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.