Saturday, November 18, 2017

The continuing transformation of downtown St. Catharines

So this past week Sir Elton John paid us a visit in our humble city to play to a sold-out crowd at the Meridian Centre, and suffice it to say, downtown was alive with the sound of Elton's music.  With those musical memories still fresh in our collective minds, I thought it would be an opportune time to revisit the continuing revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.

First of all, full disclosure here:  I did not attend the concert.  I suspect I was one of the few who didn't, although the Meridian Centre only houses 6,000 fans for a concert such as this.  Nothing against Sir Elton; he seems like a heck of a guy and hey, who can argue his massive string of hits dating back about 3 decades now.

But for me, staying up past about 8:30 on a weeknight now with the early hours I keep is an effort in futility, frankly.  And besides, even though I respect his consummate talents as both composer and performer, I just didn't grow up with Elton as part of my youthful soundtrack.  My mind was elsewhere, and don't ask where.

I know I am in the minority here, but I didn't feel the need to spend enormous sums of money to see an artist - as good as he obviously is - who didn't influence me during my formative years.  But no knock against the guy; heck he's married to a Canadian so who can argue with that, eh?

Okay, with that out of the way, let's get to the gist of my argument here.

Anyone who balked at spending the money needed to build the Meridian Centre in downtown St. Catharines, finally utilizing a gaping hole in our city core known as the lower-level parking lot, must be feeling a little sheepish now.  Granted, it is ironic that on nights like this we could actually have used the extra spaces the old lower-level lot would have provided, but hey, no Elton John concert means no extra crowds downtown.

Yes I know, people of a certain generation lament the lack of reasons to come downtown anymore, even to this day.  But like anything else in life, change has to take place and that includes how we utilize our downtown core.

Just think back about 10 years ago and imagine what transpired Wednesday night happening then.  Not bloody likely, right?  Oh we might have gotten an Elton John tribute show up at Brock Centre for the Arts, but that was about it.  This was the real deal, and right in our own majestic playpen downtown.

Nice to see, isn't it?

Granted, we can't have acts of that calibre every night or even every month here.  But look who has performed at the Meridian Centre since it opened just a couple of years ago:  City & Light, David Seinfeld, and of course, the Tragically Hip before we got the news of Gordon's terminal cancer diagnosis.  Oh and throw in the Scott Tournament of Hearts, the Niagara Ice Dogs, the regular Brock sports teams events and on and on it goes.

See what's happened here?  It is the proverbial "If we build it they will come" scenario coming true in downtown St. Catharines.  And it's not just the Meridian Centre that is generating the crowds.  The new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts do their considerable part in bringing people downtown on a regular basis as well.

Consider the fact the Niagara Symphony is filling the 800-odd seats on a regular basis in Partridge Hall when they often couldn't fill all of the 500 available seats up the hill at Brock Centre for the Arts.  Or the fact The Film House, the first real movie theatre in downtown St. Catharines in years regularly programs more challenging material and fills the joint on a regular basis.

Once again, build it and they will come.

Consider also the fact many new and trendy eating establishments have opened their doors downtown to join long-standing stalwarts such as The Sunset, Blue Mermaid and Wellington Court.  A check on the St. Catharines Downtown Association website reveals over 70 eateries of various types are open and ready to serve you downtown throughout the year, ranging from simple to simply elegant and beyond.

Would they all be here if we hadn't invested in our downtown?  Don't be silly.

They can only survive if people come downtown to patronize them, and even with the reconstruction of St. Paul Street outside the PAC over the past year, those business in the immediate vicinity managed to weather the storm and apparently keep their loyal clientele.  In short, they are developing staying power in our downtown.  Imagine that!

There was a time you would drive along St. Paul Street and just not stop at all unless you hit a stoplight.  One-way traffic has a way of promoting that.  But with two-way traffic now the norm in much of the downtown and plenty of reasons to stop and get out of your vehicle, we are becoming a destination once again.

True, the days of walking downtown shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded souls to shop at Coy Bros., Levitt's or even Wally Wemnants may be gone, but look what has replaced them:  nice boutique shops, great eating places, and events on a regular basis you actually want to attend.  Add in the essential services any downtown worthy of the name should provide and you can see things are indeed looking up for our city core.

