We’re often warned to not debate politics or religion over dinner. But when it comes to music, debate and dinner go hand-in-hand.
On July 13, Music Niagara Festival presents The Great Debate and Dinner. Supporters of the festival will have the rare chance to hear prominent experts taking sides on Mozart. The discussion will be interspersed with musical illustrations from Victoria Kogan (piano) and founder and artistic director Atis Bankas (violin), while diners will choose between gourmet appetizer, entree and dessert offerings from The Garrison House, Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery and Ruffino’s Pasta Bar & Grill.
The fundraising event will be moderated by longtime WNED radio host Peter Hall. The impressive lineup of debaters includes music journalist, writer, teacher and broadcaster Robert Harris, soprano and host of the CBC Music program TEMPO Julie Nesrallah, music critic and speaker William Littler, and author and CBC broadcaster Tom Allen.
Allen is the current host of CBC Music’s About Time. A veteran of more than 30 years with the national broadcaster, listeners will also be familiar with his storytelling and music selections over his time hosting Music and Company and then Shift. Allen is a long-time supporter of Music Niagara and was part of their 2020 Beethoven debate as well.
Though Mozart, like Beethoven, is generally considered one of the greatest composers of all time, Allen says there are a surprising number of people who are not huge fans.
“I have learned over the years that an appreciation of Mozart can be elusive,” he says from his Toronto home. “There are people who are thrilled by the athletic violence of a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony, and Mozart is a very different kind of listening.”
In contrast, Allen says Mozart’s music is very refined, very contained, originating as it does from a period of history where there were very specific conditions of what constituted acceptable music.
“Mozart wrote for a very, very small group of very wealthy noble people in Vienna,” he explains. “He wasn’t writing for the masses, with the exception of maybe The Magic Flute, which was presented in a more public theatre. But there wasn’t much of a public concert life in Vienna. He had to be really careful about writing in minor keys, for example, because this very fickle, very powerful audience might not like it. And that would be it for him.”
Allen’s role in next month’s debate is to take the negative view on Mozart’s oeuvre. Though he admits he loves the composer’s work, it’s clear he has been preparing to play devil’s advocate.
“It was a very, very narrow field that he was walking,” Allen adds. “Those that complain about Mozart say that you can hear him following the rules, elegantly and beautifully staying within the lines. But when it comes to inspiring musical imagination you could go further afield. He was a product of a very emotionally restricted time.”
In comparison, Beethoven, who came a generation after Mozart, broke the mould by redefining what music could be about. Beethoven, says Allen, was more able to break rules, and be an individual. The societal shifts brought about by the French Revolution made a huge difference in what each of the two renowned composers could accomplish.
Allen refers to his fellow debaters as a “dream team” of thinkers in the music world.
“Robert Harris is a hero of mine,” enthuses Allen. “He produced Music and Company for about five years. He’s a joy to work with, so giving, smart and funny. Julie is wonderful company. She’s my friend. Normally, when we’re in the office, she sits 10 feet away from me. Peter is a long-time friend, and William Littler is the master of the bon mot.”
He and Harris will go toe-to-toe, backed up by contributions from Nesrallah and Littler.
He also looks forward to the musical selections chosen for the program.
“Victoria is a wonderful pianist,” he raves. “She and Atis play so well together. It’s a beautiful thing for us to be able to illustrate these debates with such great musicians. I won’t know what selections they will choose until probably early July, but I know it will be fantastic.”
The Great Debate and Dinner, along with the Big Online Auction which wraps up this Sunday, June 20 at 6 p.m., take the place of the usual major fundraiser, the Big Night Gala. Normally held in June, this is the second straight year the pandemic has made that event impossible.
Music Niagara Festival general manager Karen Lade credits a great group of volunteers for securing more than 40 amazing items for the auction, which started June 5.
“Even though our volunteers are not in the spotlight, they are the backbone of each and every event at Music Niagara,” she tells The Local. “We are forever thankful for the time and dedication that our volunteers have given us.”
With Father’s Day approaching, she makes special mention of wine selections from Lailey Winery, a rental from eSkoot Niagara, the Peninsula Lakes Golf Package, a test drive with GTA Exotics, a vodka tasting for eight with Music Niagara’s Atis Bankas and a Watercolour in Glass of hole number 8 at the NOTL Golf Club. These items will close before Father’s Day, on Saturday, June 19 at 6 p.m.
As The Local was heading to press Tuesday, Lade was putting finishing touches on the Music Niagara website in preparation for this Friday’s announcement of the summer concert lineup. The delay was necessary due to the earlier uncertainty about the province’s reopening plans.
Allen is looking forward to actually being in town on Aug. 5 for one of the upcoming concerts, information for which he leaked to The Local.
“It will be an outdoor live production,” he explains, “based on a John Cage story, about a time in 1965 when the American avant-garde composer spent 15 hours lost overnight in the remote Saskatchewan woods. I’m very excited about that. Niagara has been a great community for us to bring stories and music together to welcoming audiences.”
Entitled Being Lost, it will include Allen, who will be joined by multi-instrumentalists Lori and Peter Gemmell, Juno-award winning clarinetist Jeff Reilly, and soprano Patricia O’Callaghan. The venue and other details have yet to be finalized.
Tickets for the Great Debate and Dinner are $140. The price includes a $50 tax receipt, a bottle of Jackson-Triggs wine or non-alcoholic beverage, a Music Niagara insulated bag, and an entry for a draw to win 40 bottles of wine. The video link to the debate will be sent on July 13, and dinner can be picked up at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery between 1 and 4 p.m. that day.
For tickets or information on Music Niagara Festival’s 2021 season, visit musicniagara.org