Saturday, October 12, 2019

Giving thanks this weekend for a special place set to close

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and many of us were out in force today getting what we need for a big family get together and feast to celebrate the annual harvest.  The farmer's market in downtown St. Catharines, for example, was bustling with people packed in cheek to jowl looking for just the right additions to their dinner table.

No matter how you spend your time this holiday weekend and with whom, I want to take a moment of your time to offer my thanks for a special little slice of peace and tranquility just around the corner from our house that is soon to close.

Gwen's Teas moved from downtown on St. Paul Street to a lovely period home at 90 Welland Avenue a while ago, and for the longest time I would drive by early in the morning on my way to work and say to myself I should go in again sometime and check out the new digs.  I did finally do that just over a year ago, and I have been going back regularly ever since.

Gwen's Teas is full of just about every variety of tea you can imagine, available for you to purchase and take home or brewed on the spot in their charming tea room at the front of the house.  There you will also find loads of tea-related gifts for sale along with a few tables for people to sit at as they "take tea".

I have always had a soft spot for tea rooms and have been known to go out of my way to visit one on my travels over the years, no matter where I happen to be.  But this one, located steps from our home, is amongst the finest you'll encounter anywhere.

First off, it is peaceful, as any good tea room should be.  It's not a library, of course, but there are books on tea on the shelves if that's your preference.

Secondly, the shop knows how to brew a proper cup of tea.  That's vitally important in a world where people accept tea bags in tepid water at many dining establishments, accustomed as they are to catering more to coffee lovers.

When I would visit, as I did again this week, I always opt for Scottish Breakfast tea which I find strong, bracing and very much to my liking.  Pair the tea with a scone or two with all the trimmings and you have an afternoon tea fit for a king.

Many visits have included conversations with the friendly proprietor of Gwen's Teas, Pam Cicci, a single mom whom I believe lives upstairs looking after her two teenage children.  Lately though, Pam has been absent more and more from the tea room, and the reason, as reported in The St. Catharines Standard last year, is very sad indeed.

Pam, you see, is battling colon cancer that has already spread to her liver.  Regular visits over the past year to the Walker Family Cancer Centre have not produced the desired result.

Through it all this past year as I visited for tea Pam was always upbeat and cheerful in the face of such heartbreaking news, serving tea with a quiet grace you cannot help but admire.  About a month ago when I visited, I saw Pam for the last time and she confided things had not been going well.  But she remained optimistic and that wonderful smile was there as always.

Volunteers have been running the shop while Pam was battling her cancer but at the beginning of this month Pam made the difficult decision to close the business so she can devote all her remaining time to dealing with the cancer and to take care of her young family.

It was a difficult decision but I think it is the right decision at the right time, and I am sure her many customers will agree as well.  As much as we will miss the tea room and of course seeing Pam there, the focus has to be elsewhere at this moment, so today was the final day for regular tea service at Gwen's Teas.

On Monday, a store closing sale will begin, and run through to next weekend with all tea-related merchandise marked down for quick sale.  There will be no tea service, I'm told, just the sale for this final week.

I spent part of a sunny Thursday afternoon there for my final afternoon tea before the sale begins, and although I was sad, I was also glad.  Glad Pam can spend the time needed to focus on what matters most, and glad I finally chose to stop in over a year ago to rediscover this little gem in our city.

Should you choose to visit the sale this week, be sure to share a memory of one of your favourite things about Gwen's Teas.  Pam I am sure would love to hear it!

Cancer can be ruthless and doesn't play favourites.  But we can at least celebrate a life well lived and richly rewarded in so many ways, offer positive energy, and hope for a better outcome this time.  If ever someone deserves our support, Pam does and it is needed now.

Let's celebrate with tea, shall we?  Pam would never want it any other way...

Be thankful for those around you this weekend, and never underestimate the power of love and hope.

Have a great Thanksgiving weekend.

October 12th, 2019.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Elora Festival Choral Concert Series gets underway next month

A sure sign the seasons have changed and we are heading on that downward slide towards winter is the fact all the fall/winter concert schedules are out and the selection is almost endless.  We'll be looking at some of the very best concert seasons over the next few months as time allows, beginning today with a favourite destination of ours.

Elora is one of those places you can visit any time of the year and have a great time.  The trip there is scenic, the village is bursting at the seams with interesting shops to explore, there are great restaurants to tempt you, and of course the familiar Elora Mill Inn is back in business again.

All good reasons to go anytime of the year, to be sure.  But the so-called off-season also brings with it the fall & winter Choral Concert Series for the Elora Singers, and this year looks pretty interesting.

