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Balancing enduring, edgy tops Mickelthwate's agenda

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SAY one thing about the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's new conductor.

Alexander Mickelthwate is the first in the organization's history to have a page on

Come to think of it, you can say a second thing.

He's the only WSO music director who would spend three hours publicity hounding -- as he did Monday morning -- driving around the city, live on air, with CJOB traffic reporter Brian Barkley.

"He's a very personable guy," Barkley said over the phone from -- where else? -- his vehicle.

"I enjoyed his company immensely. He did say the traffic lights here bug him. The synchronization is not so good."

This is an observation you might expect from a Los Angeles resident who is an expert at co-ordination and keeping time.

But never mind. Sitting in his office Tuesday in the bowels of the Centennial Concert Hall, Mickelthwate was doing his best to be upbeat as he prepares to close his first full season at the WSO helm.

"I'm like the guy who comes into a family," he said. "I have to get to know the family and they have to get to know me."

He's certain his WSO family will have no problem with this weekend's Masterworks series finale, comprised of four pieces originally composed for early-20th century Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

The highlight of the two concerts, at 8 Friday and Saturday nights, will be Igor Stravinsky's 1913 masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, one of the most storied pieces in the modern classic canon.

Last performed by the WSO under Bramwell Tovey, it requires supplementing the 67-member orchestra with 20-plus freelance players.

"Winnipeg is lucky to have a pool of available musicians," said Mickelthwate, who will end his three-year tenure as associate music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in August.

"In Honolulu, for example, when they play this piece, they have to fly in extra musicians."

Like his predecessor Andrey Boreyko, Mickelthwate insists that the WSO performs at a level well beyond what you'd expect for a mid-size orchestra in an isolated Prairie city.

"It's the training they've had from 16 years of New Music Festivals," said Mickelthwate, who will turn 37 in June. "That event is almost unique in the world."

But it's less clear that Winnipeg's citizenry is willing to support what it's got. WSO attendance at the core Masterworks and Musically Speaking series this year -- despite the presence of a flashy new music director -- has averaged about 40 per cent of the 2,300-seat Centennial Concert Hall.

There were programming decisions, such as John Adams' The Dharma at Big Sur and Osvaldo Golijov's Oceana, that did not impress staid WSO regulars.

More crucially, the loss of the concert hall to Phantom of the Opera for six weeks last September and October was a crippling blow to subscription sales, still ongoing at the time of year.

As WSO executive director Dale Lonis explains, this even affected single ticket sales. Over the years, he says, single ticket sales have consistently reached 34 per cent of subscription sales, regardless of the size of the latter figure.

Next year, fortunately, the WSO has full use of the concert hall.

The orchestra, facing a probable deficit on the fiscal year ending May 31, has trimmed some of its peripheral series for next year. But it is standing firm with 12 Masterworks, seven Pops and five Musically Speaking programs.

With the ferocious competition in the entertainment marketplace -- the MTS Centre seems to announce a couple of superstar pop shows every week -- the WSO's challenges are not going away.

Mickelthwate's strategy, as he prepares to move his wife and son here by the fall, is to find a programming balance between the tried and true and the edgy and daring.

"I don't mind if people react negatively to some of my choices," he said. "I don't want to alienate them but I do want them to react. I want to be in a conversation."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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