Spring and new beginnings

Peter Wiebe set the bar extremely high as the inaugural conductor of the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra.

There wasn’t a better choice than Wiebe when former maestro John Morris Russell established the WSYO and its junior division in 2004. A father of six musicians, a skilled performer, and a veteran music educator, Wiebe knew what strings to pull when dealing with young people.

He also supported his wife, Ruth, herself an accomplished musician, in home-schooling their kids up until high school.

As most of his children are now pursuing their own careers and moving away from the family home, it was time for Wiebe to take a breather. He remains the WSO associate conductor and occasional cellist. Judging by a recent post on Facebook, he and Ruth have travel plans in the offing, presumably to the world’s musical meccas.

Wiebe’s final appearance on the podium for the WSYO will take place May 13 at the Capitol Theatre.

Now wouldn’t a full house make for a fitting send-off?


Singing for spring

Recently, during the brief spring thaw a week or so back, I was soaking up some rays on the deck when a red cardinal started to serenade me from a nearby TV antenna.

Alas, the moment was short-lived, and a couple of days later I was buying a tarpaulin to protect our fig tree from an ice storm. I haven’t heard the cardinal since.

But hope springs eternal and by the time Windsor Symphony performs its pair of Point Pelee Celebration concerts, April 28 and 29, the songbird may return.

Those concerts, by the way, celebrate the 100th anniversary of Leamington’s Point Pelee National Park, and feature music by Respighi, Haydn, and Canadian composer Marian Mozetich.

The Respighi work is titled Gli uccelli (Italian for The Birds), and was based on 17th and 18th century melodies by a variety of composers. Each of the five movements simulates birdsong, although none, unfortunately, a cardinal.

The Saturday show inside the park is already sold out, but you can still get tickets for the Sunday matinee concert at Heritage Auditorium (formerly Assumption Chapel) in Windsor.


Song and dance

The final performance of the 2017-18 season of 4th Wall Music, under director Amy Lee, is Sunday, April 22, at 4 p.m., at Mackenzie Hall. Joining the talented chamber group will be dancers from HNM Dance, one of the enduring attractions of Windsor’s cultural scene.

Tickets are $20 adults, $10 students, and $5 for children 12 and under. You can purchase them online at 4thwallmusic.org, or a Biblioasis.

The intriguing program ranges from tangos by Astor Piazzola to classical melodies by Brahms.



Fado forever

Carlinda and I recently returned from a five-week trip to Europe, which included 10 days in Portugal. It was our first visit there and our first encounter with Fado.

This folk music that originated in the 18th century is part-confessional, part-lover’s lament. It lends itself to performances in intimate clubs or small restaurants. We took in two performances, one in Lisbon and the other in Lagos.

I have become an instant fan of Fado’s lyrical intensity and the virtuosity of its performers. If anyone knows where we can hear it live in our neck of the woods, let me know.




The Top Hat, Alice, notes and words

Mike Drakich had a soft spot for Vic Damone at the old Top Hat Supper Club.
The late impresario loved the old crooners and comedians, and Damone returned the favor by appearing at the Top Hat several times late in his career. Damone passed away earlier this week at age 89.
The Top Hat was one of the few true supper clubs to survive in an era when rock concerts and dance clubs were destroying the old nightclub scene.
The Top Hat itself had seen better days in the ’80s and ’90s when the likes of Damone, Frank Gorshin and Rich Little paid regular visits. The Top Hat is but a dim memory now, torn down to make way for a burger joint.
One of things that endeared Drakich to Damone was his culinary talent. He would take over the kitchen to prepare traditional Italian meals. Not many were allowed access to the kitchen, where Drakich’s wife, Mary, and youngest son, Sam, ruled the roost.
One performer, however, was persona non grata — Bette Midler. She criticized the cooking in an interview once, and claimed the kitchen wasn’t clean. Drakich, a scrupulous perfectionist, took issue with the remarks and never forgave Midler. And the proof is in the pudding, so to speak: the Top Hat remained a fixture in Windsor’s nightlife for years to come.


