Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Ladykillers kills it for the Shaw Festival

Our second show of the season at The Shaw Festival this season was the comedy The Ladykillers at the Festival Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Tim Carroll.

The play is by Irish writer and director Graham Linehan, who adapted the play from the movie screenplay by William Rose.  The original British film dates from 1955 and starred Alec Guinness; it was remade in 2004 with Tom Hanks in the starring role.

Linehan adapted the film for the stage in 2011 and it premiered in London later that year.  This Shaw Festival production is the North American premiere, and we can thank former Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell for, as Carroll writes in the Director's Notes, "putting me on to it."  Seems Maxwell saw Carroll's 4-man production of the Roman and Biblical epic Ben Hur a few years ago and decided at that moment the new guy really ought to stage The Ladykillers at Shaw at some point.

That point is this season and not a moment too soon.  After an uneven season last year a riotous fill-the-Festival Theatre comedy was in order, and The Ladykillers fits the bill nicely.  It is taken at a faster pace than the original film was, but even now I think it could move along at a somewhat brisker pace than Carroll sets for it.

The premise of The Ladykillers revolves around a group of thugs who plan to rob a train and decide to rent an upstairs flat in an old house right next to the train station in order to carry out their nefarious scheme.  Problem is, the landlady is more than a little bit of a busybody and causes no end of trouble for the group of men masquerading as classical musicians who need a quiet rehearsal space in which to practice.

As Professor Marcus, the orchestrater of the mayhem, Damien Atkins steps into the Alec Guinness role and truly makes it his own.  A formidable presence on stage due to his height, he shows brilliant comic timing to wring every last laugh out of the script.  His comic foil of course is the veteran actor Chick Reid as the landlady Mrs. Wilberforce, who just seems to unintentionally throw a wrench into the plans at every turn.  The ongoing gag of Reid accidentally stepping on Atkins' long flowing scarf never grows old in this production.

The band of so-called musicians represent some of the best comic talent on the Shaw roster this season, including Martin Happer as the ex-boxer One Round, Andrew Laurie as Harry, Ric Reid as Major Courtney and Steven Sutcliffe doing a delicious turn as Louis, the only real criminal in the bunch.

Together they allow the magic to unfold and make the play truly and enjoyable comedic experience.  Each and every one has quirks in their respective characterization that makes for regular laughs; not often uproarious mind you, but on a regular basis throughout the play so it never seems to lag.

Honourable mention goes to supporting cast members Kristopher Bowman as Constable MacDonald, Fiona Byrne as Mrs. Tromleyton and Claire Jullien as Mrs. Goodenough; the latter two joining Mrs.Wilberforce for an impromptu "recital" by the non-musical musicians that presents one of the comic highlights of the play.

Judith Bowden's set design is a marvel:  it depicts both the inside and the outside of the somewhat rickety old English residence, shaking and lights flickering every time a train rumbles by next door.  The house revolves on the stage from the inside to outside scenes as needed, which takes some time but never really seems to detract from the action.

The house also allows for action on both levels, as Mrs. Wilberforce can be seen in the main floor rooms while the would-be robbers are plotting their heist in the upstairs flat.  All in all, full marks to both Bowden and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte for making the set design work so well.

Will this be the biggest show of the season?  Probably not.  But I doubt you'll find anyone leaving the theatre disappointed with their choice.  It's fun from start to finish and for that reason alone you should book your tickets before it's too late.

The Ladykillers runs at the Festival Theatre until October 12th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2153, 1-800-511-7429 or go to www.shawfest.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 18th, 2019.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Season finale for The Foster Festival is a winner

While growing up my mother would often say in utter frustration "If I could live my life over...".  It was usually after my brother or I or both did some boneheaded thing around the house and this was her way of registering displeasure in a somewhat diplomatic way.

It's a tantalizing proposition, isn't it?

Many a married couple might have uttered a variance on this phrase at some point in their married lives as well.  It's nothing to be ashamed of, really.  We all seem to experience it in one form or another.

This is the basis on which the latest Norm Foster musical and final World Premiere of the current Foster Festival season is built.  What if we could go back and do it all again.  Would we?

In Beside Myself, the first musical for The Foster Festival but not Norm Foster's first, we meet Paula and Sam, married for 35 years and frankly, tired of the whole thing.  They are separating and splitting the spoils of their marriage which, as painful as it is, leads them to a better ending than what they could of imagined.

Sam discovers a "wishing stick" in the box he is rummaging through, a wedding gift from years ago that prompts him to deride the item as a pretty cheesy offering.  Almost absent-mindedly he wishes they could go back and change the past, specifically when they met at university.

Almost like magic, they notice everyone on their street has a classic vehicle in the driveway, and things at the house seem somehow "different".  It suddenly dawns on Sam and Paula they have indeed gone back in time to before they actually own their home.  So here is their chance.  They head straight to the university campus and find the younger versions of themselves and acting as "student liaisons" try to thwart the budding romance between the younger Sam and Paula.

While doing so they discover far more about themselves than they realize, and in the process come to the conclusion things are not really all that bad after all.

The story line has several curves in it but that's the gist of it.  Overall it works, although I couldn't help but think the younger versions of themselves are far more patient than I would have been under similar circumstances and likely would have told the bogus liaisons to 'push off' and mind their own business.

In spite of that caveat you could not wish for a more balanced, splendid and perfect musical experience.  Norm has crafted a book full of humour, tender moments, and insightfulness as you rarely see today.

Lyrics are by both Foster and longtime musical collaborator Steve Thomas, who composed the music for the show himself.  All of the songs, while not likely to be sung outside of the theatre as you leave, have an immediately comfortable feel to them, making them 'just right' for the production.  There are catches, hooks and clever musical devices throughout the show, performed onstage by Thomas and his two colleagues in a partitioned-off section centre-stage.

As a result there is not a lot of room left for the four performers on the stage but director Patricia Vanstone has managed to make it all work in an economical and creative fashion.  The U-shaped space in which the performers work just feels right.

Vanstone also scored big time in her choice of actors for the four roles.  As the elder Sam and Paula, Jonathan Whittaker and Gabrielle Jones can be toxic, loving and ultimately understanding of each other's quirks over the course of the show.  Jones is especially effective as the more hard-driving Paula acting as a foil for the more relaxed, laid-back Sam.  It is also great to see her in a starring role and make the most of it.

The younger versions of themselves are played effectively by Griffin Hewitt as Young Sam and Breton Lalama as Young Paula.  Both are exceptionally adept at presenting more youthful versions of the elder protagonists, and even look like Sam and Paula likely would have when they met.  Even the height is the same.

All four actors have strong voices and sing the musical numbers with perfect diction and emphasis.  However I did struggle a bit to hear the elder Sam in the first few moments of the production on Wednesday afternoon.  But overall, they sing the material with conviction and make you believe they are living the story rather than just playing the part.

This is the final production of the current Foster Festival season and I can't imagine a more perfect end to a very strong 4th season.  The Festival has gone from strength to strength from one production to the next, not only this season but since the very beginning.

I've also noticed the audiences even for matinee performances have grown substantially as well over the four years, so the word is obviously getting out we have exceptional live theatre in downtown St. Catharines throughout the summer months.

Beside Myself continues at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre until August 17th and is a must-see of the first order.  For tickets and more information call the box office at 905-688-0722 or go to www.fosterfestival.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2019.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A tiny little gem nestled in the southern part of Niagara

This holiday weekend I want to take a few moments to let you know about a hidden gem in the southern tier of Niagara many people may not know about.  If you love movies and don't like the big multiplex movie houses, this place might just be for you.

I first discovered The Ridge Film House several years ago when it began life as the Boutique Theatre on Ridge Road in the heart of Ridgeway.  A flood in an upstairs apartment put an end to the first generation of the movie house as repairs had to be made, and the then-owner decided enough was enough.

So for a while moviegoers in Niagara's southern tier lost their little film house.  But not forever.  A new owner took over the business at 320 Ridge Road North and did extensive renovations to the interior, renaming it The Ridge Film House.

Now the theatre is open year-round offering a steady stream of carefully curated classic, independent, foreign, documentary and second run films.  You won't find the biggest and newest films available, but that's okay.  They serve an entirely different clientele and I love that.

There are two film rooms, each with 10X15 screens, leather seating and lots of character.  There's even a small cafe area in the lobby with table and chairs so you can meet your friends there before the show.

You do get trailers for upcoming movies here, but they don't take forever to see and actually, most of the trailers we saw were for films we'd actually like to see.  Nothing was blown up in those trailers so that was lovely!

I was down in Ridgeway on a Saturday afternoon last month and had a chance to get reacquainted with the theatre again, so I signed up for the monthly newsletter online in order to get the regular schedule of movies screened.  Last Sunday evening at 6:30 one of the movies screened caught my eye and so we drove through a nasty rain and hail storm to get down there for the show.

It's been years since I had seen Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1959 film North By Northwest, but since it is the 60th anniversary this year of the film's release and it was a Sunday evening, we thought "why not?".

Other than the iconic scene where Cary Grant is almost mown down in a cornfield by a crop duster, I really didn't remember much about the film all these years.  So for me it was almost like seeing it for the first time.

Yes, the film shows its age a little and yes, a 26-year-old blond falling for a 55-year-old man should raise a few eyebrows even now, but other than that the film holds up well.  It was also fun to see Edward Platt, later to be known as The Chief on the Get Smart TV series, as the lawyer in the early scenes of the movie.

I always liked Hitchcock's films but never got around to spending much time with them, but that might just change after seeing North By Northwest again.  It's a good film.

The experience at The Ridge Film House was exceptionally positive and we'll certainly return again.  It can get busy in those two little theatres so be prepared if that's the case.  On a summer Sunday evening, however, the theatre we were in was barely half full, so we had no trouble getting in at all.

The theatre is available for birthday parties, school functions, corporate events and more, and there are even memberships available.

Prices are very reasonable too:  adults $10, seniors $8 and children up to 13 years of age also $8.  For classic movies such as North By Northwest the prices are less and we were charged $8 each for that show.

