Sunday, December 8, 2019

Handel's Messiah is all around us

It's that time of year again...time for fans of serious Christmas music to attend a performance of arguably Handel's second-biggest hit, his oratorio Messiah.  Most music historians would put Messiah just behind his celebrated Water Music in terms of overall popularity.  But not during the Christmas season, obviously.

Funny thing is, Messiah wasn't originally written as a Christmas work per se.  Coming at a particularly difficult time in Handel's career following the lacklustre reception to his final attempts at opera with Imeneo in 1740 and Deidamia in 1741, Handel dearly needed a hit.

He found it in the form of a sacred, non-dramatic oratorio based largely on the Passion and then the triumph of the Resurrection of Christ, with the libretto by Jennens drawing from both Old and New Testament sources.  In that case, it would more correctly be performed as part of Easter celebrations rather than Christmas.

Handel completed the score in little more than three weeks between August 22nd and September 12th of 1741, and it received its premiere performance at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th, 1742.  So that likely would have coincided with Easter celebrations that year.

The oratorio was performed to huge acclaim at that first performance and from then on, Handel never looked back.  He wrote many other grand oratorios but never quite recaptured the popularity of Messiah again.  It would become his signature work at the time of his death in 1758.

So why are we flocking to performances of Messiah at Christmas rather than at Easter?  I don't have the answer to that, but I do know for many, Christmas just isn't Christmas without attending a performance of Handel's Messiah.

I've told the story before about the year I threw caution to the wind and attended two performances in two different cities on the same day, and I still can't quite comprehend what possessed me to do it.  I was much younger back in those days of course, so I thought nothing of attending a Sunday afternoon performance with Chorus Niagara in St. Catharines and then after a quick dinner driving up to Guelph for a performance with the Guelph Chamber Choir that evening at the River Run Centre.

Once a day is plenty for me now, thanks, and we still have several from which to choose from before the season winds down.

Locally the Choralis Camerata performance has already been held, as have performances in the Hamilton area, by and large.  And as I noted last week in this space Chorus Niagara is in their alternate year this year so their Handel's Messiah will return next season.

So now you'll have to drive a bit to get to a performance before Christmas but in all these cases the effort will certainly be worth it.

The next Messiah performance within driving distance will feature the Elora Singers at St. Joseph's Church in Fergus just outside of Elora tonight at 7:30 pm.  Entitled Singers Messiah, this unique interpretation will feature the Elora Singers as both chorus and soloists.  Considering many of the singers are in fact accomplished soloists in their own right, this seems rather appropriate.

The Elora Singers are for my money one of the premiere chamber choirs in the country so you are guaranteed a splendid performance this evening, and the weather promises to be good should you decide to make the drive up that way.  For tickets call the box office at 519-846-0331 or go to www.elorasingers.ca.

If you don't mind the trip to Toronto there are two popular performances of Messiah still to come, both coming mid-December.  And both will offer decidedly different interpretations.

From December 17th to the 22nd the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir present their traditional large-scale (some might call it well-upholstered) Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto.  This is almost always a sellout so you had better act fast if you still want to attend a performance.  Evening performances are at 7:30 pm and the Sunday matinee is at 3pm.

The TSO will be conducted by Alexander Shelley, Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and the all-star cast of soloists includes Baritone Russell Braun.

For tickets to any of these performances go to www.tso.ca.

Meantime the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ivars Taurins presents a more scaled-down period instrument performance of Messiah at Koerner Hall in the city's north end on similar dates, December 17th through the 20th at 7:30 pm.  They will also have their ever-popular Singalong Messiah conducted by "Mr. Handel" on Saturday, December 21st at 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

I attended a performance of their Singalong Messiah at a different location many years ago and it is truly a wonderful experience.  If I recall correctly I sang baritone and was glad I was drowned out by better voices all around me!

For tickets to any of the Tafelmusik Messiah performances call 416-408-0208.

Finally, the wonderful Guelph Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. Charlene Pauls will be joined by the Music Viva Orchestra performing on period instruments at the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph on Saturday evening December 21st at 7:30 pm.  When I attended this particular performance many years ago as part of my Messiah double bill I recall the trumpets were stationed around the hall including the balcony, to great effect.  I have no idea what Dr. Pauls has up her sleeve or on the tip of her baton this time round but it's worth attending just to find out.

There is also a Singalong Messiah in support of Family & Children's Services of Wellington County on Friday, December 20th at 7:30 pm with the same orchestra and Choir as sort of a warm up to the big performance on Saturday night.  Admission is by donation with a suggested donation of $20 mentioned.

