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This article was published 6/2/2019 (551 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Now that the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival has come and gone in a blaze of glory, it’s time to reflect on its rich bounty of contemporary music that took listeners from frozen climes to headbanging metal during a wildly diverse series of nightly programs.
This year’s event — that’s 28, and counting — marked WSO maestro Daniel Raiskin’s inaugural festival. Once again, there were numerous highlights culled from a total eight concerts, offering something for everyone.
The opening concert paid rightful homage to festival co-founder Bramwell Tovey, who was at the WSO podium for the first time since 2001. The charismatic maestro, whose rapier wit was as sharp as ever, led the players through John Adams’ thundering Harmonielehre, the cornerstone of the festival’s first program back in 2001.
However, the sweet spot came as Tovey graciously asked those players who performed during the first festival to rise, with nearly a dozen musicians thus becoming the 71-year-old orchestra’s living legacy, with these respected elders holding that critically important collective memory for future generations.
Over the years, I have harped about the general lack of women composers featured during prior festivals. So what a joy it was to hear so many strong, compelling works by the likes of Vivian Fung, Nicole Lizee, Jocelyn Morlock, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Luna Pearl Woolf this year, not to mention emerging composer Amy Brandon’s sleeper hit 3 Portraits led by WSO resident conductor Julian Pellicano.
The markedly more robust presence and creative voices of these composers — and let’s just call them that, now — finally feel seamlessly interwoven within the warp and weft of the weeklong event that has been on my personal wish list for years.
Speaking of Morlock, the Winnipeg-born composer’s Lucid Dreams, performed with eloquence and deep passion by principal cellist Yuri Hooker, became an early highlight, proving the adage, "Write to express, not to impress," although Morlock’s artistry brought to life in Hooker’s compelling hands accomplished both in spades.
Two other noteworthy works showcasing WSO principal players included concertmaster Gwen Hoebig’s spellbinding solo performance of Lonely Angel (Meditation) composed by this year’s distinguished guest composer Peteris Vasks, which opened Wednesday’s program, led by Raiskin, as well as another heavy-hitter, principal timpanist Mike Kemp featured during Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof, which did just that.
Shaw’s brilliant, 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices, composed for renowned vocal octet Roomful of Teeth was another highlight, with the dazzling a cappella ensemble’s organic palette of extended vocal techniques — both guttural and sublime — transcending any constraints of mere, imperfect spoken language.
Who can ever forget the sight and sounds of prog-metal pioneers (and I’ve now since learned that it’s square to call the genre "heavy" metal) Animals as Leaders taking the stage for their symphonic debut?
While prog metal might arguably not be everyone’s cup of tea, my hat’s off to festival co-curator and WSO composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis, whose compositional feet are firmly planted in both classical and metal worlds, for powering the world première of his Weighted with that often elusive holy grail of art-making: integrity.
Animals as Leaders’ dedicated solo concert created another eye-popping sight of a hall filled with (gasp!) younger audience members mostly in their 20s and 30s; nearly the same age as the festival itself.
The festival audience has aged over the years, and the WSO would be wise to continue exploring ways to bring this younger demographic back, either for more metal or perhaps even Mozart.
Despite the musicians’ conviction and inestimable chops however, the concert featuring Collectif9 and Architek, two acclaimed Montreal chamber groups joining forces for a program of five commissioned works inspired by Kaie Kellough’s poetry mostly fell flat, with much of the 90-minute collage-type show becoming an amorphous body of sound devoid of clear markers indicating whose music we were actually hearing at the time.
One standout exception became Lizee’s charmingly kooky Folk Noir/Canadiana, including projected video images of Casey, the iconic children’s TV character from Mr. Dressup that captivated.
A final highlight was the North American première of Vasks’ Symphony No. 2, which closed the festival with a bang, while fully unleashing the orchestra’s full power and might under Raiskin’s skilful baton. Bravo to all for this memorable performance.
One of the coolest — literally — concerts was the appetizer program, Glacial Time, held Jan. 25 on the frozen Assiniboine River. A capacity crowd of 500 — with many more turned away — huddled together to hear John Luther Adams’ too-lengthy for -28 C weather Inuksuit, as well as Norwegian composer Terje Isungset’s Beauty of Winter, which he performed with the crystalline vocals of Maria Skranes.
The visceral experience of physical discomfort evoked those earliest days of the festival, in which we all sat together on hard, wooden, onstage bleachers to thrall to contemporary music, creating a bonding experience unlike no other, with the intrepid audience members swaddled like mummies, which quashed any formal social barriers often experienced at symphony concerts.
Despite a gnawing sense that we really were, well, nuts for bravely venturing out to Peter Hargraves’ custom-designed amphitheatre in sub-zero weather to listen to live music, is there anything that could possibly compare to the pure joy and abandon of seeing 500 bundled up souls flocking together and dancing under the stars to music created out of harvested river ice, that is so uniquely Winnipeg?
This is the same original spirit of wonder and passion that’s always been the beating heart of our now nearly three-decade-old festival, and helped put it on the international map.
Perhaps, as the years go by, we’ve lost a little bit of that sense of awe and surprise with the festival’s increasingly slick programming and tried-and-true format.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with that. However, for one cold, starry night in January, we were all back in those halcyon days in 1991 — or wished we had been — partying like there was no tomorrow with all our tomorrows still to come.
Updated on Wednesday, February 6, 2019 at 7:37 AM CST: Photo added.
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