They accept cash and debit only by the way, so no credit cards allowed.

For more information check them out at www.ridgefilmhouse.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 4th, 2019.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Billy Elliot The Musical soars at Stratford

Earlier this month my far better half and I made our first of several day trips of the season to Stratford, a place that has become something of a second home to us over the years.  The reason for the latest outing was to catch the big musical on the Stratford Festival thrust stage this year, Billy Elliot The Musical.

Billy Elliot is a fictionalized story based in a hardscrabble town in northern England where the main occupation for generations has been mining.  But with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the early 80s and her famous clash with the miners' unions, the fuse is lit on a powder-keg of emotions experienced by the rank and file as they come to grips with the likely end of their livelihood in the mines.  What else is there to do than work in the mines, after all?

The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall and music is by Elton John and although you won't leave the theatre humming a single tune from the show, the music is an integral part of the overall package and perfectly tells the story of a young lad fighting to find a better life for himself in such difficult circumstances.

Billy Elliot is the 11-year-old son of miner Jackie, coming to grips with losing his wife, likely losing his livelihood, and still managing to put food on the table and raise his young son.  He is also coping with a mother living with them who is slowly succumbing to dementia.

As gritty and difficult a story line as this is, Stratford wisely decided to take a chance on a far more contemporary musical than we are used to seeing at the Festival, likely for no other reason than the fact their most bankable choreographer/director Donna Feore was set to direct the show.  Her credits are lengthy at Stratford and elsewhere so if anyone has the golden touch at Stratford these days, much like the late Brian MacDonald did back in the 80s, Feore does.

Her casting choices are inspired and they have to be, because although Billy Elliot is indeed a musical it relies less on spectacular dance sequences and more on well-rounded characters to carry the story line from beginning to end.  Oh there are dance numbers to be sure, but nothing like we're used to seeing in past triumphs such as The Music Man.

The title role goes to young BC native Nolan Dubuc, who apparently saw the show as a young child and never forgot it.  He is now 11 and soars literally and figuratively in this production.  His dream ballet sequence with Colton Curtis as the older Billy is breathtaking, setting the course for Billy's dream to finally come true.

Young Nolan carries the show in more ways than one, as he appears in almost every scene, dancing, speaking, singing.  The show truly revolves around him and he shows repeatedly he is up to the task.  This will be an actor to watch for years to come.

Surrounding young Billy are exceptional performances including Stratford veteran Dan Chameroy as Billy's beleaguered dad Jackie, struggling to come to grips with so much and now he has to come to grips with his young son wanting to go to ballet school.  How is that possible, he wonders.

It comes through the inspiration of Blythe Wilson as Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher who takes Billy under her wing when she realizes he could have real talent.  It turns out Billy gives her an outlet to live out her own dreams of ballet greatness in spite of a rocky marriage and a dead-end teaching position in a town with little or no future.

She encourages dad Jackie to send Billy to the Royal Ballet School and although he initially scoffs at the idea, he eventually sees the opportunity as something he can do for his son to give him a better life.

Other notable performances include Emerson Gamble as Billy's best friend Michael who is gay and loves cross dressing.  His dance number with Billy is funny and touching at the same time.  If only everyone could get along and be as accepting as these two are.  At the other end of the spectrum is Billy's older brother George, played by Steve Ross.  He is a hard nosed union man and cannot see his younger brother being, as he put it, a "poof" dancing on stage in the ballet.

The ensemble work is tremendous in this production, especially in numbers such as Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, where cast members dance while wearing oversize heads of several hated world leaders including Thatcher and shall I say, one enigmatic Canadian Prime Minister from that particular era as well.

All in all, Billy Elliot The Musical doesn't disappoint from beginning to end.  Although the songs may escape you once you leave the theatre, the feelings of hope and admiration for a young dynamo chasing his dream will not.

Billy Elliot The Musical runs at the Festival Theatre until November 3rd and rates a solid 4 out of 4 stars.

For tickets, call the Stratford box office at 1-800-567-1600 or go to www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Have a great weekend!

July 28th, 2019.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Foster Festival ramps up the fun with Hilda's Yard

The second production of the current season for the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines is now underway, and it packs plenty of laughs.

Norm Foster wrote Hilda's Yard a few years ago but it is vintage Foster:  clever plot line, great writing and simple sets to make summer theatre staging relatively easy.  It's a nice counterbalance to the more introverted and somewhat sombre tone of the season opener, The Writer last month.

Hilda's Yard is set in 1956 when life was somewhat simpler and certainly appeared more cut and dry. Of course, it only appeared that way in our memory banks.  It was fraught with problems just as our present times are, just different problems.  In the opening scene, for example, Sam Fluck, the patriarch of the household is feeling rather optimistic about life in general and decides it is time to finally invest in that new-fangled technology known as television.  Not colour of course, that is still some time off.

This new-found optimism comes from the realization he and his wife Hilda are now becoming empty nesters, with both son Gary and daughter Janey now moved out to start lives on their own.  Or so mom and dad thought...

The setting for the play is the backyard deck at Sam & Hilda's home where the family was raised and for some unknown reason they never got around to installing a gate to make entry & exit from the backyard easier.  Or maybe it was intentional...no matter, the resulting fence climbing of most characters in the play creates comic effect that doesn't wear thin as the play wears on.

Both Gary and Janey at different times make that leap of faith over the fence and back into the backyard of their childhoods, ready to move back home with the senior Flucks again until their lives create better luck.

Gary is having trouble finding steady work again and well, being a more impulsive sort he is regularly short on cash.  So he's indebted to his bookie and with payment overdue Gary decides it is time to return to his parents home to avoid the inevitable.

Janey on the other hand is several months into marriage and she has discovered things are not quite what they are supposed to be.  Matrimonial bliss has largely eluded her thus far and rather than stick it out as her parents have done she wonders if she should leave the marriage sooner rather than later.

Sam offers advice to Janey that while keeping with the times, produces groans from the modern-day audience realizing things are different now.  Later in the play Sam clearly shows his embarrassment in his earlier advice to his daughter and makes amends with much sounder advice.

While Sam and Hilda are dealing with their two children returning, guests arrive over the fence.  First over is Bobbi Jakes, a trombone player in a band and Gary's new main squeeze for the past two weeks.  Next over is Beverly Woytowich the bookie, in pursuit of Gary's cash.

Hilda is busy cooking dinner and sees no other alternative than to act as a mediator of sorts by inviting one and all inside to gather around the dinner table, knowing food is a universal method of bringing people together.

This rather unlikely scenario sets us up for lots of laughter and great lines uttered by the entire cast, but most especially by Sam Fluck, played in this production by Norm Foster himself.  One can't help but imagine Foster writing the part for himself to begin with as the dry humour displayed by Sam is so typical of what you would expect from Foster.

Hilda is played by Foster Festival Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and she is the proverbial glue that holds the family together.  Whether dealing with the absurd family issues she is now presented with or simply talking to her imaginary neighbour out in the audience somewhere while hanging the laundry on the line Vanstone imbues the character with a down-to-earth attitude that wins everyone over from the very beginning.

Together Norm and Patricia, who last worked together in the very first Foster Festival production On A First Name Basis in 2016 create magic you can't help but admire.

The supporting cast is just as good.  Daniel Briere's Gary is full of impetuous innocence of his situation; Erin MacKinnon's Janey is confused about the state of her marriage, made even more so when the bookie Beverley takes a shine to her.  The two of them actually interact as you would expect siblings to react to each other.

Amaka Umeh's Bobbi is cool and smart; perhaps too smart for lover Gary, but maybe that's exactly what he needs to counteract his general goofiness.  And as the more worldly bookie Beverly Woytovich is perhaps not quite as hard nosed as he would like you to believe.  He ends up being the great unifier in the end and not the nasty person everyone expected him to be.  Darren Keay plays the role with a suave manner that makes Janey's attraction to him believable.

Director Jim Mezon, returning after last year's Wrong For Each Other knows the knack of directing a Foster play by letting the dialogue speak for itself rather than forcing the laughs by other means.  He directs with a sure hand and good pacing.

Overall you can't find a better way to spend a couple of hours or so inside during this heat than by warming up to the characters that inhabit Hilda's Yard.  It runs until July 26th in the recital hall at the FirstOntario PAC and should be on your must-see list this summer.

For tickets, call the box office at 905-688-0722 or toll free at 1-855-515-0722, or online at www.fosterfestival.com.

Have a great weekend!

July 21st, 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Summer music festival season is here!

This is my favourite time of the year, I think.  The weather is nice, people are more relaxed and for those of us who like visiting smaller Ontario towns to take in some classical music concerts, the season is now upon us.

There are far too many for me to list here of course, but this week I'll look at two tried-and-true music festivals and one new upstart that gets underway next weekend.  If you're in Ontario, there's a music festival not far away and certainly worth driving to!

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, just about 20 minutes away from our door here in Niagara the 21st season of Music Niagara kicks off this afternoon at St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of the Old Town.  The 4pm concert features Countermeasure, an a cappella group made up of some of Canada's top young vocal talent.

St. Mark's is a great concert venue and used quite often by Music Niagara as well as Bravo Festival of the Arts, but there are other locations in use this summer including The Hayloft at the Oast House Brewery on Highway 55, where tomorrow evening they'll play host to From Vienna to Broadway.  The cabaret-style show features soprano Inga Filipova along with pianist Victoria Kogan and the Gould String Quartet.  Music will be by Gershwin, Strauss, Kander, Kreisler and many others.

There are lots of great concerts on the Music Niagara programme this season running through to August 10th, with highlights including a Last Night of the Proms concert on July 22nd and the Elmer Iseler Singers on July 24th.

For more information go to www.musicniagara.org or call the Shaw Festival box office for tickets at 905-468-2172/1-800-511-7429.

