Sunday, May 31, 2015

Celebrating 50 years of the Niagara Youth Orchestra

This weekend was a nostalgic one for a number of area musicians, many of whom came up through the ranks of the Niagara Youth Orchestra and its predecessor, the St. Catharines Youth Orchestra.  Many of them, young and not-so-young alike, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the NYO with a gala concert this afternoon at the Holiday Inn Suites and Conference Centre on Ontario Street.

It was my honour and pleasure to act as emcee for the event, at the invitation of present NYO conductor and music director Laura Thomas.  The conference room at the Holiday Inn Suites was packed to capacity with alumni and well-wishers, everyone there to help celebrate a milestone that began with one man's vision half a century ago.

When founding music director and conductor Paul van Dongen acted on his vision so many years ago, I'm sure even he couldn't imagine the impact it would have on local musicians and the lives he helped to shape with music.  But through his solid musicianship and mentoring techniques, Paul guided many young aspiring musicians into successful musical careers of their own.

Paul was a music teacher with the Lincoln County School music programme at the time in the fall of 1965 when he and fellow music teacher Steven Pettes joined forces to form an orchestra under the auspices of the St. Catharines Symphony Association.  At the time, 69 students between the ages of 12 and 16 met to form the St. Catharines Junior Symphony, which in its very first year performed at the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival and went on to perform at EXPO '67 in Montreal.

The orchestra was renamed the St. Catharines Youth Orchestra in 1968 and began yearly subscription concert series.  In the following ten years the orchestra contributed more than 100 players to the St. Catharines Symphony and 15 players went on to perform with the National Youth Orchestra.

Founding conductor Paul van Dongen retired from the orchestra in the late 70s, and was replaced briefly by Richard Gremonpre, who in turn was replaced by Tak Ng Lai, who came to Canada the previous year from his native China.  Tak guided the orchestra until December 1992 and at today's concert, mentioned those first 15 years he spent in Canada were amongst his happiest.

Following Tak's tenure, conductor Stan Kopak took the helm in 1992 until his retirement in 2000, and took the orchestra on tour during the 90s to Europe as well as music festivals across Canada.  As a retirement gift to the NYO for their 35th anniversary season in 2000, Stan wrote a celebratory Fanfare, which was conducted today by Paul van Dongen's son Michael, who presently leads the Junior Niagara Youth Orchestra.

The following eight years saw Michael Newnham lead the orchestra, and the touring schedule increased as the NYO toured both the Canadian west and east coasts, as well as Europe.  Michael was unable to attend this weekend's celebrations, but sent a video via YouTube that was shown at the gala concert this afternoon.

The current conductor of the NYO, Laura Thomas, took over in 2008 and continues to guide the youthful charges in their music making to this very day.  It was Laura who conducted the finale to this afternoon's concert, performing Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity from Gustav Holst's The Planets.

My own personal recollections of the NYO go back almost 20 years now when I was invited to act as narrator for a performance of Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf at the Mandeville Theatre at Ridley College.  I remember vividly that concert, and how nervous I was at the prospect of performing alongside the live musicians.  But all went well and I managed to hit all the cues with help from the conductor.

This entire weekend was a celebratory one for the NYO and the many musicians who have appeared with the orchestra in one capacity or another.  It is not every community that can lay claim to such a lengthy period of time educating and nurturing so many young musicians.  But we can, and we should all be proud of the NYO's accomplishments over the years.

It was great to see so many people come out to support the orchestra today; the dignitaries who brought words of congratulations from all three levels of government, including Mayor Walter Sendzik, MPP Jim Bradley and MP Rick Dykstra; and the young musicians themselves who performed admirably during an admittedly long afternoon.

We have a wonderful musical resource right here in Niagara with the NYO, and here's to another 50 years of music and memories from young musicians showing great promise.  Next year they should be performing at the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre as a new chapter begins for this storied organization.

My thanks to everyone involved for all their hard work organizing this gala event, and for inviting me to be a part of it.  It was a memorable afternoon I will long remember.

Have a great week!

May 31st, 2015.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lots to see and do in St. Catharines this weekend

The weekend is well underway and perhaps you have not made any specific plans to enjoy your time off yet.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of things going on for you to take in right in your own backyard, and all very affordably priced, too!

First off, my artistically-inclined neighbour, Sandy Middleton, opened her latest photographic exhibition at the Niagara Artists Centre this afternoon, entitled "Rooted."  Sandy, who has an eye for photography like few others, has gathered together some of her signature work on plywood as well as some Encaustic mixed media pieces that highlight the theme of roots for the showing at NAC.

