Saturday, January 25, 2020

It's not too early to start thinking of the Annual Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School

I have a confession to make.  I love choral music.  Just love it.  The sound of human voices soaring into the rafters is for me, the nearest thing to heaven on earth I think we mere mortals can achieve.

Unfortunately, my love of choral music does not extend to me actually singing with a choir.  Oh I have been approached to sing in choirs before, but that invitation usually is rescinded when they actually hear me sing.  Really.

It's not that I am all that bad.  I mean, I do have a voice since I spent 40 years in radio broadcasting.  However I never learned to read music, and besides, my timing is off.  My far better half has gone on record as stating I am always about half a beat behind everyone else whenever I sing with a group.  And that's on a good day.  I just like to be ready, that's all.

What's more, I tend to sing as flat as Saskatchewan.  Meaning, of course, my occasional basso-profundo is enough to annoy the cats we share the house with on a regular basis.

But that's not to say I don't enjoy hearing great choral music sung by those who can hold a note or two.  Or three.

Many of those aspiring young singers with an interest in Renaissance polyphony will be more than a little interested in the announcement this week the so-called "soft" deadline for applications to participate in the annual Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School at Huron University in May is set for February 1st.

Huron University is part of Western University in London, Ontario, and CRMSS is directed by world-renowned baritone and choral workshop leader Greg Skidmore.  The summer music school is now in its third year, running this year from May 9th to 17th and is the only Renaissance choral music workshop of its kind in Canada.

If you need a comparison of how important this summer music school is, it's basically on a par with those run by The Tallis Scholars in Seattle and the Early Music Academy in Boston, along with those held in England and throughout Europe.

In fact, the Canadian school's official patron is none other than the current director of The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips.  His recordings with the Scholars are luminous in sound and quite literally can take your breath away with their beauty.

Director Skidmore says this year they will be focusing on the works of the Franco-Flemish school, really the 'home' of Renaissance polyphonic music.  Helping out the home team in musical tutoring this year will be five master's level performance students from the University of York in the U.K., as well as guest artist Robert Hollingworth, director of the dynamic and inventive U.K.-based vocal consort I Fagiolini.

The Canadian Renaissance Music Summer Music School is aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at undergraduate students, graduates and young professional singers.  It will be a week-long deep dive into Renaissance polyphonic vocal music with an intensive period of rehearsal and performance, both liturgically and in concert, all with an emphasis on quality in performance.

In fact the week will culminate in a final live concert performance for the public at the end of the course in London, Ontario on Sunday, May 17th at 2:30 pm.

The theme of CRMSS 2020 is Beyond the Ordinary, with a focus on Franco-Flemish music.  Essentially this polyphonic style, meaning music with multiple, independent melody lines performed simultaneously was pioneered by the great master of the genre Josquin des Prez.

Renaissance music is both vocal and instrumental music written and performed in Europe essentially during the Renaissance era.  Most agree the period began about 1400 and ran for the better part of 200 years, closing around 1600 with the advent of the Baroque period.

The distribution of music and music theory texts to a wider audience was a laborious task at the start of the Renaissance period, as it all had to be hand-copied.  That time-consuming and expensive process was replaced by the first printing press that came out in 1439 and that made music more accessible to those who no longer had to pay a king's ransom to acquire scores with which they could rehearse.

So now here we are in 2020 and the music is not only readily available for study and performance, but there are schools such as CRMSS dedicated to making the music literally come alive for a whole new generation.

If you want more information on the course curriculum just go to

I might not be able to sing with the graduates but I think I can handle sitting in the audience and enjoying the final results.  Just so long as I keep my mouth shut...

Have a great weekend!

January 25th, 2020.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Niagara Symphony joins the Beethoven bandwagon this weekend

In classical music we like to observe special dates of note, such as the birth or unfortunately the death of a particular composer for example.  The I used to host my longtime classical music programme on 610CKTB years ago I regularly noted anniversaries of all sorts on the show.

Record companies regularly take advantage of these anniversary dates as well in order to market their classical catalogues, hopefully to new listeners as well as old.  I still remember the huge marketing machine behind the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart back in 1991 that produced all sorts of repackaged box sets of Mozart's music culminating in the mammoth Phillips Classics Complete Mozart Edition.  That set was incredibly expensive to purchase but included every single work Mozart ever wrote.

Ah yes, Marketing 101:  give people what they want even if they don't know they need it yet.

