Saturday, September 22, 2018

Niagara Symphony kicks off their new season this weekend

You know summer is drawing to a close and the cooler weather is here when the new season for the Niagara Symphony is finally upon us.  Sure, I have been to symphony concerts in October and even November when it still feels like summer out there, but with the cooler weather this weekend the symmetry just seems perfect to start the new season.

It's been awhile since I have written about our hometown symphony orchestra, and there are several reasons for that.  But the time seems right to renew old ties and take an active role in getting the word out about how fine an ensemble our NSO really is.  So this weekend, a quick look at what to expect this Sunday afternoon and for the rest of their 71st season.

It hardly seems like three years have elapsed since the Niagara Symphony first played in their new home, the expansive and acoustically outstanding Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  I still remember heading up to Brock Centre for the Arts with all my CDs and other paraphernalia to sell in the lobby for many years, and although those days are long gone, the new era that was ushered in with the move downtown to our new arts playpen is indeed worthy of celebration.

I'm sad to report I simply have not gotten around to hearing the Niagara Symphony in their new home yet, and that is something I plan to rectify this season.  It's about time to get out there and cheer for the home team and show some love for the musicians, many of whom I've known personally for many years now.

This Sunday afternoon at 2:30 the Masterworks season gets underway with a concert entitled A River Runs Through it, and as you can imagine the overriding theme here will be water.  Water under the bridge, perhaps?  Well the new Burgoyne Bridge is not that far away, as a matter of fact...

Kicking off the concert will be the music of Bedrich Smetana, his ever-popular The Moldau from Ma Vlast, a four-part concert work when heard in its entirety.  The Moldau is far and away the most popular part of the work, and for good reason.  The swelling strings echo the ebb and flow of the river itself.

Rivalling The Moldau for popularity is Claude Debussy's La Mer, another water-inspired work that set the tone for adventurous orchestral music early in the last century.  It concludes the afternoon concert, paired with another Debussy favourite, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, or, literally, The Afternoon of a Faun.  This deeply evocative and reflective music defines the Impressionist era in classical music coming out of France early in the last century and remains to this day an audience favourite.

Sandwiched in between the Smetana and the Debussy works is the feature performance of the afternoon, Mozart's delightful Concerto for Two Pianos No. 10, K. 365.  A later work in the all-too-short Mozart canon of masterworks, the Concerto for Two Pianos features the Canadian duo of James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton, hailed by the New York Times for their "formidable precision and panache."

I was first introduced to their considerable precision and panache years ago when, while attending a performance by the National Ballet of Canada at the old O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, I stumbled across an old LP of the piano due performing music from the National Ballet repertoire.  I still have that LP in my personal collection, I believe, but it has been years since I last played it.

Anagnoson and Kinton are giants in the world of two-piano works, and for this particular performance in Partridge Hall, Music Director Bradley Thachuk has wisely chosen to highlight their pianistic virtuosity by arranging to have a large screen above the stage in order to project the keyboard playing of each soloist, so as to allow the audience members throughout the hall to see their considerable talents up close.

Looking briefly at the remainder of the NSO season lineup, the first Pops! concert is a tribute to Frank Sinatra with Matt Dusk joining the symphony the weekend of October 13th and 14th.  The launch of the Classical Family series takes place in the Cairns Recital Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 21st at 2:30 with a concert geared towards the upcoming Halloween season.

Looking at the roster of guest soloists after this weekend's concert, cellist Rachel Mercer joins the NSO on October 28th in the Masterworks 2 concert, violinist Aisslinn Nosky returns to both play and conduct on November 25th, Principal Flute of the NSO Doug Miller is featured January 19 & 20; violinist Jonathan Crow joins the symphony on March 10th, pianist Anastasia Rizikov and Principal Trumpet Ira Zingraff perform April 27 and 28, and the full forces of Chorus Niagara close out the Masterworks season with the NSO May 19th for an opera-themed performance.

The balance of the Pops! concerts line up this way:  Joey DeBenedetto and Christine Cornish Smith join the NSO for the trio of annual Christmas concerts December 8th and 9th, guest conductor Melanie Leonard leads the symphony and the Jeans 'n Classics Band in a concert celebrating women of Rock 'n Roll on February 23rd and 24th, and selections from the hit movies of John Williams will close out the Pops! series April 13th and 14th.

The remainder of the Classical Family series features Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf and Blake's The Snowman on December 16th, and a sports-themed concert comes up February 3rd to close out the series.

For tickets to any of the Niagara Symphony concerts this season including the season opener tomorrow afternoon, call or visit the PAC box office at 905-688-0722 or 250 St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  You can also order online at firstontario pac.ca.

Enjoy the new season of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra!

September 22nd, 2018.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Janis Ian coming to Midland Cultural Centre this week

I received an email this week about a concert coming up this week at the Midland Cultural Centre in the near north, and it immediately stirred memories of my early days in radio.

Back in the mid-70s I started work at CHFI-FM in Toronto, first as an operator/producer and eventually as a music programmer in the music library.  Back in those days nothing was automated and we programmed each set of music by hand, using two turntables to make sure two pieces of music would sort of blend together nicely.  It was a time-consuming operation back then, compared to today when computer software programmes just appear to be randomly selecting the music according to a preset list of parameters.

By about 1974 the music mandate of the station was broadened somewhat to include some additional soft pop music currently making the charts, and as such we started programming a wide variety of younger, more socially conscious singer/songwriters along with the more traditional fare the station was well known for.

It was about this time, 1975 to be exact, we were introduced to a young folk artist who seemed to be more than a little lonely while growing up, if her music was to be believed.  Many did, in fact, and Janis Ian enjoyed enormous success for her breakout album Between the Lines.  The first song on the LP, When the Party's Over was the first track we played in regular rotation on the station, as I recall.  But it wasn't long before everyone was paying attention to another song from the album, the delicate single At Seventeen which reached the Top 3 and went on to win a Grammy.

Both songs seemed to come from deep inside her heart, echoing the pain of adolescence she and many of us felt at one time in our lives.  For me personally, the pain of loneliness reached its zenith the time I invited several industry and personal friends to a party at our family home in Toronto and only one single, solitary person showed up.  We had a nice evening, thanks, but it crushed my spirit and hearing both those songs made me realize I was not alone; others shared my sense of loneliness and pain.

But what of the singer who brought us those songs and so many others?  Janis Ian was born in 1951 in New York City and began writing her first songs at the tender age of 12.  At the age of 15 she recorded her self-titled debut LP that gave us Society's Child, which with its accent on interracial romance was summarily banned by several radio stations.  It was the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein who invited Ian to perform the song on a television special devoted to pop and rock music and the resulting publicity literally made Ian the proverbial overnight sensation.

But success did not rest comfortably on her shoulders, and after dropping out of high school she recorded three more albums, giving the money in turn to friends and charities.  It was a chance meeting with a photojournalist at a peace rally that prompted the two to eventually marry, and Ian announced she was retiring from the music business at the tender age of 20.

Alas, the marriage did not last so Ian returned to the recording studio in 1971 to produce Present Company, which did not meet with much success.  Three years later she returned with the album Stars, and her song Jessie eventually became a hit for Roberta Flack.

After the phenomenal success of 1975's Between The Lines, however, public response to her follow up efforts were tepid at best.  She tackled material ranging from domestic violence and eroticism to the Holocaust, but much of it failed to reach as wide an audience as her previous successes did.

Today, you could be forgiven if you thought Janis Ian was now little more than a musical footnote in the annals of popular and folk music.  But you can't keep a good girl down, and Janis is still performing, writing and commenting on society today.  Based now in Nashville, Ian holds two Grammy Awards and was nominated no less than nine times.  Her albums have sold over 9-million copies worldwide.

But I suspect it is her social activism that is nearer and dearer to her heart, as she has received honours from any number of organizations for her work, including MADD and the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Those social sensibilities along with her music will be on full display this week when Janis Ian performs in concert at the Midland Cultural Centre, the first appearances for Ian in the area in many years.

Rather than just a live concert of her past hits, the Midland appearances will be spread over two nights:  first on Tuesday September 11th when MCC manager Eugene Rea talks with Ian about her life, career and ultimately her legacy.  The next night, Wednesday, Janis Ian performs at the same venue in concert.

Tickets are available separately or as part of a special offer package for both nights.  For ticket information and availability, contact the Midland Cultural Centre box office at 705-527-4420.

The Midland Cultural Centre is more than just a concert venue, and Janis Ian is more than just another singer/songwriter we remember from our younger days.  Both are vital contributors to today's cultural scene, and I can see both venue and singer benefitting each other quite nicely.

Who knows, When the Party's Over you might just feel you are At Seventeen all over again...

Enjoy your weekend!

September 8th, 2018.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Back from a Trip of a Lifetime

If you noticed I did not post last weekend, so this weekend I will make up for it with an explanation - and a bit of a diversion from what I normally write about in this space.

I took a one-week vacation and my far better half and I jetted off to England for a six-day tour of the English countryside, ending up in London for the final night prior to the return home.  So this week a bit of a travelogue and collected thoughts from the week away.

It all began last February when Sophie, a devoted WNED watcher and supporter, saw an ad for a tour in August entitled To The Manor Born.  Basically, you would tour some of the sites and locations for some of her - and my - favourite British television shows we watch regularly on PBS.  The tour was guided, of course, and not inexpensive.  Airfare, I might add, was not included.  Sophie said at dinner one night she wanted to go - whether I wanted to or not!

