Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Timeless melody

After 95 years, Winnipeg Music Festival still a noteworthy event for thousands of musicians, singers

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Set amid ads for Borrowed Clothes, starring "Mrs. Charlie Chaplin (Mildred Harris)" and musical comedies at the Walker, Strand and Pantages theatres -- not to mention bulletins from the Winnipeg General Strike -- was a new event for the bustling city of Winnipeg.

Dubbed the Manitoba Musical Competition Festival, a story in the May 16, 1919 edition of the Manitoba Free Press covers the final night at the festival. The headline? "Adjudicators Say Winnipeg Should Foster Festival."

The adjudicator, Tertius Noble, offered lavish praise for the performers and the five-day event. "Winnipeg has the stuff to make of this festival a big, growing organization," the judge said.

Well, 95 years later, the festival, now known simply as the Winnipeg Music Festival, still has the stuff that Noble noticed.

This year's festival kicked off on Feb. 24 and takes place over 22 days at 12 different venues around the city. It winds up on Sunday, March 17, at 2 p.m., with a gala concert at Westminster United Church (745 Westminster Ave.).

A concert of the festival's outstanding choirs takes place Wednesday, March 13, at 7 p.m., at North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church (1315 Gateway Rd.).

Life outside the festival may appear to have gone through a revolution since the St. Jude's choir captured the St. John Eaton's Shield in 1919 by singing Save Us, O Lord and How Sweet the Moonlight Sleeps. The basics of the festival, however, remain the essentially the same -- a choir or a person performs a piece the best they can, it is judged and eventually a trophy is awarded.

While the Rose Bowl trophy, which is awarded to the festival's top Grade A vocalist and was first handed out in 1924, and the Aikins Memorial Trophy, which has been awarded to the festival's top instrumentalist since 1930, grab the most attention, hundreds of musicians and singers will vie for the other 61 trophies up for grabs.

Joanne Mercier, the festival's executive director, remembers when she competed in piano, and then later in a choir and then as a vocalist. She went on to win the Rose Bowl in 1989.

"In piano, your hands would get cold and then very sweaty," Mercier recalls of her Winnipeg Music Festival days. "Today, as a teacher, I recognize that as an adrenaline rush.

"If you don't have that feeling, it's probably not going to be your best performance."

The event was first put on by the Men's Musical Club, the brains, volunteer force and financial muscle behind many of Winnipeg's arts groups, Mercier says. It has remained a volunteer-based festival, and more than 100 volunteers sell tickets, keep the books, book halls and help organize schedules to keep the festival in tune all these years later.

"We have over 600 volunteer shifts to be filled (every year)," Mercier says. "Every part of it is absolutely critical. We can't do it without the volunteers."

About 2,500 people took part in 38 different classes when the festival began in 1919. Ninety-five years later, there are more than 500 classes, as the festival has included more individual instrumental musicians to go along with its longtime choral backbone.

Trophy winners are determined by the adjudicators, but Mercier says the competitors -- they've ranged in age from six to 90 during the festival's history -- must learn that judging a performance is just one person's opinion.

That can be difficult for singers, because someone's voice is so personal and individual, she said.

"It's not a right or wrong thing," she says. "It's there to make you a better musician.

"We learn about ourselves as much as we learn about the music."

Hear, hear!

Festival results can be found online at


Most outstanding performance of vocalists, 18 and under

Winner: Kira Fondse, who sang O! Had I Jubal's Lyre, by Handel.

Runners-Up: Kady Evanyshyn and Meaghan Fletcher


Most outstanding performance of vocalists, 16 and under

Winner: Christine Thanisch-Smith, who sang The Dove by Michael Head.

Runners-Up: Alenna Mark and Andrew Mayba

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2013 C5

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