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Fair Winds Blowing

UPEI Wind Symphony

Review by Ivy Wigmore

I’m relieved to see a fair bit of activity around the Confederation Centre as I approach for the UPEI Wind Symphony’s performance of Johan de Meij’s orchestral work, “The Lord of the Rings.” This is my second attempt. The previous week, we arrived—via cleared streets and in the sunshine—to learn that the performance was cancelled due to road conditions. This week, it’s a go—and the Homburg is packed, possibly because of the large fan base of the band that’s opening for the Wind Symphony.

Rowan Fitzgerald is conducting the Intermediate Schools Honours Band. Although he’d sworn not to talk for fear of going over time, Fitzgerald was compelled to mention the dedication of the students and teachers: They went in early, stayed late and gave freely of their time to make the whole effort possible, because that’s what it takes to keep the program going. The band performed an interesting selection of pieces, ranging from a sweetly melancholy arrangement of She’s like the swallow, through a rocking marching band version of Journey’s Don’t stop believin’ to Michael Sweeney’s Ancient Voices. The latter was a particular highlight, in which relatively simple parts, non-standard uses of instruments and even pencil tapping all combined to create a complex and evocative soundscape of the prehistoric world. I think the conductor, musicians, parents and other audience members were all happy with the performance.

Where will the musicians go from there? One potential future step is UPEI’s excellent Wind Symphony: We learn that a good number of its members performed with the Intermediate Honours band a few years back.

This is a repeat performance for the Wind Symphony, following a sold-out concert in December. Under the direction of Karem Simon, they performed Johan De Meij’s Symphony No. 1 AKA The Lord of the Rings. Each of the symphony’s five movements is  based on a character or locale. Gandalf (the wizard) appears in a dazzling musical flash. Both his wisdom and his wizardly capriciousness are represented in the first movement, as is a wild and urgent ride on Shadowfax.

Subsequent movements take us to the Elvenwood, and introduce us to the slithery, pathetic character of Gollum. Journey in the Dark, the fourth movement, takes us with the Fellowship of the Ring through the Mines of Moria. A plodding rhythm, given emphasis and an edge through low brass, piano and percussion, indicates both the dread felt by the characters and their grim determination to continue onward, even after the catastrophic loss of Gandalf. The final movement finds us back in the Shire, where the normal character of the hobbits reasserts itself through a cheerful folk dance tune. We end on a sombre note, however, representing Frodo and Gandalf sailing away to The Grey Havens.

A week later, I’m reflecting back on the concert and thinking about the dedication behind the performances of both bands. The RCMP has advised drivers to stay off the roads today in the wake of last night’s storm; I’m trying to finish this review before I have to head out through snow-choked streets to the PEI Symphony Orchestra’s concert “Celebrate Fire in Winter.” Speaking of dedication… I heard that although many streets in town were at that point unplowed, the musicians had a 9:30 dress rehearsal. I picture them on skis and snowmobiles, instruments strapped to their backs, or shovelling their own paths to the Centre. I would just barely be surprised, such is the commitment of all these folk—teachers, students, musicians and volunteers—that put so much effort into bringing our community to life with music. Thank you.

Absolutely Fabulous

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On February 12th, the ice was thick on the roads, snow was piled high on either side and a bitter wind was lowering the already frigid temperature. Baby, you know it was cold outside. But in the Homburg Theatre? The band was smokin’! The PEI Symphony Orchestra’s celebratory theme for this season continued with the annual pops concert warmer: Celebrate Fire in Winter.

The performance opened with a dazzling display of fireworks, musically speaking. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was commissioned by King George II to celebrate the signing of the treaty ending the War of Austrian Succession in 1749. According to modern theory, the entertainment, in London’s Green Park, was intended to boost the appeal of an unpopular monarch and reduce grumbling in the wake of an unpopular war. The hapless king was thwarted, however, when the fireworks were accidentally detonated early and burned down the pavilion built for the occasion. Although the music never did accompany these particular fireworks, it certainly could have done so to good effect.