Well faced with a dilemma like that, I knew the only correct answer was "Yes, dear", meaning of course I would accompany her on the tour.  Truth be told, I have wanted to get back to the U.K. for some time now, as my first trip was 41 years ago and the last one 28 years ago.  In other words, two generations and one generation ago respectively.

It took some stick-handling to get an unscheduled week off from work at a time when I normally can't get time off, but it all somehow came together and after a lot of online booking, searching, booking some more and checking, we were all set to go.

First off, let me say international travel is not my friend.  I find the flights too long and since we're flying economy, there is simply not a lot of room for stretching out hours on end.  You really are crammed in like sardines these days.  Add to that a very long lineup for both checking in and clearing security at Pearson in Toronto and you are already feeling tired and stressed out before you even leave the ground.

An overnight flight is not my favourite, but at least I timed it right so we arrived at our first hotel in Windsor, just outside of London, in time to simply walk in, grab our room key and go for a well-deserved rest.

We added an extra day on to the front of the tour so as to relax and rest up before hitting the road, and it certainly proved to be the right plan.  The first night there, Sunday, we were both too tired to do much more than take a walk around the area and enjoy a quiet dinner in the hotel dining room.

Those first two nights were spent at the splendid Castle Hotel Windsor, situated right in the heart of town with a view from our hotel room of Windsor Castle across the way.  In every way, the hotel is exquisite and I highly recommend it when you are in Windsor.  We definitely plan to return again in the future.

Monday the tour group met and we basically had the day to explore Windsor and tour Windsor Castle before meeting for a group dinner at the hotel that night.  We discovered far too many shops to explore in town, and even discovered a new pub that had opened just a few months ago described as an 'art bar.'  Art by local artists was on display and all for sale, and the Scottish theme of the pub was reflected in the music and the menu.  I ordered the vegetarian haggis, actually, and it was far better than the real thing, in my estimation.

The Tuesday morning we embarked on the first part of our road tour, stopping late morning at Highclere Castle, the setting for the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.  As the bus made its way down the long, winding drive, the tour guide wisely popped the Downton Abbey soundtrack CD into the system and with the theme from the series filling our ears, we approached the castle.

Sophie was very emotional at the site of it, as she is totally into the entire series.  Because of the time it aired on Sunday nights I usually didn't get to see many episodes so I was not quite as into it as she was, until we got inside.

The first thing you notice upon arriving is aside from the rolling countryside and distant gardens, there is no visible vegetation anywhere surrounding the castle.  It is all simply gravel, which seems rather barren.  The second thing you discover is no picture taking is allowed inside the castle.

Still, the tour is well worth it, and each room used in the show has a large, full-colour picture depicting a scene from the series shot in that particular room.  But you will also notice, as I did, the amount of wear and tear the carpets are experiencing with all those visitors traipsing through every day.  They are positively threadbare in spots, and together with some rough spots on the walls and some peeling paint on parts of the ceiling, you can see the grand old lady is still in need of repair after all this time.

The 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife are the present occupants of the castle, yet they live there only part-time now.  Most of their time is spent at a cottage elsewhere on the grounds and the castle is for all intents and purposes a museum of sorts.  But what a magnificent museum!

Later in the afternoon we departed for the city of Bath, described as the second most-visited tourist destination in England after London.  Upon arrival it was easy to see why.  Bath, famous for the ancient Roman Baths in the centre of town, is equally famous for the music in every public square in town pretty much all the time.

Walking extensively both that evening and in the morning before departing, Sophie and I were amazed by the sights and sounds of Bath, from the Bath Abbey where Chorus Niagara sang several years ago to Number One Royal Crescent, where a tour reveals how fashionable Georgian society lived.

Our night in Bath was spent at the Abbey Hotel, a compact art-inspired hotel in the centre of town with a bar area featuring wine glasses suspended from the ceiling.  While the room was nice, it was a bit of a let down from the clean elegance of the Castle Hotel Windsor, but it was nicely appointed and since we were only there one night it was not a big problem.

Prior to leaving the next morning, following our walk around town Sophie stopped back into the hotel  to use the main floor women's washroom off the lobby, and after a rather lengthy period inside, she came out and dragged me in to see the room.  Thankfully we were alone at the time, but it was a picture of elegance and grace with a view outside that was quite stunning.  Yes, there is certainly a great divide between mens and women's washrooms the world over it seems...

Leaving Bath Wednesday morning with great reluctance, Sophie and I decided we simply have to return again some day as there is simply so much more to see in the city.  We travelled first to Cricket St. Thomas, an elegant Regency mansion built c1820 and surrounded by spectacular gardens and even a lawn bowling green.

The mansion was chosen by the BBC as the location for the popular British sitcom To The Manor Born several years ago, and today is a popular country house hotel.  We enjoyed a cream tea and tour of the gardens during our mid-day visit there.

Later in the afternoon it was off to Devon and our hotel for the next two nights, Boringdon Hall.  This manor house hotel features dramatic Elizabethan architecture complete with imposing stone towers, secret archways and curious arrow slits that hint at the hotel's rich history.

Boringdon Hall was a pleasure to stay at, with extremely comfortable accommodation in the more modern wing and exceptional dining both nights we were there.  There is also a newer spa wing added on not too many years ago.

Thursday morning we departed for what was for Sophie and I perhaps the highlight of the entire tour, a day-long visit to the Cornish coast and a tour of the seaside village of Port Isaac, used for many years as the setting for the popular TV show Doc Martin.  Known as Port Wenn in the show, Port Isaac is hilly with narrow streets and quaint little cottages you can rent much of the year.

In fact, most of the inhabitants in town are people renting those cottages.  Our tour guide is one of only about 25 people who actually live in the town now, and on his street he says he is the only permanent resident.

The guide took us around to most of the outside settings for all the familiar locations in the show, from Doc Martens house (actually owned by people in Australia, we're told) to the iconic apothecary in town which is actually a fudge and gift shop the rest of the year.  All of the indoor scenes for the show are shot in a barn not far from Port Isaac, so only the outdoor filming is actually done in town.  The next season will start shooting next May, I'm told.

The weather was cool and windy for our visit there and it threatened rain most of the day, which seemed appropriate given the location, but it is easy to see why the Cornish coastline can be an unforgiving one for those not too careful about where they go.

Upon returning to Boringdon Hall for our second night, we were treated to a falconry demonstration by one of the locals, an eccentric gentleman with a large owl by the name of Merlin, several hawks and lots of stories about local lore.

The Friday morning we left Boringdon hall, again with much reluctance, for a mid-day visit to The Greenway Estate in Devon, the summertime home for Agatha Christie and her second husband.  It is a large historic estate with sprawling grounds used as the setting for Christie's Dead Man Walking, starring of course her signature detective Hercule Poirot.  You can take pictures without flash in the home, and the tour reveals a grand yet still modest lifestyle enjoyed by Dame Agatha in her final years.  I couldn't help but notice a picture in one of the rooms of Slipper, the final cat to reside at The Greenway Estate with her.

After lunch at the estate we departed for Sidmouth, a charming seaside town, although last weekend being a bank holiday in England it was decided we should forego the crowds of Sidmouth for the charms of Torquay, part of what is referred to as the English Riviera.  Here, we passed by the Grand Hotel on our way into town, where Agatha and her husband spent their honeymoon, apparently.

The weather had turned rather cloudy and windy while there, with a threat of rain, but we did explore the boardwalk a bit and the collection of amusements, including a lovely carousel not unlike what we have here in Port Dalhousie.  Eventually we ducked into a local cafe for a light bite before rejoining our tour group for the final leg of the tour that day.

We hit a lot of holiday traffic on that stretch, so our arrival at our hotel for the night, Tortworth Court was later than expected.  But once we arrived, our collective jaws dropped.  Tortworth Court is huge, with over 200 stately rooms in an historic setting that just screams history.  There was a wedding underway that evening so lots to see as we wandered the estate prior to dinner and afterwards.  The room was beautiful with every nicety you could imagine.

The Saturday morning, our final full day on the tour, we departed for Hampton Court Palace on our way in to London for the final night.  Hampton Court Palace was not originally intended as a royal residence and in fact it isn't now, either.  It was built by Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, minister of King Henry VIII and appropriated by the king when Wolsey failed to bring about the king's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The grounds are sprawling, with gardens to welcome you first as you make your way to the palace itself.  The tour takes you through the palace, courtyard and art gallery, so there is a lot to see while there.  There was also a food festival on the grounds that day, so crowds were particularly heavy while we were there.  But it was certainly worth stopping for!

Finally we departed late afternoon for London, a city I first visited in 1977 and last in 1990.  It is still the same multicultural, dynamic city as always, but you cannot escape the tension and sense of urgency while there given the world events of the age we live in.

Our final hotel stay was at the strikingly beautiful Amba Hotel, Charing Cross, adjacent to Charing Cross rail station and close to just about everything you want to see in London.  The reinvention of the old Charing Cross hotel is nothing short of spectacular, although I found the lighting system in our particular room rather troublesome.

Another wedding in that hotel Saturday night so it was again a busy place, but the staff is amazing there, helpful in the extreme.  For our final group dinner together we left the hotel, in fact, and walked a few blocks to a French restaurant near The Strand for a lovely late-evening dinner.

Upon returning to the Amba hotel, we found the large winding staircase in the main lobby was festooned with candles in glass holders along most steps to light your way up or down in the evening.  It was a spectacular display of attention to detail at this historic yet modern hotel.

