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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Discombobulated (or at least discomfited)

Been a bit quiet on my blogging front lately, but not for any major reason. Just that things have been a bit off—just off enough to prevent me from focusing on a blog post.

Canoe trip

Not mine, of course—Jean’s. He was away for two weeks in the northwest Ontario wilderness. No wifi. No cell service. Just a brief, one-way, satellite-delivered daily message giving location and brief status update.

Away from it all at Wabakimi Park

By a combination of organization and happenstance, I had enough activities booked at that time to keep me busy and stave off loneliness: barbecue with dance friends, dinner and lunch with other friends, an outing to Stratford with my sister and brother-in-law to see To Kill a Mockingbird, blood donation appointment, Canada Day fireworks, even an unusual number of meetings at work, including some over lunch and dinner.

But it was still all out of the ordinary: Jean being not only away but basically out of touch (I think “out of touch” is just harder to deal with in these days, when we expect everyone to always be in cell range), combined with so many other social activities.

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

— Alice, Alice in Wonderland

Renovation

Another activity during canoe trip time was cleaning out the main bathroom and master bedroom, in preparation for these rooms getting renovated. This involved going through piles of stuff and resulted, in a time, in these rooms looking cleaner than they had in years. A good thing, albeit with the side effect of making even my bedroom looking slightly strange, which was vaguely off-putting.

Buffy: But it seemed perfectly normal.
Xander: But disturbing, and not the natural order of things and do you think it’ll happen again?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More with Feeling

When Jean got back, we moved the big pieces out of the rooms. This proved somewhat easier than we’d feared (most items could be broken down into smaller, lighter pieces), and also put an end to parts of the house looking neater, as we had to find space for everything in the remaining rooms. We tried piling the mattress on top of the guest bed mattress, but that made the bed we had to sleep in comically tall, so instead we propped the mattress up against the wall, making the already cramped guest room considerably more cramped. Our second bathroom is, similarly, hopeless cluttered with items from the main bathroom.

The first day of renovation is what they call the “tear down,” when they take out all the old stuff to make way for the new. Here’s the before and after:

So if I thought the house felt a bit alien before…

Weekend away

Since we had tickets to Rocky Horror Show on a Thursday of that first renovation week (of a total four or five, they predict), I figured why not stay on and make a long weekend of it. Jean wasn’t able to get time off right after that long canoe trip, but that just meant a slightly commute for him back to work Friday while I explored Stratford.

Really, in the scheme of things, it was the most normal I’d felt in weeks.

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Me with my people

So now I’ll catch up on some recommendations that I might have have made had I been blogging more regularly…

Wining and dining

One of the dinners out in KW was at King Street Trio, which I hadn’t been to in years. It was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, it’s a nice quiet place, and those are increasingly hard to come by. For another, importantly, the food was quite good.

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King Street Trio always has oysters on offer

And while you might wonder a bit at the pricing, note that they offer 30% / 20% / 10% discounts on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, respectively. We were there on a Tuesday, so that worked out well for us! Apart from our waitress being in a bit of a hurry for us to order drinks before the group had arrived, it was a good night out, and I’d go again.

Friday night, Jean and I decided to book a fancier dinner in Stratford for our pending anniversary next week, namely at The Prune dining room. It has to be said that the service on arrival was a bit chaotic. They initially forgot to give us menus… It took ages, and a few repeated requests, to get water… Our matching wines didn’t always make it out before the food it was to match… And while it’s true we arrived at the time they would have been trying to get a bunch of tables finished in time for the 8:00 theatre, that should be something any Stratford restaurant learns to get a handle on. And The Prune isn’t new.

Still, they did such a good job with the food, and the wine matching, that we just couldn’t stay mad. (We never really got that angry, to be clear.) Talented chefs, my friends! Particularly with vegetables. Never had such fresh and light pea and ham soup. The smoked tuna with tomatoes and olive was astonishing. The chicken overshadowed by the creamy mashed potatoes and intense morels. Cheese tortellini similar outdone by the spring vegetable ragout it came in.

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Jean with his cheese plate finale (and new beard)

After Stratford, on Saturday, we headed off Goderich way to spend some more time touring before heading home. On the way, Jean recalled that someone had recommended a winery in these parts, so near Seaforth, we visited Maelstrom Winery.

