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Dramatic conclusion to vibrant festival

WSO true standouts with tireless efforts

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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival wrapped up its musical voyage to the land of ice and fire by celebrating two of its favourite composer sons.

Friday night's concert Icelandic Finale: Jóhannsson and Sveinsson conducted by WSO maestro Alexander Mickelthwate showcased two epic works by leading Icelandic composers Jóhann Jóhannsson and Atli Heimir Sveinsson.

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival

Icelandic Finale: Jóhannsson and Sveinsson

Centennial Concert Hall

Friday, February 3

Centennial Concert Hall

(four stars out of five)

Hailed for his "elegant, haunting and melancholic" compositional style, Reykjavk-born composer/producer Johann's A Prayer to the Dynamo is inspired by 1919 Pulitzer-prize winning book The Education of Henry Adams that depicts Adams' coming to terms with dawning forces of the 20th century.

The electro-acoustic work -- each of its four movements enigmatically left untitled -- explores the mystical connection between religion and electricity -- its own force of monumental impact. Johann's minimalistic music is infused by a sense of wonder based on how electricity has transformed the world.

The first movement, the simply titled I, begins with an electronic drone that runs like an omnipresent power current throughout the piece. The composer's overt, dramatic sensibility freely juxtaposes contrasting elements: Glassy harmonics in the strings are pitted against growling basses; extreme ranges in instruments are continuously exploited. These contrasts became an effective leitmotif for the entire piece. The presence of a metallic-sounding prepared piano with its gong-like pitches also evoked a strong sense of ritualism.

The following movement, II, opens with a repeated, delicate two-note motif first played by the winds that becomes a character in its own suspenseful psychodrama. Johann's artful simplicity -- where less is more -- and ability to steadily build waves of pensive sound had as much mood as a volcano about to blow.

The third section once again began with low strings with a gradually ascending scalar theme. As it continued to rise, fall, then rise again, a degree of predictability began to set in that felt stagnant.

Finally, the fourth movement brought back the buzzing, pulsing electronically generated current juxtaposed with the basses' insistent ostinato. Johann's well-paced music is epic in scope, with his compositional approach creating more layers than a vinaterta.

The second half of the program featured the North American première of Atli Heimir Sveinsson's Symphony No. 2, an evocative tone poem that depicts Icelandic nature in all its wondrous extremes. Considered a masterpiece, the lushly romantic 55-minute work performed by Winnipeg's Prairie Voices and an extended WSO is inspired by the images of Icelandic poetry.

There may be (almost) a cast of thousands involved in pulling off each year's new music festival -- ostensibly an entire series run in a week -- but one thing is clear. The NMF would not exist without the hardest-working musicians in town, the WSO players. Kudos to all for bringing this unique music to life.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 B2

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