Festival almost 40 years in dream stage

By Penny Coles, Niagara Advance

Chris Mori and her daughter Alexis Spieldenner are partners in creating Bravo Niagara, a shoulder-season music festival bringing top-notch artists to NOTL. Photo submitted

Chris Mori and her daughter Alexis Spieldenner are partners in creating Bravo Niagara, a shoulder-season music festival bringing top-notch artists to NOTL. Photo submitted

Bravo Niagara is one of those “overnight successes” that has been almost 40 years in the making.

Toronto native Chris Mori had never heard of Niagara-on-the-Lake, didn’t know it existed when she graduated from Juilliard School and left New York for Tampa in the ’70s to become the pianist for the Florida Orchestra.

Even as a Juilliard student, she had dreamed of creating a music festival. But she had no idea she’d be playing with the same orchestra for almost three decades, nor could she have anticipated the number of top musicians she would call friends, or how the music community she was about to join would one day be instrumental in helping her fulfill her dream.

Her journey from there to here is as much a part of Bravo Niagara, the festival she and her daughter Alexis Spieldenner have successfully established in about eight months—they are now working on their third sold-out concert—as the music itself.

Her life in Florida might have seemed ideal—she had good friends, a garden she loved, a dream job and a beautiful daughter to raise.

But there were major blips along the way.

When Alexis was just a baby, Chris was diagnosed with breast cancer. At first, her doctor was inclined to ignore the lump the new mother had discovered, but eventually she pushed for testing and began treatment, working and caring for a baby all the while. Alexis was there while she was having chemotherapy the first time, says Mori, and the second time, 17 years later, again for breast cancer.

The strong bond between mother and daughter is quickly evident, and for all the years Alexis remembers, it’s been just the two of them.

No surprise that growing up sitting backstage, listening to all of the concerts her mother played and meeting many top musicians - she has a photo of herself at the age of six or seven with Isaac Stern, and met Bobby McFerrin, who autographed a CD for her, saying “reach for the stars, Alexis”—she is doing just that, with her own music career and with this festival partnership with her mother.

She studied music at Duke University - she plays the harp - and by the time she was preparing to graduate, her mother was ready to sell the Tampa house, retire from the orchestra and move to NOTL.

Mori says even then she knew little about the community.

When her mother died in 2010, she felt she needed to move her father to a retirement community.

But where? She turned to google and asked “what’s the best place to retire in Ontario?” NOTL was the answer she found.

So she moved her father to town. In 2012, she bought a home in the community she had begun to love, and brought Alexis here to live so they could both be closer to her father.

That’s when she realized it was time to make her dream come true, and she had inadvertently found the perfect place to do that.

She also had the perfect partner - her daughter - and a host of friends and connections from her music career to help her.

Again, she turned to google for help, and found the Festival del Sole in Napa Valley, California, which seemed a perfect model for what she wanted to do.

After contacting the festival executive producer, Charles Letourneu, also the managing director for festivals and events at IMG Artists, a leading performing arts management company, she not only received an invitation to experience the festival first-hand, but a letter of support from him.

It says, among other very complimentary things, that “she not only has passion, she also has the knowledge and musical experience to bring her vision to life. And I am also convinced that Bravo Niagara! possesses all of the essential components to create a successful event: a market niche, a desirable destination, a clear narrative, natural partners in the community and an abundant supply of top quality programming possibilities. Within a few years, Bravo Niagara! could become one of the most important arts and lifestyles festivals in Canada.”

She’s well on her way. The inaugural spring concert series—her plan was for shoulder-season performances that wouldn’t overlap with Music Niagara—featured two sold-out concerts at Stratus Vineyards.

Again arranged through the help of friends, her third concert is almost sold out—she’s added an extra 50 seats for Falling into Music, the Sept. 5 Chateau des Charmes appearance of the Ehnes Quartet, with nine-time JUNO-winning violinist James Ehnes and three of his friends, all “cream of the crop” musicians and in-demand performers in their own right, says Mori.

As a quartet, their performances are rare—they might fit in four appearances per year—and this will be their Ontario debut and their only Canadian concert this year, she says.

They will arrive on Tuesday for their Friday concert, and are looking forward to spending time in NOTL, says Mori.

And they have a following—there will be visitors to town next week who have never been here before, but they will come to hear Ehnes, will need places to stay and to eat, may see a play while they’re here, and will likely return, she says.

At Chateau des Charmes, she is working on a “salon de musique,” fashioned after a French salon stage—red carpet, antique chairs—outdoors under the winery tent, surrounded by vineyards and the Niagara Escarpement. If the sound isn’t acoustically perfect, she says, it will be part of the summer music experience, and a “very magical experience.”

“A symphony of senses,” jumps in Spieldenner, “and a more innovate concert experience, with arts enhancing one another.”

The quartet will be selling a new CD at the concert - it’s not officially being released until Sept. 15 - and a portion of ticket and CD sales will go to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, says Mori.

She’s already working on a spring concert for 2015, and something spectacular for 2016 - a fundraiser for the CBCF, small and intimate, with award-winning classical guitarist Milos.

For more information or tickets for the Ehnes Quartet, visit or call 289-868-9177.

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