Saturday, July 23, 2016

More music festivals to escape the summer heat

I promised a few weeks ago to round up some more of the great summer music festivals in Ontario, so with the summer heat perhaps encouraging us to head out and catch a great concert within a short drive of home, let's take a look at a few in the outlying areas of St. Catharines-Niagara.

Now, I know there are more musical festivals than what I have listed here.  Ottawa has a fine music festival, for example, but I am concentrating here on a reasonable drive from Niagara for say a day trip or overnight stay.

In my last entry, I mentioned such local venues as Artpark, Music Niagara, the Niagara Jazz Festival coming up next weekend, the Lewiston Council of the Arts series, along with the Elora Festival north of Guelph.  All are still going or coming up as of this writing, although this is the final weekend for the Elora Festival.

But a short drive will reveal others worthy of note, with the first of these not that far down the highway in Hamilton.  The Brott Music Festival was founded several years ago by former HPO Music Director Boris Brott, and has been a Hamilton mainstay each summer for as long as most of us can remember.

I have spent many a pleasant summer afternoon or evening attending any number of Brott concerts in the past, although it has been a few years now since I last attended.  It is certainly a wide-ranging programme pairing young up-and-coming musicians with more seasoned, established pros.

Still to come for the Brott Music Festival this season, John Williams' iconic movie music will be front and centre for the next concert at the Mohawk College McIntyre Performing Arts Centre, next Thursday July 28th at 7:30 pm.  The festival moves to Koerner Hall in downtown Toronto for a concert August 4th at 7:30 pm, marking the National Academy Orchestra's debut at Koerner Hall.

The series returns to Mohawk College in Hamilton on August 5th at 7:30 pm for a performance by the Jeans n' Classics band and their tribute to Led Zeppelin, before hitting the road again to pair up again this season with the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound on August 7th at 2:30 in the afternoon.  That concert will once again feature the National Academy Orchestra at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts in Parry Sound.

The Brott Music Festival wraps up August 11th at 7:30 pm with a concert full of classical favourites by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Ravel at the McIntyre Performing Arts Centre at Mohawk College.

Tickets to any of these performances are available by calling the box office at 905-525-7664, or go online to

I mentioned the Festival of the Sound up in Parry Sound on the shores of lovely Georgian Bay, and although this would constitute a weekend or at least overnight stay, the trip up to that part of the world is always enjoyable.

The Festival of the Sound kicked off earlier this month and continues until August 7th at several venues in and around the Parry Sound area.

Of particular note on the calendar are concerts featuring a Celtic Sounds Cruise at 6 pm on July 25th; a concert of Chopin and Tchaikovsky favourites on July 28th at 7:30 pm; and a performance by the Toronto All-Star Big Band on July 31st at 7:30 pm.

There is even a screening of the classic movie Amadeus, starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham at 10 am on July 26th.

The Festival of the Sound series wraps up with a piano concert finale on August 7th at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Most of the concerts and events take place at the acoustically-perfect Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts, but some are at other locations, such as the Monday evening boat cruise on July 25th for example.

For tickets and more information, call the box office at 1-866-364-0061 or go to

Certainly one of the most ambitious music festivals each summer takes place in Stratford, Ontario, where the Stratford Summer Music series continues until August 28th at several locations in and around Stratford.  There are so many events to attend throughout the day almost every day of the festival it is enough to make your head spin, but you will find something for just about every taste in their offerings each year.

Some of the upcoming highlights include The Steel City Rovers performing over several days at 12:30 pm from July 28th to the 31st; several appearances by the Torq Percussion group, including performances, master classes and lectures throughout the coming week; The Sondheim Jazz Project at 9 pm on August 6th and Choral Vespers performed by the Choir of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon at 3 pm on August 7th.

There's even a performance by Carole Pope at 3 pm on August 13th!

Stratford Summer Music continues to offer probably the most variety of any music festival anywhere, and they do it for the better part of 7 weeks each summer.  So if you want a break from the Stratford Festival, or perhaps add to your Festival experience, Stratford Summer Music offers a nice balance of challenging and lighter fare throughout most of the summer months.

