Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Valentine / Family Day weekend

We originally thought of taking a day trip this long weekend—maybe do some snowshoeing—but the record cold temperatures dissuaded us from that plan. Instead we found entertainment closer to home.

Friday night we had dinner with friends at Aqua, the new seafood restaurant in the not-so-new Crowne Plaza Hotel. The service was a little iff-y—bit inattentive—but the food was pretty good. We all went with the Valentine’s special menu. The highlights were the beet soup with smoked trout, the ravioli and beef entree Jean had, and the two desserts: A chocolate mousse cake and a cookie with ice cream concoction. We all concluded we’d eat here again, amidst that special chlorinated pool ambiance. 🙂

Afterward we all attended a symphony concert. It started with a modern piece that our friend accurately described as interesting, but not that musical. Then we got Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert no. 2 in C minor. For me, this would be the number 3 Rachmaninoff piano concerto I have heard live, and he is three for three in my books. I always enjoy them. The second movement of this one sounds so much “All By Myself” that Eric Carmen still pays royalties to Rachmininoff’s estate. (True fact!) The third movement was lively and sensual. The featured pianist was an attractive and obviously talented young woman named Natasha Paremski.

The second half of the concert featured Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which was also good though, for me, not as good as the piano concerto.

Saturday was actual Valentine’s Day, and we don’t generally go to restaurants then. But it being a holiday, I decided to make a nicer dinner.

I tried a new (to me) Jamie Oliver recipe for slow-cooked duck pasta. We weren’t able to buy the duck until that morning, and it was frozen, so the main challenge was getting it defrosted in time for dinner that day. That required a whole lot of rinsing.

Otherwise, the recipe wasn’t tough: Just required time. The duck cooked at 350 for 2 hours, in its juices, and I had to turn it every half hour. Then in a fry pan I sauteed some pancetta, then I added various vegetables and some can tomatoes and red wine to make a pasta sauce. After the duck cooled, we removed the meat from it, and added that to the sauce. Then it was a matter of cooking rigatoni and mixing it all together, topped with Parmesan.

by Jamie Oliver. Valentine Dinner at home

Quite delish. We served it with a Chateauneuf du pape.

For dessert I made a chocolate mousse cake. No flour, just cocoa, unsweetened, and bittersweet chocolate with eggs and Cool Whip, basically. It was another new recipe (to me), and it turned out well—not too sweet, good texture.

.... or is that chocolate mousse? Too much wine with dinner .. Valentine Dinner with my one and only :)

But we weren’t done eating yet. 🙂

Sunday we braved the cold and drove to Wilk’s Bar, which is at Langdon Hall, for lunch. It isn’t a cheap place (though cheaper than the Langdon Hal dining room), but they do a nice job.

Valentine Lunch at Wilke's Bar at Langdon Hall

We had the “From the Land” sharing platter to start, along with four oysters. The oysters were amazing. The land platter was fine, but not outstanding. The highlight of that was probably the almonds!

Valentine Lunch at Wilke's Bar at Langdon Hall

Muskox stew with mushroom risotto in the background

Both of the lunch entrees were very good, though. I had the wild mushroom risotto and Jean had muskox stew. The glasses of wine were quite nice, also.

But no time (or room, really) for dessert, as we had tea dance tickets for 2:00. After a detour to the wrong location, we got to that event around 2:15. It was a fun time, and a chance to work off some of the food—especially dancing to “Jump, Jive, and Wail”! Wow, that’s a fast song. (Which is why the wailing after the jiving, I guess.)

And then, we dashed to a 4:20 showing of The Theory of Everything at the Princess. Pretty interesting movie about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Definitely shows the challenges of her having to cope with his increasingly serious illness. Though of course, as we know, he continued to do amazing physics work through it all.

Then we were ready to go back home and relax. Family Day was pretty quiet, and that suited us just fine. Especially as we got some news Sunday night that definitely had us thinking about family.


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A symphony concert like no other issue

For “Edwin’s Orchestra Follies”, we were promised the wacky side of the KW Symphony, and they delivered on that!

The premise was that due to the symphony’s financial challenges, they had to try some new approaches. Like, striking a deal with new sponsor, Power Goop. Like offering a new Siri-like app, that seemed to be hearing-challenged. Like having a mascot: a big guy in a cat suit.

Cat mascot, singer, Edwin in track suit

Cat mascot, conter tenor in the center, and conductor Edwin Outwater in his Power Goop outfit. Photo by Scott Belluz.

