With two final concerts broadcast this Thanksgiving weekend, Music Niagara Festival closed out its 2020 At Home Series with a mix of virtuoso musicianship and comedy.
Festival general manager Karen Lade is quick to point out, however, that more is to come over the next couple of months. The yearly Remembrance Day and Christmas celebrations are still being planned, and will, of course, move to an online format as well.
Though both she and artistic director Atis Bankas missed being able to host live events in person, they are happy with the new opportunities going virtual has offered. For one, for the first time, all of this season’s concerts remain available to watch on Music Niagara’s website and YouTube channel.
The At Home Series was made possible by a generous matching challenge of $10,000 last March from Carol and David Appel, who have been long-time supporters of Music Niagara. Looking to next year, the Appels have offered another matching challenge of $10,000 for the music festival. Donations, which will help fund its 22nd season, can be received under this challenge until Dec. 4.
Lade points as well to a successful partnership with Niagara College, whose broadcasting – radio, television and film department professionally recorded each of the 15 concerts this year.
Peter VandenBerg, coordinator of the broadcasting program, thanks former Niagara College board chair John Scott for connecting him with the festival. “The opportunity to work with Music Niagara and record world class musicians has been incredible,” enthuses VandenBerg. “This is experiential learning at its finest, and has provided our students another unique opportunity to be creative and apply the skills they’ve learned in our broadcast program. This At Home Series allowed us to focus on audio recording techniques and live multi-camera production.”
Lade is also appreciative that for each program the venues, including Chateau des Charmes, Pondview Estate Winery, the McArthur Estate and Queen’s Landing, were offered free of charge. It’s a show of support from the community that was invaluable, she says.
As for the two concerts last weekend, British expats will feel right at home while watching Music Niagara’s Last Night of the Proms, recorded on a beautiful, sunny afternoon at Chateau des Charmes Winery.
The BBC Proms, formerly the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, are a British tradition dating back to 1895. The ‘Last Night’ part of the title refers to the finale of the eight-week summer season of daily orchestral concerts, most of which are held at the Royal Albert Hall and aired by the UK’s national broadcaster.
For the Music Niagara event, the orchestra is conducted by Sabatino Vacca, and features Canadian soprano Allison Cecilia Arends as soloist. Adding a bit of British authenticity, Niagara Falls comedian David Green, an expat himself, hosts the event.
Arends kicks things off with a wonderful rendition of God Save the Queen, and later takes a run at Poor Wand’ring One from the musical Pirates of Penzance. And, if you’re a Liverpool Soccer Club fan, you’ll probably want to sing along with her version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which has become the club’s theme song.
Green, Niagara’s king of the one-liner, ties things together throughout, with a bit of comedy and some background about the song selections. The Nottingham native hosts the event wearing his Union Jack sweater. “I don’t get up there and just do puns,” he tells The Local. “My job is to just keep the flow going in between, keep it light-hearted. I’ll make observations in between and make jokes about things that have just happened.”
Conductor Vacca is the founder, artistic director, and chorus master of the newly formed Southern Ontario Lyric Opera, as well as the music director of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and the Milton Philharmonic Orchestra. The 15-piece orchestra put together by Vacca and Atis Bankas includes some of Vacca’s colleagues, members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and local Niagara musicians affiliated with Music Niagara.
The program includes many of the usual, tried and true Proms staples, such as Rule Britannia, and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Bankas plays a beautiful solo on the R. Vaughan Williams classic, The Lark Ascending. It’s a mix of the intimate and the regal for which the Proms has come to be known. You might want to prepare the tea and crumpets before sitting down to enjoy the show.
The final entry in the 2020 At Home Series is a tribute to perhaps the most important jazz album ever recorded. Released in 1959, the Miles Davis masterpiece, Kind of Blue, still stands today as one of the best albums ever made. Though it fell from number 12 to number 31 on this month’s update of Rolling Stone Magazine’s best albums of all time (it is the first jazz album on the list), it remains a landmark recording that still defines the jazz genre today.
One of Canada’s finest trumpet players, Steve McDade leads a talented band featuring Perry White on tenor saxophone, John Johnson on alto sax, Adrean Farrugia on piano, Scott Alexander on bass, and Brian Barlow on drums. The sextet rips through the well-known jazz classics So What, Freddie Freeloader and Flamenco Sketches, as well as other numbers from the jazz legend’s repertoire.
As with Last Night of the Proms, comedy is also a part of this final show. To keep things light-hearted, popular NOTL comedian Joe Pillitteri makes his second appearance in the At Home Series as host of the event, recorded at the beautiful McArthur Estate on John Street.
Summing up the season, Lade says, “we have had to be inventive and rise to the occasion. From the beginning of the pandemic, we worked hard to connect and support everyone. That includes not only our dedicated audiences, but also our patrons and sponsors and of course, our musicians, and the brilliant students who take part in our annual Performance Academy.”
She adds, “the At Home Series has reached a much larger audience than our live season, and we have engaged and employed over 80 artists during a time when many are out of work. It’s been a huge success.”
To see Last Night of the Proms, Kind of Blue, or any of the other Music Niagara Festival programs from this year, visit musicniagara.org or the Music Niagara YouTube page.