of artists, so I am not confining myself to just one era in my musical preferences.

Having said that, I am pretty tired right now of hearing these titles, my so-called Top 5 of Christmas songs I would dearly love not to hear as much as I do.  In no particular order, may I have the envelope please...

Feliz Navidad - Jose Feliciano
Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord - Boney M
Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree - Brenda Lee
Jingle Bell Rock - any version
Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney

Any of these sound familiar to you?  Of course they do; we hear them several times a day, seven days a week for about a month.  No wonder we get tired of them.  But more than the repeat factor, in some cases they are just not great songs.  Everyone seems to agree some of the worst offenders were probably mailing it in to make a quick buck for the holiday season, but we keep hearing them over and over again because said radio consultant has deemed these so-called contemporary classics are what we want to hear.

Okay, I get that.  But what of the ones they leave out?  While it is nice to hear Burl Ives sing "Holly, Jolly Christmas" and Bing Crosby's classic "White Christmas" every year, they did not corner the market on classic holiday fare.  I hear far too little Dean Martin, Andy Williams and even Perry Como these days, and if I do, it is maybe one song by each of them.  Yet each artist has a wide selection of great recordings from which to choose.

Can't we get a little more creative next year?

I got to thinking about all this about a month ago when I saw a release of a very old Christmas disc I grew up with and loved very much, yet it had remained stubbornly out of print for decades.  The record label Real Gone Music, which specializes in bringing back classic albums from the past by mostly middle-of-the-road artists our parents grew up with, released on disc this year the old Columbia LP from 1960 entitled The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas by Frank De Vol and the Rainbow Strings.  It is about 40 minutes worth of very simple, sweet-sounding musical medleys of popular and more traditional holiday fare, arranged primarily for string orchestra.

In spite of the age of the recording, it still sounds good today, and I am glad to have it back in my collection after all these years being out of print.

The liner notes for the reissue are written by Lawrence "Chip" Arcuri, Owner & Webmaster of The Yule, which many people will be familiar with over the years.  Chip has also compiled his list of the Top 500 Christmas albums of all time, and he lists the De Vol disc at number 14 on that list.  If you go to, you can see the entire list for yourself.

What you'll find is a purely arbitrary listing of just about every Christmas album ever recorded in the past 60 years ranked in several categories from 1 to 500.  It is firmly rooted in traditional "apple pie" territory, and doesn't stray too far into more contemporary, even "classic rock" holiday hits from the past.

While I agree with many on the list, including the 2013 release of Percy Faith's Music of Christmas/Hallelujah! albums on a double-disc set from Real Gone Music in the coveted Number 1 spot, some others are curiously way down the list or not on the list at all.  For example, I would rank The Glorious Sound of Christmas with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra far higher on the list than Chip does.  It remains for me one of the quintessential "big-orchestra" recordings from Columbia's glory days, recorded as it was back in 1963.

But that is the thing about music in general and Christmas music in particular:  the sentimental value can never be underestimated, and one man's potion is another man's poison.  So I understand not everyone will agree with Chip's rankings - or mine for that matter.  Everyone has their favourites, and that's as it should be.

For me, my dirty little secret is an album of Christmas music by the all-girl group The Golddiggers, who appeared on the Dean Martin TV show back in the late 60s and early 70s.  Yes, this leggy collection of singers did a Christmas album I remember from my early days in radio in Toronto, yet has never made it to CD, and certainly is not on Chip's list of the Top 500, or even his list of honourable mentions.

When that comes out on CD, I will be the first in line to buy a copy.  I might be the only one in line, but no matter.  We all have our favourites, right?

If you have a favourite Christmas disc from your past you would like to hear again, drop me a line at and I will see if I can find a copy of it for you in the New Year.

Enjoy your Christmas music, and above all, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Looking for some new music this holiday season?

If you, like me, have had more than enough of holiday music on the radio, of which I will be writing more about in this space later this week, I have a couple of Canadian discs available that might just cure you of that sugar-coated musical overload.  One is Christmas-themed and the other is not; both are by groups of Ontario musicians who know their market niche and do a nice job of filling it every now and then with new recordings.

