Photos by: David Haskell
“A painter paints pictures on a canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”
Bravo Niagara! is a festival that Christine Mori has been dreaming about for 30 years. The idea was in the conceptual stage for many years, waiting for the right moment, the right setting and the right people to get involved. And that right moment has revealed itself, right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake, as piece by piece, Bravo Niagara! International Music Festival has fallen into place. As Christine and her daughter Alexis Spieldenner put it, “the stars are aligning.” From a wish, to a persistent thought, to the knowledge that ‘yes, we can really make this happen’; this mother-daughter team have put together a festival that is truly going to be a day to remember.
Christine and Alexis are a dynamic duo committed to fulfilling this dream of starting a spring music festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Christine Mori, a veteran musician with over 35 years in the music industry, and Alexis, a harpist and recent graduate of Duke University bring together their own individual talents and expertise as founders of Bravo Niagara!
Music is something that seems to run in the family, at least in this family.
Christine Mori grew up in Toronto, but left in the mid 70s to attend The Juilliard School. Upon graduation from Juilliard, Christine began her career with the Florida Orchestra, where she performed as principle pianist for almost 30 years. She performed solo concerts with artists ranging from Isaac Stern to Branford Marsalis and worked along such notable artists as Marvin Hamlisch, Henri Mancini, Steve Allen, Victor Borge, Roberta Flack, Bobby McFerrin, as well as world-renowned classical violinists Shlomo Mintz, Robert McDuffie, Dene Olding and Nigel Kennedy. After moving back to Niagara to be closer to her father, Christine was able to concentrate on finally starting to organize the music festival she had been dreaming about. Bravo Niagara! begins a new chapter in Christine’s musical career that reconnects her with her Canadian roots. She says, “I’m very excited to bring my experience and passion for music to the Niagara Region”, and she hopes that her unconventional approach to the concert going experience will attract new audiences and ensure a life-long appreciation of the arts.
When Alexis graduated from Duke University, in May of 2013, she joined her mother in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and together they got to work planning the festival. As a “musician’s kid,” Alexis spent much of her childhood growing up backstage. From sitting on the lap of a grandfatherly man named Isaac Stern to meeting the inspirational Bobby McFerrin who told her to “reach for the stars”, Alexis’ early exposure to the world of music set the stage for a life-long love of music.
She began studying the harp at the age of five and by age 11, she had made her professional debut, alongside her mother as they joined together to form Trio Dolce Vita. She played as the principle harpist for FloriMezzo Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Opera Company for several years. While at Duke, she performed with the Duke Symphony Orchestra and worked with an El Sistema-inspired organization that provides free classical music education for underprivileged children. She became inspired by the power of music for social change and worked alongside university leaders on several music and social entrepreneurship initiatives. After moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake, she started Lady With a Harp Niagara, where she plays weddings and other special events.
So really, if anyone knows about music, it’s these two.
From the very early stages of planning, to the months leading up to the festival, everything has been falling perfectly into place. However, Christine and Alexis say this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many key individuals. They note, “as the saying goes, it takes a Village to raise a child. In this case, it takes The Village, to launch a music festival. From John Hawley and our Village neighbours who have been a source of support from day one to Stratus Vineyards, Steinway Piano Gallery Toronto and our generous Presenting Sponsors, including CIBC, The Village and Stothart Investments Ltd., we are so grateful for our tremendous network of support and the community of Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
When a process flows so organically, it really seems as though it’s just meant to be. That’s not to say that it has been easy though. Alexis and Christine spend the majority of their waking hours thinking and doing and planning for this festival. It’s been lots of sleepless nights and lots of missed meals. But the end result? It’s worth it.
Bravo Niagara! will “elevate your senses with the synergy of music and wine.” As the overview of the festival states, “after the period of winter quietude, Bravo Niagara!’s Inaugural Festival will celebrate spring’s return with a resurgence of creative energy and artistic spirit. The festival will awaken our senses and serve as a catalyst, a springboard, to the high season of cultural richness to come.” Bravo Niagara!’s inaugural festival “Spring into Music @ Stratus,” featuring JUNO Award winning vocalist Molly Johnson, internationally acclaimed jazz and classical artists, and the World Premiere of a newly commissioned work, will be taking place on April 12 in the Stratus Press Alley. Audience members are invited to “witness the magical transformation of the Stratus Press Alley from a wine production room into an intimate and elegant music production room with a 9-foot concert grand Steinway taking centre stage.” Seating will be a combination of long harvest tables and cabaret style seating, given the venue an evocative and eclectic feel. Candlelight will set the mood. Limited tickets are available for each concert and the intimate venue space will provide both the performers and the audience with a captivating concert experience.