There was an opening reception this afternoon from 2 to 4, but if you missed it you can still catch the show until June 5th at NAC on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  For more information check out their website at

This evening, the national award-winning Aurum Vocal Ensemble from Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto performs at St. Thomas' Church on Ontario Street in downtown St. Catharines.  Founded in 2006 by William Brown, the chamber choir has been known both as a mixed-voice and treble-voiced ensemble.

William Brown is a St. Catharines native who graduated from St. Catharines Collegiate Institute, and went to the music department at Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute to teach and conduct music.  In his time there he has founded not only the Aurum Vocal Ensemble featured this evening, but the FLOREAT Women's Choir AZURE Men's Chorus, Jr. FLORET Women's Choir and the Lady NOVA Triple Trio.

Today the Lawrence Park music department is regarded as a model of excellence for the Toronto District School Board, having won a total of 11 gold and 2 platinum awards at the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival for various music ensembles at the school.

This evening's concert will feature sacred music from Randall Stroop, Hildegard von Bingen, Ivo Antognini and Ruth Watson Henderson, among others.  Also featured will be world music from Serbia, Ecuador, Japan and Canada, and a collection of contemporary and Canadian choral music including compositions by William Brown himself.

The concert is dedicated to his parents, Beverley and Bill Brown, and his former voice teacher Theresa Pothier.  It begins at 7 pm at St. Thomas' Church and tickets will be available at the door.

Finally, I did something this weekend I have long been meaning to do, but never quite got around to.  Every year at this time, the Niagara Folk Arts Festival brings the world to our doorstep with music, food, art and culture from many of the cultural groups in and around the St. Catharines area.  Yet for me, I had rarely been a part of the fun.

Years ago when my parents moved here I recall my father and I visiting an open house or two around 1990, and I often watched the parade that used to be a staple of a late May weekend in downtown St. Catharines about the same time.  I also attended the events in Montebello Park on occasion, often hosting some of the events myself as MC when I worked in radio.

But somehow, the thought of attending some of the open houses in recent years just seemed to escape me for some reason, and this year I promised myself I would correct that oversight.  After all, the open houses are free to attend, the music is exceptional as is the food, which is very moderately priced.

Last evening with my far better half working late, I decided to head to the Greek Open House at the community centre at the corner of Linwell and Niagara Streets.  The music was emanating from the hall when I arrived about 8 pm, and the room was packed with people having a grand time, whether they were of Greek extraction or not.  Last night, everyone was Greek and proud of it!

The food was very well priced and plentiful, and everything well organized.  I especially like the fact everyone is very friendly and welcoming, especially for those who are new to the whole experience such as myself.

The Greek Open House continues all day today through to this evening, and you can bet there will be lots of dancing late into the night.

This afternoon I took some time to attend the Ukrainian Open House at St. John the Theologian Ukrainian Catholic Church on Lakeshore Road.  When I arrived shortly after 2 pm the joint was jumpin' with authentic music and dancing, and again the room was packed to capacity.  Being a fan of  Ukrainian food to begin with, it didn't take me long to hit the food line for a late lunch, which was exceptional.

Along with the music there were several speeches including words of welcome by Mayor Walter Sendzik and MP Rick Dykstra, who more or less agreed on a friendly wager to join in the dance action at next year's open house.  The speeches were brief, the food and music plentiful, and a good time was had by all.

There are plenty more open houses planned over the next week, culminating in a Jump-Up! May 29th at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines and the annual Folk Arts in the Park at Montebello Park next weekend.  Between now and then, there are open houses hosted by Chinese Cultural Association of Regional Niagara, St. Catharines Social Club Heidelberg and the Ukrainian Youth Association on Sunday, and through the week there will be Polish, Hindu, Slovak and Scottish open houses to name a few.

The wonderful thing about all these events is they are family-friendly, affordable, and easy ways to help build bridges in our community between various cultural sectors.  If you have not taken in Folk Arts for awhile or even never, now is the time to rediscover a jewel in the Garden City crown.

For more information on the festival, go to and see what's in store for you.

Enjoy your weekend!

May 23rd, 2015.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The arts will keep you busy this weekend in Niagara

It may be the first holiday weekend of the season, the celebrated Victoria Day weekend and all, but if you want to spend some time indoors with the arts this weekend you have plenty of choices.

First off, the 2015 season for the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake is now officially underway.  I will be writing more about the new season in a future post, but this opening week has already seen Shaw's You Never Can Tell, Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, Rick Elice's Peter and the Starcatcher and the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical Sweet Charity officially open.

