Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Can we afford another saviour in a tux?

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WHEN all is said and done, he was the wrong guy at the wrong time.

It's unfortunate, but there you have it.

Andrey Boreyko, the departing music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, doesn't deserve all the blame for his four lacklustre years on the Centennial Concert Hall podium.

As he takes the stage this weekend for his farewell concerts conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 9, he doesn't deserve even the lion's share of the blame.

But he deserves enough of it.

After all, he has been the guy in charge of the artistic mandate. He has been drawing the big paycheque (an undisclosed paycheque, by the way, but in the neighbourhood of $250,000 for 12 weeks of service). And he was the guy who made the grand promises, most of which he did not fulfil.

In February 2002, at a press conference following the orchestra's near-fatal lockout (which was not his fault), the Russian-born maestro hit all the right notes in an impassioned speech about the need for "musical perestroika."

"If you attend an average symphony concert these days, you are seeing something right out of the 19th century," he said.

"We exist in very different times from those of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and I believe the concert experience today should reflect that."

He went on at length about his vision for change. But it turned out to be mostly hot air. Four years later, the WSO is still doing pretty much what it has always done (as most orchestras continue to do): 65 musicians dressed in black file onstage, play some classical chestnuts, bow politely, then head for the showers.

This sedate experience may appeal to the converted, but it offers little to compete for the attention of 21st-century audiences raised with brash, amplified, visual, multimedia, multi-ethnic, electronic culture.

This would not matter if the group drew large enough crowds to pay its freight, or if there were any concrete evidence that steady-as-she-goes is a smart strategy.

Boreyko's worth as a musician is beyond reproach. Classical experts universally praise his talents as deep, soulful, sensual and visceral.

As a WSO violinist told my colleague Gordon Sinclair Jr. last week, Boreyko's presence here has been "like catching lightning in a bottle."

As a non-musician, though, I would be lying if I said I could tell the difference between the WSO under Boreyko, Bramwell Tovey or Harvey Pollock. I suspect I am in the majority here, especially among potential customers.

It says something that the only five-star review the WSO got this year from Free Press critic Gwenda Nemerofsky was for the recent Rainer Hersch concert spoofing classical music.

Moreover, the small degree to which the WSO's fortunes have improved in the past two years has nothing to do with the quality or even content of the performances.

Backroom volunteers have simply rebuilt the administration. They can now get the brochures out on time and the season-ticket sellers on the phone to their prime customers.

To be fair to Boreyko, he was sold a bill of goods to come here. He was told the orchestra was financially healthy when it was not. He has had to deal with a fearful lack of resources and a need to be all things to all people.

He came from Eastern Europe, where music directors conduct serious music. They don't have to pander with orchestral rock concerts, shake hands with Rotarians or beg for corporate cash.

Early in Boreyko's tenure, he came up against this reality. And he probably began planning his exit, concentrating on developing his guest conducting career in bigger North American markets where his genius could be afforded.

Who among us would do otherwise? The new guy, Alexander Mickelthwate, may or may not be the guy to bring about the (perhaps impossible) reinvention Boreyko himself said was necessary for the WSO.

The German-born, U.S.-based musician comes with great credentials, and he talks a good game. But so did Boreyko four years ago.

The question Winnipeg needs to ask is this: Do the realities of a mid-size arts market justify the expense of a traditional music director as God?

morley.walker@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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