Saturday, October 31, 2015

Some collected weekend thoughts...

It is Halloween night, and after the trick or treaters have had their way, I will offer up a veritable potpourri of collected thoughts that have accumulated over the last few days...

Item:  How was Halloween at your house?  We live in a downtown St. Catharines neighbourhood that rarely sees a lot of trick or treaters, so buying for Halloween is a snap.  Since I usually end up eating what is left, I make sure to buy something I want myself.  This year, along with the Halloween-themed pencils, erasers, note-pads and such, I included those small boxes of raisins.  Might as well, I figured, there are 14 boxes in the package and since we had all of eight visits this evening, I have plenty for my morning cereal this coming week.

This actually is a busier than usual year around here.  Last year I think we had five and one year we actually had a total of one visit.  So eight is pretty good.  I know, those who have over a hundred kids come to the door have to shell out more money to shell out to the kids, but I am fine the way things are, thank you very much...

Item:  Last evening a huge number of caring Niagara residents came out to support a member of the team at Henley Honda on Lake Street in St. Catharines.  Owner and General Manager Alex Digenis put out the call earlier this month they were planning a fundraiser for Dawson and Joann Gruninger Trickett for the evening of October 30th at the dealership, from 7 pm to midnight.

When I arrived about 7:30 the place was already hopping and full to the proverbial rafters with supporters.  For weeks people in Niagara had responded with great gifts for the raffle draws, and they responded again last night with a record-setting turnout for someone many had never met.

Dawson, you see, lost a leg in recent months and although OHIP will cover the necessary medical expenses, Dawson will have any number of other expenses to contend with as he adjusts to his new life with a prosthetic leg, which is still to come.

Alex knew this and so did the rest of the staff at Henley Honda and across the street at Subaru of Niagara.  So everyone hunkered down to make this one-night fundraiser happen, and they did a stellar job.

From moving upwards of 150 cars out of the parking lot and even the showroom to make space, to catering by Antipastos to all the great raffle prizes supplied by the community, it all came together to make last night a night to remember in Niagara.

What I particularly enjoyed, outside of the obvious fact Alex and his team cared enough for Dawson to actually do this for him, is the fact the community responded big time.  This is what we do in Niagara, and indeed in Canada.  We look after our own.

From people to pets to any number of other worthwhile causes, Niagara residents know how to give from the heart and do their part to make this a community worth calling home.  You don't see this everywhere, but you do regularly in Niagara, and last night was a stellar example.

To everyone involved, thanks for caring.

Item:  As reported in this space a couple of days ago, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra kicks off their new season this weekend at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, in the Cairns Hall.  Tonight's Beethoven Marathon with pianist Stewart Goodyear began at 6 pm, and tomorrow's afternoon performance begins at 2:30 pm.  Both performances are completely sold out, which is nice to see.

Granted, many want to be there to see what all the excitement is about with the new PAC, but you can't ignore the fact this is a wonderful vindication for those who believe in our downtown.  Just think:  the last two nights the downtown was buzzing with Niagara Ice Dogs games at the nearby Meridian Centre; tonight and tomorrow afternoon the FirstOntario PAC packs them in with the first performances by the Niagara Symphony.  That's four days in a row the downtown is abuzz with activity.

If these two facilities had not been built and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts had not been built, what would be happening downtown over those four days?  Not nearly as much activity, I would suggest.  See?  Investing in infrastructure comes with a cost, no question.  But the dividends are very much evident now as things ramp up this season.

Again, thanks to everyone involved.

Item:  This is the weekend we fall back, and turn our clocks back an hour before going to bed.  I already set the clock back in the car this afternoon, and it felt weird looking at the time after I did it.
I don't know about you, but I am really looking forward to that extra hour to sleep tonight!

I only hope the cats cooperate in the morning...

Have a great weekend!

October 31st, 2015.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Niagara Symphony set to kick off their new season in their new home this weekend

I wrote last week about attending the first production presented by the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the Fixt Point/Suitcase in Point co-production of The Tale of a Town - St. Catharines.  It closed last Friday evening at the Odd Fellows Hall on James Street in downtown St. Catharines and was a terrific show.