Lotsa shock, no sock

Alice Cooper returns to Caesars Windsor Colosseum on March 1, but it’s a safe bet he won’t have his golf clubs — the shock rocker is a near-scratch golfer. It’ll be a little too early to hit the links in this area.


WSO chimes in

It’s a busy week over at the Capitol’s Pentastar Theatre, 121 University Ave. W.

Maestro Robert Franz will unfold the Windsor Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 11 a.m. The public is invited to attend free of charge.

The next night, Friday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m., it’s the annual Side-by-side concert with the WSO Youth Orchestra and members of the symphony. Tickets are just $10 for adults, $5 for students.

Then, on Feb. 24 and 25, it’s the next Pops series concerts, titled Wild, Wild West, featuring the Magnificent Seven music and show tunes from Western-themed musicals. Tickets are $14-$64 at windsorsymphony.com.


Mandal’s triumph

Veronique Perrier Mandal’s new book, Getting Off: A Criminal Lawyer’s Road to Redemption, is the strange but true saga of Don Tait, the former Windsor lawyer who fought personal demons and lived to tell his story.

I covered many trials that featured Tait as defence lawyer and, despite his reputation as a drinker and womanizer, he seldom let it affect his courtroom performances. In his day, Tait was among the top criminal lawyers in the province.

While at The Windsor Star, Mandal won awards for her coverage of Tait’s subsequent fall from grace and his even more remarkable recovery.

She will read passages from the book and answer questions at the next A Taste of Literature event, hosted by Pamela Goldstein, at The Twisted Apron Restaurant, 1833 Wyandotte St. E., on Feb. 26. For more information. call 519-730-0315.

Burton Cummings in rewind

Burton Cummings returns to Windsor for a gig Jan. 26 at Caesars Windsor, and it brings to mind a couple of times I rubbed shoulders, so to speak, with the legendary musician.

Cummings has a special relationship with Windsor that goes back to the 1970s at the very start of the Guess Who’s career. Rosalie Trombley, then head of programming at CKLW-AM, got behind the song These Eyes and it became an international hit, essentially providing a launching-pad for the band’s career.

Ever since, both Cummings and Randy Bachman attest to the significance of Trombley’s help. The connection continues to this day as Trombley’s son, Tim, is entertainment director at Caesars Windsor.
In 1981-82, I had a chance to interview Cummings in a hotel room in downtown Toronto to promote a new movie, Melanie.
It was one of those deals where you get your name on a list, then get assigned a time for the interview.
Most of my interviews during the 30-plus years I worked at the Windsor Star were done over the phone. This was a rare opportunity for me to do one in person, and it was at a time when the paper actually paid travel expenses.
I was a little nervous because Cummings has a huge ego and could be a little testy with the media.
When I was ushered into the room, Cummings rose to his feet and graciously offered his hand. I was immediately put at ease. And I was impressed by the music of The Police coming from a tape player nearby.
Cummings was anxious to talk about his debut in film. He’d also written a couple of new songs for it, one of which, You Saved My Soul, went on to win a Genie Award.

We got on well for the 20 minutes or so of the chat, and I told him how much I admired his music. Entertainers are suckers for compliments. But then again, aren’t we all?
My next encounter with Cummings wasn’t as up-close and personal. It was 15 or so years later when a rejuvenated version of the Guess Who were scheduled to perform at Windsor’s Riverfront Festival Plaza.
That was an ill-fated International Freedom Festival concert which some may recall for the furious summer storm that hit like a sneak attack.
The Guess Who was the climax act of a week of shows. There was some controversy about how much organizers had paid but that’s all in the past, now. At 5 p.m. that evening the skies turned a soupy green, always a harbinger of bad things to follow. The storm strafed the plaza, knocking over tents, tossing chairs like they were toys, and sending everyone into a frenzy looking for cover.
In a few minutes, it was over. But the decision was made to cancel some acts because the old onion-shaped stage that faced west took the storm face-on and was a flooded mess. Hundreds of people started drifting back, hoping the Guess Who were still on.

