Saturday, January 24, 2015

Warming up winter in Niagara with some great music this week

It's been a couple of weeks since I wrote much about the arts in Niagara, and my apologies for that; I do tend to wander off the beaten path from time to time, and hopefully you don't mind the diversions I take.

This week, however, we see the arts scene heat up again after a bit of a January lull with a busy week ahead for concerts in the area.  So let's get right to it and try to entice you out of the cabin-fever-induced coma you might be in right now after the holidays.

This Sunday afternoon, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra (nso) presents their first Masterworks concert of 2015, and this one looks particularly interesting.  Entitled Apotheosis, the concert commemorates the 100th anniversary of the First World War with the Niagara premiere of "The World Remembers:  Song of the Poets"  a short composition by Abigail Richardson.  The work, originally commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, uses excerpts from five poems written by soldiers on the front lines from four different countries.  In addition to Canada, the other countries represented are England, France and Germany.

Niagara-based choir Choralis Camerata joins the Niagara Symphony for this work, sung in each country's native language of English, French and German.  The choir will also accompany the orchestra and viola soloist Derek Reeves on Ralph Vaughan Williams' Flos Campi.

Also on the programme tomorrow afternoon will be my all-time favourite work by Vaughan-Williams, The Lark Ascending, featuring violinist and Music Niagara Artistic Director Atis Bankas, and both Bankas and Reeves pair up for Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante as an uplifting conclusion to the concert.

The performance begins at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University, and tickets should be available at the box office prior to the concert.  You can also call ahead at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Staying with the Centre for the Arts, this coming week sees two concerts at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre worth catching:  Alan Doyle on Wednesday evening, January 28th and French-Canadian supergroup La Bottine Souriante on Thursday evening, January 29th.  I last saw La Bottine Souriante at Brock back around 1997 and they brought the house down with their infectious music.  If you have never heard this group, do yourself a favour and book your tickets now.  You will not be disappointed!

Tickets for both those shows and indeed the entire Centre for the Arts schedule are available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or by going to

The following evening, Friday January 30th, the Music Department at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock presents their next concert in the Encore! Professional Concert Series:  Toronto-based Quartetto Gelato.  This promises to be another exceptional performance by a group of musicians who have made their mark on the classical and crossover music scene in Canada and beyond.  Their many recordings always sell well, and they never fail to entertain either in the studio or on stage.

I last saw Quartetto Gelato a few summers back when they performed at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake as part of the Music Niagara concert series.  You can't help but admire what this group does, so if you can make it Friday night, do go.

For tickets, once again call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or go to

Geez, two Canadian supergroups on back-to-back nights at Brock - you can't do much better than that in January, can you?

Well, maybe you can.

If that were not enough, next weekend on Sunday afternoon, Primavera Concerts presents their next concert, A Soft and Golden Fire.  Starting at 3 pm, the performance takes place at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street.  Featuring mezzo-soprano Patricia Green, harpist Judy Loman and Lisa Cella on flute, the concert will feature music by contemporary Canadian composers Harry Freedman, Timothy Sullivan and George Crumb, as well as works by Benjamin Britten and Maurice Ravel.

Primavera Concerts is celebrating their 10 anniversary season this year, and they continue to provide quality, affordable music concerts for Niagara residents at a host of downtown St. Catharines churches.

For tickets, call 289-990-3630, or go online to  You should also be able to pick them up at the door if they are not sold out by Sunday afternoon.

So there you go:  four quality concerts in the space of a week right here in your own backyard.

It may be January, but the music will keep you warm and cozy and cure you of the winter blues if they are already getting you down.

See you at a concert this week, perhaps?

January 24th, 2015.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Welcome to downtown St. Catharines, Beechwood Doughnuts!

It was only in last week's posting I began my series on downtown establishments worthy of mention in this space, and initially I wanted to do that on a once monthly basis.  However, after a pretty impressive opening week for a new business downtown, I wanted to write a few congratulatory words for the newest members of the downtown St. Catharines retail fraternity, Beechwood Doughnuts on James Street.

Beechwood is an outgrowth of Rise Above vegan restaurant on St. Paul Street I understand, where the desserts would almost make you want to have your dinner in reverse order.  It seemed a natural progression to sort of spin off the doughnut-making end of it as a self-sustaining enterprise in its own right.