This will be the 40th year for the Choral Concert Series in Elora, and it begins November 17th at the cozy confines of St. John's Church in Elora with a concert entitled To The Hands.  The title comes from the major work on the programme, Caroline Shaw's moving To The Hands.  I have always loved hearing the Elora Singers in their home church any time of year, so if you have the chance you should definitely go.

Any choral group worth their salt performs Handel's great oratorio Messiah on a regular basis, and Elora is no different.  The annual performance takes place December 8th in Fergus at the larger St. Joseph's Church.

Messiah is one of those choral works we all know and yet, year after year choral groups perform it and year after year, we flock to those concerts.  Some, like Chorus Niagara, perform it every other year in order to keep things fresh.  Others, like Elora, perform it every season and bring a fresh perspective to it every time.  This year an interesting aspect will be the fact members of the Elora Singers themselves will be featured as soloists.

Closer still to Christmas the Singers will host their very popular Festival of Carols at St. John's Church in Elora, complete with candles lighting the church for each performance.  There are four in all, in order to accommodate the crowds and they still sell out:  December 17th & 18th, at 5 and 7:30 pm each day.  Plan to book your tickets early for these concerts to be sure you don't miss out!

The new year brings with it another annual tradition to the Elora Singers, the Soup & Song concert.  This season the concert features two early Bach Cantatas with lead in conversations by conductor Mark Vuorinen:  Nach dir Herr verlanget mich and Weinen klaxon morgen zagen.  The concert begins at 2 pm at St. John's Church, Elora, with lunch served prior to the concert at 12:30.

Finally the season closer this season will feature both the Elora Singers and the Elmer Iseler Singers, both celebrating their 40th year this season, coincidentally.  The double choir concert will feature music by Mendelssohn, Brahms and more, with the highlight being the magnificent 36-voice motet by Ockeghem.  The concert moves to Guelph and the much larger space known as the church on the hill, the Basilica of Our Lady.

That sounds like a lot of great music, and certainly worth the drive to Elora for sure!  If you're tempted, you can call the box office at 1-519-846-0331 or go to www.elorasingers.ca.

Have a great weekend!

October 5th, 2019.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Culture Days underway this weekend in downtown St. Catharines

This is a busy weekend throughout St. Catharines, what with the final big weekend of the Niagara Wine Festival underway.  The annual Grande Parade always fills the downtown streets with partygoers, many of whom repair to favourite watering holes such as the Mansion House or the Merchant Ale House after the parade, or if they prefer their imbibing al fresco and in the company of many other like-minded souls, at Montebello Park.

For many of us, however, we prefer a somewhat more subdued celebration in the heart of the city, and for those of us who fall into that category there are the annual Culture Days in St. Catharines on all weekend long as well.

Friday and Saturday were both busy days for activities and events relating to Culture Days, but you have by no means missed the boat if you have been elsewhere the last couple of days.  Sunday promises to be just as busy and full of interesting events to take in downtown.  And the best part is, it is all family-friendly and relating to arts and culture in Niagara.

The weekend long Community Collaborative Mural-Making event is on from 12 noon to 4 pm again tomorrow, presented by the St. Catharines Downtown Association along with artist Jana Simms-Bergsma.  This interactive activity takes place at the corner of St. Paul and Court Streets near the NAC shop/studio, and is suitable for all age groups.  Families can spend up to 30 minutes creating and contributing to the collaborative mural, all guided by a professional artist.

Meantime inside the NAC shop/studio at 433A St. Paul Street you can experience an introduction to screen printing with artist Colleen McTigue.  The 30 minute make & take event runs from 12 noon to 5 pm and participants are encouraged to create their own stencil, or "pull" a unique print from a stencil provided by the artist.  Again it is a family-friendly event.

Over at the Rodman Hall Arts Centre at 109 St. Paul Crescent the art exhibition Task at Hand by artist Carolyn Wren will be open to visitors from 12 to 5 pm.  There will also be guided  tours of the historic home at 2 pm and a tour of exhibitions at 3 pm.

Also at Rodman Hall, artist David Figueroa will capture visitors in a photo to use while they explore creating their very own self-portrait by using an embossing drawing process.  The make & take event runs from 12:30 to 4:30 pm.  There is another make & take event running at the same time featuring artist Rhiannon Barry entitled Keep Calm and Adjust Your Mermaid Crown.  Male & female visitors are encouraged to create their own crown using marine-themed materials.

Artist Metka Manfreda will be offering a make & take event called Printmaking a Monotype Hybrid, in which visitors of all ages can create a hybrid creature by exploring monotype printmaking.  This is created by applying colour to plexiglass and then transferring using a special technique, thereby allowing interesting images to appear on paper.  This also runs from 12:30 to 4:30 pm.

