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.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Lots happening in the arts in Niagara this week!

In spite of the less-than-springlike weather at the moment, there is plenty to do in and around Niagara this week, all pertaining to the arts in one form or another.  So let's take a quick look at some of the things coming up you might want to take in.

First up, the 10th Annual In The Soil arts festival is on in downtown St. Catharines, and continues throughout the day tomorrow.  Events began on Friday evening at The Hub on James Street, which is currently closed off to vehicular traffic from King Street to St. Paul Street.

To celebrate the one decade milestone, organizers are welcoming over 500 artists, makers and arts workers to the city core to share 150 acts and art installations throughout downtown St. Catharines.  Events take place in venues ranging from a school and a church to the I.O.O.F. Lodge on James Street and even in a yurt.  Let's not forget the alleys, bars, cafes and right on James Street as well.

One of the nice things about In The Soil is there is literally something for everyone and every age, and much of it is deemed family-friendly.  Yes, there is a licensed Hub Bar open to those of age, but other than that the family is pretty much welcome everywhere else.

As always there are lots of food choices as well, and I even spied the Gorilla Cheese truck on James Street when I visited the area in the pouring rain this morning.

Don't let the weather deter you - the final day on Sunday promises to be a little bit better in that regard, so check out the In The Soil website for details on events still to come before things wind up Sunday evening.

Also tomorrow, Silver Spire United Church will play host to the next concert featuring the Eybler Quartet, as part of the Gallery Players of Niagara season.  The concert begins at 2 pm and the church is located at 366 St. Paul Street.

The Eybler Quartet will be taking audience members on a journey through the first 50 years of the string quartet, from the rarely heard but pioneering works of Franz Asplmayr, a colleague of Mozart and Haydn, no less, to the music of Mozart himself.  They'll be playing the Mozart A major Quartet K. 464, as well as the Beethoven Op. 130.

In fact, the concert will coincide with the launch of the Eybler Quartet's new CD, devoted to the music of Beethoven, and I am pretty sure you'll be able to pick up a copy of the new disc at the concert.

The Quartet is made up of violinists Aisslinn Nosky and Julia Wedman, as well as Patrick Jordan on viola and cellist Margaret Gay.

This concert also ties in nicely with the In The Soil arts festival, as the concert is is actually one of the scheduled events this weekend for In The Soil.  If you purchase their Festival pass you can come to the concert tomorrow with what's called one of their Arts Worker tickets.  You can also purchase an Arts Worker ticket on the Gallery Players website or by calling them at 905-468-1525.

To help celebrate International Jazz Day on Monday, the TD Niagara Jazz Festival has a couple of musical events coming up this week:  "Discover Jazz" is a free public event presented by noted jazz musician, educator and jazz programmer Mark Micklethwaite on Wednesday, May 2nd.  The lecture/presentation will take place in the evening from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library, located just off Highway 55.

Also up this week is the second presentation in the ever-popular Live Learn Jazz series produced in partnership with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library, featuring intimate, jazz-themed lectures, workshops and performances from Canada's best and most-accomplished musical artists.  Thursday evening's performance features vocalist Stu Mao and the quartet in a concert titled Porter and Porter.  The performance begins at 7 pm at The Exchange Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake at 7 Queen Street.

The TD Niagara Jazz Festival, the brainchild of Niagara-based jazz performers and husband-and-wife team of Juliet Dunn and Peter Shea, was selected as Best New Festival in Ontario for 2017.  It has grown from one three-day weekend at the end of July to two weekends now, both at the end of July and literally packed with performances throughout Niagara.

For more information, check out the TD Niagara Jazz Festival website.

Finally, this week the 50th annual Niagara Folk Arts Festival will get underway, with three days of world-class entertainment kicking off the annual festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Setting up  will take place on Thursday of this week, incidentally.  Their home at 85 Church Street in downtown St. Catharines will be the scene for a lot of the entertainment the first weekend.  There will also be the requisite Open Houses throughout the festival and of course, the annual Day in the Park in Montebello Park will also be coming up this month.

Another family-friendly event, the festival will be free, featuring diverse musical performances, family friendly activities, international food vendors and crafters.

You can check out the Folk Arts Festival website for more information and specific times for events scheduled.

Have a great week in Niagara!

April 28th, 2018.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Brunch in Niagara, in style!

