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Events continue at the Seniors Active Living Centre, Bell Aliant Centre, UPEI, Charlottetown: Decem [ ... ]

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Heart and soul

Searching for Abegweit: The Island Songs and Stories of Lennie Gallant

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Performed by
Lennie Gallant (stories, vocals, guitar), Jonathan Gallant (vocals and percussion) Jeremy Gallant (piano), Sean Kemp (fiddle), Patricia Richard (vocals, multiple instruments)

Directed by
Jac Gautreau 

Written by
Lennie Gallant

Supported by
Chris Knox (audio), Chris Perry (lighting) and Jennafer Beck (stage and projection). Jac Gautreau implemented Lennie Gallant’s design for the visual elements and the flow among them. 

The show
A deep exploration of Island roots through the filter of a native son. Lennie Gallant performs songs from the long span of his career interspersed with folklore, history, jokes and personal stories. 

The Performance
Songs and stories are presented in front of a screen featuring the exquisite dreamscape paintings of Lennie’s sister Karen Gallant, along with photos and film, much of it archival. Examples: A duet about the long journey of a relationship is juxtaposed with film of a train’s journey through various seasons and terrain — visceral stuff, that anguished cry/train whistle. The title song was combined with Mi’kmaq chant and, on the screen, a film overlay of chanter Hubert Francis and a jingle dancer. 

Best thing
The visual art onscreen was just stunning and so perfectly integrated with the wonderful music and stories. The band was on fire. Sean Kemp’s violin? Wow. 

Final thoughts
Searching for Abegweit was exhilarating, heartening, heart-breaking and haunting; the music and images are still on repeat in my head. See it!

—Playing select dates at Harbourfront Theatre. Tickets/info harbourfronttheatre.com.

In love?

Anne & Gilbert—The Musical

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Performed by
Jayne Peters (Anne Shirley); Jonathan Gysbers (Gilbert Blythe); Jenny Wiesz (Diana Barry); Catherine O’Brien (Marilla Cuthbert); Marlene Handrahan (Rachel Lynde); Rachel Delduca (Josie Pye*); Aaron Crane (Moody MacPherson); Eva Petris (Philippa Gordon*); Matt Raffy (Roy Gardner); Mark Fraser (Mr. Sloane*); Fiona Clancey (Annetta Bell*); Simon Derome (Anthony*); Cameron Francis (Alonzo); Chris May (Fred); Sarah Rorabeck (Prillie*)

*Additional roles omitted.

Directed by
Catherine O’Brien

Written by
Bob Johnston, Nancy White, Jeff Hochhauser

The performance
The big singing and dancing numbers were fabulous and the supporting cast a joy. The script and many of the lyrics were smart and amusing and the set design was terrific: fascinating to look at, highly functional and smoothly implemented. Energy lagged in longer scenes featuring Anne and Gilbert, when I examined the (admittedly interesting) set design and projection. The pair demonstrated little of the lust and longing seen in Josie for Gilbert and by Roy for Anne. The lead characters were somewhat earnest in contrast to their young friends.

Supported by
Brittany Banks (choreographer); Rachel O’Brien (music director); Shawnte Burrell (head of wardrobe); Bryan Kenney (set designer); Leigh Ann Vardy (lighting designer); Nick Bottomley (projection designer); Robert Pel, Anne Putnam (stage manager)

The story
Anne of Green Gables has grown up and Avonlea is a-twitter, anticipating romance between Anne and Gilbert. Anne, however, is resistant. We watch the never-smooth path as they start their teaching careers and move on to college. 

Best thing
Rachel Delduca (Josie Pye) was a stand-out — terrific adolescent girl comedic drama and always fun to watch. 

Shortcoming
Anne and Gilbert scenes could have been shorter and snappier. 

Final thoughts
Recommended, especially for Anne fans. Fun, (mostly) high-energy entertainment. 

—Select dates at The Guild. Tickets/info: theguildpei.com.

Farewell

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On April 23, the PEI Symphony Orchestra finished its 49th season in fine style. Well, “fine” is quite an understatement, really. I’m sure if I surveyed audience members as they exited, “fine” would not be a word chosen to describe the performance. “Amazing” would probably be the general consensus, with some variations along the lines of “astonishing” quite likely.