It was supposed to be the first production at Robertson Hall at the new PAC, but things have been running a little behind schedule, it seems, so an alternate location had to be found for the show.  The Odd Fellows Hall, while not ideal was cozy and fun, but certainly reinforced our need for a purpose-built performance space in the city.

Construction continues apace for the mid-November official opening of the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, with the signage going up in the last few days.  That indicates they are getting down to the finishing touches and the dirty work appears to be all but done.

The Niagara Symphony is the prime tenant in the largest space in the PAC, the Partridge Hall.  The space will seat considerably more than the old Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts up at Brock University, so the orchestra has had their work cut out for them making sure enough subscribers come on board for the inaugural season in their new home.

This weekend, they sort of arrive at their final destination.

Although they launch the new season in the new PAC, it won't be in Partridge Hall but rather the smaller Cairns Hall.  The reason appears to be fine tuning of the acoustics and final detailing in the larger hall still has to be completed, so the NSO won't get to play the bigger hall until their first Pops! concerts of the new season the third week of November.

No matter.   People just want to get inside this new jewel in the heart of downtown and see what the excitement is all about.  That they will with the performances this weekend and the Open House planned for November 15th.

The Niagara Symphony has justifiably pulled out all the stops this season, and that includes a blockbuster opening weekend of Masterworks concerts.  Usually just one concert, this weekend the concert will be performed twice due to the smaller space.  Saturday evening the concert gets under way at 6 pm; Sunday afternoon is the customary 2:30 pm.

The all-Beethoven concert is billed as the Beethoven Piano Concerto Marathon, as the NSO under Music Director Bradley Thachuk will perform all five of Beethoven's Piano Concertos with Artist-in-Residence Stewart Goodyear.  Yes, all five in one concert!  The concert will kick off each day with an appropriate and traditional piece for the new hall, Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture.

To say the Niagara Symphony has waited a long time for a purpose-built hall to showcase their considerable talents is certainly an understatement.  But as was the case in so many other cities with great symphony orchestras such as Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, they all had to wait for their new homes, too.

If nothing else, it indicates the orchestra has finally arrived; they are exactly where they need and want to be at this point in their long history in Niagara.  It will be exciting and heartwarming to see and hear them at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre this season.

No doubt Maestro Thachuk has rallied his troops to perform at their very best this weekend, as the entire community will be paying attention like never before.  This is a big new stage for them, and I have no doubt they will collectively rise to the occasion.

If you want tickets to either concert on the weekend, you are out of luck on Sunday afternoon which is completely sold out, but the Saturday evening concert still has some seats available.  It is Halloween, of course, so many will be staying home to deal with the trick or treaters.  But if you are free, why not be one of the first to hear the NSO at the PAC this weekend?

For more information and tickets, call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office directly at 905-688-0722.  You can go to for detailed descriptions of the season's offerings, and on the Calendar page of my website at, the complete season for both the NSO and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre are listed there.

Incidentally, Stewart Goodyear returns to Cairns Hall December 4th for a piano recital entitled Suite Dreams, featuring a solo piano version of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.  Not coincidentally, the complete ballet score for solo piano with Mr. Goodyear is being released this fall on the Steinway & Sons label, and yes, I can certainly get that for you.  Just go to the website or email me directly at

Enjoy the great music in a great new music space this weekend in downtown St. Catharines!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre celebrates downtown St. Catharines

When the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre announced their inaugural season line-up earlier this year, it included a special presentation of The Tale of a Town, a joint venture with Fixt Point Theatre Company and our own Suitcase in Point Theatre Company.

This celebration of downtown St. Catharines has been a work in progress for a few years now, as it was one of the projects undertaken at the annual In the Soil Arts Festival back in 2011.  Since then, it has developed into a fully-fledged one-act play that just completed a run at the Oddfellows Hall on James Street in downtown St. Catharines.

Fixt Point is a professional theatre and media company based in Toronto, and they have been working with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, aiming to capture the collective community memory of Canada's Main Streets, one story at a time.  In each community they go to, they gather stories and audio clips from locals from which they weave together the story of that community's main street.

