Shorter, sweeter and more cinematic
WSO unveils 2023/24 season featuring condensed midweek series, long-overdue visit by Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and movie performances starting with Frankenstein
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The Bangles gave us Manic Monday, voters in the United States have their Super Tuesdays and we’ve all had our TGIF moments.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra wants to stake its claim to Thursdays.
The WSO will begin making its case in the 2023-24 season with a five-concert Thursday-night classical program that includes its season-opening gala with Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman performing Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra and the symphony playing Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak.
The shows would start earlier — four of them will begin at 7 p.m. — and will be 80 to 90 minutes long without an intermission, much shorter than WSO concerts this season, which can go beyond two hours with an intermission.
“The pace of our life has changed a lot and priorities also shifted,” says Daniel Raiskin, the WSO’s maestro and artistic director. “The weekend, which was usually dedicated to absorbing culture, going to the opera, theatre and symphonies, people are maybe more inclined to staying at home or going to nature as opposed to dedicated the weekend to interacting with culture.
“People can stay (downtown) after their long day at work, have a bite, much like when they go to a hockey game, and enjoy a very impactful one-and-a-half-hour experience.”
The Thursday nights are tailored to people’s lifestyles and are based on data compiled from surveys by Manitobans for the Arts, says Angela Birdsell, the orchestra’s executive director.
“People are saying that they would like events to start earlier, and some events are too long,” Birdsell says. “Those people that want to stick around — the concerts would be over by roughly 8:30 — there’s still opportunity to mix, to mingle and to learn more about the program.”
Musicians making their Winnipeg debuts for the Thursday series will be American cellist Zlatomir Fung, Japanese guest conductor Nodoka Okisawa, who will lead the WSO and Ottawa violinist Kerson Leong. The series will also mark the return to the concert hall for Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek and Toronto-born violinist Blake Pouliot.
Five other classical concerts will take place at the WSO’s regular Saturday evening time slot, and they’ll bring Calgary conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, Canadian soprano Sarah Dufresne, American pianists Michelle Cann and Claire Huangci, and Dutch trombonist Jorgen van Rijen to the concert hall.
“It’s an experiment,” Raiskin says. “What we’re trying to do is to cater to different audiences in our community.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and scheduling has twice foiled the WSO in bringing Bartholomew-Poyser, who is a resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and the principal youth conductor for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa.
“He’s a Canadian conductor absolutely in high demand all over the world,” Birdsell says.
The Live @ the WSO pops series continues with two-night weekend performances, highlighted by Steven Page, the former Barenaked Ladies’ frontman (Sept. 22 and 23) and Celtic violinist Natalie MacMaster (Oct. 28 and 29), both with WSO resident conductor Julian Pellicano at the podium.
The Sultans of String, the Toronto-based instrumental group that performs music styles from around the world, will collaborate with Indigenous artists from across Canada and the WSO for Walking Through the Fire, an upcoming project the group is working on.
“They have an extraordinary program that they’ve developed with many Indigenous artists, singers, Métis fiddlers, singer-songwriters, storytellers,” Birdsell says. “Sultans of String are great at designing interesting crossover programs with orchestras and many different styles of instrumentation.”
The WSO will accompany four movie screenings next season, beginning with 1931’s Frankenstein (Oct. 20); Frozen (Nov. 25 and 26); Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (March 15 and 16, 2024) and a May the Fourth performance of Star Wars: A New Hope (May 3 and 4, 2024).
The screenings will be a chance for Pellicano to relive his childhood with the Star Wars franchise and the days as a parent of two daughters who loved Frozen. He estimates he’s seen the film 150 times with them over the years.
“These are really wonderful songs, well-written songs and beloved songs,” Pellicano says. “I’m really looking forward to bringing it to Winnipeg. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Frankenstein will be shown at the Burton Cummings Theatre, following the 2022 success of the WSO accompanying the 1922 vampire film Nosferatu.
Three kids concerts are on the schedule, including a collaboration with Al Simmons, Winnipeg’s child entertainer extraordinaire (Oct. 8); an appearance with the acrobatic company Cirque Symphonique (Feb. 25, 2024) and The Twins and the Monster, an orchestral interpretation of an African folk tale that will include actor Norma Lewis (May 5).
Handel’s Messiah returns Dec. 15 and 16, and will be performed at Knox United Church with five vocal soloists and the Canadian Mennonite University Festival Chorus.
The WSO will welcome a new assistant conductor to the team next season. Monica Chen, who has been the assistant conductor for the University of British Columbia Orchestra, takes over for Naomi Woo, who has turned a four-year tenure with the WSO into several guest conductor appearances across Canada.
“That is the aim for our assistant conductor’s program, to give young conductors a launchpad for their careers, and Naomi’s career is taking off,” Birdsell says.
One item remaining on the WSO’s to-do list is its tour of the Netherlands, where Raiskin makes his home base when not in Winnipeg or conducting around the world.
Plans for an eight-city tour in May 2020 that would have coincided with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands were scuttled by the pandemic, and its Omicron variant forced the postponement of a 2022 revival.
Raiskin says there are plans to tour in 2025, which would be the 80th anniversary of the Dutch liberation, but negotiations with concert halls and promoters are ongoing and it’s too soon to announce.
“I think there are some people that assume that the idea’s going to fizzle out and won’t go anywhere but we have every intention of honouring that (tour commitment),” Birdsell says. “I want people to know that funds donated to the Netherlands tour, their contributions remain set aside.”
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Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.