I first noticed the sign up on the former New Deli location at 5 James Street in early December and immediately liked the fact they spell doughnuts the way it should be spelled, rather than the more common "donuts".  These people know their stuff, I thought at the time.

It's unfortunate they couldn't time the opening better to catch some of the pre-Christmas crowd downtown, but as I understand it the time line just wouldn't allow it if they were to get things right from the get-go.  As we know all too well from other retail enterprises as of late, getting it right from the start is no easy matter and takes a lot of planning and careful execution.

Still and all, the January opening was anticipated moreso than just about any other downtown business I can recall, and I suspect a lot of that has to do with the power of social media.  These young entrepreneurs know the reach of social media and also know their clientele quite well.  Almost from the start of the month, regular Facebook updates were coming out about the pending opening this month, with just enough sizzle to make things interesting.

I noted at the beginning of this week they were planning a so-called "soft opening" at 11 am on Tuesday, prior to the full-fledged grand opening today.  Great I thought.  I had Tuesday off, so I ventured downtown around 1 pm to do some errands and thought I would pay a visit.  They were already sold out!  Such was the case very day this week, with a new batch ready to sell at the 11 am opening and again about 5 pm each afternoon.

Since I worked today until about 1, I knew I likely wouldn't make the morning opening, and sure enough they were again sold out when I visited the shop about 1:30.  But they assured me they would be reopening with a fresh batch at 5, so I duly noted the time and promised myself I would make my way down for the 5 pm batch today.

It is a testament to Canadian will and the desire to try a free doughnut (yes, today you got a free one) that we would line up outside at 5 pm on a January Saturday for the next batch to arrive.  But there I was with a host of others, young and old alike, all waiting somewhat patiently for the doors to open promptly at 5.

Like many others before me, I opted for the four doughnut maximum per person, paying for three and getting the fourth free.  Others simply grabbed the free doughnut and headed for the exit.  I figured if they went to this much trouble to get up and running, just grabbing a free one and leaving would not be the Canadian thing to do, and gladly I found most in the line-up agreed with me.  Or maybe it was the desire to have more than one on the first day.

Now, the first thing you have to do is try to put the "vegan" aspect of the doughnuts out of your mind, at least for now.  The reason I say this is for some, the notion of a "vegan" doughnut sounds rather, well, unappetizing.  Nothing could be further from the truth, so just think of it as a world-class doughnut, period, end of description.  The fact it is also "vegan" is icing on the, uh, doughnut.

My choices were somewhat safe and somewhat adventuresome:  I chose the apple fritter, walnut chocolate crunch, Earl Grey and a blueberry something-or-other.  The Earl Grey and apple fritter were our choices for this evening after dinner, and both were well sized, very fresh, and exceptionally delicious.

If you are one of those that rails about our national doughnut chain constantly downsizing their offerings, these bad boys will bring you back to the good old days and then some.  The selection is not as complete as the big chain, but you have some really interesting choices here such as peanut butter and jam, salted caramel toffee and a banana-granola number that really tempted me today.

True, the prices are higher than we are used to, but hey, they are vegan, this is a new independent operator, and I think most people will allow themselves to spend a little more for a nice little indulgence once in a while.

Over time the lineups will dwindle and they will not be sold out right away as they are now, but rest assured Beechwood Doughnuts is here for the long haul, and they appear to have the business smarts to make this operation grow and prosper.  So don't be deterred by the long lineups today; just be patient and give it some time, and before you know it you'll be able to pop in and grab one without waiting much time at all.

You won't see a drive-through here, and that is part of what makes this doughnut shop unlike the others.  You savour these beauties; no rushing allowed.  And yes, you can grab a Balzacs coffee while you're there along with a host of other liquid refreshments.

In addition, you can visit the cozy little artists shop located just next door, also new, and see what some of our local artisans are doing these days.  The two enterprises appear to be on very friendly terms with one another, and I think they will complement each other rather well as they will both be serving a more discriminating clientele, I suspect.

Welcome to downtown St. Catharines, Beechwood Doughnuts.  It's about time!