Meantime the 40th season of the Elora Festival got underway Friday night in the Gambrel Barn just outside of the town of Elora, a short drive northwest of Guelph.  The Opening Night Gala featured The Elora Singers, the State Choir LATVIJA and a number of featured soloists, all conducted by the new Artistic Director of the Festival, Mark Vuorinen.

For three weekends the world literally comes to Elora with performances featuring The Elora Singers in Singers Unplugged 3.0 tonight at both 6 and 8 pm, and the Singers will perform again Thursday evening in a concert entitled Path of Miracles.

Other artists include the Lemon Bucket Orchestra on the 19th, the amazing Cheng2 Duo on the 20th and Unforgettable:  The Nat King Cole Story featuring The Elora Singers on the 20th.

The final weekend will feature the Festival of the Sound Ensemble with The Elora Singers at 4 pm on the 27th and a concert featuring Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies fame at the Gambrel Barn at 7:30 pm.  This last concert is a late change necessitated by the sudden cancellation of superstar singer Measha Brueggergosman, who last month was hospitalized and will be undergoing heart bypass surgery.  Measha is an amazing talent and we wish her well for a speedy recovery, but thanks to Steven Page for filling in at the last moment.  Spencer Burton will open the show.

Elora is one my favourite places to visit in the summer months and indeed into the fall as well, so if you have not yet been you owe it to yourself to pay a visit this year.  For tickets and information go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 1-519-846-0331.

Finally, we have a new kid on the musical block and the debut of the Collingwood Summer Music Festival is less than a week away.  This really is a no-brainer and I have no idea why Collingwood has not hosted a music festival before now.

We've spent many a weekend on the shores of Georgian Bay enjoying the town, the restaurants and the B&Bs scattered around the area, and hope to do the same again soon.

How can you not love a town with an LCBO overlooking the water, a first-rate kitchen store on the main street and a local branch of The New Classical FM from Toronto now in town?  Really, this is an amazing place to visit any time of year but especially when the snow melts and the gardens explode with colour.

So the inaugural festival kicks off July 18th with the main venue being New Life Church at 28 Tracey Lane in Collingwood, and the opening concert features A Choral Extravaganza! @ New Life Church.  The Elmer Iseler Singers will be performing along with soloists Mayumi Seiler on violin, Daniel Wnukowski on piano and the ChoralWorks Choir along with the Collingwood Festival Orchestra.  The concert has an early start at 6:30 pm by the way, and should be a great evening in town.

July 19th cellist Rachel Mercer headlines a recital of Beethoven chamber music along with violinist Mayumi Seiler and pianist Serouj Kradjian, also at New Life Church.  The opening weekend wraps up with Quartetto Gelato Saturday night at 7 and on Sunday morning there will be a fundraising brunch at the Gustav Chophouse & Bar featuring the Power Play Duo from 11 am to 2 pm.

The next round of concerts begins August 1st with a free concert in the Blue Mountain Village Square starting at 5 pm with the Diana & Chris Duo featuring All About The Blues.  That evening at 7 Diana & Chris are joined by other members of their Jazz Quintet at New Life Church performing jazz and blues favourites.  Chris is Chris Whiteley, by the way, and Diana Is Diana Braithwaite.  On August the 2nd at 7 music of Zimbabwe will be highlighted with Nhapitapi Zimbabwe the featured artists.  On the 3rd the Payadora Tango Ensemble will perform at New Life Church at 7 pm, followed by the Rolston String Quartet on the 9th at 7 pm.

A family concert featuring the World Premiere of The Hockey Sweater along with Carnival of the Animals will be featured on August 11th from 3 to 5 pm, with narrator R.H. Thomson, mime Trevor Copp, violinist Michael Schulte and the Incite Ensemble.

Those are the highlights from a fledgling festival that begins this coming Thursday evening in Collingwood.  It should be a promising start for a new festival and I'm looking forward to seeing what they have in store at some point this season!

For tickets and information, go to www.collingwoodfestival.com or call 1-705-445-2200/1-866-382-2200, which are the numbers for the Theatre Collingwood Box Office.

Have a great weekend!

July 14th, 2019.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Happy 25th Anniversary to Oh Canada Eh

I've written before about the talented folks down at Oh Canada Eh? dinner theatre down in Niagara Falls, and with their 25th Anniversary celebrations currently underway I thought another visit was in order.

Last weekend Sophie & I paired up with dear friends Joanne & Gino Deloisio to catch the latest version of their long-running salute to Canadian music.  We went on a Sunday night and the place was packed, so that tells you something about the staying power of this venerable institution.

It's hard to believe it was 1994 when an old colleague of mine, Jim Cooper got together with like-minded theatre souls to launch the dinner theatre on Lundy's Lane.  From those humble beginnings the tradition started, and today a tight-knit nucleus of young local talent takes to the small stage six days a week to entertain locals and tourists alike.

The current roster includes, depending on the performance, Rylan Allen, Chelsea DiFranco, Emily Draper, Aidan Eddy, Andrew Goff, Ian Harte, Dayna Harold, Morgan Hilliker, Connor Jesso, Nathanael Judah, Louisa O'Keane, Melissa Penner, Adrianna Polita, Alexandra Reed, Dexter Sonier, Brandon Stafford, Sue Thibert, Matthew Yipchuck and Ann-Marie Zammit.  Add to that several musicians as well as technical and front of house staff and you have a good-sized group to welcome you to the familiar log cabin.

One of the special elements of an Oh Canada Eh show is the performers are also your servers.  Doing double duty is no easy task, as evidenced by our server Ann-Marie, simultaneously singing in the finale while dealing with a recalcitrant credit card processing machine for the other family at our table.  These performers know their stuff and how to get the job done.

The dinner is the usual fare, which is served during breaks in the show and is always piping hot from the kitchen, with special dietary requirements filled with ease.  The service is family style which may not be to everyone's liking, but it certainly fits with the family-friendly nature of the show.

The show itself we had seen before, but the musical tribute to all things Canadian has been updated for the anniversary show with some newer cast members and costumes, choreography, set and about 30 minutes of new musical material.  The music covers the Canadian scene from basically before there ever was one to modern day, ranging from nostalgic gems such as the Indian Love Call from the movie Rose Marie all the way up to music by Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen.  A nice touch in the Moose Paper handed out after the show is a complete list of all the songs in the show, who popularized it and where the performer(s) hail from.

It's a much more traditional show than the 70s show we caught almost two years ago, so the production values are much more basic here.  But don't take that as a criticism of the show; it simply means you'll see less showy lighting effects and more Canadian music you grew up with.

The big news this season is the fact there is now a second Oh Canada Eh? dinner theatre up and running in Ottawa.  Opening just in time for the Canada Day long weekend, the new venue is run by some familiar Oh Canada Eh? faces:  J.F. Grenier and Meaghan Chapin along with Michelle Chapin.  Grenier & Meaghan first met years ago here in Niagara performing at Oh Canada Eh? and eventually married.  Moving to the nation's capital they decided to basically pick up the show and move another version of it there.  Early word is the new venue is quickly picking up a following in Ottawa as well.

Sophie & I have been fans of Oh Canada Eh? for a long time, and wish them well for at least another 25 years.  They provide great entertainment and solid value for Niagara locals and tourists alike no matter what show is on stage at the moment.

For tickets and more information, including how you can still take advantage of their current anniversary promotion, check out their website at www.ohcanadaeh.com or call them toll free at 1-800-467-2071.

Have a great weekend!

July 6th, 2019.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Foster Festival kicks off the season with a winner

The fourth season of The Foster Festival is now underway in the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines and unlike past seasons, the first show of the season is not full of uproarious laughter at every turn.

That's not to say The Writer, Norm Foster's 60th play receiving its World Premiere performance at the Festival isn't funny.  Quite the contrary.  But while past productions show why Foster is a master of the humorous side of the human condition, The Writer takes us in the other direction and provides a sometimes gut-wrenching experience many of us have dealt with in our own lives and finds shafts of light and gentle humour throughout.

In other words, your sides won't ache from laughter but your heart will ache instead.

Before I get into the play itself, I want to set the scene on a personal level, and this is something we'll all end up doing when watching the play.

Earlier this month my sister Kelli and I took a sunny Saturday and drove down to Toronto where our entire family history is buried in three separate cemeteries.  It had occurred to me some time ago we had not properly documented where people are and specific dates of their respective passings.  I called it the 'Family Plot Tour' and it wasn't the least bit morbid.  We laughed at the thought of past memories in most cases when remembering many family members and celebrated lives well lived.  It was a bonding exercise for my sister and I and we'll always treasure this day we shared together.

Family members included our parents, of course, as Mom passed away 19 years ago and Dad ten years ago.  With Mom it was very sudden but with Dad it was a slower decline not unlike that experienced by the elder Wellner, Donald, in Foster's play.  My father's mother died in 1981 after several years of decline and increasing dementia.

Dad had his basic faculties almost up until the end but the gradual decline with his mother struck me particularly hard as I visited her in the nursing home and she had no idea who I was.  I could not go back; the pain was too great for me.  And strangely upon reflection now, there was no preparation for this experience beforehand.

That's why The Writer is such an important play for everyone to see.  It gives us insight into what many of us will experience as family members we love and cherish decline in their later years.  For me, I could have really used this play back in 1981!

The writer in the title is indeed Donald Wellner, a Pulitzer-prize-winning author of A Kind Heart, a play that made his career many years ago.  He hasn't had another hit since and still clings to the hope his next play will be it.  Alas, he just can't seem to get started typing anything substantial on his trusty old Underwood typewriter.  By the end of the play and through eight scenes, he's managed only ten pages of his next great success.

His son Blake, who is 42 when the play begins is himself a writer, but 'only a travel writer' his father almost sneers.  Blake acts as a go-between as his father is now estranged from his wife and daughter, living in a dingy apartment with little furniture save for little more than a desk, a chair and his Underwood typewriter.

