Friday, August 11, 2017

Foster Festival finale a fun, fitting way to end Season Two

So Wednesday afternoon of this week my far better half and I took shelter from the heat and the sun at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as we caught the third and final Norm Foster play in the festival that bears his name.  The play, Lunenburg, is a world premiere and well worth your time before it closes next week.

Norm as you probably know is arguably Canada's most successful playwright ever, having produced oh, about 150 plays or so since the whole thing started with The Melville Boys back in 1984.  But until last year there was not a festival devoted to his creative genius.

That all changed when Emily Oriold, Executive Director and Patricia Vanstone, Artistic Director, decided the brand-spanking new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines would be the perfect venue for the new venture.  They approached Norm Foster and he agreed, no doubt feeling humbled at the prospect of a festival devoted to his works.

It's true what they say that "All good things come to those who wait" as those who have waited for just such a festival are being rewarded with some exceptional theatre for their summertime pleasure.

There were two world premieres this season, the first opening the second season back in June.  Screwball Comedy was a hit out of the gate, although I wrote at the time I didn't really think it was his best work.  Following a presentation of an older Foster play, Old Love in July, the second world premiere opened last week and it is vintage Norm Foster.  Like a rose wine with a fresh bouquet...

Okay maybe that's a bit much but hey, I was in a good mood after the performance this week.  And with good reason.

Lunenburg is set, of course, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and offers up a tale of love both old and new, betrayal, mystery and of course, plenty of comedy.  It involves two American visitors, Natalie and Iris, with Yankee drawl in full flight, coming to visit the Maritime home of Iris's late husband.

Iris is in mourning, of course, at the loss of her husband of four years but nothing could prepare her for what she discovers upon her arrival.  Thanks to talkative next-door neighbour Charlie Butler, Iris discovers she has been "the other woman" in a relationship that saw her late husband sharing his bed and life with not one but two wives.

The fact he would spend half the month with Iris and the other half of the month outside the country in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia never seemed to bother her; she just assumed he had business dealings outside the country every month.  Oh he had business all right...but let's not let get too far ahead of the story here...

You see, Iris's dear, departed husband was in fact leading a double life.  The news courtesy of neighbour Charlie leaves Iris thunderstruck.

While all that is going on, things start 'going on' between Iris' friend Natalie and neighbour Charlie.  A recurring gag sees them in a passionate embrace just as poor old Iris happens on the scene trying to deal with her situation.  Darned if you can't fall in love while trying to help your best friend through an emotional crisis.

There are but three roles in this play, and all three characters are created for the first time by the exceptional cast assembled by director Vanstone.  Melanie Janzen, returning after a great debut last season in Here Along the Flight Path, plays supportive friend Natalie Whitaker.  The dumbstruck wife is played by Shaw Festival alumnus Catherine McGregor, while another Shaw stalwart Peter Krantz appears as the neighbour Charlie Butler.

Janzen is the madcap sidekick everyone loves to watch.  Following in the footsteps of such great television second bananas as Valerie Harper and Vivian Vance, Janzen has impeccable comic timing and knows just when to stop before going too far.  In every respect she is a joy to watch.

As the wife Iris, Catherine McGregor is both funny and sad, dealing with such tremendous loss and with shock at the revelations awaiting her arrival.  Although the central character in the play, McGregor wisely allows the two budding lovers to steal the spotlight more than once and run with it. She needs the support, sure, but isn't insecure enough to remain on her own during the day while the two 'lovebirds' go sight-seeing together.

The real pleasure in this production is seeing Shaw veteran Peter Krantz create the role of Charlie.  He has an innocent streak in him, but deep down inside all he really wants is another chance to "charm the ass off" a woman.  He darn near succeeds in that regard early on, but we are left hanging until the end to see if the charm wears off or not.

I have lamented in the past Krantz interpretations of characters at Shaw, but here he seems much more at ease in the role.  He spoke with my esteemed colleague John Law recently and explained it was a new experience for him to create a new role rather than offer up his interpretation of a role many before him have already made their mark on.

He hits the perfect balance here, so Peter has nothing to worry about.  He is both charming and a little devilish at the same time as Charlie.  No wonder Natalie is swept off her feet!

Lunenburg is far and away the strongest play of the season and a great way to end the season, too.  It sets the scene for an even better Foster Festival next year, when once again there will be two world premieres.

You still have time to catch Lunenburg.  It plays through this weekend as well as Wednesday through Friday of next week at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  For tickets and information, go to www.fosterfestival.com or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

The Foster Festival is now firmly entrenched in our summertime entertainment schedules.  If you have yet to determine if it should be included in yours, this production is the strongest argument in the affirmative yet.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2017.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Irish star Mary Black coming to Midland, Ontario this coming Monday night

I can't say I have written much in this space about Midland, Ontario, although I do have a connection to the city.  Back in the 60s I remember going to visit relatives who lived in Midland at the time; I can't remember just where in the city they were, but I still vividly remember a rainy day we all gathered at the house for a family affair and my aunt fell going down the steps when leaving and broke her hip.  She ended up going to the hospital in an ambulance that day, which I will never forget.

Okay, not the greatest memory to have of Midland, I admit, and as such I am probably due for a return visit if for no other reason than to come and go without the aid of an ambulance in either direction.  But it won't be this weekend as plans have already been made, unfortunately.

But if you still have time on your hands and feel the urge to hit the open road for a trip up north, Midland is as good a place as any to visit this weekend, or any other weekend for that matter.  Besides, celebrating all we have to enjoy in Ontario during the country's 150th anniversary celebrations is not such a bad idea, is it?

This Monday evening, being the holiday Monday or Simcoe Day if you want to be more formal about it, Irish singing star Mary Black makes her only Canadian appearance on her final North American tour.  The concert will be at the Midland Cultural Centre beginning at 8 pm.

Mary Black has tried to retire from touring before, but the offers to continue performing keep coming in, so what's an established working musical legend to do?  Keep going, at least for a little while longer.  The tour coincides with the 30th anniversary re-issue of the album By The Time It Gets Dark in 1987.

Black herself says it is hard to believe it has been 30 years since that album was first released, especially since it always was one of her favourites.  To celebrate the anniversary Black and her producers took the old 24-track tapes to be "baked", a process to preserve them, which allowed the team to then do a complete remix and remaster of the original album.

The original release of that album along with her first solo album, the largely pop-oriented Without the Fanfare resulted in Black being named Best Female Artist in the Irish Rock Music Awards Poll for two consecutive years in 1987 and '88.

It was a scant two years later her groundbreaking album No Frontiers took the international music scene by storm, establishing Black as a major concert draw in North America as well as elsewhere in the world.  The recording climbed to the Top 20 of the New Adult Contemporary chart in the United States and also became a top seller back home in Ireland.  In all Black has recorded and released 11 studio albums, the last being back in 2012.

Prior to releasing her self-titled debut album in 1982, which made it to the Top Five on the Irish album charts and won the Irish Independent Arts Award for Music, Black spent many years performing with her brother and sister in nightclubs in and around Dublin.  She also spent time performing with a folk group named General Humbert.

So Mary Black is by no means an overnight sensation.  She has long since established herself as a top-calibre international artist equally at home singing traditional Irish folk tunes as well as more contemporary blues, rock, jazz and even country music.  And she will bring all of that and more to Midland's Cultural Centre this coming Monday evening.

Opening for Mary Black this Monday will be rising young artist Roisin O, one of Irelands more promising young up and coming artists.

The doors open at 7:30 and the show starts at 8; for tickets go to www.midlandculturalcentre.com or call 1-705-527-4420.

Have a great holiday weekend!

August 3rd, 2017.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Second Foster Festival production of the second season a winner

Last evening my far better half and I walked downtown to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre for the second production of year two for The Foster Festival, Norm Foster's Old Love.  Bookended by a couple of world premieres this season, the middle production did not disappoint.