On Sunday there are no openings, but Peter and the Starcatcher, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson with music by Wayne Barker will be onstage at the Royal George Theatre at 2 pm.

For more information on the entire Shaw Festival season and how you can be a part of it, call the box office at 1-800-511-SHAW or go to

Meantime Primavera Concerts wraps up their current season with a performance by the Cecilia String Quartet with Shauna Ralston featured on cello on Sunday afternoon at 3 pm.  The performance takes place at the always-pleasant Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  Featured on the programme will be Schubert's Quintet in C major along with a number of other works performed by this talented group of Canadian musicians.

Tickets to the final Primavera performance of the season are available in advance by calling 289-990-3630 or by going to, or you can pick them up at the door prior to the concert Sunday afternoon.

Finally the Niagara Symphony wraps up their final season at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University Sunday afternoon at 2:30, with the last Masterworks concert of the season.  Entitled Beethoven & the Baroness - Ending on a High C!, the concert acts as a sort of swan-song for the NSO as they prepare to move to the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines next fall.

The concert this weekend features two works by Beethoven, the Egmont Overture and the always-challenging Symphony No. 5, as well as Lamento by Christos Hatzis, featuring the vocal stylings of Sarah Slean.  Maestro Bradley Thachuk promises the concert will be a fitting end to the season as well as a suitable lead-in to the new era at Partridge Hall beginning next season.

If you are not a subscriber but would like to go, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for tickets or visit the box office prior to the concert tomorrow afternoon and purchase your tickets on the spot.

Speaking of the NSO and their move to the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre next season, they announced the season amid much fanfare recently, and it promises to be an exciting launch in their new home.

I received the new season brochure earlier this week and they are really pulling out all the stops for their inaugural season at Partridge Hall, although it is interesting to note the Masterworks 1 concert that will kick off the season will be presented in two parts at the Cairns Recital Hall.  Why they won't be in their home at Partridge Hall is a bit of a mystery, but there must be a reason behind the move.

No matter, the pair of concerts will feature their new Artist-in-Residence, pianist Stewart Goodyear, who will be performing all five of the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the NSO on the opening weekend.  Goodyear will be returning for the final Masterworks concert next May on a programme that will include Chorus Niagara in a performance of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and the great Symphony No. 9, the "Choral" Symphony.

A nice addition will be a recital with Goodyear at Cairns Hall next December featuring the rarely-heard piano transcription of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet score, and he will also be part of an all-Gershwin concert in the Pops! series performing Rhapsody in Blue.

Other artists performing with the NSO next season include violinist James Ehnes performing the Lalo Symphonie espangnole and soprano Erin Wall featured in a performance of Strauss's Four Last Songs, and even a concert with Brian Baty performing Contours by Michael Conway Baker.

The Pops! series is highlighted by a Beatles concert known as Classical Mystery Tour next November, and the aforementioned Gershwin weekend in April.  As well the annual Home for the Holidays! Christmas concerts in December will mark the return of Joey DeBenedetto and the Jeans 'n Classics band will bring new life to some great Oscar scores from the past in February.

The NextGen series, formerly the Family Series, is now known as the Family Series again (can we stick with one name from now on?) and will feature a Peter Pan and Harry Potter double-bill in December and the Classical Kids Mozart's Magnificent Voyage in April.

Incidentally, and this might just be me, but I found the new season brochure rather dull-looking considering the importance of the upcoming season.  Oh, it has some lavish pictures and all, but the overall design just didn't grab me.  No idea why, as a lot of work obviously went into it...strange.

Anyway, the new season subscriptions are available as of this Tuesday, with a buy one get one free offer for new subscribers available until August 17th.  For more information, call the box office at Brock at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 until June 30th, and after July 2nd you can call 905-688-0722.

The new season is about to get underway in a new venue, but in the meantime, lots to entertain you in Niagara!

Enjoy your weekend!

May 16th, 2015.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Thanks for the memories, Debbie Slade and Centre for the Arts!

You know by now, of course, an end to an era occurred late last month when the 45th season at Centre for the Arts at Brock University came to a close April 23rd.  The performance by Flamenco guitarist Jorge Miguel not only closed the season at Brock, but the stellar run of seasons dating back to 1969.

Next fall, all performances will emanate from the brand-spanking new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  That means another era begins, but not without a tear or two being shed beforehand.