It seems the elder Wellner had been paying the rent for an actress he had known for many years and his wife, upon discovering the fact, throws him out accusing him of infidelity in their marriage.  The daughter sides with Mom, so Donald is left to his own devices until Blake tries to intervene.  Trouble is, mother and daughter now won't have anything to do with Donald, in spite of the fact he remains confident they will overcome this 'speed bump' in their relationship soon enough.

It never happens.

Through the eight scenes of The Writer, Foster guides us through the difficult eight years that transpire in the play, during which time father Donald starts to lose his memory and gradually succumb to dementia.  He eventually moves into a nursing home but that is about the only improvement in his lonely existence.

Son Blake is at his side throughout, visiting on regular intervals in spite of his busy schedule and work that frequently requires him to be away.  He sees the decline and knows he can't do much about it other than manage it as best he can.

In the final heartbreaking scene, the elder Wellner remembers his estranged daughter well yet son Blake, sitting right beside him, is unknown to him.  It is a scene many can identify with, myself included, and it isn't easy to handle.  And yes, for me the memories of 1981 came flooding back at that moment.

The two actors in The Writer are amazing.  Jamie Williams, who last appeared at the Festival in Foster's Here on the Flight Path provides the anchor the elder Wellner needs in his life at this point and does so with great patience and tact.  Donald Wellner is played by Shaw Festival stalwart Guy Bannerman and shines brightly in his Foster Festival debut.

Bannerman has always been a great supporting actor at Shaw but here he needs to carry the show along with Williams.  He clearly relishes the opportunity to drive the action of the play and Guy simply does not disappoint.

Director Patricia Vanstone directs with great sensitivity, while sets, lighting and costumes never get in the way of the story; all work together to provide a simple yet elegant backdrop for the two actors who bring The Writer to life in truly magical ways.

The Writer is simply one of Norm Foster's best efforts.  Whether it gets the exposure in the future it deserves will depend on choices made on the summer theatre circuit in the years to come.  But clearly The Foster Festival is providing a wonderful forum for Norm Foster to stretch his considerable talents and as he puts it himself, step outside of his comfort zone.

Catch The Writer if you can.  It continues until July 5th at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and will be well worth your time.  You won't be disappointed.

For tickets call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

Have a great holiday weekend!

June 30th, 2019.


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Brigadoon a melodic antidote to today's tumult

There is for many, myself included, an unbridled fondness for musicals of the so-called "Golden Age".  The era of musicals such as Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and so on.  The stark reality is, as much as we might hate to admit it, they are often too dated for today's audiences as originally written.

There has been in recent years a movement towards "updating" in some form these classic musicals to appeal to a more modern audience and quite often, it seems to work to an extent.  More hits than misses, if you will.

Lerner & Loewe's first collaboration, Brigadoon, is getting the update treatment this year at the Shaw Festival, courtesy Canadian actor and director Brian Hill, who himself trod the boards at the Shaw Festival as part of the acting ensemble for three seasons earlier in his career.

Brigadoon, which premiered on Broadway in 1947 still deals in escapism pure and simple, but the time-period has been revised in Hill's fresh take to offer escapism from the horrors of the Second World War.  For the most part, it makes sense and works quite well.

However, there are still questions that need answers we don't get in this Brigadoon update, such as why and how the romantic attraction between George Krissa's Tommy Albright and Alexis Gordon's Fiona MacLaren even happens in the first place.

No matter; love conquers all, even in the Scottish Highlands in in the 1700s.

For the uninitiated, Tommy and his comic sidekick Jeff Douglas, played with great skill by Mike Nadajewski, are on a postwar hunting trip in those same Scottish Highlands and find themselves lost, tired and pretty much out of options.

Yet out of the Scottish mist on this very day, as it does every 100 years on this particular day, the mythical Scottish town of Brigadoon materializes right before their eyes.  As does lovely Fiona, of course.  Tommy is smitten.  Jeff is skeptical.

Tommy and Fiona almost immediately fall for each other (hey, it is a musical, after all) resulting in a lovely version of the musical's signature tune, Almost Like Being in Love, while Jeff settles for a more prosaic (read physical) hook up with Meg, played by Kristi Frank.

Wouldn't you know on this very night Fiona's younger sister Jean is to be married to Charlie Dalrymple, played by Madelyn Kriese and Matt Nethersole respectively.  Fiona invites Tommy and Jeff to the wedding.  This was before the time of wedding planners, of course.

Trouble is, Jean's former boyfriend Harry, played by Travis Seetoo is none too happy with the scenario on every level and his displeasure results in the chase scene that offers a dramatic departure from the romance of the wedding itself.

All the while, back in New York City a bride awaits Tommy "picking out flatware as he enjoys his Highland fling" as Jeff aptly puts it.  What to do, what to do?  Tommy ponders staying in the mythical Brigadoon with his new found love Fiona forever rather than return to New York to get ready for his impending marriage to his fiancee.

I like the update overall, although it can't quite overcome the age of the musical totally.  Director Glynis Leyshon making a welcome return to Shaw brings a 21st century perspective to a 20th century musical with the clever use of projections on the stage, designed by Corwin Ferguson.  These result in several 'oohs' from the audience.

Music Director Paul Sportelli does a nice job in the pit with a small orchestra and a collection of voices that altogether sounds larger than it actually is.  Linda Garneau's choreography is certainly a match for the athleticism of the story and designer Sue LePage gives us tartans everywhere.

So does Brigadoon deliver?  If you want an escape from the modern scourge of social media, populist  premiers and presidents and the rantings about "fake news", this will do it admirably.  Will you come away singing every song from the show?  No you won't.  But don't let that deter you; Brigadoon is a melodic antidote for what collectively ails us at the moment, if only for a couple of hours or so.

Brigadoon runs at the Festival Theatre until October 13th and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

Have a great weekend!

June 23rd, 2019.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Attending Brock Convocation

On this Father's Day weekend I thought I'd take a bit of a detour from my usual arts beat to report on the past week's convocation ceremonies at Brock University.  There is an arts connection to it, so bear with me.  But there is also a very personal connection to the ceremonies this week, so let's start with that.

I've had a long standing relationship with Brock University although I've never been a student there.  I have toyed with attending as a senior student once I retire but we'll have to see if that actually happens in the future.  Most of my contact with Brock faculty, staff and students has been through my many years in the media, both at CKTB Radio and more recently, hosting an interview programme on Brock research on Brock Radio, CFBU-FM.

My nephew Rory Keith, who lived up in Kenora, Ontario, was accepted into the Sports Management programme at Brock and began studies 4 years ago.  Hard to believe it was that long ago we moved young Rory into the Lowenberger Residence down at Brock!

After the first year Rory and some friends moved off campus as many do and rented a house in the Merritton area, then for the last two years renting a home on Jacobson Avenue to be closer to the Brock bus route.  Ironically, while delivering mail during my first years at Canada Post I frequently delivered on both routes that included his houses, although he moved into the Jacobson address once I had moved to inside work at the depot.

This past Monday, I commented to my sister Kelli Saunders it is ironic too the reception tent was situated in the parking lot adjacent to Lowenberger where the journey all began four years ago.  Funny how things work out...

Brock Convocation ceremonies lasted the entire week, with one ceremony in the morning and another in the afternoon, all taking place in the Ian Beddis Gymnasium, part of the Walker Complex at Brock. At Brock they have this down to a science and everything worked like clockwork.

Rory was part of the graduating class Monday afternoon, and was conferred his Bachelor of Sport Management degree (with honours) along with many of his student colleagues.  It is an amazing achievement and needless to say, we are all incredibly proud of what Rory has accomplished.  He's already working full-time in his field right here in St. Catharines, so he'll be staying here for a while yet.

This is only the second time a member of our family graduated from University; his mother Kelli graduated from Guelph University in the late 80s, although neither she nor I have much recollection of that ceremony.  I have no idea why!

In spite of threatening weather on Monday everything went smoothly, and although I think the formal speeches might have been shortened a bit, overall the ceremony went surprisingly fast given the number of graduating students they had to get through.  The only snag came when the threatened rain finally materialized just as everyone was gathering outside for pictures and the reception.

No matter; everyone was pleased with the proceedings and spirits were high for obvious reasons!

Now on Friday, the final day of Spring Convocation, one of the notable members of the graduating class was Robin Guard, earning his third Brock degree and in the process breaking the record for the oldest-ever graduate at Brock - again!

Robin initially broke the record in June of 2017 at the age of 93.  This third time he graduates at the ripe old age of 95, although I'm told he was not in attendance on Friday for the ceremony.  It all began with a degree in English Literature in 2015, followed by his masters in History in 2017 and finally his Classics degree this past Friday.

Robin decided to enrol at Brock following the death of is wife from cancer, as a way of dealing with the grief.  It seemed to work as he forged many strong bonds with other mature students as well as the younger students, all of whom accepted him as one of their own and relied on him to offer a different perspective given his age.

This will be his final degree from Brock, apparently.  Now he says he wants to write his autobiography and I for one cannot wait to read it!

I first met Robin years ago as he was a regular customer with my online music business, A Web of Fine Music.  In later years I would often run in to him at Niagara Symphony concerts up at Brock and on one memorable occasion, he actually conducted the NSO.

Having successfully bid on the opportunity to conduct through the annual silent auction, it was simply great to see this young octogenarian in full tails conducting with the vigour of a man over half his age.  He is a treasure!

If anything, he'll be my inspiration should I choose to take up the challenge in retirement and enrol at Brock myself.

So on this Father's Day, remember you're never too old to learn, and never too young to inspire those around you, either.  Rory does that every day, and so does Robin.

Wish our Dad could have been there to enjoy it.  He would have been proudest of all...

Happy Father's Day!

June 16th, 2019.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The end of one musical season and the start of the next

It has been a busier week than usual for your intrepid arts reporter, as I got out to attend a couple of events over the past week.  So I thought I'd touch on both events and look forward to the musical futures for both.

Last Saturday evening amid the thunderstorms thrashing Niagara, Sophie & I made our way up to St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the closing gala concert for the Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts.