Old Love is what you might call an "oldie but goodie" in the Foster canon, and an easy choice for almost any summer theatre company as it usually employs just two actors portraying a number of roles.  That being said, if you go with the two-actor option you had best be sure you have a formidable duo making up the cast or else the whole thing could fall flat.

Director Patricia Vanstone chose this riskier route rather than employ several actors to fill the roles, and without question it was a wise decision.  The theatrical high-wire act for this production utilizes the considerable talents of real-life husband-and-wife team of Booth Savage and Janet-Laine Green.

Savage and Green are comfortable enough with each other after all these years they can easily and fluidly move from role to role without much effort at all.  With few props to add to the characterizations, they bring many nuances to their various roles that add important definition to each part so as not to confuse the audience.

The simple yet effective set by Peter Hartwell and sympathetic lighting by David Tkach combine to further provide the fluid movement from character to character on stage.  Together the whole makes for a satisfying evening of quality theatre.

The story revolves around Bud, a hard-working newbie at a company owned by Molly's husband Frank.  At least he was a newbie 25 years ago when he first set eyes on Molly at the company Christmas party.  The impression Molly made on Bud was obviously significant because he thought of her off and on for many years thereafter, even during his lengthy marriage to master-promoter Kitty.

Fast-forward those 25 years and we find now-divorced Molly grieving at the graveside for ex-husband Frank, when who should also appear but Bud.  She didn't remember him, but oh did he remember her.  So much so he made a special effort to be there that day for the funeral and in his own clumsy way, try to put the move on Molly while Frank was barely cold in the box underground.

Therein lies the plot for Old Love.  Bud tries so very hard to get Molly to take a chance on love again after all these years and Molly not wanting any part of it, at least for now.  The witty repartee between the two is classic Norm Foster, combining the perfect balance of seriousness and frivolity according to the situation.

As mentioned earlier, it takes a special couple to pull off the multiple roles and with but a few verbal mis-steps by Green last evening, the chemistry between the two worked flawlessly.  They appear at times acerbic, sentimental, funny and even brutally honest with each other as the scene allows.

Old Love wraps up its run at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre tomorrow evening, so there is still time to snag some tickets if you have not already done so.  Go online to www.fosterfestival.com or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

Next week, the final production of the season opens, and it is the second world premiere for the season, Lunenburg, running from August 2nd to the 18th.  It should be a great way to end an already successful season for The Foster Festival.

Have a great weekend!

July 27th, 2017.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Tale of Two Music Festivals - Part 2

Last week I wrote about the start of the two music festivals in Ontario I have had the pleasure of attending over the years, and given the fact I have enjoyed both on the weekend, I thought a recap and update of each festival might be in order this week.

On Friday evening I attended the Opening Gala for Music Niagara at the acoustically lovely St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the concert title A Musical Kaleidoscope proved to be quite accurate.

The performance opened with a wonderfully creative reading of Vivaldi's ever-popular Four Seasons, although the lead instrument was not the violin in this case but rather the harp.  It brought an interesting bit of colour and renewed interest in this very familiar work, making it sound fresh all over again.  The harpist, Floraleda, commanded attention throughout the performance for her fine playing.

The world premiere of Composer-in-Residence Barbara Croall's Bimaawadaaso was next, and the piece was certainly intriguing.  Subtitled "They travel along in a group", the piece was scored for violin, the Anishinaabe cedar flute known as the pipigwan, the Syrian national instrument known as the bozoq, voice and string quartet.  The work featured two young Syrian performers who in fact were Syrian refugees who came to Canada just last year, Esmaeel Sharafadin and Rahaf Alakbani; they also performed a traditional Syrian folk song together prior to intermission.

The second half of the program was truly a stunner with a spirited performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D minor, with the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra accompanying young violin soloist Emma Meinrenken.  Emma, all of 18 years of age, was a commanding stage presence in her own right, taking control of the youthful Mendelssohn concerto from the start.  A student of Artistic Director Atis Bankas, she is a graduate of the Music Niagara Performance Academy.

There is still lots of music left before the Music Niagara season wraps up August 13th with the Closing Gala at St. Mark's Church.  This weekend for example, Scotch Mary perform Friday evening at 6, part of the Market in The Village event, and on Saturday there is a wine and music event scheduled for Hare Wine Co. on Highway 55 starting at 11:30 in the morning.  The rest of the weekend will feature the Swiss Piano Trio Saturday evening at 7:30 at St. Mark's and Jeffrey Arthur and the Trio late Saturday evening at The Epicurean.  On Sunday, Two Row Dancers & Singers perform in Simcoe Park at 12 noon and a concert entitled Get Ready to Tuba (!) happens Sunday afternoon at 3 at St. Mark's.

For full concert season details and more information on tickets, go to www.musicniagara.org or call 905-468-2172.

Meantime up in Elora, the 38th season of the Elora Festival kicked off Friday night with an Opening Gala at the Gambrel Barn recreating the popular Last Night of the Proms from England with conductor Bramwell Tovey leading The Elora Singers, Elora Festival Orchestra and The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  Since I was up at Music Niagara's Opening Gala I was not able to make it up to Elora for Friday evening, but we did make it on Sunday afternoon.

One thing about the Elora Festival, they don't waste any time or space when it comes to scheduling concerts over the two-week festival.  We attended the first concert of the day on Sunday at St. John's Church in the heart of town where Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin performed a 70-minute concert of mostly French and English songs, with some Spanish thrown in for good measure.

Gauvin is a spectacular vocalist and appears to be a very nice person, too.  She strikes me as the type of person you would love to invite over for a family dinner and have her regale you with stories of her varied musical career.  If there was a fault in the performance it was that it was simply too short.

But with scheduling being what it was, the space was needed for the next performance, the Britten Saint Nicholas Cantata scheduled for the same space at 4 pm.  Indeed, we were barely out of the church before musicians started coming in to prepare for the 4 pm performance.  In the evening young Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman performed at the Wellington County Museum Exhibit Hall.

Still to come, Emily D'Angelo will be heard in recital this evening at St. John's Church; tomorrow afternoon the Elora Festival Kids Camp is in full swing at 4 and a concert of Bach Magnificats is scheduled for the evening in the Gambrel Barn featuring The Elora Singers and the Trinity College Choir.  Saturday Mary-Lou Falls and Peter Tiefenbach pair up for Primadonna Choralis at St. John's Church at 1 pm; the Penderecki Quartet team up with the Dave Young Trio in the same space at 3:30 pm, and Canadian musical icon Gordon Lightfoot takes to the Gambrel Barn stage at 8 pm Saturday night.

On Sunday there are three concerts scheduled, the first of which we will be attending at 2 pm at Knox Church, featuring the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Nos. 1 & 5 and the Cantata No. 140.  Performers include The Elora Singers, the Elora Festival Orchestra and Artistic Director Noel Edison conducting.  At 4 pm the Trinity College Choir from England performs in the Gambrel Barn featuring works by Part, Byrd, Tallis and many others, and in the evening the Wellington County Museum Exhibit Hall will be hosting the Bach Goldberg Variations scored for String Trio, featuring the Berard-Janzen Trio at 7 pm.

More performances will follow before the Elora Festival wraps up on July 30th with something called a Hymn Tasting at 4 pm at St. John's Church.

For more information on the balance of the schedule or to order tickets, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 1-519-846-0331.

Both festivals offer up a wealth of great musical entertainment to appeal to many musical tastes, and I can't think of a better way to spend a summer afternoon or evening in either town enjoying some great music-making.

Have a great weekend!

July 20th, 2017.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A tale of two Ontario music festivals

It's July and for many that means the summer music festival season is in full swing in Ontario.  We are lucky in these parts to have so many great music festivals to choose from, most less than a day's drive away for a quick summertime getaway.

Whether you choose Parry Sound, Ottawa, Hamilton or Stratford, for example, you are guaranteed some great classical and jazz music for several weeks at a stretch.  I have had the pleasure of visiting several of the summer music festivals in the province over the years, but two of my favourites are not far away and both start their music-making this very weekend.