We looked super eager, because we were there right at the crack of 11:00, when they opened. That meant we got the full attention as the only patrons. We talked to the wine maker about his trials and tribulations in getting the winery going. Being new, they’re still in the experimental phase, but we did find some wines we quite liked: A smooth vidal, a refreshing frontenac blanc, and a really nice blend of cabernet franc and baco noir. They also have this wine called the abyss which is a blend of five varietals, resulting in a truly unique taste.

You heard it here first (maybe?): Ontario’s newest wine region—Lake Huron.

It’s not TV, it’s Netflix

While cleaning out rooms, I did watch the much-discussed Nanette Netflix special. (If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a New York Times round-up of its many positive reviews.) I  would recommend it, as long as you know not to expect a barrel of laughs here. (There are laughs, just not a barrel of them.)

But I was struck by how many people said they’d never heard of Hannah Gadsby, which means that they’ve never watched Please Like Me on Netflix. A series whose four (short) seasons I recently polished off.

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A scene from one of my favorite episodes of Please Like Me, in which Josh and his parents have a multi-course menu surprise at a fancy restaurant

I don’t know if that the show is everyone’s cup of tea? It’s basically an Australian comedy about a group of friends in their early 20s. It’s just that it also regularly, and honestly, deals with some heavy issues, notably mental illness (but also abortion, homophobia, STDs). So it too, definitely has laughs. Just not always a barrel of them. I grew quite fond of the characters, though.

Stratford culture

The two plays I’ve seen so far this season—To Kill a Mockingbird and Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show—have both been extended, so I clearly went with the popular picks. Both are indeed very good. To Kill a Mockingbird is framed by having the adult Scout look back on her childhood from the vantage point of the 60s civil rights movement, and that works well. The child actors are terrific and the story remains affecting (bring the kleenex!).

Rocky Horror, on the other hand, is presented as pure fun. This is actually the third live production of this I’ve seen, and of course—given that the other two were amateur productions—this had the best singers (incredible voices), the most inventive choreography (it’s the Time Warp—but updated!), and fantastic costumes: particularly flattering to fine male forms on display, I have to say.

But for all that, I don’t know that I enjoyed this more than those productions—I’d just say equally. This thing just really works live. So if you haven’t yet experienced it, Stratford is a good place to start.

My Friday afternoon matinee performance at Stratford was not a play, though, but a perform by Steven Page (formerly of The Barenaked Ladies) and the Art of Time, doing a series of songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Gord Downie, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and yes, The Barenaked Ladies…

The Art of Time uses contemporary composers to arrange pop songs for piano, violin, saxophone, bass, guitar, and cello. I generally love the results. I was in the fifth row for this show, and the set list was right up my alley. Steven Page is interesting in how he can be so funny in his banter, and some of his performances, but also be “you can hear a pin drop” serious in conveying the angst of songs like Elvis Costello’s “I Want You”. The ensemble will be doing a number of shows in this, their tenth anniversary year, so you might to check that out.

They also did this one at Stratford: “Entourage” by Steven Page.


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Three days of socializing

We had someone over for dinner last Thursday, a not-that-common event that we did memorialize in photos. However, he did bring flowers—some lovely orchids—and Jean used those to experiment with close-up photography.

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As the main course, I made Garlicky Lamb Chops. This recipe (follow the link) is so simple and fast, but turns out so well: You just dip the chops in a mix of fresh rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper, then pan-fry them in olive oil.

One of the sides was Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts & Dates, though I used raisins instead. Fortunately, our guest liked Brussels sprouts; not everyone does. This turned out well also; these do well roasted, and adding raisins, walnuts, red wine vinegar, and honey produces a tasty results.

I also roasted some potatoes—I just winged that “recipe”.

Dessert was Cherry Fool, and I can’t find the recipe online, even though it came from LCBO magazine. Basically cherries in whipped cream with icing sugar and almond extract, though. And I used mixed berries that included cherries instead of just cherries.

Friday we were supposed to go see TransCanada Highwaymen with some friends, and I was really looking forward to it. This is a group made up of Chris Murphy of Sloan, Stephen Page of Barenaked Ladies, Craig Northey of The Odds, and Moe Berg of Pursuit of Happiness. They were to do songs by all of those bands, while regaling us with tales of life as semi-famous Canadian rock star. Doesn’t that sound great?

I’m sure it would have been. Unfortunately, Northey broke his ankle playing hockey about a week before the show, which then got cancelled. (Though as I keep telling people, I don’t know why he couldn’t still sit down to play guitar and sing.)

