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Music fest tears envelope wide open

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To paraphrase an iconic pop-culture slogan: the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 2014 New Music Festival is boldly going where no festival has gone before.

"This year we go beyond our regular conceived version of what is contemporary music and break out into new genres," says WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate, now in his seventh season with the orchestra. "We are delving into new spiritual, emotional, psychological and historical depths of music."

Now in its 23rd year, the 2014 festival, titled Beyond, kicks off Saturday night and runs through Friday, Jan. 31. The genesis for this year's festival is the unlikely relationship between music's own odd couple: French traditionalist composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and American maverick Frank Zappa, who broke down creative walls with his genre-defying music until his death in 1993. Boulez once conducted three tracks on Zappa's 1984 album The Perfect Stranger -- the inspiration that sparked this year's boundary-pushing, mind-bending feast of music and ideas.

The seven nightly programs feature composers Glenn Branca, Mychael Danna, Edving Kang and Venetian Snares, among others, and promise many "a-ha moments," says Matthew Patton, the festival's artistic associate and, with Mickelthwate, its co-curator.

"These are important artists who have changed how art and music is perceived," the Winnipeg-based composer says. "And in the larger picture these artists have contributed greatly to what is a very important paradigm shift in the culture as a whole. Not only has music changed, but every bit as importantly, the audience itself has changed."

Die-hard New Music Festival fans expect to hear all kinds of cutting-edge music. This year proves no different with three Canadian premières, one North American première and three world premières on the bill.

What's new in 2014 is a dizzying array of add-ons: contemporary art and photography exhibitions, eight avant-garde film shorts and even modernistic furniture displays to augment the after-show parties held most nights at the Centennial Concert Hall's Piano Nobile, redubbed the Plug In ICA Lounge.

The festival also liaises with Canada's SPUR festival of "politics, arts and ideas," which piggybacks onto the week's activities with four panel discussions (Jan 26-31) dealing with everything from Winnipeg's mythological status as a major arts centre to spooky paranormal occurrences.

"I felt it important that there be all kinds of events besides music," explains Patton. "For me, music is never just about music; it's about people's actual emotional lives."

Pop Nuit, the gritty satellite series launched last year, is back with two late-night programs geared towards younger ears (Jan 25 and 31). Headliners this year include hometown secret Venetian Snares (a.k.a. Aaron Funk), famed for his manic clusters of samples, beats and synthesizers, and Polaris Prize shortlisted circular-breathing saxophonist Colin Stetson. The two loud 'n' proud shows include city electronic band Mahogany Frog and Vancouver violinist Hannah Epperson, who is known for crafting evocative sound loops.

One highlight -- or two -- will be the farewell appearance of the world-renowned Hilliard Ensemble, which retires after 40 years at the end of 2014. The critically acclaimed British male vocal quartet performs Estonian composer Arvo P§rt's searing Litany as part of Hilliard: Zappa to Arvo P§rt (Jan. 25), which also includes Zappa's G-Spot Tornado and Boulez's Le Soleil des eaux (The Sun of the Waters). The following night, the ensemble premières Tesla in New York, a fantastical opera by New York City-based auteur Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline, based on the life of inventor Nikola Tesla.

Another must-see is Forgotten Winnipeg (Jan. 28), which showcases Winnipeg-born and raised composers making international inroads. One of the city's most famous expats is film composer Mychael Danna, widely hailed as a pioneer in combining non-Western sound sources with orchestra in film; he won a 2012 Oscar for Best Original Score of Ang Lee's Life of Pi.

Danna's The Ice Storm, based on his score for Lee's 1997 film of the same name, also features Cree composer/musician Anthony Niganii on native American flute.

"It's a piece that I'm very proud of," Danna says in an interview from his Los Angeles home. "It's a not-terribly-known little masterpiece. It's one of Ang's finest films and I think the score is pretty special and unique. I'm thrilled it's being performed in my hometown."

The Winnipeg-born, Burlington, Ont.-raised Danna also sings praises for the festival he hopes to attend someday whenever his relentless film-scoring schedule permits.

"It's a real testament to the city, and to the organization how they've been able to bring these fabulous artists together," he says. "You could put this festival on in any city of the world, and it couldn't be better than what it is."

The NMF regularly features an evening of winds, brass and percussion band music. This year's instalment, Ritual Mass (Jan. 27), features Canadian composer Henry Brant's antiphonal Mass for 21 flutes. Unholy Noise (Jan. 29) includes the world première of Valgeir Sigur�sson's Eighteen Hundred and Seventy Five, which commemorates the 125th anniversary of Manitoba's Icelandic Festival. There's also Isolation (Jan. 30) with Patton's The Pathology Comes From Within and What the System is Not, with live electronics generated by the composer.

The festival wraps up with Richter and Silvestrov: Beyond (Jan. 31), which includes Max Richter's Four Seasons Recomposed featuring WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, and Valentin Silvestrov's deeply moving Requiem for Larissa, composed for his late wife.

Like playing host at a grand banquet, Mickelthwate eagerly looks forward to the intensive week that lies ahead, ready to welcome audiences to this year's rich musical feast.

"I am so excited for all the pieces," he says. "They all have a real emotional connection with the listener.

"Each work has its own soul where one gets hooked."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 G3

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