Right in our own backyards, Music Niagara has quietly build a solid reputation as the go-to music destination in Niagara during July and August.  Based almost entirely in the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Music Niagara hosts a five-week festival ranging from classical to choral, jazz to even some country from now to August 13th.

The Opening Gala concert tomorrow evening at St. Mark's Anglican Church is billed as a Musical Kaleidoscope, starting with an opening reception at 6:30 and the concert at 7:30 pm.  Among the artists performing tomorrow evening will be Music Niagara Performance Academy graduate violinist Emma Meinrenken and the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra performing the ever-popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor.  Also on the programme is the world premiere of Music Niagara's Composer-in-Residence Barbara Croall's new work for violin, pipigwan, bozoq, voice and string quartet, entitled "Bimaawadaaso".

The two unusual-sounding and perhaps unheard-of instruments in that performance are of course the pipigwan, an Anishinaabe cedar flute, and the bozoq, a Syrian national instrument.  Canadian newcomers Esmaeel Sharafadin is featured on the bozoq and Rahaf Alakbani is the featured vocalist.

Performances continue almost daily throughout the Festival with performances by artists as diverse as  The Thorold Reed Band, clarinet virtuoso James Campbell, the Gould String Quartet, contrabassist Joel Quarrington and pianist Andre Laplante, among others.

On Sunday, August 6th a special Confederation Celebration to mark our country's Sesquicentennial will feature music from the Founding Fathers along with Canada's own Healey Willan.  Performers are Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu.

The Closing Gala on August 13th also features an all-Canadian celebration with a concert entitled All Canadian Flavours featuring crowd favourites Quartetto Gelato.  The opening act will feature Quartetto Gelato accordionist Alexander Sebastian with the Gould String Quartet presenting the world premiere of a work by Canadian composer Dmitriy Varelas and his father Anatolyi Varelas entitled Taste of Freedom from String Quartet and Accordion.  The new world celebrates the 225th anniversary of the first Parliament of Upper Canada and first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, who helped to abolish slavery in Canada in 1793.

There is plenty more to enjoy as Artistic Director Atis Bankas pulls out all the stops to make Music Niagara's 19th season an extra-special affair to mark our country's 150th anniversary as a nation.  The quality of the music-making is top-notch and the programmes are as varied as you could possibly wish for.

Sound intriguing?  Find out more by going online to www.musicniagara.org or by phone at 905-468-2172.

Meantime a short drive away will take you to another lovely small Ontario town with a big musical profile for many years, Elora just north-west of Guelph.  The Elora Festival has been around exactly twice as long as Music Niagara at 38 years and all of those years have been programmed by Artistic Director Noel Edison.

I fell in love with Elora many years ago when I visited to attend a performance at the old Elora Mill Inn as part of the Guelph Spring Festival back in 1985.  The Guelph Spring Festival is now history, unfortunately but the town made quite an impression on me that has lasted all these years.

When my wife and I began attending Elora Festival events about a dozen years or so ago, the love affair with the town was rekindled yet again and grown so much we can't bear to not visit the town at least once each season if not more.

This year to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary since Confederaton, Noel has programmed a spectacular multimedia show by Hugh Brewster entitled With Glowing Hearts which will feature a host of special guest artists.   The performance will be on Saturday, July 29th at 7 pm in the Gambrel Barn.

But there is much to enjoy sooner than that as the Festival gets underway tomorrow night with the Opening Night Gala, Night of the Proms featuring The Elora Singers and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joining forces with full orchestra for an unforgettable night of British classics like Rule Britannia and Elgar's First Pomp & Circumstance March.  Bramwell Tovey of the Vancouver Symphony conducts the performance tomorrow night in the Gambrel Barn.

Other Festival highlights include a sold-out performance by Canada's most-acclaimed Bach interpreter since Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt on July 15th at 1 pm at St. John's Church.  I first met Angela when she won the International Bach Competition back in the 80s and I have followed her career ever since.

It was a nice bit of serendipity when, during the United States Presidential Election coverage last November I Tweeted I chose to listen to her grand recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Books One & Two instead.  To my surprise she "Liked" my Tweet!  How's that for social media?!

Also featured this season is Canadian singer Susan Aglukark on July 15th in the Gambrel Barn at 7 pm; soprano Karina Gauvin at St. John's Church at 2 pm on July 16th, and the Trinity College Choir in Concert at the Gambrel Barn at 4 pm on July 23rd.  A real highlight for many will be a performance by Canada's iconic singer Gordon Lightfoot on July 22nd at the Gambrel Barn at 8 pm.

The Elora Festival runs only two weeks encompassing three weekends, but they always pack a lot of entertainment into the calendar.  There is literally something for everyone this year to celebrate the country's Sesquicentennial.  And the fact the town itself is supremely liveable and walkable is an added bonus.

For more on the Elora Festival this year, go online to www.elorafestival.ca or call 1-519-846-0331.

Have a great weekend and we'll see you at a Festival this month!

July 13th, 2017.

Friday, July 7, 2017

First show of the season at The Foster Festival closes tonight

Tonight is your last chance to catch the opening show of the second season of The Foster Festival in downtown St. Catharines, and if you have not already done so, you really should go.  My far better half and I did just that on Wednesday night, so I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on the production before it closes.

As you no doubt know by now, The Foster Festival celebrates Canada's greatest living playwright, Norm Foster, who rarely goes through a summer without several of his plays in production somewhere in Canada on the summer theatre circuit.  But until last season there was not an entire festival dedicated to his theatrical genius.

Festival co-founders Patricia Vanstone and Emily Oriold changed all that when they announced in June of 2015 they were starting The Foster Festival, set to launch last season at the brand new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  It was a gamble of course, hoping locals would come downtown on a summer afternoon or evening for a performance of a funny play and maybe spend a few bucks while down there on dinner before or after the show.

Last year got off to a bit of a slow start, I think, as people had to warm to the notion of not going to Niagara-on-the-Lake for their summer theatre fix, but at least the novelty of the brand spanking new theatre space would work in their favour during the first season.

This year, expectations are raised after the successful first year and the novelty of the new space has now worn off.  So, are we in a better position than we were this time last year?

The answer is an unequivocal vote in the affirmative.

Hey, we may not have Shaw, but we have Foster.  And if I had a choice for who I would want to see at an after-theatre party, I think Foster would be way more fun.

Norm Foster has a way of taking everyday situations and making them funnier.  He knows human nature better than most and translates that into plays in which we often see ourselves and in so doing, allows us to discover that in fact, we as Canadians can be a pretty funny lot.

Having said all that, the first of two World Premieres this season is vintage Norm Foster sure, but left this reporter a little disappointed at the end.  Oh sure, Screwball Comedy is funny all right, but I don't think it's his best work, really.

Not taking anything away from the production, which is magnificent, but this comedy doesn't hold a mirror up to us quite as much as past successes do, and as such I found the comedy quotient not quite as high as we are accustomed to.

Screwball Comedy is set in 1938, an era when jobs were hard to come by for many and even more so for women, especially in the male-dominated world of journalism.  Back then the so-called 'ink-stained wretches' were almost always hard-nosed, hard-drinking males and adding a woman to the mix would simply cramp their style.

That is exactly what Foster set out to do by introducing Mary Hayes to us:  she is the grand-daughter of legendary newspaperman Charlie Hayes, we're told, so her journalistic background is solid even if her work experience is sparse.  Hayes applies for a job at the local newspaper and comes face-to-face with crusty newspaperman Bosco, who after initial reticence decides to give Mary a chance.

Bosco decides to pit young Mary up against the paper's star reporter, the aforementioned hard-nosed newspaper reporter Jeff Kincaid.  They would both cover an important society event involving the female owner of the paper and may the best story teller win.

From there we are introduced to a host of characters as both Mary and Jeff uncover more details about the society wedding that is planned, and they discover a lot about themselves, too.  For one thing, they discover Kincaid may not be quite as hard-nosed as he makes himself out to be.

