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.