JWR Articles: Commentary - The Halls Are Alive (Featured performers: Rivka Golani, David Jalbert, Stuart Hamilton, Deanna Jones, Erin Shields, Edward Serov) - December 10, 2002

The Halls Are Alive

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A version of this article appeared in the December 7, 2002 edition of the St. Catharines Standard
A positive year for the arts

The arts are alive and kicking in Niagara and like health care, their future—particularly the notion of consolidation under one multi-purpose roof—has been much studied by government. Many recommendations for a performing arts centre in St. Catharines are on the table, but the only sod-turning lately has been for the new casino in Niagara Falls whose plans include a 1,500-seat theatre.

More interested in practical experiences than theory and graphs, I went on a spree of artistic sampling. My goal was to better appreciate the existing levels of achievement and then reflect on what is needed.

October 27: The Niagara Symphony Orchestra’s Masters concert series got off to an explosive start with violist-extraordinaire, Rivka Golani’s riveting performance of Béla Bartók’s magnificent Concerto for Viola and Orchestra.

November 2: CBC personality, Stuart Hamilton, merrily presided over an evening of opera’s greatest hits in the first of two sold-out performances by Chorus Niagara. Unassisted by the non-reverberant Calvary Church, Robert Cooper’s full-bodied chorus thrilled us all and provided deft support of guest artists Elizabeth McDonald and Stuart Howe.

November 15: The highlight of David Jalbert’s piano recital (presented by Brock’s Music Department) was Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballad, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.

Jalbert’s musical and technical skills were the perfect match for this unrelenting soundscape which magically morphs into Gershwin-esque jazz. I’m looking forward to the coming CD, where, one hopes, a piano worthy of his artistry will be employed.

November 17: Once the custodian switched off the droning air fans at Rodman Hall, we were treated to an extraordinary afternoon of chamber music adeptly performed by the Gallery Players of Niagara.

Despite another piano that is well past retirement, the Brahms C Minor Piano Quartet transcended the printed page and, when its modality finally resolved to the life-affirming major, there wasn’t a person in the room who wasn’t mesmerized.

November 20: To add perspective to my survey, I travelled to hear Orchestra London’s reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unfortunately, Centennial Hall’s antiquated heating system became the unwelcome fifth soloist.

Nonetheless, the combined choruses (University of Western Ontario Singers, London Pro Musica, Les Choristes, The Chorale) rose to the occasion and provided the evening’s finest moments.

November 21: Now back in St. Catharines, I made my first foray into the Old Court House (touted as the downtown solution to the problem of providing adequate space for the region’s professional artists—particularly its theatre groups), where Theatre Arts Niagara (one of our “homeless” companies) presented Be Wearing Wolf.

Written and performed by Deanna Jones and Erin Shields, this fast-moving, one-act comedy was a heady mix of dialogue, mime and outrageous characterization. Anyone who has come near institutionalized attendant care would savour its satire.

November 24: Back to Brock’s Sean O’Sullivan Theatre to hear guest conductor Edward Serov “play” the Niagara Symphony like I’d never heard it before.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was the vehicle for this pull-out-all-the-stops romp that left the players exhausted, the audience exhilarated and the theatre’s foundation likely in need of repair.

November 28 and 30: The Canadian Brass came to town on Thursday and were then to appear with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday.

Having previously discovered the acoustic excellence of the Kleinhans Music Hall, I couldn’t wait to compare the two rooms with the same musicians.

But fate intervened and I never made it to the U.S. performance. The Brock Centre for the Arts presentation revealed just how much further these master players have evolved as creatures of popular culture rather than (as I last heard them a couple of decades back) advocates for classical music. Don’t misunderstand, I like bad jokes as much as anyone, but I put my review of their wide-ranging performance in the theatre section of the website.

On November 29, I was in what is, arguably, the finest venue in Canada for music. Massey Hall, where the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has never sounded better, was jammed to the rafters for, well, Lily Tomlin. But, ironically, due to the artificial reinforcement of the electronic sound system, I couldn’t understand all of her words.

And so I have learned that the performing arts in Niagara provide an impressive variety of artistic expression with varying degrees of success (both artistic and financial). And, particularly with music, I know that those offerings could only improve in a specifically designed space. But, as organizations such as the Calgary Philharmonic that have been forced into bankruptcy can attest, the arts groups themselves should not be saddled with the exponentially higher costs that a user-pay facility brings.

The leadership and cash required must come from public demand so that our artists will have the time and energy to hone their craft rather than be forced, unprepared, into new careers. JWR

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