Media Literacy Week at London Public Library

Media Literacy PosterIn an age of ubiquitous messaging — replete with sound, text, video and still images — understanding the sources and inherent biases of both the technologies and message generators is more important than ever. It’s one of the reasons the Media Awareness Network and the Canadian Teachers Federation, together with more than three dozen collaborating organizations, partnered in 2006 to create Media Literacy Week, which this year runs Nov. 2-6. This year’s theme: Media Literacy in a Digital Age.

The organization’s website is loaded with hints for parents, educators, information professionals and media enthusiasts on how and why they should be part of the process. There are also plenty of resources, available online and for download.

London Public Library has scheduled two events as part of this year’s Media Literacy Week. The first, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m., consists of a screening of the film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. If you have a Google account, you can watch it here on Google Video. Following the film, I’ll moderate discussion by a panel consisting of Kane X. Faucher, an assistant professor in the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario; Wael Haddara, a physician and a director of the Muslim Association of Canada; and Ghada Turk, an educator at the Al-Taqwa Islamic School in London, Ont.

The second event, on the following evening at 7 p.m., is titled Digital Media: The New Democracy. It’ll be a talk and discussion led by London blogger and creative thinker Brian Frank, exploring the notion that the digital revolution that is so dramatically changing our lives has links to ancient Greek notions of democracy — and what might be next. It promises to be an interesting evening.

If you believe in the importance of media literacy and think you can lend your insights to broaden understanding of the media and their many effects, get involved. Plan or attend an event — or simply encourage others to do so.

Goodden’s blue heron to perch near the Thames

In a news release, London, Ont., mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best called it a sculpture that “will indeed become a key component of our downtown revitalization.”

That may be a bit of a stretch. But the prospect of a 500-kilogram great blue heron, made of steel and suspended from the upscale Renaissance Tower above special masonry below, bears all the marks of a very successful public-private partnership. Think London’s Via Rail station or the central branch of the London Public Library, except that this project will be much more about art than function.

Ted Goodden unveils a model of his great blue heron sculpture

At a news conference this afternoon in the lobby of the newly built tower immediately south of the John Labatt Centre, artist Ted Goodden unveiled a small model of his sculpture and spoke eloquently of the images he hopes it will evoke. The steel bird will “gesture” toward the forks of what the region’s First Nations called the Antler River — the waterway European settlers later called the Thames. For both aboriginals and Europeans, the river was the locus of community life and commercial activity. The great blue heron was, and still is, a common sight. In crafting his sculpture, Goodden envisioned the heron ascending toward King Street from a resting place on the river.

Goodden’s three-by-five-metre heron, when installed, will also function as a kind of seasonal timepiece, its left wing outfitted with a sundial-type orb that will track the sun’s movement and register the summer solstice and points of semiannual equinox on the brickwork at street level.

Goodden’s installation will mark the end of a competition that included more than a dozen entries from across Canada. The juried selection process was led by the London Arts Council. The project is worth $100,000. Tricar Group, owner of Renaissance Tower, was granted a higher residential density during the project’s development in exchange for a contribution in the form of public art, guided by the city’s public art policy, which was adopted in January.

Goodden’s sculpture should be in place by the end of the year. Its design has already been tested by the Alan G. Davenport Wind Engineering Group at the University of Western Ontario.

London Free Press video of this afternoon’s event is here.

Orchestra London’s maestro sounds off

The evening began predictably enough. Orchestra London past president Ailene Wittstein took the podium at 8:05 p.m. to greet old and new season subscribers, thank corporate sponsors and welcome back the ensemble’s core musicians. She promoted the orchestra’s website and issued a special shout out to Deb Matthews, “our new health minister,” seated on Centennial Hall’s lower level.

The national anthem and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 came next. Then intermission. Then, at 9:08 p.m., conductor Timothy Vernon ascended the podium again. Turning ’round to face the audience, he began a 10-minute extemporaneous plea to concertgoers to focus on the transformative power of music, not the cynicism and negativity of recent headlines, news stories and columns.

Orchestra London musical director Timothy Vernon
Orchestra London musical director Timothy Vernon

“It’s been a tough couple of months,” Vernon said, adding that he keeps up with press clippings from a distance. Judging from those, he said, one might think that the orchestra’s financial woes were “the main cultural story of the city of London.”

“Am I for keeping things secret? No . . . . But did I see anybody writing about our wonderful orchestra? No,” he chided, referring to recent reports about the organization’s descent into a million-dollar accumulated deficit. “For 50 years, Orchestra London has played beautiful music beautifully. That is the story,” he continued, dismissing the critics who pay undue attention to the bottom line without equal or greater attention to artistic achievement and the potential of music to lift the human spirit.

