Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/6/2021 (385 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This is that time of year when we fondly look back at the arts season that was, and reminisce about glorious concerts we’ve shared as we begin to look forward to next year’s offerings.
The global pandemic turned all of that on its head and it’s been an unusual season, to say the least, beginning in March 2020 after Canada plunged into its first-wave lockdown.
This column typically covers a Top 10 of most memorable shows, and in a valiant attempt to offer a facsimile of the "Before Times," I would like to offer readers a looser list of personal highlights and sidebar musings (from live performances only) during this historic season. We have witnessed a centuries-old concert-going paradigm shaken to its very core, with new hybrid models, combining live and streamed performances, likely here to stay.
● 1 & 2: It’s amazing to realize that it’s been eight months since we heard in-person applause at the Centennial Concert Hall, when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra presented Opening Night: Beethoven and Bach on Oct. 2, featuring longtime concertmaster Gwen Hoebig in Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042.
It also seems incredible that this reviewer (slightly) bemoaned the fact that "only" 40 players were allowed onstage that night with a "lean," equally reduced audience of 420 in the house — numbers that now boggle the mind.
The WSO’s de facto closer on May 8 once again showcased Hoebig, now performing with principal violist Daniel Scholz in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat, K. 364, thus bookending the WSO’s 74th season with the glorious, pandemic-proof music of J. S. Bach and Mozart. There’s something right about that.
● 3. Manitoba Chamber Orchestra was forced to pivot multiple times this year, but gamely opened its 2020/21 season with A Golden Variation on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Oct. 4, allowing a capped crowd of 50 for two performances at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Eckhardt Hall, and titled after guest artist, oboist Caitlin Broms-Jacobs’ trio arrangement of the baroque masterwork.
The show also provided the first real taste of public health and safety parameters in action, including the use of large, now-ubiquitous Plexiglas shields, with audience members sitting metres apart. However even a restrictive face mask could not stop violinist Karl Stobbe from delivering a blazing rendition of Biber’s Passacaglia for Solo Violin, nor an equally stirring interpretation of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 4 for Solo Violin, Op. 27.
● 4. Kudos to Manitoba Opera for taking its maiden voyage into cyberspace with The Sopranos of Winnipeg on Nov. 7, in lieu of the COVID-19-cancelled Manitoba première of Sweeney Todd. The program featured a powerhouse lineup of seven internationally acclaimed artists: Andriana Chuchman, Lara Ciekiewicz, Tracy Dahl, Monica Huisman, Andrea Lett, Lara Secord-Haid and Lida Szkwarek. As a bonus, their ringing high notes could be heard literally all over the world.
● 5 & 6: This year arts organizations were forced to think outside the box — and then some — and take creative risks. A unique, offbeat and downright charming Pops concert became the WSO’s Postcards from the 1900s on Feb. 6, a loving tribute to the golden age of the salon and Winnipeg’s own long-defunct Royal Alexandra Hotel.
Listeners were also treated to WSO music director Daniel Raiskin playing the viola on Johann Strauss II’s heart-on-your-sleeve Dolci Pianti (or Sweet Tears), with WSO associate conductor Julian Pellicano on the podium — a delicious blurring of time, space and even roles within the organization itself.
● 7: OK, full disclosure. I have a personal weakness for all things trumpet because it’s the instrument I played in my school band. I know exactly how good these guys are: WSO principal trumpet Chris Fensom, associate principal Paul Jeffre and Isaac Pulford sparkled during Telemann’s Concert for Three Trumpets in D Major on May 1. As the group’s first time onstage together all season, the trio blew through muffling bell covers, widely spaced, while making the highly intricate baroque work look easy (it’s not). The fact that they not only performed to an empty hall, but also to a cyberspace void — the WSO’s YouTube channel had crashed that morning (all ticket holders were sent a performance link the next day) — showed the consummate artistry and professionalism of these three players, proving the adage, "the show must go on."
● 8 & 9: Two honourable mentions go to WSO principal flutist Jan Kocman — in his 47th year with the orchestra — performing with second flute/piccolist Alex Conway in Cimarosa’s Concerto in G major for 2 Flutes & Orchestra, on March 13, as well as RBC assistant conductor/pianist Naomi Woo’s spark-flying performance of Marianne von Martinez’ Piano Concerto in A major, delivered while simultaneously leading the orchestra in Naomi Woo Conducts Haydn and Farrenc, heard Feb. 27.
Writing a classical music column during a global pandemic has truly been a character-building experience, keeping this writer on her toes when the vast majority of local arts groups simply pulled anchor on their entire seasons this year, consequently creating a vacuum of juicy story ideas. However, a couple that I’ve loved sharing with you have been about Winnipeg luthier Garth Lee’s world-class string instruments, and the WSO Baking Club story, complete with recipes. (Two of its members, club ringleader/cellist Arlene Dahl and violinist Julie Savard, even baked yours truly a gorgeous birthday cake last weekend.)
Other favourites have included an exploration of local arts executive Andrew Thomson’s lifelong passion for player pianos, and Steinbach/Winkler-raised Canadian jazz pianist Mike Janzen’s harrowing journey through a severe brain injury, which has since borne fruit with his critically acclaimed two-volume album, Psalms.
Bravo to all the musicians this year who have masked up, suited up and schlepped out to an empty shell of a concert hall in the dead of winter and played their hearts out to give us all hours of pleasure, joy, relief, and frankly, sometimes just an evening of distraction as we’ve whiled away hours and navigated these turbulent COVID-19 seas together.
Keep supporting music in whatever modality you prefer: live, livestreamed or pre-recorded, as it matters now more than ever — and consider making a donation to our local arts organizations, which will greatly appreciate the assistance.
And when live concerts return, as they inevitably will someday, cheer like you never have before, leap to your feet in a standing ovation for as long as you want, applaud as loudly as you can — even between movements — and as if the whole world is listening. To borrow an ancient Zen koan, the sounds of many hands clapping will ultimately be the sweetest, most welcome music of all.