For tickets and more information, call 519-271-2101 or go to

Finally, the Westben Arts Festival Theatre in Cambellford in Eastern Ontario presents a wide range of concerts throughout the summer months and into the fall at several venues in the area.  It too has evolved into a large-scale music festival in a small-town setting with literally something for everyone to enjoy.

Concerts coming up include Ken Whiteley and the Beulah Band on July 29th; Heather Bambrick and Friends on July 30th; the jazz group Cadence on July 31st and a concert entitled Women of Shakespeare on October 30th.  Over the Christmas season Westben presents A Westben Christmas Carol on November 26th, 27th, December 3rd and 4th.

For tickets and more information, call 1-877-883-5777, or go to

So there you go - lots to see and do if you want to get out of Niagara but not out of the province for some musical offerings this summer season and beyond.

Have a great weekend!

July 23rd, 2016.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer fun with the Foster Festival

Earlier this week the Foster Festival opened the second of three summer productions, part of their inaugural season at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  The mandate of the Festival is simple:  produce plays by noted Canadian playwright Norm Foster, certainly the most well-known and most-loved Canadian playwright.

In fact, it's estimated on average, there are about 150 productions of his plays each year globally.  Here in Canada, of course, his plays have been staples of the summer theatre circuit for many years now.  I've seen Foster plays in Port Dover, Sutton, Muskoka and several other locals, in fact.

Foster lent his name to the Festival here in St. Catharines when it was launched amid much fanfare last June, and it was determined at the time all Norm Foster premieres would take place at the Festival that bears his name.  The remainder of the season would feature two of his other plays, of which you can choose your favourite from a long list of Foster classics.

In June, the first-ever Foster Festival production opened, with Norm Foster himself starring alongside Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone in On A First Name Basis.  When the new Festival was announced last year, both Vanstone and Foster were starring in this same show at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope.

I unfortunately missed the first show of the season, but this week's opening of Here on the Flight Path was enthusiastically received from what I could see at the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  Although the theatre was not full to capacity for opening night, it was close, and that was encouraging.

It will take time for the whole idea of watching live theatre in downtown St. Catharines becomes second nature in this city.  We're conditioned to either go to a movie, a live theatre performance at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a summer music event or simply stay home on the patio.  The notion of heading downtown to see live theatre at all is something totally new to most generations in the Garden City.

I hope this fact is not lost on the management and board of the Foster Festival; although the first year will be challenging as they struggle to grab a foothold on the summer entertainment scene in the area, hopefully the coming years will get somewhat easier.

If the quality of the current production is anything to go by, they should be on solid financial footing in coming years.  There is simply much to like and not a heck of a lot not to like about the current production.

Directed by Blair Williams and starring the real-life husband and wife team of Jamie Williams and Melanie Janzen, Here on the Flight Path is typical Norm Foster:  take something from everyday life and make it into an uproariously funny situation.  That is the magic of a Foster play - you can't help but see yourself in many of his plays or at least, someone you know.

In this play, easily one of his funniest, we are introduced to newspaper columnist John Cummings, who writes about "Cummings and Goings" as he often reminds people.  Cummings lives in an apartment, alone and more or less recently divorced, and spends an inordinate amount of time on his apartment's balcony.

He introduces us to three of the neighbours who have shared the other half of the balcony over a period of a couple of years or so.  They are all female, and each one lives alone for one reason or another.  The first is Fay, a woman of the night who prefers not to bring her work home with her.  Next we meet Angel, an aspiring actress from Calgary whose father has deep pockets.  And then there's Gwen, broken and downtrodden at first with a healthy appetite for wine.

John gets to know all three rather well; he is the one neighbour you can count on to always be there when you need him, but you just don't want to get too close, just in case.

For Faye, he comes in rather handy one night when she actually does bring work home with her and things get out of hand rather quickly.  With Angel he offers moral support as she tries in vain to chart a course in the acting profession.  And with Gwen, he provides comfort and companionship after her life undergoes significant change.  It is only Gwen who seems to click with John with any sort of permanence.