We decided to go out anyway and revisit TWH Social, present home of a former favourite chef. We’d found the place a bit loud on previous visits, but it didn’t as bad this time, at least for the first part of the evening. And I was very happy with my food.

Not enough drink to hide the fact that he's eyeing my squid!

Squid with tomatoes and roast potatoes, a speciality of this chef

Sweet Lamb Chop with a plate in the foreground

Grilled lamb chops with sweet potato and mushroom saute

So yes, that’s lamb two days in a row for me.

Jean started with a Caprese salad, then had the gnocchi with sage butter and chicken broth. This was a different gnocchi recipe than what the chef had made at the previous restaurant, and Jean didn’t think it was an improvement.

Saturday we got our live music fix. Other friends had invited us to go see Whitehorse, a band neither Jean and I were familiar with before getting tickets. But I had been listening to them since, and they are pretty good.

Before the show, Centre in the Square offered a $30 three-course dinner in the Member’s Lounge, catered by Borealis Restaurant. We decided to do that, and it was great. First was a kale Caesar, then a paella, then—I forget what dessert was. All good, though, and we also enjoyed the drink list (among us, we sampled orange wine, Pinot Noir, champagne cocktail, Scotch), though it was more premium-priced than the food.

The show was done in “On Stage” format, meaning that the whole audience, and the band, and a bar, were up on the very large Centre in Square stage, instead of the usual “band on stage, audience in theatre seats”. It was pretty cool.

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Ready to rock!

It was a good show. Opening act Begonia had a lovely voice and an entertaining manner, a combination that reminded me of Jann Arden (or Adele).

Begonia

Begonia

And Whitehorse did some of their best-known songs (I assume they were? At least, at this point I recognized a number of them), reminisced about the early support given them by Waterloo, and talked of causes important to them, like supporting sex trade workers.

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Whitehorse are a husband and wife team, this night supported by a band

They also threw in a couple of covers. One was of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, in tribute to Malcolm Young. Another was of Neil Young’s “Ohio”.

(Should have zoomed in a lot earlier than I did on the video. Not used to this taking videos at concerts thing.)

Then on Sunday, we were total hermits.


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Tartuffe and 45

When the Stratford Festival decided to include Molière’s Tartuffe in their line-up of 2017 plays, they had no way of knowing how the US presidential election would turn out. But they were not about to miss the dramatic opportunities this afforded them.

Tartuffe was a comedic satire written in 1664, and was immediately controversial for speaking truth to power. It was banned after its first performances, but Molière fought for it, and five years, it was revived to great acclaim.

Stratford’s English-language production is set squarely in the present, with the characters listening to modern pop (much of it French), making lattes, and being distracted by their cell phones. The main nod to the age of the script is that all the dialog rhymes—which strikes me as an amazing feat of translation (by Ranjit Bolt).

In Tartuffe, the (white) father of the household—and his mother—are in the thrall of a recent house guest, the apparently pious Tartuffe. Everyone else—his wife, children, brother-in-law, and housekeeper—are appalled. Can’t the father see that Tartuffe is nothing but hypocrite and con man who cares for no one but himself? Doesn’t he care that Tartuffe’s rules are making their lives miserable? (That everyone other than the stepmother are played by people of colour is a clever bit of casting: so we have women, people of colour, and younger people in complete disbelief that the older white characters cannot see Tartuffe for what he is.)

For most of the play, none of the current political subtext is made particularly explicit. It’s only in the climatic final scene that a certain orange President is specifically alluded to.

The production was hilarious, and it was great to see this situation played out in purely comedic fashion. And that it all worked out in the end. If only real life were so simple.


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Books!

Vacation means more time to read, and I did get through a few works that I found worthwhile.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

md19789526807Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables, and like many people, I expect, the Anne books are the only ones of hers I’d previously read.

The Blue Castle was first published in 1926, but I first heard about it in 2017 on Twitter. Kady O’Malley (@kady) was highly recommending it, saying it’s a book she returns to annually.

I got it as an epub and, being out of copyright, it was very cheap, but also not formatted properly. It wouldn’t load at all on one of my devices, and on others, wouldn’t paginate properly. No matter; the technical glitches did not take away from the pleasure of reading it.

It’s the story of a young woman of 29, Valancy Stirling. Unmarried and expecting that will never change, she lives with her domineering mother, obediently and quietly following all house rules, though they make her miserable. She escapes only in her imagination, to a blue castle and the company of the man who lives there.