The Elora Festival Singers scored a major Christmas hit a number of years ago when they recorded The Mystery of Christmas for the Naxos label.  It proved to be a popular disc, combining superb artistry and sound with a collection of carols both familiar and not quite so familiar.  When it was first introduced, it was marketed as their "Disc of the Month", which meant it sold for a limited time for about $5 a disc.  The price-point won many listeners over, of course, but the disc was worth far more than that and is still a best-seller in the Naxos catalogue each holiday season, albeit at regular price.

Those heady days of $5 Naxos discs are long-gone, of course, but the Elora Festival Singers are back again this season with a new collection of Christmas music every bit as appealing as the first.  Entitled The Wonder of Christmas, the music ranges from much-loved settings to new works, from polyphony to more straightforward melodies;  the timeframe covers the Middle Ages to modern day.

The track listing begins with the very familiar Once in Royal David's City and continues on through My Dancing Day, What Child is This? The Holly and the Ivy and ending with the ever-popular The First Nowell.  Composers range from Britten and Adolphe Adam to more contemporary composers such as Paul Halley and John Tavener.

Once again the choir is directed by Noel Edison and accompanied on several tracks by organist Michael Bloss.  The sound is full with a nice acoustic, and the choir is simply one of the best anywhere.

The Elora Festival Singers are not just known as a Christmas choir, of course.  In fact, their highly-acclaimed Naxos disc of Eric Whitacre's music was nominated for a major recording award in 2010.  But once again this season, they bring their special warmth and style to the music of the season with outstanding results.

The second disc I want to highlight this season is even more local than Elora; The Gallery Players of Niagara are back with a brand-new disc entitled Transformation to celebrate their 20th anniversary.  The group performs regularly in Niagara and beyond, and in fact their Glissandi Christmas concerts were held this past Friday and Saturday evenings in Niagara-on-the-Lake and St. Catharines.

The Gallery Players comprises several musicians on this new recording including Artistic Director Margaret Gay on cello; Douglas Miller on flute; Carol Lynn Fujino on violin and Patrick Jordan on viola.  Added on some tracks are James Mason on oboe; Peter Shackleton on clarinet; Julie Baumgartel on violin; and Leslie De'Ath on piano.  On Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe, Op. 48 which concludes the disc, the Eybler Quartet and Brett Polegato are featured.

In addition to Dichterliebe, the disc also features Beethoven's Sonata Op. 24 "Spring Sonata" and Ravel's ravishing Le tombeau de Couperin.  If you're thinking these must be transcriptions, you are absolutely right.  Patrick Jordan transcribed the Beethoven for flute, violin, viola and cello; Trevor Wagler transcribed the Ravel for oboe, clarinet, violin, cello and piano; and Patrick Jordan transcribed the Dichterliebe for baritone, string quartet, classical guitar and double bass.

What I love about this disc is the luminous sound and clarity of the transcriptions, bringing an entirely new focus to these time-honoured classical works.  While the Beethoven works beautifully, I loved the joie de vivre inherent in the Ravel transcription, capturing all the gallic charm of the original in a small chamber setting.  With the Robert Schumann Dichterliebe, the work just sparkles with the wonderful baritone of Brett Polegato and the Eybler Quartet.

Gallery Players patrons might recall Polegato and Co. performed the Dichterliebe at a concert last January at Rodman Hall Arts Centre in St. Catharines.  Now that performance has been preserved on this new disc for those who were there or wish they had been.

Polegato has never been a stranger to his native Niagara, having returned as recently as this past fall for a recital for the Department of Music at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University.  He brings added cachet to this new disc, and the lightness of his baritone works especially well on the Dichterliebe.

The recording, made at Humbercrest United Church in Toronto earlier this year, has a nicely balanced sound with a beautiful acoustic.