John is a friendly sort, just nosey enough to be a newspaperman but smart enough to know when he has pushed the limits as far as he can.  He is overly chatty, very observant and at times either a little annoying or quite helpful.

As with any Norm Foster play, the writing is superb, although I sometimes get the sense he is sometimes too clever for his own good.  But he comes up with lines you can remember long after the play has ended, and that is a talent not every playwright is able to master.

In Here on the Flight Path, the most memorable moments for me come in the second act when he discovers Angel is auditioning for a part in a musical based on the novel Moby Dick, entitled "Positively Ahab" and Cummings describes it as "Grease with harpoons".  Angel for her part mistakenly refers to "Wuthering Heights" as "Withering Heights".

The set is simple yet effective, clearly demonstrating the close proximity in which many apartment dwellers live.  The students who helped the Foster Festival with the set construction did an exceptional job.

If there are any complaints with the production, it would be I'd like to see John in a more obvious change of clothes for each act.  It almost looks like he lives in the same polo shirt and pants every day of the year.  I know many men might actually appear to be doing that, but a little variety might not hurt in either case.  I also wouldn't mind seeing some semblance of an apartment beyond the sliding doors leading to the balcony.  All we see here is a black hole the actors step in and out of.  Even a painted backdrop to suggest furniture might be nice.

Okay, I know I am splitting hairs here.  Overall, the show is solid, funny, well acted and directed and very much worth your time this summer.  Here on the Flight Path continues until July 30th with both evening and matinee performances on selected dates.

For tickets and more information, call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722, or go to the Foster Festival website at

The Foster Festival should be a summer tradition in Niagara.  It has everything going for it:  great location, quality production values and a knowledgeable and experienced management team in place. Now all they need is support from the community.

Feel like a laugh on a summer's day?  Catch the latest offering from The Foster Festival and discover why we are lucky to have such an ambitious project right in our own backyards.

Have a great weekend!

July 17th, 2016.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

We need a little Elora in our life...

I make no secret of our love for the village of Elora, just north of Guelph.  It is one of the prettiest places in Ontario to visit, nestled next to picturesque Elora Gorge, a haven for nature lovers and hikers alike.

It was 37 years ago the Elora Festival was founded, providing an excuse for music lovers to discover the lovely village for a couple of weeks in July every summer.  It has grown considerably over the years, with Artistic Director Noel Edison leading the "home team", the Elora Festival Singers on tour to great acclaim several times, most recently to New York's Carnegie Hall earlier this year.

The singers still perform during the Festival several times, but they are joined by a host of performers in many musical genres to provide a wide musical palette for audiences to choose from.  Everything from classical to vocal to popular to jazz, it's all part of the Elora Festival each summer.

For the first weekend of this year's Festival, things kicked off in the heat Friday night at the Gambrel Barn with an Opening Night Gala featuring the Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  The concert featured the ever-popular Mozart Requiem along with the premiere of Canadian composer Tim Corlis' River of Life.

We didn't arrive for our weekend getaway in Elora until early Saturday evening, and in spite of the much-needed rain when we arrived, the welcome mat was out wherever we visited in town before the concert.

This year we chose one of the new additions to the Festival, the Starlight Jazz Series under the tent at the nearby Grand River Raceway, the first of which featured jazz singer Elizabeth Shepherd and local fave, guitarist Kevin Breit.  The so-called Mixtape Session was a loosely-woven pastiche of jazz and popular tunes cobbled together almost as they went along, so the feeling of discovery was very much evident from the beginning.

I particularly liked what Kevin did with Roger Miller's classic "King of the Road", although it was surprising in a way to hear Elizabeth was not aware of Miller nor his music, apparently.  Not hear of Roger Miller?  Imagine that...

Anyway, despite the late start of the concert, 9:45 under the tent, all went well and the concert was very well attended, with many I suspect coming over from the Gambrel Barn following the end of the Barra MacNeils concert about 10 pm.

The venue itself is on the track side of the Grand River facility, but signage to that effect was not around that we could see, so perhaps some work needs to be done on that for the remainder of the series.  Once there, however, the venue is excellently laid out and very elegant in a rustic, outdoorsy sort of way.  It was a little chilly that late in the evening, however...