In the end, one of them will win and either get the job or get to keep his job.  I won't give away the ending here, but suffice it to say both players in this exercise get some good lines and have a lot of fun bringing the story home, as it were.

The cast assembled by director Vanstone could not be better.  Cosette Derome as Mary is winsome, a little bit sexy (this is 1938, after all) and street smart.  Her adversary cum love interest Jeff Kincaid is played by Darren Keay, who returns from a successful run last season at the Festival.  Kincaid is full of himself, sure, but has a vulnerability young Mary mines for all its worth.

The rest of the cast, all two of them, play the remainder of the seven characters.  If nothing else, that tells you something about the quality of the cast assembled here.  Kevin Hare displays exceptional comic timing as Bosco, Reginald, Peter and Chauncey, and Eliza-Jane Scott gets lots of mileage out of her comic turns as Jones, Delores and Gloria.  From four actors we have nine finely defined and very funny characters.

Peter Hartwell's set is an evocative art deco marvel of economy and the lighting of Chris Malkowski is just right.

Based on the quality of the first season, my wife and I decided to become season subscribers this year and we are very happy to be so.  This is exactly the quality of theatre we need to bring people downtown in the summertime.  Not just theatre-goers per se, but those who have never experienced live theatre on this level before.

The Shaw Festival has nothing to worry about here:  they will still be a destination in Niagara for quality theatre as they have been for years.  But The Foster Festival is the new upstart in town, into a second season and doing just fine, thank you very much.

Last performance of Screwball Comedy is tonight at 8 pm at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  If you have plans, change them.  If you don't have plans, you owe it to yourself to go.  It will be time well spent laughing with like-minded souls.

Call the box office for tickets or go online to www.fosterfestival.com.

Have a great weekend!

July 7th, 2017.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Shaw Festival in full swing with Tim Carroll as new Artistic Director

Last week I wrote of the impending opening of the second season of the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, and how that fledgling festival is making believers out of those who might have doubted the wisdom of starting a live theatre festival in the city during the summer months.

In a way, it is history repeating itself as many will recall the heady days of 1962 in once-sleepy Niagara-on-the-Lake when local lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty along with Buffalo's Calvin G. Rand persuaded influential locals to support a "Salute to Shaw'.  The inaugural season of the fledgling Shaw Festival began on June 29th in the Assembly Room of the historic Court House, featuring four performances each of Don Juan in Hell and Candida.

For season two, the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation was established as a non-profit organization with Calvin Rand becoming the first Chair of the Board of Governors, and the Festival acquiring their first Artistic Director in the person of Andrew Allen.

Over the years there have been ups and downs with the Festival, and for the past 35 years or so I have been fortunate to document many of those either on the air during my radio days or in this space for the past several seasons.  Happily there have been far more ups than downs at the Festival, and the current season appears to provide many more of the former and very few of the latter.

The 2017 edition of the Shaw Festival is the first with new Artistic Director Timothy Carroll at the helm, succeeding Jackie Maxwell who did an admirable job since taking over for long-time Artistic Director Christopher Newton back in 2003.

Each incoming Artistic Director pays homage to the building blocks added by their predecessor in building the Festival, yet imprints the first season with their own particular vision and where they plan to take the Festival in the future.  Mr. Carroll is no different.

Timothy has stated he wants to introduce Shaw patrons to what he calls "two-way theatre", an experience where the audience's engagement begins before they even arrive in Niagara-on-the-Lake and continues throughout many of the plays with a certain degree of "interativeness" built in to some of the offerings.

Still and all, some things you simply cannot change and that is certainly the case with the flagship musical at the large Festival Theatre.  It has to be a crowd-pleaser and fill theatre seats in order to ensure a profitable theatre season, and from what I've heard Me and My Girl is doing just that.  Featuring a book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber with revisions by Stephen Fry and contributions by Mike Ockrent, the musical is a comic romp harkening back to the 30s.

Music is by Noel Gay with musical direction by Paul Sportelli and choreography by Parker Esse.  Director Ashlie Corcoran has assembled an all-star cast including long-time Stratford Festival star Michael Therriault joined by Kristi Frank, Neil Barclay, Donna Belleville, Julia Course and a host of others.

Me and My Girl runs at the Festival Theatre until October 15th.

A more problematic Shaw play also appears at the Festival Theatre until October 15th:  Saint Joan is directed by Tim Carroll and stars Sara Topham in the title role, along with Gray Powell, Wade Bogert-O'Brien, Benedict Campbell and Tom McCamus among others.

Saint Joan is arguably Shaw's greatest play and has been produced at the Festival at least a couple of times before that I can recall, and provides a calling-card of sorts for Carroll in his first directorial role at the Festival.

Rounding out the offerings at the Festival Theatre is Bram Stoker's Dracula, adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead.  Eda Holmes directs this Gothic classic with a cast that includes Allan Louis, Marla McLean, Ben Sanders, Martin Happer and several other Shaw regulars.

Dracula previews begin July 8th and it opens officially July 29th, running until October 14th.

Over at the Court House Theatre, Philip Akin directs Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille's 1837:  The Farmers' Revolt.  This modern Canadian classic dates from 1973 and traces the trials and tribulations of immigrant farmers struggling to turn Upper Canada's forests into farmland.

The play, appropriate for our 150th anniversary year, stars Shaw stalwarts Donna Belleville, Sherry Flett, Rick Reid, Marla McLean and a host of others.  It runs to October 8th.

The second Shaw offering of the season is also one that takes audience participation and interaction to a new level.  Androcles and the Lion is the second play this season to be directed by Tim Carroll, who promises every performance will be a little different thanks to the audience involvement.  Just warning you, if you are the more reserved type...

Androcles and the Lion looks at a group of early Christians in ancient Rome, waiting to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum.  The show stars Neil Barclay, Kyle Blair, Julia Course, Patrick Galligan, Patty Jamieson and a host of others and it is the depth of this strong cast that pulls off this theatrical high-wire act with aplomb.  It runs to October 7th.

The final offering at the Court House Theatre is the Lunchtime One-Act offerings, this time four Oscar Wilde stories collectively billed as Wilde Tales.  The stories, The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant are all geared towards a younger audience, but adults will not be bored by the offerings either.  Christine Brubaker is the director and the stories are adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig.

Children are being invited to attend a pre-show one-hour workshop with actors for an additional fee, and it will appeal to those in the 6 to 12 age group.  Wilde Tales continues at the Court House Theatre until October 7th as well.

Over at the Royal George Theatre, the must-see show appears to be Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, directed by Kevin Bennett and starring another fabulous 'get' from the Stratford Festival, Tom McCamus.  It's been several years since Tom last appeared at Shaw, and this time he is joined by the likes of Lisa Berry, Rebecca Gibian, Martin Happer, Patrick McManus and Jim Mezon, among others.

For all performances of The Madness of George III, there is limited on-stage seating available, by the way, where you will be encouraged to be part of the show.  Madness runs through to October 15th.

Another Brian Friel play is being staged at Shaw this year:  Dancing at Lughnasa is directed by Krista Jackson and in spite of the title, it is nothing like the carefree dancing movies of Astaire and Rogers we grew up with.  Rather, the play is set in 1930s Ireland, and traces the lives of five women trying to eke out an existence in a land where no tears are without laughter and no laughter is without tears.

The Tony Award-winner for Best Play, Dancing at Lughnasa continues at the Royal George until October 15th as well.

The final offering at the Royal George is An Octoroon by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by the always challenging Peter Hinton.  The original play by Dion Boucicault dates from 1859 when it was considered a masterpiece.  It's a story of a plantation owner who falls for a woman of mixed race; at the time it was seen as a plea for racial tolerance but today modern theatre-goers have a different take on the subject matter.  Still, this modern telling of the tale by Jacobs-Jenkins won an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014.

Be forewarned, though, the play is full of strong language and challenging ideas.  Previews start July 16th and the play opens July 28th and closes October 14th.  Cast members include Andre Sills, Lisa Berry, Ryan Cunningham and Diana Donnelly, among others.

