When the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 24th annual New Music Festival this weekend, it also trumpets the local debut of the world-class Arditti Quartet.

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When the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 24th annual New Music Festival this weekend, it also trumpets the local debut of the world-class Arditti Quartet.

It's a major coup for the WSO, which has already lured high-calibre artists including the Hilliard Ensemble, composers Steve Reich, John Corigliano and Arvo P§rt to Winnipeg's frozen climes during past festivals.

"It's a really big deal to have them here," WSO music director and festival co-curator Alexander Mickelthwate, now in his eighth year on the podium, says. "They're doing all the virtuosic, hardcore contemporary music written by German composers of the post-Second World War school. They are the best of the best."

Founded in 1974 by then-teenage British violinist Irvine Arditti -- hailed as "a prophet among musicians" by British composer Harrison Birtwhistle -- the Arditti Quartet is widely regarded as one of the world's top avant-garde ensembles. Equally known for their formidable artistry and penchant for a fiendishly difficult repertoire that includes 190-plus recordings, the award-winning quartet circles the globe with bow-bending programs that would make lesser musicians swoon.

"Why new music?" the 62-year-old Arditti says, reached at his London home. "It was very strange. I just liked it. Sometimes I say my mother must have dropped me on my head when I was a baby. While everyone else was into the Beatles and Rolling Stones, I was into (20th-century composers) Stockhausen and Ligeti and Xenakis. It was music that I didn't know and it fascinated me."

Along with the London-born Arditti -- the quartet's sole original member and namesake -- the group includes Armenian violinist Ashot Sarkissjan; Brazilian violist Ralf Ehlers; and German cellist Lucas Fels. They'll treat New Music Festival audiences to two eclectic programs this weekend.

First up is the festival opener, the aptly titled Arditti Meets the WSO, on Saturday at 8 p.m. It features the Canadian première of Wolfgang Rihm's Dithyrambe (2000) for string quartet and orchestra. The German composer once described the string players in his hedonistic, fast and furious 20-minute work as "a creature with four heads and four mouths."

"It's like a volcanic explosion," promises Mickelthwate, who will lead the fest's larger-scaled concerts. "It has this total raw energy and is a tour de force that will be quite difficult to pull off."

Next up is Dissonant Fictions -- an all-Arditti concert that showcases four contemporary string masterworks by John Zorn, Georg Friedrich Haas and Andrew Norman on Sunday. Also on the bill is American composer James Tenney, whose music will be celebrated on Wednesday with Tuning the Void.

Tenney, who died in 2006, was once billed as the "world's most famous unknown composer" and cut a wide swath of influence including NMF co-curator Matthew Patton, who dedicated his 470 Million Years of Quiet, which will be heard that night, to his former teacher/mentor.

Winnipeggers love a good choral concert and Luminous Cries features Camerata Nova and Prairie Voices on Monday. One highlight will be the world première of artistic director Andrew Balfour's provocatively titled Take the Indian, inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's investigation that exposed Canada's stained legacy of government-sanctioned residential boarding schools.

"It speaks of the darkness of our so-called nation-building and the debris it has created," the composer, who is of Cree descent, says of his work in a program note. "The First Nations of this land have been deeply wounded. It's time to sing, to talk, to heal."

A program highlighting music by female composers is also offered this year. Crossing Ground, slated for Tuesday, features pieces by two of this country's trailblazers, Violet Archer and Ann Southam, in addition to the world première of Winnipeg composer Orjan Sandred's Lament for Humanity.

For those who prefer their new music la multimedia, A Frenzy of Sound on Thursday includes BBC-commissioned film collaboration by the Quay Brothers with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, In Absentia.

"Stockhausen is perhaps the most influential force in Germany," Mickelthwate says of the towering composer and a personal hero who died in 2007. "He's like a philosopher that changed the direction of music. He truly was larger than life."

Finally, Back to the Beginning brings the jam-packed week full circle on Saturday, Feb. 6, with John Luther Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning symphonic ode to the sea, Become Ocean. Also performed that night will be Giya Kancheli's "apocalyptic" Dixi, sung by the Canadian Mennonite University Chorus with the WSO.

Also marking his first time at the New Music Festival is Alex Ross, the highly regarded music critic for The New Yorker magazine. The author of award-winning book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century will serve as a festival panellist.

Over the past 24 years, the festival has morphed from a (mostly) contemporary music-based festival into an all-encompassing feast for the senses. Once again, pre-show talks, interactive Q&A sessions with composers, modernistic furniture displays, art exhibitions, after-parties, and this year, even food for those hungry for more than just a cultural experience.

Gritty satellite series Pop Nuit is back with two ear-bending shows. The first of those, slated for Thursday, features The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a "chamber punk" quasi-opera based on the 1926 German fairy tale. The second being held on the final night, Saturday, Feb. 7, presents Rob Menard's 20 Guitar Circular Wall of Angelic Sound, where the audience will be encircled by 20 musicians responding to a steady stream of lighting and video cues.

"We go where other festivals have not gone before and draw connections between the many flavours of music today," Mickelthwate says proudly. "This year's New Music Festival is a real reflection of our world today in the 21st century."

New Music Festival passes, which range in price from $128 ($114 for seniors and $72 for students), or single tickets ($26.50 plus fees, $11.50 plus fees for students) can be purchased through the WSO box office at 204-949-3999, www.wso.ca, or Ticketmaster. For more information, visit http://wnmf.ca/

holly.harris@shaw.ca