The OLG slots provide the wine and menu, which is small but sufficient, and our cranberry brie plate was large enough to share with a couple of glasses of exceptional 20 Bees wine.

Sunday afternoon at 4 we attended the Elora Festival Singers presentation of The Glory of Bach at Knox Presbyterian Church, performed without intermission.

Noel Edison programmed Bach's Motet I, followed by The Wedding Cantata and the delightful Mass in G Minor, all featuring soloists and/or the Elora Festival Singers and Chamber Orchestra, and as an instrumental break the orchestra performed Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor with soloists Julie Baumgartel on violin and James Mason on oboe.  They, incidentally, were the concert sponsors, so that was a nice touch.

The choir was in fine form, as were the soloists and instrumentalists.  And although we were situated in the balcony with only a partial view of the stage, the sound was perfectly acceptable in Knox church.  The warm environment, however, meant many resorted to using their programmes as makeshift fans during the concert.  Wise move on Mr. Edison's part to dispense with the intermission...

I often try to make time for the Elora Festival Singers performing in their home church of St. John's in Elora at the 11 am Sunday service.  Noel Edison and the Singers provide a rich tapestry of sacred music for the choral mattins service, which is always very well attended.  If you have never experienced the singers in their home church, I urge you to make time on your Sunday morning if you are in Elora during the Festival.

Aside from the exceptional performances at the Elora Festival itself every year, my wife and I always make plans to explore the village and engage in some constructive retail therapy, so we both did our part to support the local economy both days we were in town.

Another of the pleasures while staying in Elora is the dining, and both days we explored both familiar and unfamiliar gastronomic territory.  Our final dinner after the Bach concert, for example, took us to familiar territory and the lovely outdoor deck at the Mill Street Bistro, overlooking the river.  We have dined at Mill Street several times before and always find the service attentive and the food well-prepared and presented.  There is always a wide variety of choices to suit just about every taste.

Sophie and I were both in burger mode on Sunday, so she chose the bean & vegetable burger; I went with the pork burger sourced from local farms.  Both were well worth waiting for.

The unfamiliar territory came in the afternoon when we decided to take a break and try out a brand-new cafe in The Mews section off Mill Street near the still-closed Elora Mill Inn.  The Lost & Found Cafe opened only a month ago and is run by a young, ambitious group of entrepreneurs who know their way around a kitchen.

While small, the menu caters to a wide range of tastes including both vegetarian and vegan.  My wife had the vegan chili and was mightily impressed; I chose the sweet potato and almond-crusted non-dairy quiche, with a garden salad on the side.  It was wonderful!

Next time we'll check out the dessert section, but for now we'll just say we hope many find their way to The Lost & Found Cafe this summer season.

Incidentally, speaking of the Elora Mill Inn it has been closed for renovations for several years now, with building permits holding up work apparently for part of that time.  But things are well underway now and the rebranded Elora Mill Hotel & Spa is scheduled to reopen in 2018.  I am sure it will be quite different from when I last visited in the spring of 1985 to attend a concert and do an interview as part of the late, lamented Guelph Spring Festival.

The Elora Gorge is just off Metcalfe Street in the centre of town, and is one of the most picturesque areas for a relaxing walk or picnic.  Lots of trees provide ample shade for your visit.

So have I whet your appetite for a trip to Elora?  Check out the Elora Festival website at for more details on the many upcoming concerts over the next two weeks, and you'll find information on what else to see and do while in Elora as well.

My wife and I have often mused about retiring to Elora when the time comes; don't know if we would actually do it, but if we do, we know we'll be well entertained and amongst friends we never knew we had.

Have a great week!

July 12th, 2016.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

New John Rutter disc available from Naxos!

It's summer and the listening is least it should be.  But sometimes, you want a diversion from pop tunes about fun in the sun and great BBQ songs on the patio.  With that in mind, I offer you something completely different and entirely delightful.