The Studio Theatre has been renamed the Maxwell Studio Theatre in honour of former Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, of course, and there are two offerings in the smaller space this season.  The first is Will Eno's Middletown, directed by Meg Roe and starring Moya O'Connell and Gray Powell, along with Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Jeff Meadows and several others.  Middletown looks at average people in an average town in North America living average lives, yet all looking for love in their own way.

Middletown previews begin July 13th and it opens July 30th, running until September 10th.

The second offering at the Maxwell Studio Theatre is Michael Healey's play 1979, a co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company.  Directed by Eric Coates, 1979 tells the story of  Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, whose inability to bend the rules resulted in his time in office being incredibly short.  I lived during those days and remember the furor over the gas-price hike that ultimately resulted in his government's downfall, and I remember vividly working the election night when he lost the office to the returning Pierre Trudeau.

1979 stars Sanjay Talwar with support from Marion Day and Kelly Wong and runs from October 1st to the 14th.

There is lots to see and do at Shaw this season, including so-called 'Secret Theatre' performances scattered throughout the season, and lots of pre-theatre discussions and such as well.

Intrigued?  You should be.  More information on the entire season can be had by going to www.shawfest.com, and you can also order tickets online or by calling the box office at 1-800-511-SHAW.

Enjoy the rest of your Canada Day weekend!

July 2nd, 2017.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Second Season of The Foster Festival set to get underway in St. Catharines

Hard to believe, but the second season of The Foster Festival is now underway at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  Previews are underway now and the new season officially kicks off tomorrow night, so let's take a few moments and look at what's on tap this year and why you should go...

I noted last season, the Festival's first in St. Catharines, things were a little slow getting off the mark in June, due likely to the fact we simply were not accustomed to live theatre downtown, especially during the summer months.  Oh sure, we had Carousel Players and Essential Collective Theatre working out of the theatre space in the old courthouse next to the market during the winter months, but even with all their hard work and quality productions, crowds were often still small and infrequent.

So it was logical to ask if the city would/could support a live theatre festival during the heat of the summer months in downtown St. Catharines, given the right ingredients.  The answer now, of course, is a resounding 'yes'.

The right ingredients include a proper and exceptional theatre space in the Cairns Recital Hall at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and a festival devoted to the plays of arguably Canada's greatest living playwright, Norm Foster.  After all, most if not all Ontario summer theatre festivals feature at least one Norm Foster play per season, simply because they are considered 'guaranteed win' nights for summer theatre.

Norm began his playwriting career with The Melville Boys in 1984 and has not looked back since, producing now an average of one new play per year.  Yet amazingly, no theatre festival has ever been devised to celebrate his large catalogue of works like say, the Shaw Festival has built up around the works of George Bernard Shaw.

Until now.

I remember two summers ago attending the media launch of The Foster Festival downtown, when plans were announced for the new festival the following summer - 2016 - at the new PAC downtown.  Hopes and spirits were high the festival would take off and I think as the summer season wore on last year, the somewhat slow start turned into a gallop towards the end as the festival became one of the most talked-about summer events of the season.

That optimism certainly will spill over into this year as the maiden voyage has proven there is indeed an audience out there ready to come downtown and take in some quality theatre on a summer night or  one of the matinee performances.

Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Executive Director Emily Oriold read the theatrical tea-leaves at the end of the season last year and found some things they could tweak this year, including less early-week performances when audiences were rather thin last year.  Their adjustments should ensure more bums are in the seats for performances that remain and everyone will be happy theatrical campers, one would assume.

So, what's on tap for this season, you ask?  Not one but two world premieres this year sandwiched between a Foster classic.

Previews are already underway for the first new play of the season, Screwball Comedy, which officially opens tomorrow night at 8 and from what I hear is completely sold out.  Set in 1938, the story centres around Mary Hayes, a young wannabe newspaper reporter trying to break into a very male-dominated world.  Given a chance to report on a society wedding pits Mary against veteran reporter Jeff Kincaid, in the editor's bad books for his less than sparkling performances as of late.

The dialogue reflects the time period reminiscent of The Front Page, which filled seats at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  Screwball Comedy will likely be a perfect start to the season.  It runs until July 7th and stars Cosette Derome, Kevin Hare, Darren Keay and Eliza-Jane Scott.

Next up from July 12th to the 28th is Foster's classic Old Love, about a recently divorced Bud meeting newly-widowed Molly.  They meet at her husband's funeral, no less, and the story traces their courtship, rekindled romance and the importance of hope.  Real-life husband & wife team of Janet Laine-Green and Booth Savage star in the second show of the season.

The second world premiere and final offering of the season is Lunenburg, involving an American widow, Iris, who along with good friend Natalie arrive in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to a house Iris has inherited from her recently deceased husband.  This was all news to Iris, but she meets up with neighbour Charlie who happily brings the girls up to speed on what they need to know.  Lunenberg stars Shaw Festival regulars Melanie Janzen, Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.

Patricia Vanstone will be busy this summer as she directs all three productions, I'm told.  And yes, Norm Foster himself, who starred in the opening show last year opposite Vanstone, will be attending the season launch tomorrow night.

Want tickets?  Log on to www.fosterfestival.com for more information and ordering online, or call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722, or stop by the box office downtown to pick up your tickets in advance.

This promises to be a great festival and a wonderful way to spend some time downtown this summer, perhaps catching dinner and a show right in your own backyard.  What could be better than that?

Have a great week!

June 22nd, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

TD Niagara Jazz Festival set to heat up your summer of 2017

There has been a flurry of activity lately regarding the TD Niagara Jazz Festival, founded just four years ago by local jazz performers and impresarios Peter Shea and Juliet Dunn.  Just last week, in fact, they announced the musical lineup for the main summer festival, scheduled for the last weekend of July, so let's look at some of that activity and why you should consider spending some time cooling off on those hot summer nights with some cool jazz...

One of the nice aspects of the festival that actually runs all year long is the Twilight Jazz series, featuring both local performers and those from further afield at intimate settings in Niagara.  Just over a week ago we attended the performance featuring Guelph-area jazz singer Brenda Lewis, whom I have known for several years now through Facebook and regular email contact, yet we had never met.

This was a chance to finally catch Brenda in action along with her musical partner, guitarist Margaret Stowe, in the cosy confines of the Mahtay Cafe & Lounge downtown.  They didn't disappoint, as the Great American Songbook was well represented through three sets of lovely easy-going jazz.  It's typical of what you can expect throughout the year at the Twilight Jazz series and I was happy to be a part of the audience that night.

Juliet Dunn, the indefatigable Co-Creator and Executive Director of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival was there of course, and invited me to the media launch of the 2017 season a couple of days later at the Hare Winery Company in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I was more than happy to take her up on the offer!

Part of the announcement included a contribution of $50,000 for the festival from title sponsors TD Canada Trust, presented by District Vice-President Coby Hawkins.  Further funding is provided by the Province of Ontario's Media Development Corporation, Celebrate Ontario, Ontario 150 as well as a number of other supporters both local and provincial.

The TD NJF received the prestigious award of Best New Festival in Ontario for 2017 and considering it is barely four years old now, that is indeed something to celebrate.  It has come from a tremendous amount of work on the part of Juliet, Peter and their legion of volunteers and supporters; the community support shown for the not-for-profit festival is a direct result of this dedication and the quality of the product they are putting out there throughout the season.

One of the highlights of the new season is their Canada 150 initiative:  Live Learn Jazz:  A Canadiana Suite.  This ongoing series saw legendary saxophonist Pat LaBarbera performing at Henry of Pelham Winery last Thursday evening, in fact.  Still to come in the series on July 6th, Vibes in the Vines will be presented at Stratus Vineyards featuring Randy Stirtzinger and Graham Lear.  The event is almost sold-out but if you act fast you should still be able to get tickets to that event.