For tickets to the Saturday performance at the River Run Centre you can call the River Run box office or go online to the River Run site to purchase tickets.  I would imagine the Friday evening performance will have tickets available at the door.

So there you go:  a Messiah for every taste and several flavours to choose from this season.  One thing is constant though...don't forget to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus.  It's just tradition now, so just do it.

Now, how do I convince a choir to take a gamble on an Easter performance of Messiah one of these years...

Have a great weekend!

December 8th, 2019.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In praise of the glorious music of Christmas, but not before December 1st.

I have a golden rule I follow at this time of year:  no Christmas music at all until December 1st.

Admittedly, it is difficult to accomplish this, what with malls and other stores pumping the generic holiday slop nonstop since Halloween in most cases.  It's exacerbated by those so-called "Light Rock" or "Soft Rock" radio stations going non-stop holiday music from early November onwards.

I do my best to tune it all out and try to ignore it.  I suggest others do the same.

The problem with this non-stop supposed Christmas mood-setting is two-fold, from what I can see:  the music choices are at best abysmal and at worst relentlessly repetitive.  Simply put, people often get sick of hearing the music by mid-December because they've been fed a steady diet of the stuff for at least a month and a half at that point.

Don't get me wrong:  I love Christmas music as much as the next person, perhaps even more.  I have, in fact, a huge Christmas CD and album collection going back decades to prove the fact.  But everything in moderation, people, everything in moderation.

Time was during my early days in radio broadcasting, stations eased you into the holiday spirit usually around December 1st with maybe one or two added to the mix every hour, increasing the frequency proportionately until it is all Christmas music about December 23rd or 24th.  No more.  It's all or nothing now, and I will stick with nothing thanks until December 1st.

The musical choices of radio stations and mall music services is especially narrow-minded as well.  The Christmas music universe used is severely limited, leaving out scads of classic recordings we all grew up with and enjoyed hearing years ago in favour of the same old, same old.

In my early years at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines when we still played music most of the time, I often hosted on Christmas Eve or even on Christmas Day some years a programme of Christmas music I would like to listen to myself.  I was given the leverage to play anything I wanted from my own collection, a privilege no longer available to broadcasters in these preprogrammed radio times we now live in.

I coyly referred to my show back then as a "Rockin' 'Round The Christmas Tree free zone", meaning of course Brenda Lee's 1960 classic would not be included in my holiday mix that day.  The reasoning was simple:  everyone else was playing it to death and I wanted to avoid all that.

They still do.  A few years ago when I worked in the banking sector we sometimes played a little game while listening to the local light rock radio station playing wall-to-wall Christmas music:  how many times over the course of our shift did we hear a particular ubiquitous Christmas song in the rotation.  Most often Brenda Lee's classic was the worst offender.  At only 2 minutes and 2 seconds long it was a convenient way to time out to the newscast or something else at the top of the hour.

But that was not the only offender we still hear ad nauseam over the holidays.  My list of Christmas songs that should be banned forever due to over-exposure is a long one and includes the following near the top of the list:  Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney; Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano; Santa Baby by Madonna.

Let's be honest, the reason these are played in heavy rotation is because the sound doesn't deviate too much from the musical mix used the rest of the year, so the stations feel they are not going to alienate their core audience.  But then they'll play Gene Autry's Here Comes Santa Claus and well, there goes that theory...

Why is it the only time we'll hear anything by the likes of Nat King Cole, Percy Faith, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and their ilk is over the holidays?  Do they rise from the radio dead for two months each year and then safely tucked away again on the 26th of December?  Sure seems that way.

Look I know radio stations have a "sound" they like to maintain and it's all about keeping their audience numbers up.  Good ratings mean good advertising revenue and that means everyone's happy.  Except perhaps the beleaguered listener such as myself wanting something more at this time of year.

I know some will scoff at the suggestion, but what's wrong with including, say, John Rutter's uplifting  Shepherd's Pipe Carol into the mix.  It doesn't deviate too much from the norm and just sounds wonderful.  There are lots of other examples we can name but you know we'll never hear them on the air...ever.

One of my favourite Christmas CDs is appropriately titled The Glorious Sound of Christmas on the Sony/Columbia label and it features Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra along with the Temple University Concert Choir.  It dates from 1963 and although it shows its age a little bit by today's standards, the Arthur Harris arrangements of such gems as The First Nowell and Deck The Halls is still a favourite of mine every year.  We used to play it every season in my days at CHFI in Toronto in the 70s.  But no more.