Composer and conductor John Rutter is no stranger to Niagara music lovers.  I still remember vividly his appearance with Chorus Niagara in Welland several years ago, when he conducted several of his works and spoke lovingly about his music and the great choirs the world over who perform his works.

If I'm not mistaken it was certainly one of the best-attended Chorus Niagara concerts in memory and for me, selling his music CDs in the lobby at the concert, it was a very busy evening indeed.

It has been awhile now since we have seen any new recordings of Rutter's music, and although a new Naxos disc does not feature him as conductor, it features some of his great choral music in breathtaking new performances sure to please any choral music lover.

Psalmfest is a collection of nine settings for full orchestra, recorded for this new disc for the very first time in its complete form.  The settings are as rich and varied as the original texts, based as they are on the psalms of David, a source of inspiration for composers for many centuries now.  As the liner notes included in the disc describe them, "each text (forms) a poetic shape the equivalent of a gothic arch, and expressing a broad range of timeless emotions.

In his notes accompanying the disc, John Rutter writes:  "The most powerful reason composers remain attracted to the perhaps because they express such a rich gamut of intensely human and timeless emotions:  hope, faith, trust, joy, and wonder - and then, some uncomfortable ones which Christians may struggle with but which everyone has experienced:  self-pity, jealousy, vengefulness, spite, anger, and sometimes a sense of having been abandoned by God."

Psalmfest dates from 1993, so in classical music a fairly contemporary work.  The remaining works on the disc are more recent still, as it includes Rutter's setting of Psalm 150 from 2002, Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from 2008 and This is the day, written for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011.

The performances on the disc are first-rate, and include the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Lucas conducting, organist Tom Winpenny, trumpeter Mike Allen, the St. Albans Cathedral Choir and Abbey Girls Choir, and the vocal soloists are soprano Elizabeth Cragg and tenor Pascal Charbonneau.

The full, expansive sound captures the performers perfectly, and was recorded in the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom back in 2014.  The recording was made possible by a bequest to the Cathedral by the late Dr. John Birch, organist of the RPO, to whose memory the recording is dedicated.  He passed away in April of 2012 and for many years had worked closely with John Rutter on many of the composer's own recordings over the years.

Sound interesting?  It isn't light summer music by any means, but it is a lovely disc well worth adding to your collection of great choral recordings, and you can do that right now through my website,  I am offering the disc at a special summer discount in order to introduce it to a wider audience.

For just ten dollars you can have a copy of your own, although at that super-low price a modest shipping charge will be added to all orders.  If you would like a copy, just email me directly at with your request and I will respond promptly and get the disc out to you.

Enjoy the summer weather with the music of John Rutter!

July 6th, 2016.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Looking at music festivals to light up your summer in Niagara and beyond

On this Canada Day, now the kids are out of school and many are planning summer outings both near and far, I thought it would be a good time to start reviewing some of the excellent music festivals in and around the Niagara area.

This is not a complete list, mind you, as I will be highlighting more later in the month.  But for now, these are ones to watch and definitely take in no matter what your musical interests might happen to be.

Just over the border in Lewiston, New York, the Artpark summer music series is now underway, and the main amphitheatre will be buzzing with excitement throughout the next couple of months.  The always popular Tuesdays in the Park series is already underway, with The Band Perry coming up July 5th, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals July 12th and Tears for Fears July 19th.  Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo team up with Melissa Etheridge to wrap up the month on July 26th.

In August, Tuesdays in the Park presents Yes on the 2nd, Rain - A Tribute to The Beatles on the 9th, Styx on the 16th and Boz Scaggs with Don McLean on the 23rd.  Of particular interest on this side of the border is the Canadian Hall of Fame show starring The Burton Cummings Band, April Wine and Buffy Sainte-Marie on the 30th.

Also coming up on July 24th will be the annual summer appearance at Artpark of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Joann Falletta, featuring pianist Igor Lipinski.  This will be an all-Beethoven program starting at 3 in the afternoon.

For more on the Artpark summer events, go to

Also in Lewiston, the Lewiston Council on the Arts presents their annual Summer of '69 concert in The Gazebo at 4th and Centre Streets in the heart of town, featuring artists like Gary Baker, the Loved Ones, the County Orphanage, Lewiston All-Stars and the Invaders.  Best of all, the concert is free!