One day, in an act of minor rebellion, she goes to a doctor who is not the family physician, to find out about some chest pains that have been troubling her. The news is the worst possible: she has a heart condition that gives her only a year or so to live.

This leads to some serious introspection about how to spend her remaining days. She concludes:

I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed. After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth!

Therein lies the fun. Her domineering family thinks she has gone insane, and are now somewhat afraid of this previously meek creature who now speaks her mind and does what she pleases. With time she moves out. She meets a man. He has a house on an island. Things have a way of working out, which is not a surprising in itself, but the way in which they do is. A delightful read.

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

28964412And now for something completely different…

This 400 or so page tome indeed tells the history of Jon Stewart’s time on The Daily Show, in the words of the various people who were there: correspondents, writers, directors, producers, publicists, and Jon himself. You’ll need to have some investment in this show to find this behind-the-scenes look at how it unfolded over 17 years of interest.

For myself, I was surprised at how much of that 17 years I had watched the show. I knew I wasn’t there from the very start, when Jon took over from Craig Killborn—but I got in there pretty early, with Indecision 2000, Chapter 2 of the book.

The other surprising thing was how much melodrama and personality conflict was occurring, at times, behind the scenes in a show whose contributors don’t really make the gossip columns. I had heard about a few, like the problems between Wyatt Cynac and Jon, but most… Who knew?

Also striking was the horror they felt at what was going on in the George Bush administration. Of course, he was not a great President. But still, you can’t help thinking… Dudes, you have no idea

13 Reasons Why

mv5bytfmnzrlnwytmmfmni00ztfilwjhodgtogm5odq5ntgxzwuwl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_This one is not a book. Well, it is a book, but I haven’t read it. What I have done is watch the Netflix series based on the book, some months after most other people did.

Though definitely aimed at young audience, Jean and I got totally hooked on this thing. Whenever we had some lounging time at our hotel on our week off, we’d put another episode on. We finished up shortly after we got home.

Partly thanks to the performances of the two leads, it seemed important to find out what part Clay had played in Hannah’s suicide. In the book (I read afterwards), Clay listens to all the tapes  in one night. In the series, he gets through only about one per episode, allowing the series to progress in both real time and flashback, which is often handled rather deftly.

I’m not sure how a season 2 of this will work, but I’ll likely be checking it out to find out.

A Man Called Ove

18774964This was our vacation audiobook, because it had really high ratings on Audible.com. (Highest rated ever, by the way, is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.) It’s a translation of a Swedish novel, and has also been made into a movie (that we haven’t seen yet).

Its central character, Ove, a 59-year-old recently (and unwillingly) retired man, is initially pretty unlikable—unfriendly, blunt, critical. But he’s unlikable in an entertaining, often hilarious, way, so we can stick with him.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about what led to this point in his life. How he was raised. The people he’s lost along the way. His innate nature.

This is set against the event of a young family moving in next door and insinuating themselves into Ove’s life whether he likes it or not. His interactions with them, along with the gradually unfolding story of his life, makes Ove an increasingly sympathetic character. Even though he never becomes a warm and carefree one.


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A “smart” Dirty Dancing?

When I was describing weekend plans to go see the musical Strictly Ballroom in Toronto, a friend asked if it was like a smart Dirty Dancing.

Must say that I’ve never thought of Strictly Ballroom as such. Or spent much time comparing those two movies.

But it is true that they have the same basic plot line: Hunky male dance instructor teaches promising if slightly gawky young woman (from a different background) to dance, and they fall in love.

So how do they differ? I’m not so sure it’s on IQ points.

1. Point of view

Dirty Dancing is Baby’s story. It’s about her coming of age. It’s directed by a woman, and we see most everything from her perspective. Johnny is there to support her narrative.

Whereas Strictly Ballroom is about Scott. It’s about him breaking free of family expectations and becoming his own person. Fran helps on that journey. Yes, she does that blossoming thing, but that’s really just to make her attractive enough to become Scott’s love interest.

2. Setting

Dirty Dancing is a bit of nostalgia for a time that was and no longer is, when teenagers would happily go off with their parents to a summer vacation resort. Whereas Strictly Ballroom both salutes and mocks the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.

And as I write that, I’m thinking maybe that’s another similarity: That both movies are about the struggle to preserve a tradition against the forces of change. Hmm.

