Winnipeg New Music Festival kicks off with first of five concerts


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The 2023 Winnipeg New Music Festival promised us ancestral tales with its opening, same-titled concert presented Saturday night. But it didn’t tell us that an explosive combustion of genre-bending, cultural forces could pack an emotional wallop able to carry us well into the future and beyond.

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The 2023 Winnipeg New Music Festival promised us ancestral tales with its opening, same-titled concert presented Saturday night. But it didn’t tell us that an explosive combustion of genre-bending, cultural forces could pack an emotional wallop able to carry us well into the future and beyond.

The annual celebration of contemporary music that runs through Friday, Feb. 3 presented its first of five evening concerts, “Ancestral Tales,” featuring five diverse works led by WSO music director and WNMF artistic director Daniel Raiskin.

Classical Music Review

2023 Winnipeg New Music Festival

Ancestral Tales

Saturday, Jan. 28

Centennial Concert Hall

Attendance 639

★★★★ 1/2 out of five

The two-hour (including intermission) program marked the local debut of Toronto troupe Red Sky Performance with artistic director/choreographer Sandra Laronde’s “Adizokan Suite.” The eye and ear-popping collaboration between herself and Brandon, MB-born composer Eliot Britton of Metis heritage, no stranger to the WNMF stage, explores Indigenous connections to ancestral origins.

Baker Lake, NU-based and notably Winnipeg-born throat-boxer Nelson Tagoona performed live as he did during the seven-movement piece’s world premiere with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in October 2017. The charismatic artist quickly established himself as a musical trickster as well as the night’s undeniable star; able to magically fuse traditional Inuit throat singing with funky beat box rhythms with many WSO players agape.

Britton’s live orchestral score, densely layered with pre-recorded tracks of singing by Anishinaabe guest artists and processed electronic sound effects, further underscored Tagoona’s visceral utterances. Kudos to Raiskin for expertly leading all forces throughout the 22-minute excerpt from the original 47-minute work. Striking visual images projected on the upstage screen, including dancers seemingly aflame with colourful lighting effects often felt a dreamscape while making this all-sensory, immersive experience for the enthralled audience.

It’s also incredibly powerful to see Indigenous dancers: Theodore Bison, Cante Bison, Ian Akiwenzie and John Hupfield in full traditional dress, including sacred eagle feathers representing their own ancestors, performing alongside a fundamentally white, European-derived musical ensemble. Laronde’s fearless artistic vision creates a compelling argument for the power of “art” able to respond and become a part of those all-critical, ongoing dialogues and calls for truth and reconciliation, never more needed than today. As expected, the performers received a rousing standing ovation with loud cheers from the clearly stirred crowd.

The evening opened with this year’s distinguished guest composer, Kalevi Aho’s “Winnipeg Fanfare,” the sprightly world premiere commissioned by Raiskin to trumpet the WSO’s ongoing 75th anniversary celebrations. Packed with musical ideas, the acclaimed Finnish composer (in attendance) makes effective use of each section’s unique instrumental timbre, although (presumably) more rehearsal time would have given this piece greater weight as a festival kick-off.

The bill also featured the world premiere of WSO composer-in-residence and WNMF co-curator with Raiskin, Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis’s “Piano Concerto No. 1: Mythos,” flavoured by his own Greek heritage, and performed with aplomb by guest American pianist Jenny Lin.

There’s a time-honoured adage to “write what you know,” and the New York City-based composer’s deeply personal work resonates with fleeting, folksy influences, including snippets in Lin’s piano evoking a traditional balalaika. More of these idiomatic references as the piece’s lifeblood would have been welcomed. However Stafylakis, a classically trained pianist by trade, also draws on the raw energy of his musical roots as a self-described “metal head,” with his inaugural concerto often propelled by driving, rhythmic energy, its bold, muscular virtuosity given clarity and light by its more gossamer moments.

The WNMF also paid rightfully tribute to its late co-founder and former WSO music director Bramwell Tovey, with the revered conductor/composer’s “Sky Chase.” A poignant slideshow of archival images from Tovey’s 12-year tenure with the WSO projected upstage became the evening’s grace note, with the musicians playing with their heart and soul for their larger-than-life, much missed maestro, who gave so much to the Canadian symphonic world, and had so much more to say before his untimely passing last July.

The evening rounded out with American composer Missy Mazzoli’s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” an introspective, textural work that whirls and pulsates, billed as “music in the shape of a solar system” and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The WNMF continues through Friday, Feb. 3, with more information available here.

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