It almost seems the only way you'll get to hear some great music for the holidays at this time of year is to go out and support your local choir and revel in the sounds of the season at their annual Christmas concert.

Two of those are happening today, in fact, and will uplift you beyond your wildest expectations.  Both variations of the classic Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols enjoying its centenary this year, they will skillfully draw you into the magic of the season without once expecting you to open your wallet to spend, spend, spend, save for the purchase of the ticket to get in of course.

For followers in Guelph, the Guelph Chamber Choir will be joined by what's called a Brass 5tet at the  beautiful St. George's Anglican Church for their Christmas Festival of Lessons & Carols.  It begins at 3 pm and tickets should still be available at the door.  Closer to home, the Music Niagara Choral series continues this afternoon at 4 pm with their Advent Service of Lessons & Carols at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Again, tickets should be available at the door.

If today's icy mix of winter weather deters you from venturing outside, there are two more presentations I know about in the near future in both areas worth remembering.  In Elora the Elora Singers present their Festival of Carols for a total of 4 performances at the candlelit St. John's Church in the heart of the town, on December 17th and 18th at 5 and 7:30 pm each day.  These popular events consistently sell out so you might want to call ahead for ticket availability.

Locally, the newly renovated and splendid Knox Church in downtown St. Catharines presents their popular Festival of Carols on Sunday, December 22nd at 4 pm.  It will feature organ, choir, brass ensemble and of course, lots of congregational singing as well.

Still Christmas themed but somewhat different in scope is the next Chorus Niagara concert coming up on December 14th, entitled Welcome Christmas.  Joining the 100-voice choir will be narrator Benedict Campbell for a collection of carols and stories sure to please this holiday season.  The location is at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

Any and all of these performances will raise the level of holiday music to new levels, leaving you feeling uplifted and anticipating the season.

And not one of them will feature I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.  Thank goodness for that!

Have a great weekend!

December 1st, 2019.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Gallery Players of Niagara kick off their 25th Anniversary season this weekend

We've looked at a number of fall concerts and events coming up in and around Niagara the last couple of months, but not one of our local treasures that somehow often seems to run underneath the radar a little bit.  So this weekend, as they prepare to kick off their 25th Anniversary season, let's look at the new season for Gallery Players of Niagara.

Artistic Director Margaret Gay can hardly believe it is 25 years ago this chamber music enterprise launched in Niagara.  From humble beginnings grew a group of chamber musicians comfortable enough in their own collective musical skins to bring in numerous guest artists and entire guest ensembles to share music with their audience.

The audiences for their part have been just as welcoming as the artists themselves, willing to try new things and follow new paths, sure in the knowledge the players and Artistic Director Margaret Gay know the way and won't steer them wrong.

And they never have.

That brings us to this first concert of their 25th Anniversary season, another new endeavour and brimming with new ideas ready to explore.  Tomorrow afternoon at 2 in the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Gallery Players present the World Premiere of Borodin's Muse - An Animated Concert.

Borodin's Muse brings music and drama together to illuminate the life of 19th century Russian chemist and composer Aleksandr Borodin through music both by Borodin and his contemporaries, and with words by way of a play by St. Catharines playwright Anthony Magro, starring actor Colin Bruce Anthes as Borodin along with Genevieve Jones.  The production is directed by local theatre veteran Barbara Worthy.

Music to be performed include Borodin's String Quartet #2 as well as Arensky's Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, Op. 35, Glinka's Quartet #2 and Liszt's Liebestraum #3 in A Major.

Brock University's Walker String Quartet will be the instrumental performers.  The Quartet, made up of Niagara Symphony Principal Cellist Gordon Cleland and violinist Vera Alekseeva along with violinist Faith Laura and violist Roman Kosarev will be joined by pianist Erika Reiman.  The Walker String Quartet was founded at Brock University not that many seasons ago and has quickly established itself as a chamber musical force not to be missed.

The rest of the season's concerts are just as interesting, beginning of course with their annual Christmas concert, entitled The Heart of Christmas Past.  The concert features Glissandi and Shaw Festival alumnus Guy Bannerman in words and music of familiar yuletide favourites.  The stories are derived from festive remembrances shared by Gallery Players audience members last season, which is a nice twist.

Glissandi is made up of Douglas Miller on flute, Deborah Braun on harp and David Braun on violin.  Their popularity has grown exponentially over the years with popular holiday recordings and concerts  such as this season's Christmas production.