3. Style

Despite the romance at the centre of it and plenty of humourous moments, Dirty Dancing  is basically a drama, the story told in a “realistic” way. Whereas Strictly Ballroom is very much an over-the-top, exaggerated comedy, albeit with some touching moments.

Which is why Dirty Dancing opens itself up to criticism when some of the dialog is clunky or if a character seems more like a caricature. Strictly Ballroom is in-your-face with ridiculous dialog and absurd characters; that’s part of its charm.

And that also may be why, in my opinion, another difference between these two is that Strictly Ballroom made its transition to the stage much more effectively than Dirty Dancing did.


It’s been a while since I saw Dirty Dancing: The Musical, but I recall thinking that they shouldn’t have stuck so close to the movie. That this might have an opportunity to, for example, fix some of the sillier plot points.

Strictly Ballroom also stuck pretty close to the movie template. But in this case,  just the nature of the stage presentation improved the product.

A lot of it is ballroom dance competition, for example. In the movie, these scenes are largely funny and absurd. On stage, they still have that to a degree, but they also enchanting and beautiful. It just feels more “natural” to see that kind of dancing and those wild costumes on a theatre stage than a movie screen.

And then there’s what musicals do, which is allow the characters to give voice to their inner thoughts in song. And that really brought a lot of depth to the story, making many of the characters less cartoonish. They even bring in some of that Dirty Dancing nostalgia by including popular songs of the 1980s as part of the soundtrack. It really widens the range of emotion of the whole enterprise.

I love the movie Strictly Ballroom. But I think I loved the musical even more.


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Summer vacation, abbreviated

We had planned to take a week’s vacation the first week of June, but Jean’s work obligations necessitated changing those plans on relatively short notice. Fortunately, we hadn’t made any grand travel plans—it was just going to be a driving trip to parts of Ontario and Québec. But we had to scale it back.

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We started with a weekend in Timmins, where Jean went off on fishing trip with his brothers. He expected, I think, that it would be a fairly leisurely couple of days. Instead, it was early mornings and late nights of fishing, cleaning, filleting, and vacuum packing. “I was not prepared for that!” he confessed on his return.

But, now we do have some very nice Northern Ontario pickerel.

I, on the other hand, really did have a leisurely time. I flew up and stayed with my Dad, visited with a Timmins friend, had a dinner with my brother’s family (hosted by Dad), watched some Netflix…

We traveled back on Monday and Jean had to work the rest of the week. I decided to take Thursday off to go see Guys and Dolls in Stratford. I picked it mainly because it was the matinee that day—I didn’t know anything about it, really. But it proved a good choice. Deservedly well-reviewed, it was a fun musical with beautiful costumes and some absolutely stunning dance sequences. The songs were great, and included two that I knew: “If I Were a Bell” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”.

30-second look at Guys and Dolls

I had taken the train to Stratford (thereby learning you can take a train to Stratford) on what was an absolutely gorgeous day, and after the play Jean drove in to join me for dinner. We went to Bar Fifty-One, which is a new part of the Prune restaurant, a Stratford institution we’d never eaten at. I stuck with the bar menu, and was quite happy with my grilled asparagus with Parmesan appetizer and seafood pie entree. Jean tried the restaurant menu and was very impressed with the chicken liver mousse appetizer, but somewhat less so with his smoked Muscovy duck breast main.

For the following weekend, we’d had an Ottawa hotel booked, so we decided to keep that and book some flights to get there and back. I flew up earlier, with plans to tour Parliament and meet some friends for dinner. Neither of those plans quite worked out. The tours were sold out for the day, and I messed up my communication with my friends so they had the wrong Friday in their calendar. Still, it was a nice day there, and the meal at Play Food and Wines was delicious.

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Incredible gnocchi with edamame, shiitake, sunflower seeds, and truffle oil

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Pastry with chocolate cream filling and dulce de leche. Yum.

And Jean did arrive at the expected time. We took a walk, and enjoyed our funky, European-style Alt hotel.

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Ottawa has a lot of interesting street art

I did get my Parliamentary tour the next day, and it was pretty interesting. (It’s also the last year you can do so before the place closes for renovation for 10 years!) We saw the House of Commons, the Parliamentary Library, the Senate…

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Statue of the Queen who selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital, inside Parliament’s Centre Block

Ottawa was in full prep mode for Canada 150 celebrations on July 1, meaning a lot of construction and sections of museums down for renovation. We visited the Museum of Canadian History, where they had a pretty interesting exhibit on hockey—even for people not deeply into hockey—and another small one on the Canadian immigration experience. But the main gallery was inaccessible, so it did make the whole visit seem a bit “slight”.