Some jokes worked better than others. They were throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, and only some of it stuck, if you will. By as my friend, who isn’t a typical Symphony attendee, remarked: “At least I’m not bored!”

Oh, and they did play music too. One surprisingly great piece was Leroy Anderson’s “Typewriter”, that did, in fact, feature a manual typewriter as one of the “instruments”. It was “played” by one of the members of the Youth Orchestra, who had to have been a novice on that device, given his age.

Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” on YouTube. It’s actually a thing!

Several pieces were by P.D.Q. Bach, “the oddest of Bach’s 20-odd children.” Outwater commented that while father Bach’s pieces required great musicianship, “any idiot could play P.D.Q. Bach”, then invited an audience on stage to prove it. We got a young woman from Colorado (what?) who seemed slightly mortified by the whole thing, but nevertheless did a fine job of rising and hitting cymbals together when so directed by the conductor, earning an angry glare from the cat mascot, every time. This was during the Hindenburg Concerto, featuring balloon releases at various points during the piece.

The first half ended with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Outwater pointed out before starting that everyone had partaken of Power Goop before the concert. Throughout the piece—it’s written this way—various members of the orchestra leave, until no one is left playing. Only the way it was acted out, they were each leaving due to some sort of intestinal distress!

You had to be there, but it actually was pretty funny.

And the second half began with a response in the form of P.D.Q Bach’s Howdy Symphony. It starts with a “conductor solo”—that’s right, just Edwin Outwater flailing away in the face of no music, no musicians. “Ssh,” he said, as the audience took a few minutes to settle down. “This is my solo. You don’t get a conductor solo very often!”

And then all the musicians gradually ambled back in, one by one, and started playing.

Edwin’s supposed even greater intake of Power Goop felled him on the third piece in, and he collapsed on the couch (which was on the stage for the cat mascot, of course). “Get that girl!” he managed to wheeze, and our Colorado visitor got a turn at the baton, for “Flight of the Bumblebee”.

Probably the funniest piece was the final one, P.D.Q Bach’s “Ipheigenia in Brooklyn”, featuring the pictured countertenor. It’s a mockery of the aria form, with the singer having to take rather absurd leaps in vocal range, while singing even more absurd lyrics about “dead fishes… Dead, but still smelling of fish” and “running, running, running, noses”. The singer played it all very straight, which was perfect. The piece was nuts and I was in stitches.

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And for some completely different, last night we went to see Travis Wall’s “Shaping Sound” dance troupe. He is a dancer and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, and the troupe featured a number of other dancers from that show and Dancing with the Stars.

I won’t get into big description. It was some amazing, upbeat group numbers set off by angsty and sometimes sexy contemporary pieces. I quite enjoyed it. Their take on “Bohemian Rhapsody” especially stood out.


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KW Glee

I am really, really surprised how much I am enjoying this concert.

— Jean, at intermission

Tuesday night we went to see KW Glee perform with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony at Centre in the Square. KW Glee is a show choir that was, in fact, inspired by the TV show Glee. So they sing pop music, and they don’t just stand there while they’re doing that—all their numbers are choreographed.

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The inspiration

What’s different from the TV show? Well, this show choir is much bigger; they have many featured vocalists, not just one girl (Rachel) and one boy (Finn) who do most of the lead singing; and especially; no auto-tune!

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The actuality

And what voices, my friend. My goodness, such talent in this community. I’m wondering which of these young people will break out as a  huge star some day. Seems likely at least one of them will.

The set list consisted mostly of what kids are listening to these days, which meant that—honestly—I did not know many of the songs. In some cases I hadn’t even heard of the artist. (VV Brown?)

No matter, They had us at the opening number, a mashup of “Some Nights” by Fun and “End of Time” by Beyoncé, performed by choir only, then carried us through as the Symphony joined in on “Counting Stars” by One Republic mashed with “Wake Me Up” by Avicii.

And then we got Junior Glee, all on their own. Oh, my goodness. These are the 9 to 12 year olds, and they are mostly girls (Senior Glee is somewhat more gender balanced), but their first number featured three young boys singing Bruno Mars’ “Treasure”. They were both adorable and deeply impressive at conveying this love song.

In the introduction by artistic director Amanda Kind, we were told that the youth auditioned based on vocal talent only. All the dancing, they’d have to learn in their 12-week rehearsal period.

But some of them obviously have some additional dance training. “Say Something” (by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera) was performed as a vocal duet, with two of the choir members dancing. It was lovely—reminded me of the performance of this song on “So You Think You Can Dance” (and nearly brought me to tears).

