One of the greatest success stories in our fair city's musical community is its venerable grande dame, the Winnipeg Music Festival.
Now celebrating its 96th anniversary, the annual event fondly known simply as "Festival" kicks off Feb. 28 and runs until March 23.
Three chock-a-block weeks will see more than 13,000 participants flocking from across the city and province, as well as Ontario and parts of the U.S., to test their mettle and vie for adjudicators' praise in classes ranging from community choir to solo snare drum. But the festival is ultimately about enjoying and celebrating music, says Joanne Mercier, executive director with WMF for the last 14 years.
"The biggest change that I've noticed over the years is the camaraderie," she says. "People are there to hear music that they might want to learn to play, as well as to cheer on others. That makes a huge difference in the atmosphere, and is the reason why we're all here."
Founded by the now defunct Men's Musical Club in May 1919, the WMF's past is filled with lore. One of its most colourful tales, for example, hails from the final night of its inaugural competition. Nearly 500 audience members spilled out into the streets after hearing the adjudicator's comments to discover all the streetcars had gone out of service. The Winnipeg General Strike had begun exactly one hour before, forcing the patrons to walk home that night.
It's also worth noting that fabled Victorian composer/librettist team Gilbert and Sullivan were still considered contemporary, edgy artists known for their witty, tongue-twisting patter songs when the festival first began.
The festival's illustrious roster of past competitors reads like a who's who of Canadian talent. Many have established international careers of their own, including Emanuel Ax, Tracy Dahl, Douglas Finch, Irena Welhasch, Tom Wiebe, Philip Ens, Valdine Anderson, Chantal Kreviazuk and Loreena McKennitt.
"The festival was a place I looked forward to every year and not just because I would get out of school," renowned coloratura soprano Dahl recalls from Toronto, where she's been performing as Despina in the Canadian Opera Company's Atom Egoyan-directed production of Mozart's Cos¨ fan tutte. "I loved the music and seeing and hearing my friends sing. Looking back, it was like a large club where I met like-minded people. It gave us a real sense of belonging."
The festival also opened career doors for the singer, who won the coveted Rose Bowl trophy -- among many others -- for most outstanding vocalist in 1984. After advancing to both the provincial and national music festivals, Dahl was subsequently invited to a seminar called "Would I Hire You?" in New York City, where she sang for the opera world's power brokers.
"On the spot, Matthew Epstein, a manager and consultant for CAMI (Columbia Artists Management Inc.) said, 'Would I hire you? Yes! I have a job for you,'" she says. "Then the next day when I returned to Winnipeg, there was a message from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra inviting me to audition for Sir Andrew Davis. I got the job and it was my debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and was to be my Carnegie Hall debut. But I ended up debuting there before with the American Symphony Orchestra in 1986."
Her two children with local high school teacher/singer Raymond Sokalski, Anton and Jaden, are following in their parents' musical footsteps.
"It is, of course, very exciting to see my sons perform at the festival," she says. "It can be a wonderful place of encouragement."
Another artist with strong festival ties is pianist Darryl Friesen, who made his professional orchestral debut with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 2008 and teaches at Providence University College. He won the festival's top instrumental prize, the Aikins Memorial Trophy, in 2002, and will move into his new role of adjudicator for the WMF this year.
"I remember being awed," the Winnipeg-born musician, who was raised on farm in southern Manitoba, says of travelling to the city for his first performance class in 1992.
He's also aware of now being on the other side of the stage. "I'm very excited," he says of his latest venture. "It's like coming full circle."
The 96th Winnipeg Music Festival runs Feb. 28 through March 23 at local venues. For further information, call the WMF office at 204-947-0184 or visit: www.winnipegmusicfestival.org.