In St. Catharines, Fixt Point joined with our local theatre troupe Suitcase in Point to produce the St. Catharines edition of the show, recording stories and gathering information from locals from many walks of life at this year's In the Soil Arts Festival back in April.

I was one of those invited to offer some memories of St. Paul Street for the show, and I was especially interested in hearing and seeing the end result of all that collaborative work that has gone on the past several months.

The past two weeks The Tale of a Town - St. Catharines has played to often sold-out houses downtown, and the run concluded last evening with yet another sell out.  Sophie and I were invited to this final show, and along with 80 or so others crowded into the upper-level auditorium on James Street, we sat back and enjoyed, as well as participated in - the local production of The Tale of a Town.

The concept is deceptively simple:  fashion the story-line around the reminiscences offered by the people you interview, and add some artistic touches to make the whole one-hour-and-a-bit show highly entertaining.

The devil is in the details, of course, and the details along with execution both make for a compelling celebration of life in downtown St. Catharines.

As the story begins, we are in the newsroom of the St. Catharines Standard newspaper, newly reacquired by Henry Burgoyne III from those nasty corporate giants in order to publish a "quality" daily newspaper the old-fashioned way.  That means bringing back the old printing press many of us remember hearing and seeing through the glass on William Street up until about 20 years ago.

Ah yes, those vivid memories I have of that venerable old printing press!

The cast of characters here, Henry Burgoyne III (Dan Watson); his wife Betsy (Deanna Jones); reporter Ron (Robert Feetham); green intern Johnny Knickers (Dawn Chrysler) and photographer Skip (Edwin Conroy Jr.) work together to produce the first edition of the "new" old Standard, but they need a lead story (mistakenly referred to here as a "cover story") and that causes the memories from those recorded earlier to flow freely.

It was nice to hear all the memories of Art Smith, who ran Art's Diner on Geneva Street until he passed away a few years ago at the age of 88.  I never met Art, but you really didn't have to.  He was certainly larger than life, with a heart larger still as he gave back to the community in so many ways.  I often feel Art was not recognized enough for his charitable work in the community,  but the play does a nice job of paying tribute to him.

Next, we hear of the rivalry between downtown St. Catharines and the Pen Centre as the penultimate shopping destination in St. Catharines.  Sure, the Pen drained many of the retailers and ultimately shoppers from our downtown core over the years, but the play correctly suggests they can co-exist quite happily as the downtown reinvents itself as an entertainment hub for the city, with specialty shops designed to cater to that clientele.

You can't find everything you need downtown like you used to (going to Beattie's Basics, for example, or Coy Brothers, but you can get world-class doughnuts now at Beechwood Doughnuts and dine at any number of quality establishments such as Rise Above.  Both businesses get special mention in the show, as does the Garden City Food Co-op, set to open downtown early next year.

What I like about the show is although it is pretty madcap comedy, it drives home the message we have plenty to enjoy downtown today, and a lot to be proud of.  When the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre opens next month, there will be even more to explore downtown.

On that topic, the PAC announced just yesterday Serena Ryder will kick off the new venue's season with a concert at Partridge Hall on Saturday, November 14th at 8pm.  The performance will cap off a day full of ribbon cuttings, toasts, interactive performances and more throughout the PAC.

The next day, Sunday November 15th, an Open House will be held at the PAC, which will be free and open to the public.  One of the highlights will be Niagara Sings! from 2 to 5 pm, bringing together Chorus Niagara and five other Niagara-based choirs totalling over 300 voices, performing throughout the PAC that day.  There will also be an art fair throughout the venue showcasing many of the groups who will call the PAC home in the future.

From 5 to 8 pm on Sunday, the grand finale massed choir will perform in Partridge Hall, again free and open to the public.

If you want tickets to the Saturday performance by Serena Ryder, you'll have to wait until those signed up as Members get first crack.  Any tickets left over will go on sale to the general public the week of the performance.

So if you thought the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre wasn't going to make a huge impact on our downtown, think again.  This is only the beginning, and lots more to come this season and for many more seasons in the future.

What a nice way to celebrate downtown St. Catharines!