“Say Something” on So You Think You Can Dance

Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” (a rather sappy song, that) was another that featured two other talented dancers.

Adding to the excitement were a great number of costume changes. I don’t know how many, but we didn’t have time to get sick of any particular outfit, let me tell you. (It must have been chaos backstage.) For example, for all-ladies singing of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, the singers were all in sexy black and red. For Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, the outfits were more eccentric. For Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” mashed with Rhianna’s “Disturbia”, more scary.

For the James Bond Medley, the guys were all dapper in suits, of course. For “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine, the lead singer was in a lovely red dress, while the rest of the choir wore black, representing the demons being “shaken off”, per the song lyrics. You get the idea,

And the Symphony? Well, honestly, they were very much in the background—especially in first half. Staging-wise, they literally were seated way back, to allow for so many singers and dancers to do their thing in the front part of  stage. But, they did get to shine more in the second half, which featured more quiet numbers. They actually started playing the second half—the James Bond theme—before any singers were on stage.

And there’s no doubt that throughout, these talented musicians provided solid backing. There’s nothing like live music. And everything was a world premiere, friends. There has never before been a full concert of show choir + symphony. All the scores—all of them—were written especially for this concert by conductor Trevor Wagler.

Another highlight to mention was the performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Obviously, this one has been done by lots of singers. KW Glee had four young men from Senior Glee perform it. Simply the fact of it being sung by four people instead of the usual soloist made you forget about comparing it with past covers, as each did a nice job on his own and their voices mingled beautifully when they sang together. The orchestration was also fantastic. Though the audience probably could have been popping up all night, this is one place where a standing ovation occurred mid-concert.

That was fantastic! It was just amazing.

— Jean, after the concert

A terrific report on the concert by SpokeTV—starting with a bit of “Hallelujah”

Set list:

  • Some Nights (Fun) / End of Time (Beyonce)
  • Counting Starts (One Republic) / Wake Me Up (Avicii)
  • Treasure (Bruno Mar)
  • Toxic (Britney Spears)
  • Bye Bye Bye (N’Sync)
  • Bad Romance (Lady Gaga)
  • Disturbia (Rhianna) / Thriller (Michael Jackson)
  • Say Something (A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera)
  • Beside You (Marianas Trench)
  • Brave (Sara Bareilles)
  • Viva La Vida (Coldplay) / Firework (Katy Perry)

Intermission

  • James Bond Medley: Bond Theme / Live and Let Die (Paul McCartney) / Another Way to Die (Jack White & Alicia Keys) / Skyfall (Adele)
  • Turning Tables (Adele)
  • No Good Woman (Elise LeGrow) / Rumour Has It (Adele)
  • Shark in the Water (VV Brown)
  • Shake It Out (Florence and the Machine)
  • Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
  • A Moment Like This (Kelly Clarkson)
  • Let It Be (The Beatles)
  • See Your Star (KW Glee original, written by Jason Berry)


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November was a heavy month

At least in terms of activities. (And the news. But I won’t be getting into that here.)

I’ve already blogged about dining at Gilt and taking in Nightshift; seeing Swing in concert; and listening to Who’s Next live in the tiny seats at Massey Hall. Now a summary of the rest.

Footloose the Musical: Not just a frolic

What I remember of Footloose the movie is that a preacher in a small town has banned dancing. Kevin Bacon moves to that town, takes up with the minister’s daughter, and dances his way into convincing the town to lift the ban.

Footloose the Musical, which we saw at the St. Jacob’s Playhouse, was very well-done, but the sadness running through the whole piece was a surprise to me. If also in the movie, I had forgotten about the abandoning father, the dead son and brother, the silenced women. Those people really needed to dance!

Jean was mostly sad that a piece that we first saw as contemporary is now an item of nostalgia.

A 100-mile feast with 7000 km theme

It’s somewhat confusing that 100-mile dinner of local food has a theme of A Tour of Italy, a country 7169 km away (says Google). But that’s what the Waterloo Inn had an offer, as sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and in benefit of local physician recruitment.

It was the place to be if you wanted to network. We were there for the food, but gathered up various business cards nonetheless. We were encouraged to Tweet during dinner, and so I did, and as a real rarity, also acted as food “photographer.” (I did all five courses, but will stick to three here.)