After breakfast on the Sunday morning I left for a walk around town to get some pictures of familiar places I had visited in the past such as Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, both just steps away from our hotel.  It was a cool, grey day in London, and the rain started falling just as I was concluding my walk.  Upon checkout shortly afterwards the rain was pouring down as our car picked us up for the trip to Heathrow airport.

It was great to be back in such a vibrant city again if even just for one night.  I must return again!

The return home was again an adventure, but for different reasons this time.  We were early enough to avoid the lineups we experienced on the way over, but upon our arrival in Toronto late in the afternoon, it proved to be all for naught as my luggage didn't make the flight although Sophie's did.  Amazingly and without logic, her bag was on our flight but mine was on the next flight to Toronto three hours later!

After a very long wait in Toronto for a bag that was still in the air, we left for our car to come home, and Air Canada, to their credit, delivered my bag directly to the house around noon on Monday.  No idea why this happened and it was a first for me, but it made for an rather interesting end to the week away.

So there you have it.  A week full of memories, and a strong desire to return and experience some of the locations again.

The tour operator, Transcendent Travel, is first-rate and treated us all very well.  Tour director Andrew Lennard is knowledgeable and things of just about every detail.  It was an unforgettable experience being on the tour with Sophie and I don't regret it for a moment.

Have a great weekend!

September 2nd, 2018.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Foster Festival Finale leaves the best for last

The third and final offering of the 2018 Foster Festival opened just over a week ago, and it is quickly proving to be the hit of the season.  It is also the second of two World Premieres at the Festival this season.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster has outdone himself this time, crafting a play with an intricate and complex plot, brilliant scene melding and some absolutely spot-on characterizations that take summer theatre to a whole new level.  Expect to see Renovations For Six on many summer theatre playbills starting next season and for several years to come.

Foster clearly knows what his audiences want, and then he takes them to places they never knew existed.  With Renovations For Six he pushes the comedic and dramatic envelope even further, providing us with perhaps his best play to date.

Renovations For Six involves three adult couples, each at different stages of their lives.  The first, Grant and Shayna Perkins, have moved here from Vancouver where both had successful careers.  However, while Grant has a new position as manager of a furniture store, his wife is feeling cast adrift in a way, and contemplates starting up her own Pilates business.  But before that happens, she thinks meeting some new people in their new city is overdue.  After all, they have been here six weeks and have yet to make any new friends.

Maurice Dudet and his wife Veronica Dunn-Dudet have a tense, acidic relationship due in large part to the fact Maurice has quit his well-paying engineering job in order to write a novel.  His wife, a psychiatrist who feels put upon for now having to shoulder the entire financial load of the family, is firmly in sarcastic mode from the moment we meet her.

Billie and Wing Falterman, meanwhile, are the gem couple in the trio.  Billie is outgoing, suspicious of others and just plain earthy.  Husband Wing (we never do find out why he is named Wing, incidentally) is a more down-to-earth sort who works hard for a living as the top salesman at Grant's furniture store.  Together they used to have a successful song and dance act, which Billie longs to return to.

All three couples come together in one generic home, with furniture covered for renovations.  This cleverly allows director Patricia Vanstone to skillfully have all three couples use the same set with no changes, oftentimes appearing in the same home at the same time yet in their own dwellings.  The set design by Peter Hartwell is creatively outfitted with oversize paint chips depicting colours each has chosen for their chosen renovations.

Vanstone keeps the pace lively and takes advantage of every opportunity to accentuate the conflicts furthering the plot, culminating in the trademark Foster finale of exposing the demons in each of the characters and how it affects the others in the cast.  It is brilliant writing on the part of Norm Foster.

The characterizations are uniformly good and finely drawn, although I found Wes Berger's portrayal of Grant Perkins strangely stiff and wooden in the early going, a fact that seems at odds with his readiness to jump into the sack for a 'quickie' with his wife Shayna at every opportunity.  As the play progresses and we find out why he is not spending more quality romantic time with his wife, his meanness and nasty streak makes his characterization much more believable.  For her part, Cosette Derome as perky Shayna is beautifully portrayed, particularly when her world starts to fall apart as the play progresses.

Real-life couple Peter Keleghan and Leah Pinsent are a pleasure to watch as Maurice and Veronica.  Their painful relationship, culminating in their own revelation at the end, mirrors people I suspect we have all met at parties and ultimately try to avoid.

The pairing of Shaw veterans William Vickers and Nora McLellan as Wing and Billie Falterman is a stroke of genius.  Vickers perfectly captures the essence of Wing, a humble man in a humble position,  yet comfortable in his humbleness.  Nora McLellan has and always will be a national treasure, and I still have memories of her spectacular turn in Gypsy at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  She imbues Billie with the fun and games demeaner of the kid who was always the class clown in school. Her overly creative imagination and suspicious nature easily plays off William Vickers' more stable portrayal as Wing.

The culminating scene of Renovations For Six is described by director Patricia Vanstone as the "cocktail party from hell" and indeed it is.  It reveals all in this telling comedy and leads us to the wordless finale when five of the six characters support Shayna in her time of grief.

Renovations For Six plays for another week in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and if you have yet to catch it you really should.  It is the highlight of not only this year's Foster Festival, but really, the summer theatre circuit that I've experienced so far.

Tickets are available by going to www.fosterfestival.com or calling or visiting the FirstOntario PAC box office.  The number is 905-688-0722,

Enjoy your weekend!

August 18th, 2018.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Shaw Double-Bill offers up laughs along with food for thought

Most people - myself included, I must admit - have sort of a love-hate relationship with George Bernard Shaw.  You can admire his creativity and ability to tell a good story, but when it comes to sermonizing on subjects near and dear to his heart, which is quite often, well, most of us check out at some point.

It is, therefore, a delicate balancing act now for his namesake festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake to present Shaw's plays.  In an age when attention spans often last at most through the first couple of paragraphs of one of Shaw's patented diatribes, how do you you keep the public interested and coming back for more?

The answer, in recent years at least, appears to be avoid Shaw altogether whenever you can.  When you must, find someone to reimagine Shaw's work for a modern age.  Not a bad idea, in theory at least, but oftentimes it seems to muddy the water even more.

So kudos to the Shaw Festival and director Philip Akin for playing it straight with a comedy double-bill at the Royal George Theatre this season.  Of Marriage and Men:  A Comedy Double-Bill brings together two short Shaw plays demonstrating Shaw's interesting views on marriage, fidelity and relationships.

This is not the first time these two short plays have been paired together.  Indeed, the great Arnold Daley did just that at Toronto's Princess Theatre all the way back in 1904.  The first play, How He Lied to Her Husband, was first produced in New York in 1904; the second, The Man of Destiny, was first produced in England in 1897.

For this production pairing, Aiken has assembled a strong cast of Shaw actors, including David Adams, Krystal Kiran and Shawn Ahmed for the first play, and Fiona Byrne, Martin Happer, Andrew Lawrie and Kelly Wong for the second.

The first play, How He Lied to Her Husband, is about half an hour in length and full of lighthearted banter and unlikely scenarios.  It is perhaps the better of the two in terms of comedy.  The story involves young 18-year old He, played by Shawn Ahmed, who is hopelessly in love with She, Krystal Kiran.  Alas, She is married to Her Husband, David Adams.  The triangle intensifies over the course of the half hour, reaching an improbable conclusion before intermission.

In a clever bit of theatrical gamesmanship, director Aiken has the closing scene of the first play reprised as the curtain raises for the start of act two, before the cast of the second play shoo them offstage and orchestrate an enjoyable scene change that sees the set move from a flat in London to an inn on the road from Lodi to Milan in northern Italy run by Giuseppe Grandi.  The change offers much of the comedy relief to be found in act two.

The Man of Destiny involves Kelly Wong as Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from another military victory, stopping at the inn run by Grandi for some rest and good food before moving on to his next military conquest.  While there he learns his hapless Lieutenant, played by Andrew Lawrie, has lost the important communiques he was to deliver to him.  Well maybe lost is not the correct term to use here, as another military man tricked him into turning them over and then he was gone.

But Bonaparte meets a Strange Lady at the inn, played by Fiona Byrne, who offers to return the communiques to him.  She claims to know who this military officer is.  Bonaparte sees through the ruse and realizes the man and the woman are in fact one in the same.

What ensues is the patented Shavian wordplay and exchanges that make up the better part of the hour-long act.  In true Shaw fashion they do tend to get a bit tedious, but to this audience member at least, following the many twists and turns as they verbally spar back and forth is part of the fun.  Just when you think you've figured everything out, Shaw lobs another verbal shot at you and throws the doors open to more speculation.

The cast for both plays are uniformly strong, with the first act team getting top marks for keeping things moving in such a short space of time.  In the second act things seem to drag a bit, but overall the cast does a fine job with Shaw's barbs.

The set design is simple and elegant for the first play, transformed in the second act to a rustic inn with grape vines and a sky backdrop that gradually darkens from day to night as the play unfolds.

While I have not seen everything Shaw has to offer this season, this double-bill was for me, at least, a little more entertaining than the other two we attended this season.  And it was good to get a laugh or two out of Shaw's plays presented here pretty much as Shaw wrote them.

Of Marriage and Men:  A Comedy Double-Bill continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 2nd, and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.  Tickets are available by calling the Shaw box office at 1-800-511-7429 or by going to www.shawfest.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2018.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Enjoying the holiday weekend in Niagara

The midway point of summer is upon us this weekend...well not really, but the August holiday weekend feels like the midway point of summer, doesn't it?  So time to take a bit of a break from the usual business and look at some things, musical and otherwise, going on in Niagara at the moment.