October 24th, 2015.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My post-election thoughts and suggestions

Since the federal election Monday, I have been reading so many scathing posts in social media from those who feel the outcome was not to their particular liking, I thought I would take a step away from my arts reporting duties to offer up some thoughts of my own on the subject and hopefully bring some semblance of balance to the issue.

Long before I started earnestly covering the arts beat here in Niagara, I was by nature a political animal, having spent the better part of 40 years involved in covering elections on all levels in one form or another.  As such, I tend to take a more pragmatic approach to the outcome each time and look at issues from both sides, something I find rather lacking in so many of the postings lately.

My first election coverage as a young, aspiring broadcaster came in 1974 while still working in Toronto radio, when Pierre Elliot Trudeau (Justin's father, of course) soundly defeated the Progressive Conservatives lead by Robert Stansfield.  Mr. Stanfield, from the Maritimes, had proposed a form of wage and price controls to help stem the rampant inflation gripping the country at the time.  I still remember the radio and television ads from the time when Trudeau, speaking at a Liberal rally during the election campaign, railed against Stanfield's plan.  The resulting shift in poll numbers was almost immediate, and Trudeau rode the wave into another majority government term.

The popularity didn't last, of course, as Trudeau himself introduced his own form of pretty much the same thing the following year, and the party never seemed to recover from that.  Thus, in the 1979 election the Liberals were so unpopular generally and Trudeau in particular, the television and radio ads of the day mentioned only the Liberal Party of Canada with no mention of Trudeau himself.  They lost anyway, setting the stage for the Progressive Conservatives under the young and inexperienced Joe Clark to win a minority that would last barely nine months.

Trudeau announced he was stepping down as leader of the party until Clark's government tried to introduce an 18-cent per gallon (about four cents per litre) tax on gasoline, which went over like the proverbial lead balloon with Canadians.  Seeing an opportunity present itself, opposition parties defeated the Clark government and the leaderless Liberals begged Trudeau to reconsider his resignation.  He did, of course, and rode the Liberal tide to another majority government in 1980, before finally retiring for good prior to the 1984 election.

I remember vividly covering that 1980 election for the radio station in Oshawa I worked for at the time.  No cell phones back then, by the way.  We each had a black rotary-dial telephone on the table at our disposal to call in reports to the radio station back in those days.

I'm offering up this short history lesson by way of illustration that yes, I have been following Canadian politics for quite awhile now, and political angst is nothing new.  The difference now is we have social media in which to vent our collective spleens before, during and especially after the vote.

So let's fast-forward to the most recent federal election of Monday, and look at the winners and losers.

The Conservatives lost the support of the majority of Canadians for one simple reason:  their best-before date had come and gone.  It happens to all political parties once they have been in power long enough.  It's nothing new.  Canadians were just tired of the status quo and wanted a change after almost ten years of Stephen Harper, just as they got tired of the Liberals about ten years ago.  The political cycle of life has a shelf life of only so long, no matter which party is in power.

I'm not taking sides here, incidentally.  The newly-minted Liberal majority government will hit their fair share of potholes and scandals in the coming term also, and should Justin Trudeau run two or three more times, his political currency will eventually be depleted as well.  That's the cycle of political life.

The key is of course, as Kenny Rogers sang in The Gambler years ago:  "You've got to know when to hold them; know when to fold them."  Pierre knew his time was up in 1984 just like Brian Mulroney knew the time was right to exit as leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the 90s.

The Conservative cause was not helped this time round by a mean-spirited attack ad campaign directed most often at Justin Trudeau, something they frankly spent too much political capital on.  As Mulroney himself pointed out on election night, the Conservatives underestimated Trudeau during this campaign, and it hurt them badly.

Canadians don't like attack ad politics.  It is an American thing, really, and we like to think of ourselves as better than that.  We are, and we rejected the notion of attacking the opposition at all costs as a result.

The Trudeau resume spots with the requisite tag-line "Nice hair, though" became a political joke during the campaign, so much so the NDP lampooned the ads with their own version directed at Mr. Harper.  It was bad enough listening to the tired old joke for months on end before the campaign started; continuing with them after the campaign started - even producing new ones with the same tag-line - suggested to me the Conservatives had simply run out of ideas.  With all the money behind the Conservative campaign, was that really the best they could do?