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue finished the first half of the concert. A rhapsody, in music, is an exuberant free-form composition that encompasses multiple contrasting and yet integrated moods and tones. The word itself means songs stitched together. Gershwin is said to have written Rhapsody as a rush job for performance at a concert. As he told biographer Isaac Goldberg, the inspiration for the piece struck him on a train to Boston: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer—I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end…I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Rhapsody does embody Gershwin’s vision, from the first famously wonky notes, and the PEISO positively nailed it.

The concert featured two works by Maritime composers, Gillian Hutchinson and Richard Gibson. Hutchinson has said that her Short Piece for Orchestra No. 1 was composed originally as for solo piano and that rearranging for orchestra “turned out to be more of an experiment in vertical writing rather than the traditional horizontal that we hear in many pieces.” The effect was lovely. Gibson originally created his Concertino for piano and orchestra for this afternoon’s soloist, Moncton native Roger Lord and the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra. In an email, Gibson wrote that his subsequent adaptation of the composition “serves as a much better showcase for the gorgeously lyrical, impressionistically French, side of Mr. Lord’s musical persona.” That description serves to describe the Concertino equally well.

Nearing the end of the afternoon was… the theme from Hockey Night in Canada? Maybe you’ve got to be a fan to have that one warm your blood, I thought. But it was such a rousing, powerhouse rendition, it positively transcended the hockey music genre. The tune seems clearly related to the dynamic nature of the game—I’m sure players could skate to it—despite the fact that composer Dolores Claman had never seen a hockey game before she wrote it. Another highlight here: Throughout the orchestra, several musicians donned PEI Rocket jerseys for this one. High brow? Low brow? Whatever, it was a lot of fun.

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance finished off the concert with all the appropriate ceremony. What a fabulous afternoon! I might make it through to spring yet.

Christmas Party

Celebrate the Joy of the Season
Prince Edward Island Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Sugar Plum Fairy Jade Lipton with the Flowers—Morgan Wagner, Brynn Cutcliffe, Caitlin Francis & LeAnne RevellThe PEISO’s November 22nd concert this year was an invitation to “Celebrate the Joy of the Season,” an event so fun-packed that they had to start early to get it all in. At 1 pm, the festivities commenced with the Musical Instrument Petting Zoo, in which instruments on loan from Long & McQuade were made available in the Concourse for audience members to try out. (Orchestra members also provided demonstrations, in case anyone wanted to see how it was actually done.)  PEISO conductor James Mark, UPEI musicologist Annette Campbell and PEISO Composer-In-Residence Jim O’Leary’s pre-concert talk was up next, followed by cake, served up to the accompaniment of The Singing Strings. And we haven’t even gotten to the performance.

Which began with Oskar Morawetz’s undeniably celebratory “Carnival Overture,” the composer’s first orchestral work. In fact, the Overture was written as a requirement for his bachelor’s degree—it was either that or write a paper. Thinking little of it, Morawetz showed his composition to Sir Ernest MacMillan, who immediately scheduled it for performance—and a career was begun.

Next up, the Toy Symphony (more formally known as Cassation in G major for toys, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings and continuo) was originally thought to be the work of Joseph Haydn—the story being that he had bought a collection of musical toys at a fair and was inspired to compose the symphony for performance at a Christmas party. However, the Toy Symphony has been almost universally attributed to Leopold Mozart (father of Wolfgang Amadeus) since the manuscript was discovered among his papers. But then… that provenance was cast into doubt when further exploration revealed that Mozart the elder enjoyed copying music. More recently, the Toy Symphony was found in the effects of a Benedictine monk of that period, Edmund Angerer, who gets the credit on today’s programme. Since it seems that every other composer was transcribing the music, I suspect we’ll never know for sure. That being the case, I’m opting for Haydn, simply because his story was the most fun.

Special guests joined the orchestra for this one, on the aforementioned toys.  It was such a pleasure to see the distinguished guests tootling, tweetling, thumping, jingling and cuckooing away to beat the band, albeit with the gravitas appropriate to a performance of serious music.

