Daniel Raiskin owns a conductor’s baton, not a crystal ball.
Few virus experts, let alone the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director, would hazard a guess to the future of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why the orchestra is proceeding with caution as it winds up its season tonight and unveils its offerings for a 2021-22 season.
"Unfortunately, it became a new normal when planning something you already plan, Plan B, C, D and goodness knows how far they go down," Raiskin says. "The objective is we want to bring music back live on stage with a live audience in the hall as soon as possible. If it’s not, we are able to continue on an improved path to do that with streaming.
"By now we are now very well versed in coming up with all possible emergency solutions and actually not overreacting to this."
The WSO began livestreaming concerts in the fall of 2020, when provincial pandemic restrictions led to the temporary closure of large auditoriums and arenas, such as the WSO’s home at the Centennial Concert Hall, to audiences. Since those early forays into online concerts, the orchestra received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to purchase new cameras, microphones and livestreaming equipment to improve its online presentation.
"We were building the plane while we were already flying it," Raiskin says. "We didn’t have any equipment and we didn’t have any expertise. We didn’t know how audiences would react. With every new show, every new production, we learned and adjusted and started to offer a much better product."
The orchestra will continue to offer livestream concerts regardless of whether people are allowed to sit down and listen to the WSO at the concert hall.
There have been many times when WSO subscribers were able to attend concerts but the online option would offer them a chance to enjoy the performance at home instead of missing it altogether, says Jean-François Phaneuf, the WSO’s vice-president of artistic operations and community engagement.
"Livestreaming is here to stay but it’s got its own role. It will never replace live music," he says. "If there was one positive sign, it’s that (the pandemic) accelerated the entire process... We feel that it needs to be part of what we offer to our patrons."
While Canada’s entertainment future remains unclear, the WSO has tried to roll with the pandemic punches with the 2021-2022 schedule. That means the 2021 portion of the lineup is mostly guest soloists from within the orchestra or Canadian-based artists such as pianist Stewart Goodyear (Oct. 2) and cellist Cameron Crozman (Nov. 20).
The new season kicks off June 29 with Yuri Hooker, the WSO’s principal cellist, and David Liam Roberts, his longtime student from Winnipeg who has since become one of Canada’s rising stars on the classical music scene. They will perform Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos & Orchestra with the WSO; works by Carlo Alfredo Piatti, Felix Mendelssohn and Elisabetta Brusa are also on the program.
Several of the scheduled shows are concerts that were postponed from the 2020 program, including a performance by Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman (March 12) and the evening with Shaffer, who will be joined by R&B singer and songwriter Valerie Simpson (April 22-23).
Also on the WSO’s itinerary is its tour of the Netherlands, which is scheduled to take place in May 2022. The event was originally to happen in May 2020 but the eight-concert tour, which included a Liberation Day performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, became one of countless pandemic postponements last spring.
While the 2022 events are on the schedule, the pandemic could turn those Plan A’s into something entirely different, says Phaneuf, who has become used to revising concerts on a monthly or even a weekly basis.
"All (those) projects cannot be done if there’s any kind of restrictions," Phaneuf says, mentioning the pandemic guidelines that call for people to remain at least two metres apart. "These are all projects where the Canadian population has been vaccinated and there’s no more need for the two-metre restrictions."
The two-metre restrictions are critical to the orchestra from a financial standpoint as well as a public health one. The WSO was able to host a few shows for live audiences at the concert hall early last fall, but the orchestra cannot be maintained when it can sell only a fraction of the tickets it has in the past.
Also, popular movie nights planned for March 12 and 13 featuring Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire would need more than a wave of a magician’s wand to take place if pandemic restrictions remain in place, says Julian Pellicano, the WSO’s associate conductor, who also directs its pops performances.
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"There’s no way for us to perform film scores with reduced orchestration; it just doesn’t work," Pellicano says. "I know it’s something the symphony’s musicians like doing and they’re also extraordinarily good at (it)."
All orchestras that go the livestream route, including the WSO, face hurdles they’ve never encountered before, such as licensing and copyright restrictions, as well as negotiating with guest artists for online performances.
"Things used to be very simple in the past, even in the pops series," Phaneuf says. "When you play an arrangement by John Williams, now suddenly if you livestream the same concert, you need to contact about 25 different publishers to get permission."
Alan Small Reporter
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.