There are two performances, December 19th at 4pm at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines and December 20th at 7:30 pm at Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The first concert of the new year will feature Niagara native Kristin Hoff, mezzo-soprano along with violist Caitlin Boyle, guitarist Timothy Phelan and pianist Antoine Joubert in a performance entitled From Home and Afar - A Journey of Enchantment.

The musical journey goes from Germany to Canada with a side trip to Argentina.  Compositions include Brahms' Two Songs for mezzo, viola and piano, Op. 91, Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano by Frank Bridge, the Canciones sefardies for guitar and mezzo by Sid Rabinovitch, Penelope for piano and voice by Cecilia Livingston and Astor Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango, arranged by Timothy Phelan for viola and guitar.

The concert comes up at 2 pm on February 9th of next year at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.

Next up is Songs of Life, Year 2 and Bach on Turtle's Back - Death.  An intriguing title, right?  Songs of Life explores creation destruction and transformation through performances by solo violinist Julia Wedman of Tafelmusik and dancer Brian Solomon along with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Solomon is also the director and choreographer for the production and in addition to Wedman is accompanied by soprano Sinead White, tenor Asitha Tennekoon, mezzo-soprano Jessica Wright, baritone Keith Lam, Alison Melville, flute, Michelle Odorico, violin, Patrick Jordan, viola, Maho Sone on keyboard and Margaret Gay on cello.

Incidentally the Year 2 in the title refers to the fact this is year two of a three-year project, all supported by the Pluralism Fund.  The concert comes up at 2pm on March 8th in the Recital Hall of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

The annual Movie Night comes up April 4th in the Film House at the PAC with a screening of Charlie Chaplin's classic 1931 film City Lights.  The film, considered one of Chaplin's best, follows the misadventures of Chaplin's iconic tramp as he falls in love with a blind girl and develops a complex relationship with an alcoholic millionaire.

The improvised score will be performed by Douglas Miller on flute, Eric Mahar on guitar, and Penner Mackay on percussion.  Local film historian Joan Nicks will be speaking about the film's significance in the pre-screen talk, which begins at 6:45pm, followed by the screening with musical accompaniment at 7.

The May 10th concert features a new venture for Gallery Players, Inside the Music, in which musicians draw the audience deep into a selected piece of music, guiding their musical listening experience.  The renowned Eybler Quartet will be joined by Suzannah Clark, Professor of Music at Harvard University as together they perform as well as discuss things such as harmony, phrase structure and the social significance of an important work by Haydn.

Performers include violinist Aisslinn Nosky, Julia Wedman on violin, Patrick Jordan on viola and Margaret Gay on cello.  Music will include Haydn's String Quartet Op. 54 No. 1, Franz Asplmayr's String Quartet Op. 2 No. 6 and Cris Derksen's White Man's Cattle.

The concert takes place at 2pm on May 10th at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.

Finally, the Vesuvius Ensemble visits St. Catharines on June 14th at 2pm for a performance entitled Tarantella:  Viva Napoli!  The group performs on a host of rustic instruments, few of which I can pronounce, presenting instrumental and vocal music that paints a musical portrait of Naples and the surrounding area.

The members of the Vesuvius Ensemble include Francesco Pellegrino, Marco Era, Lucas Harris, Romina Di Gasbarro and Ben Grossman.

The sunny finale to the Gallery Players' 25th Anniversary season takes place at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.

Intrigued?  Gallery Players are worth your time and you can purchase tickets either as a subscription or individually by calling them at 905-468-1525 or go online to www.GalleryPlayers.ca.  I know they had phone problems earlier this week but hopefully things are all sorted out by now.  If all else fails, you can call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722.

Have a great weekend!



Saturday, November 16, 2019

Music Niagara presents Choralfest starting this weekend

There is something about the colder weather we are experiencing now that brings out in me a desire to revel in the magnificent sounds of truly great choral singing.  Be it a church choir or professional ensemble, there are a multitude of choices from which to choose in Niagara.  Some of the best from Niagara and beyond will be on full display this month and next during Music Niagara's Choralfest.

The summertime music festival has pioneered inventive classical and jazz programming in the Niagara Region for many years now, but usually by mid-August they are done for the season.  Not anymore.

With Choralfest Music Niagara is endeavouring to present world-class, diverse music experiences in unique and intimate settings throughout Niagara.  Performances range from crackerjack school choirs to the best Toronto has to offer.

