Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Christmas conundrum

I will admit it.  I have a great deal of trouble finding the Christmas spirit these days.  Maybe because I am getting older, but I think it is more a reflection of how busy and over-commercialized the season has become.

I know it seems to have always been over-commercialized, but these days it just seems to be all the more so, when you go into a store or the shopping mall in October and they already have the piped in Christmas music going full tilt.  Geez, the Halloween decorations are not even down yet!

So it is with trepidation I admit to finding it more and more difficult to find the spirit of Christmas, or whatever your personal celebration at this time of year might happen to be.  I'm there now, and in full Christmas music listening mode these days.   Right now listening to one of my all time favourite classic Christmas recordings, The Glorious Sound of Christmas with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.  This is an early-60s recording with arrangements by Arthur Harris that still sound great today, and I am all too happy to supply you with a copy of the CD at a great price through

But I defiantly hold off on listening to Christmas music as much as possible until the first of December.  Why?  Simply because we get overloaded with it every year, and I want to at least try to keep it fresh sounding and enjoyable until Boxing Day.

Same goes for the rituals of Christmas as we know them today.  I may hit a Christmas bazaar or two in November, but it isn't until December I really pay attention to the season and begin my Christmas shopping.  When I do, I am quick and methodical in my pursuit of the perfect Christmas gifts, and make sure it is all done early.  I finished today, in fact, and have no intentions of going anywhere near a shopping mall until after Christmas.

Several years ago I tried avoiding the usual shopping haunts altogether and instead shopped locally, preferably in small, locally-owned shops in our city centres, and I must admit it has erased a lot of the stress we put on ourselves at this time of the year.  I actually enjoyed chatting with owners of shops I actually go into the rest of the year, and took great pleasure in finding things you just won't find in the mall.

So that's what I do every year now.  This year I visited shops in downtown Port Colborne, downtown Thorold, downtown St. Catharines and even Port Dalhousie.*  Every visit concluded with a smile and the knowledge I contributed to the local economy rather than some global conglomerate with little or no ties to Niagara.

Still and all, I find it difficult to actually find the spirit of Christmas the rest of the time.  I certainly didn't find it the last couple of weeks trying to drive around Niagara, as I encountered so many impatient motorists who should know better and would do well to take a deep breath and just slow down.

I also found it difficult to find in the several lineups I found myself in from time to time, standing near others obviously fuming over losing precious time in a lineup.  Again, take a deep breath and just try to relax.  You will get everything done, and even if you don't the world likely won't end as a result.

I did, however, find plenty of Christmas spirit the last Saturday in November when I and several of my Canada Post colleagues collected Letters for Santa along the parade route for the Thorold Santa Claus parade.  Just seeing those hopeful faces as they handed you their personally-written letters could not help but melt the heart of the most jaded person.

Just last Sunday evening I attended a fabulous Christmas concert at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, part of the Christmas Tidings Ontario tour by Ensemble Vivant, the wonderful chamber group fronted by an old friend, Catherine Wilson.  Catherine and I met over 20 years ago now and have kept in touch ever since, and I find that quite rare in the entertainment world where an artist will not only recognize you but actually know you from one visit to the next.

Catherine managed to take some of the traditional, hackneyed Christmas music and breath new life into them in semi-formal dress.  Arranger Rick Wilkins provided most of the charts for the concert, and each and every one of them was polished to a high lustre, free of the gaudy tinsel and garland others dress the tunes up with.

It was a pleasure to hear Ensemble Vivant actually enjoy the music they were playing, which truth be told, they have been playing together for quite some time now.  But you would never know it with their fresh approach to classics such as Greensleeves (What Child is This?) Silent Night and even It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  Add to that the young and innocent voices of the Chorus Niagara Children's Choir and for me, Christmas was beginning to sound enjoyable again.

The tour is continuing as we speak, so if you see Ensemble Vivant's Christmas Tidings tour coming to your community, I suggest you check your Grinchly heart at the door and enter a world of beauty and youthful optimism.

So now I am almost ready for the season.  I say almost because in my line of work, delivering the mail for Canada Post means we are busier than ever at this time of year, and I anticipate the coming week to be very busy and heavy with plenty of last-minute parcels and Christmas cards to deliver.  That will mean long days, weary nights, and occasionally a screw-up that will make you shake your head in desperation.  But it will also involve people smiling at the door as you deliver their cards, letters and parcels, and even an occasional gift from those thankful for services rendered throughout the year.

Yes, Christmas can get you down.  But I have found if I look beyond the commercialization of the season and just dig a little deeper, I will be richly rewarded with the treasures of the season at hand.  I suggest you do the same if you suffer, like me, the anxiety that comes around this time of year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one all all, and let's meet back in this space one last time before Christmas actually arrives.

Have a great weekend!

December 17th, 2016.