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A rather cool statue in the Museum of Canadian History

We thought we had reservations at Whalesbone that evening, but they have this annoying phone-only system, and our two calls to them weren’t sufficient to hold it. We would have had to have make a third. We were still able to dine at the bar, and I have to say that the food was just delicious: Really fresh seafood with lovely, tasty sauces and sides. But not sure we’ll be back, given the difficulty of making a reservation (not as if they ever answer the phone…).

Sunday we went to the Market, where they had an Ignite 150 exhibit area highlighting different parts of Canada. Buskers were also on deck that day. That was fun. I also purchased a couple tops from one of the market vendors. And we went back to Play for a late lunch. It was really good again!

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Fig and prociutto appetizer on the right, cheese selection on the left

Then we did some more walking, shopping, and (mainly Jean) photography-ing on this warm but beautiful day. And our joint flight back to Toronto and even the drive back to Waterloo all went very well.

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Performances tinged with nostalgia

About ten years ago around this time of year, I was scrambling to get myself to get myself to Centre in the Square. Jean was away—canoeing, I assume—and I’d made a last-minute decision to get tickets to the introductory concert of the KW Symphony’s new conductor, Edwin Outwater.

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It was busier than I expected—symphony concerts just hadn’t been very well-attended that year—so I had to park further away than expected and made it to my seat just moments before the show started. Which was all very awkward, because my seat was front row centre.

So my first look at the young, handsome conductor from California was a close-up one. He was very personable in talking to the audience. I believe they played Beethoven’s Fifth, and he dared us to be rebels and applaud between movements if we felt like it.

We originally didn’t have tickets to the final performance of Edwin Outwater as KW Symphony principal conductor last weekend, but it seems apropos that we did attend in the end. The symphony was not in a good place, artistically or financially, when he took over. It’s been great to watch the crowds grow over the past 10 years in response to his efforts to present classical music in innovative ways that still respect the tradition.

But if we hadn’t jumped on tickets for the final show immediately, it’s because it was definitely Outwater-ian: Not just a set of classical music’s greatest hits, but something that would challenge the ears.

We made it to (most of) the concert prelude that explained what we were about to hear, which is always helpful. The first piece was a very short number composed for (and about) Edwin Outwater by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire. That was followed by a longer choral piece by John Adams called Harmonium, featuring two full choirs singing music inspired by poetry.

It was very strange-sounding. At intermission, one Jean’s friends we ran into commented that some of the harmonies hurt her eyes. But from the prelude, we had some appreciation of how hard it was to sing. And I just found it riveting to listen to (though I wouldn’t buy the CD).

We were kind of worried about retaining focus through a 53-minute Mahler Symphony in the second half, but we needn’t have. Mahler writes beautiful and lively music. We agreed with the prelude commentary that the third movement was the most interesting, a mournful one built around the melody of … “Frère Jacques”, and interrupted by other bursts of whimsical sound that undercut the tragedy with comedy. Then the fourth movement is full of grandiosity.

There was rather a resounding ovation at the end.


As a teenager, I was really taken with the story of Terry Fox, the young man who tried to run across the country on one leg to raise money for cancer research, only to be stopped when the cancer returned. I followed the story on the news. I kept a scrapbook . I read books about him. I saw The Terry Fox Movie.

So when I heard they wrote a musical based on his life, I wanted to go. I missed the initial run in Waterloo, but we managed to get to the shorter one in Cambridge.

It was quite well done. Admittedly, the songs aren’t the sort you’re going to be humming for days—this is no Hamilton or West Side Story. But the story is just so compelling, and they found an effective way to fit it into a two-hour stage narrative. I don’t feel that any other medium, really, as well gave the sense of just what it meant to do so much running daily under the physical challenges he faced.


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Skating’s greatest hits

The KW Symphony’s intersections series was about combining orchestra and… something else. Physics. Fiddling. Food. Heavy Metal. Though Friday’s concert was not part of that series (sadly not offered this year), it was still of that ilk. The partner this time was figure skating.

cover_kurt-browning-bea9d304There was no way I was missing this one. Particularly as it was being hosted by three-time world champion, first man to ever land a quadruple jump in competition, Kurt Browning.