Sung-Ha Shin Bouey directed Le Ragazze Girls Vocal Ensemble and I Ragazzi Junior Children’s Chamber Choir for Pietro Yon’s “Gesu Bambino” and Paul Halley’s “Freedom Trilogy.” The latter is an unusual and upbeat medley of Gregorian chant, South African folk music and American gospel (Amazing Grace).

Not familiar with Otto Nicolai’s “Christmas Overture,” I was a little taken aback by the sombre and ominous opening to the movement, which made me think Nicolai must have been one of those poor souls for whom the season holds only dread. I was a little better educated after reading the programme: The overture is based on a well-known Bible text, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” At the end of the movement, the youth choirs reentered for “Vom himmel hoch da komm ‘ich her” (From heaven above I come). And lo, there was light.

The second half of the performance was given over to excerpts from the Nutcracker Suite, presented in collaboration with dance umbrella. The orchestra performed highlights—and performed superbly, as they did throughout the afternoon—while the talented young dancers defied the laws of physics in a gleeful whirl of colour. Magic!

And so the festive season has begun with a party: Toys, cake, singing, dancing, light, colour and magic, all wrapped up in a spectacular gift from our own fabulous PEI Symphony Orchestra.

A Rare Treat

Celebrate Women In Music
Prince Edward Island Symphony

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Conductor James Mark and composer Jane NaylorThe theme for the PEI Symphony Orchestra’s 44th season is “Celebration” and on October 16, that season got underway with a celebration of women in music. October is Women’s History Month; Person’s Day on October 18th commemorates the date in 1929 when women were legally acknowledged to be persons. Little wonder that female composers have always been under-represented, and all the more reason, then, to celebrate the thrilling music we enjoyed in this performance.

The performance began with Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” Conductor James Marks commented that he’d written words like “bombastic” and “dissonant” into his introduction but after listening again wanted to rewrite, as the piece transcends those elements to reflect the complexity of the subject. The Fanfare was stirring, with a sense of tumult and tremendous activity simmering below the surface, building inexorably to the triumphant finish.

Paule Maurice’s “Tableaux de Provence pour saxophone et orchestre” was next: Five movements created to evoke the beauty, landscape and culture of Provence. Marcel Mule, a pioneer of the classical saxophone, inspired Maurice to write music that would demonstrate that the instrument belongs in the orchestra, at a time when it was not considered suitable. Soloist Kevin MacLean’s subtle and accomplished performance surely banished any lingering doubt.

Composer Jane Naylor’s “Two Connections for Orchestra” finished off the first half of the performance. The first piece, “A Geological Connection,” represents the development of topography over hundreds of millions of years. Through instrumentation, we heard the rise of the Taconic Mountains along the east coast of the continent and their subsequent erosion into a shallow, inland sea and then the connection that links Naylor’s native Ontario home with her current PEI: the sedimentary layer in Niagara strata revealed to have originated from the Tectonic Mountains. The second piece, “To Life!” is a klezmer-flavoured celebration in itself. “Two Connections” was a gorgeous mix of dualities: earthy and ethereal, majestic and mysterious.

In another duality, soloist Morgan Saulnier performed Cécile Chaminade’s “Flute Concertino” with a combination of articulate power and delicacy. Of Chaminade, born in 1857, Ambroise Thomas once said: “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman. Which seems a very back-handed compliment, implying that women composers are not entirely serious—perhaps fitting compositions in between needlework and china painting.

Meaghan Smith finished off the performance with original music that was sort of jazzy, sort of folky, sort of retro – according to a National Post reviewer “as if Bjork recorded an album with k.d. lang and Doris Day." Add the fabulous PEISO and you’ve got quite a show.

Smith was also quite funny. One of the high points was a song based on her “best worst boyfriend” story. She was dating this fellow for a little while but then he was incarcerated. She figured they were broken up, you know, because she didn’t hear from him for six-to-eight months. But then he showed up outside her window early one morning, having busted out. He wanted them to hop a train, run away somewhere exciting. Sounded like fun, said Smith, but she had to go to school. When she sings that song, people often ask, “Is that story true?” To which she responds, “A song is a sacred thing, and I do not lie.”  All ends happily, as the singer was ably accompanied by her spouse (not the jailbird), who she said she likes to call her “husBAND.”