If you want more information on either disc or want a copy for yourself, you can go to for The Elora Festival Singers disc, or for The Gallery Players of Niagara disc.  Alternatively, you can order either disc through my website at or by emailing me directly at

Enjoy the gift of music this Christmas!

December 21st, 2014.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Final round-up of events coming up prior to Christmas

The busy holiday season continues apace with a number of events - both holiday themed and otherwise - still to come before Christmas arrives, so this weekend I'll touch on a few things happening here in Niagara and beyond you might want to attend or in one case take part in.  It's by no means a complete list of events; just a few things to tempt you as the season marches on inexorably to its conclusion.

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra (NSO) presents their annual Holiday Pops! concerts this weekend at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.  The first one was this evening at 7:30; the second and final concert is Sunday afternoon at 2:30.  Maestro Bradley Thachuk will be gathering together a host of musical guests to accompany the Niagara Symphony in their annual Christmas concert, and yes, there is the obligatory sing-along in the second half of the programme.

Tickets should still be available for the Sunday concert, although seating might be tight at this point.  You can call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for tickets and more information.

This weekend up in Kitchener-Waterloo, the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society continues their ambitious programming with performances by Trio Celeste, headed up by Canada-Council-Stradivarius winning violinist Iryna Krechkovsky.  Dubbed by Philip Seltzer of the Emerson Quartet as "one of the best young chamber groups around", Trio Celeste are presenting a trio of concerts devoted to - what else? - Beethoven trios.

The first concert was last evening, and the three-concert series continues Sunday evening and Tuesday evening at 8 pm with the Trio nos. 1 and 5 and the "Kakadu" Variations on Sunday and the Trio nos. 3 and 6 and the Variations, Op. 44 on Tuesday.  I'm told there will be a bit of a party following the Tuesday concert, although just what that entails I am not quite sure.

The KWCMS presents a season full of wonderfully-programmed chamber music in the cozy confines of the Music Room in Waterloo, and you can access more information on their season by going to, or check out the Calendar page of my website at, where I will be updating the entire season shortly.

Tickets to the final two of the Beethoven Trio concerts and indeed the entire season can be had by going online to or by calling 519-886-1673.

Also up that way, the final concerts of the Christmas season will be held later this week and on the weekend at St. John's Church in Elora, as part of the Elora Festival Singers winter season.  The ever-popular Festival of Carols will be presented by Noel Edison and the Singers twice on Thursday, December 19th at 5 and 7:30 pm, and again on the 22nd at 7:30 pm.

The church is small but has a wonderful ambiance and acoustic to it, and the full sound of the Elora Festival Singers is not to be missed especially in their home church.  Tickets are available by going to or by calling 519-846-0331 or 1-888-747-7550.

Back here in Niagara, the annual Gallery Players Christmas concerts come up this Friday evening and Sunday afternoon at two lovely churches in the area.  Entitled Around the World with Glissandi and Guy Bannerman, the veteran Shaw Festival actor will be reciting spoken work passages interspersed with seasonal music by the local ensemble Glissandi, always a great draw over the holiday season.

The Gallery Players have just released their new CD, by the way, and I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of it last month.  It is absolutely delightful, and I will be writing about it in the coming days in this space.

The two Glissandi concerts next weekend are Friday evening at 7:30 at Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake; the Sunday afternoon concert is at 2 at St. Barnabas Church in St. Catharines.

Tickets to Around the World with Glissandi and Guy Bannerman are available by calling 905-468-1525 or by going to

The Centre for the Arts at Brock University presents their final concert prior to the Christmas break with Canadian crooner Matt Dusk's holiday concert next Sunday, December 21st at 2:30 in the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.  Matt is the consummate pro and an all-round nice guy, too, so you'd be best to call the Brock box office soon if you still don't have tickets.  Call 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or go to

In Hamilton, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra presents their annual Home for the Holidays Christmas concert next Saturday evening, December 20th at 7:30 in the Great Hall at Hamilton Place.  Guest conductor Martin MacDonald is joined by special guests the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra along with the HPO and narrator Roch Carrier, in a performance of his classic story The Hockey Sweater.  Many more of your seasonal favourites will also be featured at the concert, along with the usual carol sing-along with the audience members.