The whole festival kicks off tonight with a performance by the Juno award-winning Elmer Iseler Singers with Lydia Adams conducting.  On the programme will be works by Guerrero, Lassus and Gibbons along with Canadian composers such as R. Murray Schafer, Vivier and others.  The Elmer Iseler Singers will be performing tonight at 7 pm at Niagara Mennonite Church at 1775 Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Avanti Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. Rachel Rensink-Hoff, fresh from their debut performance of the season in St. Catharines last weekend, will perform on November 19th.  Dr. Rinsink-Hoff, Assistant Professor of Music at Brock University most often performs with the community-based chamber choir under the umbrella of Brock's Viva Voce Choral Series.   Here they step from underneath that umbrella to bring their trademark choral music, both accompanied and a cappella to Niagara-on-the-Lake with works by not only Canadian but also Niagara-based composers.
The performance begins at 7 pm in the cozy confines of St. Mark's Anglican Church on Byron Street in the Olde Town.

November 22nd the Victoria Scholars, an all-male, award-winning choir of international acclaim will perform everything from Gregorian chants to works by French-Canadian composers, both sacred and contemporary.  To date they've recorded four albums and have performed with some of the biggest names in classical and contemporary music.  While their sound is firmly rooted in the traditional Renaissance music, they push their musical boundaries to include the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras as well.  The Victoria Scholars perform at 7 pm in one of my favourite churches in Niagara, Our Lady of Peace next door to Mount Carmel Monastery at 6988 Stanley Avenue in Niagara Falls.

The next night the Celaya Conservatory Children's Choir will perform at 1:30 in the afternoon at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  If you have not heard of the Celaya Conservatory Children's Choir before, you're not alone.  Neither had I.  It turns out they're one of the top Children's choirs in Mexico and this is their very first performance in Canada.  Count on hearing some Latin American music to warm up a late November afternoon on November 23rd.

That very evening one of the big draws for Choralfest this year will be a Sing-Along Messiah, with the Messiah Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Mervin Frick filling the space at St. Mark's in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the glorious Handel oratorio that for many is a Christmas tradition.  If you feel like joining in, well, go right ahead.  It is a Sing-Along Messiah after all.  It happens at 7pm on November 23rd.

On the 24th, Music Niagara presents the Vesnivka Choir and Volunge Choir, also at St. Mark's at 2 in the afternoon.  Volunge, it turns out, is named after Lithuania's beautiful "Golden Oriole" and is an award-winning Lithuanian choir led by conductor Dalia Viskontas along with accompanist Danguole Radtke.  Volunge will perform an eclectic programme of Lithuanian sacred and secular songs and major works before giving way to the Vesnivka Choir led by founding conductor and director Halyna Kyitka Kondracki.  Their programme will be sung entirely in Unkrainian with works by Oleksander Koshyts, who first brought the familiar "Carol of the Bells" to North American audiences, as well as Ukrainian folk songs and works by Ukrainian-Canadian composers.  The programme will conclude with some lighter fare by composer Bohdan Vesolowsky.

One of the local highlights to the festival is the appearance by the award-winning Laura Secord Secondary School Choir from right here in St. Catharines.  Under the direction of Ms. Katryna Sacco, the choir has toured many North American cities as well as in Europe.  They've also worked with many professional musicians including Measha Brueggergosman, Kenny Rogers, Take 6, Molly Johnson, Jackie Richardson, Joe Sealy and most recently, during the Voices of Freedom Festival last weekend at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  The performance will be November 24th at 7 pm at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Hamilton Children's Choir comes to St. Mark's Church on November 25th at 7:30 pm, accompanied as well by the Celaya Conservatory Children's Choir.  Jasmin Lin, a Music Niagara Performance Academy alumni and student at Juillard will perform with the choir onstage on the great Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume "Messiah" violin awarded to her by the Canada Council Instrument Bank for three years.

The festival will conclude December 8th with a decidedly non-choral performance by the Toronto All-Star Big Band performing their Swinging Christmas show, a collection of seasonal and all-time favourites from the Golden Age of Swing.  The performance begins at 7 pm, again at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

If you are interested in any or all of the performances beginning tonight and running through to December 8th, you can purchase tickets in advance through the Shaw Festival box office by calling 1-800-511-7429.  There will be special student pricing discounts available as well.

Have a great weekend!

November 16th, 2019.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Proving you can come home again

This Friday November 15th a homecoming of sorts will take place at the Niagara Artists Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  Longtime folk musician and teacher Jane Lewis, born and raised in St. Catharines, will return to the city with musical partner Eve Goldberg to host a local launch of their new CD collaboration, All That's Real on Borealis Records.  They perform under the moniker Gathering Sparks, which is an apt description of what they do.