It's almost hard to believe Centre for the Arts has been around for 45 years now; yet I can't imagine a time when the performance venues at Brock were not operating.  Just imagine for a moment what we did here in St. Catharines before the Centre for the Arts opening at Brock 45 years ago.

In all likelihood, any performances would have been in school auditoriums or churches in the area, since there would not have been many proper entertainment facilities available just about anywhere in the Region.  Movies would have been more popular forms of entertainment out of necessity, one would think, and the occasional live performance would likely include a chorus of "we need a decent performance space" from those who attended.

That brings us to 1969 and the beginning of the Centre For the Arts era at Brock, admittedly a much shorter season than what we are used to now.  But it was something, and the state-of-the-art theatre facilities at the time were light years ahead of what we had seen up to that time.

Since then, the storied venue has hosted musical acts ranging from Bob Geldoff to Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth to Anne Murray, Stomping' Tom Connors to Diana Krall.  In other words, something for everyone.

My own memories of Centre for the Arts include sitting in the audience for countless performances by the Niagara Symphony, as well as memorable evenings spent with the likes of La Bottine Souriante and guitarist Jesse Cooke.  I can't say I have ever sat through a bad performance at the place, ever.

I've also participated in many shows there myself, having for many years been the so-called "Voice of God" for the off-stage announcements for the NSO.  I also stood on stage for announcements on occasion, and looking up at that large expanse of full seats at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre was more than a little intimidating, let me tell you.

Over at the David S. Howes Theatre, once known simply as The Playhouse, I remember spending many a Wednesday afternoon back in the 80s enjoying shows by our local theatre company, Press Theatre, headed up by the late Diane Nyland-Proctor.  Their performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest I recall as being particularly memorable.

For both venues, I also provided artist chat sessions after the performance for a few seasons, and that was always a challenge balancing information and entertainment with the artist for the enjoyment of the audience.  But again, I never had a bad experience while doing those popular chats for many years.

Much of the time Centre for the Arts has been in existence - well, for 30 years of it at least - Director Debbie Slade has guided the ship from success to success, through most of the 1,450 performances there since it opened in 1969.  I occasionally heard grumblings the season line up was weighted too heavily towards East-Coast performers, but hey, you don't mess with success and Deb experienced a lot of it with her deft handling of the seasons' programming.

Few people in the industry have garnered the respect of both her peers and the acts she has booked as Debbie Slade has.  Everyone knows her and more importantly, they and by extension we - trust her talent for booking winning acts year in and year out.  They can't all be winners of course, but there have been far more winners than losers over the years, and that track record is to be admired.

Sadly, Debbie has chosen this particular juncture in local entertainment history to bid farewell and retire, rather than stay on and guide the programming at the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in the future.  It must have been a tough decision for Debbie certainly, but also for those around her who in many cases have known no other Director of Centre for the Arts, ever.

To give you an indication of the respect Deb has acquired over the years, when I spoke to Canadian singer John McDermott back in January by phone for an article I was writing for Centre for the Arts magazine, I could almost hear his jaw drop over the line when I broke the news to him.  John is one of those artists who placed his trust and respect in Debbie and her talented team, having played Centre for the Arts something like 29 times over the years.

But you know what they say:  quit while you're ahead and still on top, so perhaps Debbie was seeing the proverbial tea leaves aligning in just a way that to her seemed to spell out an auspicious time to hang it up and put down her booking pen one last time.

The legacy she will leave behind will be significant, as Centre for the Arts would not of - could not of - grown to its present size without her sheer determination and grit.   I don't think I am overstating the case by saying for most of us in Niagara, Debbie Slade simply was Centre for the Arts at Brock University.

Having said all that, this coming Thursday evening Niagara gets a chance to bid farewell to a classy lady who often worked in the wings to bring some pretty big stars out on stage for our enjoyment.  On Thursday, it is Debbie's moment at centre-stage as we get to say thanks for the memories, job well done, and all the best in retirement.

Tickets are only $25 and includes light hors d'oeuvres at 6 pm before action shifts to the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre stage where Debbie has worked her considerable magic for so many years.  For tickets, call the box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or go online at

The rest of the Centre for the Arts staff including Debbie's right-hand girl, Sara Palmieri, will all be moving to First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in the fall, but Debbie will move on at the end of this season.  Afterwards, the performance spaces she has known so well over the years will be converted into university lecture space, I'm told.

But that's all in the future.  Right now, let's raise a collective toast to a lady who not only earned our respect and admiration, but also won our hearts by giving Niagara the entertainment line up year in and year out we have almost taken for granted.  It is a lot of hard work and Deb has earned the right to take a break right about now.