Thankfully, the Conservatives stopped short of using the same approach once they set their sights on Mulcair and the NDP by using the line "Nice beard, though"...

On the other hand, the one-on-one radio spots Stephen Harper voiced on a daily basis during the latter stages of the campaign were very effective.  They dealt with issues and I think made him appear more human and down-to-earth.  In the future, the Conservatives would be wise to adopt that strategy with all their advertising.

The Liberals took advantage of great campaign footage of Justin rallying the troops during the final days before the vote, and that too, I felt, was especially effective.  It showed him in control and on his game at a critical juncture of this very long election campaign.

The Liberals for their part ran a generally clean, attack-free campaign and I think it won them a lot of votes because of it.  Their message resonated with a lot of Canadians and struck a more optimistic tone.  Canadians like and want that.

It doesn't hurt that Justin is young and good-looking, of course.  But that's not new, either.  His father Pierre cut a dashing figure when he ran for leadership of the party and successfully ran for Prime Minister in 1968.  Remember too John F. Kennedy looking much younger and so much more dashing than the dour Richard Nixon in the 1960 American election.

I think people looked at Justin, his wife Sophie and the family and saw a bit of themselves.  A young successful family making it in the world and reaching for a better life.  That's why the youth vote looks to have gone to the Liberals in this election:  younger voters simply identified with him.  There is a bit of a perception amongst young people, I think, that politics is often the domain of grumpy old men, many of them lawyers.

This time, they saw something different, they saw what they themselves could someday be.  There's nothing wrong with that.

Justin grew up at 24 Sussex Drive so knew early on what a politician's life was like and learned much from his father.  He also distanced himself from politics earlier in his career in order to make a name for himself away from the public spotlight.  Sure he wasn't a lawyer running for office as is so often the case.  But is that such a bad thing?

So what of the NDP and their collapse from the 2011 election?  I think first of all the "Jack" factor wasn't present this time.  As effective as Thomas Mulcair was during the campaign, he didn't have that magic the late Jack Layton possessed in 2011.  We'll never know if NDP fortunes would have been different this time around had Jack lived to fight another campaign, but you have to think things would have been somewhat different.

Secondly, perhaps people sensed this time a vote for the NDP was not the most effective way to stop Harper, if that was their personal game-plan.

So as it stands right now, Mr. Trudeau will have a brief honeymoon and will have to deliver on his promises sooner rather than later in order to take advantage of the goodwill generated by his big election win.

Look, he's not perfect, I know that.  Mistakes likely will be made in the coming four-year term of office.  But what party has not made mistakes while in office?  None that I can think of, frankly.

Justin Trudeau represents a younger generation, to be sure, but his appeal this time around seems to have crossed many age barriers, and that is something you can't ignore.

He deserves a chance to show what he can do.  Whether you voted for him or not, he has a majority government and as such the next election will not be for another four years.  Might as well get used to him for awhile.

You know, I often wonder how politicians find the strength and will to run for political office, and especially so now with attacks coming from all directions every day by way of social media.  It will be relentless for the next four years, I'm afraid, and I suggest you do as I do and try to scroll right by the partisan rants.

On a local level, Conservative MP Rick Dykstra and NDP MP Malcolm Allen both fell in the red wave that swept across the country, and that is indeed unfortunate.  I have had the pleasure of knowing both gentlemen during my days in the media and I appreciate their service to the community.  Both will land on their feet, to be sure, and I hope in both cases both Rick and Malcolm find new ways to serve their respective communities with the dignity and skill they brought to their roles as Members of Parliament.

Let's get past the rancour and partisan political rants and give the new government a chance.  Is that too much to ask?

October 21st, 2015.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Some random weekend thoughts...

I don't have a lot of brain power this evening, after a very hectic and somewhat stress-filled week, but a quiet Saturday evening with some appropriate music in the background will allow me to offer up a few random thoughts on happenings in Niagara and beyond this weekend.