This year the classical marketing sets its collective sights on the so-called Bad Boy of Classical Music, Ludwig van Beethoven.  In case you were unawares, 2020 would have marked Beethoven's 250th birthday and although he likely would never be able to hear the commotion caused by this anniversary were he alive today, he would most certainly appreciate all the attention nonetheless.

Beethoven has for me held a special place in music.  While Mozart sounds refined and almost perfect, Beethoven on the other hand sounds rougher, almost craggy in comparison.  Where Mozart is depicted often in fine garb at a society event trying to ingratiate himself to a wealthy patron or two, Beethoven appears more often than not as a bit of a lone wolf in the musical world.  Alone in his apartment crafting music amid the chaos of a life well lived, his artistry seems more masculine, dare I say more virile in comparison to his precocious predecessor.

To put this in Hollywood actor terms, which I know I shouldn't but I will nonetheless, Mozart appears polished and rather Cary Grant-ish, while Beethoven might be compared to the swashbuckling swagger of, say, an Erroll Flynn.  At least if you are comparing them on purely musical terms.

So on the heels of this admittedly unorthodox introduction, the Niagara Symphony joins the Beethoven bandwagon for 2020 with an all-Beethoven programme Sunday afternoon titled Triumph of Destiny.  The Masterworks 3 concert happens at 2:30 pm in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

The concert includes three of Beethoven's more muscular works, beginning with his Egmont Overture and concluding with his colossal and iconic Symphony No. 5.  In the middle is the amazing Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano, featuring the considerable talents of the Gryphon Trio.

All three works date from one turbulent decade, 1803 to 1810 as his hearing was in a steady decline but his creative genius was surely at its peak.  The massive Symphony No. 5 alone pushed the musical boundaries even further than they had been following the debut of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica", which happened shortly before the debut of the Triple Concerto.

It's also interesting to note the Niagara Symphony last performed the Symphony No. 5 in 2015 as they performed their final concert in the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Brock University in the spring of that year.  Now, they launch the year-long Beethoven celebration with the same work.

The No. 5, replete with that very familiar four-note opening "dun-dun-dun-dah" has been a musical calling card of sorts for many orchestras and dare I say, conductors, for many years now.  It seems any conductor wanting to show they are in control of the musical forces that lie in front of them while on the podium often chooses to conduct this work to show what he or she, and by extension they, can do as a team.

It is that very team spirit that evidently prompted the redoubtable Dr. Peter Schickle to create his famous dissertation of the opening movement of the Symphony No. 5 as a give-and-take between a couple of well-intentioned football commentators describing the "action" on stage.  It's a classic recording and was certainly a boundary-pusher in its own right when the old Vanguard recording was released back in the '60s.

So with football season soon to climax in the United States early next month, that analogy is perhaps not lost on the esteemed players of the NSO and their popular conductor, Bradley Thachuck.

Kickoff, er, concert time is 2:30 tomorrow afternoon at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  Tickets are still available through the box office at the PAC by visiting in person or calling 905-688-0722.

Pennants are not needed for the concert, by the way...

Have a great weekend!

January 18th, 2020.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Returning to Downton Abbey in downtown St. Catharines

I don't write often about movies in this space but this week I'll make an exception.

There was much hype over the past year about the release of the movie Downton Abbey, as a follow up for fans of the long-running television series that held fans captive on PBS for about five or six seasons.  Early preview notes suggested the plot revolved around the King & Queen of England visiting the Abbey and now-retired head butler Carson being pressed into service to save the day.  As one pundit commented at the time..."is that it?  That's the plot line?!"

Well there was much more to the story line than that, thankfully, and I won't go into all the details here in case you have yet to see the movie.  But suffice it to say there is an attempt on the King's life while visiting the area (not specifically at the Abbey) and the service staff at the Abbey are no pushovers.  It all ends with pretty much everyone happy in the end, save perhaps with ageing Violet Crawley who is merely 'satisfied' a family crisis only she seems concerned about appears to have been averted.

My far better half and I have become fans of the show over the years, she much sooner than I.  Due to the fact I usually have to be in bed by 9 for work the next morning I never really had the chance to get into the series the first time around.  When PBS ran a Downton Abbey marathon weekend a couple of years ago and I couldn't tear Sophie away from the telly for two whole days, I wasn't exactly a fan then either.

But towards the end of the series' run I did in fact try to catch up on the wealthy yet struggling Crawley household and their imposing and iconic Abbey, trying to make sense of each character and what import they had in contributing to the story.  I quickly learned Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley was the glue that kept things together and always would be, snide remarks and all.