I've gotten to know Christine and Alexis, co-founders of the festival that began life back in 2014.  The pair, Artistic Director and Executive Director respectively, are a mother-daughter team dedicated to presenting world-class Canadian and international classical talent as well as rising young stars, in what they describe as innovative, inspiring concert experiences in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

From what I've seen in my recent experiences attending Bravo Niagara concerts, they are hitting the mark bang on.  The latest concert, and indeed the season closer, was by a collective of young Canadian pianists known as Piano Six:  The Next Generation.  The six on Saturday night were Marika Bournaki, David Jalbert, Angela Park, Ian Parker, Daniel Wnukowski and Godwin Friesen.  All are accomplished pianists in their own right, and together they make a most formidable team of musicians.

Piano Six:  The Next Generation patterns themselves after the original Canadian Piano Six that included such luminaries as Janina Fialkowska, Angela Cheng, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Andre LaPlante Jon Kimura Parker and Angela Hewitt.  You think today hearing all six of those artists on one stage at a single concert would be almost unfathomable.  But there will likely come a day when these present six pianists engender the same reaction.

The music had a decidedly French feel to it, ranging from Francis Poulenc and Gabriel Faure to Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, but there were other composers represented as well, including Gershwin, Bill Evans and Leonard Bernstein.  There was also a New Generation Rag written especially for Piano Six by Darren Sigesmund, which featured all six pianists sharing but two concert grand pianos.

The quality of the music was uniformly exceptional, with perhaps the first half closer of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue being the most exceptional of all.  This two-piano arrangement featured Ian Parker and Daniel Wnukowski and they literally brought the audience to their feet with stellar performances from both sides of the stage.

Incidentally if you have not had your fill of Piano Six:  The Next Generation yet, you can catch them again in July as part of the Elora Festival's 40th season.  They'll be performing at the Gambrel Barn on Saturday, July 13th at 4 pm.

Looking ahead from here, Bravo Niagara! will announce their 2019/20 season in about a month or so, but already things are looking promising with early bookings of superstar singer Measha Brueggergosman opening up the season on October 19th followed by jazz piano icon Monty Alexander on November 8th and Milos Karadaglic on classical guitar on March 15th of 2020.  We'll report on the rest of the upcoming season once the details are made public this summer.

For more information or tickets, call 289-868-9177 or go to www.bravoniagara.org.

This past Wednesday evening we made the short walk from our house down to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines for the 2019/2020 Hot Ticket lineup announcement.  This has become something of a tradition for followers of the performing arts in the city as the PAC celebrates 5 years entertaining us come this fall.

Just looking at a few of the artists lined up to perform this coming season, you get a sense people are noticing what a fine performing arts centre we have in the centre of the city:  Jeremy Dutcher, the Bay City Rollers (!), Sloan, Crash Test Dummies, Hawksley Workman and Sarah Slean, Kim Mitchell, 54-40, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Bruce Cockburn, Manteca, Whitehouse, Maceo Parker, Max Weinberg's Jukebox, Rheotatics, Matt Anderson, Colin Mochrie and Asad Mecci, Tanya Tagaq and many others.

The artists come from literally all over the globe, with a heavy emphasis on so-called world music as well as some of the best local talent around these parts.  Presentations and co-productions with local arts groups will continue with Carousel Players, Essential Collective Theatre, The Foster Festival, Brock University's ENCORE! series and the TD Niagara Jazz Festival.

Of special note is the third annual Celebration of Nations gathering to kick off the season once again, running from September 6th to the 8th.  This gathering of indigenous arts, culture and tradition has been a popular seasonal kickoff in the past and this season promises to be no different.

On Wednesday evening and again Thursday evening, capacity crowds in the PAC's Partridge Hall heard all the details of the lineup from Sara Palmieri, Programming and Marketing Manager and Annie Wilson, Programming Supervisor, and were treated to short live performances by such artists as Sarah Slean, Frank Meschkuleit and others.

Personally I would have preferred a little less gushing on the part of the co-presenters Wednesday evening but hey, the capacity crowd was just as enthusiastic as they were so who am I to question their approach?!

Those who choose to become Hot Ticket members right away will gain early access to tickets and stuff, but orders need to be submitted by June 4th in order to gain all the perks.  Regular online ticket dates are June 20th at 10 am for Hot Ticket Members and September 5th at 10 am for the general public.

You can call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or go online to www.FirstOntarioPAC.ca.

Have a great weekend!

May 31st, 2019.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Canada's Only Renaissance Music Summer School has a concert in London this weekend

There is something about Renaissance music that soothes the soul yet at the same time feeding it, and for me at least, it conjures up images of choirs in large Gothic cathedrals with tremendous acoustics.

Recordings abound of music from the Renaissance period with some of the very best produced by The Tallis Scholars, many of which occupy a considerable amount of shelf space in my basement music room.

Canada has not exactly been at the forefront of the Renaissance movement, but we did have able purveyors of the musical form as far back as 1966 when The Huggett Family in Ottawa took their love of the music from that era to concert stages and the recording studio.  They produced a number of LPs, a couple of which I believe I still have in my personal collection, although none that I can see have ever made it to CD.  They for many years conducted workshops and classes for music students studying the musical era until they finally disbanded about 1982.

If you think Canada's contribution to the art form ended there you would be sadly - yet also happily - mistaken.  Enter the Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School (CRMSS), based in London, Ontario.  Now only in its second year, the school is the only Renaissance choral music workshop of its kind in the country.

Directed by internationally-acclaimed baritone and choral workshop leader Greg Skidmore, this year the school has been taking place all this week in London.  The school is aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at undergraduate students, graduates and of course young professional singers.  They are all dedicated to the study and performance of Renaissance polyphonic vocal music of the highest calibre.

Internationally-acknowledged tutors from the worlds of performance and academia are working with the students all this week, immersing themselves in the music the entire time.  There will be both rehearsals and performances all this week, culminating in performances this weekend at several venues, including the magnificent St. Peter's Cathedral Basilica.

Now while the weekday sessions are largely closed affairs, this weekend the public is invited to come out and attend a number of performances, all of which are free of charge.  A retiring collection will be shared between the summer school and St. Peter's Cathedral Basilica.

Throughout the week there have been daily evening services where the choir has sung Vespers, Compline or Evensong as a way of coming together and sharing their scholarly experiences during the day in performances of plainsong and a few simple motets.

Last evening, in fact, public performances began with Choral Evensong at 5:30 at All Saints Church on Hamilton Road in London, and this evening at 5:30 Choral Vespers will be presented at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, St. Peter's Seminary.  This will be a rare treat to hear music appropriate to the space not normally open to the public.  The presentation will include a Catholic service entirely in Latin, following the pre-Vatican II rite many of us remember growing up with and found in the Liber Usualis.

The main performance of the weekend comes Saturday evening at 8 pm in the pristine acoustics of St. Peter's on Dufferin Avenue in London with a concert entitled "Musical Transalpina".  This final performance of the week will be a tour de force for choral music enthusiasts like myself to revel in the glory of the human voice in a magnificent and appropriate ecclesiastical setting.

Finally, on Sunday morning at 10 am the choir will perform a large scale a cappella polyphonic Latin mass setting along with accompanying motets at the Sunday morning Eucharist at St. Paul's Cathedral.  There might just be some Gregorian chant propers sung at this service as well.

So if you have no plans on the weekend and don't mind hitting the road for a short jaunt to the lovely city of London, Ontario, you will be richly rewarded with the fruits of the labours of many choral scholars both young and old.  What better way could there be to welcome in the wonderful feeling of spring that is finally in the air as well?

For more information on the school, workshop leaders and individual performances this weekend, go to www.crmss.org or call 1-519-574-4297.

Have a great weekend!


Saturday, May 18, 2019

Niagara Symphony covers two centuries this weekend

This may be the holiday weekend marking the beginning of summer, but for the Niagara Symphony this weekend marks the end of their current season, and they are going out with a musical bang.

Masterworks 7 is entitled A Wild Ride on the Opera Train and brings 19th century music into the 21st century with the help of modern technology.  Yes, the NSO is introducing subtitles for tomorrow afternoon's finale featuring assorted soloists and the combined forces of the NSO and Chorus Niagara.

I remember when subtitles were first introduced at the opera probably in the 80s, at The Met if I'm not mistaken.  Purists were aghast at the thought but people quickly warmed to the idea of having an entire opera translated for them right before their eyes.  Today, it would be almost unthinkable to attend an opera performance without them.

They are not perfect, of course, as they don't always literally convey the message envisioned by the composer in his or her native language.  There have also been cringeworthy moments when occasionally the subtitles try to convey the feelings behind the lyrics, not always to great effect.

That being said, they have come a long way over the years and helped unravel many a convoluted plot line along the way.  This modern technology will be on full display in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre tomorrow afternoon.

Also on display will be some pretty high-powered soloists as well, including sopranos Claire de Sevigne and Aviva Fortunata, tenors Adam Luther and Matthew Dalen, and baritone Justin Welsh.  If you love the sound of the bass-baritone as I do, you'll want to hear the low notes of both Christopher Dunham and Domenico Sanfilippo.

Along with the 100-voice Chorus Niagara forces on stage to provide the big choral parts, they will be joined by the Chorus Niagara Children's Choir as well.  So by my estimate you'll have about a couple hundred voices and musicians doing their thing in unison on stage tomorrow, and that is worthy of our attention.

Most of the big opera arias and choruses will be featured, including no doubt Libiamo from Verdi's La Traviata.  The famous drinking song is known far and wide both within and outside opera circles.

Interested?  Tickets I'm told are selling fast, so you can purchase them online at www.firstontariopac.ca or by phone by calling 905-688-0722 or toll free, 1-855-515-0722.  The box office will be open this evening until 9 pm and tomorrow afternoon starting at 1:30, although I wouldn't advise waiting that long to get tickets if you have not already done so.

Incidentally, after tomorrow afternoon's concert the box office staff will be accepting in-person 2019-20 subscription renewals only.