We are not done yet, and I am sure our learned politicians at City Hall are very well aware of that fact.  They still have work to do on bringing a long-awaited Civic Square to the core (check out examples in downtown Guelph and Stratford for inspiration, ladies and gentlemen of Council) and completing the transformation of one-way to two-way traffic on some of the remaining streets among other things on their to-do list.

But considering where we were say 20 years ago when everyone got excited about a proposal to recreate the old Welland Canal where the lower-level lot was to where we are now, I think most would agree the investments in our downtown are finally paying off.

Want more proof?  I hosted friends in town during the annual Niagara Wine Festival who moved away several years ago and they were awe-struck at the transformation here.  Sometimes it takes the eyes of someone who had not been here a long while to see what we cannot see ourselves.

Hey, we're a happening place at the moment, and the likes of Sir Elton and his ilk are not alone in noticing the fact.  If I can borrow a favourite phrase from my esteemed colleague Doug Herod here, we're a groovy kinda place again.

Feels kinda nice, doesn't it?

Enjoy your weekend!

November 18th, 2017.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lest we forget...

Today is the day we remember and honour those who served so bravely during wartime, defending the freedoms we enjoy to this day, yet seemingly take for granted at times.  That is why Remembrance Day is so very important; we are reminded of the freedom we enjoy and have a wonderful opportunity to say thanks to service men, women and animals who went before us, as well as those who still walk amongst us today.

So it was on this sunny but cold day I joined what seemed like hundreds of others at the Cenotaph at Memorial Park on St. Paul Street West to mark the 11th hour of the 11th month when peace was achieved so many years ago.  I was heartened by the number of people who attended and especially so the number of young people who were there.  Some may worry the importance of the day will eventually be lost on the younger generation; from what I see each year at the services we should have nothing to worry about.  They seem to know how important this day is, too, and for that we can all be grateful.

So too those who seemingly are too busy the rest of the year to notice the proliferation of poppies for sale around the city; they also seem to grasp the importance of the day and pause to reflect at 11 am.  It is a small sacrifice to make for those who sacrificed so much for us years ago.

I always become reflective on this day, thinking of my father who was stationed in England during the Second World War, serving in the navy.  When he passed away years ago and I was going through his belongings I finally found his discharge papers.  It was the first I had known of his service beyond the little he said when he was alive.  He, like so many others, chose not to talk in great detail about the whole affair, as clearly it was too painful to do so for many.

I also thought today in musical terms about Remembrance Day.  I just finished listening to a treasured CD reissue from earlier this year of Dame Vera Lynn's classic 1961 MGM re-recordings of her popular songs, lavishly arranged for orchestra by Geoff Love.  The CD, entitled Yours:  The MGM Years, is on Sepia Records and readily available through my website at or email me directly at

The world of classical music did not escape the ravages of war over the years either.  French composer Maurice Ravel famously spent time during the First World War driving an ambulance, for example.  And another composer died in France during the conflict, cutting short a promising career as a brilliant composer.

George Butterworth was born in London, England in July of 1885 and in his early years as a composer became close friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, even helping to reconstruct the elder composer's full score to A London Symphony from assembled orchestral parts.  Butterworth also wrote the program notes for the work's premiere in 1914, and Vaughan Williams later dedicated his work to Butterworth's memory.

It was during the First World War that George Butterworth found a sense of purpose found lacking in his life up until that point, quickly rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Durham Light Infantry.  He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his defence of a strategically important trench network; the network was later named after him.  Despite his heroics on the battlefield he was killed at Pozieres, France in August of 1916 while leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme.

These are but two examples of the world of the arts clashing and ultimately intermingling with the grim reality of the real world during wartime.  Many more stories are out there waiting to be discovered.

In short, let us never forget the bravery and valour of those who defended our country and our allies in time of war.  Even today so many years later, we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude, payable with our solemn promise to not repeat the errors of the past.  On this day and every day throughout the year, we remember them and owe them so very much.

Lest we forget...

Take care and have a peaceful weekend.

November 11th, 2017.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

November in the Arts in Niagara

Now that cooler, grey November days are upon us, many choose to start hibernating for the season and ignore the great outdoors.  If you number yourself amongst that crowd, take heart, as better days are to come.

