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WSO and live audience back together with bluegrass

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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 2021-22 season with a bluegrass bang Saturday night, as it welcomed 560 pumped up audience members back to the Centennial Concert Hall an astounding 351 days after its last “live” concert held Oct. 2, 2020 — and yes, there were banjo jokes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/09/2021 (330 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 2021-22 season with a bluegrass bang Saturday night, as it welcomed 560 pumped up audience members back to the Centennial Concert Hall an astounding 351 days after its last “live” concert held Oct. 2, 2020 — and yes, there were banjo jokes.

And its choice to open its Pops series (also offered via livestream) with the newly monikered neWSOunds band culled from its ranks: WSO first violinist/fiddler extraordinaire Chris Anstey; violist Gregory Hay (banjo/mandolin/guitar/viola); principal double bassist Meredith Johnson; and principal timpanist Mike Kemp (drum kit/vibraphone/Cajon) only further fuelled Saturday night’s palpable buzz not witnessed for nearly an entire year.

The 90-minute program (no intermission) featured 13 bluegrass-inspired, roots and traditional tunes led by an ebullient, and also clearly moved WSO associate conductor Julian Pellicano, who graciously told the fully masked, mixed generation crowd right off the hop that the “sound of your applause is even more beautiful than music.”

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra opened its 2021-22 season with a Pops series bluegrass-inspired performance featuring the neWSOunds band, Saturday evening. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

After an opening orchestral Cowboy Celtic Overture, the denim-clad band members strode onstage for Callum’s Road, with Johnson paying poignant tribute to his late sister-in-law and former WSO violinist Meredith McCallum, noting it as one of her favourite songs. This led to the first of the night’s “mash-ups,” high-spirited renditions of Big John’s Dream slipping into Devil’s Dream.

Pellicano, a percussionist and original founding member of NeWSOunds, then baldly called the “WSO Band,” also strapped on his accordion while still leading the players from the podium for his own arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance, Nos. 5 and 6, that became an early highlight. A few precarious moments when both band and orchestra were not always in sync may be easily forgiven for the musicians’ sheer gusto, with the feisty piece followed by Piazzolla’s sinewy tango Oblivion, including a lyrical, arching theme performed by Anstey against Kemp’s wire brushes.

It’s no secret that WSO is chock full of world-class musicians, as proven in spades last season when it showcased its own players as soloists. But many are also musical chameleons, including Hay who morphed between his kit of folksy instruments with the ease of a magician’s sleight of hand.

WSO associate conductor Julian Pellicano told the audience at the Centennial Concert Hall the ‘sound of your applause is even more beautiful than music.’ (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Anstey, hailing from “fiddle country” Newfoundland, is also a renowned championship fiddler, and truthfully more solos by him would have been welcomed. Kemp, who quipped and cracked jokes throughout the evening — including those banjo jibes — and plays a mean set of clacking spoons, could easily have a parallel career as a stand-up comedian should his day job not pan out.

These guys — surprise, surprise — can sing, too. Alabama-born bandleader Johnson belted out vocals for all he’s worth during Ginseng Sullivan, underpinned by tightly stacked, twangy harmonies by his three bandmates that would have made composer Norman Blake proud.

The mostly well-paced show proved strongest during the more traditional bluegrass numbers, including a gorgeous string trio arrangement of Appalachian Waltz, and Boats Up the River, beginning with Hay’s nifty banjo solo that flowed into The Water is Wide, once again driven by the group’s powerhouse vocals.

Others arguably slowed the pace, such as Four Scottish Dances, performed by the orchestra about three dances too long, while Copland’s Corral Nocturne from ballet Rodeo didn’t quite rope in the cohesive forces of band and orchestra.

However, the evening ended with a brilliant touch — literally. During her opening remarks from the stage, the WSO’s newly appointed executive director Angela Birdsell encouraged us to smile, or even shed tears of joy behind our masks for being “here, live, together.”

During the band’s rip-snorting finale Hoe-Down Medley, floodlights suddenly swept throughout the audience, thus revealing our collective, albeit still masked, non-digital human presence to ourselves and the wide-eyed, appreciative musicians. This lump-in-your-throat recognition that we were finally back together, listening as a community to the orchestra we have missed more than we knew, became the greatest highlight of all, eliciting another rare sight, the season’s first standing ovation — and those predicted tears in this writer’s eyes.

For livestream tickets or further info, visit: wso.ca

Holly.harris@shaw.ca

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