The main event weekend from July 28th to the 30th will cover a lot of ground and several venues throughout Niagara.  The flagship event will take place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on the Friday evening beginning at 8, with a concert entitled Jazz and Funk in the City.  Featured artists include the Andrean Farrugia Trio and Chops n' Soul with Joel Parisien.  That same night beginning at 10:30 across the street at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, Jam in the City will present the TD Niagara Jazz Festival House Band led by local legend Randy Stirtzinger.

On the Saturday events run all day long, beginning at 11:30 am with the first of the Jazz on the River cruises aboard the Niagara Belle, featuring Dr. Jazz and the Jazzbugs performing classic Dixieland jazz.  Jazz in the Park, meantime, takes over the stage at Simcoe Park in Niagara on the Lake from 11 am to 7 pm with performances by the likes of the Jazz.FM 91 Youth Big Band, the Jimmy Stahl Big Band and Zach Preston's Latin Ensemble, among others at the Fallsview Fiesta Stage.

There are performances as well on the Henley Honda Stage including the Melissa-Marie Shriner Jazz Trio, the Barbra Lica Quartet and the Robert Fekete Quintet; on the Long and McQuade Live Learn Jazz Stage meantime, several more performances will take place including choral singing with Cinnamon Jones and Choir Nation with Sophia Perlman.  Many of these stage performances are free of charge, by the way.

On the final day, Sunday July 30th, the Jazz on the River cruise is presently sold out, but the free stage events continue in Simcoe Park with more performances by the likes of Turbo Street Funk, the Juliann Kuchocki & Dave Restivo Duo and the Stu MacDonald Quartet, among others.

I'm happy to see a tribute to the celebrated Canadian jazz musician Moe Koffman scheduled for 2 pm on Sunday featuring Bernie Senensky's Moe Koffman Legacy Band with Bill McBirnie.  At 7 pm in the evening a concert celebrating the one and only Oscar Peterson will feature local jazz giant John Sherwood along with Dave Young and Terry Clarke.

As if all that isn't enough, there are Tent Talks events scheduled for Saturday in Simcoe Park, and leading up to the big weekend you can catch a free jazz art exhibit on July 27th from 7 to 9 pm at the Niagara Artists Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  It's a free event, by the way.

If all this gets your senses reeling and you need to be a part of it, weekend passes are available in various forms to catch as much or as little as you want.  Just visit www.niagarajazzfestival.com for more details, pricing and availability.

I will be updating my website calendar page shortly with the events as well, at www.finemusic.ca.

There is simply no excuse to be bored in Niagara ever, and this summer especially so with events such as the TD Niagara Jazz Festival happening.  Why not get out and enjoy some great jazz right here in Niagara?

Have a great week!

June 15th, 2017.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

An update on my career path

It's been a little while since I updated you on my career path which, as you know, has taken a few detours over the last couple of years since my exit from radio broadcasting after 40 years of service.  So this weekend I'll bring you up to speed on the current situation which includes some positive changes.

As many of you know in the fall of 2015 I began my New Adventure with Canada Post, after a rather rigorous selection process.  At the time I was pleasantly surprised I made it all the way through the various screening processes and had a new career as a casual, on-call letter carrier in St. Catharines.  I was told back then don't count on making this your only job as it is only on-call, but for me at least, I had more than enough work to keep me going most of the year.

There were down times for us casuals in late April/early May and late September/early October, but otherwise I was working almost every day.  So for me, the down time allowed me some much-needed rest and recharge for the next round of busy work schedules.  We knew going in this would be the case, but again for me, I was fine with it.

The goal of the casual worker is to get hired on permanently at Canada Post, although this can often take years to accomplish as older workers retire and positions open up.  The fact others can transfer in to this area and take a position based on seniority can slow the process down as well.  But you always hold out hope this will someday happen, hopefully sooner rather than later.

After another winter walking the routes in all sorts of inclement weather, I debated whether I would continue once I hit the age of 60 marker, which happens later this coming week.  I was getting tired and my back was starting to ache by the end of those long walks.  I was a late starter at this game and although I worked hard to keep up with the 'young bucks' I was usually the last one out of the depot in the morning and the last one back at the end of the shift.

Still and all, it is a great job and you meet a lot of great people on your walks.  The nice days are usually a pleasure; who can resist walking in the sunshine on a nice spring or fall day and getting paid to do it?  Granted, the nasty weather makes the walk less enjoyable but even then, properly protected from the elements you can manage to work through it well enough.

This past winter although snow was not as big an issue around these parts much of the season, the ice we had prior to Christmas and the March break blizzard both presented their challenges to us letter carriers both young and old alike.  But as they say, through snow, rain, hail, etc. the mail must go through and so it is on a daily basis at Canada Post.

While I was pondering my future back in March, slogging through knee-high snowdrifts while delivering the mail, I had a call from my supervisor asking if I would be interested in training for a temporary posting inside in the retail division.  It would involve extensive learning in order to know all the different aspects of the job to properly serve the customers in a timely manner, but after careful consideration I agreed to the opportunity.

So in April I did the required training following my last mail routes the week following Easter weekend.  I knew I would be posted to the main post office on Queen Street in downtown St. Catharines providing sick relief on what was expected to be a long-term basis.  While it was a steep learning curve I managed to get the hang of it and enjoyed meeting a lot of the downtown people I have known for years working in the centre of the city.  It was basically a 9 to 5 full time job inside, so what's not to like?

Then a funny thing happened.

The third week into my posting downtown I caught a very nasty cold and was off work for several days, which for me is unusual and rather ironic as I walked the entire winter outside with little trouble and once I get an inside job I catch a cold.  Go figure.  But as you are dealing with the public face to face and handling cash on a daily basis it is almost inevitable you will catch something.

By the third day of the cold I was particularly frustrated by my slow recovery when the phone rang.  It was the call every casual waits for.  I had been hired permanently at Canada Post!  Yes, I felt a little better after the call for sure!

There are different roles you can apply for at Canada Post, including of course full-time letter carrier. I gave careful thought to my choices but ultimately given my age and the number of years I had left before retirement, I included in my choices a part-time position working inside the depot helping with the morning sort and processing of parcels.  And that is the position I was hired for.

The day starts early, usually at 5.  But after years of getting up early for a 5 am start in radio I was well used to the routine so to me it was just like old times.  Being part time I only work four or five hours a day so I am usually done by either 9 or 10 in the morning depending on the shift and the volume of mail, and then the rest of the day is mine.

After a couple of weeks in my new position I couldn't be happier.  I am an early riser by nature anyway and there is a certain pleasure in getting the work day done very early, I find.  The shift often flies by on busy days and before I know it I am heading out and on my way to the Y to walk the track, shower and head home at noon for lunch.  The afternoon is mine to do whatever I wish.

Oh I will have no trouble filling the time in the afternoon, I can assure you.  Lots of things to do around the house I will now have time for, and on nice days when Sophie is working all day I can sneak out and enjoy an escape in the sunshine, as I did this past Friday afternoon.  What's not to like?

I also plan to do some things I simply have not had time for the last while such as writing more, both in this space and on a book or two I know I have in me.  I want to write about my experiences finding a second career late in life and weathering the tricky employment reality today, for one.  I even have a working title for the book, but that will be a well-kept secret for now.

While this is not a scenario that would suit everyone it is absolutely perfect for me.  I am at the stage in my life where I can work a little less and spend a little more time doing what I like and I have to admit I am ready for that.  For over fifty years now I have been working at one job or another in some capacity, and many years more than one job at once.  For me the time was right to slow down just a little and easy ever so gently into what I am calling semi-retirement.

I am blessed to have the opportunity to essentially end my career with Canada Post, working with a talented team of professionals I have an immense amount of respect for.  Every day brings with it new challenges and every day the team I work with rises to the challenge and shows what they're made of.  I am proud to have this opportunity to work alongside them every day.

So as the big 6-0 looms on the horizon this week, know I am exactly where I want to be at this stage in my life:  working in many ways to make the city a better place to be.  It will be a busy time, but this writer is looking forward to the challenge.