January 17th, 2015.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some of my favourite downtown things...Part One

Regular readers of this space know I often veer off the arts beat with great regularity to cover topics that strike me one way or another, and this week will be no exception.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the importance of shopping local, and especially shopping in downtown St. Catharines, where I have made my home for many years.  While a lot of favourite merchants and dining establishments downtown have come and gone over the years - Coy Brothers, The New Deli; Downtown Fine Music and Diana Sweets among them - new businesses come along and we start a new love affair all over again.

This thought struck me while I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon Christmas shopping downtown last month, and I resolved to highlight some of my favourite downtown merchants and dining establishments in this space about once a month over the course of this year.  I'm calling the series "Some of my favourite downtown things" and we'll begin this week with one of my all-time favourite downtown things that predates just about every other business in our city core.

The St. Catharines Farmer's Market began in the 19th-century when roads were nothing more than muddy paths and sidewalks - if there were any at all - were wood planks lined up in the mud.  Over time it has grown to become one of the oldest and largest markets in the Region, if not the province, and is easily one of the friendliest places in all of St. Catharines.

Much has changed over the years, including sharing space with St. Catharines Transit as part of a rudimentary downtown bus terminal many years ago to an open-air affair with little protection from the elements from a canopy back in the 80s to the modern-day, enclosed and heated market area we enjoy today.  Through it all, the location hasn't changed much, nor has the mix of vendors from all over the Region who would converge three days a week to sell their wares to an appreciative public.

While most of the products are locally gown or made, you should be careful as is the case at most markets, to be sure the produce you are buying is indeed locally sourced.  The best way to do this is to get to know your vendor and ask questions.  All the vendors I have known over the years are very approachable and proud of what they do, and are more than happy to talk about what they are selling.

A common argument from those who rarely or perhaps never visit our downtown market is that prices are higher there than at the supermarket, so why spend the extra money?  It's a mindset really, and I am of the opinion I would rather support our local farmers and producers rather than those located in another country or even another continent even if it means I pay a little more to do so.

Think of it this way:  by supporting our local producers you help support the local economy and that means we all win.  Why buy strawberries from South America in June for example, when Niagara produces an abundance of fabulous berries right here that are simply far superior in taste to what is trucked in from afar?

There will always be those who don't understand the importance of shopping local, and I get that.  But if we can change some minds and alter the perception that not buying local doesn't really matter, I'm happy with that.  You have to start somewhere, after all.

So, when you visit the St. Catharines Farmer's Market, what will you find?  Depending on the season the produce changes of course, but the vendors are usually there week in and week out with something interesting to sell no matter what the season.

In addition, you'll find baked goods, honey, flowers, prepared foods you can either eat there or take away with you, and of course, locally-produced arts and crafts.  New this past season has been the addition of many of our local wineries selling bottles of wine at the market, and I think this is a natural progression for a region such as Niagara, where both produce and wine are produced and consumed.

At the risk of offending some, I'll list a few of my favourite market vendors I have come to rely on week in and week out, especially on Saturdays when the market is always busier.  This is by no means a definitive list even for me, and you will of course have your favourite vendors as well.  That's the joy of visiting our downtown market:  visit as many or as few as you want, and go as often as you want.  If your favourite vendor is not there one week for some reason, there is always another great discovery around the next aisle.

My current faves at the St. Catharines Market include the following:

Andrzejewsi Perogies of Welland - you have not tasted perogies until you've tasted these!
Theresa's baked goods, specializing in gluten-free - the best corn bread around!
DeVries Fruit Farm - go for the hot apple cider, and lots of other produce in season.
Sam's Delights - I'm nuts about the trail mix and candied pecans.
Niagara Honey - the creamed is my honey of choice, but every variety is great.
Sweet Street - really nice vegan baked goods to please my far better half.
Eh Jose - great Mexican dishes you can eat there or take with you.

If you have a favourite vendor not listed here, by all means send me a message and let me know why you like them so much.  As I say, my list is by no means definitive.

There have been attempts to broaden the appeal of the market over the years, most notably with the addition of the Tuesday evening market featuring a number of food vendors throughout the summer months.  While the weather this past year hindered the popularity of the Tuesday evening market, I am hopeful it will return again next season and continue to grow in the years to come.  It is a great concept more people should embrace in the nicer weather.

