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It's a Winnipeg thing

U.S. critic raves as WSO takes Manhattan, but city trade delegation discovers it's tough to be heard above NYC's din

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/5/2014 (1201 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

NEW YORK -- The first critic to review the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's star turn at Carnegie Hall called it the most innovative concert program she'd ever heard.

"In a world where music and art are increasingly accessible, these distinctive experiences stick out," wrote Elizabeth Bloom a few hours after the last, tipsy stragglers trickled out of the huge post-concert after-party Thursday night. "Spring For Music is meant to celebrate the individual character of orchestras. This one showed its sense of purpose and its profound relevance to its community."

Fans wave a traditional red flags at the concert.


Fans wave a traditional red flags at the concert.

That's warm and genuine praise for the WSO's much-anticipated concert, a wild and delightful ride that mixed modern, almost cinematic composition, Inuit throat singing and a mesmerizing mess of percussion instruments.

Trouble is, the praise came from Pittsburgh, not New York.

A coveted review of the show in the New York Times is still expected, and there was chatter in the Carnegie Hall lobby that the New Yorker even sent a writer to the show.

But, the first praise for the particularly Winnipeg-y spirit of the WSO's program came from a city much like our own, from the classical music reviewer from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a city that also sent an orchestra to play Carnegie Hall this week.

It's hard to capture New York's attention, even when nearly 1,000 Winnipeg musicians, music lovers, civic leaders and economic development experts descend on the city.

As one Winnipeg expat said, New Yorkers only really care about New York. Most of what they know about Winnipeg involves either the Jets or that time we were colder than Mars. Chat to anyone in an elevator or in line at the coffee cart, and you'll find yourself saying thing like "No, it's pretty far from Montreal," or "It's like the Minneapolis of Canada, but smaller."

This, despite the mini-renaissance underway in Winnipeg, and the hipster cachet that has recently attached itself to us, largely thanks to the quiet efforts of the city's arts and culture makers.

This is the same problem, writ much larger, which Manitoba's mini-trade delegation had in trying to drum up business for the province, using the WSO's Carnegie Hall performance as an excuse to fan out across the city to promote Winnipeg's trade opportunities.

Former premier Gary Doer, now Canada's ambassador to the United States, even used his moments on stage at Carnegie Hall to tout the province, its new human rights museum, its history of tolerance and equality and the community spirit that helped rescue the WSO during some financial turmoil a decade ago.

That community spirit came together to help raise thousands of dollars to send the WSO's 70-plus musicians to New York. And it was on display at the show itself, which was dominated by a hometown crowd. Of all the Spring For Music festival concerts by visiting orchestras, Winnipeg's drew the most local ticket sales, but Thursday's crowd was still a largely Winnipeg audience, made larger by their exuberance. The crowd gave the musicians a standing ovation before they'd even played a note, and waved commemorative red hankies in the air as they applauded in a way that Manitoba Film and Music's Louise O'Brien-Moran remarked later wasn't gauche or provincial, but endearing and fun.

Some musicians, like principal cellist Yuri Hooker, said they found that über-Winnipeg vibe calming as they walked out on stage. Violinist Susan McCallum even called the moment "moving."

That this was really about Winnipeggers was also clear at the huge, friendly after-party Thursday night at the Russian Tea Room, the first time all four floors of the legendary venue was shut down for one event. Hundreds of people, everyone from the musicians' proud parents to the city's wealthy elite, sipped champagne, took selfies with Doer, Selinger and WSO conductor Alexander Mickelthwate and offered congratulations to the players. When the lights came on at about midnight, the crowd booed.

Before the party though, folks from the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, CentrePort, YES! Winnipeg and the province spent the week breaking bread with a dozen consultants who help big companies choose new expansion locations. They delivered speeches to trade groups and met with bond raters and business journalists. They stressed Manitoba's cheap hydro, competitive tax structure, skilled workforce and commitment to major trade infrastructure.

Sometimes, though, there were more Winnipeggers than New Yorkers to shmooze.

At a cocktail party for the travel industry just before the WSO's concert, Tourism Manitoba unveiled its new television commercials, quite effective ones that tout our arts and culture, the polar bears and belugas in the wild Arctic and the soon-to-be-open Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

"We've built enough assets here in Manitoba that you can stay for a few days and not get bored," Premier Greg Selinger told the crowd, which was about one-quarter tour operators. "We're not New York, but we're a close second," he joked.

But, have New Yorkers looking for a holiday ever really heard of Manitoba?

"No, if you want the honest truth," said Darren Perkell, whose Apex Arctic Expeditions sends more than 60 adventure travellers, photographers and wilderness buffs to Churchill to see the polar bears and swim with the whales every year. "They've heard the name Winnipeg because of hockey, obviously."

Perkell says the polar bears, which Winnipeggers take largely for granted, are Manitoba's real draw, representing huge tourism potential the province should be promoting relentlessly. But, Norway often eats Canada's lunch when it comes to promoting the Arctic as an exotic, untouched adventure destination. Many Americans on the East Coast go overseas instead of the closer and equally eye-popping Canadian North.

Eric Dahl, the chief executive officer of the World Trade Centers Association, had also not really heard of Winnipeg until the city made a pitch to become one of the 330-odd cities that make up the World Trade network. Dahl met with Selinger and economic development experts to officially welcome the city into the fold Friday morning, saying he was impressed by how fast Winnipeg was able to win accreditation and how energetic its key business boosters are.

"You have a lot going for you, if you build on your advantages," said Dahl.


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Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 10:00 AM CDT: Fixed typos, added link to NY Times review.

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