During the same time period at Rodman Hall another make & take event will involve artist Janice Low called Creative Cards for Caring.  This event encourages participants to have fun, learn an art technique and engage in designing and painting greeting cards that can then be given to friends and family members to show they care.

As you would expect, the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre would be a hive of activity during Culture Days, and once again tomorrow the PAC is home to a full slate of events beginning at 12 noon in the Algoma Lobby with Happy Birthday PAC!  Yes, it is the 4th birthday of the new Performing Arts Centre with cake and a community photo event taking place at 250 St. Paul Street.

Also in the lobby from 12 to 3 pm the Niagara Symphony Orchestra presents their popular Instrument Petting Zoo, where visitors can try a variety of instruments with instruction from professional symphony musicians and student volunteers.

In Partridge Hall an interactive dance workshop will be held at 1, 2 and again at 3 pm, presented by Contact Improv Niagara, with artists Dahlia Steinberg, Lisa-Ann-Emmons and Holly Treddenick.  The introductory dance workshop will allow audience members to experience movement and partnering technique, known as Contact Improvisation.  This is a 5+ age event with an adult companion, incidentally.

In the Recital Hall interactive theatre will be held every 30 minutes from 11am to 2 pm, presented by The Foster Festival.  Play with a Pro! allows those ages 14+ to join professional actors from Niagara onstage to read scenes from one of Norm Foster's 60 plays.

The RBC Innovation Studio and the Recital Hall will both play host to interactive improv presented by Improv Niagara.  In the studio it runs from 11:30 to 1:30 and in the Recital Hall from 2 to 4 pm.  Suggested for ages 12+, participants will learn about improv by joining in fun scenes and games with some of Improv Niagara's best performers and educators.

If poetry is your thing, from 2 to 4 pm in the RBC Innovation Studio Mini-Poetry Zines will be presented by the St. Catharines Poetry Slam collective.  Participants can learn how to make their very own mini poetry zine from one sheet of paper.  Hey, you might even find out just what a zine is!

In the Robertson Theatre from 11 am to 4 pm there are five activity events planned involving The Human Bee-In interactive puppet theatre.  From 11 am to 2 pm artist Karen Waterman directs the Make a Pollinator Puppet Workshop; The Busy Bees Band Workshop will feature artist Aaron Robillard; Waterwood Theatre presents a shadow puppet demonstration from 2:15 to 2:45 pm; The 'Bee There for Me' show participatory puppet theatre will be presented by Waterwood Theatre from 3 to 3:30 pm; and that will be followed by an artist meet & greet post-show artist question period with all of the participating puppet artists from 3:30 to 4 pm.

Poetry returns to the RBC Innovation Studio from 2 to 4 pm with the interactive Poetry in Motion event presented by Twitches & Itches Theatre.  Poetry in Motion is a participatory piece in which the audience contributes titles or sentences the ensemble will use to create and present a spontaneous physical "poem".  This event is also accessible for ASL visitors who wish to contribute with sign language.

In the Joy Williams Lobby from 11 am to 4 pm, the Carl Beam:  Us & Everything art exhibition will be featured, including works by contemporary indigenous artist Carl Beam.  The St. Catharines Poetry Slam returns from 2 to 4 pm in the same location for Make a Micro-Poem, where members of the collective will offer a crash course in micro poems and haikus.

Also in the Joy Williams Lobby interactive story-telling will take place from 11 am to 12 pm with Indigenous Storytelling being featured.

The upper Film House mezzanine will host Poetry at the PAC from 12 to 4 pm, featuring artists Kevin Hobbs, James Millhaven and Kim Van Stygeren, where you can have a discussion with a poet and return later for a poem based on that very conversation!

There will also be a series of short films curated by ImagineNATIVE in The Film House, running continuously from 11 am to 3 pm.  The six short films are curated by the largest presenter of Indigenous films.

In the Cogeco Lobby at The Film House entrance, there will be an interactive display of Historical Architecture presented by the Niagara Society of Architects from 11 am to 3 pm.

Once you leave the PAC there is still plenty more to explore around St. Catharines.  For example, in the Oddfellows Temple downtown at 36 James Street on the third floor, Essential Collective Theatre will present Essential Designers Behind the Curtain.  Sessions will be held at 12:00, 12:45, 1:30, 2:30, 3:15 and 4pm, and visitors will learn more about costume and set design courtesy ECT.

The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre at 1932 Welland Canals Parkway will host a number of museum exhibits throughout the day from 9 am to 5pm, illustrating the history of St. Catharines and its people.