So there you go.  Nicer weather is here, and great music tomorrow afternoon for you to hear.  What could be better than that?

Have a great Victoria Day holiday weekend!

May 18th, 2019.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

Summer Music Festival season is fast approaching!

I was out Friday afternoon doing some errands and out of the corner of my eye at one shop I visited I found the brochure for the 2019 season for Music Niagara, one of the best local summer music festivals around.  It got me to thinking, the season is almost upon us already for summer music, so this weekend I thought I would touch on a couple of the more notable ones I've had the pleasure of attending in the past.  Music Niagara is one, of course, and the other is the Elora Festival.

But before summer we have the remainder of spring, and there are still two concerts remaining in the current Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts to enjoy.  Today being Mother's Day, what better way to celebrate with your Mom than a drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake and enjoy an afternoon recital at Stratus Vineyards?  I was at Stratus last month for a performance by the Cheng2 Duo I wrote about last month in this space and it really is a nice location for a concert.

This afternoon at 2, James Parker and the New Gen will be performing at Stratus, and I hope there might still be some space available should you wish to attend.  Parker is of course one of Canada's leading classical artists, a pianist of international renown.  The New Gen aspect involves Parker teaming up with two of Canada's rising classical musicians for a concert of solo and chamber works.

The final concert of the season for Bravo Niagara! is at St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of the Old Town for Piano Six:  Gala Concert.  Again the performance highlights next generation classical artists including Marika Bournaki, David Jalbert, Angela Park, Ian Parker, Anastasia Rizikov and Daniel Wnukowski.  The idea is modelled after the original "Piano Six" that included such luminaries as Angela Cheng and Angela Hewitt, among others.

That final concert is at 7:30 pm on May 25th.  Tickets and more information on either performance can be had by calling 289-868-9177 or logging on to www.bravoniagara.org.

After spring comes summer, of course, and with it two very established music festivals I have had the pleasure of attending for many years now:  Music Niagara and the Elora Festival.

Music Niagara celebrates their 21st season this year, the brainchild of longtime Artistic Director Atis Bankas.  It has in recent years produced a fruitful partnership with the Niagara TD Jazz Festival that broadens the musical spectrum somewhat to include more jazz performances along with humour and more traditional classical performances.  But there are concerts of choral, pop and country included as well, so just about anyone will find something of interest this year.

Things get underway this season on July 14th at 4 pm with the opening gala at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake featuring Countermeasure.  This will be a concert of a cappella singing featuring some of Canada's top young vocal talent.

Other performances through the three week festival include such artists as soprano Inga Filipova, the "Jeru" Quartet, the Odin String Quartet, The Retro Ramblers, pianist Janina Fialkowska, the Elmer Iseler Singers and so many others.  There is even a Last Night of the Proms concert scheduled for St. Mark's Church on July 22nd!

One of the nice features is the Young Virtuosos series, featuring emerging musicians ages 8 to 18 and students of the 2019 Music Niagara Performance Academy.  There are Young Virtuosos recitals scheduled for July 22nd, 26th, and 28th, all afternoon performances.

If you, like me, are a fan of CBC Radio you'll be interested in performances featuring Tom Allen on July 28th and Julie Nesrallah on August 3rd.

The season finale is an all Beethoven programme at St. Mark's on Saturday evening, August 10th at 7 pm, a celebration in anticipation of Beethoven's 250th anniversary next year.

If all this sounds tempting, you can find out more by calling Music Niagara at 905-468-2172 or 1-800-511-7429, which is the Shaw Festival box office, or by going online at www.musicniagara.org.

Finally the 40 Anniversary Elora Festival is set to get underway July 12th in the picturesque village of Elora, just northwest of Guelph.  It's an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Niagara and worth the trip any time of the year.

The Opening Night Gala on July 12th will be in the Gambrel Barn and feature soloists with the Elora Singers in a performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, among other works.

The Singers will also collaborate with many of the guest artists during the two-week festival including Natalie MacMaster, the State Choir LATVIJA, Festival of the Sound Ensemble and Unforgettable:  Nat King Cole Story.

As always, the Elora Singers also perform Evensong and the usual Sunday services at St. John's Church which I try to attend every year if time permits.  With all those performances and music to study I honestly don't know how these talented singers manage to pull it all off, but they do!

There are a host of performances by solo artists and ensembles as well, including Canadian superstars Daniel Taylor on July 21st and Measha Brueggergosman on July 27th.

You'll also find a number of performances by young and up-and-coming artists at Elora as well, including the Cheng2 Duo on July 20th at St. John's Church.  So we've come full circle from my first visit to Brava Niagara! last month in Niagara-on-the-Lake!

For tickets and more information on the Elora Festival, call the box office at 519-846-0331 or online at www.elorafestival.com.

Have a great weekend and Happy Mother's Day!

May 12th, 2019.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Bravo to Bravo Niagara!

Last weekend I received an invitation out of the blue to Friday evening's recital with the Cheng2 Duo, part of the current Bravo Niagara! concert season.  The invitation came from Bravo Co-founder & Artistic Director Christine Mori, who along with her daughter Alexis Spieldenner started the Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts back in 2014.

I was aware of the concert series in the ensuing years but somehow we never seemed to cross paths.  So I was especially pleased to accept the invitation and see and hear what the festival is all about.  In a word, I am impressed!

The concert season ranges from classical to jazz, with performance venues all around the Niagara-on-the-Lake area, with some of the locations being described politely as "non-traditional".  So it was on Friday evening patrons filed into the high-ceilinged and decidedly industrial "concert-hall" set up inside the sleek and modern Stratus Vineyards on Niagara Stone Road, generally known by locals as Highway 55.

The room was an unlikely space for music-making, what with vats and other larger-than-all-of-us winemaking paraphernalia occupying much of the space.  But there, nestled in the open space just inside the entranceway was a stage not much larger than the proverbial postage stamp that would hold the two performers for the evening, the Cheng2 Duo.  As they remarked at the start of the concert, they were surprised as anyone else the acoustics in such a locale would be so conducive to fine music making, but indeed it was.

Tables were arranged, patrons circled them sipping wine from Stratus and awaited the performance, the imbibing no doubt contributing to the conviviality of the occasion.

It should come as no surprise more and more wineries are giving up their space for concerts and such.  It is a natural pairing of cultural pursuits in the heart of wine country and besides, both sides benefit nicely from the arrangement.

I sampled a Stratus red, incidentally, which was not too heavy and quite smooth, nicely pairing with the programme the Cheng2 Duo presented.

Bryan Cheng and his sister Silvie hail from Ottawa originally, although now he lives in Berlin much of the time and she is in New York City.  In the old days that distance would be hard to bridge economically but in today's technological world with these two young, tech-savvy individuals, I am sure texting and FaceTime do much of the bridging for them.

Bryan, all of 21 years of age, plays a Stradivarius cello on loan from the Canada Council.  He has it on loan for 3 years and says he can extend that to up to nine.  One has to wonder what he'll do once he finally has to return that precious instrument at the end of the tenure.  Will anything else measure up?  It was no coincidence Friday evening the cello accompanied him everywhere he went.  With something like that, you don't leave it unattended - ever.

As an aside, I would like to offer up a thank you to the Canada Council for their ability to furnish worthy musicians with instruments of this caliber they might not otherwise be able to perform with.  It seems like a better investment of time and money to do things like this than here in Ontario where the government is more intent on providing cheap beer and longer drinking hours, but I digress...

The programme included Tchaikovsky's Pezzo Capriccioso and Shostakovich's Sonata for Cello & Piano in the first half, and the second half a little bit lighter with Poulenc's Sonata for Cello & Piano and Sarasate's fiery and brief Zigeunerweisen.  All the pieces were challenging in their own way and beautifully played by the pair, with the Poulenc especially being the undiscovered gem of the evening.

Beyond the music itself, the Cheng2 Duo are engaging and exceptionally forthcoming in their conversations with the audience during the concert.  At one point Bryan describes the discovery of the Poulenc Sonata somewhat akin to finding a toonie "in the crotch of the sofa", a comment that elicited laughter from the audience and a genuine reaction from sister Silvie, who slapped her knee and laughed as hard as we did, obviously not hearing something she had heard countless times before.

This is the charm of this pair, and I hope that never changes.  They are young and accomplished but still in the stage where they can't assume audiences will know who they are and automatically come out to hear them.  They are still fighting to claim their small piece of the classical music turf in this country, but they are winning the battle in the trenches as well as on the concert stage.  After the recital they were both readily accessible to one and all, appearing as genuine friends with like-minded music lovers, sharing a glass of wine and talking about the music like everyone else.

This is clearly endearing to the concert-going public as well it should be.  Gone are the days of concert performers never actually appearing to actively interact with the audience.  Today's performers and indeed audiences can interact live in person or through social media, for example, so there is more of a connection than ever before.

I remember years ago the one-time conductor of the Niagara Symphony, Ermanno Florio, rarely if ever spoke to the audience from the stage and you never really saw him off the stage either.  No knock against either Florio nor the Niagara Symphony; that was just how it was done in years past.  But I met Maestro Florio backstage in Toronto at a National Ballet performance and he was as engaging as you could imagine.  But it just didn't transfer to the audience from the stage.

Today's performers and audiences know things are different now, and they have to be.  There are so many forces competing for patron's attention and disposable income both within the classical realm and beyond, you cannot afford to be disconnected from the public.  The new reality dictates you have to do more to win them over and on that score, Cheng2 Duo perform as admirably offstage as they do on.

This brings me to the situation I have often discussed in the past in this space:  how do concert presenters deal with the reality of an aging population and how to lower the demographic of your clientele.  As I looked around at the audience surrounding the tables on Friday evening, I realized Bravo Niagara! is doing something right.  Sure, people my own age and beyond were well represented but also a much younger demographic and admittedly, a decidedly well-off demographic was very much in attendance as well.

Is it the venue and the lure of sampling local wine?  The young performers who appear not only accomplished but also a little edgy at the same time?  Is it a savvy concert promoter finding a clever way to market their product that pushes the boundaries of what a classical music concert should and could be?  It appears clearly to be a combination of all of these.