“Music provides solace, comfort and inspiration. It’s a great educational resource. The endless ramifications of a great performing musical body are things that we have yet to take into account in our public discourse in this city and I want you to help make that part of the discourse.

“Four million dollars to sustain something as magnificent as a symphony orchestra seems paltry — paltry,” he underlined. “Heck, I’ve got friends who are absolutely not wealthy and they won’t even buy a lottery ticket until it hits 10 [million dollars]. Let’s get some perspective. . . .

“Problems are problems. Nobody’s denying them. But it’s much more complicated than, ‘It’s somebody’s fault.’ It’s way too complex for it to be somebody’s fault. There are no villains,” Vernon said.

After a soliloquy about the ability of music to transport humanity and assist its search for meaning, Vernon repeated that line: “There are no villains. But there are some heroes. And I want to let you know that I’m standing in front of some of them. Because for some time this institution has been beleaguered, it’s been attacked, it’s been criticized, it’s been undermined. And through every moment of it, these artists, who I’m so proud to say are my colleagues, have come to work — and it is work — session after session, with a good attitude, with a good preparation, with a desire to express the great things they have discovered individually and to put it together as a body, which is so exciting and makes this vibrancy happen. I said it earlier in the year, but to me, that is the definition of integrity.”

At that point, Vernon asked the audience to applaud, which they did. But he wasn’t through.

“Thank you in advance for all the things you’re going to do to change this thing that’s out there — this culture-eating attitude that really doesn’t help. We can turn it around. We can make it interesting; we can make it vibrant. We can get the doubters, we can get the scoffers. Bring them in. Sit them down. Show them how wonderful it is,” he concluded.

And with that, Vernon, the orchestra and guest artist David Jalbert launched into Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 — a daunting work played with a precision and passion that exceeded, considerably, the earlier Schumann.

Update (Nov. 6): London Free Press reporter James Reaney reported this week that Vernon will give up his role as the orchestra’s musical director at the end of the current season. He’ll maintain a loose association with the orchestra, however, through the title of “conductor laureate.” Additional details will be available at the orchestra’s annual general meeting, set for Monday, Nov. 9, at 10 a.m. at the Station Park Hotel. A very odd time, by the way, for an AGM. Attendance will be sparse. Or might that be the point?

Orchestra London offers a little transparency

Regular readers of my Saturday column in the London Free Press know that I’ve been following developments at Orchestra London closely over the past 10 months. In fact, today’s column is the fourth variation on that theme since last December. The others are here.

Canadian pianist David Jalbert is Orchestra London's guest artist for its season-opening concert Oct. 17.
Canadian pianist David Jalbert is Orchestra London's guest artist for its season-opening concert Oct. 17.

The orchestra, arguably one of most important pillars of the city’s arts scene, merits close scrutiny for several reasons. The most compelling, of course, is that it’s in severe financial straits. Despite receiving a $482,000 operating grant from the city last fiscal year, it came begging, cap in hand, to city council in December for the backing for a $500,000 line of credit. The only other option, it said, was to fold. Council, after lengthy debate, gave its approval. At June 30 of this year, Orchestra London found itself with an accumulated deficit (the accountancy term for what lay people would simply think of as debt) of $1,004,887.

One condition of city council’s approval of the line of credit was that the organization find itself a platoon of respected businesspeople who would act as a financial oversight team to try to right the ship left listing by former orchestra executive director Rob Gloor. (Gloor now executive director of the National Broadcast Orchestra Company, a “new media orchestra” based in Vancouver.)

Given the fact the taxpayers of London, Ont., now have a direct financial stake in the enterprise, it behooves the board and its executive to ensure openness and transparency — a novel and somewhat uncomfortable prospect for a board that has traditionally enjoyed a more cloistered reporting environment. January’s annual general meeting, for example, almost reached adjournment under the leadership of chairperson Brent Kelman before members demanded to know more about the fiscal crisis and the plan for moving forward. Several members strongly criticized the flow of information even to them, let alone to the larger community.

Here’s hoping the organization, under the day-to-day leadership of managing director Joe Swan, can achieve a dramatic reversal of fortune. The orchestra’s musicians are already as open and accessible as classical musicians can be — they’re out there nearly weekly, performing in concert halls, cathedrals, churches, schools, libraries, shopping malls and other venues, all for their love of the art. It’s up to their board now to follow that lead.

Stephen Harper rocks the National Arts Centre

Well, now, that was different. And really quite refreshing.

As if any additional evidence was needed that the momentum in Canadian politics is shifting from Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals to the Stephen Harper Conservatives, the prime minister put on a little show at the National Arts Centre Saturday night, with a little help from his friends: the NAC orchestra, guest artist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Ottawa-based Celtic band Herringbone. There was likely also a little arm-twisting involved, courtesy of Harper’s spouse, Laureen, who was honorary chairwoman of the NAC gala to benefit Canada’s next generation of young artists.