First off, Music Niagara continues in Niagara-on-the-Lake with lots of great performances planned on the weekend and continuing until the end of the summer music festival on August 11th.  Tonight, for example, a highlight of the festival will feature a traditional Last Night of the Proms concert at St. Mark's Church at 7:30 pm, when Kerry Stratton conducts the Niagara Proms Orchestra in a collection of popular classics.  Yes, these will include all your favourite patriotic British musical gems like Rule, Britannia!, Jerusalem and of course, Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1.

The ever-popular Sunday in the Park series continues tomorrow afternoon at Simcoe Park in the Old Town, with Frog & Henry, two musicians who collectively play seven instruments, presenting their take on American popular music from the 1920s and 30s.  Bring your lawn chair and a picnic lunch and enjoy the music and ambiance.  The event is free and begins at 11 am.  Tomorrow afternoon at 3 a concert entitled Remembering Sasha will take place at St. Mark's Church.  The concert, featuring everything from Bach to Piazzolla, is a tribute to the late Alexander Sevastian of Quartetto Gelato fame.  Members of the group will perform the tribute to the long-time and multi-talented accordion and bandoneon player.

Monday, Toronto's All-Star Big Band will perform at Ravine Estates Winery in St. Davids at 7:30 in the evening.  The group revives the spirit, sound and style of the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the big bands were king.  The rest of the week sees the Music Niagara season wind down with performances Tuesday through Saturday, with the Season Finale featuring music by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at St. Mark's Church Saturday night at 7:30 pm.

The soloists for the finale include pianist Victoria Kogan and violinists Bora Kim and Artistic Director Atis Bankas accompanied by the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra.

Tickets and more information can be had by going to www.musicniagara.org, or by calling the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.

Elsewhere in Niagara, we have the St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest happening all weekend long at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines, with musical acts taking to the stage all day every day.  This is an annual fundraiser for Rotary to continue their good works in the community and it has grown tremendously over the years.  You can also purchase tickets to the Hospice Niagara 5-Car Draw on site at Montebello Park; the draws take place about 3 pm on Monday afternoon.

Up in Port Colborne, one of my favourite summertime escapes, things are hopping all weekend long with Canal Days, featuring music on stages throughout the downtown and at H.H. Knoll Park overlooking Lake Erie.  But for me the real charm of the festival is where it all began at the Port Colborne Historical Museum, where the grounds come alive all day today with all things nautical and otherwise, and Arabella's Tearoom is busy all weekend long serving afternoon tea.

And on Monday, the third annual Facer Street European Festival will be in full swing all day from 12 noon to 9 pm, all along the historic street running through the part of St. Catharines affectionately known as Little Europe.  Lots of food vendors will be on the street selling their wares, many closely associated with the multicultural community there.  There will also be contests and other family-friendly events, and of course, music from the likes of our own Walter Ostanek along with John Gora and a host of others.

The Facer Street European Festival is designed to bring people back to the historic area and rediscover their roots here, and also help fund much-needed repairs and upgrades to the streetscape, making it even more of a destination in the future.

All over the Region people are enjoying the time off and spending it with family and friends doing whatever suits them.  Be it structured fun or simply a walk through Centennial Park in St. Catharines for example, to check out the refurbishments done recently, it is a great time to get out and enjoy what we have to offer right here in our own backyard.

We are lucky to be here and have a great arts community to tap into.  But more than that, we have what it takes to become even more of a destination point for people both far and near than Niagara already is.  We just need to embrace the amazing things we have going for us right here, right now.

Have a great holiday weekend!

August 4th, 2018.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Foster Festival World Premiere worth the wait

The second production of the third season for the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is up and running, and you should be running downtown to catch it before it's gone.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster, for whom the festival is named after, has hit all the emotional buttons with Come Down From Up River, the first of two World Premieres this season.  The characters are richly drawn and show even more depth than usual for a Foster play, which is saying something.

Norm Foster excels at holding a mirror up to the audience and showing us ourselves, but occasionally his witty dialogue may not run as deep as you might like in order to produce light and breezy summertime theatre fare.  That's not the case here, as this play proves to be one of his best and most thought-provoking plays.

Come Down From Up River tackles many issues, including bigotry, same-sex marriage, dealing with the death of a family member and ultimately settling long-standing differences between family members.  A lot to handle within two hours?  Not for Foster, who offers up some of his most sophisticated writing in this latest play.

We're introduced to Shaver Bennett, sort of the black sheep of the family who has lived a rather solitary existence as a logger in the woods of the Miramichi in northern New Brunswick.  But before we're actually introduced to him we're set up to dislike him due to the fact, according to his niece Bonnie Doyle, he appeared to be somewhat of a bigot in his younger days.  Not only that, Bonnie doubts he would approve of her same-sex marriage to Liv Arsenault.

This discussion comes out of news Shaver has written Bonnie to say he is coming south for a short visit in order to attend to medical matters at the neighbourhood hospital.  He has asked if he can stay overnight for a day or two before returning home.

When we're finally introduced to Shaver, darned if he isn't really kind of likeable after all.  And not in a bad boy sort of way.  He is older, wiser and a little amused by what Liv has learned of him from Bonnie.  When he arrives Bonnie just happens to have an important meeting to attend and leaves the ice-breaking to Liv alone.  She fails to see why Bonnie has not been in touch with him all these years.

What follows is an exploration of family values, acceptance and tolerance, all deftly handled by Norm Foster in a way that makes the rather bitter pill easier to swallow.  A pivotal scene pits Bonnie and Shaver in a one-on-one conversation as he awaits his appointment at the hospital, and they discuss their differences and the time that has passed by while apart.

The upshot of this hospital visit is Bonnie gets a new appreciation of Shaver, while he gets a diagnosis that is rather grim.  To me it's not quite realistic he would get the serious news he does on the same day as the visit, but I'm told that aspect of the play is based on actual events, so hey, colour me jaded.  At any rate, the hospital visit makes all three of them realize time has been passing them by.

Not wanting to give too much of the ending away, Shaver leaves for up north after he and Bonnie have reconciled somewhat, with a promise Bonnie and Liv will come up for a visit soon.  That would have been unheard of at the beginning of the play.

Director Patricia Vanstone has assembled a fine cast here, with Amanda Parsons making her Foster Festival debut as Bonnie.  Returning Festival favourites Kirsten Alter as Liv and Peter Krantz as Shaver also seem right at home in their roles.  Whether Foster wrote the play with these particular actors in mind is open to debate, I suppose, but all three actors are perfectly suited to their roles.

The simple set design cleverly depicts three locations, the central one being the century home where Liv and Bonnie live together.

There is a reason the Foster Festival is growing by leaps and bounds after only three years of existence:  quality work by all involved makes for a guaranteed pleasurable afternoon or evening of live theatre in the heart of the city.

Come Down From Up River continues until August 3rd, with matinee performances at 2 and evening performances at 7:30.  You can order tickets by calling the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or online by going to www.fosterfestival.com.

Enjoy your weekend!

July 28th, 2018.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Stage Kiss at Shaw Festival a fun play, but not perfect

Much anticipation accompanied my latest visit to The Shaw in Niagara on the Lake, as the Festival was staging a modern play dating back to just 2011 by Sarah Ruhl, entitled Stage Kiss.  The play within a play concept has been mined many times before, of course, but looking at the classic juxtaposition through a more modern lens was one I was especially looking forward to.

Stage Kiss, at the compact and cosy Royal George Theatre, is in exactly the right space.  It would be totally lost on the huge Festival Theatre stage; here the intimacy of the space helps to magnify the intimacy shared by the two lead actors known simply as She and He.

In a nutshell, Stage Kiss introduces us to Fiona Byrne as She, who has been out of the acting profession for about ten years to raise a family, and Martin Happer as He, an actor who has not been working all that much as of late.  They both need this job, and as it turns out, each other too.

Both He and She were formerly lovers in what passes for real life in this play, a parody of actors actually in that former state.  At a dank rehearsal hall, both He and She come together to audition for the two lead parts not knowing the other was going to be there.  Indeed, neither has kissed the other in years and with good reason.  Things did not end well for them years ago, apparently.

But here they are, together again, kissing on stage in a play that portrays two actors falling in love and...kissing on stage.

It begs the question:  can actors kiss and not feel some sort of chemical interaction between them?  Or can those same kisses ignite passions either for the first time or all over again?

The answer appears to be the latter.  Yes, He and She fall in love all over again in spite of past history suggesting they will not succeed.  Problem is, She has a husband and a daughter; He has a girlfriend, who just happens to walk in on them in the second act as they awaken in his scruffy apartment and does not immediately put two and two together, discovering it does not add up to three.

There are lots of complications in this play within a play, not all of them deftly handled by playwright Ruhl.  But taken at face value it can be a lot of fun as the audience feels they are in on the gag and voyeurs of sorts at the same time.

The cast, under the clever direction of Anita Rochon, does a magnificent job with the script for the most part and have great fun in the process.  Fiona Byrne hits all the right notes as She; Neil Barclay is solid and quite understated as the Director of the forgotten 1930s melodrama the actors are auditioning for.  I couldn't help but think, however, he was just a bit more understanding and tolerant than some directors I have come to know over the years...

Other supporting cast members putting in solid work are Jeff Meadows as Kevin, the gay actor who perhaps has a non-professional connection to the director although it is never clearly spelled out, and Rong Fu as He's girlfriend Millicent.  She has one big scene in the play and makes the most of it.  Meadows, by mocking a gay actor's supposed inability to kiss a woman in a sensual way is hilarious to watch but one can't help but think he is doing a great disservice to those in the profession who actually find themselves in that position.