It's been awhile for Lewis, as she moved from the city to Guelph several years ago to pursue a music career full time.  Why Guelph?  Why not?  I've always found Guelph and much of Wellington County to be a hotbed of creative organic folk music, much of it making it on to the airwaves of Canada's national broadcaster CBC as well as selling strongly in the Canadian music marketplace.

I used to work in a music store on Carden Street in downtown Guelph years ago, Twelfth Night Music, and it had a relatively large selection of Canadian-grown folk music, and it always sold quite well.  So it should come as no surprise Lewis would follow her folk inclinations to the city.

Somewhere along the way, while recording her solo album Stay With Me, leading music workshops on singing harmony and singing backup vocals for other artists, Jane hooked up with Toronto-based musician and vocalist Eve Goldberg and things just seemed to click.  Goldberg, originally from Boston, moved to Toronto in 1981 and has been a busy performer at festivals, folk clubs and concert venues across Canada and the US ever since.

Eve has released three albums on her own, Ever Brightening Day in 2006, Crossing The Water in 2003 and A Kinder Season also in 2006.  Like Lewis Eva is also an experienced teacher who engages aspiring musicians in private lessons, workshops and classes.

Jane Lewis plays piano, ukulele, accordion as well as sings; Eve Goldberg also sings, plays acoustic guitar and ukulele.  For the CD launch on Friday they will be joined by special guest Cheryl Prashker on drums and percussion, who also appears on the new CD.

Together, Lewis and Goldberg perform as Gathering Sparks and their new collaboration is entitled All That's Real, produced by Jeff Bird of Cowboy Junkies fame.  Joining them on the new disc, which first launched back in early October in Guelph, are the aforementioned Cheryl Prashker on percussion as well as Anne Lindsay on fiddle, Joel Schwartz and Kevin Breit on guitars and a host of harmony singers, all of whom presumably worked at one point or another with Lewis!

Already the lead-off song from the album, Bringing in the Light has been recognized with a 2019 Folk Music Ontario "Songs From The Heart" Award in the Singer-Songwriter category.  That's on top of the group being nominated for a 2014 Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year for their six-song debut CD.

Their inclusive style embraces folk, pop, blues and gospel influences all played on acoustic guitar, piano, accordion and of course the ukulele.  They had me at the ukulele, actually.  Although I've never played one I've always loved that humble stringed instrument ever since I first heard British singer George Formby on the instrument many years ago.  Who doesn't love the ukulele?!

Anyway, this is the very first time Lewis and Goldberg have written together but you'd never know it.  They have brought together their passion for wordplay, strong melodies and harmony to create 11 new songs plus one cover of a Pete Townshend classic.  The end result is a collection of songs that are decidedly hopeful and upbeat as well as reflective and full of great storytelling.

Perhaps that's not such a bad combination in these divided times we seem to live in.

If you want to join in on the CD launch yourself, you can pick up tickets for $20 in advance or $25 at the door Friday night.  Advance online orders can be made by going to www.gatheringsparks.com.  The concert/launch begins at 8 pm and NAC is located at 354 St. Paul Street.

Have a great week!

November 11th, 2019.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Bravo Niagara! Voices of Freedom Festival coming up this week

I'm a little late getting to my weekend blog this week as it is now Monday but hey, better late than never, right?

Anyway, I don't want to leave this for another day as an important and interesting music festival is coming up later this week in Niagara.  The entrepreneurial souls at Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts in Niagara-on-the-Lake have organized a three-day festival around this Friday evening's concert featuring pioneering jazz pianist Monty Alexander and musical friends.

The concert, Friday evening at 7:30 in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, promises to be one of the jazz events of the fall season in Niagara.  Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander, who now makes his home in the United States, headlines the concert.  Opening performances will feature award-winning drummer Larnell Lewis of Snarky Puppy fame along with his band, and special guest, South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo, who has performed with Paul Simon.  Needless to say with talent like that, jazz and Afro-Caribbean music aficionados alike will want to be there.

Kicking off the festival will be a special interactive student workshop with Bakithi Kumalo featuring iconic Paul Simon music at Laura Secord Secondary School Thursday afternoon at 1 pm.  Kumalo will discuss growing up in Soweto, South Africa during Apartheid and the influences of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid leader who just happened to be a personal acquaintance of Kumalo.

The workshop is free and open to the public.

Thursday evening at 7:30 pm the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library will host the screening of the film Under African Skies with special guest Bakithi Kumalo.  Kumalo, of course, appeared on the ground-breaking Paul Simon album Graceland and he will introduce the film in which he is featured.

