Moving program pays homage to COVID loss

WSO, guests deliver evening of hope, reflection and tears

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“I’m still here.”

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“I’m still here.”

That sentiment, uttered during one of the video montages for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Manitoba Remembers: A COVID Elegy, became the unofficial theme of the tremendously moving, even cathartic, evening paying homage to those who have suffered because of the global pandemic.

The once-in-a-lifetime (God willing) program — led by WSO music director Daniel Raiskin, who lost his own mother-in-law recently to COVID-19 — featured a showcase of Manitoba talent. It is certain that many in the culturally diverse, multi-generational audience of 1,176 were hearing the WSO for their first time; kudos to the orchestra and its faithful donors for providing complimentary tickets to what felt like a “community” of those impacted by COVID.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Members of the Maples Collegiate Choir and singer-songwriter Don Amero, left, along with members of the WSO led by conductor Daniel Raiskin, rehearse for Manitoba Remembers: A COVID Elegy.

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Throughout the years, the WSO has hatched various “concept” or themed evenings, usually presented as ambitious Pops concerts. Many of those have felt, frankly, awkward, contrived or just plain unbaked.

This time, the arts organization (mostly) nailed it, with a multimedia program that included a series of videos of personal stories of resilience, insightful interviews (not least of all with Free Press editor, Paul Samyn), archival shots and stunning images of our fair province flowing as seamlessly as tears — happy or sad — down an unmasked cheek.

A personal touch was the WSO’s special video tribute to its late stage manager, colleague and friend Stuart Bremner, who died last April.

After welcoming remarks by executive director Angela Birdsell and maestro Raiskin, the program launched with the WSO’s own 2020 “pandemic project,” its music video of Ruth Moody’s One Voice, highlighting members of the orchestra joined by guest artists, several of whom appeared onstage throughout the 90-minute (no intermission) evening.

The orchestra then immediately set a hushed tone with James MacMillan’s searing Larghetto for Orchestra, led with utmost sensitivity by the maestro. Inspired by the Bible’s Psalm 51, it resulted in audible sniffles from the physically distanced, masked audience.

If heaven sent a choir of angels to the Centennial Concert Hall Thursday night, surely world-renowned Winnipeg soprano Tracy Dahl would take her rightful place amongst their ranks. The incomparable artist performed Mozart’s Laudate Dominum with limpid sincerity and crystal-clear tone, joined by the Winnipeg Singers (Yuri Klaz, director).

Could Amazing Grace ever sound sweeter — or more consoling — than when thrice-Juno-nominated Manitoba singer-songwriter/storyteller Don Amero performs it? The country crooner, who sings straight from his heart, consistently draws listeners in with his buttery-smooth vocals and his ability to connect with audiences on a visceral level. Another treat was his Going Home (Isabel’s Song), a potent tune about farewells never shared with loved ones suddenly taken from us.

The Maples Collegiate Chamber Choir (Dorothy Dick and Philip Lapatha, co-directors), which underpinned Amero’s song of grace, also brought its youthful energy to the stage with an a cappella arrangement of Hope Lingers On, the members clapping and stomping their feet while giving voice to those who have had two carefree years ripped away.

Two more vocalists (and how we’ve missed hearing live singers since March 2020, when they were deemed higher risk because of potentially virus-carrying aerosols) included Franco-Manitoban singer Kelly Bado, who treated the crowd to Nouveau Depart/New Beginnings, and Jillian Horton, who proved to be the sleeper of the night with her soulful interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; the gifted Winnipeg singer/pianist moonlights as a physician and author when not belting out numbers.

The evening’s still point was pianist and 2020 Winnipeg Music Festival Aikins Memorial Trophy winner Fan-En Chiang’s expressive performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G major, bringing luminosity to its second movement.

The WSO saved the best for last, with one of concertmaster Gwen Hoebig’s signature works, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, casting a spell and instantly drawing listeners into her ethereal sound world.

This would have been enough, leaving listeners in the lap of the divine as the violinist’s final melodic flourishes slipped away into the ether.

However, the WSO’s choice — and the evening’s only flaw — was a jolting reprise of One Voice, with all artists now returning to the stage. While it often boils down to a matter of taste, ending this remarkable evening, which often felt like a a prayerful memorial service, on a more optimistic note only dispelled its reflective moments with slick, showbiz, sis-boom-bah energy, cheapening the deeply poignant performances heard throughout the evening.

Gilding the lily is never a good idea for any program, and especially for this raw, honest, and otherwise artfully conceived and respectful tribute. This writer only wished we had been left lingering in our own private worlds of contemplation for much, much longer, exceedingly grateful that we are “still here,” when so many are not.

Manitoba Remembers is available free to stream on demand here: wfp.to/covidelegy

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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