That leaves us with the role of He, and here I have a problem with the performance I attended.  I could imagine Martin Happer in this role and being a genuine love-interest to Fiona Byrne's She.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason the performance I attended featured understudy Sanjay Talwar in the role of He, rather than his usual role of She's husband.

Talwar is a talented, solid actor with lots of memorable performances at Shaw and elsewhere on his resume.  This, unfortunately, is not one of them.  He gives a solid performance here as He, but for me there simply was no chemistry between him and Fiona Byrne's She.  True he is only the understudy but still, in a pivotal role such as this I feel the entire dynamic of the play was altered more that I would have liked.

In Talwar's place in the role of the Husband, Andrew Lawrie gave a credible performance.

Oh well, no idea if it was an unscheduled absence on the part of Happer or not, but he was clearly missed at the performance I recently attended.

So, is Stage Kiss worth the visit?  If you want a fun afternoon or evening of light theatre that doesn't make you think too hard and get a behind-the-scenes look at the world of theatre, sure, it is well worth the visit.  But if you're looking for more proverbial meat on the bones as it were, I suggest you look elsewhere this season.

Stage Kiss continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 1st, and rates a moderate 2 out of 4 stars.

Enjoy the weekend!

July 21st, 2018.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Music Niagara's 20th Anniversary Season now in full swing

Last Saturday evening I was invited to the Opening Gala for the 20th anniversary season for Music Niagara, the little music festival that could, and does great things each and every year.  Rather than hold the inaugural concert at St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake as was the case last season, this year they opted for the larger, more modern confines of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre.

While not oozing history like venerable St. Mark's does, the large and airy community centre, located next to the public library on your way into town along highway 55 proved to be an ideal location for the season kickoff.  It also has the advantage of a proper stage and requisite sound system in order to make the concert a pleasure to see and hear.

The featured artists for the gala were the acclaimed Hannaford Street Silver Band, a Toronto-based professional-calibre brass band making its home base at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.  To say they entertained the audience royally would be an understatement - their full, rich sound and precision made for a totally enjoyable evening of music-making.  Whether playing a spirited Suite from Bizet's opera Carmen or more contemporary works by The Beatles or Harry James, they come prepared to play and executed the programme with panache.

That being said, I was a little disappointed by the length of time it took to actually get the concert underway.  A scheduled start time of 7:30 did indeed bring the musicians to the stage, but so too a few opening remarks from Music Niagara's founding Artistic Director Atis Bankas, a welcome from the concert sponsors, a concert introduction by James Tupman and further welcoming remarks by the conductor.  All told, it was almost 20 minutes before we even got to stand for our national anthem.

Now I know all artistic pursuits reliant on sponsorship from many levels of government and corporations want to acknowledge them in person as well as in the programme, and make sure everyone is fully informed before the concert begins, but this time it just seemed to be verbal overload before we actually got to the music.  I am not criticizing the content or the necessity of it, but I think a little more brevity or at the very least spreading it out over the evening a bit better might have been a better option.

As for the size of the audience, I was glad to see a very good turnout for the concert - not a full house by any means but it is a larger venue to fill and there was another event just down the road at Jackson Triggs to contend with.

This, however, brings up a concern I have written about before and will touch on again here - the aging population of concert-goers for events such as this.  Music Niagara is not alone in this regard; indeed all classical and similar events are struggling with some measure of declining attendance as their core audience simply dies off.  I don't claim to have the answers to how to solve the problem, but clearly all arts organizations have to pay heed to the changing attitudes of the music-loving public and tailor their approach to better serve it.

I worry there will come a time when an organization such as Music Niagara and many others face a crisis of declining attendance.  It is certainly not immediate and no need to push the panic button now, but it might be wise to devise a game plan sooner rather than later as to how to successfully address the aging population of concert-goers and attract more of those younger individuals who increasingly expect to be entertained online for free through such channels as YouTube.

For now, though, it is wonderful to see so many welcome the 20th season of Music Niagara at many venues in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Music Niagara is a jewel of the Region, offering a wide variety of musical styles to suit most tastes, so if you have never been, what's holding you back?  Try it, you might just like it!

Coming up today, for example, a concert entitled Great Romantics will feature Norbert Heller and Alexander Dobson along with Artistic Director Atis Bankas performing music by Dietrich, Brahms and Schumann.  The concert begins at 3 pm in the Market Room of the Court House in the centre of town.

A good introduction to some of the music and artists featured during the festival can be had at the regular Sunday in the Park concerts at Simcoe Park in the centre of town.  The events are held in the bandshell and are free of charge.  Just bring a lawn chair and pack a picnic lunch if you wish and enjoy the music.  Tomorrow's noon-hour concert features The Retro Ramblers, a barbershop quartet performing classics from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Tomorrow afternoon at 3 pianist Victoria Kogan performs next in the Great Romantics series, along with the Gould String Quartet.  The concert, at lovely St. Mark's Church, will feature a programme of music by Liszt, Wagner and Schumann.

Tickets for all Music Niagara concerts and events are available online by going to www.musicniagara.org or by calling the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.  You can also access the entire lineup online at www.musicniagara.org.

Music Niagara offers some of the best, affordable high-quality summer entertainment in a picturesque setting in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  For many it remains a gem yet to be discovered.  Why not take some time this year to introduce yourself to the joys of live classical music at a very attractive price?

Music Niagara continues until August 11th.

Enjoy your weekend!

July 14th, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Foster Festival kicks off new season with a Greatest Hit

Late last month the Foster Festival launched their third season at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines with what's being called a Norm Foster Greatest Hit.  It would be hard to narrow down any of Foster's classic plays as such, but after seeing the current production of Wrong For Each Other yesterday afternoon, I'd have to agree it is right up there with the best of them.

Foster's plays allow us to look in the mirror and see ourselves, or at least much wittier versions of ourselves.  Norm has this unique gift of being able to distill life experiences both good and bad into a two-hour play most anyone would enjoy, which is precisely why he is the darling of the summer theatre circuit throughout the country.  You would be hard pressed to find a summer theatre season anywhere without at least one Foster play on the bill.  Essentially, staging a Norm Foster play in the summer is guaranteed win night for most theatre companies.

In fact, the Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne is producing Screwball Comedy starting next week, for example.  You might recall, that play premiered last season at the Foster Festival.  And that's the wonderful thing about having a festival dedicated to producing Foster's plays and hosting his premieres:  we act as an incubation theatre of sorts, eventually feeding the rest of the country another new Foster classic they can bet the proverbial farm on.

Once again this season the Foster Festival is premiering two new plays after Wrong for Each Other closes after tomorrow night's performance:  the second show opening July 18th is Come Down From Up River, and Renovations For Six closes out the annual festival with the opening on August 8th.  Both of those productions will be directed by Foster Festival Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone.

This first show, however, is directed by Shaw Festival veteran Jim Mezon, who has given us many thought-provoking productions in Niagara-on-the-Lake over the years.  Of Foster, Jim writes in his Director's Notes, he "writes us.  He writes who we are, what we want and need, what we fear, what angers us, what confuses us, what gives us joy...and he does this without cynicism."

There is a common thread in all of Foster's plays, of course, and that is an overriding sense of decency.  They may come off as jerks, stuck up or just plain unlikeable in the beginning, but their sense of decency shines through before the two hours is up and you can't help but see yourself - and others you know - in many of those characters.

All of which brings us to Wrong For Each Other.  The play, dating from several years ago, stars Daniel Briere as Rudy Sorenson and Julia Porter as Norah Case.  Rudy and Norah, we soon discover, where married years ago, divorced four years ago, and have not seen each other since.  Until now, when Rudy, it turns out, more or less stalks his ex-wife and sets up a "chance" meeting in a restaurant in order to see his former love once again.

I know, especially in this day and age any suggestion of stalking is looked upon as something more than a little creepy, but Rudy, we discover, is not acting out of malice but rather out of that genuine desire I think we all have to come to grips with the end of a relationship we are not quite ready to let go of yet.

While in that big-city restaurant at lunch-time, Rudy and Norah decide to put the past aside and share lunch together.  Alas, Rudy just can't avoid probing the things that went right and wrong in their relationship, and that makes Norah just a little uncomfortable.

Truth be told, Rudy in the flashback scenes when he first meets and tries to woo Norah, comes across as such an awkward round peg in a square hole sort of guy we are left to wonder what Norah actually saw in him in the first place.  But love, as they say, is blind, and who can explain love anyway?  Not I, for sure!

Norah and Rudy do fall in love, marry, and try to have a child together.  The loss of that child brings more than heartbreak to the relationship, it brings depression upon Norah, and tests the strength of the marriage when Rudy ends up having a fling outside of matrimony.  Ultimately, they divorce and that should be the end of it.

But not as far as Rudy is concerned.  He still carries the torch for his former love, and for most of the play the compliment is not returned.  But at the end?  I won't give that away...

Director Mezon has done a fine job of keeping things simple and focusing on the characters themselves, so set changes are kept to a minimum.  He allows both Briere and Porter the freedom to delve into their respective characters and find the real people who loved and lost not that long ago.

Julia Porter and Daniel Briere are both making their debut with the Foster Festival in this play and their work together is quite good.  Hopefully we'll see them again in future seasons.

In spite of the subject matter in Wrong for Each Other, there are plenty of laughs to go around and Norm Foster is in rare form here.  He never allows the subject matter to become too maudlin and the audience looking for the exits.