Classical music has been famously described by some as stuff by long-dead composers performed by people who are not far off themselves, and that might have been a valid argument at one point.  But listening to and watching the Cheng2 Duo on Friday night, the dynamics are clearly changing for the better, at least as far as Bravo Niagara! is concerned.  There is a new breed of concert performer out there and this performance was a clear indication of the future of classical music not only here but elsewhere as well.

Looking at the remainder of the the current concert season for Bravo, last evening at the same venue there was a centennial tribute to Nat King Cole, with Paul Marinaro and the Ben Paterson Trio, providing another side entirely to what Bravo Niagara! is all about.  The three remaining concerts this spring, all coming up in May, are equally as varied.  Stratus will be the venue for two of them, Alfredo Rodriguez & Pedro Martinez will perform May 11th in the evening and James Parker and the New Gen will perform May 12th in the afternoon.

The final concert of the current season, a Gala Concert featuring Piano Six, takes place at the more traditional yet perfectly-suited St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of the old town.  That comes up May 25th at 7:30 pm and will feature appropriately enough the next generation of piano virtuosos following the path of the original Piano Six that included the likes of prominent Canadians Angela Hewitt and Jon Kimura Parker among others.

Interested in checking out what Bravo Niagara! is all about?  Go to www.bravoniagara.org or call 289-868-9177.

Have a great weekend!

April 14th, 2019.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

News & Notes on the Arts in Niagara and beyond this week

It's been another busy week keeping up with all that's happening in the local arts community, as well as significant happenings elsewhere in the province as spring has sprung.  So this weekend a short roundup of news & notes that have crossed my desk and computer screen I thought would be of interest to you...

First off, the renowned Elora Singers present J.S. Bach's glorious St. John Passion, conducted by new Artistic Director Mark Vuorinen tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 pm.  The concert, designed to usher in the second half of the Easter season will take place at the acoustically wonderful Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate on Norfolk Street in the heart of downtown Guelph.

The St. John Passion was first presented in Bach's Leipzig in 1724 as part of a Good Friday liturgy that was to last several hours.  And as was Bach's custom in Leipzig, the Elora Singers will conclude the singing of the Passion with Jacob Handl's unaccompanied motet, Ecce quomodo moritur.

Tickets to the performance of St. John's Passion are available by calling 519-846-0331, or pick them up at the door prior to the performance tomorrow afternoon.

Meantime the Elora Festival, of which the Elora Singers are very much a part, recently announced the lineup for their 40th anniversary season.  We'll look more closely at the season in a later post, but to whet your appetite in the meantime I'll let you know the Opening Night Gala comes up July 12th at 7:30 pm in the Gambrel Barn.  The concert, to conclude with the requisite fireworks, will highlight the always-popular Carmina Burana by Carl Orff along with a variety of other choral favourites.  Performances at the Gala include of course the Elora Singers as well as the State Choir LATVIJA, members of the Grand Philharmonic Children's and Youth Choirs as well as soloists and the duo Piano Six.  Once again Artistic Director Mark Vuorinen will conduct along with Maris Sirmais.

Both Piano Six and the State Choir LATVIJA are featured later in the first weekend of the Elora Festival.  Tickets are now on sale to the general public by calling 519-846-0331.

Locally, the Brock String and Wind orchestras will hold their final concerts of the season with popular repertoire and world-premiere performances in two upcoming recitals.

Presented by Brock University's Department of Music, the Wind Ensemble under the direction of Zoltan Kalman will present their spring recital, A Touch of Latin, this Tuesday evening in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  The Orchestra's spring recital, entitled A Spring Serenade, takes place the following evening, Wednesday April 3rd in the PAC's Recital Hall conducted by George Cleland.

Both of these concerts demonstrate the connections between the community and the breadth of talent and creativity at Brock's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

The Wind Ensemble will present works ranging from George Gershwin's Cuban Overture to the high-energy Redline Tango and the grandiose Music for a Festival.  The Orchestra, meantime, will present Tchaikovsky's Serenade For Strings as well as Vaughan Williams' gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Tickets to either concert are available through the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722 or at the door on the night of the performance.

Over in Stratford the big news this week was the announcement The Stratford Festival's 2018 was both an artistic and financial success.  The longest season on record, 2018 produced a $1.9-million surplus, with an increase in attendance of 10% to over half a million visitors.  Total revenue for the 2018 season was $65.8 million, up 8% from the previous season.

Ticket sales were the highest in a decade, resulting in revenue of $33 million, the third-highest in the Festival's history.

The surplus will go toward the TPT campaign to build the new Tom Patterson Theatre and the Artistic Excellence Fund.

It was also announced by the Festival Board that Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino's term has been extended a further two years, meaning he will be at the helm of the Festival through 2014.  Cimolino became Artistic Director six seasons ago and has been very successful in broadening the appeal of the Festival as well as spearheading the construction of the new theatre centre.  He's been at the Festival for 32 years now, beginning as an actor in 1988 and rising through the ranks as administrator, General Manager, Executive Director and General Director.  He has also continued to direct numerous productions over the years as well.

The 2019 Stratford Festival runs from April through November and includes Othello, Billy Elliot the Musical, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Private Lives month other performances.  Tickets are available through the Festival box office by calling toll free, 1-800-567-1600.

Finally, next Sunday afternoon the Juno Award-winning Gryphon Trio, celebrating 25 years of music making, will perform in the Recital Hall of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  The Trio, made up of performers James Parker on piano, Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin and Roman Borys on cello have made 20 CDs and have performed more than 2,000 times world wide.

The Gryphon Trio will return to St. Catharines a week from tomorrow to perform Haydn's lively Trio No. 33 in G minor, Love Triangle by Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne and Brahms' Trio No. 1, Op. 8.

The concert is the latest presentation by the Gallery Players of Niagara and tickets are available at the door on the day of the performance or in advance through the FirstOntario PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

Have a great weekend!

March 30th, 2019.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

News from the Guelph Chamber Choir this weekend

It's been awhile since I've written in this space, and even longer since I wrote about my almost adopted city of Guelph, so let's remedy both this weekend with some news out of the Royal City regarding the ever-talented Guelph Chamber Choir.

The Choir and I go back a fairly long way, truth be told.  I remember driving to Guelph many a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon for one of their regular concerts at one of the area churches before the River Run Centre opened its doors in the fall of 1997.  Most often it would be at the nearby St. George's Church which featured a wonderful atmosphere and acoustic.  On a couple of occasions I recall attending a concert at the large Church of Our Lady on the hill as you enter the downtown core on Gordon Street.

On one of those occasions, I attended a spectacular performance of the Bach B-Minor Mass, which was especially moving for me as it came shortly after the untimely passing of my mother in February of 2000, and this was the first major outing I had undertaken following a difficult mourning period.  The concert, timed to coincide with the coming Easter season, was held on a rather cold Sunday afternoon at the Church of Our Lady; if I am not mistaken it was March 31st or thereabouts.

It was about a year or so prior to that I attended the second of two performances of Handel's oratorio Messiah in a single Sunday one Christmas season.  I still can't believe I actually did this:  I attended the Chorus Niagara matinee performance here in St. Catharines, and then hopped in the car and after stopping for a quick dinner enroute, I attended the Guelph Chamber Choir performance that evening at the River Run Centre.  It might have been their first Messiah at the River Run, but it was a memorable evening following an equally memorable afternoon.  Those were the days I would do such things...ah, the spirit of the youth!

About 15 years ago when I spent many a Saturday helping out my good friend Paul at his music shop Twelfth Night Music on Carden Street, in walked the choir's founding conductor Dr. Gerald Neufeld and his wife, Patricia Eton-Neufeld.  Gerry had no idea who I was at that moment, but Patricia did.  She had often reached out to me to invite me to the next performance of the Guelph Chamber Choir, which in those days I gratefully accepted.  I drove a lot more and further distances in those days, so it was nothing for me to drive up to Guelph to catch a performance and then return home that same night.

Anyway, Gerry and his wife were doing what many other enlightened Guelph residents did on a sunny Saturday afternoon:  browse the latest releases in classical recordings at the shop.  It was a slice of musical heaven in downtown Guelph in those days.

So yes, there is a history between the choir and your humble scribe and I hope it continues for many years to come.  Mind you, Dr. Neufeld has moved on to other challenges and it was announced just today the new Artistic Director and conductor of the Guelph Chamber Choir will be Dr. Charlene Pauls.

The search was an extensive one, but Dr. Pauls brings impressive credentials to her new post.  Her extensive background in choral conducting is paired with her experience as a recognized international soprano soloist.  She also holds degrees in Early Music and Vocal Performance, and just last fall Dr. Pauls was awarded the 2018 Leslie Bell Prize for Choral Conducting by the Ontario Arts Council.

Dr. Pauls will take the podium of the Guelph Chamber Choir for the 2019-2020 season.

In the meantime, the annual spring concert will feature not one but two choirs, the Guelph Chamber Choir and the Elora Singers.  Christopher Dawes will be the organist and founding Artistic Director Gerald Neufeld will return to conducted a programme of choral masterpieces for two choirs and organ at St. George's Anglican Church.

On the programme April 6th will be Parry's I was Glad and Durufle's Requiem along with Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir and selections from Rachmaninoff's divine choral work, Vespers.  The concert begins at 7:30 pm April 6th and tickets should be available in advance at the River Run box office or at the door the evening of the performance.

There was also some sad news this month, as it was announced Dr. Dominic Gregorio passed away on March 3rd in Regina, Saskatchewan.  Dr. Dominic was born and raised in Guelph, completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Music at the University of Guelph, before moving on to Temple University in Philadelphia where he completed a triple major Master of Music degree (voice, choral conducting and music history).  As if that's not enough, he also completed a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, earning as well the prestigious The Order of Arete medal in 2012 for his brilliant work as a doctoral student.

