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Cultivating Culture - London's Impressive Performing Arts

© by Mike Keenan
Shape Shifting Theatrics Art in Grand Theatre Lobby photo by Mike Keenan

I'm sitting in jam-packed Budweiser Gardens, a thriving sports-entertainment centre, formerly known as the John Labatt Centre locals called the "JLC." Built in part as the new downtown residence of London's Ontario Hockey League team, the London Knights, the Gardens opened October, 2002 with a seating capacity of 9,090 for hockey and ice events and over 10, 000 for concerts, family shows and other gatherings.
     Last year, I sat here amidst another sold-out crowd during a rousing performance by Supertramp, the circa 1969 British rock band with excited fans "moving and a-grooving" to use '60 parlance.
     The exterior of the Gardens neatly incorporates a replica facade of the old 19th century Talbot Inn, formerly located here. In addition to the standard end stage configuration for large concerts, the arena can be set up to accommodate touring Broadway shows or smaller concerts in its theatre mode. Cultural extravaganzas are only feasible via cash. Thus, Budweiser paid $6.4 million in a 10-year deal for naming rights. Next March 11-17, the Gardens will host the World Figure Skating Championship, quite a feat for London and its remarkable downtown complex!
     Like any red-blooded Canadian, my first sample of London culture tonight involves the Knights who appear lethargic and lose to the Erie Sea Otters in a melodramatic post-overtime shootout, 3-2. I get to watch 15-year old Connor Mc David for Erie, who doesn't look out of place in Junior A and of whom. Sidney Crosby predicts a great future. Dale Hunter is behind the bench, beginning his 12th season as owner, president and head coach after a brief flirtation with the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League.
     Next day on Richmond St., I am in an equally jammed Grand Theatre lobby, picking up tickets for Calendar Girls, written by Tim Firth, based on a true story and a subsequent 2003 film depicting a group of British women willing to bare it all to raise money in memory of a husband who succumbed to cancer.
     Susan Ferley, Artistic Director, describes the play as "a true testament to the power of community... the exhilarating experience of a group of unstoppable women." In the program notes, Director, Heather Davies, says, "Life is sometimes filled with joy, sometimes with discomfort and struggle. Illness, loss and grief are challenging, but they need not overwhelm or define us."
     On the lower level, the McManus Studio Theatre seats another 150 patrons and provides a venue for progressive programming, but Calendar Girls today opens the main stage subscription series. I sit in the balcony in one of Canada oldest theatres, dating back to 1901 and blessed with its unique proscenium arch and architecture.      Two of the twelve gifted performers, Donna Belleville (Jessie) and Brigitte Robinson (Chris) live in Niagara on the Lake, so I feel right at home.

A Walk in the Park, photo by London Tourism   Calendar Girls Poster, photo by Mike Keenan   Centennial Hall photo by Mike Keenan   Face off photo by Mike Keenan   Janina Fialowska photo by Orchestra London   Maestro Alain Trudel photo by Orchestra London   Shoot Out Action, photo by Mike Keenan
     Deb Harvey, Executive Director of The Grand says, "Our playbills have pulled in more and more subscribers over the last three years, and we are thrilled that so many people are adding theatre to their lives." This big-hearted matinee comedy is almost full, the patrons intrigued no doubt by the nudity which is handled with decorum. The audience roars with approval, rising to a standing ovation at the end.
     Next, we seek out a restaurant. Garlics, adjacent to the Grand Theatre, Bertoldi's and Black Trumpet on Richmond are packed this Saturday afternoon, a great sign for London's Chamber of Commerce. We should have made a reservation. Finally, we squeeze into nearby Moxie's Classic Grill for lunch. I observe that Moxie's might give Hooter's a run for their money in the server's outfits category; nevertheless, the food is fine.
     After lunch, my spouse and I wander through handy Victoria Park, a 6-hectare park (15-acre), indeed a rare luxury in the heart of a city's downtown. An estimated one million visitors flock here for festivals and special events. Today we notice people setting up for a cancer walk/run, appropriate given the theme of today's play. I reminisce of walking through this inviting park during University days at UWO long ago.
     After window shopping on Richmond St., we cross the park to Centennial Hall where Orchestra London will perform their opening night Beethoven selections. We arrive early for the pre-performance talk by Alain Trudel, conductor and music director and piano soloist, Janina Fialkowska.
     Coincidentally, Fialkowska completes today's "overcoming cancer" theme. She began playing the piano at age of 5, studied at Juilliard in New York and performed with top-ranked, orchestras, but in 2002, was diagnosed with a tumour in her left arm. Surgery prevented the use of her arm so she spent two years performing the Ravel and Prokofiev "concertos for the left hand," which she had transcribed for her right hand. In 2004, she resumed her two-handed career and won additional awards and recognition for her talent. She tells us that tonight's Piano Concerto No. 4 never fails to give her goose bumps, and that it's the most beautiful piano concerto that she knows.
     Trudel, one of the busiest and most sought-after conductors on the Canadian scene, exudes energy with synapses firing so fast, he can barely complete one thought before veering off on another. He cleverly helps us understand how brilliant Beethoven was in writing such glorious music while being 60% deaf. In animated fashion, he also prepares us for Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 "Eroica," the first part of which was dedicated to Napoleon but later rescinded when the emperor assumed dictatorial status.
     During the performance, Fialkowska is masterful and Trudel's body and arms surge with great passion. The actual music and acoustics are wonderful despite the tired building and seats.

Grand Theatre photo by London Tourism

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan
London Tourism
Orchestra London

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
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