The documentary explores the cultural and political climate of South Africa 25 years ago and follows Simon as he returns once again to South Africa.  Under African Skies features appearances by anti-apartheid activists and musical legends including Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Sir Paul McCartney and David Byrne.

Sadly, the film screening presented in partnership with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library is already sold out, but you can join the wait list if you choose.

Friday morning at 10 a second interactive student workshop will be held at Laura Secord Secondary School with drummer Larnell Lewis.  The Toronto native and musician, producer, composer and educator has established himself as one of the most diverse and in-demand drummers around, and has worked with such well-known names as Etienne Charles, Gregory Porter, Benny Golson, Lalah Hathaway, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Lisa Fisher and Kurt Elling among others.

The workshop is free and again, open to the public.

Saturday morning at 11 the Niagara Historical Museum will host an Artists as Activists Roundtable, exploring the role of artists in society and the historic and present-day interaction of music and social change.  Moderated by Jazzcast.ca's Garvia Bailey, featured participants include Bakithi Kumalo, producer and artist manager Celine Peterson, and Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of the El Sistema-inspired organization Play On, Philly!

The Saturday roundtable is presented in partnership with the Niagara Historical Museum, is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required.  Go to www.bravoniagara.org for more information.

Finally, there is a film screening at the Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines I plan on attending this Saturday afternoon at 4 pm.  Entitled Crescendo:  The Power of Music, the screening will feature special guest Stanford Thompson.

Thompson's organization Play on, Philly! is one of the schools that have embraced the concept of Venezuela's phenomenal youth orchestra programme El Sistema, founded in 1976 and which has brought social transformation to several million disadvantaged children in the country.  Want proof?  Superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel came through El Sistema.

The film documents the journey of three students, one in Harlem and two in Philadelphia at Play On Philly!, along with their teachers and the community around them, all responding to the mysterious power of music.

I've seen the trailer for this Jamie Bernstein directed film and it looks absolutely inspiring, so I am looking forward to seeing the full film on Saturday afternoon.  You can too as the event, co-presented by Bravo Niagara! and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, is free and open to the public.  But again, you have to register in advance.

So that sounds like a lot of musical inspiration coming our way this week in Niagara, all presented by Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts.  Want more information on events and on ordering tickets?  Just go to www.bravoniagara.org and you'll find out all you need to know.

Have a great week!

November 4th, 2019.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Choral season is now upon us!

There are many things I look forward to in the autumn:  the crisp, clear days beneath a bright blue sky, showing against the bright colours of the trees ready to shed for another winter;  the abundance of produce and other good things in our farmer's market; the hot apple cider waiting for me Saturday mornings when I arrive at the market; and of course, the music of the season.

For me, nothing celebrates the cooler fall days musically quite like great choral music.  It goes hand in hand with warming yourself in a church with history all around you.  And it also celebrates the very fine performing arts spaces much of our music - choral and otherwise - often calls home.

So this weekend we'll highlight a couple of choral concerts coming up this weekend and next, featuring performances in Guelph and here in St. Catharines.  In both cases, you will not be left wanting for great music of the past and present.

There is no country on earth I think with a better choral lineage than Great Britain.  Going back to Elizabethan times up through the 19th and 20th centuries, there has never been a shortage of great purveyors of choral music originating in the British Isles.  Two modern-era British composers will be front and centre for both concerts I'm highlighting this weekend.

Tomorrow afternoon in Guelph, the Guelph Chamber Choir under newly-minted Artistic Director Dr. Charlene Pauls will pair up with the GCVI Chamber Choir to celebrate the good that is all around us with a concert entitled Five Days that Changed the World.  The title work is by British composer Bob Chilcott and joins other works that focus on bringing people together.

The Chilcott work highlights five moments that connected and advanced humanity:  the invention of printing, the abolition of slavery, the first powered light, the discovery of penicillin, and the first human in space.  The music reflects humour along with wonder and a touch of poignancy throughout its movements.

Other works on the programme tomorrow afternoon include Winnipeg composer Andrew Balfour's welcoming song Amba (sung in Ojibway), American composer Joan Szymko's It Takes a Village, French composer Maurice Durufle's introspective Ubi Caritas, Canadian composer Sarah Quartel's Sing, My Child, and Paul Simon's familiar Bridge Over Troubled Water in a new gospel arrangement by Kirby Shaw.  Also on the programme will be Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst.

The concert will be at 3 pm tomorrow afternoon at Harcourt Memorial United Church in the heart of Guelph, and tickets are available in advance through the River Run Centre box office by calling 519-763-3000.

