"I told my wife I feel like I'm on the campaign trail," Alexander Mickelthwate joked the other afternoon, prior to this weekend's season-opening concerts.
"I'm a politician. I love it."
Unlike his soulful Russian predecessor, Andrey Boreyko, the outgoing German-born Mickelthwate seems to enjoy getting down and dirty with the masses.
In his first week on the job, he has been making the public-relations rounds and doing as much as he can to promote the fact that the 67-member WSO has a new man at the helm.
He made an appearance Sunday night at the Lyric Theatre, where jazz saxophonist Walle Larsson introduced him. After the season-preview concert at The Forks on Labour Day, he chatted with 40 or 50 fans, some of whom came to speak German with him.
"I love to communicate," he says in his colloquial and lightly accented English. "The whole point of being a conductor in North America is to create a relationship with the audience."
The relationship starts in earnest 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Centennial Concert Hall. Mickelthwate will take the podium for a show titled New Era Opener, which is being repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Brandon.
He'll be conducting the program's featured work, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, without the score in front of him, much as he did with Brahms' Symphony No. 1 last February in his debut as WSO music-director designate.
"I memorize the major works," he says. "It's like an actor memorizing his lines. You become that character. When I conduct, I become one with the music."
Mickelthwate, 36, has been living in Los Angeles, where he is associate conductor of the 106-member L.A. Philharmonic. But he spent several weeks this past spring and summer working with James Manishen, the WSO's director of artistic planning (and former Free Press classical music critic), on the current WSO season.
Orchestral seasons are usually booked two years in advance, but Mickelthwate says he ended up having much input into the programming for the Masterworks, Musically Speaking, Classically Hip and Sundays with the Family series.
Last year's well-attended choral series somehow fell by the wayside, but Mickelthwate says it remains in everything but name.
"We have at least three big choral programs this season," he says. "In Winnipeg you must have choral music -- all those Mennonites."
Contracted to be here 12 weeks in total this season, he is in the midst of working out details for next February's annual Centara Corp. New Music Festival. He says that next season, 2007-2008, will bear his stamp much more directly.
"It's a no-brainer," says Mickelthwate, who has signed aboard for 16 weeks in the second and third years of his first WSO contract. "I can't wait to bring my things up here. I'm lucky to have L.A. in my back pocket, to see what they do, to see what draws audiences."
Mickelthwate, a dead ringer for Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon, was hired three years ago by the L.A. Phil's veteran Finnish-born music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. In L.A., where his contract calls for 22 weeks' work, he specializes in children's series concerts and several shows in the orchestra's "hard-core contemporary" Green Umbrella series.
Last year he conducted a concert with jazz great Wayne Shorter. In July, he was on the podium at the fabled Hollywood Bowl for an exuberant show with Scottish indie-pop heroes Belle & Sebastian.
"It was like Beatlemania all over again," one reviewer wrote. "Kids snaked down from the Bowl's distant sections to scream, dance and take camera-phone photos close-up."
Mickelthwate, who has been in the U.S. since 1996, grew up in Frankfurt, the middle of three sons of musical parents, 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. His younger brother, Sebastian, is a viola player for an opera company in Chemnitz.
In 1988, when he was 18, his folks 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 for conducting work. They married in June 1997. 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.
His first big break into the grown-up world was in 2001 when he was hired as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He moved to the L.A. Phil as assistant in 2003 and was recently promoted to associate.
Salonen encouraged him to try for a music director's post. While the WSO was looking, he was also in the running for orchestras in Nashville, Omaha, Honolulu and Winston-Salem.
He did a guest appearance with the WSO in April 2005, a "jump-in," as they call it, when William Eddins cancelled. (Eddins was later hired by the Edmonton Symphony.)
The WSO search committee liked what they heard and Mickelthwate liked the idea of Winnipeg, which he says is well-known in the orchestral world, largely because of the New Music Festival.
To make room in his schedule for the WSO, he dropped four weeks from his L.A. duties and another four weeks of guest gigs for this season.
"Salonen was thrilled that I accepted Winnipeg," Mickelthwate says. "He told me this was the best fit."
ALEXANDER Mickelthwate will be conducting for 11 of his 12 weeks in the city in 2006-07. Here are his WSO gigs for the fall.
* New Era Opener (Masterworks series), featuring Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at the Centennial Concert Hall and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Western Centennial Auditorium in Brandon.
* Bach to School educational outreach program, Sept. 20-22 in six Winnipeg schools.
* Music and Rebels (Musically Speaking), the first of a three-program Beethoven cycle featuring the Leonore Overture No. 2 and Symphony No. 1, Sept. 28 at the Burton Cummings Theatre.
* The Music of the Eagles (Classically Hip series), featuring the WSO and the Jeans 'n Classics Band, Sept. 29-30 at the Burton Cummings Theatre.
* Mozart Comes Alive (Sundays with the Family series), another Mozart 250th birthday party, this one for the kids, 2 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Pantages Playhouse.
* Scotiabank Harvest Tour to Dauphin, Yorkton, Sask., Minnedosa, Pinawa, Gimli and Steinbach, Oct. 17-22.
* Rabotkina's Return (Masterworks), featuring Mozart's A Little Night Music and Strauss's A Hero's Life, with guest pianist Daria Rabotkina, Oct. 27-28 at the Centennial Concert Hall.
* Beethoven & Adams (Masterworks), featuring Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and John Adams' The Chairman Dances and The Dharma at Big Sur, with guest violinist Tracy Silverman, Dec. 2 at the Centennial Concert Hall and Dec. 3 at Brandon's Western Centennial Auditorium.