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

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

Have a great weekend!

October 5th, 2019.