The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts downtown will host the art exhibition Home, From Above by artist Kira Pretty in the VISA Gallery at 15 Artists' Common from 12 noon to 6 pm.

And finally, Start Me Up Niagara will host a couple of make & take events at their Work Action Centre at 203 Church Street:  Make a Fall Centrepiece with artist Linda Phillip at 12:15, 1:15, 2:15 and 3:15 pm, and Introduction to Linocut Printing with artist Steve Plews at 12:30, 1:45 and 3 pm.  This event is for ages 15+ due to safety concerns, and you need to pre-register for both Start Me Up Niagara location events by going to www.stcatharines.ca/culturedays.

So there you go - lots to see and do beyond the Wine Festival in St. Catharines on a Sunday.  For more details go to www.stcatharines.ca/culturedays.

Enjoy your weekend!

September 28th, 2019.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Season 72 about to start for the Niagara Symphony Orchestra

If you need any more reminders the summer season is ending fast (autumn in fact arrives about 3:50 tomorrow morning around these parts...) you need look no further than the number of fall & winter concert seasons about to get underway.  Earlier this month I wrote about the Bravo! Niagara season getting underway just under a month from now, and others are set to begin their seasonal programming shortly as well.

But today, let's look at the beginning of the new Niagara Symphony season, their 72nd, which happens this afternoon in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  The word that comes to me with this season opener is symmetry.

It's been awhile since I've attended a Niagara Symphony concert, and I really don't know why.  It just seems to slip by me when I am looking at what's coming up of interest.  Not that I am wanting for musical stimulation these days but what are you going to do?

This year I resolve to do better...

So, on to today's Masterworks 1 concert, featuring Maestro Bradley Thachuk and guest artist, Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman, the NSO will feature two mainstays of the concert repertoire from the late 19th century:  Brahms epic Symphony No. 1 and Dvorak's Cello Concerto.  Both have been performed by the NSO in the past, of course, but the Brahms symphony not since 2012 and the Dvorak Cello Concerto not since 1991.  That was over 25 years ago with another Canadian cellist of note, Ofra Harnoy...yikes!  I think I remember attending that concert!

It's interesting the Dvorak comes up again today along with the memory of Ofra Harnoy, especially since Ofra will be making a rare return appearance to Niagara later this fall in a recital for Bravo! Niagara.

Symmetry...

I have memories of the Cello Concerto that go back even further, in fact, as I had for many years an old Angel LP of the concerto performed by the late, great cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, which I really have to see if I can find again sometime...

Rounding out the programme today will be Canadian composer and violinist Alice Hong's work known as Phoenix.  She appeared along with Cameron Crozman on CBC's 2018 "30 under 30" list of classical musicians.  Bradley notes the work deals with the continuous cycle of death and rebirth, as in this case of seeking new beginnings.  For Maestro Thachuk, this season marks the tenth anniversary with the orchestra, which I find hard to believe.  Where has the time gone?!

Symmetry...

The Symphony No. 1 was Brahms' first large scale work, and the Cello Concerto was Dvorak's final solo work.  Again quoting Maestro Thachuk, "the historical friendship between Dvorak and Brahms is quite well documented; Brahms was a champion of Dvorak's and the two composers shared similar views towards composition in the late 19th century."  So the two works and composers do go together like hand to glove, as it were.

Today's concert, entitled Jewels in the Crown, is presented in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre beginning at 2:30 pm.  For tickets, call or visit the box office at the PAC or go to their website at www.FirstOntarioPAC.ca.  The phone number is 905-688-0722.

You can also see the entire season and find more information at the NSO's website at www.niagarasymphony.com.

Also coming up this week is a free lecture by Music Director Bradley Thachuk in the Mills Room of the Central Branch of the St. Catharines Public Library on Tuesday afternoon at 2 pm.  The lecture and discussion will compare two well-known symphonies written in the Classical style despite being written over 120 years apart:  Haydn's Symphony No. 104, the "London" and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, the "Classical".  Despite the difference in time period the two share many similarities all the while highlighting the progress of music from the Classical era of Haydn to the early 20th century of Prokofiev.

Should be a great discussion and I might even try to join it myself on Tuesday afternoon...

Have a great weekend!

September 22nd, 2019.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

With a little help from her friends...

I am changing up my scheduled blog post for this week to include a special request for you to help out a friend in need here in Niagara this week.  Let me set the scene for you...