A proud Filipino-Canadian, Dr. Gregorio made his mark not only in his hometown of Guelph but also his adopted city of Regina, where he was both Director of Choral Activities and an Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of Regina.

The memorial service in Guelph for Dr. Gregorio was held earlier today at Dublin Street United Church.

I would not be surprised if mention of his untimely passing will be made at the Guelph Chamber Choir's upcoming spring concert, a concert I imagine he would have loved to attend if he were back home in Guelph.  It would be a fitting tribute to a man who gave so much to the world of choral music, both in his home city and beyond.

I really have to get to Guelph again soon and rediscover a city with such a vibrant arts community.  On April 6th, it would be even nicer to rekindle those great memories of concerts past conducted by Dr. Gerald Neufeld too.

Hmmm....

Have a great weekend!

March 16th, 2019.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The weather outside may be frightful, but the music is so delightful!

I am looking out my home office window this afternoon thinking I am glad this is the weekend and I don't have to go out in this weather unless I want to.  Which I don't frankly.  I get enough of that during the week with my very early morning starts for work, leaving the house most mornings before 5 am.  If there is snow on the ground I usually try to clear it before I leave for work.

But today in a rare move, I decided since it was Saturday I deserved a snow day.  Oh I did go out this morning, but not until after I would normally be finished work during the week, and not to go far.  I shovelled the snow for what will likely be the umpteenth time this weekend, and then walked downtown to the Market, which goes Saturday mornings no matter what.

Not as many people nor vendors for that matter, but I didn't care.  It is my Saturday morning ritual and it will have to be worse weather than this to prevent me from going.  I also managed a side trip to Beechwood Doughnuts on St. Paul Street as well...hey, it may be snowing but I won't suffer this weekend!

Nor should you.

What's all this leading to, you ask?  Well, I thought with the colder weather these days and finally a good dumping of snow expected throughout the weekend, it would be a good time to open the arts calendar and see what's on over the coming week should you wish to escape the weather for some musical enrichment.

Let's begin tonight and tomorrow with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra, getting an early start on celebrating the birthday of one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Everyone's favourite precocious child wunderkid who turned into an even more precocious adult musical genius was born January 27th, 1756.  We're well past the big anniversaries of Mozart's birthday for awhile now, but any clever music programmer would never miss a chance to celebrate Mozart in January.  It's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for curing the winter doldrums.

The NSO will be presenting an all-Mozart programme tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 in the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  Tomorrow afternoon is, as I understand it, pretty well sold out now, but if you choose to venture out tonight there should still be some good seats still available.

Maestro Thachuk conducts Masterworks 4 this weekend and NSO Principal Flute Doug Miller is the featured soloist on Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 1 in G-major.  Also on the programme is Mozart's popular Symphony No. 35 in D major, known as the "Haffner", and one of my personal favourites, his Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major.

There might be a little less sheen on the Mozart crown after all these years, but for most music lovers he offers more musical bang for the buck than just about anyone else out there, so why not go with a winner?  Besides, he will certainly cure the January Blues at least for a little while.

Tickets are available by calling the FirstOntario PAC box office at 905-688-0722 or go online to FirstOntarioPAC.ca.  You can also visit the box office personally if you care to venture out earlier today.

Speaking of the PAC, this coming Wednesday evening January 23rd the Canadian Jazz All-Stars take to the stage at Partridge Hall at 7:30 pm for a concert featuring such artists as Robi Botos, Dave Young, Davide Di Renzo, Heather Bambrick, Mike Murley and Guido Basso.  Mike Zettel of Niagara  This Week writing in the current PAC programme guide, points out the collective years of all musicians on stage for that concert totals about two centuries worth of musicianship.

Many of those names will be readily recognizable to many jazz fans, especially the legendary Guido Basso on trumpet and flugelhorn.  Heather Bambrick, too, has a high profile due to her many concerts in and around the GTA and her regular appearances on 99.1 Jazz FM as a programme host.

Should be a swinging affair this coming Wednesday evening, and tickets should still be available through the PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722 or going to FirstOntarioPAC.ca.

Still in Partridge Hall at the PAC but for an entirely different sound, the Encore! Professional Concert Series presents the TORQ Percussion Quartet this Friday night at 7:30 pm.  The four extraordinary percussionists of TORQ will likely be making plenty of noise in the most musical of ways possible, and it promises to be a most interesting concert.

The Encore! Professional Concert Series is part of the Department of Music at the adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University, and is always a very affordable way to get into some interesting and sometimes more challenging music right in the heart of the city.

Tickets are general admission and available by calling the FirstOntario PAC box office at 905-688-0722 or by going to FirstOntarioPAC.ca.

Finally, it has been awhile since I wrote about a wonderful classic music series held up in the Waterloo region for many years now.  The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society programmes an ambitious season of recitals year-round, and the next concert is this coming Wednesday evening in the Music Room in Waterloo.

Recognized Bach expert Peter Vinograde will perform most of the seven toccatas of J.S. Bach, dating from his early period, especially Weimar from 1708 to 1717.  The music is described by the Chamber Music Society as "freely constructed works, all quite different, alternating virtuoso display, slow expressive interludes and contrapuntal dance forms".  Bach, of course, was a recognized master of them all.

In addition to the Bach keyboard works, also on the programme is probably the most popular trio in the Russian chamber music literature, Arensky's Trio in d-minor, a work dating from 1894.  Joining Vinograde for this late-romantic work are violinist Adam Diderrich and cellist Miriam Stewart-Kroeker.

Tickets are only $35 or $20 for students, and available through WordsWorth, directly from the Chamber Music Society, or at the University of Waterloo box office.  The website for the society is k-wcms.com, and the Music Room is located at 57 Young Street West in Waterloo.

That should give you plenty of choice for the coming week for some great music.  Have a great weekend in spite of the weather!

January 19th, 2019.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Looking for ways to cure the January blahs...

Now that the holidays are over and stores are already stocking Valentines gifts and cards, we're in that in-between period when the days, although getting slightly longer, are getting progressively colder.  For some, the January blahs are a very real thing, and cures are hard to come by.  I have that feeling myself sometimes, so I have promised myself this year to get out and try new things when the opportunity presents itself, while not forgetting the fun things that make life more enjoyable more than once.

So this weekend a couple of examples of that, one just passed and the other currently underway.

I happened to spot at the entrance to our downtown Centennial Library over the holidays there would be a presentation in the Mills Room on Saturday afternoon, January 12th entitled The Facer Street Gang Rides Again.  Intrigued, I read further and discovered an afternoon of words and music, much of it pertaining to the small part of St. Catharines known affectionately as Little Europe would be presented.

This has long been one of my favourite parts of the city, going back to my younger days when my then-girlfriend lived in the area.  When I went house shopping about 25 years ago for the very first time, I found myself attracted to a little house on Garnet Street, not far from Facer Street, that was being sold privately.  I came close but ultimately decided to settle closer to downtown, which by the way I have never regretted doing.

Still, the attraction of Little Europe has always been with me and I often find myself on a Saturday afternoon visiting the area still.  Granted, the area has fallen on hard times over the years and it is not the busy commercial and retail district it was 50 or 60 years ago, but it still shows a vibrancy of spirit you don't often see in newer parts of the city today.

I can't visit the Facer Street area without visiting St. Joseph Bakery, of course, and just around the corner and up the street on Garnet Street still stands the old building housing Rosa's Italian Market.  There I often pick up meals for nights when I don't feel like cooking if I am on my own, and at Christmas I cannot refuse their imported panettone!

But getting back to the presentation this afternoon, it was a look back to a simpler time in the Facer neighbourhood with a number of presenters.  I don't have names of them all but of particular mention are author Stan Skrzeszewski, who has written a book of poetry based on the area he grew up in as well as an historical retrospective of the area, entitled A Walk Down Facer Street, 1870-1939, and singer/actress Maja Bannerman.

Stan waxes poetic in his book and at the presentation today of the way it used to be in the Facer Street area, full of hard-working folk who may not have had much materially, but were rich in family values and spirit.  His book, which I had to purchase for obvious reasons, is chock full of lore and stories about the people and businesses that made the area a totally unique part of the city landscape.

Stan's book is available through Grey Borders Books based in Niagara Falls, and I'm told a follow up volume is in the works for the near future.

I've long known Maja Bannerman, related to Shaw actor Guy Bannerman, and still remember the days when I first met her at the McFarland House Tea Room along the Niagara Parkway where she would serve on occasion.  She's a local treasure and full of love for her adopted home turf of Niagara, the Facer Street area included.

So it was a nice way to spend a cold Saturday afternoon with like-minded souls remembering the way it was in one of the more interesting parts of our city years ago, and hopefully will be again.

Meantime, you might recall I wrote glowingly about the then-new show at the Oh Canada Eh? Dinner Theatre in Niagara Falls when the show first ran last winter.  We attended a performance in March and the packed house rocked with the sounds of the music of the 60s & 70s, all tied together with a circus theme running throughout in a show entitled The Show Must Go On.

I am always amazed what they can do on that small stage at the theatre located on Lundy's Lane just outside the tourist district, and equally amazed at the quality of talent they continually find.  The proverbial icing on the cake is the exceptional meal they serve to a full house with military precision; everything works like clockwork from start to finish with many of the performers also doubling as servers.

Well, they are doing it again, and with largely the same cast, too.  But the show only runs until January 26th so you don't have a lot of time left.  And if you attend shows on the 16th and 18th, you can get a special deal on dinner/show packages in the Maple Leaf section of the theatre that makes the show even more worthwhile.

I even discovered one of my most admired musical friends locally, Chelsea DiFranco is handling keyboard duties for some performances of the show this month.  Chelsea, a local music teacher, is something of an amateur thespian as well, appearing in several productions in both Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.

So with all that going for it, how could you refuse escaping the winter blahs for a retro night out in Niagara Falls?  For tickets and more information go to www.OhCanadaEh.com or call 905-374-1995.

Have a great weekend and stay warm!

January 12th, 2019.