Saturday, November 28, 2015

Looking for great entertainment in Niagara this weekend?

If you are sick and tired of hearing all about "Black Friday" sales and the related hoopla, you might be ready for a step back from the mass-consumerism brink and take in some entertainment instead.  That's what I plan to do this weekend, after changing my "Black Friday" evening to a "Snack Friday" evening.  I didn't accomplish much of anything last evening, but in the overall scheme of things, it was a roaring success.

But I digress...

Okay, lots to see and do this weekend in Niagara, and the variety is literally endless.  For example, tonight at 7:30 Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre will be rocking when Darlene Love returns to town to play the new venue.  In fact, this will be the first HOT TICKET presentation at the new hall and the 60s tunes will be flowing freely for the entire evening.

Since it is already the end of November, you can count on some holiday favourites thrown in for good measure, too.

Meantime, I will be at Robertson Hall at the FirstOntario PAC for the next-to-last performance of Essential Collective Theatre's premiere presentation at their new home, Gary Kirkham's Falling:  A Wake.  The show starts at 7 pm, with a matinee performance tomorrow afternoon at 2 to wrap up the fall run for ECT.

The play is being directed by ECT's Artistic Director, Monica Default, who suggests the play reaffirms our ability to care for one another.  Kirkham is an Ontario-based writer who premiered the play at Kitchener's Lost & Found Theatre in 2007.  It was later produced by the Blyth Festival.

The story involves Elsie and Harold, owners of a small Niagara farm who are awakened on a very quiet, star-lit autumn night by a very strange occurrence.  They meet a young man who has just literally "dropped in" on them.

Falling:  A Wake stars the real-life husband-and-wife team of Patricia LaRiviere and Alex Guard, both based here in St. Catharines and each of them sporting a lengthy resume of Canadian theatre, film and television credits.

Tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra presents their second Masterworks concert of the season, entitled Blaze of Glory.  The concert will be their first Masterworks performance in their new home, the acoustically-perfect Partridge Hall.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes joins Music Director Bradley Thachuk and the NSO for Lalo's ever-popular Symphonie espagnole, which Ehnes recorded years ago with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  If you are interested in getting a copy of that performance for your own collection, email me at and I will see what I can do.

Ehnes will be bringing along his beloved 1715 "Marsick" Stradivarius violin for the performance, which will also feature Canadian composer Kevin Lau's Heroes and Angels and Ravel's vivid orchestration of Mussorgsky's epic Pictures at an Exhibition.

Tickets to all three of these performances are available through the FirstOntario PAC box office, or by calling 905-688-0722.  You can also purchase online by going to

Next door at the equally impressive Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture presents Her Voice in Black:  Black Female Narratives in Opera by Carla Chambers at the DART Theatre.

This talk will take place Sunday afternoon at 3 pm and is open to the public and free of charge.

I really like what the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts has compiled in their ongoing Art is in the City series.  It is interesting, thought-provoking and covers literally all aspects of the arts.

 I encourage you to explore more of the offerings they have planned for this season.  You can find out more by going to

So there you go.  Lots of reasons to avoid shopping this weekend in Niagara.  After all, you can always do that some other time, right?

Have a great weekend!

November 28th, 2015.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I love the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. But...

It has been a week since the splashy opening concert with Serena Ryder followed by the Community Open House at our new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, so I thought I would offer up my impressions on the new facility this weekend.

First of all, I think a tremendous round of applause is very much in order for everyone connected to making this a reality.  From former St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan and his council colleagues past and present to present Mayor Walter Sendzik and the current council, to workers, dreamers, planners, doers and general make-it-happeners, I thank you all for your dedication to a worthy cause.

There were doubters from the very beginning, I know.  But there were far more believers, all of whom were more vocal than the doubters, and collectively they made it clear this project simply had to be completed.  And you know what?  I hear far more believers than doubters now that the PAC is open for business.

Okay, the short review is I love the place.  Who wouldn't?  The longer review to follow here reveals some nit-picking because, well, my esteemed colleague Doug Herod can't carry that onerous load all by himself...

From the street, the new PAC looks impressive, even though all the finishing touches to the exterior still have to be completed.  The huge expanse of glass both front and back is what really sets the building apart, in my mind.  From behind, if you are travelling along Westchester or on the northbound 406 you cannot help but glance over at the graceful lines of the building, especially when lit up at night.