I became friends on Facebook with Ann-Marie B. Zammit a few months ago after watching her performances as part of the regular Oh Canada Eh? dinner show in Niagara Falls.  Oh Canada Eh? remains one of the great entertainment values in Niagara for both visitors and locals alike throughout the year, as I have written in the space in the past.  The theatre finds great local talent and gives them each a stellar opportunity to show what they can do in an ensemble setting as well as with solo numbers.

Ann-Marie performed in the tribute to 70s pop music last year with a circus theme, offering a spellbinding turn as the Ringmaster for the musical mayhem unfolding onstage.  Earlier this season we caught her in more standard fare in the newly-updated musical tribute to all things Canadian, again knocking it out of the park with her solo numbers in a show full of exceptional local talent.

As is the case in the Oh Canada Eh? shows, the performers are also the servers, and it was our good fortune to have Anne-Marie serve our table that early summer evening.  On both occasions, also the custom following the shows there, we met the entire cast in the receiving line and I had a chance to chat briefly with Anne-Marie and her fellow cast members.

I recall thinking at the time, is that the same person I saw as the Ringmaster last year?  Nothing against Ann-Marie in the least, but her turn as the Ringmaster had such an aura of mystery and intrigue around it, it was hard to believe I was talking to the same person both times!

That of course is the magic of theatre and especially musical theatre.  It is such a transformative medium you can immerse yourself in the magic of the moment and let your imagination guide you along.

Although Ann-Marie doesn't appear to be in the Oh Canada Eh? cast at the moment, she is busy with lots of other musical and family-oriented things, such as managing the group Acoustic Diamond.

Born in Fort Erie and now residing in St. Catharines, Ann-Marie possesses a strong and expressive voice and has that magical ability to turn a mundane song into something special.  It's not something every singer can pull off, I might add.

The reason I am profiling "AMZ" as she is affectionately called in the halls of Oh Canada Eh? is because right at the moment, she's working hard to fulfil a dream many of us likely have had in the past:  to take her performance to the next level and secure a professional gig on a big stage south of the border.

Now normally I don't pay much attention to so-called reality talent shows, but this is a little different. The Opening Act competition is an opportunity for up and coming talent to perhaps win a chance at being the opening act for none other than Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers in Hollywood.  The winner receives, along with a certain amount of cachet of course, a cool $10,000 in prize money.

Asked what she would do with the money, Ann-Marie says she would use half of it to record an EP, and put the other half in her daughter's college fund.  Oh yeah, moms are practical that way...

So far things have been going pretty good with the voting, as Ann-Marie was in first place in the opening round but now that the semi-finals are underway she has fallen to 3rd place.  Still a respectable place to be given the number of competitors but, well, not good enough to win it all.

That's where we come in, and I am sending this request out to all of you should you be so inclined to get involved.

We get to vote for who we would like to see as that opening act, and the more votes you get the better your chances.  Simple, right?  Of course it is!  Oh, and I should mention you can vote only once per day, as I have been doing since this whole thing started a little while ago.  Voting is free, but you can also buy votes if you choose to, and there are even special 2 for 1 opportunities that come up as well.

The semi-final round ends at 8 pm PDT on September 19th, so there is still time to boost those numbers for a local girl who does great things both on and off the stage.  It would be nice to see Canadian talent wow the crowd at the Swift concert in Hollywood, wouldn't you agree?

You can check out Ann-Marie's Facebook page for more information (Ann-Marie B. Zammit) and to link to the voting page, or you can just go here:  https://TheOpenAct.com/2019/Acoustic-Diamond.

Thanks for considering this request, and have a great weekend!

September 15th, 2019.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Bravo Niagara set to kick off 2019-2020 season in style

Now that September is here, the music usually moves indoors from the pavilions, bandshells and even large barns utilized by many music festivals in the province.  We grab a light jacket and stash the shorts for slightly more formal wear and head inside for some great music making throughout the fall and into the colder winter months.

So I thought this month I would spotlight some of the music festivals taking place in the great indoors throughout the province this season, beginning with a festival I had the pleasure of discovering last season, the Bravo Niagara Festival of the Arts.

Bravo Niagara is the vision of Artistic Director Christine Mori and her daughter, Executive Director Alexis Spieldenner.  Together they have been staging recitals and concerts in several venues in and around the Niagara-on-the-Lake area and beyond, including some rather interesting locales such as inside a winery amongst the vats and other wine-making paraphernalia.

This past month they announced the 2019-2020 season for Bravo Niagara, and it looks like a varied and interesting mix of young up-and-coming artists and more established musicians we may not of heard from in awhile.  So let's run down the season and see what's coming this season in Niagara...