Tickets to the HPO season are available by calling the box office at 905-526-7756 or by going to

Finally, my friends at Essential Collective Theatre in downtown St. Catharines have come up with a clever fundraiser for next Saturday, December 20th, to be held at Mahtay Cafe on St. Paul Street.  The free community event will run from 11 am to 7 pm, and will essentially be a marathon of play reading as they welcome thespians and would-be thespians to take to the stage and read some holiday classics such as The Christmas Carol to a hopefully very supportive audience.

The open-house style event will raise much-needed funds for ECT as they prepare for the move next season to the new Performing Arts Centre right across the street from Mahtay Cafe.

You can get involved by either volunteering to read yourself, which takes up about 20 minutes of your time and requires a minimum $50 of your friends' pledge dollars, or you can pledge a reader through the 12 Days of Giving, on now through December 21st.  You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to

The choice is yours as to whom you want to sponsor for the reading; for me, it's my neighbour and ECT board member Sandy Middleton, who has bravely agreed to take to the stage next Saturday and is already looking for pledges.  If you don't already have a favourite reader to sponsor, Sandy will be an exceptional choice!  The minimum donation being suggested is $10.

That should do it for events coming up in the next week or so; plenty more are available in communities both near and far, so get out and support a local arts organization and get some Christmas cheer in the process.

Have a great weekend!

December 13th, 2014.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The season for Messiah is here again

When December comes around each year, people invariably look for a performance of Handel's oratorio Messiah to attend in order to help them get into the Christmas spirit.  It's about as grand a tradition as Christmas itself, really, although it was originally premiered at Easter, not Christmas.

Handel wrote the oratorio in three weeks between August and September of 1741, and it premiered at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th of 1742.  It remains one of his most popular works, with the celebrated "Hallelujah Chorus" king amongst the selections included in the lengthy work.

It makes good economic sense, therefore, for many professional and amateur choirs alike to program the work prior to Christmas as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and yes, money-maker as well.  It is not often a performance of Messiah doesn't sell out.  Such is the attraction of this perennial favourite.

If you are looking for your Messiah fix this month, you can of course try to beg, borrow or steal tickets to the biggie with the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in Toronto, or you could attend the smaller, more intimate-sounding Tafelmusik performances, both of which are annual draws in the Toronto area.  But there are other options available, and all of them are guaranteed to please this holiday season.

Right here in Niagara, Chorus Niagara presents their Messiah every other year, with Artistic Director Robert Cooper wisely deciding to alternate years with other Christmas presentations in order not to wear out the Messiah magic.  That's a good move, although for many, Messiah every year is just part of the season, no matter what.

The Chorus Niagara presentation of Messiah is this weekend, in fact, with one performance this evening at 7:30 at Mountainview Church in Grimsby and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at Calvary Church in St. Catharines.  The chorus performs with orchestra, of course, and the weekend concerts are sponsored by Peter & Janet Partridge.  Chorus Niagara asks audience members to bring donations of non-perishable food items for Community Care and the Grimsby Benevolent Fund.

Tickets will be hard to come by, but you can try the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or contact any Chorus Niagara member for tickets as well.

Also this weekend, the Elora Festival Singers directed by Noel Edison present their annual A Village Messiah at St. Joseph's Church in nearby Fergus, Ontario Sunday afternoon at 3 pm.  Their version is smaller in scale, but just as enjoyable with a first-rate chorus and exceptional soloists.  For tickets, call the Elora Festival box office at 1-519-846-0331 or 1-888-747-7550, or go to

In Guelph, meantime, the Guelph Chamber Choir holds their annual Messiah performance closer to Christmas, with a single performance at the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph on Saturday evening, December 20th at 7:30 pm.  The choir performs with the Musica Viva Orchestra on period instruments.

