Monday, June 20, 2016

News and notes on the arts in Niagara

After a rather busy couple of weeks on various mail routes, my apologies for being absent from this space for a little while.  So to make up for lost time, some accumulated news and notes items from the arts community I wanted to touch on this evening.

I recently wrote about how I am happy to see the activity downtown as a direct result of the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, as well of course as the Meridian Centre.  I had another first-hand experience on the weekend in that regard I thought I would lead off with.

Saturday afternoon my wife and I decided to walk downtown to catch lunch prior to catching a movie at the Film House at the PAC, part of the Niagara Integrated Film Festival.  We chose Dani's Bistro, one of the several fine dining establishments now strategically located directly across from the PAC.

We have been fans of Dani's since they opened first in the old Cask 22 location and then a few doors down on St. Paul Street near James.  Now under new ownership, the new location on St. Paul across from the PAC is exceptionally appointed, with excellent service and a fine lunch menu.  We'll be sure to check out the dinner menu sometime in the future but for now, be sure to put Dani's on your must-try list the next time you go for a show at the PAC.

As for the Niagara Integrated Film Festival, I have not seen the numbers yet but the third year for the festival seems to have been very successful indeed.  This year it was expanded to nine days and covered two weekends, with most of the performances in the Film House at the PAC as well as some of the larger venues there, along with the Seneca Queen Theatre in Niagara Falls and a few of the area wineries.

The winery screenings were down this year, and in a way I think it is a good thing, really, as it just focuses people's minds on the films in a great location rather than a larger experience with wine and dining at a local winery.

Anyway, we were so busy we just managed to catch one film this year, and it was the Canadian premiere of Baden Baden, directed by Rachel Lang.  The film, a comedy-drama from both France and Belgium, deals with the adventures of 26-year-old Ana, who returns to her hometown of Strasbourg for a summer of miscues, helping her grandmother and sexual encounters with her best friend and her ex.

We liked the film, in spite of the fact it was rather abstract and didn't really keep us riveted to the storyline, such as it was.  But it was cleverly shot and quite interesting to watch.  Although the crowd was appreciative, it was quite small, even in the cosy confines of the Film House.

Incidentally, I love the new Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  A first-rate film house in the heart of the city where you can order a glass of wine?  What's not to like?!

Also at the PAC this summer is the inaugural Foster Festival, featuring a trio of plays by Canadian playwright Norm Foster, the first of which features the man himself as actor in his own play.

The first play of the season, On a First Name Basis, stars Foster and Foster Festival Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and opened last week.  It runs through to July 2nd in the Cairns Recital Hall.  The second play of the season is Here on the Flight Path and it opens July 13th and runs to the 30th.  The third and final play of the summer season is a World Premiere,  Halfway to the North Pole, and runs from August 10th to the 27th.

It's no wonder Norm Foster is the most produced playwright in Canada, and has been for about 20 years now.  His plays receive an average of 150 productions annually, usually anchoring summer theatre festivals from one end of the country to the other.

Now, Foster has a festival of his own, celebrating his own plays exclusively for the first few years before they look at promoting the works of other playwrights Foster himself has an interest in.

I have not seen the first production yet, but my wife did on Sunday afternoon and she was very pleased with the show.  We were both in Port Hope last spring when Foster and Vanstone were readying On a First Name Basis for the Capitol Theatre's summer series, and we agreed it would be a great show to see.  Well, she has seen it, and I have to get around to it before the end of the run.  Keeping my fingers crossed I can find the time...

We ran in to Norm actually when we were downtown Saturday afternoon, as we exited the PAC after buying our film festival tickets at the box-office.  It seemed almost comical I was crossing the street chatting with the most produced playwright our country has itself produced over the years!  A nice man and I hope he enjoys his summer in downtown St. Catharines as much as we enjoy having him here.

Finally, there is an event coming up this week downtown I wanted to highlight as it is an important fundraiser for my friends at ECT, Essential Collective Theatre.  Called Welcome to the Boom Boom Room, the event features finger foods, drinks, music, interactive theatre and even a sultry burlesque performance, all in support of Niagara's ECT.

The sexy and sultry aspect is being highlighted, so that leaves me out...but the 70s-era wardrobe probably covers much of what you'd find in my closet these days, so I have that covered, at least.  But hey, if you have a polyester leisure suit hanging around with a white belt and loafers, you're in.  Wait a minute, that WAS one of my 70s-era outfits back then!

All kidding aside, ECT does such great and creative work in Niagara, presenting plays and other interactive events several times a year, it is easy to recommend them as a going concern worth supporting, and I hope you will.