The Importance of Being Earnest: Reliably entertaining

I’ve seen the play before, I’ve seen the movie, yet I didn’t hesitate when invited to the University of Waterloo production of this Oscar Wilde play—and not only because the tickets were free (for me, because I’m special :-). I never remember the story that well; just that I really enjoyed watching it play out! This production, in the newly renovated Humanities Theatre, was no exception.

More people need to go to Marisol

We dined there before the Swing concert, and it was lovely as always, but alarmingly quiet for a Friday night. More people need to find this place! We can’t keep losing the area’s best restaurants.

Christmas parties

Some companies still have these. If yours doesn’t, I recommend marrying into one that does. It’s worked out for me.

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Writers on music: Like dancing about architecture?

That’s the saying, eh, that writing is about music is like dancing about architecture. Well, the KW Symphony begs to differ, and recently had a concert featuring novelists Miriam Toews and Wayne Grady, whose recent books (All My Puny Sorrows and Emancipation Day) have musicians as main characters.

Each novelist got half of the program, in which they read from their work, had the symphony play a piece related to what they read, discussed music and writing with the conductor, then listened to a modern work by the symphony and read a response to that.

it was a fascinating evening. The symphony were “forced” into genres they don’t typically tackle—jazz and piano concertos (featuring a lovely soloist from Wilfrid Laurier), and I’m sure the novelists hadn’t been previously familiar with the work they commented on.

And I have two new novels on my reading list.


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Dinner and a concert: Times three

As previously mentioned, May was a big concert month for us. Unusually for us, we went out to eat before three of these outings.

1. Food trucks and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are a band who play retro, swinging jazz music. Before their concert at Centre in the Square, the Waterloo Hep Cat Hoppers were offering a dance lesson in the lobby. We wanted to take part in that, but it was at 6:30 pm on a work night, which seemed a bit tight.

So when Centre in the Square announced they’d have a couple food trucks there that night starting at 6:00, that seemed like a good option.

Seemed. But while food trucks are a whole big thing right now, they have a few problems.

  1. Weather. At least the rain held off until we’d gotten our food and eaten it, but it was windy and cool, making it less than fabulous for eating outdoors.
  2. Eating standing up. I’m a big fan of working standing up, but eating a meal is best enjoyed sitting down. Using metal and not plastic cutlery.
  3. Standing in line. Just not my favorite activity. Made worst by the fact that while we were there promptly at 6:00, the trucks were not really ready until 6:15, allowing other people to get ahead of us in line, and making us a bit late for the dance lesson.

As for food quality… Meh… Jean didn’t particularly enjoy his Tandoori grilled cheese. I thought my Mediterranean crepe wasn’t bad, but not really worth braving weather / eating standing up / standing in line for again, unless I was stuck.

The dance lesson, though, was fine. What we were taught was very similar to the jive that Jean and I know well, only instead of backstep / step / step (or triple step), it was back-step / kick / kick. It was really hard to remember to do the kick / kick when we were so used to the step / step. Occasionally we just rebelled and reverted to jive dancing. But a good time.

Hep Cat Hoppers performance on YouTube

As for the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performance, that was hard not to enjoy also, as the music is so lively and fun. I hadn’t known that the band, the same group of people, had been together since 1995. Jean wasn’t in the greatest mood that night (and I’m sure the grilled cheese didn’t help), but he could still recognize that they gave a really good show. (Should point out that this concert was his idea for a change, rather than mine.)

Video: Mr. Pinstripe Suit by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

2. Three Kretans and Ballroom with a Twist

Three Kretans is a Greek restaurant very close to Centre in the Square. For the past year or two, Centre in the Square’s parking lot has been under construction, making it a challenge to find a spot to leave your car before shows. So Three Kretans has come up with a pretty smart offer: Have dinner there, leave your car in their parking lot (for free), and walk to theatre. They have a pre-theatre menu that gets you to the show on time. With the ballroom concert at 7:00 on a week night, we decided to go that right.

The food isn’t bad. It is a casual Greek restaurnt, so you get your lamb, chicken, or pork skewers with potatoes and rice and Greek salad. And baklava-type dessert, if you want.

But Jean was underwhelmed. “I get better food than this at home,” he pointed out. [Ah, the perils of being such a fantastic home cook! 🙂 ]

The show, fortunately was in no way disappointing. Music was all provided by the KW Symphony, and the evening was hosted by Kym Johnson and Tristan MacManus of Dancing with the Stars, and also featured other dancers that show. That fact probably would have been more exciting if I watched Dancing with the Stars. (By the way, everyone in our ballroom dance class thinks it’s highly peculiar that we don’t watch that show.) And there were a couple singers from American Idol, which, again, I don’t watch, so I didn’t know who they were. But while the woman certainly had a nice voice, I will admit to being particularly impressed by the dude, one Von Smith, who had most impressive range and control.