We exited smiling, having been treated to such a rich and varied performance. So many incredibly talented women, both composers and performers, and such a rare opportunity to hear them.

Ghost Story

Are they real?

by Ivy Wigmore

When my grandson was about five, he turned to me one day and said “We can’t see ghosts, right, Nana?” I told him I thought that we could see them sometimes and he responded, “Yeah. But we’re not supposed to, right?”

It’s often said that children and animals can see things that adults cannot. And that ability can make things confusing for a while as they sort out what is “real” and what is “imaginary.” A friend once heard two little girls at a memorial service, discussing how hard it was for them to distinguish the living from the dead. At four or five, though, according to theory, most children begin to differentiate one from the other. And then gradually, as those children learn that the spirits aren’t there in any real sense, the ghosts fade away and eventually become invisible. As we grow up, we usually forget about any encounters with the other side. But some of us still remember…

Laurel Smyth recalls a day when she was about four: “I’d been sent to the store, you know the way people would, in those days—send a small child to the store with a quarter and a list.” She was skipping along the sidewalk in her west Toronto neighbourhood, mindful of the cracks (lest, of course, she break her mother’s back). She looked up from the sidewalk to see her grandmother coming towards her, arm-in-arm with her best friend. The two were progressing slowly along, close together, heads inclined toward each other and deep in conversation.

“I remember thinking how nice it was that grandma had such a good friend—you could just see the love between them. It made me feel very happy, as I skipped closer and closer to them. As I passed them I said ‘Hi Grandma!’ She didn’t stop, and she didn’t break stride but she did turn her head and look down at me with the kindest look but, at the same time, admonishing me not to interrupt. It was like ‘Yes, I see you,’ and she smiled into my eyes but then she turned back to her friend and they continued along.”

As Laurel continued along still thinking about how nice it was that Grandma had such a good friend, she suddenly remembered that Grandma’s friend had died some time ago. And as she was absorbing that fact, she recalled that her Grandma, too, had died. Confused, Laurel spun in her tracks—not more than a few seconds after they’d passed on the sidewalk—but there was no sign of the women. No one, in fact, in sight and nowhere that anyone could have gone…

Years later, Laurel was strolling home along Victoria Row and saw Bernice Kenny sitting at a window table in the former Pat’s Rose and Gray. She knew that Mrs. Kenny had been ill and was glad to see she was well enough to join her family in their restaurant for dinner. Laden with packages, Laurel didn’t stop in but just smiled and saw Mrs. Kenny nod in response. Within a day or so, when Laurel learned of Bernice’s death she said, “Oh no! I just saw her at Pat’s the other day.” Wide-eyed, her friend informed her that could not have been the case because the elegant lady had died before then.

Because there was no indication of anything different about her Grandma or Bernice Kenny, Laurel’s wondered, from time to time, whether some of the people encountered in the run of a day might be spirits. “They were just as real as real,” she says. “So how would you know?”

Engaging Listening

A Fresh Turn
PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The final PEI Symphony Orchestra performance of the season, “A Fresh Turn,” featured the premier of Jim O’Leary’s new composition, “Softly at Night the Stars are Shining” with soloist Helen Pridmore. Because I so enjoyed the last O’Leary work the symphony did, I’d been looking forward to this one since it was first announced. Now, having heard it, I find that I hardly know what to say. For hours after the performance, I could feel my brain churning away, the way it does sometimes in an art gallery.