Wrong for Each Other continues with evening performances tonight and tomorrow night at the PAC, and then preparations will be underway to stage the second play of the season, Come Down From Up River opening July 18th.

For tickets for this and all Foster Festival performances, go to www.fosterfestival.com or call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Theatre box office at 905-688-0722.

See you at the theatre!

July 12th, 2018.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Summer Music is all around us!

Now that we're into the month of July, most of the summer music festivals in Ontario are either in full swing or just about to get underway.  I thought this weekend we'll take a look at some of the best being offered in the coming weeks.

First and foremost, our local home-grown music festival, Music Niagara officially kicks off tonight at  the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre just off Highway 55 on your way into the Old Town.  This is the 20th season for the little festival that could, the brainchild of long-time artistic director Atis Bankas, and runs through to August 11th at various locations in and around Niagara.

Tonight's Gala Opening concert features an opening reception at 6:30 followed by a performance at 7:30 featuring the renowned Hannaford Street Silver Band, certainly this country's premiere brass ensemble, playing light classics, jazz and traditional favourites.  Tomorrow the annual Sunday in the Park series kicks off at Simcoe Park in the heart of Old Town, with a concert entitled Where Have all the Folk Songs Gone? starting at 12 noon.  The event is free and you're encouraged to bring a picnic lunch and lawn chairs and enjoy the music.

There are plenty of concerts coming up over the next month or so, ranging from classical to jazz to even some bluegrass.  Artists range from the Clarion Quartet, Isabel Bayrakdarian, the Gould String Quartet, pianist Andre Laplante and violinist Juliette Kang, among others.  There are also opera performances planned, including Mozart's Don Giovanni on Monday evening at 7:30, and the Elmer Iseler Singers present a 40th Anniversary concert next Thursday evening.

I'll be attending the opening concert tonight, and will be reporting on the festival again over the course of the summer in this space.  For tickets and more information, go to www.musicniagara.org, or call the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.

The 31st season of the Brott Music Festival is underway in and around Hamilton and Burlington, and there are always plenty of events planned to suit most every taste.  Since 1988 Maestro Boris Brott has presented a varied programme featuring the National Academy Orchestra, made up of music students across the country and professional mentors coming together to make music of a very high calibre.

Coming up this week, an Opera's Greatest Hits evening is planned for July 12th at 7:30 at the First Ontario Concert Hall in downtown Hamilton, featuring arias, duets and ensembles from the world of grand and comic opera, by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi, Tchaikovsky to Britten and even some Sir Arthur Sullivan for good measure.  Soloists will be the 13 cast members of the upcoming opera production of Mozart's Magic Flute.

If you like Big Band Music, the 40s come back to life July 15th at 7 pm at Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum in Ancaster with young conductor Martin MacDonald leading the orchestra along with local favourite, pianist Valerie Tryon as soloist on the ever-popular Warsaw Concerto.

The aforementioned production of Mozart's Magic Flute happens at First Ontario Concert Hall on July 19th at 7:30 pm in what is described as a Steampunk adaptation.  Mixing old and new, the opera is fully staged and sung in English, featuring some of the brightest opera stars around today.

And on August 2nd, Star Wars - The Force Awakens will fill the L.R. Wilson Hall on Main Street West in Hamilton, featuring music from many of the Star Wars films.  Audience members will also be able to compete in a "Name that Film/Character" trivia contest.  Many of the familiar characters will make appearances as well, and audience members are also encouraged to come in costume.

For more information on these and all Brott Music Festival concerts, go to www.brottmusic.com or call the box office at 905-525-7664.

As mentioned in this space last month, the 39th annual Elora Festival kicks off July 13th and runs to the 29th at many venues in the lovely little town of Elora, northwest of Guelph.  The Festival will partner with the Canadian Opera Company for the Opening Night Gala at the Gambrel Barn just on the outskirts of town, featuring The Elora Singers, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Festival Orchestra, along with soloists Isabel Bayrakdarian, Danika Loren, Andrew Haji and Samuel Chan.  The programme features a host of opera favourites from Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Turandot and other opera classics.

Also coming up on July 14th Isabel Bayrakdarian teams up with pianist Robert Kortgaard for a programme of Spanish music with songs by Manuel de Falla and others.  The concert is at 1 pm in the afternoon at St. John's Church in the heart of town.  That evening at 7:30 another Canadian opera star, Ben Heppner joins the Toronto Mass Choir at the Gambrel Barn for a concert entitled Oh Happy Day! for some good old gospel music and other songs of praise.

A concert I am looking forward to attending in Elora is a performance by Canadian singer Louise Pitre with The Elora Singers on July 21st at the Gambrel Barn.  Accompanied by pianist Diane Leah, Pitre will present her newest show, Chasing Rainbows:  Louise Pitre sings the Songs of Judy Garland.  Louise is famous for her role in Mamma Mia of course, but has become known as Canada's first lady of musical theatre for a host of other performances as well, not the least of which is the classic presentation of the music of Edith Piaf.

For tickets and information on these and other Elora Festival performances, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 519-846-0331.

Finally, Stratford Summer Music presents their latest season at many venues indoors and out throughout the city of Stratford again this season, beginning July 16th with an Opening Night Gala featuring Fireworks and Music at 9:30 pm.  There will also be the launch of the popular Play Me, I'm Yours Piano Project July 17th at 10 am.  People can play pianos available daily until 7 pm.

Stratford musical theatre star Bruce Dow performs in concert at 9 pm on Friday July 20th, and there is even something called Bach Walks scattered throughout the Festival this season, with the first Bach Walk scheduled for July 29th at 9 am.

Stratford Summer Music presents a huge number of performances each summer right through to late August, and this year promises to be bigger and better than ever.  For a complete listing of concerts and events, log on to www.stratfordsummermusic.ca for more information and to purchase tickets.

Enjoy a musical summer in Ontario!

July 7th, 2018.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Shaw Festival's Grand Hotel struggles grandly...

The Shaw Festival relies heavily on its big-budget musicals to keep the seats filled and patrons happy  they came, hopefully to stay and catch more shows at the Festival before leaving town.  It is always an important element of any theatre season not only at Shaw, but at the Stratford Festival as well.

Most years the musical is a slam-dunk that plays right by the theatre playbook; other years it can be a somewhat more risky affair that only partially satisfies.  The big musical offering this year, Grand Hotel, The Musical, falls into the latter category, but does it with great style.

Set in Berlin in 1928, the musical takes place entirely in the art deco lobby of the Grand Hotel, a still ritzy place only slightly past its prime where guests escape for any number of reasons.  Some are admittedly sinister.

Grand Hotel is based on Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel, updated in 1989 by Luther Davis with music and lyrics by Robert Wright & George Forrest of Kismet fame, and additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.  Almost musical by committee but not quite.  The film version from the 30s starred Greta Garbo, of course, where she uttered her famous line "I want to be alone!"

This new reworking, however, relies heavily on the musical aspect to carry the day, as the characters sing and dance their way through much of the production, only stopping long enough from time to time to remind us how unlikeable many of them really are.  These are desperate, even sometimes nasty individuals you frankly would not want to meet in a back alley or anywhere else for that matter.

The central character who wanders the stage throughout commenting on the events around him is the Colonel-Doctor, played with much angst by Steven Sutcliffe.  He opens the show by shooting up with  heroin, suggesting perhaps the whole show we're seeing is a product of his drug-induced, warped mind.

No matter, at least it takes his mind off the incredibly bad tailoring job done on his costume for the show.  I mean, really, can you not shorten his jacket sleeves so he doesn't look like a kid wearing his dad's jacket?  I know I am nit picking here, but considering the expense of producing a lavish show such as this, it struck me as a jarring oversight.

Sutcliffe's sombre tone as he wanders the stage uttering lines such as "Time is running out!" suggested perhaps he was an allegory for the impending doom of the stock market crash of 1929, ushering in the Great Depression and more misery than even the the inhabitants of the Grand Hotel could imagine.

Overall the cast is strong, ranging from Deborah Hay returning to Shaw as the ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her eighth and hopefully final farewell tour, to Jenny L. Wright as Madame Peepee and Vanessa Sears as Frieda Flamm, or, Flammchen, who is longing for a film career in America.

Jay Turvey puts in a good performance as Hermann Preysing, a businessman with a non-existant moral compass, although as such he doesn't receive much sympathy for his plight from the audience.

The show really belongs to Michael Therriault again this year, hamming it up as Otto Kringelein, who spends his last days of life seeking a more opulent lifestyle he's only heard about before a terminal illness claims him.  Therriault makes Kringelein more likeable than most everyone else in the cast, even as he temporarily loses his cash at the Grand Hotel to one of the other guests.

Kringelein is befriended by that very guest, Baron von Gaigern, played by James Daley.  The Baron is rich in title but little else and needs to get his hands on some ready cash - fast - in order to stave off his Russian creditors.  This brings him in contact not only with Otto but also Elizaveta, knowing she wants to sell her precious necklace to raise funds to finance the remainder of her tour.  He steals it but in the process, caught in the act as he was by Grushinskaya, clumsily declares his undying love for her.

An unlikely romance blossoms, producing some real poignancy in the show when she sings Bonjour Amour.  But when his real intentions are revealed to her the next morning, her readiness to forgive in order to keep him no matter what is both sad and rather unnerving in this day and age.

The cast is ably directed by Eda Holmes and musical direction is by Paul Sportelli.

Grand Hotel is a grand effort that produces some great individual performances, but overall leads to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.  In light of that, I give it two out of four stars.

Grand Hotel, The Musical continues at the Festival Theatre until October 14th.

