2003 produced a bumper crop of performances by Niagara’s professional performing arts organizations. Taking stock of the three dozen events I attended provides an opportunity of both cheering and challenging those who work so diligently in bringing such a wide variety of artistic expression to the region.
Only a forty-five minute drive separate our two professional orchestras. The Buffalo Philharmonic has a spectacular venue (Kleinhans Music Hall), a full-sized resident pool of players and a music director (JoAnn Falletta) who has the uncanny knack of combining the familiar with the unusual (e.g., Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and Lutoslawki’s Concerto for Orchestra last March where the former sagged, but the latter sizzled). The literal last-minute replacement in May of the ailing Canadian pianist Louis Lortie by Filipino sensation Cecile Licad provided more sparks than a welder on overtime in the year’s most riveting collaboration. Let’s hope the word gets out and empty seats become rare.
Up on the escarpment, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra’s much smaller hall is often a sell-out success where most of its members (like the migrant workers that pick our fruit and prune our trees) assemble for a weekend of rehearsals and concerts then scurry away to other gigs down the QEW. Daniel Swift’s selections always have the community in mind (the annual “Composer in the Classroom” composition is a favourite) and features some of Canada’s finest solo artists (pianist Robert Silverman’s appearance last April had the capacity crowd mesmerized and the band scrambling to keep pace). For 2004, here’s hoping that the sponsors can be acknowledged wordlessly so that the first sound heard is the art, rather than a commercial.
Chamber music is the pride of the peninsula with Margaret Gay’s Gallery Players of Niagara Sunday series throughout the fall, winter and spring complemented by the two-week August orgy of concerts, recitals and master classes led by the indefatigable Atis Bankas during the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival.
Highlights from last year include a Haydn Piano Trio (with the ever-steady and sensitive pianist, David Louie in February) and Zvi Zeitlin’s spectacular reading of Schumann’s D Minor Sonata, proving conclusively that mandatory retirement at sixty-five should be forever scrapped. Looking forward, with Brock University adding Rodman Hall to its real estate portfolio, we can only hope the gallery venue is upgraded to reflect the level of music heard and that NICMF is able to confirm its repertoire/artists more than a day in advance and, if changes are made, that there are enough printed programs to guide their supportive fans.
For the theatre-set, 2003 had something for everyone. Simon Bradbury’s work-in-progress, Chaplin, was one of the most interesting nights of the year—kudos to Theatre Arts Niagara for bringing it to the Courthouse.
The Shaw Festival sold 16 per cent fewer seats in Jackie Maxwell’s first season as artistic director. The Canadianization of Chekhov’s Three Sisters fell flat, the two musicals (On the Twentieth Century and Happy End) were a hit with those attending the King George Theatre, while Misalliance seemed more about director Neil Munro’s mannerisms than Shaw’s timeless wit. That said, we must all hope that future programming sticks to the mandate and takes risks aplenty, rather than resort to Stratford’s box office solution of mounting dated song-and-dance musicals to put bums in the Bard Festival’s seats.
Meanwhile, Theatre in Port served up consistently pleasing (if frequently unintentionally offensive when letting dated “jokes” flop onto the stage unedited) productions; Gypsy Theatre made Robin Swicord’s Criminal Minds better than its script; Showboat Theatre had a winner in the tour de force, one-woman-show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Debbie Slade, managing director of the Brock Centre for the Arts is also a programmer-extraordinaire in bringing a varied and exciting array of entertainment and artistic one-night stands to Niagara. Last February’s dance and music spectacular by COBA (Collective of Black Artists) brought much-needed diversity and excitement to the coldest month of the year: hot, hot, hot! Jazz buffs savoured the artistry and virtuosity of NOJO Contemporary Jazz and endured the bass-less Kings of Swing and their Frank Sinatra bake-off crooners.
More recently, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet took the stage for Mozart’s Magic Flute, where the dancers excelled even as choreographer Mark Godden played fast and loose with the Masonic masterpiece. Salieri would have been delighted!
We often neglect our own backyard, what better New Year’s resolution to make than taking in a live performance where the only guarantee is the experience of something unique. JWR