The title is the first line of a poem inscribed on an O’Leary ancestor’s gravestone. It’s where the composer started his process with this work. For me, the title evoked gentle contemplation that the modern and experimental music belied, seeming more representative of the poem’s references to “lonely silent graves” and bereavement. In an interview in the March Buzz, O’Leary told Heather Doran that he thought “Softly at Night” was his most engaging work to date. In ten years of collaboration with Helen Pridmore, the composer said his writing had gotten increasingly adventurous as the soprano ably mastered any music he created, no matter how challenging. As a result, he created ever-more difficult compositions for voice. Although the vocal part of “Softly at Night” is almost impossible to describe—let alone sing—Pridmore never faltered. Her voice, described as powerful and haunting, was astonishing. The vocal music is a setting of the works of four poets from what is known as the “Young Poland” movement, which was a modernist rebellion against positivism and bourgeois culture. The first movement, “Nocturne,” speaks of a very dark night of the soul. The poems, interspersed with instrumental movements, culminate in “The Sleepy Mountains Disappeared…,” a meditation on death and alteration in the natural world within the context of our contemplation of it and our own final leaving. The cataclysm of “Nocturne” resolved in the final movement’s “quiet, mournful good-bye.”

The PEISO was superb throughout, as we moved on to excerpts from Bach’s “Fifteen Figural Chorales,” as transcribed by John Beckwith. The Chorales were among a large body of work based on hymns and ancient music that Bach composed for Lutheran services. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture” followed. I’ll let the composer speak: “The legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture.” The performance finished with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. This symphony was originally, as No. 7, also known as “the Great C major” to distinguish it from Symphony No. 6, AKA “The Little C major.” However, in modern times, the subtitle is generally considered an allusion to the music’s majesty. We finish the season in fine style with, as music critic Bill Rosen put it, “a finale of Olympic power and beauty.”

I hate to give Bach, Korsakov and Schubert short shrift but really, the O’Leary composition was the major event. After hearing the symphony perform the composer’s “Three Studies for Orchestra” in 2009 and also after hearing “Softly at Night the Stars are Shining,” I went home wanting to listen to the music again, in the first case mostly for pleasure and in the second as an aid to processing the experience, to help me think about it and talk about it. Was “Softly at Night” engaging? Yes. And shocking, dramatic, disturbing, even harrowing. Easy listening it was not but in its way, very engaging. I’m still thinking about it.

Surprise Symphony

Symphonic Reel
PEI Symphony Orchestra with Kendra MacGillivray

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The PEI Symphony Orchestra’s pops concert this year was “Symphonic Reel.” The title is a contradiction in terms that begins to describe this year’s presentation, which was, in no small part, about musical surprises and new ways of thinking about particular genres. As I looked over the programme for the performance, I wondered how often a Star Wars medley, a Beethoven symphony and Celtic jigs and reels have been combined on a single bill of fare—especially along with polkas.

First up was the overture to Mozart’s  “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio), an opera adapted from the story of “Belmonte and Constanze.” Constanze has been abducted by pirates, her safety threatened unless she yields to the Pasha, Salim. The orchestra replicates Constanze’s aria voicing her dreadful plight. A Star Wars medley before the intermission led into the Wagner later on in the performance, where we are directed to see the influence of Wagner on Williams in the use of “leitmotifs”—musical phrases identified with certain places, people or themes. Would Star Wars have been the same without Wagner’s influence? Probably not.

The performance was on the day before Valentine’s Day. Our sweetheart for this year was Kendra MacGillivray, who entered beaming like the sun in red satin. You don’t often see the fiddle and the violin together—probably because, like Peter Parker and Spiderman, they’re essentially the same entity. (Asked the difference between the violin and the fiddle, an anonymous wag is said to have responded “You don’t spill beer on a violin.”) The main real difference between the two is in what’s played on them and how they’re played. For this performance, McGillivray’s fiddle was everything it should have been. Not classical music per se, but definitely classic fiddling. The orchestra backed her up splendidly as reel followed jig and strathspey followed reel, a definite complement to the fiddle. Until, of course, we’d been lulled into a false sense of security and then suddenly the orchestra was doing something else and the music was becoming, likewise, something else. Surprise!