But until then, you can always venture out to catch some great music and theatre right in your own backyard, so let's take a look at a few of the events coming up in the next week that might pique your interest.

Starting right now, in fact...

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra is celebrating their 70th anniversary season this year and the festivities are well underway with several concerts already in the books.  This weekend in fact, the NSO is presenting their Masterworks 2 concert, subtitled Wish List.  The first performance was last evening at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines; the second will be this afternoon at 2:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall at the PAC.

Principal Guest Conductor Aisslinn Nosky, until last year a member of the famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Toronto, returns to the podium with violin at the ready to perform and conduct the ever-popular Vivaldi Four Seasons.  Also on the programme is the equally popular Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven, long one of my favourite Beethoven symphonies.  I was listening to a classic recording just a few days ago conducted by the venerable Sir Thomas Beecham and the rousing finale still stirs my senses after many listenings.

Sure, the forces onstage at the PAC will be a little more modest than the Big Band Beecham recordings from the 50s, but the performance will certainly be worth catching if you can.  I say if you can as the performance this afternoon is officially sold out, so at this point I would suggest staking out the box office closer to the performance time to try and snag a ticket or two that might go unclaimed.  Hey, it happens...

Speaking of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, they have another busy week of their own on tap, beginning at 4 this afternoon when Cree storyteller, playwright, novelist, pianist and Order of Canada recipient Tomson Highway presents his Words and Music in collaboration with The Festival of Readers.  This is all part of the current Celebration of Nations season at the PAC.  The performance takes place in Partridge Hall.

Meantime, Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot makes a rare local appearance this Wednesday evening at 8 in Partridge Hall, singing many of the classic songs that have made him justly famous and a worthy inductee into both the Canadian and American Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Thursday and Friday evenings at Robertson Hall award-winning journalist and broadcaster Alanna Mitchell will be presenting Sea Sick.  The evenings will feature Mitchell discussing her 13 journeys to the bottom of the ocean in only three years.  Initially afraid of water when she started, she is now more concerned about the future of the ocean and will outline her concerns during the presentations each evening at 8 pm.

For more information and tickets to these and other PAC presentations, go to or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

Still with the PAC, the weekly RBC Foundation Music@Noon recitals continue Tuesdays at noon in the Cairns Recital Hall, and they are absolutely free to attend.  Comprised primarily of performances by faculty and students at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts next door, the recitals usually run about 45 minutes or so in length, so you can easily catch one over your lunch hour if you so choose.

This Tuesday, the Momentum Choir will be performing, conducted by Mendelt Hoekstra.

The popular Encore! Professional Concert Series presented by the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts returns to Partridge Hall Friday evening at 7:30 with a performance by The Walker Quartet with faculty pianist Karin Di Bella.  The Walker Quartet is now into its second season as the Department of Music's resident quartet, and together with Di Bella they will perform both the Schumann and Shostakovich quintets.

In the Cairns Recital Hall this Saturday evening at 7:30, Guitar Extravaganza III takes place.  This will be Remembrance Day, don't forget.  The Guitar Extravaganza concerts have quickly become well-attended crowd-pleasers since the PAC opened in the fall of 2015 and this year's edition promises to be just as popular.  If you like guitar music, this will be the place to be.

Tickets can be ordered through the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722 or by going online to

Finally, a week today the first concert of the new season for Gallery Players of Niagara takes place Sunday afternoon at 2 at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.  The concert, entitled Concertos Inc., features several of the Gallery Players musicians in revolving solo roles, performing works by J.S. Bach, Giuliani, Quantz and James Rolfe.  Soloists include guitarist Timothy Phelan; Douglas Miller on flute; Julie Baumgartel, Anita Walsh and Rona Goldensher on violins; oboist James Mason; vocalist Laura Pudwell; Judith Davenport on viola and cellist Margaret Gay.

Gallery Players are based in Niagara-on-the-Lake but perform throughout the Region, and this new season promises to be their most ambitious yet.  To order tickets to the concert or better still the entire season, go to or call 905-468-1525.

So that should be more than enough to keep you occupied in the week ahead.

Have a great weekend!

November 5th, 2017.