"HOW do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
So goes the old joke about one of the world's most prestigious rooms, attributed to everyone from violinist Mischa Elman to vaudeville comedian Jack Benny. For the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, a ticket to Carnegie Hall was not only earned by many careers' worth of practice, but its commitment to bold, boundary-pushing programming.
On May 8, 2014, the WSO will be performing in the hallowed hall as part of the fourth and final Spring For Music, an annual series that celebrates the quality and creativity of North American orchestras. The WSO is one of just six orchestras selected via public voting and a juried panel.
"It's an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says WSO executive director Trudy Schroeder. "Every musician dreams of playing Carnegie Hall."
Well, maybe not every musician. "I didn't have that specific dream at night," jokes WSO cellist Emma Quackenbush, who joined the WSO in 2010. "But it's not something to take lightly. It's certainly an honour. Playing Carnegie Hall is the gold standard for classical musicians."
It will certainly be a highlight in the 30-year-old Calgary native's young career, just as it was for principal flutist Jan Kocman back in 1979 when the WSO made its Carnegie Hall debut.
"Even as a young kid, you become aware of how great it is," says the Indiana-raised musician, who has been with the orchestra since 1974. "Acoustically, it's a great hall, but the sense of history is so great. The very best of the world has travelled through Carnegie Hall. As a young person, that's very inspiring. As a seasoned professional, I look forward to doing it again."
Both players are looking forward to performing the WSO's all-Canadian concert in New York City, which Kocman describes as "thrilling." Curated by music director Alexander Mickelthwate, the contemporary program -- which includes Derek Charke's 13 Inuit Throat Song Games, featuring throat singer Tanya Tagaq, WSO composer-in-residence Vincent Ho's The Shaman: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra featuring Dame Evelyn Glennie, as well as R. Murray Schafer's Symphony No. 1 -- is reflective of the innovation displayed by the WSO's world-renowned New Music Festival. Considered a risk in its formative years, the contemporary music festival has grown into one of the world's most respected under Mickelthwate's guidance.
"Even in much larger centres, they haven't been able to establish a new music festival," Schroeder says. "Visitors to Winnipeg's festival can't believe the audience sizes. We felt (this program) showed what our orchestra does best -- and what a way to do that than in that icon of a performance space that is Carnegie Hall."
But first, they've got to get there, which is where the WSO's Adopt-a-Musician program comes in. For $3,000, supporters of the WSO can support a musician of their choosing and receive a charitable tax receipt and an acknowledgment in the official Carnegie Hall program, as well as an invitation to meet their adopted musician at the big Carnegie sendoff party, among other incentives. WSO fans can adopt a composer-in-residence or guest artist for $5,000 or Mickelthwate for $15,000. Schools or businesses can also opt to adopt an entire section.
Schroeder says the WSO got the idea for Adopt-a-Musician from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. "It's a marvellous way to connect musicians with businesses and individuals and supporters. We have to get them all to Carnegie Hall, which is an expensive endeavour," she says, noting that the cost of transporting orchestral instruments alone can be prohibitive.
Symphony-goers have already shown their support. Just under a third of the orchestra has already been adopted, and Schroeder hopes to have everyone spoken for by Christmas. "We could do anonymous fundraising, but this relates to real people," she says.
The opportunity to forage personal relationships with audience members is something Quackenbush is looking forward to. She has yet to be adopted.
"Because we play in larger halls to larger audiences in a larger group, it can be hard to do that," she says. "It's great to develop one-on-one relationships with audiences. What makes us interesting makes the group interesting." Indeed, it's a chance to get to know the individuals behind the music. You might learn, say, that hearing Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet at the age of eight is what made Quackenbush want to join an orchestra, or that part of Holst's The Planets, which is being performed as part of this weekend's Laplante Plays Rachmaninoff show, was used for her wedding processional.
Kocman has already been adopted. "I'm starting my 40th season with the symphony, so I've gotten to know many avid concert-goers and musical appreciators. Perhaps I've even taught some of their children," says the flutist, who teaches in the faculty of music at the U of M.
Kocman is humbled by the generosity of WSO supporters.
"It shows an appreciation of the commitment it takes to be a professional musician."