For its 67th season, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra drew inspiration from the opening of the city's newest cultural institution: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The 2014-15 season, which opens Sept. 26 and 27 with acclaimed soloist Natasha Paremski performing Gershwin's Piano Concerto, features 39 concerts that "celebrate the human spirit."
"When people think about 'human rights,' they often think of human atrocities, but that's not it," says Trudy Schroeder, the WSO's executive director. "It's about the power of the human spirit and the way we've been able to, as human beings, work together to find rights for women to vote, or rights for people of different abilities to be fully engaged in our society. Race relations, liberties of speech -- those are all human rights and all things we can be proud of."
Several shows in the season speak to the season's theme directly, says Alexander Mickelthwate, the WSO's music director. Schwarz & Copland Third, which runs Nov. 14 and 15, will feature three works with a human rights bent.
The first is Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate's Fire and Light, which tells the story of the Chickasaw Nation. "We don't often do First Nations works in the regular season, so it's exciting to have it," Mickelthwate says. That piece will be joined by John Williams' evocative score from Schindler's List and Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, known for its famous Fanfare for the Common Man.
"(Copland) was the ultimate American composer in a way, getting away from Europe and nobility. Fanfare for the Common Man was his way of saying everyone is equal," Mickelthwate says. The program will be conducted by American maestro Gerard Schwarz, in his WSO debut.
Later in the season, on March 27 and 28, 2015, Mickelthwate will conduct Benjamin Britten's choral masterpiece, War Requiem, inspired by poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the waning days of the First World War. "It's one of the most powerful works ever written," he says.
In the fall, the WSO will be mounting a week-long Nordic Festival, which will feature two of Iceland's leading musicians, violinist Sigrun Edvaldsdottir and pianist Vikingur Olafsson, on Oct. 24 and 25 and Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, respectively. Edvaldsdottir will perform works by Jean Sibelius -- regarded as Finland's greatest composer -- as well as Credo, a piece by former Sigur Ròs keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson.
Olafsson will play pieces by Norwegian composer/pianist Edvard Grieg, Danish composer Carl Nielsen and Manitoba composer Kenley Kristofferson, whose Morgun honours the 125th anniversary of Manitoba's Icelandic community in Gimli.
The most buzzed-about show in the WSO Air Canada Pops series is undoubtedly Randy Bachman's Symphonic Overdrive, which runs Dec. 5-7. The Guess Who/Bachman Turner Overdrive founding member/guitarist will treat audiences to hits such as American Woman and These Eyes, re-imagined with an orchestra for the first time.
"It's very historic. We've been trying to get him here for a long time," Mickelthwate says. "I'm excited it's happening."
For the holidays, the WSO will be offering a new take on an old chestnut. The Messiah Sing-Along on Dec. 12 will allow enthusiastic concert-goers the chance to belt out Handel's classic. The perennially popular Prairie Christmas Celebration will return for a third year on Dec. 14.
The new year brings a first for the WSO. On Jan. 16 and 17, 2015, renowned violinist Jeanne Lamon, music director of Toronto's venerated Tafelmusik, will join the orchestra for a program of Bach, Mozart, Corelli and Haydn the way they were meant to be experienced.
"For us, it's going to be a very different thing," Schroeder says. "There will be no conductor. She'll be leading from the violin."
The Lamon program represents a goal the maestro is working toward. "We are known for contemporary programming, but I want us to become known for playing high-level baroque music."
Of course, the WSO will continue to build its reputation for presenting cutting-edge contemporary works with the New Music Festival, which will return for its 24th year on Jan. 31, 2015 with the world-renowned string quartet Arditti Quartet.
"Arditti is very highly regarded," Mickelthwate says. "You can't go higher than them. I'm very honoured they're coming." Arditti will perform Wolfgang Rihm’s Concerto Dithyrambe for string quartet and orchestra as part of an evening that will also include works by such forward-thinking composers as Mason Bates, the Chicago Symphony composer-in-residence and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno.
The regular season will see a host of guest artists return to the WSO, including young conductor Aziz Shokhakimov, who impressed last season. He'll lead the orchestra for a program that includes two masterworks -- Brahms' Fourth Symphony and Elgar's Cello Concerto -- on Oct. 10 and 11.
Another returning favourite is blind-since-birth pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, who also wowed concert-goers in 2013. He'll perform Beethoven's Emperor concerto on May 8 and 9, 2015.
WSO composer-in-residence Vincent Ho will première a new, as-yet-unamed work this season, as part of a program on Feb. 27 and 28, 2015 that will also feature Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor, which will be performed by Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi.
The popular SoundBytes series will return in the 2014-15 season. Designed for first-time symphony-goer and the seasoned symphony lover alike, this three-concert series features shorter excerpts from familiar classical pieces. On Jan. 23 and 24, 2015, the WSO will mount Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 -- Beyond The Score, a multimedia presentation created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It'll be a chance to experience this iconic work in a new way.
"It's like seeing the Eiffel Tower or going to the Pyramids," Schroeder says. "Symphony No. 5 one of those cultural things an aware human being should experience in their lifetime." (Earlier in the season, SoundBytes will feature Emily Bear, the 13-year-old piano dynamo who stunned on The Ellen Show. She performs Nov. 29.)
This, of course, is just a highlight reel of all the programming the WSO has on tap.
"It's amazing how many different concerts we have," Schroeder says. "We are fulfilling our mission, which is to provide experiences of music wonder and excellence for Manitobans. And, of course, Manitobans don't have one taste. They're not one demographic."
The something-for-everyone approach to programming is paying off. According to Schroeder, the WSO has seen a 170 per cent increase in single-ticket sales and a 70 per cent increase in subscription sales over the past seven years.
And that audience is skewing younger, dispelling the myth that the symphony is the sole province of an aging demographic. The organization has found success with its Soundcheck program, which allows the 30-and-younger crowd to attend regular-season concerts for $15, or the entire season for $85. "When I got here six years ago, we had 345 members in the Soundcheck program," Schroeder says. "Now we have 2,500 members."
She would like to see more patrons take advantage of the WSO's Symphony Lover Pass, which grants access to every show in the regular season. While a patron may not be able to attend every concert, she encourages Winnipeggers to think about WSO season tickets the way they think about Jets season tickets.
"That way, you can support that community amenity while sharing the experience with others."
Earlybird season tickets for the WSO's 2014-15 season can be purchased until May 15. For full details, visit www.wso.ca.