First up was “Voyageur,” by Andrew Staniland, commissioned for the Toronto Symphony’s 2007 Northern Residency tour. The New Yorker described his music as “alternately beautiful and terrifying.” (According to one violinist, that might depend on which side of the stage you were on.) By Staniland’s own admission, composers must embody the spirit of the early exploratory voyageur, “charting new courses of statement and expression,” to satisfy the human need to “reach out, go further, take risks and explore.”

Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 rounded out the first half. The popular symphony is also known as the Haffner for the family who commissioned it on the occasion of the son’s elevation to nobility, and the grand music befits the occasion. From the thrilling first movement, marked “allegro con spirito” (quick, with spirit), to the final “presto” (very fast) last, the Haffner is an exuberant piece of work. How fast is presto? As fast as possible, according to Mozart. By another definition, presto describes something brought about suddenly, possibly by magic. That works too.

In the second half of the performance, soloist Marc Djokic took the stage for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto — and did he take the stage. I’ve been thinking ever since of how to characterize the special quality of Djokic’s performance. The Concerto is famously difficult and it’s not that he made it seem easy, exactly, but there was a certain inevitable perfection to his playing, as if he could not make an error or fail to deliver a single nuance to a note. I could only think of what is commonly known as being in the zone, the point where skill and challenge find their fulcrum and magic enters performance of all sorts. Christopher Bergland, an ultrarunner, calls it superfluidity: “... a state of performing with zero friction, zero viscosity, and superconductivity — it is a state of absolute harmony and endless energy.” That’s the zone where Djokic was, stepping squarely into it each time he picked up his bow. And the orchestra was with him every step of the way. I think I’ve got to resort to “astonishing” to describe it. 

It never ceases to amaze me that we have this remarkable symphony orchestra here — in our own tiny province, our own little town — that we have had it now for almost half a century. The PEISO officially launched its 50th season May 1, dedicated to the memory of founder John Clement, who left us on April 13. In his honour, Clement’s widow Jenet joined the orchestra on piano for “Ashokan Farewell.” So soon after his death, the tribute must have cost her dearly but was, as PEISO member Margo Connors commented, “expressed the best way she knows, in her own language.” The language of music, that is, that the Clements had dedicated their lives to fostering here.

In his introduction, PEISO president Bruce Craig announced the creation of the “Send a kid to the symphony fund,” also dedicated to the memory of John Clement. The fund will be used to provide free symphony tickets for young people, in the interests of getting them to performances and thus helping to ensure the future of the PEISO. As a woman sitting nearby said, “all you have to do is get them here once. Then they’ll be hooked.”

The power of music

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Maestro Shapiro warned us. The PEI Symphony Orchestra director introduced the November performance, Vishtèn and Shostakovich, by informing us that if we thought the only purpose of music was to relax us, we were mistaken. He spoke of the power of music to communicate, and the authenticity of the voices we were to hear that afternoon.

We started not relaxing almost immediately. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5  was written in 1937 in the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge. Artists were highly suspect and those who produced works that were deemed not sufficiently Marxist were often sent to concentration camps, where many died. And so Shostakovich was faced with a pretty terrible dilemma: He could compose patriotic works and be safe or he could retain his artistic integrity and possibly die for it. Fortunately the composer found his means of expression and created a complex and subtle work that managed to satisfy the Stalinists, while subverting that simplicity with touches that were audible only to a more musically sophisticated audience. There were musical references to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, for example. The third movement is a requiem for loved ones who had died in the purge.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony was extraordinarily stirring, and spoke clearly of the composer’s almost unbearable environment. His own take: “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing…” Although the composer himself felt that his work suffered from the constraints imposed upon it, it may have been just those strictures that made the work so emotionally complex, subtle and powerful. I don’t know when I’ve been so completely absorbed by a performance, and I know I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat. A friend, afterwards, suggested I could write a one-word review: “Whew!”

Vishtèn took the stage after the intermission. Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc are twin sisters from the Evangeline region in western PEI, and Pascal Miousse from the Magdalen Island completes the trio of multitalented musicians. You can’t read about the group without coming across words like “high-voltage,” “high-octane” and  other variations on a theme of energy. I wish I could better characterize that energy because it really is something special, as wild and pure as fast water flowing by a rocky coast. All three were raised on traditional French music, into which they blend Celtic, folk and world music rhythms and their own exuberant presentation style. Some of the songs were sad—as Emmanuelle said, Acadian songs tend to end badly, in disaster and heartbreak—but they were all full of life, nevertheless.