Tickets are available through the River Run box office by calling 1-519-763-3000 or 1-877-520-2408, or go to

The Guelph Chamber Choir also performs a Messiah Sing-a-Long if you are so inclined, Sunday afternoon, December 21st at 3 pm at St. George's Anglican Church in downtown Guelph, and tickets should be available through the same numbers as above as well as at the door.

I attended a Sing-a-Long Messiah with Tafelmusik years ago in Toronto, singing baritone, of course, and it is a great experience you should have at least once in your life.  I also attended two Messiah performances in a single day once, too, attending the Chorus Niagara performance on a Sunday afternoon and the Guelph Chamber Choir performance in the evening.  I wouldn't recommend anyone attempt that, mind you!

So what if you want a great recording of Messiah for your listening pleasure at home?  There are lots available, both new and old and at several price-points, ranging from a basic Naxos set at about $ 30 to the Archiv set with Paul McCreesh directing for considerably more coin.  Tafelmusik released their full-length Messiah a couple of years ago on their own label, on two discs.  And a new release by French conductor Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert D'Astree with four of Britain's top soloists is being billed as a must-hear release this season.

For me, I love almost any recording of Messiah, be it period or modern-instrument performance, but two I listened to this week are worth mention in this space, although only one is still commercially available.

Years ago I acquired the classic Toronto Symphony Orchestra recording from 1952 with Sir Ernest MacMillan conducting, along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Lois Marshall, Mary Palmateer, John Vickers and James Milligan, released on Beaver Records.  Yes, it is an LP set, and save for a single-disc reissue of highlights about 20 years ago, this complete recording has never made it on to CD.

While it is not period instrument in any sense of the word, it is still of historic significance due to the ambitiousness of the project at the time, and the fact MacMillan got some pretty talented singers for the recording sessions, both well-known and up-and-coming.  The recording is quirky, especially given what was left out and what was left in, but it is nice to hear nonetheless.

I had my old LP set transferred to CD by my good friend Bruce Jackson so I could finally hear the set, and while the surface noise is quite prevalent, the generally fine performances shine through.  Too bad this has never reappeared in any form all these years, but we can hope someday it might just.

So what recording do I most often come back to, you ask?  You're going to laugh when you hear which one, but I must admit it is still stirring to listen to after all these years.

In 1959, British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham gathered together the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and soloists Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers and Giorgio Tozzi for a wonderfully archaic set released on RCA Victor.  It did make it on to CD, both as a single-disc of highlights and the full-blown 3-disc box set years ago, and I have both in my collection.

Now please understand.  This is not a Messiah for the feint-of-heart nor the period-instrument enthusiast.  Heck, this is not a Messiah historically informed in any sense of the word.  But it is still a wonderful experience to listen to every now and again.

In a way, this Messiah represents everything wrong about Messiah performances during the first half of the last century, which were usually modern-instrument monstrosities utilizing far more instrumentation than Handel himself every envisioned.  The use of much more brass, percussion and way too many strings would make most listeners today cringe in embarrassment, however in its day this was the way we heard Messiah.

Yet for me, this recording holds a certain, um, charm to it that cannot be denied.  Beecham brings the full force of a huge orchestra and chorus to bear in a large acoustic setting that still sounds breathtaking for its clarity over half-a-century after it was recorded.  Yes, the pace is ponderous much of the time, but other times the forces unleash a fury of sound such as in the celebrated Hallelujah Chorus that still sends a chill up and down my spine when I hear it.

The best way to describe this recording compared to modern-day Messiahs?  Think of yourself now jumping into your Toyota Prius to run down to the natural health-food store compared to 1959 when you borrowed your dad's chrome-laden Buick to pick up the cutest girl at school for a prom date.  That's the difference here:  you can't go home again, but damn you can enjoy those memories and smile while doing so!

With the exception of the old Toronto Symphony set I described earlier, most every Messiah performance you can imagine is still available, and I can order any and all for you through my website at, or just email your request to me directly at

And don't forget to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus.

Happy listening!