Inside, I love the clean, modern look and clearly marked signage.  Going from theatre to theatre last week at the Open House, the excitement over the design was palpable.  The use of wood, concrete and other materials is both creative and functional to provide an ideal acoustic ambience.

I love seeing the local art displayed throughout the PAC.  I love the view out into the valley from Robertson Hall.  I even love the idea of the drink transfer station, so you can transfer your beverage from a glass served at the bar to a plastic cup to take into the theatre with you.  That's assuming you don't finish your beverage before intermission ends, of course.

The overall impression is even with the scaling back to trim $10 million from the construction bid that resulted in a redesign, the facility just looks right.  I heard from one or two people who have said yes, the public areas are great, but the cost savings came in the back of house areas which are not nearly as well laid out as originally planned.

The cost savings had to come from somewhere, and this way although not perfect, means the public won't really be aware of the scaling back that was done.

Last evening, I finally had a chance to actually hear what Partridge Hall sounds like, as I attended the very first concert in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts ENCORE! Professional Concert Series.  The concert featured Southern Exposure, featuring local musicians Timothy Phelan, Gordon Cleland, Patricia Dydnansky and Niagara Symphony violist Andree Simard.

The concert featured music of South American composers such as Piazzolla, Pujol, Villa-Lobos and Antonio Carlos Jobim, all arranged for guitar in combination with flute, viola and cello.  The music was inventive and beautifully played, and I especially enjoyed the North American premiere of Maximo Diego Pujol's Buenos Aires color pastel.  More, please...

Timothy's informative introductions heightened the enjoyment level considerably, making the music even more accessible for many in the audience there as part of their music courses at Brock University.

It was nice to see a good-sized crowd out for this performance, as I have lamented in the past up at Brock, few members of the public attended or even knew of these concert performances.  Now with more advertising and the highly-visible new venue downtown, hopefully that will change.  I didn't see
anyone in the upper balcony last evening, but since there was only general admission seating, there was really no reason to go up that far if you didn't want to.

The sound, in short, is impressive.  Every note, every word, every detailed musical passage can be clearly heard in Partridge Hall, which is exactly why we spent the money we did on the place.  This hall, along with the smaller Cairns Recital Hall, Robertson Hall and the still unnamed film studio all have their own unique qualities to contend with when it comes to acoustic tuning, and from what I have heard so far, the designers got it right in all the venues.

There are still some details inside the PAC that need to be finished before the end of the year including some doors and other details, but overall, the inside is as impressive as the outside.

Okay, so what's my nit-picking about?  Well, I found the steps leading down into Partridge Hall already look a little shabby, although that could be part of the detailing yet to come.  I felt last night someone forgot to turn the heat on.  It was so cool inside I almost reached for my overcoat, and for a $60 million facility that shouldn't happen.  Oh, I've been to many theatres where cooler temperatures are required because ballet dancers were performing for example, but here, I could not see the justification for the cool climate indoors last evening.

I thought at intermission I would warm myself up with a warm beverage at the bar.  That's when the grim reality of the drink list reared its ugly head.  There, I saw coffee...but no tea.  Yikes!  No tea?!  What year is this?  According to our new Prime Minister it is 2015.  But in this day and age, you can only get coffee at the bar, not tea?

As a die-hard tea drinker, I find this deplorable.  Even discounting the questionable quality of commercially-produced tea just about anywhere short of Tim Hortons, I still would like to make that choice.

No tea in the PAC.  The mind boggles...

But then, considering the details they got right, I think I can wait for saner heads to prevail on this one point.  After all, if the only casualty is my not being able to order tea at intermission, I would say the cost of such a fine new performance venue was justified and, I might add, well spent.

The busy weekend continues at the PAC of course, with a Guitar Extravaganza concert this evening in the Cairns Recital Hall, while the Niagara Symphony opens their new Pops! concert season in Partridge Hall with a musical tribute to the Beatles.  The symphony repeats the Beatles concert again tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, by the way.  In Robertson Hall, Essential Collective Theatre presents their season opener, the play Falling:  A Wake.  That play continues until November 29th, so there is still plenty of time to catch a performance.

That's what makes this new venue so special and vital to the rebuilding of our downtown:  three of the four theatres are in use tonight, and that translates into hundreds of people coming downtown for a performance.  It wasn't that long ago you had no reason to do that.  Get the picture?