Jean was considerably less enthused about attending.

If wondering, no, they did not somehow bring an ice rink into Centre in the Square, not have the symphony decamp to play at a hockey arena. Instead, most of the skating seen on video.

After an opening performance of An American in Paris, our celebrity host explained that while music was incredibly important in figure skating, it had to go through a certain amount of mangling to fit the sport’s requirements: Cropped to fit into the time constraints. Tempo adjusted to match the tricks. Bit recombined to create certain moods.

This meant that when the symphony played the soundtrack to a video of Browning’s world championship performance of Casablanca, they couldn’t just the pull out the sheet music for “As Time Goes By”. Instead, the conductor had to write a new orchestral score for the Frankenstein version of that piece that Browning skated to.

It was gorgeous.

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Example of Cranston’s art

Browning was so moved by it, he barely knew what was on next, so conductor Lucas Waldin stepped in to explain that it was a tribute to Toller Cranston (who apparently pioneered this whole orchestra / figure skating idea), featuring selections from the ballet Gayane.  This time, the screens showed scenes of Toller’s amazing paintings and decor before showing his Sabre Dance skate with live orchestra. Just fab.

Given the chance to recover, Browning emerged to point out that while artistic, figure skating is still a sporting competition with some serious rivalries over the years. The Symphony played Sing Sing Sing while we saw clips from the battle of the Brians, the battle of the Carmens (though they didn’t mention that both were defeated by Canuck Liz Manley), Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan (remember that?), Virtue/Moir vs. Davis/White, and so on.

We then moved on to a montage tribute to skaters past, when they had to skate outdoors (!), and future, in the form of the youngsters at the KW Skating Club. And Kurt Browning introduced Don Jackson, 1962 World Figure Skating Champion, who was in the audience. Cool! Oh, and the tune played for that piece was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The next bit seemed to be interrupted by a badly timed cell phone call—only it was Kurt Browning’s phone, and on the line was Olympic Bronze medallist Joannie Rochette. (Seriously.) She talked about she managed to get through that Olympic performance just days after her mother died. Then the symphony played La cumparsita to a video of it. (Using a few stills so as to not have to cut the piece down to exactly 4 minutes.)

YouTube of Rochette’s Olympic performance from European TV

Kurt then dragged out a collection of his costumes from over the years, selecting a purple velvet hat and robe for conductor Lucas Waldin to wear. We then got a montage of some of the more interesting sartorial choices figure skaters had made (admittedly, many from gala and not competition pieces), to selections from Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

Kurt emerged in his Singin’ in the Rain outfit, and we got a singer! And tap dancer, it turned out: Mr. Geoffrey Tyler. With all that going on live, this song was not played to video footage of that famous skating piece. Instead, via roller blades, we got some live Kurt Browning skating! And the first standing ovation of the night.

The video we didn’t see of Singing in the Rain

At intermission, Jean said we very pleased about high entertainment value of the evening so far.

And he was not being sarcastic!

The second half kicked off with the Symphony playing Phantom of the Opera, on their own. Kurt came out to discuss the fact that many skaters tried to skate to that piece—but none had really succeeded in achieving an iconic performance with it. Too big a song, perhaps, for the white, bright, bare stage of figure skating competition.

Singer Tyler returned to perform What a Wonderiful World, a show piece of Kurt Browning’s. Tyler also talked about how he’s worked with figure skaters. on the dramatic aspects of their performance, on connecting emotionally. We then did a bit of a 180 into an Abba medley (though Abba sounds great orchestrated!), highlighting scenes from the world of professional figure skating.

And then, the hauntingly beautiful Mahler piece, Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. Conductor and Browning discussed how only very special skaters could do it justice. Katerina Gordeeva was one; she skated it solo as a tribute to her partner, Sergei Gringov, after his sudden death.

Ekaterina Gordeeva 1996 Celebration of Life / Mahler – Symphony No. 5 (Serguei Grinkov Tribute)

Another were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won Gold with it at the Vancouver Olympics. The video played to this beautiful piece wasn’t either of those performance in their entirety, but compilations of them along with some from Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who didn’t use the music (that I know of) but certainly brought emotion and drama to their pairs performances.

The next piece didn’t need, and therefore didn’t get, video accompaniment: Ravel’s Bolero, forever synonymous with Torville and Dean. Though Browning informed that Carolina Kotsner is one of the few who has successfully skated to the piece since that team’s perfect performance.