The season kicks off October 19th in downtown St. Catharines as Bravo Niagara expands to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre's Recital Hall.  Canadian superstar soprano Measha Brueggergosman is makes a rare return appearance in Niagara, hopefully fully recovered from illness that kept her on the sidelines this past summer, including the cancellation of a performance at the Elora Festival.

I first saw Measha very early on in her career when she performed as one of the soloists in a Chorus Niagara performance of Verdi's Requiem in the Lake Street Armouries just around the corner from my house in central St. Catharines.  Even then she was earmarked for greatness I recall...

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Measha while doing a series of articles for the old Brock Centre for the Arts magazine publication, prior to her last appearance in Niagara up at Brock about 5 years ago.  I remember having trouble connecting with her by phone on that day as she was driving down on the east coast of the country with her newborn showing promising vocal technique in the background on occasion.  She was a delight to talk to and I found she had a real affinity for Niagara and the artistic scene here.

November 8th the Voices of Freedom concert takes over the larger Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, featuring a jazz pianist I first discovered in my early days in radio back in the 70s, Monty Alexander.  Monty recorded an album that proved to be the very first jazz album I ever acquired, featuring his Trio.

Monty will be joined by opening act Larnell Lewis and his band, along with South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo, who has performed with Paul Simon and many others.  The concert is part of a larger Voices of Freedom Festival running from November 7th to the 9th, and you can find out more at bravo niagara.org/vof2019.

Towards the end of November St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake will play host on the 30th of the month to iconic Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy.  Winner of no less than 5 JUNO Awards and the Grand Prix du Disque, Harnoy will push the boundaries of traditional classical music with her recital coming up at St. Mark's.

I have known and enjoyed Ofra's many varied musical projects for about a quarter-century now, going all the way back to her early Fanfare recordings in Toronto including the celebrated collection of Beatles music in more formal dress with the Armin Electric Strings.  Since then she's recorded about 40 solo albums for several labels.  This will mark a rare sighting of Ofra in Niagara.

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling performs at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on Valentine's Day 2020 at 8 pm, performing a varied concert ranging from jazz standards to his own material.  I have not had a lot of exposure to Kurt's music thus far, I'm sad to say, so this will be a good opportunity to hear more of what has made him such a reliable jazz artist for many years.

Bravo Niagara returns to St. Mark's in Niagara-on-the-Lake on March 15th for Montenegrin-born guitarist Milos Karadeglic making a solo recital appearance.  This will act as a follow up of sorts to the release of his highly-anticipated album Sound of Silence.

The London-based musician has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and has been dubbed "classical music's guitar hero" by BBC Music Magazine.  Guitar music brings a certain elegance and grace to a recital that few other instruments can match, the intimacy of the instrument matching well with the intimacy of the space at St. Mark's, so this should be a very special concert indeed.

It's back to jazz and back to the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines for the Brubeck Brothers Quartet on April 5th.  2020 will mark the Centennial Year of jazz great Dave Brubeck, whom we lost just a few short years ago.  He performed until very near the end of his life and left behind a legacy of jazz and more classically-themed albums that still sell well today.  His sons Chris and Dan honour their Dad's legacy with a multimedia show with their own Brubeck Brothers Quartet.

As May begins Bravo Niagara hits show tunes with a concert entitled From Broadway with Love at St. Mark's Church on May 2nd at 7:30 pm.  Music of the Great White Way will bring together three artists with a love of musical theatre that goes way back:  Jason Forbach, Siri Howard and Joseph Spieldenner.  Music will be from such shows as South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Les Miserables and many more.

The final concert of the upcoming season will be especially interesting, as it pairs Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker with iconic violinist Cho-Liang Lin in a recital ranging from Beethoven to Bernstein.  Lin plays a 1715 "Titan" Strad that will no doubt accompany him on the trip to St. Mark's in Niagara-on-the-Lake on May 3rd for an afternoon performance.

So does that tempt you enough to enjoy music in the great indoors for another season?  For more information and ticket enquiries go to www.bravoniagara.org, email music@bravoniagara.org or call the office at 289-868-9177.

It should be a great season of music making with Bravo Niagara Festival of the Arts!

Have a great weekend!

September 8th, 2019.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Celebrating life in St. Catharines this holiday weekend

On this Labour Day holiday weekend I thought I would take a bit of a diversion from my usual fare to write about some of the things I love at this time of year right here in the Garden City, my adopted home for almost 40 years now.

Much of the weekend I've been working around the house getting caught up on chores that needed to be done, but Saturday afternoon I decided to put all that aside and celebrate our city with a tour around town.  I made several stops and all of them made me glad I decided to make this city my home.

