Sunday, April 14, 2019

Bravo to Bravo Niagara!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great weekend!

April 14th, 2019.