Which of these titles makes you more inclined to head out on a freezing night to hear new orchestral music: Symphony No. 7 or Arctic Symphony?

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This article was published 3/2/2010 (4535 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Which of these titles makes you more inclined to head out on a freezing night to hear new orchestral music: Symphony No. 7 or Arctic Symphony?

The second one gives you a nudge, doesn't it? It engages your imagination and lets you make a connection to something you know.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s seven-concert New Music Festival runs Saturday through Feb. 12. All concerts are at the Centennial Concert Hall except  Songs of the Earth, Feb. 7 at Westminster United Church. Every show has a pre-concert discussion.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s seven-concert New Music Festival runs Saturday through Feb. 12. All concerts are at the Centennial Concert Hall except Songs of the Earth, Feb. 7 at Westminster United Church. Every show has a pre-concert discussion.

How about this: If a composer has written a work called Four Paintings By Leestemaker, would you be more interested in attending if the paintings were projected during the piece?

They will be. In fact, Luc Leestemaker, a multi-disciplinary Dutch artist based in Los Angeles, will also be onstage at the 2010 New Music Festival to read some of his poetry, giving listeners another element to connect with Vincent Ho's music.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's festival of contemporary music might once have been a week of cutting-edge concerts without much of a hand extended to guide or acclimatize newcomers.

But the 19th annual festival, running Saturday to Feb. 12 under the title Breaking New Ground, offers a wealth of compositions that get an instant accessibility boost from their inspirations: Arctic landscapes, paintings, indigenous cultures and four key figures of the 20th century (John Lennon, Charlie Christian, Rosa Luxemburg and Dmitri Shostakovich), to name only a few. Many of the concerts -- all but one to be held at the Centennial Concert Hall -- include multimedia enhancements.

At Saturday's Arctic-themed opening gala, Canadian composer Derek Charke is expected to sit in the orchestra triggering "ecological acoustic" sound files -- such as crunching ice and wind -- from his laptop computer.

The gala, titled Arctic Postcards, unites art and science. With more than 300 top international climate-change scientists in the audience (they're attending a local conference), the concert will include a 20-minute climate-change presentation by University of Manitoba scientist David Barber.

The gala includes the world premiere of Ho's Arctic Symphony, inspired by two weeks the composer spent in 2008 aboard a research vessel. Photographs taken on the voyage will accompany the performance.

Ho, the WSO composer-in-residence who co-curates the festival with music director Alexander Mickelthwate, says he has learned in the three years he's been involved that giving each of the seven concerts a clear, stand-alone theme helps sell tickets. For instance, there's a choral night (Feb. 7) and a wind-instrument night (Feb. 9).

Paintings by Dutch artist Luc Leestemaker will be projected during the Vincent Ho work they inspired.

Paintings by Dutch artist Luc Leestemaker will be projected during the Vincent Ho work they inspired.

On Feb. 10, the show called Metamusik is inspired by rock 'n' roll. It includes a world première called Bending Hendrix by Mike Janzen, marking the 40th anniversary of guitar god Jimi Hendrix's death, and The Guess Who Symphony by Canadian Tim Brady, which mixes hits such as American Woman and These Eyes with classics of 20th-century music such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Another Brady work, Amplify, Multiply, Remix and Redefine, is a world première on the closing night. Penned in homage to Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar, it will feature 24 plugged-in guitarists with the WSO.

Brady is one of four distinguished guest composers attending the festival. The others are Pulitzer Prize-winning American Steven Stucky, New Zealander John Psathas and Charke.

Renowned British composer Sir John Tavener is unable to attend because of poor health, but a taped interview with Tavener will precede the world première of his cello concerto Popule Meus at Saturday's gala.

High-profile guest performers include Taiwanese pianist Jenny Lin, Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and Eighth Blackbird, a Chicago-based contemporary-music sextet that won the 2008 Grammy Award for best chamber music performance.

The 34-year-old Ho isn't shy about blowing the festival's horn.

"We have a strong history of being one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- new music festivals in the world," he says.

"We bring in the largest audiences. We have premiered the most works. We are always at the vanguard of what's happening in the new music world... It's a festival that many world-class artists want to be part of."

The price of a festival pass has taken a hefty $30 jump this year, from $69 to $99 (a senior's pass has leapt from $59 to $89). Ho says pass-holders are getting more for their money, including a Pre-Festival Happening on Friday night at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a much-expanded printed program that includes essays commissioned from guest composers.

"We wanted to elevate our program to give it more intellectual substance," he says.

In general, Ho says of the price increase, "We have nothing but world-class presentations each and every evening. We feel it's worth it."

Ho won't disclose the festival's budget, but says when he came on board in 2008, the audience was shrinking and sponsorship was drying up. "The budget... was embarrassingly tiny," he recalls.

Under his and Mickelthwate's leadership, he says, better programming has attracted more sponsors and higher-profile artists. "Now the funding is in a lot better shape," he says. "We've re-established our reputation. We've reinvigorated the whole festival. "

Paid attendance grew from about 5,600 in 2007 to 6,300 the following year. Last year's paid audience was about 6,000.

What will next year's 20th annual festival bring?

Ho says the world-famous Kronos Quartet, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie will be on hand for the anniversary.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

 

What's new?

Friday, Feb. 5, there's a Pre-Festival Happening at the Winnipeg Art Gallery with performers includ­ing GroundSwell and Experimental Improv Ensemble, plus the unveiling of Wallballs, a new electronic instrument designed at the University of Manitoba.

The festival is presenting five world­première compositions, three of them at Saturday's Arctic-themed opening gala: a cello concerto by John Tavener, Falling From Cloudless Skies by Derek Charke, and Arctic Symphony by the WSO's own Vincent Ho.

A likely festival highlight will be the performance of Grammy-winning Eighth Blackbird on Feb. 11. The acclaimed sextet's performance will include Steve Reich's 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning work Double Sextet and Stephen Hartke's 2008 Pulitzer-finalist work Meanwhile.

Single tickets are $18 (students $10) but prices are higher for the opening and closing concerts, Feb. 6 and 12.

A festival pass is $99 (seniors $89, students $49) at Ticketmaster or the WSO box office, 949-3999. For more information, pick up a program or visit www.newmusicfestival.ca

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