But not before we say goodbye, and that happens Thursday night of this week.

Have a great retirement, Debbie, and all the best in the future.  You will be very much missed!

May 11th, 2015.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

HPO announces new music director

With symphony seasons starting to wind down for another year, announcements come along about the upcoming season and other exciting news to tantalize subscribers and other patrons to renew for another year.

The Niagara Symphony has one last Masterworks concert of the season next weekend, and I will write about that and their new season announcement in this space next week.

Today, let's look at the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, which has been doing their due diligence the last two years looking for a replacement for former music director Jamie Sommerville, who announced he was leaving the HPO at the end of the 2012-2013 season.

It is never easy going through this process, as people connected to the Niagara Symphony well know. A few seasons back the search to replace former music director Daniel Swift proved a long and difficult task, with the announcement the new music director would be Canadian Bradley Thachuk, who would return to his native country after working several years in the United States.

I remember that season of auditioning prospective music directors well, as the audience was asked to rate each candidate on their performances in both Masterworks and Pops! repertoire.  There were four candidates in all, three men and one woman, Diane Wittry, currently the music director and conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania.

I found all the candidates brought their "A-game" to the podium, as it were, but what Wittry brought was particularly special.  I found her controlled and understated approach to the chosen repertoire quite refreshing, frankly, and well-suited to what the NSO was in need of at the time.

That being said, Maestro Thachuk has put his own unique stamp on the NSO and made the orchestra his own since he took the helm not that many seasons ago.

While the Niagara Symphony missed out on a chance to blaze a new trail with a female music director, they have for many seasons of course benefitted from the considerable talents of associate conductor Laura Thomas, who is for my money one of the better arranger-conductors in the business. Laura has ably handled many of the Pops! and NextGen concerts over the last several seasons.

But down the QEW in Hamilton, it was announced today the new music director for the HPO is a 28-year-old native of New Zealand, violinist and conductor Gemma New.  New has been conducting since her teens, so she is a bit of an old hand at this game.

The press release issued today quotes HPO board chair Robert Savage as saying New is "an outstanding musician and an experienced conductor; she's also smart and creative.  And on a personal level, she's warm and down-to-earth."  He goes on to say Gemma is a great fit not only for the HPO but for the city as a whole.

In addition to conducting the HPO during the 2014/2015 season, all six candidates for the position were also taken to community events in order to meet people.  There was a time this would not even be considered; a conductor and/or music director would own the podium but not be particularly accessible to the community beyond the concert hall.

Could you imagine, say, Toscanini or Reiner hobnobbing with members of the community at a local event?  I can't.  Oh, I am sure they did their part in some small way, but back then I think there was a very clear line of division between the conductor and the audience.

Today, with audience numbers dwindling for many symphony orchestras and those left are getting older, the old rules don't apply anymore.  Like anything else, the role of a music director has had to change and evolve with the times and that means interact with the audience on a more basic, personal level.

Social media has had a big hand in making this change a reality, as many music directors and arts administrators have embraced several platforms through which they can communicate directly with the audience outside of the concert hall.  Those who don't embrace the new reality of social interaction risk losing younger audience members to other forms of entertainment.

Social media allows these music directors and arts administrators to help develop that audience of tomorrow, so it is incumbent on them to be savvy.  I think in the future it will simply be a requirement of the position.

So Gemma, who is quoted in today's release as saying she is "very excited to be coming to Hamilton...I was impressed with the orchestra and all the people I met during my audition", will join that still rather elite circle of female conductors and music directors that includes Thomas, Wittry, Buffalo's JoAnn Falletta and of course, Baltimore's Marin Alsop, among others.

I missed out on seeing Gemma or any of the five other candidates do their thing the past season for the HPO, but hopefully in the fall I will be able to catch a concert or two and hear for myself what attracted Hamilton to Gemma and Gemma to Hamilton.

The 2015-2016 season was also announced today, and along with the big works of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Mozart, among others, the HPO will also be highlighting major works by 20th-century Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich conducted by Maestro New.

There will be a host of conductors for the upcoming season as Gemma New wraps up her current duties as associate conductor with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and her season debut will be in February of 2016.

I look forward to hearing what she brings to the podium the coming season and beyond, and how a great orchestra responds to this young, talented New Zealander.  Interesting times lie ahead for the HPO and their audience; may the New sounds embrace their future as well as their past.

For ticket information on the coming season or to subscribe, you can call 905-526-7756.

Enjoy the week!

May 5th, 2015.