The Blue Mondays series gets underway on July 11th with Maria Aurigema performing, Billy McEwen & Soul Invaders on the 18th, Steve Burnside & the Original Marquis on the 25th, and the Jeremy Keyes Band wraps up the series on August 1st.

There is lots more planned for the Town of Lewiston this summer, so check out the details by going to

On this side of the border and just beyond the lovely city of Guelph is the ever-popular Elora Festival, now in its 37th year in Elora, Ontario.  This remains the penultimate summer music festival in Ontario, I think, with Artistic Director Noel Edison programming 24 performances at 6 intimate venues all in one world-class festival.

The Elora Festival runs from July 8th to the 24th this year, with performances ranging from a 40th Anniversary concert by the dual-piano team of Anagnoson & Kinton on July 9th to Montreal cellist Thomas Chartre playing music by Arvo Part, Faure and Mendelssohn on July 21st.

The Opening Night Gala at the Gambrel Barn features Mozart's Requiem Mass in D Minor along with River of Life by acclaimed Canadian composer Tim Corlis.  The concert begins at 7:30 pm on July 8th.

New this year is a Starlight Jazz Series under the tent at Grand River Raceway on Saturday evenings at 9:30, and I plan to attend the first of these on July 9th with Elizabeth Shepherd and Kevin Breit performing.  On the 16th it is Tim Louis & The Ambassadors performing in the tent.

Other performances worth noting at the Elora Festival are Niagara-born baritone Russell Braun on July 9th at 4 pm; The Barra MacNeils at 7:30 in the evening, and a rare appearance by the group Chanticleer on July 15th at 7:30 pm.

My wife and I always enjoy our summer trips to Elora, both for the concerts of course and also to just escape and enjoy one of the prettiest towns anywhere.

For more on the Elora Festival, go to

Closer to home, our own Music Niagara festival kicks off officially July 16th at 7:30 pm with the Syrene Quartet, the Music Niagara Performance Academy Orchestra and the Camerata Ensemble with special guest Barbara Croall.

Other performances at Music Niagara this summer include The Penderecki String Quartet on July 18th, a concert entitled Sunset with Julie Nesrallah on July 23rd, and something called Brahms and Beer on July 25th at 5:30 in the afternoon.  The concert is an all-Brahms affair on the lawn of St. Mark's Church with a picnic and craft beers featured as well.

The popular jazz concerts late Saturday evenings continue at the Epicurean Bistro in Niagara-on-the-Lake with The Mike Field Quintet on July 30th, The John Sherwood Trio performing August 6th and The Paul Pacanowski Mellifluence Trio on the 13th.

Other performances of note this year include The Toronto All-Star Big Band on August 1st and the Thorold Reed Band in Simcoe Park on July 31st at 2 pm.

For more on Music Niagara and the entire lineup, go to

Finally, the Niagara Jazz Festival returns for three days at the end of July, from the 29th to the 31st at various locations around Niagara.  The festival offers both free and ticketed events, including a free event at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines from 7 to 9 pm on July 29th, featuring winners of Jazz for the Ages Youth Contest.

The flagship launch event that evening takes place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre at 8 pm with Manteca and Dave Restivo headlining along with Cinnamon Jones and Alex Pangman.

Highlights on Saturday July 30th include Liberty Silver presenting a vocal master class from 3 to 4 in the afternoon at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library and then joining Cinnamon Jones in concert at Southbrook Vineyards.  There is also the Jazz in the Park event with three stages set up at Simcoe Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake, running from 11 am to 7 pm, and it is absolutely free.  Artists for that concert include Alex Pangman, John Sherwood, Barbara Mantini, Joel Parisien and many others.

For more on the Niagara Jazz Festival go to

Of course, you can also check out the Calendar page on my website, for complete concert listings as well.  I am currently updating the entire summer schedule over the next couple of weeks.

Later this month, more on the many summer music festivals you can attend both far and near, and hear some great music.

Have a great Canada Day weekend!

July 1st, 2016.