In the audience was the performer’s 93-year-old grandmother, who’d come from Antigonish for the occasion. MacGillivray often performs tunes that her grandfather, Hugh A. MacDonald, recorded in the 1930s. MacDonald, she tells us, was known as “The Polka King” because every time he played he would debut a new polka. Or that’s her story, anyway—MacGillivray said that husband Bruce Rainnie has a different story of how her granddad earned the title. She did not further elucidate, which naturally made us curious. Let’s all call Talkback and demand full disclosure.

We finished up for the afternoon with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Although today Beethoven, is considered to epitomize the Classical composer (along with Bach and Brahms—the “Three ‘B’s’, if they were in a boy band), in Beethoven’s day, his music was considered quite avant garde—too much so for many music lovers. A student of the renowned musical jokester Joseph Haydn, Beethoven was also fond of playing with his audience’s concepts of what symphonic music should sound like. In Symphony No. 4, the composer sets us up with a slow introduction. Which is, once we’ve relaxed back into our seats, followed by a good musical shake. In the second movement, we enjoy lyrical passages that are abruptly and persistently interrupted by a brass fanfare.  One could see how an audience expecting Brahms or Bach might have felt they’d been played. By the end of the symphony, however, all the elements introduced at the start have been drawn together and all promises fulfilled.

A Thread of Magic

Raising the Barre
PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The PEISO presented “Raising the Barre” in late November. The phrase didn’t even hint at the time of year, or festivities to come and yet… there was an unmistakeable whiff of candy cane in the air and a thread of magic woven throughout the afternoon’s performance. We were knee-deep in wizardry immediately, with Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Here’s the story: The sorcerer has left his apprentice to tidy the shop. When the apprentice can’t resist trying a little magic, things get out of hand. Attempts to regain control go awry when, for example, a maniacal broom when cleft with an axe only turns to two, doubling the potential to wreak havoc. Like so much classical music, this piece came to me through the vehicle of cartoons. (Yay for Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse!) In this case, it was Mickey as the sorcerer, in Disney’s “Fantasia.” The orchestra had the collective inner child onside from the start.

Next up was “Deh Vieni, Non Tardar,” an aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” with soloist Kyla Cook. As Susanna, she sings to Figaro, hidden (but not undetected) in a garden: “Oh come, don’t wait.”

Cook also sang “Ah, je ris de me voir” from Gounod’s “Faust.” This aria is sometimes known as “The Jewel Song,” appropriate for the pure, clear voice of the soprano. As Marguerite, here she sings “Ah, I laugh to see myself so beautiful in the mirror,” as she tries on jewelry left by a secret admirer. As it transpires, however, Mephistopheles was responsible, having conjured the gems to help Faust seduce her.

Following the soloist’s performance was the orchestra’s masterful rendition of Debussy’s “Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra.” Debussy believed that the purpose of music was to give pleasure to the audience, and we can see that demonstrated in this piece, from the romantic and dreamlike beginning through to the celebratory dance mood at the end.

“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” by Benjamin Britten was originally commissioned for an educational film called “The Instruments of the Orchestra.” David Helwig ably led the tour this afternoon, reading his own new narrative for the piece. As always, Helwig is a pleasure to listen to. Helwig explained the orchestra sections as teams: One team blows, one scrapes and plucks and one bangs. The method here is to break the thing down into its components, so we could see how each team and each instrument works on its own. We hear each instrument’s version of the piece. Attribution is always important in reviews and it is in this spirit I report that—although I do not say this myself—according to Google (according to Helwig), the oboe sounds like “the song of a duck, if a duck could sing.” Next we hear each team’s version of the piece. Then finally, the components are reassembled and the orchestra demonstrates synergy for us: parts all come together to make something more than their sum.

Although I often say that the performance of The Messiah kicks off the festive season, the PEISO / Dance Umbrella collaboration has really prepared the ground for me the last few years. This year’s presentation was “La Boutique Fantasque.” There’s a giant giraffe to the left of the stage and a rocking unicorn to the right; onstage toys come to life and dancers embody magic. Although the word is not spoken, anyone can see it’s Christmas. And with that, we entered the cozy period of grace before the seasonal madness took us all.

Events Calendar

February 2019
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