Mainly, though, this was about dancing. It featured group numbers, solos, duets, mostly in the Latin and ballroom genres (though in that showy TV style with all the lifts and whatnot), but the twist was the inclusion of some modern and hip hop dancing as well. This was largely due to the inclusion of a couple dancers I had heard of: Legacy and Randi Lynn Strong, from So You Think You Can Dance. Their numbers were definitely my favorites. Very cool how the So You Think… training allows them to join the ballroom dancers in that genre, but also shine in their own.

Ballroom with a Twist promo video

At one point, the hosts even got the audience up dancing! All very fun.

Afterward we got to attend a reception with the performers, though I continued my tradition of never knowing what to say when in these situations. Still, what we learned from other people’s question were:

  • This was their only Canadian performance.
  • They don’t always get to perform with a live symphony, but like it when they do
  • … except when the symphony can’t keep the beat. But apparently, that was not a problem with the KW Symphony.
Randi Lynn Strong at reception

Randi Lynn Strong at Centre in the Square reception

After taking a few crappy phone photos, we headed home.

3. Marisol and KW Symphony Superheroes

Jean pointed out that Marisol restaurant is also close to Centre in the Square, but offers better food than Three Kretans. So though I hadn’t planned to go out to eat again this month, as we hadn’t been there in a while, I made a reservation before the final month’s concert.

It was a very enjoyable dinner. As an appetizer, we shared six small but delicious raspberry point oysters (they actually gave us seven, probably due to the size) and marinated sardines, served with a salad. There’s no beating fresh sardines from Portugal, but marinating them proved a rather good choice for those of us farther from the sea. We were so excited about these, we forgot to get a picture until almost done:

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The remnants of our appetizers

As the wine, the waiter suggested a Portuguese Viognier-Sauvignon Blanc blend that was lemony and well-suited to the food.

I continued the seafood theme through dinner, having the fish of the day, which was sea bream. Served whole, it was really easy to fillet, and had been cooked very nicely. The side was a pasta made in-house, dressed simply with lemon, olive oil, and parsley.

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Jean went with the lemon-tomato gnocchi. The texture of the pasta was perfect, and the flavor was more subtle than one usually gets with gnocchi. Not a bad thing.

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For dessert, we share a creme caramel and forgot to take pictures, again.

We were in plenty of time to walk over for our concert, which the KW Symphony performing music from Superhero movies. This was conducted by John Morris Phillips, Cincinnati Pops conductor, who is always a lot of fun.

The only themes I knew in advance was Darth Vadar’s from Star Wars, but I found most quite engaging. The themes from Dark Knight, Supergirl, and XMen were particularly striking. A lot were almost hilariously short, though; just the length of the opening credits, I guess! In some cases they put a few scores together to make a somewhat longer “theme” piece. Nothing that ever really taxed the attention span, though.

It was a great way to showcase the symphony’s skill, and it was nice to see a very full house in attendance.


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Flirting with the arts

Last weekend we attended a KW Symphony concert called Sound in Motion: Music and the Body. This was part of the Intersections series, where the orchestra combines with something; this time, with a yoga instructor or “mindfulness educator”. The evening began with only her, actually, leading us through some breathing and stretching exercises. Of course, we were in street clothes and sitting in concert seats, so we weren’t exactly doing downward facing dog, but she adapted to the space we had and the fact that we could stand up.

During the first few pieces the symphony played, she continued to interact with us in various ways, leading us through movements and breathing in conjunction with the music. We weren’t to clap between pieces, but to just keep focusing inward.

For the last two pieces all was quiet, though, as we were to try to stay mindful as we just listened to the music (which were a couple of more modern classical music pieces). It was amazing how well that worked at quelling the problem one usually has at classical concerts, that the mind has a tendency to start wandering off at certain points. Maybe, if you can manage to go right from yoga class to a classical concert, you’ll get more out of it.

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That was Friday. On Sunday I was registered into this program called Flirting with the Arts. It offered 12 half-hour arts-related sessions, of which you selected 6, to give you just a taste of what they’re like. It was held at a volunteer-run coffee shop in downtown Kitchener (itself an interesting place).

Although I thought I’d allowed myself sufficient time to get there for the 10:00 start, I was wrong. Between snow making the drive slower and the nearest parking lot being full, I arrived at about 9:59. Thanks to some jogging to get there.

