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WSO's annual New Music Festival celebrating composers, performers from isolated island

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In Iceland, there's a festival of contemporary music called Dark Music Days, held in the sun-starved period of late January and early February.

In Manitoba, we've got our own equivalent to relieve winter's bleakness: the week-long, international New Music Festival (NMF) put on by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The 21st annual festival, which opens Saturday, is celebrating Icelandic composers and performers for the first time. The local Icelandic community is breaking out the vinarterta (prune-filled torte), rullupylsa (lamb flanks) and Brennivin (schnapps), enthusiastic sponsors such as Icelandair and the Lgberg-Heimskringla newspaper are supporting the festivities, and the visiting musicians will make pilgrimages to Gimli.

So everybody wants to know: Is Bjrk coming?

WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate, who visited Reykjavik for five days last May, says he tried to book the innovative singer-songwriter, who has a recent musical project called Biophilia. She wasn't available, and neither was high-profile post-rock band Sigur Rós.

But Valgeir Sigurdsson, a top Icelandic music producer and Bjrk collaborator, is coming as one of five featured Icelandic composers (his credits include the soundtrack for the environmentalist documentary Dreamland).

The WSO has also co-commissioned a work called Credo by Kjartan Sveinsson, the keyboardist from Sigur Rós, though he's not attending in person.

Winnipeg composer Matthew Patton, who has been to Iceland many times, opened the door for the WSO and is artistic associate for the festival.

Mickelthwate, who co-curates the NMF with WSO composer-in-residence Vincent Ho, says Iceland's isolated island culture gives its music a distinct sound, somewhat related to Renaissance choral music.

"It's very calm, beautiful, meditative, ambient and new-agey," he says.

There's also a "childlike simplicity and quirkiness" that can be heard in the sounds of Bjrk, Sigurdsson and others.

Icelandic musicians have little use for the trappings of stardom when they're not touring, says Mickelthwate. He mentions a singer with the experimental band Múm as an example. "When she's back in Iceland, she's a cow herder."

Last year's 20th-anniversary edition of the NMF saw an increase in total paid attendance. After dropping to about 3,900 the previous year, it was back up to about 5,200.

Ho says last year marked the "bookend" to the festival's first two decades. He and Mickelthwate wanted to go in a bold, fresh direction by focusing on Iceland this time out.

"We wanted to move into uncharted territory -- something that hasn't been done anyplace in the world," he says.

"In Iceland, the creative community doesn't see distinctions between musical styles -- new music, classical music, pop music, art music. Everything is a fusion because everybody knows one another and everybody has to work together. We found that fascinating."

The orchestra is celebrating a milestone: for the first time, by hiring Iceland's Jóhann Jóhannsson to write a piece for the closing gala, it has independently commissioned a work from outside Canada's borders.

"If we want to be seen as an A-list player on the new music scene, we need to commission beyond Canada," says Ho.

"We put our own money on the table for the first time," says Mickelthwate.


Here, night by night, are some highlights of the 2012 New Music Festival:

  • Saturday, Jan. 28, the opening gala doesn't feature Icelandic works, but does go Nordic by presenting two major works by Finland's Kaija Saariaho, this year's distinguished guest composer. The Grammy-winning, 59-year-old Saariaho has been on the festival's wanted list for years, says Ho. When the WSO discovered she'd be in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company's February staging of her celebrated opera Love From Afar, the curators seized the chance to bring her to Winnipeg. Korean-American guest violinist Jennifer Koh will be featured in Saariaho's Graal Theatre.


  • Sunday, Jan. 29, the fest moves to Westminster United Church for a nine-work evening of chamber music, solo pieces, and the NMF's first-ever organ experiment. Saariaho is represented again by two works.

The show is called Ravedeath for Organ after the work sound artist Tim Hecker will perform. Montreal's Hecker is one of the festival's most buzzed-about guests. He explores "the intersection of noise, dissonance and melody" with works described as "cathedral electronic." Ravedeath Organ, says Mickelthwate, "will be very loud. It's organ with microphones hanging in the pipes and (sound) altered with a computer."


  • Monday, Jan. 30, as part of a four-work evening, Canadian guest cellist Shauna Rolston performs the world premiere of City Suites, a concerto written for her -- and her muscular-sounding carbon-fibre cello -- by the WSO's Vincent Ho. After introducing concertos with over-arching themes at the past two New Music Festivals, Ho says he wanted this one to be more of a suite of stand-alone movements, but they do trace an emotional journey.


  • Tuesday, Jan. 31, the festival moves to the Winnipeg Art Gallery for a cutting-edge, two-part evening. Part One is presented by Winnipeg's GroundSwell, with new compositions by Jim Hiscott and Diana McIntosh. Part Two is a performance by members of Bedroom Community, an Icelandic collective of composer/performers that includes Danel Bjarnason, Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson.


  • Wednesday, Feb. 1, Rolston is featured again in a four-work concert called Icelandia. The lineup includes Credo by Kjartan Sveinsson, the keyboardist from the band Sigur Rós; So Far So Good by Nico Muhly, a young New York-based member of Bedroom Community; the North American premiere of Bow to String, a cello concerto by Danel Bjarnason; and Valgeir Sigurdsson's Dreamland, an orchestral work based on his movie soundtrack.


  • Thursday, Feb. 2, the NMF presents the world-touring Montreal dance company La La La Human Steps. The fierce, ballet-in-overdrive troupe led by choreographer Edouard Lock will perform New Work, an 85-minute, 11-dancer piece with a score by Gavin Bryars -- a reinterpretation of the baroque operas Dido and Aeneas and Orpheus and Eurydice.

The score is performed live onstage by a piano/cello/viola/saxophone quartet. Bryars, a prominent British composer, has been a past guest at the NMF.


  • Friday, Feb. 3, the fest wraps up with a gala Icelandic Finale. The WSO performs the world première of A Prayer to the Dynamo, the orchestra's first international commission, by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Then there's the North American première of a 2006 work that's been hailed as an Icelandic masterpiece. It's Symphony No. 2 by Atli Heimir Sveinsson, widely considered Iceland's greatest composer. Now in his 70s, Sveinsson founded the Dark Music Days festival.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2012 E8

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