Earlier today at the Pen Centre, men from all over Niagara came together for a common cause:  to raise funds for the good work done by Gillian's Place, the women's shelter in St. Catharines.  For ten years running, men with a conscience have strapped on high heels in varying degrees of height and literally Walked a Mile in HER Shoes.  Each sought pledges for the walk, raising a lot of money for Gillian's Place over the years.

The first year was held in downtown St. Catharines, leaving Market Square and walking around a city block before returning to the market, trying to avoid pot holes along the way.  After that first year, it was decided to move the event to the somewhat safer and certainly warmer climate of Pen Centre, and the event has grown in size at that location every year.

I don't have a tally on how many walkers we had this year, but I do know those who did walk raised an impressive $60,000 for Gillian's Place today.  That is an investment in a community resource and refuge that is unfortunately still very much needed in this day and age.  We can't eradicate domestic violence elsewhere in the world, but right here at home we can all do our part to show domestic violence can not and will not be tolerated on any level.

My congratulations to all those who participated this year, both as walkers and as volunteers.  It was a great event and it is always wonderful to see the community come together and rally around a very important cause.  Men in heels; not being heels...

I was there today, but didn't walk this year.  The reason for that will be explained in greater detail in my next blog posting this week, but suffice to say I had to be extra careful with my feet this year.

Now, on to an arts event currently underway that is gaining a lot of notice in downtown St. Catharines.  The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre commissioned a production that celebrates the living memory of downtown St. Catharines and the show, entitled The Tale of a Town, opened earlier this week.

The show, staged at the historic Odd Fellows Hall on James Street in downtown St. Catharines, continues throughout the next week until Friday, October 23rd.  Most days have both afternoon and evening performances so it should be relatively easy to find a performance that suits your schedule.

The Tale of a Town is a collaborative effort between nationally-known theatre and media company Fixt Point and our own Suitcase in Point Theatre Company, in order to capture the collective community memory of Canada's Main Streets, one story at a time.  The production was developed during 2011 and 2013 at our own In the Soil Arts Festival.  In 2014, Fixt Point launched a national tour in collaboration with The National Arts Centre and presenting partners across the country.

St. Catharines was the focal point during last spring's In the Soil Festival, as the company set up a small trailer on James Street in order to record audio and video recollections of local residents of downtown St. Catharines.  In all, over 100 interviews with business leaders and community members ranging from Walter Ostanek and Doug Herod to the late Marilyn I. Walker were conducted.

I, too, was amongst those asked to provide some recollections of our downtown, and I happily spent part of a spring Saturday afternoon offering my own memories of our main street.  It was fun and interesting to see the different perspectives on the downtown core offered up during the interviews.

I have not seen The Tale of a Town yet; that will come next Friday evening when neighbours Sandy Middleton and Mark Allaart invite my far better half and I to catch the final show in the run.  I am almost afraid to see what part of my interview they chose to use for the production!

Tickets are only $20 plus hst and are on sale through the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722 or 905-688-5601, ext. 3700.  You can also purchase your tickets in person at Suite No. 1, 101 King Street, downtown St. Catharines.

Tied in with this show, the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre is supporting the show by providing various historic photographs from its vast collection for use in the production and also for a small photo display during the run of The Tale of the Town.

The Museum will also present its award-winning aMUSE pop-up museum experience featuring artifacts and photographs with a special connection to the stories featured in the production next Saturday evening at 7 at the Mahtay Cafe on St. Paul Street.  This free event is open to the community.

This should be a fun way to reminisce about the so-called "good old days", or if you are new to St. Catharines, find out a little more about the history of our downtown here in the Garden City.

Before I get to the show next Friday of course, we have something else to deal with here in the city as well as across the rest of the country on Monday.  That's election day, and we have the power to shape the future of this country by taking part in the democratic process our parents and grandparents fought many years ago to preserve.

I don't have any great insights on how to vote in the coming election; heck I have even been undecided for much of this very long campaign myself.  But I do know by not voting, you don't contribute.  So get out and cast a ballot for the candidate of your choice.

Don't be complacent and say to yourself your vote doesn't matter or won't change anything.  It has the power to be and do both.  Just consider the many people around the world who don't have that democratic right we tend to take for granted, and just get out and do it.

Monday is an important day.  Please be a responsible citizen of this country and vote in the federal election.