I'm digressing from music & arts reporting again this weekend, but as the saying goes, "if music be the food of love, play on!"  So play on we will, and apologies to esteemed Eating Niagara writer Tiffany Mayer for treading on her tasty territory just a little bit this weekend.

In spite of what my far better half would have you believe, I enjoy good food, artfully presented in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that shows a lot of care and attention to detail.  So I have been doing a little poking around Niagara the last few months trying out some new and new-to-me venues that have caught my interest, many of which Tiffany has written about in her regular columns.

This weekend I'll look at three small, intimate establishments that are off the beaten track, locally owned and operated, and who pride themselves on creating a memorable brunch experience.  These are not the traditional eggs & bacon mom & pop places with large portions for a small amount of money.  That's not the crowd they are going after.  They are aimed at people looking for something more, something a cut above the average breakfast place.

Niagara, of course, has no shortage of great lunch and dinner destinations, many tied to the burgeoning wine industry.  But I've always found brunch to often be the forgotten child, as it were, save for the large big-ticket brunch offerings at some of Niagara's finer hotels.

No more, I am happy to report.  In the past couple of months we've visited two small brunch havens in St. Catharines and one in Vineland, all three relatively new and all three successfully carving out their own little niche in a growing marketplace.  I'm also happy to report they are all very, very good.

First up, just a short walk from our house in central St. Catharines is "a peculiar little bistro called:  mirepoix...breakfast, lunch, mostly brunch" as their simple website proclaims.  It's located at 64 Court Street, just across from the Midtown Plaza on Welland Avenue.  I visited this particular location in former incarnations as a purveyor of Montreal smoked meat sandwiches and an Indian restaurant, both good in their own right but somehow not able to survive all that long.

Mirepoix is operated by Maddy, formerly of the famed Bleu Turtle Breakfast Bistro on St. Paul Street West, and Chef Warren, who state their goal is to "reclaim fancy breakfast in St. Catharines."  They do that with a bright, airy yet cozy location with simple seating and an open kitchen.  The menu, which changes regularly, is posted on a huge blackboard on one wall.  Items are all made fresh, in-house, local, seasonal and organic, whenever possible.  Yes, there are options for those who prefer to eat vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free.

The menu at present includes avocado toast with smoked salmon, lobster eggs benedict, pork belly eggs benedict, steak and eggs, omelettes, burgers and more.  I have eaten there twice so far, the first time enjoying the apple pie french toast, served with local apples, maple syrup and oats.  The second visit saw me opt for the vegetable skillet, made up of roasted potatoes and veggies in a cast-iron skillet served piping hot to your table.

Prices are all around the $15 range and the servings, while not huge, are more than ample.  Service was efficient in spite of a full house while we visited, and reservations are highly recommended.

Mirepoix, which the website states refers to the "starting point to many a rad recipe", is open from 8 am to 2 pm Wednesday to Sunday.  For reservations call 289-968-8772.

Next up is the Revalee Brunch Cafe on Victoria Avenue in Vineland.  We drove by one Sunday afternoon just after they closed at 3, and one look at the menu posted in the window convinced us to get an earlier start the next weekend.  The bright, modern yet small cafe is tucked away in the corner unit of a modern plaza complex fronting a townhouse development about midway between Regional Road 81 and the QEW.  You'll find it at a set of lights, on the west side of Victoria Avenue.

The Revalee website states they want the food "to be forward-looking, modern takes on classic dishes...familiar and innovative all at once."  The simple menu features a common price for all dishes, with one side presenting "omni" dishes while the other presents vegan dishes.  No matter which side of the menu you prefer, the food is beautifully presented and abundant.

The omni menu ranges from the so-called Revalee Classic, scrambled eggs with double-smoked bacon to huevos rancheros, smoked trout, a Scandinavian brunch featuring pickled herring along with a host of other ingredients, and The Full Monte for the larger appetites.  I chose the French toast, thick challah bread laden with spiced pears, granola, creme fraiche and mulled spice wine.

The vegan menu includes rosti, vegan french toast, vegan rancheros, carrot "gravlax" and Holy Sproat! among other offerings.  The latter blends micros with curried beat hummus, hemp hearts, seeds, radish and a host of other items.  My wife opted for the rosti, featuring a potato, carrot and onion latke with beet hummus, cucumber, mint and tomato fattoush and tahini cashew creme.

Revalee is paired with a delivery business called Box Lunch Brigade, specializing in healthy and inventive box lunches delivered to your home, place of business or school.  The cafe is open seven days a week from 8 am to 3 pm, and reservations are recommended during peak times.  Call 905-562-4101.