Have a great holiday weekend!

June 30th, 2018.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Feel like dancing the night away tonight?

I received an email from the Guelph Youth Music Centre earlier this week about a special event coming up tonight, so I thought I would share it with you this weekend in this space in case you happen to be in the Guelph area and would like to take part in a fun fundraiser for a great organization.

First, a couple of confessions to make, both of which drew me to this information when it arrived.  I confess first and foremost, I am probably the poster boy for clumsy, inarticulate dance moves.  Never been good at it and never will.  My far better half and I toyed with taking ballroom dancing lessons years ago but before long, common sense took over and we (well, I mostly) got cold feet regarding the matter.

That said, there is no denying the attraction of watching couples gracefully waltzing, fox-trotting or jitterbugging around the dance floor.  Witness the phenomenal success of television shows such as Dancing With The Stars, for example.  Granted, I think a lot of the attraction for some is the tendency to watch in case a train wreck makes an epic failure on prime-time television.  Perhaps that takes me back to my first comments about my own abilities (read, inabilities) on the dance-floor.

Secondly, I have a strong affinity for Guelph, dubbed The Royal City, dating back to when my sister attended University there and I spent a lot of time exploring the area while visiting on weekends.  Later, while working part-time on weekends at a local classical music shop, I got to know more about the local arts and culture elements in the city, which is truly significant.  I mean, this city knows how to celebrate the arts more than many others, and people are happy to embrace that enthusiasm whole-heartedly.

Many a weekend evening I would make my way to Guelph to attend a performance by the Guelph Chamber Choir or even earlier, attending performances by the long-gone and much lamented Guelph Spring Festival.  I spent many a pleasurable evening at venerable War Memorial Hall where on one happy occasion, I had the pleasure and honour to interview Canada's famous Queen of classical comedy, Anna Russell, who appeared at the Festival back in the 80s.

From there, it was falling headlong in love with such local attractions as the Saturday morning farmer's market downtown or even the Biltmore Factory Outlet store where I purchased many a stylish fedora or homburg over the years.

That brings me, admittedly via a circuitous route, to the Guelph Youth Music Centre.  I first visited the centre, located at 75 Cardigan Street with a beautiful view of the greenery in downtown Guelph, many years ago when it was the location of a season announcement for the Guelph Spring Festival.  I was amazed this artistic jewel was right there under our collective noses, tucked away in the heart of such an artistically vibrant city.

The GYMC was established in 1992 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to education, enrichment and fostering the development of youth through music and the arts.  The Centre acts as a cultural hub for children of all ages and backgrounds in the community, providing a variety of programs and space availability to partner organizations as well as outreach in the community.  Executive Director Gabriella Currie-Ziegler is justly proud of the outreach element the Centre provides within the community on many levels.

So what's all this got to do with dancing tonight, you ask?  Well, after a lengthy absence, the Guelph Youth Music Centre's gala evening "Bella Serata" or, beautiful evening, returns tonight at 7 pm with the theme "We Could Have Danced All Night!"  Organizers have kept many of the traditional gala features people were familiar with in the past, including food provided by some of the area's best restaurants and caterers, as well as splendid desserts, wine, beer and an exceptional Silent Auction.  There will also be classical music performances in the acoustically radiant Recital Hall.

New this time out will be jazz music provided by the Nick Maclean Trio, plus a demonstration and group lesson by professional ballroom dance teachers, offering the chance to dance to live music by the jazz trio.  Toronto-based Maclean founded his Quartet in 2016, inspired by the hard-swinging New York City style he was so familiar with in his formative years, and the Trio has grown out of that Quartet.

Classical music performances will feature "Concorde", the senior string ensemble of the Suzuki String School of Guelph, a founding resident organization of the GYMC, as well as Toronto violinist Tak Kwan, concert performer and director of the GYMC's orchestra programmes, soprano Marion Samuel-Stevens and pianist Ken Gee, Artistic Director of Guelph Musicfest.

There will certainly be the requisite food and wine vendors, and I am happy to report Niagara will be represented by Vineland Estates Winery.

This year's gala is generously sponsored by the Chyc Family Foundation, with additional support offered by a host of local, artistically-minded organizations including Linamar.

Tickets are offered at a special price of $75 each for two or more adult tickets, or singly at $100 each, with a tax receipt issued for a portion of the ticket price.  You can order them online, call the Centre at 519-837-1119 or even pick them up in person at the Centre on Cardigan Street if you are in the area.

This looks like a great evening and I hope all goes well.  As for me, I really have to plan a visit back to Guelph soon and perhaps even revisit the Guelph Youth Music Centre sometime.  I think I hear the city beckoning once again...

Have a great weekend!

June 23rd, 2018.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

It's time for summer music and fun all around us!

With the start of summer now just days away, a lot of people are already thinking of the myriad of summer music festivals in and around Niagara, or just a short drive away.  There are far too many to list in this space all at once, but occasionally we'll touch on them a few at a time over the summer months and give you some detail of what's to come.

This weekend, three festivals will be highlighted, featuring blues, jazz and lots of classical music to cool you down on these sultry summer days and nights.

The TD Niagara Jazz Festival has grown since its inception just a few short years ago to now encompass two full weekends in July plus numerous events before and after the two core weekends.  This is the first year for a two-weekend event, and Festival Executive Director/Artistic Producer Juliet Dunn along with Co-Creator & Artistic Consultant Peter Shea feel the time is right to expand the event to two weekends now.  The 5th Annual TD Niagara Jazz Festival has all the makings of being the marquee music event of the summer right here in Niagara.

The Flagship opening event on the weekend of July 19th to the 22nd takes place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines; the second weekend will feature the hugely popular "Jazz in the Park" events in Simcoe Park in Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake July 28th and 29th.

In addition, new this year will be the inaugural World Music on the Beach event hosted by the TD Niagara Jazz Festival in Port Dalhousie.  Four community stages will be filled with music from around the globe, located from Lakeside Beach at the Rotary and Pavilion stages to Hogan's Alley, to the all-new Lock One Stage (Tow Bridge Stage) honouring the historic first Welland Canal.  The best part of all, this is a free community event for the entire family, featuring music, dance, kids play zones, artisan vendors, wine and craft beer stalls as well as local culinary favourites.

Juliet Dunn says its an opportunity to "show how World Music plays such an integral part in the world of jazz", adding bands will be showcased from Jamaica, Japan, Holland and the Ukraine, as well as local, home-grown World music artists from around the province.

One of the nice touches is a secure 'Bike Valet' area, so patrons can ride their bikes to Port and walk around and enjoy the sights and the music without having to worry about their bikes.

The day-long World Music on the Beach event takes place on Sunday, July 22nd during the first weekend of the Festival.

For more information and to order Festival tickets and passes, go to www.niagarajazzfestival.com or call 1-844-548-5299.

Over the border in Lewiston, New York, the Lewiston Council on the Arts has announced their summer schedule, including everything from the ever-popular Summer of '69 concert in the park to the 34th annual Key Bank Chalk Walk Competition.  The summer schedule runs from July 9th to August 20th, with events scattered throughout the fall season as well, ending in November.

One of the more popular events for several years now have been the Blue Mondays concerts in the Gazebo on Centre Street.  In its 24th year now, the Blue Mondays series has been the recipient of Blues Beat Magazine's prestigious "Muddy" award and for many is considered one of the best Blues venues in Western New York.  Best of all, the concerts are all free, so pack a picnic dinner and grab your lawn chair and catch acts such as Marsha McWilson on July 9th all the way to Maria Aurigema on August 20th.

The aforementioned Summer of '69 concert takes place on Friday, July 13th at 6 pm, and again is a free event.  The annual concert reunites Lewiston-area rock musicians who have moved on since their heyday in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Featuring the Lewiston All Stars, Loved Ones, the County Orphanage, the Invaders and special guest, Grammy Award winner Gary Baker.  All the participants gather on stage for a grand jam finale.  The Summer of '69 concert is in the Hennepin Park Gazebo at the corner of 4th and Centre Street.

The 52nd Lewiston Art Festival closes off Centre Street to vehicular traffic and visitors can amble the streets to view works by more than 175 artists and crafters.  The Art Festival takes place the weekend of August 11th and 12th all day, and is also free.

Want more information on events happening this summer with the Lewiston Council on the Arts?  Go to www.artcouncil.org or call 716-754-0166.

Finally, one of my all-time favourite summer music festivals is set to kick off July 13th and run to the 29th in the lovely town of Elora, Ontario.  The 39th season now encompasses three weeks of musical performances of every description and this season will honour the memory of Michael Purves-Smith, the founding Artistic Director of the predecessor to the Elora Festival, the Three Centuries Festival, in 1979.  He passed away back in January of this year.

The Festival features performances by a wide range of artists from Isabel Bayrakdarian to Chantal Kreviazuk, but the heart of the Festival remains the glorious Elora Singers, the choir-in-residence of the Elora Festival.  They present their own Choral Concert Series, of course, including a choral tribute to Leonard Bernstein on July 21st featuring the Chichester Psalms to The Elora Singers Unplugged on July 22nd.  They also perform more sacred music at the Choral Evensong performance on July 26th and as part of the weekly Sunday Service on Sunday mornings at St. John's Church.  This to me presents the Singers in their purest, most radiant form, and I never miss a chance to attend the 11 am service during a weekend visit to the Festival.

The Opening Night Gala concert in the Gambrel Barn on July 13th is in partnership with The Canadian Opera Company and features The Elora Singers along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Isabel Bayrakdarian, Danika Loren, Andrew Haji and Samuel Chan, followed by a public reception and of course, fireworks to cap the evening off.

