IT'S hard not to be impressed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's new resident conductor, Julian Pellicano, for many reasons.
At just 33, this high-energy musician not only completed a double undergraduate degree program, earning a bachelor of performance in percussion from the Peabody Institute and a bachelor of philosophy from John Hopkins University, but then went on to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm to study with percussionist Anders Lougin, whom he considers his mentor.
This wasn't enough for the ambitious young man. Next up was Yale, where a professor saw conducting talent in Pellicano and suggested he give it a try. Not long after, he was offered an assistantship in conducting and percussion.
Originally from New York, Pellicano comes to Winnipeg after spending four years in Boston as the music director of the Longy Conservatory. He was the first full-time music director of the 98-year-old institution.
"It was great," he says in a recent interview. "My job was to build the program and work with the students. They gave me carte blanche. It was an incredible experience."
Pellicano will conduct the WSO's Concerts for Kids, the Pops series and a combination of Soundbytes and educational concerts. He has already conducted two of the children's concerts.
He makes his Pops debut this weekend, in the intriguing show Le Ombre, running Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The visiting troupe performs silhouette and shadow dance combined with acrobatics and contemporary dance.
And while Pellicano admits to having limited experience conducting Pops concerts, he says he loves the music.
"Before I was 18 I probably played more pop music than classical. I played in bands more than orchestras," he says.
Pellicano will "cover conduct" everything artistic director and conductor Alexander Mickelthwate does and is expected to be on call for all the Masterworks concerts. Should Mickelthwate become ill or be unavailable to conduct, Pellicano has to be ready to step in.
Versatility is a quality of great value for a conductor and the WSO selection committee obviously recognized this in Pellicano.
"We felt that Julian would be a wonderful addition to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra team," says WSO executive director Trudy Schroeder. "He has wonderful skills as a conductor, he is a great communicator and he has a passion for the art form. The resident conductor works with many different audiences and groups, and so we needed a person who could communicate well in a wide variety of settings."
Pellicano doesn't see much difference between conducting a Pops or a Masterworks concert.
"I conduct to get to the essence of what a piece is saying. Pops concerts need to have a certain atmosphere. I think of it as a party. It should be fun," he says, adding he feels comfortable speaking to an audience.
"It's great to have the opportunity to connect."
Pellicano and his family (including a 31/2-year-old daughter) have only been here since August, but are already feeling settled in, due in part to the helpfulness of his WSO colleagues. "You don't find orchestras everywhere who are so tight. They are very collegial -- it's amazing. I feel very comfortable. Some of them have been playing in the WSO for 40 years. The opportunity to learn from longtime members is priceless," he says.
Artistically, Pellicano has nothing but praise for the WSO.
"The orchestra is a hidden gem. You'd never know you'd find that in Winnipeg. The musical level is extraordinarily high. The players have great musical instincts."
Pellicano has extensive experience with -- and a true appreciation for -- new music, making him a great match for the WSO's annual New Music Festival, where he will play a supporting role and conduct some pieces.
Pellicano is looking forward to several upcoming concerts, in particular, the presentation of Fritz Lang's Metropolis in April as part of the Soundbytes Series. Pellicano and the WSO will perform the original score composed by Gottfried Huppertz during the showing of the legendary 1927 silent sci-fi film.
"I first saw the film in college. It's ultra-futuristic. It's spectacular, syrupy, lush music," he says.
Away from the podium, Pellicano fancies himself a pizza chef.
"I'm from an Italian family. We visited Italy lots when I was a kid. I am working to make the best pizza ever... I don't know what it is, maybe it's the water or that I'm using different flour, but since I came to Winnipeg I've been making the best pizza dough ever."