Collaborations between a symphony orchestra and popular musicians are a little like improvisational cooking, throwing two unusual elements in a pot and seeing what happens. Sometimes the combination seems inspired and sometimes they just don’t go together. In this case, the arrangements with the orchestra amplified the themes of the group’s music, lending it a mythic, epic quality that seemed particularly appropriate for the well-rooted trio.

Vishtèn finished with an audience-mandated encore, as our journey with them reached its end. It was not a relaxed crowd that exited the Centre after the concert, exactly, but I think it was one enlivened and enriched by the performance. The concert was touted as the one not to miss this season (sure, I know, now I tell you)  and I’m so glad I didn’t. Relaxing? It’s overrated.

So much music

Elgar's Enigma

Review by Ivy Wigmore 

On October 16, the PEI Symphony Orchestra ushered in their 2016/2017 season with “Elgar’s Enigma,” under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. This season, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of our beloved hometown orchestra, opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” reflecting on two poems by Goethe.

One of the greatest pleasures, one of the biggest thrills of PEISO concerts is the presentation of new original works, in this case, Harry Stafylakis’ “Arc of Horizon.” Stafylakis is the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, a former metal musician from Montreal now based in New York. He creates contemporary classical music informed by his background in progressive metal and traditional Greek folk music. “Arc of Horizon” is a very personal work for the composer, the central problem and motivation for which, he says, was the conflict between his musical past and present.

The piece was commissioned by the Lake George Music Festival. Lake George, NY , half-way between Montreal and NYC, has always been a landmark for Stafylakis, signaling “departure from one place and imminent arrival at another.” The composer says that the transition always “evokes tangled and conflicting emotions of aspiration, longing, regret, fear and nostalgia.” All of which are made manifest in Arc of Horizon, a dynamic and compelling work. The New York Times described the composer’s “Brittle Fracture” as “dreamy but rhythmic” and Arc of Horizon could be similarly described. The performance was the Canadian premiere of Arc of Horizon, and it was simply spectacular.

Another great pleasure: Seeing a new generation of musicians rise up to take their places. Connie Yun is this year’s winner of the Suzanne Brenton award, given each year to a promising student. The award itself is made possible through the financial gift of a former PEISO cellist who only began to play at the age of 60. In contrast, Yun is 16 and has been playing violin for a decade, winning many awards and prizes for both violin and piano. For her star turn in this concert, Yun tackled Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, a piece often chosen to demonstrate virtuosity because it is fiendishly demanding. I’m happy to report that virtuosity was well demonstrated. Yun has been performing as an apprentice with the PEISO, so we may expect to hear more from her.

So much music! And that was only the first half. After intermission came the title piece, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, dedicated by the composer “to my friends pictured within.” Each of the fourteen variations is a brief musical sketch depicting someone known to the composer and one approach to solving the enigma of the title, a mystery that has never been identified. It’s unlikely that any of us in the audience could hazard a guess as to who Elgar’s friends were but Maestro Shapiro suggested we might be able to find resemblances to individuals within our own circles. That was an interesting exercise. The friends ran the gamut: playful, romantic, capricious, bellicose, whimsical, melancholy…oh yes, people can be like that.

Elgar himself was a violinist before he was a composer, and it was the Enigma Variations that brought him critical acclaim and success at the age of 42. Elgar was also one of the first major composers to make gramophone recordings of their music. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to listen to great music at home or work. But for my money? It just does not compare to the live performance, hearing the music as it is brought to life by the musicians, ringing throughout the performance space.

The room upstairs

A tale of haunting in Savage Harbour

by Ivy Wigmore

Artwork by Matthew HaughnThe house in Savage Harbour had a history. It was rented out for some years to people from the Confederation Centre and it was said that Gene MacLennan had written “Snowbird” in the livingroom. When Kim Bradford’s sister and her husband looked at the house, it was run-down and in need of considerable work. Oddly, a large upstairs bedroom was closed off, entrances from a smaller bedroom and the pantry staircase both boarded over.