Fast-forward to August of 2018 and Sophie and I are on our PBS tour of England and included on the second day of the tour (and the main reason Sophie was adamant about being on this particular tour) was a visit to the much-venerated and oft-visited home used in the TV series.  Known of course as Highclere Castle, the imposing Georgian mansion appears amongst the rolling hills about halfway between Windsor and Bath.  As we drove up the winding drive in our tour bus the tour director cleverly played the opening theme from the TV series rather loudly on the bus sound system.

It was effective if not somewhat predictable.

But the visit was amazing.  Tour groups are allowed only at certain times of the year and although you cannot see every corner of the Castle you get to see a good part of it.  And what you see in the TV series and now the movie Downton Abbey is a somewhat glossy version of what actually greets you upon arrival.

The first thing you notice is that due to the high volume of tourist traffic through the estate, the carpets are rather threadbare in many spots.  You don't see that on the show!  There are some rough spots on the walls and such, as one would expect from such an old building.

For the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries the Carnavon family lived in the old brick and freestone house, but it was in 1838 the 3rd Earl of Carnavon sought to transform the home into the grand mansion we know today as Highclere Castle.  The structural work on the interior of the Castle was completed in 1878 and once built, the Castle became a centre of political life during the latter part of the Victorian era.

The scenes that regularly played out in the series and now the movie were a part of life during the early part of the 20th century, although during the First World War Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnavon transformed the Castle into a hospital, with patients arriving in late 1914 from Flanders.  It also became home to evacuee children from London at one point.

The Castle returned to a private home after the war and in 1922 the 5th Earl of Carnavon and Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, really the first global world media event.  To this day there is an extensive Egyptian display in the basement of the Castle the public can visit.

Today the current (8th) Earl and Countess of Carnavon live partly in the Castle and partly in another home on the grounds nearby but remain closely involved in the Castle's day to day life and future.  It is not unusual even today to see the Countess on the grounds near the Castle on pleasant days.

But back to the movie.  Although it helps it isn't necessary to be a fan of the TV series in order to follow or even enjoy the movie version.  I still have to defer to Sophie to figure out where a particular character figures in the story line.

The filming is stunning, especially the drone shots of the Castle and grounds from above.  The dining scenes are especially fun to watch, if you are at all interested in proper dining etiquette.  Incidentally, the basement of the present Castle no longer houses the kitchen facilities as depicted in the movie.  All that would be shot off-site I'm told.

While Sophie marvels at the elaborate decor and ladies' gowns, I instead take a keen interest in the men's formal wear of the period, as outlined in my blog post in this space last week.  It is all very grand, and all very proper, as you would expect.

As a fan of movies not utilizing an overabundance of computer-generated special effects, I found the near total lack of same here refreshing, as well as the total absence of any foul language at all.

As mentioned earlier, all ends well with the Crawley family bound and determined to soldier on and keep the old gal going for awhile longer and one guy actually gets the girl in the end.

Oh and the music: sweeping, familiar and as comfortable as your old slippers.  John Lunn's score is lush and appropriate without every being over the top.  Just a perfect complement to what we're watching on the screen.

Now I know the film was released world-wide last September and we loved it then.  But paying a return visit this past Friday evening at The Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines allowed us to savour the glory of a bygone age yet again and perhaps see some things we missed in the first viewing.  It was well worth a revisit.

Clearly Downton Abbey the movie is not for everyone, as was the case with the TV series.  But for those of us who love British period pieces aired on PBS we're in our glory.

If you have not succumbed to the magic of Highclere Castle, now might be a good time to catch the movie and perhaps if you're ever over in England, actually visit in person.  It will be an unforgettable experience either way.

Have a great weekend!

January 12th, 2020.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The first post of the New Year takes a detour with my New Year's Resolution

So here we are already five days into the New Year and I am working hard to make my New Year's resolution a reality.  With that in mind we'll dispense with the usual arts reporting in this space this week to reveal something that has been on my mind for quite some time now.  It doesn't deal directly with the arts per se, but in a roundabout way it does...

I have always prided myself on dressing reasonably well and trying to look respectable when out in public.  Oh sure, there are days even I let the bar slip a little bit, as we all do, but recently I have been making a concerted effort to raise the proverbial bar regarding my personal style and I hope I'll be successful.

If I have a particular style it is probably classic, traditional wear most days, save for the odd day when I just feel like wearing slim jeans and a sport shirt, especially on weekends.

But about a year ago I made a discovery.  One of my longstanding guilty pleasures has been to scour resale and thrift shops for real vintage finds.  I've done pretty well over the years, including one in Windsor, England in August of 2018 when I found a spectacular self-tie bow tie in bright red with white dots.  It prompted me to finally learn how to properly tie a bow tie, something that had eluded me for many years.

