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WSO celebrates musical milestone on the storied stage at Carnegie Hall

Magic moment in New York

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It will be a moment when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra will have come of age.

The 66-year-old organization will make its latest foray onto the world stage Thursday evening when it performs at the Spring for Music Festival at New York's famed Carnegie Hall.

"It's a huge milestone," says WSO executive director Trudy Schroeder, who joined the organization in 2008. "It's also a recognition of the special work going on here in Winnipeg, and our commitment to new music. It's a real feather in our cap, and for our composers.

"Performing at Carnegie Hall is not only an affirmation of where we are now, but also a strong indicator of an orchestra that is on the rise, not on the fall. We're having a lot of fun with this and the community is also having fun.

"It's really quite beautiful."

The WSO was invited by the festival's organizers to apply nearly three years ago. It received the official word in January 2012 that it had earned one of the six coveted spots from a field of 33 North American orchestras, chosen in particular for its risk-taking, "quintessentially Canadian" program.

Conceived originally as a four-year "experiment," the annual Spring for Music festival wraps up this year, with its final six nightly programs held May 5-10. Only two other Canadian orchestras, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (2011) and Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (2012) have been showcased in the past.

It's not the first time the WSO has performed at New York's iconic venue. Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi, now entering his 40th year with the institution, recalls working backstage in 1979 -- the last time the WSO performed there, under maestro Piero Gamba's baton -- and meeting prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who attended the star-studded benefit concert.

History of another sort was made that evening, Francesconi says. The WSO performance was the first-ever digital recording made at Carnegie Hall.

"The Spring for Music series has been really wonderful because it allows people to perform music that normally doesn't get heard," Francesconi says. "And as Isaac Stern used to say, it's a high-water mark when you're performing at Carnegie Hall."

It'll be a high-water mark for the orchestra and the 800 Winnipeggers who will accompany the musicians, who include prominent leaders of Manitoba's business community such as Gail Asper, Jim Carr, Mark Chipman and Hartley Richardson. Mayor Sam Katz will attend and so will Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the United States, who was also named honorary chair of the WSO's "Manitoba to Manhattan" campaign committee.

The concert also represents a watershed moment for Winnipeg. It may be a geographically isolated Prairie city, but it's also widely recognized for its creative spirit that seems to spring from the very loam the community is built on.

And the concert will return Winnipeg to the cultural spotlight.

Carol Phillips, executive director of the Winnipeg Arts Council, will be in the Spring for Music audience on Thursday night. She attests to the significance of the event being held in arguably the world's greatest hotbed of arts and culture.

"I think that New York will find out what we in Winnipeg already know, that our artists are among the best anywhere," she says.

Music director Alexander Mickelthwate, who will make his own Carnegie Hall conducting debut, brings a unique perspective. Now in his seventh season on the WSO podium, the German-born maestro has lived and worked on two continents, including his previous position as former associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"There really aren't many cities that are as creative as Winnipeg," he says. "L.A. is, but it's a huge centre. We have this mid-sized town with a creativity that is unprecedented."

The program features three works: Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer's Symphony No. 1; Derek Charke's Thirteen Inuit Throat Song Games, featuring acclaimed Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq; and WSO composer-in-residence Vincent Ho's The Shaman: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, showcasing Scottish virtuoso percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who also gave the piece's world première during the WSO's 2011 New Music Festival.

The Shaman, composed specially for Glennie, is a powerful showcase for the mesmerizing musician.

"She has the uncanny ability to draw the audience into a magical world and take us on wondrous journeys that are beyond material existence," Ho says of his muse. "Every performance she delivers leaves the audience spellbound and spiritually nourished."

Schafer's evocative, three-movement work, composed in 2011, also likely grabbed the attention of the Spring for Music committee, says Mickelthwate, who curated the WSO program.

"R. Murray Schafer is the one composer everyone knows outside of Canada," he explains. "This very evocative work is like taking sound waves almost out of the ether, floating off other symphonies and putting them back together. It's more an episodic fantasy where you get the sense or feel of a symphony."

The dynamic maestro is also enthusiastic about Charke's imaginative piece, composed originally for the Kronos Quartet, and premièred by the WSO in 2010. Tagaq's amplified, guttural throat singing plays off the string players' raspy textures.

"Nobody else has done this before," Mickelthwate states simply. "It's almost like ethnic minimalism but in a very ancient form."

Not least of all in the WSO's newest venture is the groundswell of community support it has enjoyed. It has successfully "adopted out" all 74 of its musicians, composers, guest artists and the conductor going to the Big Apple -- raising $250,000 to ensure a viable, fiscally sound tour with a total budget of around $560,000.

Schroeder also sings praises for the festival organizers, with the committee providing the venue as well as a performance fee of US$65,000 for each participating orchestra.

"I want to give them a lot of credit, including (artistic director/CEO) Thomas Morris, (festival director) David Foster and (public relations director) Mary Lou Falcone, because what they have created is a huge opportunity for orchestras," Schroeder says.

The WSO performs its all-Canadian program at New York City's Spring for Music festival at the historic Carnegie Hall next Thursday, May 8. Tonight, the second of two performances of the program takes place at the Centennial Concert Hall, an opportunity for the orchestra's fans to take in the concert for those who are unable to make the journey to New York.

 

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 G1

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