Undaunted, the couple bought the house and opened the room up. The mystery deepened with the discovery of strange markings on the floor. In the small community, however, it wasn’t hard to research the house’s past. A white witch who’d once owned the house said that she had cast spells in that room. During one session “something” had been unloosed that she couldn’t send back, so she sealed the room with boards and incantations to at least contain it.

The newly-opened room had an eerie feel. And strange things started to happen. One morning, waking late, Kim thought she was alone in the house until she heard loud noises upstairs: things being dragged, banging, slamming, thumping and stomping around. Kim thought her sister was up there and furious—until she came in the door from the barn. Told about the disturbance, she was nonchalant: “Oh, that goes on a lot.”

One November night, Kim’s sister said she was going to put her upstairs in the big room with Mark, her nephew. It was a full moon night and her bed was under the high window; Kim was watching the moon come up. But she was freezing cold and just got colder and colder, her breath visible in the air. She put on all her clothes, piled all the available blankets on her bed and was still shaking—although across the room, her nephew, in a t-shirt and pajama pants, had kicked off all his blankets as if he were too warm.

He didn’t hear the voices when they started, either. The sounds of man and a woman arguing became louder and more violent as the fight escalated. “Oh great,” Kim thought. “I’m here too cold to sleep and have to listen to my sister and her husband fighting.” But then she heard a third voice, very deep and malevolent—and close. As Kim listened, she became aware that the three were speaking another language and that, to her terror, they were moving around in the bedroom where she lay as they fought.

There was no power on earth that could compel her to get out of the bed—she felt that if she moved among them the spirits would become aware of her. So for the entirety of that long, long night, Kim shook and shivered, reluctant witness to an argument that must have raged many years ago. Eventually, the sun came up, everything stopped and the world righted itself. Kim walked shakily downstairs. Her brother-in-law, sitting in the kitchen, took one look at her and asked, “What the hell happened to you?” She was as white as a sheet, with dark circles under her eyes. When her sister came down, she said that although the kids were never bothered, anyone else who slept in that room always had similar experiences.

That may have been the last night Kim spent in that house, and her sister and brother-in-law eventually moved. Some years later, Kim met a woman from the area who mentioned in the course of conversation that she lived in a haunted house. A house with a history, as it turned out, in Savage Harbour.

Blithe Spirit

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941, at least in part to serve as a distraction from the Second World War. Writing about first night, Coward noted that the audience “had to walk across planks laid over the rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a light comedy about death.”

The play takes place in a parlour that seems straight out of Coward’s era, right down to the drinks trolley. In fact, the whole performance was faithful to the spirit of those times and that of the playwright. We might have been in 1941, and there was not a false step throughout to jar us out of our state of suspended disbelief, so we settled happily into it. Charles and Ruth Condomine are classic Coward characters, witty, urbane and upper class. Daniel Briere and Bryde MacLean (respectively) were perfect in the roles, delivering Coward’s sophisticated repartee without ever seeming overly superficial. Even in light comedy, we need to be able to relate to the characters and understand their struggles while we laugh at them. MacLean and Briere were both superb, their characters fully realized. Joshua Browne and Leah Pritchard performed ably as Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, Pritchard doing double duty as Edith: the gawky, awkward housemaid whose secret ability is eventually revealed.

Gracie Finley played Madame Arcati, a medium brought in on something less than good faith. Ostensibly engaged to contact the spirit world, she was really brought in to supply fodder for a book Charles is writing about the occult. He had hoped to catch Arcati using tricks of the trade that he could document. Finley played the spirit wrangler with fierce physicality, flinging herself into the part with gusto and embodying the medium with every moment, word and expression. All with total dedication and seriousness, no matter how outlandish her behaviour. Finley was clearly enjoying herself, and so were we—she was flat-out wonderful.

Madame Arcati had her triumphs as well: Charles’ deceased first wife, Elvira (played by Suzanne Roberts Smith) came shimmering onto the stage as a product of the seance. Elvira was invisible to Ruth, which set the stage for comic misunderstandings as Charles’ comments to the former were taken by the latter to be intended for her.

