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WSO aims to provide entertainment and enlightenment with upcoming season

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So you say classical music isn't really your thing.

Well, how about rock 'n' roll? Country music? Old-time Maritime fiddling? Classic Hollywood movies? James Bond? Star Trek, perhaps? How about American Idol?

Here's the simple truth of the matter: if anything in this seemingly mismatched menu of entertainment options reflects your personal pop-culture tastes, there's a good reason to take a look at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 2013-14 schedule.

"The three words that I use to describe it are depth, refinement and fun," says WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate. "That's the WSO. When you look at the classical, we are doing Bruckner 8 (Symphony No. 8 in C minor, in February), which is as high as you can go in terms of depth and majesty; at other times, we'll just have fun. But every concert should be meaningful -- you should be giddy because it's so exciting and fun, or you should feel like it's a spiritual experience.

"For us, it's a matter of finding what the audience is, and what they might be looking for, in order to become more and more relevant."

The WSO's 2013-14 campaign begins Sept. 20 and 21 with Laplante Plays Rachmaninoff, featuring acclaimed Canadian pianist André Laplante performing Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor. The concert, part of the WSO's Masterworks Series A, also features the University of Manitoba Women's Chorus and a performance of Holst's The Planets.

Speaking of planets, the September lineup also includes a Sci-Fi Spectacular, with narration by George Takei -- a.k.a. Star Trek's Mr. Sulu -- as the WSO, led by pops conductor Jack Everly, zooms through selections from science-fiction movies and TV shows ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars to The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In addition to a dense schedule of local concerts and events that runs from Sept. 20 to June 22, the WSO's 66th season is also highlighted by the orchestra's highly anticipated trek to New York City to perform an all-Canadian program of works on May 8, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

"For musicians, to perform at Carnegie Hall is the ultimate achievement," says Mickelthwate. "It's like the hockey team that gets to play for the Stanley Cup; it's the top. It's a same kind of symbolism for musicians; it means you've made it."

Back home in the more familiar confines of the Centennial Concert Hall, Brandon-born violinist James Ehnes will kick off the WSO's Masterworks Series B (Oct. 4 and 5) with Aram Khachaturian's Armenian-flavoured Violin Concerto; the evening also includes a performance of Brahms's Symphony No. 1 in C minor.

October will also see the launch of the WSO-initiated Tchaikovsky Festival, highlighted by a visit by Russian guest conductor Aziz Shokhakimov and the Royal Canadian Air Force Brass (Oct. 25 and 26) for a pair of weekend shows that includes the 1812 Overture, Variations on a Rococo Theme and Symphony No. 4 in F minor.

"We are starting what I hope will be a new tradition," Mickelthwate explains, "which is a festival every year where we focus on one classical composer. This year, it's Tchaikovsky, who is very well known. The point of it is two weeks when we really dig into the music -- not just us; we will collaborate with other organizations in town like the philharmonic choir, the chamber music society and even the movie theatres.

"We will play a couple of the 'greatest hits,' but then we'll also get into some of the more obscure pieces."

November brings an appearance by 12-year-old piano prodigy Umi Garrett (who will turn 13 in August), winner of the International Chopin Competition and J.S. Bach Competition, for a program that includes Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten; Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor; and Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C major (Jupiter).

The December schedule includes a return engagement for Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster, as well as the traditional revival of Handel's Messiah. The new year begins with two January events: Four Horns & Beethoven, featuring conductor José Luis Gomez and members of the WSO's horn section, and Symphony Idol, a pops-series concert featuring the return of American Idol alumna Lakisha Jones.

In February, the WSO goes a little bit country with an appearance by Nashville-based Canadian star Lindi Ortega, who will unveil her new symphony show (under direction of arranger/conductor Charles Cozens) before a Winnipeg audience.

March features the return of violinist Augustin Hadelich for a performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor; the equinox-welcoming program also includes Mahler's Symphony No. 4 and an appearance by soprano Valdine Anderson. Also in March, the WSO celebrates a half-century of 007 music with Bond & Beyond, featuring vocalist Debbie Gravitte and conductor Michael Krajewski.

After that, the WSO rocks, as JunoFest hits Winnipeg in late March and the symphony presents a three-night celebration that puts five local bands -- Imaginary Cities, Chic Gamine, Royal Canoe, Nathan and the Lytics -- into the spotlight.

In April, the WSO opts for a visual spectacle as the Peking Acrobats return for a trio of performances (April 25-27) backed by the symphony under the leadership of conductor Julian Pellicano.

On May 3 and 4, the WSO gives concertgoers a preview of the show it will perform at Carnegie Hall -- Derek Charke's Thirteen Inuit Throat Song Games (featuring Tanya Tagaq), composer-in-residence Vincent Ho's The Shaman: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (featuring Dame Evelyn Glennie) and Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer's Symphony No. 1.

"I'm so thrilled about every piece of this program," says Mickelthwate. "Tanya Tagaq is so Canadian, so primal and beautiful and different; The Shaman is something that Vincent and Evelyn worked on so hard; it has this spiritual kind of feel that one associates with Winnipeg and First Nations and the way they come together here.

"And if there's a godfather of Canadian music, it's Murray Shafer; he's comparable to Bernstein or Copland in the States, a renegade who never wanted to write in the traditional form. Only last year, he wrote his first symphony -- Symphony No. 1 -- and he's in his 70s, so it's kind of a big thing to be bringing this to Carnegie Hall."

And that, adds Mickelthwate, barely scratches the surface when it comes to the WSO in 2013-14. The schedule (full details and tickets are available at has been created with one overriding goal in mind:

"To be current, meaningful, relevant; no matter what it is, it hits you -- spiritually, as entertainment, as something you are in awe of. There is actually a visceral reaction to every concert, from deep emotion to giddy fun." Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 G1

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