December 6th, 2014.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

News & notes on the arts this week in Niagara

A few things crossed my cluttered desk this week I wanted to touch on, as a busy season for performances and other arts-related events continues unabated in Niagara.

First of all, I touched on this in my posting last weekend, about the upcoming Niagara Symphony Orchestra NextGEN concert.  This is the successor to the Family Series of years past, in which the NSO grooms future concert-goers with performances geared toward a younger, family-oriented audience.

The Niagara Symphony has announced their "draft picks" for the concert on Sunday afternoon at 2:30:  Niagara IceDogs Captain Luke Mercer and left-wing Brendan Perlini, who will be narrating Roch Carrier's winter classic tale, The Hockey Sweater.  In addition, IceDogs mascot Bones will join Mercer and Perlini in the lobby after the concert to meet and great the young audience members.

The concert is entitled "It's OUR Game", so expect NSO players to be donning their favourite team's hockey jersey, and Associate Conductor Laura Thomas to have a few words to say on the subject of hockey in Canada.

Tickets to the concert will be available at the box office prior to the concert, either in person or by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Meantime, Suitcase in Point's annual holiday sketch comedy show takes the form of a cabaret this year, with a new show entitled "Cabaret Stretchy Pants:  A Holiday Vortex."  The collaborators on the show have been working hard to come up with an evening full of laughs at two downtown St. Catharines locations over two weekends.

The first pair of shows come up Sunday evening at 7 and 9 pm at The Merchant Ale House on St. Paul Street, and the following Friday and Saturday, December 12 and 13 at the Mikado Bar & Lounge, also on St. Paul Street, with those performances starting at 8 pm.

All the shows are pay-what-you-can, with a suggested charge of $10, plus you are asked to bring a non-perishable food donation for Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold.  With so many going hungry right here in the city at this time of year, every donation of non-perishable food is vitally needed right now.

Yes, Virginia, this is also the weekend Chorus Niagara presents a pair of performances of Handel's beloved oratorio, Messiah, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.  This is something they do every other year; audiences I am sure would welcome the chance to attend a performance every year, but Artistic Director Robert Cooper wisely decides to do it every other year in order to give choristers and audiences alike a little more variety.

I will be writing my weekend blog on the eternal popularity of this holiday classic, but for now, keep in mind the Chorus Niagara performances are Saturday evening at Mountainview Church in Grimsby at 7:30 pm, and Sunday afternoon at Calvary Church in St. Catharines at 2:30 pm.  For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  I wouldn't want to chance waiting to pick them up at the door for either performance as Messiah almost always sells out every time.

Finally, some sad news from Stratford, where renowned director and choreographer Brian MacDonald passed away last weekend at the age of 86.

Over his 60-year career, MacDonald become one of the most prolific and internationally-renowned directors and choreographers this country has ever produced.  He was a member of the Stratford Festival company for 17 seasons, as well as being a founding dancer with the National Ballet of Canada and Artistic Director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Harkness Ballet as well as having associations with many other companies around the world.

Mr. MacDonald was demanding, to be sure, and the stories about him are legion; however he knew what he wanted and how to get the very best out of all the companies he worked with over the years.  A Companion of the Order of Canada, he was celebrated around the world as well as here in Canada with many honours ranging from the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement to the Walter Carson Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

For many theatre-goers here in Niagara and elsewhere, he will perhaps best be remembered for his string of Gilbert & Sullivan operetta revivals at the Stratford Festival in the 80s, where he directed fresh, newly-updated variations on the originals while still remaining true to the traditions of G&S.

In all, MacDonald directed and choreographed 14 operettas and musicals for the Stratford Festival, ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe and The Mikado to Cabaret, Carousel, Guys and Dolls and many others.

The Stratford Festival is dedicating the 2015 production of Carousel to Mr. MacDonald's memory, and a memorial will be held at the Festival Theatre on May 3rd.

The funeral will be held in Stratford this coming Saturday at the W.G. Young Funeral Home.

Have a good week!

December 3rd, 2014.