With that small mountain climbed, let's get back to my find of about a year ago.  I have always admired properly tailored formal wear, such as a tuxedo, and always secretly longed for a vintage set of full evening dress.  I don't really have any reason to own full evening dress, but then so few of us do nowadays.  In fact, if you poll most men they will scratch their collective heads and ask "what's that?".

In a nutshell, full evening dress is a proper black tailcoat extending at the back to about the knee, matching tuxedo pants with a braided stripe running down the outer seam of both legs, and the usual accessories that define the outfit as being "white tie":  a marcella cotton white pique vest, formal wing-collar shirt and matching self-tie white bow tie.  To complete the ensemble properly you add patent leather pumps or shoes.

I found the tailcoat but alas, no pants.  The coat needed some alterations but otherwise was in exceptional shape considering it dated from about the mid-1940s and was tailored by the venerable Eatons store.  Continued scouring of my local shops turned up the appropriate high-waisted pants at my local Goodwill for only $6.  Then I had to work on the accessories.  I had the shoes, but an online search revealed a great deal in the U.K. for the white pique vest and matching tie, which was promptly delivered back in the spring.

The proper shirt proved somewhat problematic, as good quality vintage shirts in my size seem to be hard to come by.  But I did find a modern-day equivalent that works just as well I had my friends at Herzog's downtown order in for me, and voila, we were done!

Or so I thought.

The tailcoat proved to be slightly bigger than I would like it to be and although I was prepared to alter it properly, before I could fate stepped in and changed everything.  Unbelievably at the very same thrift shop I found the first tailcoat at I found a second, somewhat better fitting one complete with pants.  It was ridiculously affordable and so there I was with two sets of full evening dress.

My December visit to my local tailor revealed the second, somewhat smaller tailcoat was considered to be the better fit, so we went with that one and had jacket and pants altered properly.  When I looked inside the inside pocket along with another Eatons label I found the custom tailoring information.  It appears to be local, and dates from...November 11th 1940!  The thing is way older than I am!

Now came the first wearing of the new/old ensemble.  As I've reported in this space before I have hosted the Midnight Mass broadcast for CKTB Radio for over 30 years now and although it is a radio broadcast, from the very start I always opted for a tuxedo to add some elegance to the proceedings.

This year I upped that level considerably with my 1940-era full evening dress.  I must say I felt completely comfortable in it and plan to wear it every year I am still able to do the broadcast on Christmas Eve at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

For me it was an easy decision to rescue the ensemble from an uncertain future of possible halloween costuming or worse still, the landfill.  I wondered how many society events this ensemble had been to and where.  Last week on my Facebook page I posted a picture from the Welland House Hotel in downtown St. Catharines where in the once-celebrated Crystal Ballroom New Year's Eve revellers can be seen in full formal regalia:  ladies in proper gowns and all the men without exception in full evening dress.  I wondered if my outfit might actually have been worn that night as a first event.  Who knows?

I have spent much of the past year researching the traditions of full evening dress so I could get it right and I think I did.  But in my ongoing research I found numerous pictures of Hollywood stars at the Academy Awards show from the early 60s with all the men in full evening dress, and they looked fantastic.  Just today I watched the 1935 Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat and it was such a pleasure to see the men dressed so well.  Astaire of course pioneered not only stylish dressing in formal wear but also in a suit and tie.  He was classic and he was always correct.

And that brings me to my New Year's resolution.  Inspired by my journey of the past year to get full evening dress right, I have now decided it is time to take my cue from Mr. Astaire whom I've always admired and simply dress better from here on in.

It doesn't take a lot of money to do it, as I proved this past year on my odyssey.  But it takes a keen eye and style smarts and in the New Year I plan to hone my present wardrobe to reflect this newfound desire to look my very best whenever I'm out in the public eye.  I have all the ingredients in my closet; now I just have to edit better and say goodbye to some trusted pieces that are showing their age somewhat.

And the original tailcoat that is slightly too large for me?  My equally style-conscious historian Chris in Toronto wants it so we'll do the ceremonial hand off in the New Year sometime.

I have lots more to write about this subject and in fact I might just start work on a new blog entirely devoted to men's fashion from my perspective.  But for now I will take the occasional detour in this space to look at the good, the bad and the outright ugly in men's fashion.  I hope you'll indulge me.

Now, if anyone needs an emcee with a great full evening dress ensemble at his disposal, I'm your man...

Happy New Year!

January 5th, 2020.