Alexander Mickelthwate, the WSO's new German-born music director, has made quite the splash in La-La Land, where he has just been promoted, in his less important job, to associate conductor of the 106-member Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"You're lucky to have him," Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed said yesterday. "He's one of the really great emerging talents I've seen, maybe the best."
"He's a terrific musician," added the Phil's president and CEO, Deborah Borda: "He brings great energy and a very broad and 21st century sensibility and taste."
Mickelthwate, 35, slender, glamorous and garbed in artists' black, was the centre of attention yesterday at the Centennial Concert Hall after the official announcement of his three-year WSO appointment, effective next September.
In between rehearsing with the musicians for WSO concerts tomorrow night in Brandon and Saturday night in Winnipeg, he met with reporters, WSO board members and classical music fans.
"Doesn't he look exactly like Kevin Bacon?" tittered Margaret Moroz, mother-in-law of WSO concert master Gwen Hoebig. "I understand he sometimes even signs Kevin's name when girls ask him for autographs."
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Mickelthwate, who has been in the U.S. since 1996, plans to buy a house in Winnipeg to share with his wife and son. He smiled shyly yesterday at the mention of his resemblance to the star of such hit films as Footloose and Mystic River.
"At first it annoyed me, because I didn't really know who he was," he said in colloquial and lightly accented English. "I saw him once in New York about six years ago but I didn't go up to him. My knees were quaking."
He was much more enthusiastic on the subject of Winnipeg and the WSO, which he conducted for the first and only time at a Musically Speaking concert last April.
"We hit it off right away," he said. "It felt so comfortable."
He will replace the Russian maestro Andrey Boreyko, whose four-year tenure got off to a disastrous start with the 67-member WSO's near financial collapse and a crippling lockout. Mickelthwate has signed aboard for 11 weeks next season and 16 each in years two and three.
"This is a great appointment," said James Manishen, the WSO's director of artistic operations.
"He'll do the converting, and he'll do the conducting for the converted."
Since joining the L.A. Phil as assistant conductor in September 2004, Mickelthwate has guest conducted with many smaller U.S. orchestras and Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra. He has applied for several music directorships other than Winnipeg's.
"All the other mid-sized orchestras seemed rather traditional," he noted. "Here in Canada I feel there is also a connection between the orchestra and the government and the community. Coming from Germany, I am at home with that."
Mickelthwate grew up in Frankfurt, the middle of three sons, playing piano and cello. Once he caught the conducting bug, at age 17, he also took singing lessons, because in Germany, conductors must be familiar with opera.
In 1988, when he was 18, his parents sent him to a summer camp in Colorado, where he met a San Diego girl, Abigail Camp. They stayed in touch, and in 1992 they began an intercontinental romance between Germany and New York City, where Abigail had launched her career as a fashion designer.
He eventually followed her across the pond and started looking seriously looking for conducting work. They married in June 1997 and their son, Jack Brooklyn, was born in July 2003.
Mickelthwate's resumé in those first years in the Big Apple reads like the typical immigrant's story of persistence and hard work. He did everything from usher at Avery Fisher Hall for the New York Philharmonic to conduct an after-school production of The Wizard of Oz in the Bronx.
"One thing that I love about America is that compared to Europe, here what counts is experience," he told the L.A. Times in a feature profile last July. "So the after-school program in the Bronx I consciously took to have experience with children."
His first big break into the grownup world was in 2001 when he was hired as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The L.A. Phil's Finnish-born music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, selected him as his assistant from eight finalists narrowed from 150 applicants.
Mickelthwate has conducted the Phil in its summer home at the Hollywood Bowl, in many children's concerts and in a number of Green Umbrella contemporary music concerts. He recently led the orchestra through a jazz show headlined by saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.
Salonen recently promoted Mickelthwate to associate conductor. He will conduct his first L.A. Phil subscription series concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in June and will do a full week there next fall.
His first official concerts as WSO music director will be next season's opening program Sept. 8 and 9. Well-schooled in the Germanic repertory, he hopes to invigorate programming with lots of crossover concerts and collaborations with members of Winnipeg's arts community.
"The arts make a city vital," he said. "There's always a golden era for orchestras, and I want to make that happen here."
Here are some facts about the WSO's music director designate, Alexander Mickelthwate (think "mickel" followed by "thwate.")
Born: Frankfurt, Germany, June 2, 1970.
Education: Studied piano performance and conducting in Karlsruhe, Germany, and participated in international conducting course in Austria and France. Additional studies at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
Married: Abigail Camp on June 28, 1997.
Son: Jake Brooklyn, born July 26, 2003.
Appointed: Assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September 2004. Just promoted, and will continue as associate conductor.
Joins the WSO: As of September 2006 with a three-year contract.