Have a great weekend in the meantime!

October 17th, 2015.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Local boy makes good: Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra hosts Canadian singer Ian Thomas next weekend.

With Thanksgiving well underway this weekend, I'll look ahead to next weekend and touch on a concert coming up in the new Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra season.  Entitled A Life in Song:  Ian Thomas and the HPO, proud Hamiltonian Thomas and his band will perform with the HPO conducted by Darcy Hepner.

The concert will premiere his work A Life in Song with live orchestra, and it's only fitting to be taking place in Hamilton, where Thomas has lived and worked for many years.  The music offers audiences a rich cross-section of Thomas' life as a singer-songwriter from the 1970s to today.

We all know some of the great hits Ian had back in the 70s; hits like Painted Ladies, Long Long Way, Pilot, Hold On and Right Before Your Eyes.  What won't be familiar will be the arrangements.  This will be Thomas hits in formal dress if you will, or at least a tuxedo jacket paired with blue jeans and sneakers.

I had a chance to talk to Ian earlier this week by phone and email, and I asked him about the new work, A Life in Song.  He describes it as a "cross-section of my songs from 45 years of writing."  Yikes! I thought, has it really been that long?  "Well" he continues, " the tell-tale signs of dated arrangements and vintage production are gone."

Yes, we all remember those songs in the original form, really a product of the age they were written in.  But the arrangements indeed belie their age; now with better production values at his disposal and the ability to reflect on life since those days long ago, the old songs take on a sheen today like newly burnished gems.

But Ian, I asked, you've got a lot of life left in you; what else would you like to do with your life you have not already done?  He replied "Actually I am feeling, at this age, not to be presumptuous about how much time I have left.  I do have three books in the works and as crazy as it sounds, after months of writing for orchestra I want to set my amp at 11, plug in my guitar and write some serious rock 'n' roll.  I have often felt the same way after many a film score.  My brother said once that creativity is as much an affliction as a talent.  I think that rings true.  Even when I am trying to relax, I still write.  It's like breathing, it's how I howl at the moon and all I will ever know."

Makes sense to me.

I asked Ian about growing up in Hamilton, a city that has undergone massive changes over the years, and what to his way of thinking defines Hamilton today.  He said "Hamilton has always been very multi-cultural, in part because it has a higher influx of immigration than many (other) cities in Canada.  This has often meant that culture in the city was quite scattered.  But it seems in the last decade, there has been a migration to Hamilton of so many artists and musicians seeking cheaper housing.  This has resulted in the art crawls and an awakening in the arts community at large...It is wonderful to see this happening on many fronts."

Anyone who worked in Canadian radio back in the early 70s like I did remembers the push to make Canadian content more mainstream for radio listeners by instituting the M-A-P-L logo and classification on recordings of the day.   M-A-P-L, or simply "Maple" referred to the parts of a recording that would actually qualify as Canadian content, and two of the four categories had to be Canadian in order for the song to be classified as Canadian content.  M stood for music; A for artist; P for production and L for lyrics.  If only one was present after a particular date, the song would not be considered Canadian content.

The concept did have its detractors, of course, with many of them citing Canadian content regulations being thrust down broadcasters' and the public's collective throats in this way was not the solution to the problem.

Ian has a different perspective on the debate, of course, being a Canadian singer/songwriter who made his mark in the 70s and beyond:  "Can-Con quite simply fed my family" he said, adding "One could make a living, albeit a comparatively meagre one, from Canadian radio play.  I know my family lived on airplay residuals for a time.  I am so grateful to (Pierre) Juneau and the government of the day.  Canada soon began to be proud of their 'own', without the stamp of approval from the USA first.  Now we even have bands who are huge in Canada and do nothing much in the USA at all."

All that being the case, I asked Ian what he would most like to be remembered for.  He quickly offered "As a good Canadian songwriter, grateful for all this incredible land we live in has given me.  Canada has offered me a wonderful life and a safe environment of moderation from which to observe the world and sing about it."

Sounds like Ian plans to sing about Painted Ladies living life Right Before Your Eyes for a long time yet.