Next Saturday evening at 7:30 pm, Chorus Niagara kicks off their new season with the Canadian premiere of Michael Tippett's 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time.  This powerful work was composed in response to the horrors of Kristallnacht, when Nazi Germany ramped up fear and terror in the country.  Tippet's work remains a compelling call for unity in a divided world, which perhaps seems as cogent a comment on our own times as much as it was on mid-20th century life as the world found itself again embroiled in war.

A Child of Our Time draws inspiration from African-American spirituals such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, Steal Away and Deep River among other works, and will be performed by the combined forces of Chorus Niagara and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, 160 voices strong, the Orpheus Concert Orchestra and featured soloists Johane Ansell, soprano, Lauren Segal, mezzo-soprano, Andrew Haji, tenor, and James Westman, bass.

Of course, Robert Cooper, Artistic Director of both Chorus Niagara and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto will conduct in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

For tickets for this and the entire Chorus Niagara season, call or visit the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or email boxoffice@FirstOntarioPAC.ca.

There you go, two reasons to embrace the cooler autumn weather by warming your heart and soul with great choral music with meaning, this weekend and next.  What could be better than that?

Enjoy your weekend!

October 26th, 2019.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Men with big hearts wearing big heels...for a great cause

Taking another diversion this weekend to write about today's 13th annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes fundraiser for Gillian's Place held at the Pen Centre.  It is an event I have attended since the very first one held downtown at Market Square, and very near and dear to my heart.

The first year men walked the streets downtown, circling King Street, Queen Street, St. Paul Street and James Street, ending up again on King and winding up at Market Square.  I remember that first year the weather was not all that nice and although the relatively small group of men who took part were game, at least one went down with a serious injury, I'm told.

So after that organizers wisely chose to move the event indoors to The Pen Centre, where it has been held every October since then.  The location is ideal as it is enclosed, the floor is smooth and level for the most part, and it is easier to create an audience with all the shoppers already in the mall to begin with.

I think it was the second year onwards I decided to don heels myself to walk with the men, but I never really got a lot of donations, which you need in order to register.  I made it, but just barely.

The last few years, however, I have been on the sidelines as a financial supporter, cheering on the men in heels.  I opted to heed the advice of a lawyer friend of mine who suggested, quite rightly, considering my new career path as a letter carrier for Canada Post, an ankle or foot injury would not be in my best interests.  Especially considering in those early days I didn't qualify for benefits, so if I couldn't work I wouldn't get paid.

So an enthusiastic bystander I became, although maybe before I retire I will don the heels once again for old time's sake.

Those who chose to walk today were all ages, from all walks of life, sharing a common goal:  to end violence against women.  They are to be commended for their determination and willingness to endure a one-mile walk in heels for the betterment of the community, but it is only one day.

Women who seek shelter at Gillian's Place and other women's shelters in communities large and small across the country endure tremendous pain both mentally and physically at the hands of their spouse or partner for great lengths of time.

It shouldn't be that way, and in a perfect world it wouldn't be.  But the reality is it is happening on a daily basis right here in our communities, perhaps right on your own street without you even knowing it.

An acquaintance of mine confessed to me earlier this year she was once in an abusive relationship and frankly, I was shocked to hear it.  A very kind soul with a good heart, she could certainly hold her own in a difficult situation.  Or so I thought.  She told me she ended the marriage and escaped with her children when the situation became untenable.

That story plays out every day in most every community, so she is no different.  But she is a survivor, and I admire her so much for digging deep down inside herself to gather up the courage to leave for a better life elsewhere.

So men walk on this day every year, in a fun event with a very serious purpose:  to raise much-needed funds for Gillian's Place to keep doing what they do, helping those who need it the most.

I don't have numbers on how many participants there were today although it was as large as ever, if not moreso.  But collectively the men who walked raised $125,000 to continue the good work done every day at Gillian's Place, and that translates into a job well done.

Men walk as individuals, as I always did, or as part of a group from a company or club.  No matter how they walk, the result is the same.  And the money raised is greatly needed now more than ever.

Yes, in a perfect world we would not need a Gillian's Place.  But I can't see that happening anytime soon, unfortunately.  So it is vital we do this every year, either by walking ourselves or supporting those who do.  Because you just never know who might benefit from what Gillian's Place can offer them.  It could be someone you never imagined would be in need at all.

So thanks, gentlemen, for a job well done today.  But keep those heels handy, as next year you will be called upon again to show the community just how much you care, and how much we can change the lives of so many each and every day.

Have a great weekend!

October 19th, 2019.

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.