Something new this year for the 39th season is a special fundraiser being held at the newly refurbished and restored Elora Mill Hotel and Spa, closed for many years.  The July 18th event features cocktails at 5:30 pm and dinner at 7.  It promises to be the Big Event of the summer season in Elora.

The Elora Singers are certainly Canada's preeminent chamber choir and hearing them on their home turf is for me, a summer must-do each year.  If you are so inclined, and you should be, Elora is a pleasant two-hour drive from Niagara just northwest of Guelph.

For tickets and more information, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 519-846-0331.

So there you go - a trio of summer events designed to get you out of the house and out of your rut, and enjoy some great summer music and culture not that far away from home.  We'll look at some other great ideas shortly in this space.

Enjoy your weekend!

June 16th, 2018.


Friday, June 1, 2018

News and notes in the Arts

As the first weekend of June unfurls in all its glory, a few items of news and notes from the local arts scene and beyond to get you going for the weekend...

Last night I had the pleasure to attend the 2018/19 Hot Ticket lineup announcement at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  This was the second of two consecutive nights, as the large Partridge Hall was filled almost to capacity both nights.  That tells us something about the local arts scene:  truly, if they build it, we will come.  And we do.  Last year for example, more than 75,000 people filed through the doors at the PAC to take in a performance of some sort.

What I love about this stat is it comes after barely three years of existence, as the PAC opened in the fall of 2015.  This fourth season announcement stokes the fires even more so, and helps to put to rest once and for all the notion the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre would not be supported and embraced by the community at large.

Guests the last two nights got to sample food from sponsors Wind, East Izakaya and Ma Chinese Cuisine along with Niagara wines in the lobby before the event inside Partridge Hall, and also experienced other notable sponsors in Robertson Hall including Critelli's Fine Furniture, The Peanut Mill and Elite Spa Group, among others.

Once inside the theatre a combination of performances both live and pre-recorded outlined the upcoming season in both the banner Hot Ticket series as well as performances by local music and theatre organizations such as Carousel Players, Essential Collective Theatre, Suitcase in Point, TD Niagara Jazz Festival and Twitches and Itches Theatre, among others.

Both Executive Director Steve Solski and Mayor Walter Sendzik spoke glowingly about the way the PAC has helped to breath new life into downtown St. Catharines with quality performances to satisfy most every taste.  It was left to Programming and Marketing Manager Sara Palmieri and the rest of her talented team to outline the upcoming season in greater detail as the evening progressed.

Of particular note the second annual Celebration of Nations, a gathering of indigenous arts, culture and tradition will once again kick off the new season September 7th to the 9th in and around the PAC.  It will be expanded this year, feeding off the momentum of the inaugural event last season with something for most everyone in both music and theatre as well as other art forms.

Tied in with that event, which Mayor Sendzik highlighted last night, was the celebration of the late Gordon Downie scheduled for October 18th.  Walking the Path of Reconciliation will be a celebration by Canadian artists of the impact of Gord's art and work.  Downie of course died last year after completing his final tour with The Tragically Hip, and not before making a special effort to shine light on the reconciliation with Canada's First Peoples.  The concert is a collaboration with The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund and will feature artists ranging from Twin Flames, Bruce McCulloch, Tom Wilson and Danny Michel to Trent Severn, Matthew Barber, Damnhait Doyle and others.

For tickets and more information on all upcoming performances, go to www.FirstOntarioPAC.ca or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

This coming Sunday afternoon in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Gallery Players will present the final concert of the current season, Opera in Concert - "Folly in Love" by Alessandro Scarlatti.  Directed by Bud Roach, the performance features Capella Intima along with Members of the Nota Bene Baroque Players from the Guelph area, along with soloists Sheila Dietrich, soprano; Vicki St. Pierre, mezzo-soprano; Bud Roach, tenor; David Roth, bass; along with instrumentalists including Julie Baumgartel and Rona Goldensher on violins, John Wiebe on viola, Margaret Gay on cello, Borys Medicky on harpsichord and Terry McKenna on lute.

The opera is full of comic themes including mistaken identity, sibling rivalry and of course, love at first sight.  It was the first opera for the then eighteen-year-old Scarlatti, premiering in Rome in 1679. The public quickly embraced this new, youthful voice in the world of opera, in spite of the fact there was a papal decree against such scandalous behaviour as women on stage and even the ban on the church's employment of theatre musicians.

Tickets to Opera in Concert are available in advance by calling Gallery Players at 905-468-1525, or you can pick them up at the PAC box office on Sunday afternoon.

Finally, Hamilton-based composer Robert Bruce's "Blues Hologram" debut concert comes up next Wednesday evening, June 6th at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the Tanenbaum Pavilion.  This will be the first public presentation of the group's intriguing musical style and sound, integrating both live music and a cinematic experience in a multi-media concert performance.  Each song will be performed while accompanying a specially-produced short film.

The performance will highlight the vocal duets of classically-trained Amy Dodington and the more earthy, gospel-infused style of Martina Aswani performing the compositions of Robert Bruce, blending both classical elements and basic blues elements he grew up with and learned throughout the 60s and 70s in the areas of popular and rock music.  Four of the songs have been recorded already, in fact, and featured in Bruce's first full-length feature film, "Love Bonds", now in the final stages of post-production.

Bruce and singers Dodington and Aswani will be joined by Hamilton percussionist Dave Simpson, who has worked with Bruce several times over the last ten years.

The event next Wednesday, June 6th begins at 7:30 with the doors opening at 7.  Tickets are $20 and available at the door, or in advance via PayPal at www.robertbrucemusic.com.

Lots to see and do in Niagara and beyond this week and in the months ahead.  Enjoy!

June 1st, 2018.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A couple of ideas for celebrating your Mom on her special day

So it's Mother's Day, and by now many restaurants will be full over the brunch period and again this evening at dinner as people take Mom out on her special day.  Flower shops and corner hucksters are busy today with last-minute shoppers picking up flowers on their way to scheduled appointments with their Mom.

As thriving as those businesses are this weekend, I offer up a couple of alternatives for later this afternoon you might like to add to the day's events or even substitute for the tried and true.  While both require a short drive out of town, this is a glorious day to take a drive, see the wonders of Spring in all its glory, and marvel at the blossoms before they are all gone.

First up, my good friend and amazing talent Catherine Wilson is performing this afternoon at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, not with her usual group Ensemble Vivant, but rather as featured soloist with the Symphony on the Bay orchestra conducted by Claudio Vena.  This is the orchestra's Proms Concert, the finale to the current season, in fact.  It's full of easy-to-digest pieces alongside slightly weightier works, all of which will put Catherine's musical talents on full display, along with those of the orchestra.

On the programme will be several works in the first half featuring Catherine with the orchestra, including the Piano Concerto in F minor by J.S. Bach, Gershwin's ragtime classic Rialto Ripples and Phil Dwyer's Bernardo's Tango.  Catherine will also be performing her own composition Sackville Street Ballad, and the principal string players of the orchestra with Maestro Vena on viola will join Catherine on Ernesto Lecuona's popular Andalucia.

At intermission you can meet Catherine and no doubt pick up a copy of one of her CDs, including her latest CD/DVD combination, Ensemble Vivant Live in Concert:  A Tribute to Rick Wilkins.  I'll have more to say about the disc in a future posting in this space.

The second half of the programme will feature the orchestra performing Proms favourites such as Elgar's Chanson de Nuit and the ever-popular Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 among other works.  Also featured will be the winners of the Symphony on the Bay Young Artists' Competition, including violinist Erin Merkley and mezzo Lyndsay Promane.

Symphony on the Bay is Burlington's full-size community orchestra, serving the Burlington area and beyond for many years now.  These are musicians who clearly love what they do - making music together.  Why not treat Mom to an afternoon of fine music-making and really make a day of it?

Tickets are available by calling 905-681-6000, or just go to the Burlington Performing Arts Centre box office prior to the performance this afternoon at 3.  Hope to see you there!

A little further afield today is a CD release concert featuring Jeff Bird celebrating his new recording, felix anima.  Jeff will be joined by guest musicians Ben Grossman and Witek Grabowiecki as they perform music from the new CD at Trinity United Church at 400 Stevenson Street in Guelph at 3 this afternoon.

Jeff is a multi-instrumentalist who is perhaps best-known for his way around the mouth-organ, otherwise known as the harmonica.  On the new disc he offers up his own unique interpretations of the music of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12-century German abbess who lived a relatively long life for the times, from 1098 to 1179.  The new disc features Bird on harmonica, a droning Shruti box and a host of other interesting instruments.

Bingen's music is largely sacred and transcendent, reflecting her vocation as an abbess, and are both contemplative and uplifting.  She is still very well known today for her music as well as her theological, scientific and dramatic contributions to the era.  She was a saint, a Doctor of the Church, mystic, feminist and visionary all wrapped up in an enigma that has captivated audiences for centuries.

Jeff Bird is a founding member of the seminal folk group Tamarack, and he was part of the legendary The Trinity Session along with the Cowboy Junkies.  He has scored music for film, television and dance, and is a talented graphic artist, having created the artwork for the new CD as well.

For more information on Jeff and his new recording, go to www.felixanima.ca.  Copies of the new disc will certainly be available at the church after the performance today, and you can get your tickets at the door.  The concert starts at 3 pm.

So there you go:  music, food, flowers and Spring, all coming together to make Mom's day special today.

Happy Mother's Day to Moms everywhere!

May 13th, 2018.