Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wasn't that a party in downtown St. Catharines this weekend?

I'm just back from a party at Gord's Place on James Street, home to the Big Reveal Party for the Garden City Food Co-Op, and up the street from the epicenter of the In The Soil Arts Festival this weekend.

To say downtown St. Catharines was abuzz with activity this weekend would be understating the case considerably, and I for one am happy with the excitement generated in our city core.

First, let's talk about In the Soil, now into its 7th season bringing art, music and people together in our downtown core on the last weekend of April.  In The Soil this year packed about 150 acts, exhibits and interactive activities into just a couple of city blocks and for the most part, I think things went particularly well.

I visited a few times on Saturday afternoon after I finished work, visiting along James Street the various exhibits and interactive displays, along with the musical entertainment.  I also took advantage of the offer extended by the performing arts group Fixd Point, who were on site in a tiny little trailer recording people's memories and impressions of St. Paul Street for an upcoming opening week event at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre event in the fall.

Afterwards I visited my artistic neighbour Sandy Middleton's project in the upper level of the Oddfellows Hall on James Street, co-produced with photographer Erin Riley.  It was a paint-by-numbers effort everyone could take part in and seemed to be going very well when I visited late afternoon.

Much more was planned for the Festival today, but things were winding down when I again stopped downtown for the Garden City Food Co-Op Big Reveal Party at Gord's Place.  This has been in the works for some time and has been highly anticipated, as everyone connected to the project was anxious to hear where the new co-operative market would be located in downtown St. Catharines.

It was nice to see the joint jumping when we arrived, with barely a seat available shortly after the doors opened at 7 pm.  Things were noisy and festive, but everyone's attention pointed to the front of the restaurant as it was announced the location for the Garden City Food Co-Op would be...ta-da!  57 Carlisle, right across from the bus terminal.

It might be surprising to some that will in fact be the location, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.  It is centrally situated in our downtown, the building already exists, and it is very close to public transit for those who have no vehicle of their own in order to get around.  After all, that was often the big complaint once the old A&P closed in the Midtown Plaza on Welland Avenue:  seniors and those with no car would have a difficult time leaving the downtown area for the shopping malls and grocery stores outside the core.

Landlord Nick Atalick knew what he was doing when negotiations with the co-op folks got serious.  He knew the area around the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre would be in demand, and what better business to have on one of his area properties than a co-operative owned and operated by the citizens of St. Catharines?  Much better than yet another bar, you have to agree.

So the preliminary drawings look promising and the building size seems sufficient, so now the push is on to gather even more members to support the cause.  As of this writing membership sits at over 400, up considerably from the 300-member threshold that was deemed necessary to get this thing off the ground in the first place.  

Hopefully now with a location made public and an expected completion date of late 2015 or early 2016, the membership can expand even more in the coming months.

There is still much work to do on this project but it will happen.  And it will be successful, if what I saw at Gord's tonight is any indication.  There is genuine excitement for the co-op concept, and bringing it to downtown St. Catharines furthers the objective of creating a wider appeal and more family-friendly vibe in our city centre.

Can a new civic square be far behind?  Well, the jury is still out on that one, but considering the accomplishments in our downtown the last few years, I would not be the least bit surprised if it does happen sometime in the near future.

Exciting things are happening downtown...are you going to be a part of it?

Have a great week!

April 26th, 2015.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Need a dose of the Arts this weekend? Niagara has you covered!

This weekend is one of those weekends in Niagara you wish could be about 4 days long, as there is simply so much to see and do.  I've rounded up some of the best events on this weekend so you can perhaps best plan your time efficiently and accordingly.

First and foremost, Suitcase in Point presents the annual In the Soil Arts Festival in downtown St. Catharines right through the weekend.  In fact, James Street between King and St. Paul was closed to vehicular traffic this morning and the day was spent setting up for today's 5 pm opening of the Festival.

On Saturday there will be a full slate of events planned all day long, including a Poetry Slam showcase starting at 2 pm at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge on St. Paul Street, right across from the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre.  Featured will be a number of talented local spoken word poets in an audience-interactive forum running through to the evening hours.