Regarding Stratus, Christine notes, “artists are looking for this kind of venue…the musicians are excited about it, because it’s giving them the opportunity to be closer to the audience, reminiscent of the days of the grand European salons. It eliminates the formalities of the traditional concert hall, allowing less pressure and more artistic freedom.” Suzanna Janke, Director of Hospitality and Retail at Stratus Vineyards shares, “Stratus is thrilled to be the backdrop for Bravo Niagara!’s inaugural concert series. This inspired collaboration, driven by passion and quality, perfectly echoes the spirit of the winery.” Christine and Alexis go on to say, “our vision is to revitalize the conventional concert experience through innovative and inspired performances. We want to provide an alternative venue for both seasoned concertgoers and younger generations to experience the exhilaration of live performance.”
The festival will take place over the course of one music filled day. The first concert, starting at 2:30pm features Bravo Niagara!’s unique mentorship program, “Protégé Project”, which provides opportunities for young stars to perform alongside their distinguished mentors. Grigorios Zamparas, a concert pianist born in Greece and Nadia Azzi, a fifteen-year-old piano prodigy who has studied with Grigorios will take the stage for a dynamic program of classical favourites and virtuoso masterworks. Grigorios has received critical acclaim for his versatile performing career across Greece, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, Russia, Latin America, South Korea and the US. Most recently, he completed his recordings of all five of Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Concerti. Nadia Azzi is an accomplished concert pianist, who has performed at Carnegie Hall three times, is a recipient of several top prizes at the national and international levels, and is currently studying at the pre-college division of The Juilliard School.
Another exciting component of this program will feature the World Premiere of a newly commissioned work by Bravo Niagara!’s Distinguished Composer-in-Residence, Constantine Caravassilis. Constantine has been praised by the Toronto Star for his “timeless music” and recognized by the Toronto Art Foundation as “one of the most prolific and highly gifted emerging composers in Canada.”
Constantine notes, “I am very pleased to be joining the inaugural Bravo Niagara! International Music Festival this season, as its first Distinguished Composer-in- Residence.” He continues, “Stratus offers a great alternative to the traditional concert hall. It’s style, ambiance and character will delight audiences and performers alike. It is with no doubt that the vision of the festival’s organizing team will bring much excitement and will add a great deal of colour to the community of Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
The second concert, “Jazz Up Close”, will feature JUNO Award winning vocalist Molly Johnson and JUNO-nominated artists, jazz pianist Robi Botos and bassist Mike Downes. Molly Johnson is known as one of Canada’s greatest voices. She has performed sold out shows around the world, and in 2009, won a JUNO Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album (Lucky), as well as the 2009 National Jazz Award for Best Female Vocalist.
Robi Botos is a jazz pianist of Hungarian descent who has earned recognition as one of Canada’s most elite jazz musicians. Having been mentored by the great Oscar Peterson, Robi has received many awards throughout his career, including a 2012 JUNO Nomination for Traditional Jazz Album of the Year (Aspects of Oscar) and the 2012 TD Canada Trust Grand Jazz Award at the International Montreal Jazz Festival. Mike Downes, likewise, is one of Canada’s finest jazz musicians and was recently nominated for a 2014 JUNO for Traditional Jazz Album of the Year (Ripple Effect). “Jazz Up Close” will feature two programs, a solo performance by Robi followed by the all-star trio, as Molly and Mike take the stage alongside him.
Brigitte Robinson, an accomplished actor who has appeared in theatre, film and television across Canada, and who is also a former member of the Shaw Festival who performed for 13 years in over 25 productions, will introduce each of the artists.
Alexis and Christine can’t contain their smiles as they talk about how excited they are to have a group of such high caliber artists taking part in the inaugural festival.
The festival will utilize a synergy of all the arts-music, wine, culinary and visual arts-to create a true “symphony of the senses.” Audience members will be led through a tasting of an assemblage of Stratus wines, which will serve as a prelude to the intimate performances to follow. A post concert reception will be taking place at The Garrison House after the last show ends. All the artists featured in the festival will be there for a meet and greet, as well as a CD signing. Separate tickets will be available to purchase for this portion of the festival.
It’s evident when Christine and Alexis talk about the festival, that everything about it really is a dream come true. And getting to work on the festival together has been one of the best parts for both of them. They truly have a sound relationship.
The long term vision Alexis and Christine have for Bravo Niagara!’s is to create an opportunity for both artists and audience members to become musical ambassadors. Alexis and Christine note, “we strive to ensure the longevity of live music for future generations by inspiring individuals to collectively embrace it’s intrinsic value. As a community, we must recognize music’s potential to stimulate not only economic, but cultural vitality.”
An exciting alliance that has recently formed for Alexis and Christine is one with Euterpe, a non-profit charitable music organization that is dedicated to “awakening young minds to the joys of music.”
If the first year is any indication, the Bravo Niagara! International Music Festival will only continue to grow and form more new and exciting partnerships as time goes on. This festival will be delighting music fans for years to come, and continue, as Alexis likes to put it, “to enrich the cultural fabric of Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
For more information on the festival and to purchase tickets, check out the official website at www.bravoniagaraimf.com