Now, if they only served tea at intermission...

Have a great weekend!

November 21st, 2015.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Lots to see and do in Niagara this weekend...

As far as fall weekends in Niagara go, this has to be one of the busier and high-profile weekends you'll ever see.  And if you follow the arts at all, you know at least one of the events we'll be highlighting in this space this weekend.

It was a week ago tonight Chorus Niagara and the Niagara Symphony launched the new season at Partridge Hall in the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  By all accounts it was an auspicious opening with congratulations all around for a job well done.

But the real celebration is this weekend, and in fact it is going on right now.  Serena Ryder is performing at Partridge Hall this evening, at a swishy gala concert designed to show off the new venue to some of the movers and shakers in Niagara society as well as just us plain folk who want to go and see the show.

Tomorrow afternoon, though, the Community Open House will be the highlight of the day at the PAC, and everyone is invited.  Needless to say, I will be one of those streaming through the doors to catch a glimpse of what everyone's been talking about the last little while.

Tomorrow from 2 to 7 pm, Chorus Niagara's Niagara Sings! offers lots of music, guided tours of the facility, door prizes as well as a Community Art Fair.  It's all free, and I imagine the event will be very well attended.

Niagara Sings! connects six Niagara-based choirs and over 300 voices performing throughout every room of the new PAC.  Chorus Niagara will be joined by Womenchant, Queenston Ladies Choir, Choralis Camerata, Robert Wood Singers, and Sing Niagara.  All of these voices will be simultaneously tuning each performance venue.

The day wraps up with a grand finale massed choir in Partridge Hall at 5 tomorrow afternoon.

The Community Art Fair will showcase some of the PAC's partnering organizations, including The Foster Festival, The Gallery Players, Niagara Symphony, Chorus Niagara, Essential Collective Theatre and others.

It will be nice to finally walk through those doors and bask in the glory of 95,000 square feet of cultural space purpose built in the heart of downtown St. Catharines.  I along with many others were at that first public information session several years ago when architects Diamond + Schmitt unveiled the original design for the PAC.  It had to be downsized later on though, but the redesign looks just as impressive from the street if not more so than the original.

So plan to walk a bit tomorrow, both inside and outside the new facility, as parking in downtown St. Catharines is expected to be at a premium during the afternoon.

Also tomorrow afternoon, Gallery Players of Niagara will launch their new season, not at the PAC but in their familiar confines at Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street.  The 2 pm concert is entitled, appropriately enough, Hello Cello! as it features no less than eight cellists along with the voice of Charlotte Knight.

For the record, the eight cellists are Sandra Bohn, Gordon Cleland, Grace Coveney, Margaret Gay, Keanna Hoffe, Helen Kopec, Mark Russom and Grace Snippe.  Collectively they'll be performing music by Villa-Lobos (the Bachianas Brasileiras #5) as well as arrangements of works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.  Also featured will be a setting of Rilke by Canadian composer Michael Oesteerle.

Tickets should be available at the door, or in advance by calling 905-468-1525.  Incidentally, Gallery Players will be performing one of their upcoming concerts this season in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on Valentine's Day, February 14th.  It's the concert entitled From The Heart and will feature Canadian baritone Brett Polegato with Gallery Players and musical guests performing music by Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven.

This weekend also sees the first MainStage presentation of the inaugural season for the new Dramatic Arts Theatre at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, located right next door to the PAC.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, in an English translation by Arnold Weinstein and Lys Symonette, opened last evening at the new venue in the school complex, and additional performances include tomorrow afternoon at 2 as well as next Friday and Saturday evening and an early matinee performance Friday at 11:30 am.

Virginia Reh, tempted out of retirement to direct the new show (who wouldn't be with a new venue to play in!?) is joined by assistant Elizabeth Amos, designer David Vivian and music director Daniel Turner, and the cast is made up of students in the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University.

The opera/musical's title refers to the colour "mahogany", which is Brecht's reference to the German 'Brown Shirts.'  This production sets the action in 1957 on the Gulf Coast, close to Pensacola.

The epic tale follows the lives of the residents of Mahagonny as they are consumed by the power of money, winning out against all other motivating forces such as  friendship, family, morality and philosophy.

If you want to catch one of the remaining performances of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722.