On James Street itself, Fixt Point, a performing arts organization focused primarily on the site specific promenade theatre performance concept, will have a trailer set up to gather stories for the re-mount of The Tale of the Town St. Catharines.  Headed up by Artistic Director Lisa Marie DiLiberto, the idea is to have people stop by the trailer and talk about their memories and experiences on our main downtown thoroughfare, St. Paul Street.

Once all the stories are collected for the site-specific theatre project that will incorporate live and recorded music, interview sound bytes and video footage, it will be presented as part of the opening ceremonies at the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in October.

I've been invited to stop by the trailer at 2 pm to offer my impressions of the street, and they will be on site through to the end of the Festival on Sunday to capture yours.

Along with all the on-street activities taking place on James Street, if you head upstairs at the Oddfellows Temple between 12 noon and 7 pm you'll be able to catch a free interactive workshop by photographer Erin Riley and my neighbour, artist and photographer Sandy Middleton.  Dubbed an Interactive Paint by Numbers Project, visitors will be able to participate themselves during the day-long event.

The collaboration between Toronto-based documentary photographer Erin Riley and Niagara-based artist/photographer grew out of their collaborative work in Toronto a little while ago, and this event just seemed to touch on so many of their shared inspirations.

It's impossible to list all of the more than 150 things to see and do during the three-day event, but you can access all the details and pick up your Festival passes at  You can also stop by the Hub on St. Paul Street to pick up a Festival pass on the spot.  Many of the events will be free, but others charge a small admission fee, so the Festival pass is by far your best value if you plan to spend a fair amount of time at the Festival.

In the Soil is a celebration of the arts in Niagara and beyond, with lots of interactive events and great music throughout the weekend right in the heart of downtown St. Catharines.  Why not come out and dig it for yourself?

Tied in with In the Soil is the Big Reveal Party being held at Gord's Place on James Street Sunday evening at 7, hosted by the Garden City Food Co-Op.  This is the event we co-op members have been waiting for - the announcement of where the innovative food co-operative project will take root downtown.

There has been lots of speculation on just where the location will be, but we'll have to wait until Sunday evening to get the final word at Gord's.  The event is free, with food available for purchase at Gord's Place during the event, with plenty of entertainment planned as well.

As founding members of the Garden City Food Co-Op, my far better half and I plan to be in attendance to get he good news first-hand, and you should be, too.  Want to find out more?  Stop by the St. Catharines Farmer's Market Saturday morning where the will have a display set up, and you can find out all about the project and even sign up if you have not already done so.  You can also check out their Facebook page or website at in order to RSVP for the event Sunday evening.

Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold will have collection barrels set up at the event and you're asked to bring a non-perishable food item to contribute if you possibly can.

Elsewhere on the weekend the Marilyn I.Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts 5th festival of the arts known as Industrial Fabric continues with a performance by the Avanti Chamber Singers with conductor Harris Loewen at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street.  The concert, entitled Folk Song Sweets, will begin at 7:30 pm.

A lot of the music will have a Spring touch, to be sure, featuring traditional Canadian and International folk songs from all over the world, including new choral arrangements by local composer and Brock University Associate Professor Matthew Royal.

Tickets will be available at the door prior to the concert, or in advance by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3275.

And finally this weekend, the Niagara Symphony (NSO) will wrap up their Pops! series at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University.  The concert is dubbed "The Very Model"...of Gilbert & Sullivan and will feature a number of Niagara's municipal leaders joining the orchestra for a G&S extravaganza.

Performances are Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30, and tickets should still be available at the door or in advance by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3275.

There you go...sunshine and lots of great ways to spend time in it and out of it all weekend long in Niagara.

Have a great weekend!

April 24th, 2015.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Recent news on downtown St. Catharines is creating a buzz

First of all, my apologies for being absent the last couple of weeks from this space, but a number of personal issues had to be dealt with that took precedence.  Now I'm back with plenty to say, which should come as no surprise to anyone!

Recent news out of our soon-to-be-completed Performing Arts Centre is the naming rights for the complex have gone to First Ontario Credit Union for a sum of $ 3-million.  This is indeed great news as the construction continues towards the fall 2015 opening.

I was on Twitter the day of the announcement, commenting on the fact two of the three major infrastructure projects underway on St. Paul Street are now to be named after Ontario credit unions:  first Meridian purchased the naming rights for the new spectator facility that opened last fall, and now First Ontario is doing the same for the Performing Arts Centre.  What I suggested at the time was that credit unions were investing in us, which indeed they are.