* For the record, this is a partial list of the shops and businesses I visited this year, all of whom provide a warm welcome and unique gifts you would want to give on Christmas morning:

Arlies Flowers & Gifts, Port Colborne
Figg Street Co., Thorold
Stems Etc., St. Catharines
The British Boutique, St. Catharines
St. Joseph's Bakery, St. Catharines
St. Catharines Downtown Farmer's Market

Saturday, December 3, 2016

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas...

I must admit I am a bit of a slow starter when it comes to delving into my Christmas music library.  Though extensive, I usually wait until December before I start pulling out my favourites to listen to again.  I just can't get into the spirit of the season until December, no matter what the merchants might otherwise wish.

So it was on December 1st I started listening to some of my evergreen favourites and feeling a little bit warm and fuzzy inside.  But to experience the extreme warm and fuzzies, you have to get out there and experience some live music with some like-minded souls.

Fortunately right now there's a wealth of concerts and events coming up sure to fire up the holiday magic for even the most jaded listener.  Herewith a look at a few of my favourite things coming up this week, beginning with tonight...

The Brock University Choirs directed by Harris Loewen presents a concert entitled Laudate:  Praise! tonight at 7:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

Along with guest instrumentalists, the choirs will perform seasonal and other choral selections by a number of composers including several from Niagara, including Blake, Butler, Loewen, Phelan and Royal.  Many of those names will be familiar to anyone following the Niagara choral music scene over the years.

The concert, part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts Viva Voce! choral series, is very affordably priced at $15 for adults and only $10 for students and seniors, and only $5 for those connected to the eyeGo high school program.  You can pick up tickets at the door or in advance by calling the box office at the PAC at 905-688-0722.

Two other concerts with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts come up this Tuesday at the PAC as well.  The final RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital for the fall season takes place Tuesday at noon in the Cairns Recital Hall, and it is absolutely free of charge.  This one will feature piano and guitar students from the School of Fine & Performing Arts.  And Tuesday evening at 7:30 The Sounds of Music will come alive in Partridge Hall.  That's the title of the concert featuring the University Wind Ensemble from Brock's Department of Music, conducted by Zoltan Kalman.

Billed as "an evening of brilliant works", the concert will include works by Verdi, Richard Rodgers, Frank Ticheli, a World Premiere by Michael Kositsky, and the ever-popular Trumpeter's Lullaby featuring soloist Graham Young.  There will also be a number of Christmas selections featuring the children's choir "Enchorus" directed by Catherine Richardson.

Seating is by general admission and tickets are only $10 for adults and $5 for children 14 and under or those participating in the eyeGo program.  It's totally free for current students of the MIWSFPA with a valid student ID card.

Sunday afternoon up in Guelph the Guelph Chamber Choir presents their annual Carols for Christmas concert at St. George's Anglican Church at 2:30 pm.  St. George's is one of the truly magnificent churches in all of Ontario with an warm ambiance and lots of old wood and marble.  It is a joy to hear choral music there, and you'll hear a wealth of it tomorrow as the choir is joined by the Winter Trio, made up of Sharlene Wallace on harp, Ben Grossman on hurry-gurdy and percussion and Ron Korb on flute.

There will be traditional and not-so-traditional seasonal music along with readings appropriate for the season featuring a number of readers from the community.  Tickets are available now by calling 519-763-3000 or you can pick them up at the door tomorrow afternoon.

Next weekend a couple of family-friendly Christmas concerts will take place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, beginning with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra's first Classical Family concert of the new season.  Entitled A Symphony of Stories, the performance will feature the NSO conducted by Bradley Thachuk along with narrators William Vickers and Karen Wood.  They'll present a couple of very popular children's classics, Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and William Blake's perennial favourite The Snowman.

The concert will take place in Partridge Hall at the PAC on Saturday and Sunday afternoon with both start times at 2:30 pm.  Pick up tickets at the door or call the PAC box office in advance at 905-688-0722.

Finally, the Christmas Tidings Tour is in full-swing across Ontario and comes to the PAC next Sunday evening at 7:30 pm.  The concert features Ensemble Vivant led by Toronto-based pianist Catherine Wilson, who have performed together for over 25 years now.  They are well-known for their chamber music work across the country and were referred to by the Toronto Star as "Canada's Chamber Music Treasure."

It will most certainly be a holiday-themed show, so be prepared to become un-Grinchified next Sunday night at the PAC.  The addition of local children's choirs for the concerts wherever they perform pretty much guarantees that.

I've known Catherine for a lot of years now, having met in Elora about 1991 when Catherine was giving a recital for the late, lamented Guelph Spring Festival.  We kept in touch over the years since then and renewed acquaintances a couple of years ago when she performed at Brock as part of the ENCORE! music performance series hosted by the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

Catherine is coming to town with her group and I am especially looking forward to the visit!  You can call the PAC box office for tickets at 905-688-0722, and in fact if you are a Groupon fan they have a sweet deal available right now, as you can get half-price tickets to the concert through Groupon and then picking them up at the PAC box office.

So there you go - a wealth of concerts that won't break the bank this holiday season.  Even the Grinch could appreciate that!

Have a great weekend!

December 3rd, 2016.