Onwards and upwards we go...join me for the ride of a lifetime!

June 4th, 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ensemble Vivant to pay tribute to Canadian musical icon Rick Wilkins this week

I've written before about the Toronto-based musical group Ensemble Vivant and their vivacious leader Catherine Wilson.  They last performed in Niagara earlier this year in the southern tier of the peninsula, as well as at our own FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in December as part of their Christmas Tidings tour of Ontario.

Catherine herself is no stranger to Niagara, having performed when the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts presented her as part of their ENCORE! performance schedule up at Brock a few seasons back as well.  On that occasion I managed to hook up with Catherine again after many years' separation after first meeting her in Elora back around 1991.  On that occasion she was performing as part of the then-annual Guelph Spring Festival and I was totally captivated by the lovely sound she produced at the keyboard.

I never expected her to remember me after all those years but she did, and within moments we were exchanging conversations like old friends who have never been apart.

That's the special magic of Catherine Wilson and by extension, her group Ensemble Vivant.  The small, tightly-knit musical ensemble performs a wide array of instrumental music ranging from traditional classical to tangos to just about everything else in between.  And they do it with an effortless style that makes it all look so easy.

But of course, it isn't.

Any performer will tell you it takes years of practice to become an overnight sensation and even then, you have to keep working at your craft to try to at least perfect perfection.  The truly talented musicians do make it look easy; moving from musical style to musical style with an almost chameleon ability other mere mortals simply marvel at.

As with The Beatles and the success they achieved being aided by the so-called Fifth Beatle, producer George Martin, Catherine Wilson and Ensemble Vivant have their musical ace in the hole as well in the form of gifted and multi-talented arranger and composer Rick Wilkins.  Wilkins, perhaps not that well known in his own right by the general public, is the man Toronto musicians have relied upon to provide the musical backing to make their performances and recordings something special.

Throughout his career, Wilkins has worked in a variety of musical genres and with a veritable who's who of music:  Oscar Peterson, Anne Murray, Burton Cummings, Peggy Lee, Celine Dion, Oliver Jones, John McDermott, Guido Basso, Julie Amato and Tommy Ambrose among them.  Heck he even worked with Wayne & Schuster!

During the 70s and 80s in particular I grew to admire his work in a somewhat more traditional way during my early days in radio, when Canadian radio stations relied heavily on recordings made for the Canadian Talent Library in order to fulfill their Canadian Content obligations.  While those 'obligations' might sound onerous to some, Rick managed to make the mundane into something magical by creating often gorgeous arrangements for the creme de la creme of Canadian music.  His arranging and/or conducting talents regularly showed up on CTL recordings by the likes of Hagood Hardy, Eugene Amaro, the Boss Brass and Jimmy Dale, among others.

I still have some of those hard-to-find LP recordings in my personal library to this very day, in fact.

Need more musical credentials?  He has had a prolific career in both radio and television, especially for the CBC network as well as for CTV.  Rick was also music director for a television series and several specials featuring The Jackson Five years ago on CBS, and also conducted part of the opening ceremonies for the Calgary Olympics.  The gala opening of Toronto's Skydome?  He was the musical director there as well.  The Hockey Night in Canada theme?  He didn't write it but he's scored and rescored it more than once, essentially scoring more often than the Maple Leafs back in the bad old days...

Throughout that prolific career, Rick has also written exclusively for Ensemble Vivant throughout the past 27 years, commenting recently of the group:  "This is the highest-level chamber music-making".

Indeed it is.

The love affair that has spanned 27 years between Catherine Wilson's Ensemble Vivant and Rick Wilkins will be celebrated this week in Toronto with a special tribute concert to mark Mr. Wilkins' 80th birthday this year.  The concert will feature compositions and arrangements Rick has contributed to the group over that time, highlighted by some other pretty high-powered Canadian talent as well.  Featured on the programme will be some of Canada's most renowned jazz artists including Brian Barlow, Mike Murley and Guido Basso.

The 80th Birthday Tribute Concert for Rick Wilkins happens this coming Thursday, May 11th at 7:30 at the lovely Grace Church on the Hill, 300 Lonsdale Road in Toronto.  Tickets are $45.00 and you can order yours by calling 416-465-8856.

A portion of the proceeds will go to EUTERPE, a charity providing under-serviced GTA children with access to live high-caliber classical and jazz concerts and musical education free of charge.  It is a charity Catherine personally has more than a passing interest in, believing passionately in the cause herself.

I unfortunately have a prior engagement here in St. Catharines Thursday evening but if you have the time and the inclination to go, you will not be disappointed.  You will be amazed by the breadth of musical talent Rick has helped to foster over the past several decades.

Have a great weekend!

May 7th, 2017.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

So much happening with Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts this spring!

I was looking through the listings of events and happenings in the month of April involving the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts and it struck me how fortunate we are to have such a thriving arts hub now located in the heart of the city.  So I thought I'd touch on a few of the more immediate events coming up you can enjoy here in the city courtesy our arts purveyors at Brock.

Last week the Brock University Department of Visual Arts Honours Exhibition opened at Rodman Hall Arts Centre on St. Paul Crescent.  Entitled Denouement, the exhibition features the works of Amber Brown, Becca Marshall, Kylie Mitchell, Robin Nisbet, Jasmine Said and Taylor Umer.  This is a free community event running through to April 30th and there will be an Artists Talk about the exhibition at Rodman Hall on April 21st at 7 pm.

The RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital series continues through to late April, featuring faculty and students from the Department of Music at Brock, and last Tuesday at noon I had a chance to attend the recital of voice students accompanied by pianist Lesley Kingham at the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

There were 7 voice students altogether, alternating with songs and arias from a variety of composers including Mozart, Arne, Brahms, Tosti, Copeland, Ravel, Debussy and several others.  All of the young students were impressive and show great promise, but I found Elizabeth Pereira particularly impressive with a great stage presence and expressive voice.

Other students on the programme included Awura-Adwoa Bonsu, Jessica Pierre, Emily Stockwell, Loris Isabettini, Karlie Boyle and William Sadler.  Sadler, incidentally, brought the audience to their feet at the end with a nicely-done rendition of Bring Him Home from Schonberg's popular musical Les Miserables.

The RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital series continues this Tuesday at noon with performances by piano and guitar students from the Department of Music, and once again the recital is free and open to the public.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy some great music over your lunch hour in the heart of the city.

Tonight at 7:30 the Brock University Choirs and Brock Music Alumni present a special finale concert in the Cairns Recital Hall.  The concert, appropriately entitled "Finale" is the farewell performance by  conductor Dr. Harris Loewen, who will be leaving his post at Brock after 30 years.  Joining the current men's, women's and mixed choirs will be about 50 Department of Music alumni, the Walker String Quartet and other guest artists.

The programme will feature a variety of works, including Vivaldi's Magnificat, which Loewen first performed with the choirs in his debut concert at Brock in the fall of 1987.  Several new works written by colleague Dr. Matthew Royal will also receive their premiere performance tonight.

Tonight's concert promises to be an emotional and memorable musical event, and tickets are very affordably priced at $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.  You can call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722 to order yours.

The performance tonight dovetails nicely with the Spring Open House happening tomorrow at Brock University from 11 am to 4 pm, providing a great opportunity to see what Brock in general is all about and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in particular.

Next Tuesday April 4th the University Wind Ensemble conducted by Zoltan Kalman will present their spring concert in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  Entitled Music for the Soul, the concert promises to be an interesting mix of powerful, lyrical, celebratory and altogether passionate works by the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Gounod, Leroy Anderson, Tchaikovsky, Philip Sparke and a host of other composers.  Where else can you hear Anderson's The Waltzing Cat on the same programme as Sparke's Prelude to a Celebration, I ask you?!