My first session was by an art therapist, so focused on creating really personal art, not intended for display to others. It was interesting, but not ideal as my first one, as I was still stressed from the lateness and had trouble getting my heart rate back down to normal enough to really focus, as was the point here.

The second was on slide guitar playing. I quite like the idea of playing guitar, as it’s so much more portable than piano, and some songs I like simply sound better on guitar than piano. But I don’t know that I like the idea enough to spend the time it would take to learn.

Slide guitar playing means, basically, putting a tube on your finger and sliding that down the strings to play, rather than pressing the strings down at certain positions to strum chords. In a half hour, we just got the basics of what you can do with that sliding technique. I didn’t seem to be a natural, so I think the instructor was just being polite when he said my first efforts sounded great. But I did get better by the end.

Bonnie Raitt playing slide guitar

Not destined to be the next Bonnie Raitt—note the tube on her finger, here?

Next up was acting. The lesson here was that you don’t inject emotion into words when acting; you feel emotion and project that outward, regardless of the actual words. This was explored in exercises where you had to convey a message using gibberish, and another where you had to convey an emotional backstory into truly prosaic dialogue. It was a cool session with a very enthusiastic instructor (a playwright).

We had lunch break then, which Jean came to join me for. (We went to another little restaurant rather than eat this cafe.) Then he ran away and I continued with afternoon sessions.

The first was landscape painting, and the idea was to try to paint the outline of a landscape you were imagining. My main problem was I’m not any kind of good at just imagining a landscape, so was never really sure where I was trying to go in that half hour. The results were therefore less than impressive.

Next up was portrait painting. We were instructed to bring a photo of ourselves to work from. It was the fifth time of day this artist had been teaching amateurs, and she was getting good at helping us avoid the pitfalls. It was all step by step: the head shape, eye position, and nose position in pencil outline; colour in the shadows of the face using various shades of some kind of pencil; don’t spend too long on the eyes, and don’t draw them too big (though I still did); and then take wet brush to the color and bring it life.

It was surprising how well that turned in just a half hour. Mine actually looked like me.

Finally, I had a writing session. That one was right in my comfort zone, so wasn’t as enlightening. But it was fun, especially the session in which we had to create stories by adding a sentence to what other people. One turned out quite hilarious.

So not sure if any of these flirtations will turn into longer-term relationships, but it was certainly an interesting Sunday.


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Can a discount orchestra save the electric series at Centre in the Square?

This tweet was the first I’d heard about the KW Symphony being dropped from the Jeans’n’Classics series of concerts, which struck me as very strange, since the whole point of those concerts was marrying rock band with symphony.

Except for this one, though, Twitter—often a great source for finding things out—was annoyingly silent on the subject. Finally I had to go old tech: I emailed Centre in the Square to ask them about the tweet. The fact that they didn’t quickly reply made me think it was probably true.

And indeed, the email response that eventually arrived confirmed it, saying that the KW Symphony would be replaced with session musicians: “the size and make-up of the orchestra will be tailored to meet the artistic and stylistic demands of each Jeans ‘n Classics production”.

The community discussion I’d been craving kind of broke out in the pages of the Waterloo Region Record, who ran a story about this on May 31. That was followed by various letters to the editor, then a very critical commentary piece by a member of the Symphony board , followed by a defense by a member of the Centre in the Square board.

Nobody seems very happy about this change, but what strikes me in particular is that first article claims that lower production costs were not the main reason here, but an artistic need for revitalization. The last article frankly states they couldn’t afford the series any longer in this form—which at least makes more sense of the whole thing.

They both agree, though, that they want a bigger audience. Got to wonder if they’re going to achieve it. I’m afraid that I, for one, won’t be helping them out with that.

At the third concert this season, they had us vote on which three concerts we wanted to see the following year (out of six choices). I thought that wasn’t a bad idea, but note that everything they selected was a reprise of a previously done show. If I go next year, I’ll be seeing three similar concerts again, only with a smaller, less talented orchestra. The promised “better staging and lighting” won’t make up for the diminished music.

When it works, it’s a fantastic sound, it really is. The sound of an orchestra when it’s playing with a rock band well… It makes every hair on your body stand on end. It’s incredibly powerful.

– Roger Daltrey (The Who), 1994

I’d know what I was missing. So after about 10 years of great seats, I’m out.

And I know I’m not the only one. So to get their bigger audience, they not only have to add people, they have to replace the ones lost to this decision.