For tickets to the concert A Life in Song:  Ian Thomas and the HPO next Saturday evening, October 17th at Hamilton Place, call the box office at 905-526-7756 or go online to

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

October 10th, 2015.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mourning the loss of a local friend and supporter of the arts in Niagara

The Donor Dedication and Season Launch planned by the Department of Music at Brock University this coming Monday evening at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts will be a bittersweet affair.  The woman who made the arts her life and whose name adorns the new arts school in the heart of the city she loved has passed away.

It was early yesterday morning as I was hurrying to get ready for an appointment in Hamilton that I heard the news on the radio:  Marilyn I. Walker left us on Thursday at the age of 80.  I stopped what I was doing and thought for a moment how she had touched my life and those of so many others with her talent and generosity over the years.

I never had the pleasure and honour of meeting Marilyn in person, although I attended countless concerts and events she also attended, and I could well imagine the lively conversations that would ensue when she was in the room.  Marilyn just had a love of life and especially the arts that knew no bounds, and was totally infectious.

It was her smile you noticed most, I think, as she clearly loved any activity that showcased the arts in general and her own art form in particular:  quilting.  In fact, she raised quilting to an art form, and was the author of Ontario Heritage Quilts, which won the Canadian Historical Association Award of Merit in 1992.

One of Marilyn's most elaborate quilts is now on display in the main lobby of the arts centre that bears her name, a gift she worked on tirelessly prior to the opening last month.  It is huge, detailed, and clearly the work of a master craftsperson.  If you have yet to see it, do make the effort the next time you are in the area, as it is magnificent.

Quilting was not her only love, of course.  She loved anything to do with the "arts and those who studied it.  Her vision was to find a way to bring culture into everyone's life," according to Derek Knight, director of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts:  "I can't imagine a more thoughtful, compassionate person than Marilyn," he said in a statement, "she has changed all of our lives for the best."

Brock University President Jack Lightstone stated plainly her loss is one "that will never be replaced."  He said "Marilyn leaves a huge legacy for the University and for the whole community.  She not only altered Brock's ability to accelerate learning for future generations of students, she changed the course of history for the University and for the Niagara Region."

It was back in 2008, the same year Brock awarded her an honorary doctorate, she donated $15 million to the university in order to launch the funding for a downtown arts school that would benefit not only the university and its students, but the community at large as well.  "It was transformational" Lightstone said at the opening ceremonies just three weeks ago, and led the way towards gaining funding from other sources to build the arts school in the heart of downtown St. Catharines.

She knew that, of course, and I suspect she also knew if this project was ever to become a reality, she had to do her part to get the ball rolling so others could follow.  She did, and they did.  The rest is history in the making as another valuable infrastructure investment in our community is now open and in full use.

Marilyn was in poor health at the opening and did not make any public comments.  But you could see she was clearly elated when everyone gathered around her to cut the ribbon at the official opening.  There was that radiant smile again.  A knowing smile.  A smile that said to one and all, job well done.

So it is indeed bittersweet the season launch for the Department of Music in their new home at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts this coming Monday evening will go on without her.  But it will pay tribute to another generous donation made by another prominent Niagara family.

The performance, to be held in the Cairns Recital Hall at the adjacent FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, will also be the first public event at the arts centre as it nears completion this fall.

This performance will be the first to feature Brock's new Steinway D piano, purchased through donations by Art and Val Fleming.  Although Art himself passed away in 2014, Val remains an active member of the Brock community, and in fact a 75-seat lecture hall at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts is named in honour of the Fleming family's generosity.

The concert, scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm, features Music Chair Dr. Karin Di Bella, violinist Vera Alekseeva and cellist Gordon Cleland, and all proceeds will be donated to department of music student scholarships.

Tickets are only $15 each and are available at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722.

Marilyn would like the affordable ticket price, making it possible for music students to attend, and would love the fact by getting the ball rolling herself back in 2008, she paved the way for others to step up and make their contributions to the betterment of arts education in Niagara.

Monday's performance will be tinged with sadness, I'm sure.  But something tells me Marilyn's smile will not be far away, and she'd like everyone else who visits the arts school that now bears her name to smile, too.

That's just the way she was.

October 3rd, 2015.