I’m not sure where the band was holed up all that time. Maybe they hunkered down at the casino across the street.

Most of the high-voltage equipment had been covered over by plastic sheets. But for some reason, a sole piano stood like a sentinel in the middle of the stage. It was Burton Cummings’ electric keyboard.

Unannounced and without any fanfare, the Guess Who’s support act, Chantal Kreviazuk, strolled to centre stage, and sat down at the piano. Dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, her hair tied up under a scarf, Kreviazuk began playing some of her songs.

The crowd, now diminished because of the weather, roared with approval. She won more than a few Windsor fans that evening.

An hour or so later, the Guess Who themselves showed up under clear skies and put on a somewhat shortened show of their hits. Nobody complained. The crowd had been rewarded for its patience and even got what amounted to a private performance.

In August, Randy Bachman will bring his act to the new Classic Rock Festival at Riverfront Plaza. This time, though, he’ll be under the protective cover of the permanent stage. And it faces east, away from the prevailing wind of a summer storm.

Christmas sights and sounds

The listening room


I looked forward every year at The Windsor Star to writing a feature about new seasonal CD releases.

I avoided writing about the latest from 20-something pop and hip-hop artists because they tended to trivialize the season and were generally filled with over-wrought new compositions that had very little to do with Christmas, and more with marketing.

That brings me to this list, which is a selection from my personal collection of the last 30 or so years. In no particular order, here they are. You should be able to order most of them from your favourite online source.

Carols From Clare, conducted by John Rutter (EMI Classics): This is a real classic from 1967, with several compositions by Rutter, including the magnificent opening track, Shepher’s Pipe Carol, and many traditional carols. Put this on Christmas morning with a hot beverage.

Grover Washington Jr., Breath of Heaven (Columbia): The smoothest of smooth jazz artists turns a dozen traditional  carols and 20th century songs into a relaxing respite from the winter’s worst. Great for Christmas eve with a glass of sherry.

Loreena McKennitt, A Midwinter Night’s Dream (Quinlan Road Recordings): Canada’s Celtic harpist infuses her originals and traditional carols with musical flavours from around the globe. Another Christmas eve selection.

Stan Kenton, A Merry Christmas! (Capitol): Dating from 1961 and reissued in 2003 on Blue Note, this is my all-time favourite big band Christmas album. Great for playing while enjoying Christmas dinner.

Frank Sinatra, A Jolly Christmas (Capitol): Growing up in the ’60s, this Gordon Jenkins-arranged album was seldom off the turntable in my house. One side is contemporary, the other sacred. Thankfully, it was reissued on CD in 2005. A great accompaniment to tree-trimming.

David Foster, The Christmas Album (Atlantic): Almost from the day it was released in 1993, this became a staple of the season in households and radio stations everywhere. The concept of Foster heading up an all-star cast of performers is a gift that keeps on giving. Good anytime during the season.

Cincinnati Pops under Erich Kunzel, Christmastime Is Here (Telarc): Our beloved John Morris Russell learned his pops chops from the late Erich Kunzel. Russell, of course, has taken over in Cincinnati and is adding to the legacy. If you have fond memories of Russell’s Christmas pops concerts while in Windsor, then pick this up to find out where he got some of his inspiration. An album of cheer for Christmas morning.

Diana Krall, Christmas Songs (Verve): If there’s one contemporary artist you can trust with Christmas music new and old, it’s Diana Krall. And none other than Tommy LiPuma and Johnny Mandel co-produced it. This is a must for your Christmas get-together with family and friends.


The man in the red suit


Windsor Symphony was promising a visitor from the North Pole at its concerts Dec. 15-17 at the Capitol Theatre.

One of my fondest memories takes me back to the days at the Chrysler Theatre and the arrival of Santa during a WSO Pops concert. A certain well-known individual dressed in red and white could be heard bellowing seasonal wishes from the rear of the auditorium.

He was the embodiment of the Jolly Old Elf. His initials are P.H., and I think at the time he was on the WSO board of directors, maybe even its president. By day, P.H. tends to the law. But his most passionate work is in support of the city’s cultural welfare.