But you know, I do wish them well. I love Centre in the Square. It’s a fantastic hall. It’s incredible that a smallish place like Kitchener-Waterloo has one of the two or three best concert halls in the whole country. More people should go experience the sound there. It’s unfortunate it’s somehow developed a bit of a “stodgy” reputation. Some things do need to change. They do need better acts, more acts, even gimmicks to drawn more people in.

I’m not sure this particular series change will work out for them. But I sure hope something their Strategic Plan does.

And it’s not like I’m abandoning the place. I’m already signed up for six KW Symphony concerts there next year (to go along with my three at the Conrad Centre). And with some dates now opened up by not going to the Jeans’n’Classics series any more, I’ll probably add a few more.


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A tour of downtown Kitchener restaurants

Since we go to the Electric “Thursdays” series of concerts with friends, we typically go out for dinner first. This year, for whatever reason, each meal has been at a downtown Kitchener restaurant we’ve never been to before. Here’s how they were.

Niko Niko Roll & Sushi, at 20 King Street East, blessedly was not an “all you can eat” type, and did have pretty good sushi. One in our party had the Korean bim bap dish instead (vegetarian version), and also enjoyed that. The lack of wine was a bit disappointing; we tried the saki, but it wasn’t one of the better ones. The service was fine, if unspectacular. And they certainly got us out of there in plenty of time for the show. In fact, we even had time to get some wine from Centre in the Square…

271 West Restaurant, which is in fact at 271 King Street West in Kitchener,  has kind of an Italian-focused menu, and brags of everything being made in-house. They also have a wine list, although not a good understanding of Ontario liquor laws: The waiter insisted (pretty adamantly) that we were not allowed to take a leftover bottle of wine with us. He’s wrong about that—here’s the proof—and as a result lost out on the sale of a bottle of a wine (in favor of two glasses).

The food was all right here, but nothing outstanding. But again, they at least did get us out in time.

Caesaria, at 320 King Street West, was selected based on its online menu, and at least some of us were surprised by its bar-like appearance. Our waitress was young, perky, and pretty, but not that well-informed about the menu. We heard “I’ll have to check on that!” quite a bit. But, to be fair, she did.

The meal timing was rather odd, in that our mains arrived very shortly after our starters, so we ended up with this overflow of food on our rather small table. The upside of it was that, at least, ensured that we once again were done in time for the show. The food here, too, was all right, but not outstanding. (Jean and I shared the edamame and hummus appetizers, and I had the chicken skewer main, while Jean had the squash ravioli.)

The final downtown Kitchener restaurant we tried, Marisol, at 30 Ontario Street South, was just me and Jean, before the KW Symphony’s wonderful Tap! pops concert (featuring dance music, complete with dancers). And it was… A really nice experience.

Marisol outside

From their website: Marisol sign

The room is nice-looking and mellow, and as a change from the all the other places described, the waiter was very professional and skilled. He gave great wine suggestions and was clearly knowledgeable about all items on the menu.

The chef here once worked at Langdon Hall, and the menu is Mediterranean, with a lot of seafood items on offer. I started with the grilled calamari, which had a good texture and was in a really good sauce, while Jean enjoyed the grilled sardines in tomato caponata. If sardines can never live up to those we ate in Portugal, they were still well-prepared, and the tomato sauce very flavorful.

As a main, I had the lemon ricotta gnochi with tomato and pine nuts, and that was very nicely done. Jean had the fish special of the day, which was sea bream. We didn’t take the time for dessert on this outing, but if we had, I believe they still would have gotten us out in time for the show. Now, Marisol is more expensive than any of the other places we tried. But you do get what you pay for sometimes, eh?

So the do-overs would be Niko Niko Sushi & Roll and (especially) Marisol. The other two were experiences that were not unpleasant, but don’t particularly need repeating.


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Cameron Carpenter: Organ superstar

I got tickets for this concert on a bit of whim, and then had trouble finding anyone to go with; seems a busy time of year for work, travel, work travel, and other. But though I could have exchanged for another, I had ended up intrigued by this guy, Cameron Carpenter.

He looks like a rock star. He’s young, good-looking, fit, has a mohawk, dresses in sparkly / paisly tights pants and shirts, and wear outlandish, heeled shoes.

Cameron Carpenter

And he plays classical music. On the organ.

Naturally, he doesn’t approach it in a traditional way. Notably, he prefers digital organs to traditional pipe organs. And he improvises on the classics. And composes his own arrangements, and entire concertos.

