Saturday, November 19, 2016

Lots to see and do in Niagara this week

As usual, November means lots of concerts and theatre-related events are on the go, many of which often have a holiday theme to them.  While I am trying to hold off on listening to any Christmas music until the start of December, that is increasingly difficult once I leave my office and go into practically any other public space.

Still and all, there is lots to see and do this coming week on the music and theatre scene locally, so let's look at a few examples you can experience for yourself and perhaps you too will be able to avoid the holiday music crush just a little while longer...

The ever-popular community-based theatre organization Garden City Productions opened their fall show last evening at the Mandeville Theatre at Ridley College.  It's a bit of a departure from the traditional musical theatre norm for the troupe:  Monty Python's Spamalot, which as the promotional material explains, is "A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Many find anything to do with Monty Python to be uproariously funny; I tend to run hot and cold on the British humour, but friends of mine who have already seen the show say this is one very funny production.  John McHenry is the director and choreographer and John-Luke Anderson is handling music director duties.

Spamalot continues Friday and Saturday evenings through to December 3rd with Sunday matinee performances at 2 starting tomorrow and the next two Sunday afternoons.  For tickets and more information, go to www.GCP.TIX.COM or call 905-682-1353.

One of the finest examples of local chamber music is Gallery Players of Niagara, based out of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The concerts are always inventive and the musicians often change with the concerts, so you get a wide variety of musical styles to suit most every taste.

Their new season kicks off tomorrow afternoon at 2 at Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  That's one of their performance venues; others include Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, depending on the concert.

Sunday's performance is entitled Bohemians in Brooklyn and it's described as "a potent mix of cabaret, social history, very juicy gossip, glorious music and all parts fun."  With a description like that, it should come as no surprise the concert is headed up by Tom Allen, the host of Shift on CBC Radio 2, who performs on trombone as well as narrating the concert.  He's joined by Bryce Kulak on vocals and piano; Lori Gemmell on vocals, harp and guitar; and the one and only Patricia O'Callaghan on vocals and percussion.

This should be an enlightening and enjoyable afternoon of music and conversation, so if you feel the need to get out of the house, I can't think of a better place to be on a cold November Sunday afternoon.  For tickets, go to or call 905-468-1525.

The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts kicked off their Viva Voce! Choral Series tonight along with the Walker String Ensemble in north St. Catharines, but there is still plenty of time to catch the next RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital at the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  The Tuesday noon-hour recitals feature both students and faculty from the Department of Music at Brock's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts and run through to the end of the school year in the spring.

This Tuesday, November 22nd the Voice students will take to the stage at the PAC, followed on November 29th by the Instrumental students.  The final recital before Christmas break will be on December 6th when Piano and Guitar students perform.

No tickets are required and the recitals, just under an hour in length are absolutely free of charge.

Finally, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra presents their second Masterworks concert next Sunday November 27th at 2:30 in Partridge Hall at the PAC, with a concert entitled The Art of Passacaglia.  The title derives from the first piece on the programme, Oskar Morawetz' Passacaglia on a Bach Chorale.  Also on the programme will be the Brahms Symphony No. 4 and the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin joining the NSO conducted by Bradley Thachuk.

In addition to the music, the annual Silent Auction will be held in the lobby with lots of holiday gift ideas, all helping to support the NSO.  For tickets call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

So there you go - lots of entertainment without a single Christmas carol in the bunch.  That is no easy feat in late November!

Enjoy your week.

November 19th, 2016.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Friday night in downtown St. Catharines with some great music

It had been awhile since I had attended a performance at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, save for a Tuesday noon-hour recital a couple of weeks ago.  So when the invitation came in to attend the season opener for the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts Encore! Professional Concert Series, I jumped at the chance.

This series never fails to impress me with the breadth of talent from all areas of music, based either locally or on tour from elsewhere.  Each and every performance is of a uniformly high calibre, and I can't think of a single performance I've attended that was not in some way memorable.

What does trouble me, however, is the lack of public support for the concert series.  I've written about this before, when the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts was still based up at Brock, and I noted at the time the concert series should attract a wider audience once it moves down the hill along with the rest of the arts featured at Brock.

There is more aggressive marketing of the concerts now, as part of both the Marilyn I. Walker School themselves and the umbrella marketing of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, where the concerts are held now.  But still, I see mostly students at Brock in the audience, and that's a shame.

Oh sure, the public is there alright, but still not in the numbers we'd like to see.  Perhaps in time that audience will grow, and I hope it does.  These are really enjoyable, affordably-priced concerts you can attend right in the heart of downtown St. Catharines at a pristine new venue.

Last evening, for example, the series kicked off with the recently-formed Walker String Quartet, named of course after the Walker School next door, along with clarinet virtuoso Zoltan Kalman.  Kalman, along with the rest of the members of the Walker String Quartet, are all members of the Niagara Symphony along with handling other musical assignments elsewhere in the province.  The quartet is made up of Vera Alekseeva and Anna Hughes on violin, Andrew Simard on viola, and Gordon Cleland who is Principal cellist with the Niagara Symphony.

The group performed the String Quartet in D minor by Haydn, and were joined by Zoltan Kalman for two quintets, the Clarinet Quintet in B minor by Brahms and the ever-popular Clarinet Quintet in A major by Mozart.  All were presented with style and elegance; nothing fancy but certainly strong, nuanced performances across the board.

The next concert in the Encore! Professional Concert Series will see the Rondeau Brass Quintet with Laura Thomas on percussion performing January 20th; The Canadian Jazz Scene with John Sherwood on February 10th; and the piano duo of Anagnoson & Kinton on March 10th.  Tickets to all these performances are available by calling the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722.

I do want to add a few asides on my experience last evening, all of them positive, I might add.  Once again, hearing music in Partridge Hall is a wonderful experience, and I am looking forward to hearing the full forces of the Niagara Symphony in their new home sometime this season.  Up until now most of the performances I've attended have been smaller ensembles and the sound has been exceptional.

Although I noted one of the stage lights appeared to burn out during the performance last evening (rather strange to have that happen so soon) the venue is everything you could want in a first-rate concert hall of this size.

I also noted in the lobby at intermission the PAC now has several varieties of tea for sale along with coffee.  That's an oversight I lamented last season when I first attended a performance there.  Not everyone is a coffee drinker and I appreciate the powers that be noting and correcting that issue.  I also quite appreciate the gentle yet obvious bell system for calling you in to the hall for the rest of the performance.  It isn't jarring like some are; rather refined I'd say.  It was a nice surprise.

Now, I recall at some point there was talk of a proper marquee outside the PAC that was still to come.  Is that still a go?  I have not see or heard anything about it since, and it would be an important addition to the facade of the PAC.

Finally, although people I saw hunting for a parking spot close by the theatre might feel otherwise, it was wonderful to see downtown alive with people attending so many different events in our city core on a Friday night.  There were events in at least three of the PAC venues last night and the Niagara Ice Dogs were playing at the Meridian Centre down the street, so parking was certainly at a premium if you chose not to use the city-owned parking garages.  But hey, the parking is there, and now we pay the price for a vibrant and active downtown.  You can't have everything!

So all in all, it was a great night out.  For me, a seven-minute walk from my house and world-class performances almost every week of the year.  What more can you want?

Have a great weekend!

November 5th, 2016.