With P.H., everything’s in balance.




Plenty of holiday fun this December

Girls, guns and gags

No tradition is too sacred for Tracy Atin and her band of jesters at Windsor’s Korda Productions.
For their annual December panto they’ve cooked up a clever concoction titled Annie of Green Gables Get Your Gun!!!
It’ll be a truly western experience for that darling of the Maritimes, Anne of Green Gables.
So slap some leather and head down to the Kordazone Korral, 2520 Seminole St., Dec. 7-17. But you’ll have to check your sidearms at the door.
For details, go to kordazone.com.


The winter of love

St. Clair College’s supremely talented group of music theatre performance and entertainment technology students have put together Merry Christmas 1967 for their annual holiday revue and dinner show, Dec. 14-16, at St. Clair Centre for the Arts’ Chrysler Theatre.
Earlier in 1967, it was the Summer of Love. But several top stars got into the holiday spirit with new releases in early December: The Royal Guardsmen offered Snoopy’s Christmas, while Stevie Wonder put a Motown spin on Someday at Christmas and Roger Miller sang Old Toy Trains.
The chart-topper the first week of December 1967 was The Monkees’ Daydream Believer. Favourite toys that year included Easy Bake Ovens and G.I. Joes.
Go to chryslertheatre.com for more, or call 519-252-6579.


Rock This Town

New York City-based Rock This Town Orchestra brings its swinging sound to the Chrysler Theatre, Dec. 17. The show is billed as a Christmas Spectacular, as well as a tribute to the music of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and The Stray Cats. There’s even a dash of Luis Prima to spice things up.
Tickets are $25 plus taxes and fees at the Chrysler box office or online at chryslertheatre.com.


Mighty Messiah

Handel’s choral masterpiece will be performed Dec. 9 at Leamington United Mennonite Church; and Dec. 10 at Tecumseh’s Ste. Anne’s Church, both starting at 7:30 p.m.
The Windsor Symphony Orchestra under Peter Wiebe will be accompanied by soloists and the WSO Chorus.
Tickets for both performances are $14-$35, at tickets.vendini.com, or at the Capitol Theatre box office.


Holiday Pops with WSO

If you’re looking for something a little more frothy than Handel, there are three Windsor Symphony pops shows, Dec. 15-17, at the Capitol’s Pentastar Theatre. Tickets range from $13 to $64.

The program includes a visit from Santa and a recitation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Tickets are available at tickets.vendini.com.


The S’aints are marching in

That group of local rockers who band together for food bank charities every year is back at it, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m., at the Colosseum at Casino Windsor.

A musical, a rhapsody and a piano


Two of Windsor’s leading cultural organizations – Windsor Light Music Theatre and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra – shared the spotlight at sold-out events over last weekend.

Mamma Mia!, Windsor Light’s fall production – its 136th since 1948 – opened at the Chrysler Theatre to packed houses, and continues with four more shows this Friday through Sunday, Nov. 24-26.

Windsor Symphony unveiled its newest acquisition, a Steinway grand piano, last Saturday at the Capitol Theatre.
Guest pianist Alain Lefevre delivered a flawless performance of Rhapsodie Romantique by the late Quebec composer, Andre Mathieu.

This is a work that has been largely ignored since Mathieu’s death in the 1960s. But Lefevre has been championing it in performances during Canada’s 150th anniversary year. It’s a marvellous melange of colourful musical language that requires virtuoso playing from both the soloist and the orchestra.

While he was compared favourably with Rachmaninoff in his lifetime, Mathieu was all but forgotten until Lefevre took up his cause in recent years.

The new Steinway, with its resonance and shimmering clarity, was the ideal vehicle, and Lefevre, who is one of Canada’s pre-eminent soloists, captured every nuance of the work.

As for Windsor Light’s Mamma Mia!, the audience had to brave cold and wet weather over the weekend, but they were warmed quickly by the familiar music of ABBA.

Under director Chris Hickman, the cast responded with blue-sky enthusiasm.