Next week, I'll offer my thoughts and impressions on the new PAC after joining everyone else at the big Open House tomorrow afternoon.

Enjoy your weekend!

November 14th, 2015.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Great music & things happening in Niagara and beyond this weekend

We're now diving head-first into the month of November, and the busy concert season schedule is upon us.  But music is not all that's happening over the next little while.  This weekend, in fact, you have your pick of any number of arts-related events in Niagara and beyond, so let's take some time to highlight some of the events you might like to partake in.

The long-awaited official opening of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is next weekend, but this weekend you get your first chance to hear what music sounds like in the largest venue, Partridge Hall, as Chorus Niagara and the Niagara Symphony team up for a concert appropriately titled Celebrate!

Artistic Director Robert Cooper will be marshalling the forces of 160 voices on stage tonight at 7:30 for the concert, featuring his own choir, Chorus Niagara, along with the award-winning McMaster University Choir under Rachel Rinsing-Hoff and of course, the Niagara Symphony.  Soloists include soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, mezzo-soprano Maria Soulis; tenor Adam Luther and the big voice of Niagara native and lyric baritone Brett Polegato.

Talk about star power.  As my esteemed colleague Doug Herod would write, "Yowzers!"

The musical programme includes Finzi's Ode for St. Cecelia, Bruckner's Te Deum, the Coronation Anthem from Handel's Zadok the Priest, and a brand-new commission written especially for the opening of Partridge Hall tonight, Canadian composer Allan Bevan's Bow of Sound.

The rehearsals have been going well at the new venue and so far and everyone is thrilled with the sound, which is important.  That's why we have a purpose-built venue just for this type of concert.

If you don't have tickets for tonight's performance you are out of luck, as it is completely sold out.  But you can get tickets for the remainder of the Chorus Niagara season by calling the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722.

In the Cairns Recital Hall at the PAC tonight, East-coast singing duo Fortunate Ones perform at 8 pm, so that will make for a busy evening at the new facility.

On a somewhat smaller scale, next door at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, Harvest Time will be presented at 8 pm in Studio A at the new facility at 15 Artists' Common in downtown St. Catharines.

Harvest Time is a collection of four short plays directed by STAC instructor Renee Baillargeon written by local playwrights and scored and performed by Studies in Arts & Culture Students.  This free event is part of the Art Is In The City series of events scheduled throughout the season at the beautiful new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

Although this is not arts-related, the Niagara Ice Dogs host the Peterborough Petes tonight at 7 pm at the Meridian Centre, so this should give us the first test of all three major venues with events the same night.  Considering the 406 is closed in both directions due to the final phase of the removal of the old span of the Burgoyne Bridge downtown, traffic promises to be a bit of a nightmare this evening, so all I can say is pack your patience and if at all possible, take public transit.  You'll be glad you did.

Outside Niagara but not far we have the next concert for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, a special Remembrance Day concert that welcomes back to the podium former HPO Music Director James Sommerville.

Entitled Remembrance:  Songs of Courage & Honour, the HPO presents the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture and Hamilton Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte's moving Songs of the Poets.  Also featured will be one of my all-time favourite orchestral works, Ralph Vaughan Williams' exquisite The Lark Ascending with Associate Concertmaster Lance Ouellette making his solo debut tonight.

The concert is at 7:30 at the Great Hall of Hamilton Place, and you can call the box office for tickets at 905-526-7756.

A little further up the highway my friends at the Guelph Chamber Choir kick off their new season at the River Run Centre tonight at 7:30 with the ever-popular Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

Certainly one of the 20th century's most enduring and popular choral works, Carmina Burana is essentially 24 dramatic poems set to music, sometimes rather satirical and bawdy.  Quoting the choir's Facebook posting for the concert, the music was "written by 12th and 13th century students and clerics to express the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of spring, and the pleasure and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust."

What more could you want from a concert, eh?  Personally, I would like to find out first hand about whether fortune and wealth are indeed fickle, but I digress...

If you want to hear a great chamber choir in a wonderful downtown setting in a city you'll quickly fall in love with, call the River Run Centre box office for tickets at 519-763-3000.

I have enjoyed many a concert with the Guelph Chamber Choir over the years, and their home at the River Run Centre is certainly a model for many other performing arts spaces in the country.

Enjoy your weekend!

November 7th, 2015