The important thing to remember about both of these significant announcements is they reflect each credit union's commitment to community values.  I'm not saying the major financial institutions in this country don't step up the plate themselves; they do with projects such as BMO Field in Toronto, for example.

But these two hit especially close to home, and benefit our community both directly and indirectly.  Directly buy injecting funds to help defray the costs of building the projects to begin with, and indirectly by giving them a higher profile in the community through betterment of our way of life and of those around us elsewhere in the peninsula.

If you need proof of how much of an impact these projects have and will continue to have on our community, all you would of had to do is walk downtown during the recent Niagara Ice Dogs playoff run.  The season ended Friday night with another loss to the Oshawa Generals in the Motor City, but while the run continued the downtown was electric on game nights, and it was great to see.

I had the pleasure of handing out noisemakers prior to the first two Round One playoff games against Ottawa before Easter and I can tell you, the atmosphere was upbeat and fun.  And that fun included lots and lots of families coming downtown on a weeknight to catch a game at the Meridian Centre and cheer on the home team.

I talked to some of the downtown restaurants and bars during the last month or so and what I heard is they were very pleased with the increase in business on game nights.  But they were also pleased with the make up of those crowds.  More families coming in before or after the game to eat, rather than just a bunch of guys grabbing a beer or two before or after the game.

So family is one of the direct benefits we're seeing here.  The Meridian Centre and the Niagara Ice Dogs have given families a reason to come downtown, spend some time and money, and feel good about a night out in our city core.  That has not always been the case.

While I was at the Rankin Bridge entrance to the Meridian Centre on game night, I could look down and see the progress on both the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts and the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre, and I could visualize a night next fall when we have a game at the Meridian Centre, an event at the First Ontario Centre, and ongoing classes and student activity at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

If that doesn't get your heart racing just a little bit, you are not a proud St. Catharines resident.

Oh sure, I have heard the naysayers, including one older gentleman who lamented to me the fact we had a chance years ago to build a rink in the lower-level parking lot when the St. Catharines Saints of the AHL were playing over at the Gatecliff Arena back in the 80s.  I remember those days well and the heated debate going on over whether we should build in the lower level lot back then or not.

This gentleman reminded me since the Saints were the farm team of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the majority owner back then being Harold Ballard, we could have had Mr. Ballard build us a new arena back then.

Okay, I appreciate where you're coming from, but really, if you have to rely on Harold Ballard to support your argument, well, you've lost all credibility in my books.

These new projects are being funded by government at all levels as well as us, the taxpayers.  And even if you don't plan to directly appreciate one or more of the facilities, consider others who will.  The fact is we are a community, and we can't just opt out if it doesn't fit our own personal vision of what constitutes a community.

Should we only pay taxes proportionate to the length of the street we live on that gets plowed every winter?  Of course not.  We pay our fair share and that benefits everyone.  The same goes for our new infrastructure projects downtown.

I may not often go to an Ice Dogs game, and you might not often go to a Niagara Symphony concert, for example. But think of what both of those events bring to the community as a whole and then you're looking at the bigger picture.

We are investing in ourselves and our future here in Niagara.  We are giving families and future generations of families reason to settle here in Niagara and contribute to our economy and our collective lifestyle.

Two of Ontario's largest credit unions get it, and lots of others do, too.  We are not waiting for opportunity to knock.  We're opening the door and grabbing opportunity by the scruff of the neck and saying "Hey!  You might want to stick around here for awhile!"

To Meridian, thank you.  To First Ontario, thank you.  To the Niagara Ice Dogs, thank you.  To all levels of government and all the donors so far and yet to come, thank you all.

Teamwork builds futures.  Let's work together as a team to help build ours right here in Niagara.

Have a great weekend!

April 19th, 2015.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Where is all that Easter music this weekend?

It is Easter Sunday, the Christian holiday that celebrates Jesus' resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion.  Easter is what is known as a moveable feast, as it is one of the few floating holidays in the calendar year, as it is based on the cycles of the moon.

Jesus we are told rose from the dead on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, so for that reason the holiday can fall as early as March 22nd, as it did a few years ago, or as late as April 25th.  Easter marks the end of the 40-day period of Lent which for many Christians is a period of alms giving and giving up something they particularly enjoy, which for me is usually chocolate.