Once again the performance is very affordably priced at only $10 general admission and only $5 for children 14 and under or for those involved in the eyeGo programme.  Tickets are available by calling the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

On Friday of next week, the Music Ed Plus Chamber Music Ensembles present Music in the Hallway, again presented by the Department of Music between 12 noon and 3 pm.  The performances happen up at the Brock campus in the Dr. Charles A. Sankey Chamber located in A block of the MacKenzie Chown Complex.  This is a free community event.

And finally, the One Act Festival 2017 is happening next Friday and Saturday, presented by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock, in the Marilyn I. Walker Theatre in the School of Fine & Performing Arts downtown.  Part One of the Festival goes Friday at 2 and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Part Two goes Friday evening at 7:30 pm and Saturday afternoon at 2.  The admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis.

So there you go - all that happening in the coming days right here in the heart of the city.  Who says there is not a thriving arts community here in Niagara?  Get out and discover it all for yourself this spring!

Have a great weekend!

April 1st, 2017.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Foster Festival gears up for Season Two

It doesn't seem possible we are already talking about the upcoming second season of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines, but here we are anticipating summertime laughs at the PAC.

If you were not paying attention the last couple of years, the Foster Festival was formed by Executive Director Emily Oriold and Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone to celebrate the plays of Canada's favourite playwright, Norm Foster.  Foster, who has been a summer theatre circuit staple for over a quarter of a century, now has a festival devoted entirely to his vast body of work for the stage.

In the inaugural season in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the Foster Festival presented three Foster plays, each playing for about 3 weeks each, running from late June through to late August.  Two Foster classics were staged along with a premiere of a new Foster play; the Festival has as part of its mandate to premiere at least one new play by their namesake playwright each year.

The first season started slowly but as the word got out this is no ordinary summer theatre festival, sales picked up and by the end of the summer everyone was pleased with the outcome of the first season.  Would there be room for improvement?  Of course there would be.  But was it the right decision to base the Festival in downtown St. Catharines?  I would have to say absolutely yes!

Foster himself appeared in the first play of the season, On a First Name Basis, and attended the opening nights of the following two plays.  So he is very much a part of the Festival that bears his name.

This year, the Foster Festival unveils not one but two new Foster plays as they continue to gain a foothold in the busy summertime entertainment schedule here in Niagara with a roster of new and returning artists both from the Shaw Festival and movies and TV.

The season kicks off June 21st with the World Premiere of Screwball Comedy, directed by Patricia Vanstone and starring Joanna Douglas, Kevin Hare, Darren Keay and Eliza Jane Scott.  Keay returns after a successful run in last year's World Premiere, Halfway to the North Pole.

Screwball Comedy is set in 1938 and involves budding reporter Mary Hayes, trying to break into the male-dominated world of newspaper reporting.  Full of snappy period dialogue, this comedy sends up the screwball comedies we all remember seeing in the theatre while growing up.

Foster's Old Love opens July 12th, and features the real-life husband and wife team of Janet-Laine Green and Booth Savage as Molly and Bud.  Also starring is Melanie Janzen, who wowed audiences last year as the trio of women in Here on the Flight Path.

Old Love, also directed by Vanstone, is a story of courtship, rekindled romance and the importance of hope in everyday life.  Bud is divorced and Molly is recently widowed.  At her husband's funeral, they meet...

The third and final play of the season is the second World Premiere of the season at the Foster Festival, a play titled Lunenburg.  Again directed by Vanstone, the play features the return of Melanie Janzen along with Shaw veteran actors Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.  Lunenburg opens August 2nd and will close down the Festival on August 18th.

Lunenburg is set, naturally, in Lunenburg Nova Scotia, and mixes love, mystery and a lot of laughs as American widow Iris Oulette and friend Natalie arrive in town to a house she's recently inherited from her recently deceased husband.

If you did not attend last year's Festival, I urge you to take some time and discover what's happening in downtown St. Catharines this summer.  The Foster Festival is the only Canadian theatre festival to celebrate the work of a living playwright.  And with Foster already having written about 60 plays to date, the Festival has lots of material to draw upon in coming seasons.

Foster, for his part, is now an Officer of the Order of Canada, a honour bestowed on him back on December 31st.  It is an honour richly deserved and befitting a playwright who has made so many laugh and think for so many years.

To find out more about the Foster Festival, visit their website at www.fosterfestival.com.  You can purchase tickets directly through the site or through the FirstOntario PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

With spring just around the corner, can summertime fun be far behind?

Have a great week!

February 19th, 2017.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Enjoying a night out swinging with John Sherwood & Friends

It has been a little while since I last wrote in this space, and for that I apologize.  A busy schedule and really feeling tired from a lot of work lately have kept my creative juices from flowing freely.  But with renewed interest after a bit of a break, I hope to return to writing on the arts and other related topics on a semi-regular basis.  Maybe not every week as in the past, but on at least an occasional basis.

So with that out of the way, a heartfelt thank you goes out this weekend to the friendly staff of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in downtown St. Catharines.  Once again they were kind enough to invite this humble scribe to their Encore! Professional Concert Series at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

I've written before about the uniformly high quality of the performances offered in the series, and also the lamented general lack of interest on the part of the general public.  Try as they might, the School of Fine Arts just couldn't seem to gain a foothold on growing their audience for exceptional classical and jazz concerts in Niagara.

But perhaps they are beginning to turn the corner, if Friday evening's performance is anything to go by.  The largest venue at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre was almost full this time around to welcome to the stage local jazz favourite John Sherwood and his musical friends.  Now granted Sherwood is a pretty safe bet almost anywhere, as his performances are usually well attended wherever he goes.

Still, if the Encore! Professional Concert Series needed a cure for their identity crisis, John Sherwood provided it in spades.

John must have worked well in advance to book the talent he brought with him on stage Friday night, as they are all first-rung jazz masters on the Canadian scene in their own right:  Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Pat Collins on bass, Mike Murley on saxophone and none other than Terry Clarke on drums.

The programme was called Canadian Jazz Scene, although save for an obvious tip of the hat to Oscar Peterson to lead off the proceedings, the rest of the evening featured the group as either a trio or quintet on a collection of jazz standards from literally all over the world.

John and the boys were swinging hard at times, gently swinging on occasion and at least once offered a hybrid of the two, including on Pat Metheny's classic James.  But no matter the tempo, everything was anchored by that rock-solid foundation offered at the keyboard of the majestic Steinway & Sons Concert Grand by John Sherwood himself.  He truly is a master of the instrument.

John also happens to be the resident piano tuner for all the pianos at the PAC, so he knows them inside out to begin with, and was able to coax just the right amount of sound and swing throughout the evening.

The evening was inexplicably cut short as they introduced the final tune, I Want to Be Happy when the fire alarm began to sound and everyone had to file out a little prematurely, greeted on the street by the wailing of fire engine sirens coming down St. Paul Street.  I have not heard officially what caused the problem, but rumours persist about a malfunctioning popcorn machine on site.

No matter, things were popping and hopping all night long inside the PAC and I doubt anyone would feel hard done by when the alarm finally did sound.

It's a funny thing about John.  He could probably write his ticket to perform with anyone he wanted anywhere in the world, he is that good.  But he chooses to stay right here in his adopted home town where he grew up and built up his musical career.  We are all the richer for it, of course, but one wonders what kind of offers he's had over the years.

I recall having a wonderful meeting with John at his north St. Catharines home about 5 years ago now when I was researching the whereabouts of one of the two famous grand pianos that used to grace the massive radio studio where I used to work at CKTB Radio.  Turns out the larger of the two is now John's personal piano at home, fully refurbished and looking astounding after all these years.

In an odd twist of fate, my current job as a letter carrier for Canada Post has seen me deliver John's mail on several occasions over the past year!  He is not aware of the fact I am sure, but I smile whenever I approach his house, knowing the connection between my former career and the piano sitting just beyond the front door of his north St. Catharines home.

Thanks again John and friends, for a very entertaining evening of jazz classics from the Great American Songbook.  And thanks to the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts for inviting me to enjoy the show on Friday night.

Have a great week!

February 12th, 2017.