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Barge-scale entertainment

Organizers are hoping for a dockin' good time as dozens of Manitoba musicians perform on the river for five days at The Forks

In the summer of 1717, the premiere of Handel's Water Music was performed by 50 musicians on a barge that floated down London's Thames River.

King George I, who listened from his royal barge, is said to have been so captivated that he ordered the musicians to play Handel's baroque suites three times.

It's still entrancing to imagine live music emanating from a floating stage on a summer evening.

The organizers of Winnipeg's first annual River Barge Festival, Aug. 25-29, think it's especially appropriate for The Forks. They're encouraging Winnipeggers to bring blankets or lawn chairs to the tiered, grassy area facing The Forks historic port and enjoy five days of free entertainment that floats.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2010 (2590 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the summer of 1717, the premiere of Handel's Water Music was performed by 50 musicians on a barge that floated down London's Thames River.

King George I, who listened from his royal barge, is said to have been so captivated that he ordered the musicians to play Handel's baroque suites three times.

Cultural Capital Project manager Dominic Lloyd, left, and Forks COO Paul Jordan.

WAYNE.GLOWACKI@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Cultural Capital Project manager Dominic Lloyd, left, and Forks COO Paul Jordan.

It's still entrancing to imagine live music emanating from a floating stage on a summer evening.

The organizers of Winnipeg's first annual River Barge Festival, Aug. 25-29, think it's especially appropriate for The Forks. They're encouraging Winnipeggers to bring blankets or lawn chairs to the tiered, grassy area facing The Forks historic port and enjoy five days of free entertainment that floats.

A gala evening on Friday, Aug. 27 will feature the full Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and homegrown fiddler Sierra Noble. The WSO program includes something for every taste, including movie music from Pirates of the Caribbean, a Beatles medley, the swing classic Sing, Sing, Sing and, fittingly, the second suite of Handel's Water Music.

"It's a spectacular setting.... The backdrop is the natural environment," says Paul Jordan, chief operating officer of The Forks.

Jordan has long wanted to recreate the beauty of a barge performance the WSO gave in September 1997. "It was a magical night," he remembers. "It's one of the greatest events we've done here in terms of engaging people with the waterfront."

About 5,000 spectators can fit into the port seating area, Jordan says. The stage will be fully lit. The clanking and rumbling of passing trains is bound to add a Forks flavour to the music.

While the WSO performs, a local company called PO-MO Inc. will create projections synched to the music on a 6 x 4.5-metre "mist screen" above the pedestrian bridge. It's the company's first time using the technology, which pumps water from the river and sprays it into a mist that acts as a screen for a high-powered projector.

"It allows you to project almost like a three-dimensional image," says PO-MO's Meghan Athavale, who was partly inspired to attempt the water-based spectacle by a mist screen created over London's Thames.

The River Barge Festival is one of the key events of Winnipeg's year as a federally recognized "cultural capital" — a designation that brought $2 million in federal funding, as well as $700,000 raised locally from government and private sources.

It could have been presented on The Forks' Scotiabank Stage, says Dominic Lloyd, Cultural Capital project manager. But the buoyant platform "seems more celebratory," he says, and reflects the spirit of imagination and innovation that helped Winnipeg earn the cultural title.

"Barge," though, is a bit of a misnomer. "Dock Festival" might be more accurate.

As recently as July, organizers had said there would be performances on the barge as it was towed along the Assiniboine, in addition to port shows. "That was the original intent," says Jordan. But the river current is too strong, he says, so a mobile show isn't possible.

"Next year, we'll maybe look at towing the barge to different sites — maybe the Alexander Docks or the Legislative Building," he says.

For now, the barge will be moored right against the harbourside. "It's a commercial-grade dock, basically," says Jordan. Measuring 12 x 9 metres, it's constructed of plastic floats made in Kenora, with the professional stage surface from the Scotiabank Stage laid on top.

Performers will access it from the back, by crossing a "gangplank" extending from the harbour light platform.

Should a mallet fly out of a percussionist's hand in mid-show, it won't exactly plunge 20,000 leagues. "With all the silt deposits, we're in about a foot of water," says Jordan.

The festival is being produced for about $300,000, including the cost of renting the barge from The Forks and paying talent and technicians. If shows have to be cancelled because of bad weather, organizers will look at rescheduling them.

The diverse lineup of about 30 acts — folk, rock, blues, jazz, Latin, children's and more — includes names such as the Romi Mayes Band, Papa Mambo and Fred Penner. Almost all are Manitoban, except Saskatchewan's Jack Semple (teaming with Winnipeg blues artist Greg Lowe) and Ontario-based acts Digging Roots and Luke Doucet.

There's a three-actor play, too, presented by Manitoba Theatre Centre: The History of Manitoba from the Beginning of Time to the Present in 45 Minutes by actor Ross McMillan.

The Wednesday and Thursday festival programs wrap up at 7 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, the music will shut down sometime between 10:30 and 11 p.m. (some Forks food outlets will likely stay open). Sunday's family program ends at 5 p.m.

Lloyd hopes every Winnipegger will catch the Barge Festival wave and feel included in celebrating the Cultural Capital title.

"Our motto for the year is Arts for All," he says. "By having five days of free, diverse entertainment, it doesn't matter if you're in Whyte Ridge or The Maples, everybody has an opportunity to take part."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

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