As Ignatieff and his party continue their search for a salable rationale to bring down the Tories and send Canadians back to the polls, Harper continues his remarkable climb back from the political guillotine last November. The prime minister’s rendition of the Beatles’ 1967 hit With a Little Help From My Friends was a communications master stroke, putting him in the national spotlight at the kind of function he derided only a year ago as the domain of elites who don’t understand the issues facing ordinary working people.

An off-key performance would have spelled political disaster. But Harper, dressed casually and exhibiting his trademark emotionless nonchalance, carried it off remarkably well, his backup musicians nicely covering the song’s highest notes.

It’s fascinating to watch the continuing Harper metamorphosis. When he arrived in Ottawa, he was a Western populist and idealogue determined to radically reduce the national debt, abolish the Senate, repel gay marriage, build a strong economy and preside over a Conservative majority. He has become a Canadian nationalist and pragmatist, restrained by successive minority governments, who has presided over the biggest recession in decades, introduced unprecedented levels of deficit spending, appointed more than a dozen senators to the chamber he used to loathe, and reconciled himself to the reality of gay unions. He has cast off grassroots populism in favour of iron-clad party discipline to control his caucus. Yet he is also managing to reform his own image — slowly, incrementally — from “scary” automaton to a more human, pliant, even at times avuncular, authority figure.

Ignatieff’s Liberals, meanwhile, having emerged from their summer caucus meeting in northern Ontario vowing to bring down the government at the earliest opportunity, are beset by internal discord and the prospect of a Conservative government that, along with an improving economy, is rising in the opinion polls.

This weekend, Ignatieff is in Quebec City to try to mend the rift in his Quebec wing. Harper, meanwhile, playfully tickles the ivories in Ottawa, revealing yet another side of himself to Canadians. He stays on key. For now, at least, it’s advantage: Harper.

Sampling the Leafs and the NHL . . . again

My wife had gone shopping; I’d finished walking the dog. Schoolwork was done for the day. So, I figured, why not: It was the NHL’s opening day; why not give the league and my favourite childhood team another chance. So I tuned in to the Toronto Maple Leafs first game of the season. They were at home to the Montreal Canadiens. Two teams from the Original Six. Historically, the most intense hockey rivalry in Canadian history.

After the light show, the 48th Highlanders, the ceremonial first puck, the first yammerings and plaid jacket of the season from Don Cherry, the team introductions, the a cappella anthem and what seemed like a few hundred minutes of commercials (many of them repeats) by which the CBC was filling its till, we finally got to the actual game.

By the time we’d gotten 11 minutes into the game, there had been two fights and precious little dazzling hockey. This, tweeted a Calgary friend, was Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s style of hockey. “Get used to it,” he wrote. Shortly thereafter, the CBC replayed Burke’s statement from last December: “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” (Prediction: The guy has issues that go way beyond the hockey rink.)

I am old enough, you see, to remember when a hockey fight was the result of one player being mad at another for some misdeed or slight, real or imagined, rather than a calculated device for entertainment of intimidation.

I am also old enough to clearly recall the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. I was sprawled out on the family room floor in the spring of 1967, anxiously counting down the remaining minutes, as the Leafs took Game 6 from the these dreaded Montreal Canadiens — and with it, the cup. Leafs captain George Armstrong, who would show up to sign autographs at the Leamington Fair later that summer, put the game out of reach of the Habs with 47 seconds left in the third period. Dave Keon was the MVP. Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Eddie Shack and Johnny Bower were among my other favourites. It was Canada’s centennial year, the world was beating a path to Expo 67 in Montreal, I was graduating from Grade 8 and all seemed right with the world.

It was also the last year I cared passionately about the game. High school brought other interests, sure, but it was the NHL’s expansion from the Original Six to 12 teams in 1967-68, the formation of the World Hockey Association in 1971 (play began in 1972) and the accompanying dilution of hockey talent that all but ended my interest in hockey’s regular season. And this is to say nothing of the hyperinflation of NHL salaries.

With the exceptions of the 1972 Canada-Russia series, the late-’70s Leafs (Darryl Sittler et al) and the glorious run of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the mid- to late-’80s, I’ve tended to tune out NHL hockey, preferring to pay attention each year only when the real season begins — the playoffs. The annual World Junior tournament and Canada’s Olympic teams are really the only hockey games I care to watch now, aside from the neighbourhood pickup games on the frozen drainage pond behind behind our house.

I didn’t mind Toronto’s loss last night. It was a fairly good game. But within 11 minutes, I knew that this year, as in most others over the past 40 years, I’d sit out most of the regular season. I tuned out the Broad Street Bullies decades ago. See you at the playoffs.