Most Saturday mornings I head to the YMCA for a walk on the track, followed by my morning visit to our downtown farmer's market at Market Square.  This is a particularly grand time to visit the market, as there is so much to choose from.  The corn is still in as are the peaches, plus a wide variety of other delectable treats ranging from local honey and maple syrup to baked sweet treats and almost anything else your heart could desire.  The Tuesday and Thursday markets are nice, but the Saturday market is the big one and best attended.

After lunch I pointed the car north east and headed up Niagara Street for my second visit of the weekend to the Niagara Greek Festival at the Greek Cultural Centre at the corner of Niagara and Linwell.  I picked up dinner Friday afternoon shortly after they opened but Saturday was my time to just wander the grounds, check out the vendors and sample some Greek red wine, loukoumades (dough deep fried and coated in honey and cinnamon) and of course the music.

The Greek Festival continues today and wraps up early this evening, so still plenty of time to get your Greek on and celebrate with the most hospitable people around.

I continued north east along Linwell and Bunting Roads, then a hard left on Lakeshore Road and up Arthur Street, past the first house I almost bought back in 1993 (it was listed at $51,000 back then!) and turned in to Sunset Beach.  This is really one of the hidden gems in the north end, although it was certainly busy on Saturday afternoon when I visited.  Looking out past the beach into Lake Ontario with large ships not far off in the distance is something you just don't see in many other places.

As there was a ship passing through the canal at Lock One in Port Weller I decided to bypass the traffic and head down Niagara and across Parnell, past another celebration of summer on the grounds of one of the two schools in the area, and began the long journey down Government Road, otherwise known as the Welland Canals Parkway or, as many locals refer to it, simply Canal Road.

This is always one of my favourite drives on a lovely day, as you see ships passing through the fourth Welland Canal, negotiating the locks and stopping traffic in the vicinity in the process.  People are from two camps on this whole thing, of course.  You have the tourists who just pull over and watch in awe the whole thing transpire, and you have the locals who either grumble as they wait or change course and try to find an alternate route.  Welland Canal roulette, as I call it.

The Welland Canal is an engineering marvel to be sure, and something we tend to take for granted here in the city.  But people come from all over the world to see what we can see every day, as they do to Niagara Falls to see the celebrated sights there.

I stopped at the Welland Canal Viewing Centre and home of the St. Catharines Museum at Lock 3 for a visit and see the Victorian Tweets display on until this November.  While there I took the opportunity to watch the 10-minute film on the history of the Welland Canal, and learned a few things even I didn't know before.

On my way out I stopped to chat with St. Catharines Transit bus operator Rick who updated me on the changes coming to that particular route 337, the Crosstown.  I like the route as it passes right by my street but that will change this week as it makes a detour to the downtown transit terminal in both directions, thus enabling it to connect to other routes in the city.  Good idea but I'll miss the local stop at the end of my street.

After our chat I drove south along the parkway and continued up the hill past the twin flight locks that bring ships into Thorold, which is always one of my favourite stretches of the drive.  Passing through downtown Thorold I of course had to stop at the variety store on Front Street that is always resplendent with hanging flower baskets for purchase.

Heading back into the city on Ormond Street South, crossing back into St. Catharines around the paper mill where the road has turned magically into Merritt Street, I thought I would make a stop behind the businesses on the west side of Merritt where those in the know can walk up a secluded path to a small area that reveals one of the few remnants remaining of the third Welland Canal, the brick walls still visible amongst the foliage and rushing water still a part of the scene.

Although I didn't visit on Saturday, today the stretch of Merritt past Glendale and in the surrounding area will be the place to be for the annual Labour Day festivities many locals look forward to every year.

Back in the city I headed west on Glendale Avenue and finally north east again along Pelham Road through Western Hill.  This is an area of the city I did not visit much in my earlier years but since becoming a letter carrier for Canada Post a few years ago, I have become quite familiar with the area due to the routes I have covered there quite often.  It is not the wealthiest part of the city financially, but it is rich in character and interesting people.  Some new shops have opened up along Pelham Road recently and I think this part of the city, once home to our former mayor Joe McCaffery is due for a renaissance of sorts as the years go by.

Back along Fourth Avenue from Louth Street past the vast shopping complex many simply refer to as "Fourth Avenue" you can see the change in the cityscape as the city grows west, eating up the remaining farmland in the area to fully envelope the new hospital complex a little further west.

Then it was home again to feed the cats.

Total distance travelled on the day?  57.7 kilometres.  Memories that will last a long time as I discover or rediscover so many of the things that make this city what it is.

You don't have to travel far to find new adventures.  They are out there waiting to be discovered in your own backyard every day!  Celebrating all we have in St. Catharines makes me feel good about my chosen home and I think it's something we should all do from time to time.