Our finale was the theme of the Vancouver Olympics, I Believe, featuring the adorable singers of the Grand Philharmonic Children’s Choir. And then they gave us an encore! (Note: This is rare at the symphony.) Conducted by Kurt! The Toreador Song.

As a figure skating fan, I was thrilled to bits with the evening.

As a non-figure skating fan, Jean declared that he glad he had been “dragged out” to this performance. (Again, not sarcastically.)

It was a great intersection.

(Thanks to Skate Canada for all the footage they provided they provided for the show. Much higher quality than what you can find on YouTube…)


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

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Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:

Introducing Alysha Brilla (Soundcloud)

 


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To the late night, double feature, picture show

Rocky Horror Picture Show and I go way back.

I read about the movie years before I actually saw it. In my small, Northern Ontario town back in the day, there were no late-night (or any time) showings, but I read about them in the rock magazines. I recall being quite taken by the photos of Tim Curry in his fishnets. (I later learned that many women found themselves surprised by how much they were taken by Tim Curry in his fishnets.)

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Attending the film itself had to wait until I went to university in Montreal.  The McGill Film Society showed it and my friends and I were there, armed with newspapers and rice, but not in costume. The audience was a mix of newbies and, fortunately, some veterans who knew what you were supposed to shout at the screen when. I wasn’t entirely sure if the movie was good (so campy!), but I found the whole experience fun.

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Not the performance I was at–back then we didn’t take pictures of everything…

I never did become a regular screening attendee, but I’ve certainly seen the movie a number of times since then. Our local repertory cinema still plays it every year at Halloween. Jean and I attended with friends at least once. We hadn’t planned for enough ahead to get fully costumed as any character, but I did aim for a sort of Goth look. (And I believe that Jean eccentrically went as a clown.)

Since then, I’ve seen Rocky Horror on network TV, purchased and devoured the DVD–including all extras–saw a very fun live performance of it courtesy of the University of Waterloo drama department (being a performance for alumni and faculty, that was a different audience than previous), and even checked out the TMN parody (more nudity, but much less gay).

So when I read that JM Drama Productions had another local version on this past weekend, it was an easy to decision to go.

Most appropriately, we had to run through heavy rain to get to the theatre, where we were confronted by a number of scantily clad Goth types. Rocky Horror is always a sexy beast, but this production really laid that on thick, aided by the many very attractive young actors cast. For instance, Janet starting panting the minute she saw Dr. Frank (and who can blame her), and the choreography ensured that you didn’t miss any of the double entendres in the lyrics.

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The JM Drama cast; picture from The Waterloo Region Record

JM Drama is community theatre, so their budgets were small. But their costumes and makeup were top-notch, and they were very creative about the props and sets. The vocals weren’t always great; but then, that’s not as important for this particular musical. (It’s hardly Les Miz.) Fortunately, some of the best singing was done by lead Dr. Frank, who gave an excellent, charismatic performance.

Appropriately, there was some gender-bending within the casting. Both the narrator and Dr. Scott were played by women, and why not? It even allowed for some fun Frank / Dr. Scott flirtation. And Magenta was played by the absolutely fabulous David Cho.

Overall, the whole thing was a hoot (to quote Jean’s post-show assessment). Of course, with a live production, the audience couildn’t (and didn’t) yell back or throw any projectiles. But, they did invite everyone on stage at the end for a reprise of “The Time Warp.” Jean promptly sat back in his chair, but I went for it! And yay me, as I got to dance near the two hunkiest members of the cast, Rocky immediately to my right and Frank directly in front. (Which is why Jean didn’t manage to get a picture; the actor playing Frank was very tall.)

This isn’t the kind of play that’s meant to be contemplated on too deeply, but this production gave rise to some thoughts:

  • They weren’t nearly as clear on the difference between transsexuals, transvestites, and bisexuals back when this was written as we are now, eh?
  • All that stuff we used to yell at the screen? “Slut!” “The f word for gay!” That would just be uncomfortable now.
  • Is there supposed to be some sort of lesson here, and if so, what is it? Frank is very cool but really the villain, and he doesn’t win in the end. But what of Brad and Janet? Is it good for them that they let loose? They were so uptight at first, but seem so traumatized at the end.

Eh. Too serious. It’s just a jump to the left. And a step to the right.

See you back here after I watch Fox’s Rocky Horror reboot on TV, coming up in October.

Trailer for the new Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox