Absence did make the musical heart grow fonder

Highlights of a concert season that featured long-awaited performances of COVID-delayed delights

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Now as the arts season officially winds down for another year — and as we’re in that delicious lull before summer concerts and festivals ramp up — it’s time to reflect on the many memorable performances we’ve been privileged to hear this year during these “New Normal” times. Notably, the 2021-22 season also welcomed back to the live stage many artists and organizations sidelined for the last two years, as well as “finally” concerts that had been lying fallow awaiting the easing of public health restrictions.

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Now as the arts season officially winds down for another year — and as we’re in that delicious lull before summer concerts and festivals ramp up — it’s time to reflect on the many memorable performances we’ve been privileged to hear this year during these “New Normal” times. Notably, the 2021-22 season also welcomed back to the live stage many artists and organizations sidelined for the last two years, as well as “finally” concerts that had been lying fallow awaiting the easing of public health restrictions.

10 noteworthy performances (listed in chronological order):

1. WSO (A)bsolute Classics: Stewart Goodyear and Grieg (Oct. 2)

A full cohort of 60 musicians triumphantly returned to the stage for the first time since the first-wave lockdown in March 2020 with the evening described by its clearly moved maestro Daniel Raiskin as “a very special and significant moment for us.” Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear enthralled listeners with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, marking his first WSO appearance in 13 years.

2. WSO Pops: Don Amero (Oct. 22-24)

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
Don Amero (centre) and his band perform with the WSO at the Centennial Concert Hall.

This Pops show — featuring Don Amero, a three-time Juno nominee of Cree and Métis heritage hailing from Winnipeg’s North End, and led by Julian Pellicano — quickly became a personal highlight. Equally regarded for his advocacy work within Indigenous communities and beyond, the country crooner sings straight from his heart — and guts. Amero’s powerful performance of Isabel’s Song (Going Home), penned as an imaginary love letter from a “grandfather-in-law” who died suddenly while running an errand without saying goodbye to his wife, can be viewed as an anthem for the undertow of farewells never uttered to locked-down loved ones during the pandemic.

3. Manitoba Opera: La Voix Humaine (Nov. 5)

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Conductor Julian Pellicano (centre) conducts with Don Amero (left) and the WSO at the Centennial Concert Hall October, 2021.

Opera singers and choristers around the globe suffered a body blow during the pandemic, owing to the crackdown on public and especially group singing. MO celebrated its return to the stage with a live audience for Poulenc’s tragédie lyrique La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) featuring Winnipeg-based soprano Lara Ciekiewicz as Elle. Her harrowing emotional trajectory as she bids farewell over the telephone to her lover on the eve of his wedding to another became a master class in subtle characterization. The 1958 show also spoke to our two years largely lived through screens and wires. The double bill also included Menotti’s opera buffa The Telephone featuring Winnipeg soprano Lida Szkwarek as and Toronto-based baritone Johnathon Kirby.

4. Winnipeg Baroque Festival (April 8-15)

A trio of vocal ensembles: Dead of Winter (formerly known as Camerata Nova), Canzona and Polycoro joined forces to present the inaugural Winnipeg Baroque Festival, evoking the spirit of the long defunct Winnipeg Bach Festival (remember that?). Sadly, its grand finale co-presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion — billed for April 15 and to have included Vancouver-based early music group Pacific Baroque Orchestra — was postponed due to a late spring blizzard.

5. Manitoba Chamber Orchestra: Jonah (April 12)

MCO presented the long-awaited world première of Sid Robinovitch’s modern-day oratorio Jonah — another concert put on ice for the two-year COVID-19 related vacuum of live choral music. The Pembina Trails Voices ensemble led by Valdine Anderson brought the Biblical tale to life for one night only; its second performance slated for April 13 was cancelled by the same Colorado low that truncated the Winnipeg Baroque Festival.

6. WMC McClellan Competition for Solo Performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (April 20)

Daniel Crump
DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
Lara Ciekiewicz plays Elle in Manitoba Opera’s production of La Voix Humaine.

One of our local music community’s best kept secrets has always been the WMC McLellan Competition, presented biennially by the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg. With its April 2020 finals cancelled during the first-wave lockdown, the competition led by Daniel Raiskin re-emerged with three stellar finalists vying for generous cash prizes totalling $20,000. This year the nod went to Winnipeg-born cellist David Liam Roberts, with second prize going to violinist Gregory Lewis and third to mezzo-soprano Geneva Halverson.

7. WSO Special: Manitoba Remembers: A COVID Elegy (April 28)

This tremendously moving, cathartic program became equal parts healing service and community showcase of Manitoba’s finest musical artists, interspersed with videotaped interviews with those directly affected by COVID-19. Among the many highlights in the once-in-a-lifetime program led by Raiskin was WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig’s searing finale of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, holding listeners spellbound with her sensitive artistry.

8. Dead of Winter: Captive (May 13)

As another “at long last” concert postponed for two years, Dead of Winter also performed the world première of founding artistic director Andrew Balfour’s “Captive,” the third instalment in a series of the composer’s Truth and Reconciliation series. Subsequently presented at Toronto’s PODIUM Choral Conference and Festival on May 21, the program led by Mel Braun was designed to “honour the pain, sorrow and beauty of the experience of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”

9. The Little Opera Company: Three Decembers (May 27-29)

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
Cellist David Liam Roberts won first place in the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg McLellan Competition.

The LOC finally unveiled its Canadian première of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers after two prior productions were shuttered by the pandemic. The 90-minute chamber opera chronicling the complex relationships of a dysfunctional family during three decades of the AIDS crisis, and stage directed by Rob Herriot, featured an all-Canadian cast comprised of soprano Lara Ciekiewicz, mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber and baritone Sheldon Baxter, with a live chamber orchestra led by Naomi Woo.

10. Agassiz Summer Chamber Music Festival: Where Worlds Converge (June 5-11)

The annual Agassiz Summer Chamber Music Festival helmed by Ottawa-based artistic director/cellist Paul Marleyn also roared back to live performance this year after offering all-virtual concerts in 2020 and 2021. The world-renowned Penderecki String Quartet — Jeremy Bell, violin; Jerzy Kaplanek, violin; Christine Vlajk, viola; and Katie Schlaikjer, cello — celebrated the 290th anniversary of Haydn’s birth with its String Quartet Op. 20, No. 6 , part of this final concert called Secret Signs in the Morning Sun, among other works performed throughout the week.

Needless to say, we’ve come a long way since the pandemic first paralyzed the global arts community in March 2020. There is still a ways to go, however we are getting there.

Continue supporting live music — and live-streamed music — as it has never mattered more than now as our cherished arts organizations continue to rebuild in a (hopefully) post-pandemic world.

Music Matters now goes on hiatus until the fall.

Have a great summer everyone and stay safe.

Holly.harris@shaw.ca

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