Happy Labour Day, and best of luck as the kids head back to school tomorrow.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

September 2nd, 2019.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Getting Married gets a timely update at Shaw Festival

There are fewer and fewer Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake these days, and one wonders what the future holds for old GBS.  True, his themes are often timeless and his arguments are often logically laid out in his plays.

But they can often be tedious affairs as well, and with modern audiences changing one wonders how the Festival can and ultimately will adapt to the new reality of staging Shaw's plays.  We've seen in the past Shaw's work updated by a more contemporary author, and directors take such artistic license with his plays they can almost appear unrecognizable as works by Shaw.

But a skilled and knowing director can update a Shaw play for today's audiences and pull it off with not only respect for the author but for the audiences watching as well.  Case in point is Tanja Jacobs, the director of the 2019 edition of Getting Married, currently on stage at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until October 13th.

To be honest, Getting Married is certainly one of Shaw's lesser plays.  It dates from 1908 when Harley Granville Barker, himself a noted playwright of the day, directed the premiere at London's Haymarket Theatre.  The Shaw Festival has staged the play four times previously and I think I've seen all but one of those, way back in 1972.  The last production at the Shaw Festival was in 2008.

Like many of Shaw's plays it is heavy on dialogue and light on action, and therein lies the challenge for director Jacobs:  how to lighten the load of those long, often dreary debates between characters on stage and actually make it appear to be entertaining.

For one thing, Jacobs sets this production circa 1950 when divorce laws were still largely as they were in Shaw's time when he wrote the play as a vehicle for him to rail at the archaic divorce laws of the day.  So the storyline remains relevant and intact.

But by setting the play in the early 50s and not having the actors using period English accents somehow appears to make things seem, well, a bit more modern for today's audiences.  And a colourful and clever set design from that era by Shannon Lea Doyle is literally a feast for the eyes as much as the play is a feast for the ears.

But this would all be for naught were it not for the superb cast of Shaw actors who bring the play to life with skill, precision and remarkable timing.  Here again, Jacobs chooses her cast members and directs them wisely.

In a nutshell, the play revolves around the pending nuptials of Edith and Cecil.  Edith is the daughter of Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea and his wife Alice.  All the action takes place in the palace of the Bishop of Chelsea, although in this production calling the Bishop's dwelling a 'palace' might be stretching things a bit on the small stage the Royal George Theatre.

Anyways, young Edith and Cecil have come across a pamphlet raising what to them appear to be serious questions about marriage and upon careful consideration on their part they have decided to not get married after all.  It is left to the rest of the visitors and inhabitants of the palace to hash out the debate on the sanctity of marriage from each unique perspective.

That's the plot.  Rather thin, you have to admit.  But with Shaw he can build a whole play around that theme and he has.  It is up to director and cast to make it work, and they do.

The play opens with William Collins, the greengrocer in charge of the wedding planning going about his chores as the wedding approaches.  Damien Atkins, who shined in The Ladykillers at the Festival Theatre opposite Chick Reid does so again here with stellar performances from both.  Reid is Alice Bridgenorth the Bishop's devoted wife, and the verbal jousting between Alice and Collins as the play begins sets the stage for what's to come.

As the thoughtful and resourceful Bishop, Graeme Somerville puts in a fine performance, as does his assistant Reverend Soames, played by Andrew Lawrie who is brought in to try to write up a proper marriage contract that is fair to both sides in order to break the impasse.

It is the interaction between independent and feisty Lesbia Grantham and General Bridgenorth that is most interesting to watch, however.  Lesbia, played by Claire Jullien, has rejected the General's marriage proposals nine times previously and does so a tenth time during the play, causing the hapless and lovesick General, known affectionately as Boxer and played with bumbling precision by Martin Happer, to head to the gardens to soothe his broken heart with a smoke.

At the end of Act One the much talked about and very flirtatious Mrs. George Collins, the Mayoress, is set to make her grand entrance when we are left to anticipate that event with a perfectly timed intermission.

Act Two tends to drag just a little as Mrs. Collins adds her spice to the conversation and sets about righting the wrongs others have committed, but in the role Marla McLean, resplendent in a red dress of the era makes the most of her entrance and time on stage in just the second act.  She lives up to the billing from the first act.

Will Getting Married appeal to everyone?  No, not likely.  Shaw plays never do.  But if you like Shaw and you love great ensemble work from a superior cast, you will most certainly enjoy the 2019 edition of the play.

Getting Married continues at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until October 13th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

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

Have a great weekend!

August 24th, 2019.

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.