Janet Dixon-Snaden, as Donna, the Mamma of the title, is a standout in her third appearance with Windsor Light. Her rendition of The Winner Takes It All in the second act, particularly, brought tears to many in the audience last Saturday.

Also outstanding are Elena Holowitz as Sophie and Brian Yeomans as Sam.

Windsor Light has added an extra matinee performance on Saturday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m., due to high ticket demand. But tickets may still be hard to come by. Check out windsorlight.com just in case.

A gift for the ages: Weingarden donation sets up a bright future for WSO

It was called an Ode to Canada, but the opening concert of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra’s 70th season at the Capitol Theatre on Sept. 23 was an ode to this city’s enduring love affair with cultural excellence.

There was the revelatory performance of perhaps the greatest symphonic work ever written, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy. There was the Windsor Symphony Chorus pulling out all the stops in the finale. There were four international soloists, a children’s choir from area schools, the launch of a book by regional poets, and a newly commissioned work by Toronto’s Jordan Pal.

But, if all that wasn’t enough, there was a dazzling gift from two of the city’s great patrons of the arts.

Madelyn and Arthur Weingarden have provided funding for a Steinway concert grand piano. The instrument can cost upwards of US$250,000. But the gift is worth far more than that given the legacy it will instantly create and the opportunity to attract some of the world’s top soloists in all fields of music. The company’s website (admittedly not the least biased of sources) states that 98 per cent of the “giants” in the classics, jazz and pop prefer to play on a Steinway.

If you buy it, they will come.

Peter Hrastovec, a former WSO board president, responded this way to a remark about how long this community has waited for a professional-grade piano: “Years? Decades is more like it.”

Seven decades, to be precise. Hopefully, the orchestra takes delivery of its new prize possession by Nov. 18, when one of Canada’s supreme soloists, Alain Lefevre, brings his Canada 150 Project to the Capitol.

Sept. 23 was a sellout, and for good reason. The opening pops weekend, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, of the music of Star Wars was also sold out. The WSO is batting 1.000!

The launch of Black Moss Press’ Because We Have All Lived Here was further cause for celebration. Local actors Tracey Atin (Korda Productions) and Timothy Maitland read excerpts from the poems of Carlinda D’Alimonte, Marty Gervais, Peter Hrastovec, D.A. Lockhart, Dorothy Mahoney, Mary Ann Mulhern, and Vanessa Shields. The readings were inserted between movements in Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, a unique and effective forum devised by WSO conductor Robert Franz.

Franz began his fourth season at the helm, and the future looks bright under his leadership.

As October moves forward, we have promising Classics in the County and Intimate Classics concerts in store on Oct. 21 and 22. It’s titled Bach & Sons and features section leaders from the orchestra and guests in performances of J.S. Bach and his sons. I’ve always believed a day without Bach is a day without sunshine. Here’s a chance to load up for those rainy days.

The concerts are at Leamington’s United Mennonite Church on Oct. 21, and the Heritage Auditorium (formerly Assumption Chapel) in the University of Windsor on Oct. 22. Check out windsorsymphony.com for tickets.

If you’re interested in the book of poetry, which celebrates Windsor’s 125th anniversary, go to blackmosspress.com, or visit Windsor’s premier bookstore, Biblioasis, 1520 Wyandotte St. E. (biblioasis.com). While there, pick up a copy of Marty Gervais’ latest tribute to his hometown, Five Days Walking Five Towns, published by Biblioasis. It will have its official launch at the store on Nov. 17.

Speaking of books, the 13th Bookfest Windsor, subtitled The Next 150 (a reference to Canada’s birthday year), takes place at the Capitol Theatre, Oct. 20-22. Website: bookfestwindsor.com.

That will be followed on Oct. 30-Nov. 5 by the Windsor International Film Festival. Website: windsorfilmfestival.com.

I’ll have more to say in this space about both those events in the coming weeks.

It has been fun getting back in the saddle. The blog will evolve over time and contain elements of my old Artbeat column in The Windsor Star, as well as my reviews and interviews. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!