There are few pleasures greater than meeting your friends at the downtown market, and making new friends with the vendors while you're there.  That's why the St. Catharines Farmer's Market leads off my parade of some of my favourite downtown things for 2015.

Have a great weekend!

January 10th, 2015.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Revisiting the Niagara Ice Dogs at their new home at the Meridian Centre

A couple of years ago in this space I wrote of my first-ever visit to a Niagara Ice Dogs game over at the old Jack Gatecliff Arena, their home until this year when the 'Dogs moved into their snazzy new home at the Meridian Centre.

Back then I was invited (okay, cajoled is more like it) by colleague and Ice Dogs arena announcer Rod Mawhood.  I crawled through the labyrinth up to the announcer's booth, a rather, uh, quaint space overlook the ice surface at The Jack for the duration of the game, watching as the home team won a hard-fought battle that night.  I commented afterwards - only half jokingly - they won on account of my being there for the game that night.

Fast-forward to this week and an opportunity arose to spend New Year's Eve at the new Meridian Centre helping out my esteemed colleagues at Meridian Credit Union as we worked the crowd for a very worthwhile cause.  The game was an early one, starting at 6 pm, so we all gathered in the lobby area at about 4:45 to prepare for the evening's events.

The past couple of months, all the Meridian branches in Niagara have been selling tickets on a couple of stress-free office chairs worth about $3200 apiece, donated by Critelli's in downtown St. Catharines.  The money raised - every penny of it, in fact - would go to Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold and the Alzheimer's Society of Niagara Region.  The draw would be held during the second intermission of the game against the Peterborough Petes on New Year's Eve at the Meridian Centre.

Ticket sales were very good, and a final push was made at the game as we were all stationed around the facility and fanned out during the first intermission in order to gather ticket orders from hockey fans.  I was lucky enough to be able to work the suites on the upper level, which meant more people with money might be inclined to buy tickets, and that certainly proved to be the case.

I finally had a chance to sit in one of the chairs at the game, and it was nothing short of heavenly.  Oh, to be able to buy a ticket on one of these babies myself!  Alas, it was not to be...

Since we were at the game, I had a chance to see part of the action from my upper-level perch and draw some comparisons between the new facility and the old.  Without question, the Meridian Centre is light-years ahead of anything we've had in Niagara before, and the parties involved with the approval, design and construction of the Meridian Centre are to be commended for their efforts.

The fact we finished this thing on time and on budget, while still maintaining a significant wow factor for the fans, is nothing short of miraculous in this day and age.

I like the design overall and the little touches such as cup holders in some of the seats, and the wonderful smell of food available for purchase throughout the facility.  I also appreciated nice clean washrooms, compared to what we had at The Jack for so many years.

What didn't I like?  Well, the noise for one thing.  I appreciate this is a spectator facility and that involves a lot of fan interaction in this day and age of digital everything.  But after awhile, I found the  whole affair to be aural overload for this old guy.  Remember, this is from someone who has been to literally hundreds of public events of every description over a very long career.

Noise aside, I like the way Rod and his audio/visual team keep things moving and keep fans involved in the action.  It's all very professional and never over the top.  Just a bit too noisy for my liking...

The Niagara Ice Dogs are here to stay and know how to put on a good show for the fans.  I am certain  the team along with owners Bill & Denise Burke will provide fans with quality sports entertainment for a long time as the City of St. Catharines and taxpayers put their money where their collective mouths were a couple of years ago and invested in the future.

It's also nice to see the downtown core come alive on game nights with fans heading to the game, perhaps spending money at some of the downtown eating and drinking establishments either before or after the game.  Parking is always going to be an issue with some not wanting to pay for parking in the two parking garages downtown,  but hey, you can't have everything, right?

So my first impressions are very positive indeed.  We have a great facility here in the Meridian Centre, and this is just a taste of what's to come when the new Performing Arts Centre and Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts open up later this year.  Fasten your seat belts, St. Catharines, we're about to embark on a fun ride downtown in the very near future.

Oh, about the game score?  Niagara Ice Dogs lost 3-2 on New Year's Eve.  I'll take the blame for that, I guess, as we packed up and left after the draw prior to the final period.  Should have stuck around and maintained my good karma for the good of the team, I guess.

Sorry about that, Rod...

Happy New Year!

January 3rd, 2015.