Saturday night’s KW Symphony concert gave us a taste of what this guy can do. I went to the Prelude before the concert (which I don’t always bother with) because it was a conversation between Carpenter and a musicologist. He’s a really interesting guy, and I learned a lot about organ (not that I knew much to start with), including the fact that every organ in the world is different, And not subtly different—so different that the extremes might as well be different instruments. And since organists do not travel with their own instruments, they have to arrive early and get acquainted with the particularities of whatever they will be given to play in that town.

I also found out that, somewhat to my disappointment, that Carpenter was only playing on two of the numbers in the program.

The first half was all Bach. The first was a short piece, Ricercare No 2, arranged by Anton Webern. The third was the longer Suite No 3 in D major, whose second movement is very well-known (I think I play it on the piano), but which ends with lively movements with dance rhythms.

Those were both nice. But there’s no doubt they were overshadowed by the middle bit, of Cameron Carpenter riffing on Bach’s most famous composition, Toccata and Fugue in B minor. My sixth row center seats couldn’t have been better for watching hands, and my goodness, could those move. And did you know organists also have a keyboard for their feet? The whole thing was just mesmerizing.


(A taste from YouTube, though I think what he did Saturday was even better.)

In the second half, we jumped from the 1700s to current-day. First up was just the symphony on Arron Copland’s five-movement Music for the Theatre. This was a very fun, jazz-inspired composition, with humorous bits to it.

And then Cameron Carpenter presented his composition for organ and symphony, The Scandal. Based on what he’d done in the first half, I thought this would be all about the symphony adding colour around his own demonstration of proficiency, but it wasn’t that at all. It was a true integration of organ and symphony in a beautiful and lively piece of music. The cello got a big solo moment, and until maybe the last three minutes, the organ wasn’t necessarily the major focus. I was impressed.

So was the audience, as the standing ovation felt more sincere than it sometimes does. And in an extreme rarity at classical music concerts, we got encores! I don’t know what the first was (I’m not that good at classical music edition), but the second was a wonky but awesome version of Oh Canada! Not bad for an American who now lives in Germany.


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Busy week

Some weeks are quiet, and others, you have something on every night. This past week was the latter.

Monday night we were out for ballroom dance practice, and there isn’t much more to say about that.

Brain on Fire coverTuesday night I had book club meeting (and Jean braved the grocery store all by hisself!), to discuss Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. It was definitely a quick and interesting read, an account of  how a 24-year-old suddenly gradually became more psychotic, to the point of spending a month in such a state of delirium that, to this day, she cannot remember that time. Yet most testing showed nothing wrong with her; a medical mystery. To write the book, she had to rely on eye witness accounts by her family, friends, and boyfriend, along with medical records and some hospital video footage.

So it made for some good discussion. Two of us had only the eBook version, and we both reacted the same way to seeing the physical hardcover: Picking it up in fascination at its surprising “heft” in “real life”. “I feel like I’ve brought in an ancient artifact,” friend-with-actual-book remarked.

Wednesday night we were off to see Jeans’n’Classics / KW Symphony rendition of “The Music of Annie Lennox”. But before that, we went out for dinner to Niko Niko Roll & Sushi. The level of service was a little weak, and the lack of a wine list a bit disappointing, but the food was pretty good. Not quite up to Watami Sushi level, but better than most “all you can eat” places. And, for the first time I can recall, we were actually at Centre in the Square a full half hour before concert start! That speed of service was much appreciated.

(I was told my speed of walking may have contributed, too. It was chilly out!)

The concert itself was very enjoyable. They had six different female singers covering the various Eurythmics and Annie Lennox solo songs, so you got to hear them interpreted through a variety of voices and singing styles. They all wore dresses in the first half, and men’s wear in the second, in tribute to Annie Lennox’s own range of fashion.

Thursday, we had a Jean work event at the Culinary Studio, to celebrate some achievements (that this isn’t the place to describe). Children and spouses were welcome to join. What we did was move from workstation to workstation, preparing a different appetizer at each: soup, spanakopita, crepes, spring rolls, and bruschetta. (The kids made chocolate chip cookies.) It was a lot of fun—and I’ve learned I’ve been chopping vegetables incorrectly for 25 years. (Gonna be a hard habit to break.)

Spring rolls

We learned how to make spring rolls much like these

Then, we all ate what we had made. It was surprising how filling a small number of appetizers (and cookies) can be!

Friday we stayed home and watched a movie called Secret Things. There will be a separate post on that.

And Saturday we were out for a very special dinner, which will also merit its own post.