Finally, back in St. Catharines we come to the most intriguing of all, the Yellow Pear Kitchen, which I had the pleasure of visiting just this morning, in fact.  Billed on their website as the restaurant that Niagara built, it is run by Jason and Nicole Sawatsky, the people behind the familiar Yellow Pear Food Truck you see around town at summertime events.  The menu changes often and reflects, as they put it, "our love for what we do through the best products Ontario has to offer."

Yellow Pear Kitchen is located at 526 Lake Street in a strip plaza, flanked on one side by a pizza joint and on the other by The Frosted Cupcake.  But it can be a little difficult to pinpoint, as the red sign out front still promotes a long-gone Korean restaurant proclaiming hot pot in their native language.  The sign, if nothing else, is a conversation starter for sure.  Thankfully, Yellow Pear is emblazoned on the large window out front so you know you're at the right place.

Upon entering you are struck by the clean, modern lines and cozy ambience, augmented by a built-in gas fireplace in the centre of the room.  The cafe only seats 28 so you simply have to make a reservation at most times.  I got lucky this morning, wandering in unannounced about 10:30 when a stool at the small counter became available.

Nicole was my server this morning and was amazing, even asking if the music was too loud at one point, since I was closest to the stereo system.  I don't ever recall anyone asking me that before!

On the walls you'll find an intriguing collection of art, presumably by local artists, and all of it is priced and for sale if you are interested.

The menu changes very frequently so it is not really useful to list items here, although the eggs benny is pretty much a mainstay on the menu.  I opted for the buttermilk waffle, heaped with sliced peaches, bananas and strawberries, drizzled with maple syrup.  A single apple-sage breakfast sausage adorned the plate on the side.

Of the three, Yellow Pear is slightly more expensive than the rest, but still very reasonable.  The quality and ambience is exceptional, and the servings are very ample.  As with all three restaurants, vegan options are handled easily should you choose that option.

The Yellow Pear also recently won a Diner's Choice Award for Best Overall Restaurant in Toronto/Ontario and Niagara from Opentable diners.  Pretty impressive considering the number of new and interesting dining establishments there are out there.  You can read more and even book a table through Opentable.com.

Hours are 9:30 am to 2 pm, and Yellow Pear is only open Friday to Monday, but it is well worth the visit almost any weekend.  Just make sure to call ahead to make a reservation so you're not disappointed.  The number is 289-213-4240.

So in addition to great dining options in Niagara, we can now most assuredly included wonderful brunches as well.  All three places are destinations in their own right, and certainly able to satisfy even the most discriminating palate.

Bon appetite!

April 14th, 2018.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Season winds down for Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts

Since I was on vacation the past week I took a walk down to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre for the weekly Tuesday RBC Foundation Music@Noon student recital in the Cairns Recital Hall.  It is a weekly event during the school year, with the final one of the season scheduled for this Tuesday, April 3rd featuring piano & guitar students.

Last Tuesday's recital was primarily devoted to voice students in the Department of Music, but several instrumentalists were also featured.  Voice students included Awura-Adwoa Bonsu, mezzo-soprano, Emily Stockwell, soprano and William Sadler, tenor.  Instrumentalists included Gavin Oresta on guitar, and Divya Iyer, Ruth Jones and Nayla Nicole Whipple on piano.

The students are from the studios of Deborah Linton (voice), Timothy Phelan (guitar) and Erika Reiman (piano).  All have achieved a remarkable level of achievement already in their chosen studies, and will only get better as time and experience increases.  How many will ultimately pursue professional careers is certainly open to conjecture, but based on last week's recital more than a few have promising musical careers in their collective futures.

The standouts for me included pianist Michele Braun, playing the Brahms Intermezzo in E major, Op. 116, No. 4 and soprano Emily Stockwell, who performed two vocal selections, Silent Noon by Vaughan Williams and Brahms' Immer lieser wird mein Schlummer, Op. 105 No. 2.  Stockwell especially displayed a radiant voice with lovely tone, plus a nice stage presence.

To be sure, all of the students are exceptional but as is always the case with these recitals some are more advanced than others.  But that is not to discourage those still in the earlier stages of their studies.

Once again the Cairns Recital Hall was well-filled for the performance, including a number of students from Sir Winston Churchill School, who got to engage in a Q&A with performers outside of the actual performance.

As mentioned the final student recital takes place at noon tomorrow, so if you don't have plans over the lunch hour why not head to the PAC for an hour?  Best part of all, the recitals are totally free of charge.

Elsewhere with the Department of Music as the season winds down, there is a student solo recital this evening at 7:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall featuring pianist Luis Molina, once again with free admission.  Tomorrow evening a must-attend concert will feature The University Wind Ensemble directed by Zoltan Kalman in the larger Partridge Hall.

Kalman, who is Principle Clarinet with the Niagara Symphony and also on the faculty at the Department of Music brings together both high school and university students as well as members of the Niagara musical community for a varied programme from the wind band repertoire.  It can get a little noisy sometimes, but that's part of the fun!  Tickets are just $12 and available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

Meantime the University String Orchestra performs at the Cairns Recital Hall Wednesday evening at 7:30 with George Cleland conducting.  This is the Department of Music's newest ensemble, featuring university students and community members.  They perform standard repertory as well as more obscure gems waiting to be rediscovered.  Once again, tickets are only $12 and available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

Finally, the Brock University Choirs wrap up their season Sunday afternoon at 2:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall featuring Brock's student choral ensembles (men's, women's and mixed choruses) under the direction of conductor Rachel Rensink-Hoff.  They perform a wide variety from the choral repertoire both well known and not so well known.  Tickets are $15 and again, available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

I always enjoy attending the events scheduled by the Department of Music at Brock University's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.  The talent is there and the price is extremely affordable.  And now that we have such a great performance venue right in the heart of St. Catharines, why not take advantage of the opportunity whenever you can?

Happy Easter!

April 2nd, 2018.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Going off-topic for a political rant

I'm late posting my weekend blog, and for that I apologize but time just kinda got away from me.  But I want to detour from my usual arts reporting and get something off my chest that has been simmering for some time now.

Reader warning:  I'm entering what I call the High Rant District here, and it's going to get political.

I have been active on social media for quite a number of years now, due in part because of my media background and the fact in those days it was basically required you be on social media.  But being a writer and broadcaster by trade for over 40 years, I bring a different approach than some to what constitutes a correct posting on social media.  Because I know it is still media to be consumed by the public, I am always careful to watch my language, be respectful and try to offer balanced views on anything I post.

It appears sometimes, these days I am in the minority.

Over the past several years the face of social media has changed and I find it to be a veritable Wild West of extremism, hateful and downright nasty viewpoints and character assassination on an almost regular basis.  None of these attributes do I subscribe to, nor will I ever.

The present climate, combined with the latest revelations about Facebook have prompted me to reconsider my associations with social media and adjust accordingly.  Last week I tightened my security settings to the highest level on all fronts and began a rigid schedule of changing passwords and such on a very regular basis.

No terrible events in regards to security breeches yet, thank heavens, but I wanted to be more careful than I have been in the past.  And ultimately, I am not ruling out exiting from social media altogether should the current climate escalate much further.

Now all of this was precipitated by a posting I made via Facebook a little over a week and a half ago regarding the announcement that Donald Tump Jr. and his wife Vanessa are apparently divorcing.  I captioned it with the simple line "Like father, like son..."

It was an observation on a newsworthy event.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Well, the fallout was fast and furious and I think most people who posted comments that were particularly nasty were missing the point entirely.  My post was not necessarily Trump-bashing, although I readily admit I am no fan of the current U.S. Chief Executive.  I was simply referring to the fact Trump Jr. was following in his father's footsteps, since Donald Sr.  is on what, his third marriage now?  Anyway, the damage was done and what followed was a litany of vitriol.

I find it interesting those on either side of the border who are supporters of Trump cannot see the forest for the trees.  You cannot offer criticism without them taking umbrage in the worst possible way and get nasty in the process.

Oh, the references to people "picking" on him, why should we worry about him anyways, and just look who we've elected on this side of the border - that's what we should be worried about!  You get the idea.

Look, politicians everywhere are public figures so in any case they will be loved by some and vilified by others.  That's politics and they know or at least should know what they signed up for.  But we've lost the ability to moderate our stances and observe a certain amount of decorum while posting in a public medium.

I have written about this on social media before:  there is an attitude now that "My guy is right and everyone else is wrong, and not only that, they are idiots.  There is no longer any middle ground.  There is no longer an ability to temper your views with a measure of balance; rather there is a firm desire to stifle opposing views and label them as not only incorrect but downright treasonous.

We're seeing this more and more on this side of the border now as well, and with a provincial election in Ontario looming this June, the vitriol is already ramping up in a big way.  Supporters of Ford Nation pitted against The Enemy.  They are right and anyone who doesn't agree with them are clearly wrong.

News flash:  no matter what side of the political fence you are on, your representative is going to do/say something stupid at some point whether you like it or not.  They will also do many good things as well.  All sides will.  That's how it works, and suggesting your particular candidate can do no wrong is disingenuous and you are sadly incorrect.

What happened to constructive political discussion anyways?  Have we all been reduced to nothing more than sheep following the leader all the while devoid of the ability to rationalize and think for ourselves?  I hope not, but I fear this might be the case.

No matter what side of the political fence you sit on, and no matter what side of the U.S./Canada border you live on, we all have to get along.  When all is said and done, we are still democracies and contrary opinions are to be welcomed and discussed openly and respectfully.

It's going to be a long election here in Ontario with the outcome still not assured by any of the three major parties, no matter what people say.  Lots can happen between now and June 7th, and lots undoubtedly will.  But one thing is certain:  there will be winners and there will be losers.

It might be wise to learn to accept either side of the equation with grace and equanimity before the results are announced in June.

As for me, I plan to avoid any political postings on social media for the foreseeable future, lest I hurt the feelings of one side or the other.  Too many supporters are too thin-skinned these days, and I don't need the stress and aggravation that comes with it.

If that doesn't work, I will simply exit social media altogether.

On that note, have a great rest of the week!

March 28th, 2018.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Show Must Go On in Niagara Falls!

Often I write about events happening at higher-profile venues such as the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, both in downtown St. Catharines, or the Shaw and Stratford Festivals in the summer months.  But there are lots of smaller-scale community groups and professional dinner-theatre venues putting on shows on a regular basis too.  The problem is, they sometimes get overlooked in favour of the bigger events and venues.

So this weekend I want to pay tribute to a long-standing theatre tradition based in Niagara Falls that has literally been packing them in for nightly dinner shows for years, and perhaps overlooked by some as being "too touristy for me".  The truth is, it provides an exceptional venue for young, up-and-coming musical performers and an exceptional value for their patrons.

I'm talking, of course, of Oh Canada Eh? on Lundy's Lane, founded and co-owned by Jim Cooper and Anne Robinson.  My far better half and I have ventured down to catch a few shows there over the years, and have always been impressed both with the show and the dinner provided.  Our most recent trip, this past Monday evening, was a perfect case in point.

We had heard of their new show, literally titled The Show Must Go On, featuring music of the 60s and 70s.  Since Sophie is a big fan of music of that era she was excited to invite a couple of friends and we made it a foursome for dinner and the show.

The show is written and directed by Lee Siegel, a musical child of that era who has extensive theatrical experience both locally and beyond, including the Stratford Festival.  In his program notes, he warns patrons this show is unlike any other they have seen at the venerable log cabin and he's right.  It is louder, showier, and edgier than we've seen in the past, introducing several new performers to the Oh Canada Eh family in the process.

At first blush you might be surprised at some of the musical content presented in medley form, as there is certainly some riskier material than we've seen in the past.  But looking at the audience at the performance we attended Monday night, not a single person didn't know most if not all of the songs on the programme and some even moved with the music while seated at their tables.

That's the whole idea, of course.  Keep it interesting but be sure to present a crowd-pleasing show.  This Siegel achieves effortlessly, stringing together hits ranging from Tears of a Clown, He's So Fine, War, When a Man Loves a Woman, Freebird, Spinning Wheel and a host of others.  He also designed the lighting for the show which works particularly well in the compact space of the dinner theatre.

You can pack as many great songs as you can into a show and it can still fall flat if you don't have the right cast to execute your plan but again, Siegel has scored a winner with this young, knowledgeable and energetic team of performers.  True, most if not all of them were not even born when much of this music was first popular, but we've all grown up with it all around us so it is unlikely any of it is the least bit unfamiliar to this cast.

We only know the first names of the singers, Alexandra, Alex, Ann-Marie, Andrew, Mason and Melissa, but many are known in the community for their other work over the years.  All of them imbued their solo numbers with a lot of feeling and worked well together on the ensemble pieces, but the biggest standout in the cast, I think, is Ann-Marie, who gets the show rolling with a circus-themed medley of The Show Must Go On.