The event takes place this Friday night starting at 7 and running to 11 at the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre in Robby Hall at 85 Church Street,  Admission is only $25 in advance or $30 at the door, and there is even a Real Big Spender ticket for $45 which entitles you to a $20 tax receipt.

So if you don't have any plans this Friday night, why not make plans to join us and have some fun?  We'll see you there!

Have a great week.

June 20th, 2016.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Another weekend packed full of things to do in Niagara...

The first weekend of June is here, and along with the warm weather, there's lots to see and do this weekend and beyond in Niagara.  It's just not possible to be bored in Niagara these days...

Visiting the St. Catharines Farmer's Market at Market Square downtown yesterday, it was nice to see the berries are finally arriving for a new season.  Edible options to suit every taste are there every Saturday until about 2, along with selected vendors Tuesday and Thursday as well.  I picked up a particularly fresh and delicious peach pie from Sweetie Pie's Bakery, for example.

Along with the vendors selling everything from fresh produce to local honey, baked goods and flowers, there is always musical entertainment on the adjacent stage in the parking lot, and yesterday when I happened by local musician Tim Atherton was keeping the crowds entertained as he always does.

Market Square is the venue of choice today from 11 to 6 for the annual Niagara Vegfest, a one-stop culinary experience for those who choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.  My wife is a devoted vegan; myself I am gravitating that way but not quite there yet.  I do have an open mind, though and will be attending today along with Sophie to see what's in store.

Some of the local vegan purveyors on site today include Beechwood Doughnuts and Rescue Dogs Vegan Street Fare.  There will be others, of course, but these two alone will make the trip worthwhile.

The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre played host to the St. Catharines Arts Awards ceremony last evening, with local artists in almost every medium imaginable being honoured for their creative work and vision in helping to further a thriving arts scene in Niagara.

I personally know several of the local artists who attended last evening, and each and every one of the award recipients is exceptionally worthy of the honour.  We have a vibrant and varied local arts scene in Niagara, and this annual event highlights the great work done by our local artists.

The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre will be hosting a very special memorial concert this afternoon at 3 pm honouring local musician and teacher Paul van Dongen, who along with Steven Pettes helped to found what is now known as the Niagara Youth Orchestra.  In those days it was known as the St. Catharines Junior Symphony, and nurtured many a young aspiring musician over the years.

Paul passed away last December at the age of 88, not long after attending his first and only concert at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  If anyone would have loved the moment after being so involved in nurturing young Niagara musicians for so many years, it was him.

I had the pleasure and honour of hosting the 50th anniversary concert for the Niagara Youth Orchestra last May, with almost all the conductors of the orchestra in attendance, including Paul, who did conduct the orchestra that day.

The event was held at the Holiday Inn & Suites in St. Catharines in one of the large ballrooms.  It served its purpose that day, but you could not help but think how much nicer it would have been had the new PAC been open for the event, but the completion date was still several months away.

I chatted briefly with Paul and his wife Edith after the concert, and both were thrilled to see such a wonderful turnout of musicians both past and present at the 50th anniversary concert.  Paul would love today's concert even more, I suspect.

More than 100 musicians including Niagara Youth Orchestra members past and present will perform everything from Bach to the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, with soloist Lynne Honsberger and NSO Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducting.

The concert will be hosted by former CBC radio host Barbara Budd, along with former youth orchestra members.

The concert at Partridge Hall is free, but tickets must be reserved in advance by calling the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre also announced the lineup for their second season this week,  incidentally, and it looks like another varied season of great entertainment for the new venue.  The first season saw ticket sales average about 75%, which is pretty darn good.  Some of those ticket sales might have reflected people just curious to see the new digs, of course, but I'm sure once people got to see the new venue they would be impressed and back for more.

The PAC will also be hosting a number of the upcoming screenings for the annual Niagara Integrated Film Festival, which begins later this week and runs through to June 19th this year.  Both the Film House and the Cairns Recital Hall will be utilized for the festival, along with the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls.

I'll be writing more about the film festival, the upcoming PAC season and of course, the first annual Foster Festival to launch at the PAC this summer as well, in this space next week.

So, still think the new performing arts centre was a risky venture?  Not when you see how much activity is happening downtown either directly or indirectly connected to it, and the spin-off effects the new venue is having on our downtown core.

There is always something to do in Niagara, and especially right here in St. Catharines.  All you have to do is look around and take it all in.

Have a great weekend!

June 5th, 2016.