Technology rides shotgun when the 2021 Winnipeg New Music Festival roars back to life this weekend.

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This article was published 20/1/2021 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Technology rides shotgun when the 2021 Winnipeg New Music Festival roars back to life this weekend.

The 30-year-old festival will be powered entirely by the internet and will include three COVID-19-friendly concerts, shown exclusively via livestream on Jan. 23, 26 and 29.

But it’s also a testament to its host organization, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and its ability to think outside the box that this year’s streamlined "pandemic edition" is still moving ahead, despite worldwide lockdowns.

"The overall concept stayed remarkably close to the original, just compressed into a smaller format," says the festival’s artistic director, Daniel Raiskin, who also serves as the WSO’s music director and co-curates the festival with WSO composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis.

The weeklong event was originally designed to honour the seminal voices of the festival’s three decades, as well as current trailblazers.

"I made an artistic choice of leaving (in) the four most important pillars of the festival: Christopher Rouse, John Adams, Philip Glass and Giya Kancheli," Raiskin says of the contemporary music giants whose works had originally been programmed for the festival, which has now been revised four times as the province’s code-red status tightened its grip on public gatherings last fall.

The orchestra will perform in physically distanced chamber "bubbles," in order to maintain strict public health and safety protocols. Raiskin, who arrived back in the city from Amsterdam on Jan. 1, leads both opening- and closing-night programs, with Stafylakis "attending" each concert via Zoom from his New York City home. Along with Raiskin, he will lead live, interactive, post-show Q&A chats in the wistfully titled "WNMF Lounge."

Listeners are also invited to log on at 7 p.m. each night for pre-recorded panel discussions with featured guest artists, who will be Zooming in from points far and wide to share personal insights and background information about their works.

One silver lining this year is curious listeners from around the globe —only a mouse-click away — can check out the internationally renowned event for themselves, evoking festivals past when CBC Radio regularly broadcast its live-to-air programs worldwide. This could further raise the profile of this year’s slate of diverse artists, including Manitobans Jocelyn Morlock and Andrew Balfour.

It’s a point not lost on either Raiskin or Stafylakis.

"We are definitely reaching out to everyone’s who’s interested, and are actually able to cater to a much wider audience in this way," the maestro affirms, adding that, as expected, the festival is also harnessing the power of social media to get the message out that the WNMF is alive and thriving despite an unprecedented world crisis — a fact that will likely surprise many, when so many arts organizations have simply shuttered their doors for the entire 2020/21 season.

"It’s really fantastic that we can do this, and I’m especially happy that all this amazing work that we’ve done preparing for the 30th anniversary of the WNMF can be shared," Stafylakis says. "And if you’re in Australia, you could wake up and watch a concert the next day," he adds with a chuckle.

The WNMF launches Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (following the 7 p.m. pre-show chat) with Lineage, featuring Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code for string orchestra, exploring the "syntax of the Black spiritual" and inspired by the New York composer/violinist’s study of African-American artists of the civil rights era. Also included on the program is Rouse’s Supplica, billed as a companion piece for the late American composer’s Fourth Symphony (its title is derived from Italian for "supplication").

Montreal-based composer Samy Moussa returns, albeit virtually, with Kammerkonzert, for chamber orchestra, and the evening is rounded out with Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony, a sequel to his Chamber Symphony, commissioned by Stanford University, Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Ballet in 2007.

Speaking of Carnegie Hall, the second show highlights the Decoda Ensemble, a New York-based contemporary music collective and the first affiliate group for the legendary hall, presenting its own dedicated livestream program, featuring works by David Lang, Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh, on Jan. 26.

"Not only are these some of the most brilliant musicians in the United States, and especially in the field of contemporary music, with very creative and sophisticated playing, but their community engagement is unrivalled," Raiskin say of the group, whose members are currently scattered throughout the United States. The ensemble has taken its performances outside the concert hall, playing for everyone from prisoners and hospital patients to police officers.

Finally, the festival closes on Jan. 29 with In Disquieting Times, taking audiences on an introspective journey that’s apropos for these gripping times, with a program featuring works by Morlock, Balfour, Emilie LeBel, Kancheli and Glass. The latter American icon served as distinguished guest composer for the 2018 WNMF, which presented the world première of his WSO/Carnegie Hall-commissioned String Quartet No. 8.

Another can’t-miss highlight on that same bill is the Manitoba première of Stafylakis’s evocatively titled Ashes to Light the Sky for string orchestra, composed in 2016 for Montreal’s McGill Chamber Orchestra. The roughly 15-minute piece is described by Stafylakis as his contemplation of the "ultimate political misuse of science while "trying to imagine looking up at the stars through the haze of nuclear ash fall."

"I had been delving deeply at the time into the work of (American astrophysicists) Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a line that really struck me was about primordial men’s wonderment of looking up at the night sky while having no frame of reference for what they were seeing," the composer says of his celestially inspired work. "I began thinking about ‘science’ and the power of the imagination, as well as the political misuse of science and technology in particular, including the Manhattan experiments and development of nuclear weapons."

However, despite the piece’s darker overtones, Stafylakis — who will be beamed in from NYC via a laptop to attend his own rehearsals ("I’ll be plugged in at all times," he quips) — assures listeners the one-movement work ends on a more optimistic note.

"The piece vacillates between positive and negative elements, with the more oppressive clouds parting to allow the light to return. There’s a longing in this work that’s mediated by darker thoughts, but is not oppressed by them," he says.

"There’s a sense of hope by the end, but it’s hope with a question mark."

The 2021 Winnipeg New Music Festival kicks off Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m and runs through Friday, Jan. 29. For further information, visit: wnmf.ca.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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