The performers are backed by a small but talented group of musicians:  Jake Zapotoczny or Rob Kilian on piano, Adrian Juras or Nick Stevens on bass, Thomas Reid on drums and Bryce Moore or Brad Krauss on guitar.  They even get their shot at the solo spotlight in the show as well.

Audience participation is carefully grafted into the show too, so be careful where you choose to sit if you would rather not find yourself the subject of one of the songs in the show, for example.

On the subject of seating, if you have never been keep in mind the best value for sitting close enough but just far enough away is what's called Maple Leaf seating, which we always choose.  The dinner is served family style so be sure to greet your table-mates upon arrival as you will be passing things around before the show starts.

The dinner is basic but exceptionally well-presented and the service is very efficient.  It is amazing they can produce the quality of dinner they do for such a large crowd on time every night, no matter what.  You usually have your choice of several meat dishes along with potato and vegetable, with dessert and coffee or tea available during the intermission break.  If you have dietary restrictions they appear to have no problem fulfilling those, too.  Sophie, for example is vegan and she finds their alternate dish for her much to her liking so she doesn't feel singled out at all.

Many of the performers actually work as servers before the show starts so it is important to keep in mind they are working extremely hard for your enjoyment both on stage and off, so keep that in mind and tip appropriately, please.

This latest show at Oh Canada Eh runs until April 14th, six nights a week, so there is still plenty of time left to book a night.  It is certainly one of the best shows they've done and worth your time if you want to return again or if you've never been to the theatre before.

For package pricing simply go to the Oh Canada Eh website where you can book your tickets online. It is all pretty effortless.

Have a great weekend!

March 17th, 2018.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Top Girls plays at Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts

Friday evening I attended the opening night performance of Caryl Churchill's famous 1982 play Top Girls at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.  It was the latest presentation by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, which calls the downtown campus home.

Top Girls is directed by Danielle Wilson, on the Faculty at MIWSFPA and the cast is made up of students in the Department of Dramatic Arts.  The play is being presented in the small but exceptional theatre space within the Walker complex in downtown St. Catharines.

Wilson has assembled a strong cast for this production, all female of course, and each one of them shines as they uncover the nuances of each individual role.  Each cast member, seven in all, perform multiple roles, with the exception of Helena Ciuciura in the pivotal role of Marlene, the seemingly successful career woman who has snagged the top job at the Top Girls Employment Agency.

To celebrate her achievement, she throws a lavish dinner party at a trendy restaurant attended by several mythical or fictional characters from history, each showing strength in a variety of ways as they each arrive at some level of social achievement.  The now-famous, dreamlike opening scene gets rather raucous at times as the wine and brandy flow and each woman talks about their climb up the social ladder and what it took to get there, including at the expense of personal relationships.

The historical figures include Isabella Bird, a Victorian traveler based in Edinburgh, Scotland; a courtesan to a Japanese Emperor named Lady Nijo; Pope Joan, who posed as a man in order to gain the papacy, only to be stoned to death when her secret was revealed; Dull Gret, a figure of Flemish folklore who comes across as a Wagnerian heroine; and Patient Griselda, the obedient and subservient wife of a Marquis in Chaucer's "The Clerk's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales.

After the opening scene the action moves to present-day and largely deals with life at the Top Girls Employment Agency, where Marlene has successfully beaten out a man for the top position.  That fact causes a bitter exchange between her and Mrs. Kidd, the wife of Howard, who was passed over for the promotion in favour of Marlene.  Mrs. Kidd suggests, of course, Marlene should step aside in favour of Howard, who was devastated to lose out to a woman now doing 'a man's job.'  You can imagine the outcome...

The final, pivotal scene between Marlene and Joyce, who we find out has raised Marlene's illegitimate daughter Angie at the expense of her own child she was carrying due to the stress, is the climax to the play.  While drinking, the two rail at each other about a number of things, but most especially the future of young Angie whom we suspect doesn't know Marlene is actually her mother.  That is, until the very end of the play.

The play is very much a product of its time, touching on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's brand of conservatism known as "Thatcherism" and even the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in the spring of 1982.  But the subject matter is timeless and certainly relevant to today with director Wilson questioning in her programme notes if women have really come a long way since the 80s or not.

There is a lot to like about this production, from the sleek, modern set design to the simple use of props following the opening scene.  Costumes are especially impressive, with lots of creativity demonstrated both with the historical figures and the career women at the agency.