While many are spending the day with family and/or friends and preparing to feast rather than fast now that Lent is over, I have other things on my feeble mind.

Where is all the great Easter music?

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Santa and his pals have cornered the market on seasonal sounds on the radio and in our hearts, leaving the poor Easter bunny to fend for himself on his special day.  While it doesn't take long (like by September in most grocery stores) for the Christmas music to start flooding the airwaves, Easter music has just never caught on.  Why is that?

Oh sure, Irving Berlin's Easter Parade with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire can take pride of place, but beyond that, what else is there?  Here Comes Peter Cottontail?  Give me a break.  I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket?  C'mon...  Can you come up with anything better?

Now it could be argued we don't really need Easter music at all, and I grant you if we did and it were played to death every year like Christmas music is, we'd all get sick of it, too.  But I thought about the  obvious lack of seasonal music at this time of year and well, an inquisitive mind asks "Why?"

You really have to go back to the classics to really get a handle on some great music for this time of year, and that thankfully will never change.  There are always great performances and recordings available of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass available, for example, and sometimes even the St. John Passion.  That Johann Sebastian Bach...he really knew how to rock Easter, didn't he?

I jest, of course, but seriously, you don't see the release of new recordings of Easter favourites nearly as often as yet another recording of say, White Christmas or even Panis Angelicus.  That's why I was particularly pleased to see two new recordings out this month geared towards Easter celebrations that are worthy of mention here.

The first is a new recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Academy of Ancient Music with Richard Egarr directing from the harpsichord.  The three-disc set is on their own label, AAM, and features an all-star roster of soloists performing the original 1727 version of the work.

The second is a new DVD by The Choir of King's College directed by Stephan Cleobury entitled Easter from King's and is the first DVD release of the regular BBC broadcast, which forms the cornerstone of the BBC's Easter programming.  This recording was first broadcast in 2014 from the College's magnificent Chapel, and features seasonal hymns and readings alongside choral favourites such as Allegri's Miserere, the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem and of course, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's oratorio Messiah.

Both of these fine recordings are available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, at or by emailing me directly at, by the way.

Speaking of Handel's Messiah, why don't we ever hear the complete work at Easter rather than Christmas?  Every December you find lots of performances the world over, but at Easter?  Not much.

Truth is, Messiah is about Easter just as much as it is about Christmas, as the libretto clergyman and writer Christopher Jennens provided Handel was based around the birth and Passion of Christ.  Handel set the work on the libretto in August, 1741, completing the score in just over three weeks.

The resulting oratorio, performed more in theatres than in churches during Handel's day, by the way, is of course divided into three parts: the first deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment.  The second moves from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection.  The final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death.

The first performance of Messiah took place not at Christmas, but April 13th, 1742 at the New Music Hall in Dublin to huge acclaim.  The following year it was triumphantly reprised at London's historic Covent Garden.  And today?  Always in December and rarely at Easter.

Just once I would like see a choir abandon so-called choral protocol and programme Messiah at Easter and see if they can bring in the crowds then, leaving the Christmas season open to any number of other great seasonal offerings.  It is a gamble I suspect could pay off handsomely.

All of which brings us to the outside-the-box thinking of the University of Toronto, which will be observing the 50th anniversary Festival of Medieval Theatre in June of this year with a 12th-century Easter production that will be part of the Poculi Ludique Societas (PLS) at the University in June.

You don't have to wait until June or drive to Toronto to catch this musical theatre milestone, actually.  There will be a special Brock preview of Visitation Sepulchre (The Visit to the Sepulchre) this coming Tuesday evening, April 7th in the Concordia Seminary Chapel at Brock beginning at 7:30pm.

There will be a pre-show talk at 7 with Dr. Brian Power, Music Director for the production, and Stage Director Virginia Reh prior to the performance that will feature Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts students.

This 12th-century Easter music-drama is an acting version transcribed and translated by W.L. Smolden from the "Fleury Playbook" and is a joint production of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Department of Dramatic Arts and the Department of Music at Brock.

The admission charge is by donation, so you certainly can't go wrong if you have some time on Tuesday evening this week to catch a rare glimpse of Easter from Medieval times.

Now doesn't that sound like a rare treat?  I thought so.

Happy Easter!

April 5th, 2015.