Elvira flounced, flirted, flaunted herself and taunted Charles. Clearly she had been childish as an earthly being, and apparently had not matured appreciably in the spirit world. Roberts-Smith’s performance was over the top, which suited the part. Speaking of over the top, my husband—and no doubt other interested parties—watched attentively for a seemingly inevitable wardrobe malfunction. It never did happen, but Elvira’s face was well worth watching too. Blithe spirit she was, at some points, and at others scheming, gleeful, bored, maniacal, petulant, lustful and/or furious.

Blithe Spirit is longish but never drags. In the spirit of criticism, I’ll say that I prefer the David Lean ending—but that’s all I’ve got. It is, as Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote “the outrageous frivolity with which Coward treats mortality that makes the piece so bracing.” Seventy-five years on, Blithe Spirit is as much a tonic as ever.

The Melville Boys

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Of all charming seaside villages, there can be few more charming than Victoria. When the Trans-Canada bypassed the then-thriving village, Victoria was automatically set apart and so it remains, just off the highway but clearly a special place. The Victoria Playhouse, built a century ago, first served as a community hall; the theatre, established in 1981, retains the yester-year atmosphere. It’s a lovely, comfortable and intimate space. On June 26, the Playhouse’s 35th season opened with The Melville Boys by Norm Foster. 

In a nutshell: The Melville brothers, Lee and Owen (played by Corey Turner and Jeremie Saunders), have arrived at their aunt’s remote cabin for a weekend of fishing, beer and bonding. Lee, the serious and steady elder brother, is hoping to have a heart-to-heart about serious stuff while the wild-and-crazy Owen is hoping to do nothing of the kind. What, as they say, could go wrong? In a word, girls: two sisters as dissimilar as the two brothers. Just as the boys settle an argument over whether or not beer and potato chips constitute a balanced breakfast, Owen spots a couple of girls—girls!—on the water. Undeterred by his upcoming nuptials, Owen lures the young women into the cottage and the fun begins. Lee and Mary (the serious sister, played by Helen Killorn) spend the night playing cards and exchanging confidences, while Owen and Loretta spend the night… well, what do you suppose Owen and Loretta might get up to? Hint: It’s not sleeping.

From one perspective, The Melville Boys is all about coping, the various methods we use to manage the hands we’ve been dealt. Lee, for reasons that become apparent, is of the realist school while Owen and Mary have been banking on avoidance and denial. Much of the play was quite funny. Rebecca Griffin’s Loretta, the one unconflicted character, is a good-time gal with stars in her eyes, dreaming about parlaying her acting career (two TV ads for a local used car dealer) into fame and fortune. In a live reenactment of one of the (two) commercials, Loretta explains and demonstrates the art of making love to the camera. 

Comedy is hard—ask any comedian—and adding drama/tragedy to the mix surely cannot make the playwright’s, director’s or actor’s task any easier. That aspect of the play didn’t work well for me. Extended comedic bits like Loretta’s reenactment of the commercial were effective but I didn’t feel that Foster’s humour had quite the edge required to work well with heavy material. The Melville Boys has been called a tragicomedy and a dramedy; we might need a new word—melodramedy—to characterize the cataclysmic final scene when the brothers finally have their talk, albeit at gunpoint. 

That said, though, I think I was in a distinct minority. The sell-out crowd clearly and audibly enjoyed the show and was hugely appreciative. After the performance, I walked past little groups of theatre-goers happily strolling through the streets of Victoria. Conversations I eavesdropped on were all positive: The Melville Boys is already looking like a hit. 

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

Can You Ever Forgive Me

December 26–January 3
City Cinema 14A, coarse language, substance abuse
Dir: Marielle Heller, US, 1 [ ... ]

Eptek Lunchtime Films

Thursdays
Eptek Centre  The Friends of Eptek Centre’s Lunchtime Films are screened each Thurs [ ... ]

Home for the Holidays

Justin Shaw comedy show December 21
Kings Playhouse Home For The Holidays Comedy Show featuring Jus [ ... ]

Recent News & Articles

9th UPEI Chancellor

Honourable Catherine Callbeck installed The Honourable Catherine Callbeck has been installed as the [ ... ]

18th Music PEI Week and Awards

Credit Unions of PEI returns as sponsor for events in January Music PEI has announced the return of [ ... ]

A gift of Island poetry: J. J. Steinfeld

Curated by Deirdre Kessler There Are Questions I Would Like to Ask How can you imagine gunfire and [ ... ]