Performances are uniformly good, with Ciuciura's Marlene especially strong.  But others in the cast are also impressive including Manchari Paranthahan as Pope Joan, Jeanine and Nell, and Catherine Tait as Dull Gret, Mrs. Kidd and Joyce.

Wilson directs with a steady hand and firm grasp of the subject matter at hand, so the play never lags from start to finish.  The only annoying aspect of the play, and I know how relevant it is to the action how it is being presented, is how the actors talk over themselves in the opening scene.  Oftentimes you cannot absorb all the dialogue with more than one or two actors speaking at once.

But overall, this is a strong production showing the potential of a new generation of actors in our midst, and the Department of Dramatic Arts should be suitably proud.

Top Girls continues until March 9th at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, with evening performances at 7:30 and a Sunday matinee this afternoon at 2.  Call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 for details and to purchase tickets.

Have a great weekend!

March 4th, 2018.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Events in the Arts this weekend

I know it has been awhile since I wrote in this space and or that I apologize.  Hey, it's been a busy time and with my work involving lots of extended hours including the very early morning hours for several months now, I have not had much energy or even ambition to post regularly.  But with a week's vacation starting now, perhaps we can make a fresh start with a short entry here on a couple events happening in the arts this weekend I received information on.

I always love attending events at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University, and their Department of Music always has a busy season of great performances to choose from.  Tonight, for example the Viva Voce! Choral Series returns with the second concert of the current season and it promises to be a great one.

The Avanti Chamber Singers, who serve as Ensemble-in-Residence for the Department of Music, are now under the direction of conductor Rachel Rensink-Hoff following the retirement of long-time conductor Harris Loewen about a year or so ago.  Rensink-Hoff is also Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Director of Music Education at Brock.

Tonight at 7:30 the choir performs at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street in downtown St. Catharines, along with special guest artists The Walker String Quartet.  The choir always programs interesting and sometimes challenging choral music alongside what might be considered more "accessible" fare and regularly shows they are up to the musical tasks at hand.

This evening, for example, the choir will perform Ola Gjeilo's Dark Night of the Soul, Eric Whitacre's Hebrew Love Songs and Telemann's Laudate Jehovam.  But that's not all.  Also on the programme are works by Lassus, Pearsall, Hassler and contemporary composers such as Hawley, Butler, Quick and Tomlinson.  Many of these will deal with the subject of love, since Valentine's Day was just this past week.

Intrigued?  You should be.  Tickets are $20 in advance for adults, and $15 for seniors and students.  They are only $5 with the eyeGo programme.  You can purchase in advance at Thorold Music, Booksmart or even online.  If you want to pick them up at the door tonight they will be $25 for adults and $20 for seniors and students.

Also this weekend, an out-of-town concert might catch your interest as Black History Month continues for the month of February.  The Midland Cultural Centre's second feature for this special month brings the award-winning UK show "Call Mr. Robeson.  A Life, with Songs" to town for the only Ontario date on the current tour.

The show features UK actor, baritone and writer Tayo Aluko as ground-breaking actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.  The play, coming on the heels of the first Black History Month offering in Midland, "Sugar and Gold:  Stories of the Underground Railroad", explores Robeson's remarkable life achievements both onstage and off.  He was perhaps best-known, of course, as the man who sang "Ol' Man River" in Jerome Kern's landmark musical "Showboat", but perhaps he is less well-known today for his early activism as a forerunner of the civil rights movement.

The play includes the famous song, of course, along with other famous Robeson numbers as well as speeches, and a recreation of his testimony to the Senate House Un-American Activities Committee.  Yet Robeson, for all his pioneering efforts early in the 20th century, is largely overlooked today save for his musical talents.  That's a shame, really.

Aluko, born in Nigeria, now lives in the UK and holds Robeson in very high esteem.  In fact, this one-man show is not his only foray into bringing the great singer and activist to life.  He also presents a lecture/concert called "Paul Robeson - The Giant, in a Nutshell" for example.

The new show, coming to Midland's Cultural Centre tomorrow evening, was also presented at New York's Carnegie Hall back in 2012 to wide acclaim.

"Call Mr. Robeson" plays tomorrow night at 8; the doors open at 7:30.  Tickets can be ordered online or by calling 1-705-527-4420.  You should also be able to pick them up at the door as well.

So there you go:  two diverse events in two diverse parts of Ontario that might pique your musical interest this weekend.

Enjoy!

February 17th, 2018.