The world has changed so much in the past 18 months that when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra begins its 2021-22 season tonight, fiddles will replace violins, a viola player will pluck a banjo and the conductor might even strap on an accordion.
But one major aspect will return — WSO fans in the seats at the Centennial Concert Hall.
The concert is titled Bluegrass Symphony and has four WSO musicians — Greg Hay, Chris Anstey, Mike Kemp and Meredith Johnson — at centre stage, performing songs composed on the back porches of coal-mining villages in the Appalachian Mountains in a setting usually reserved for symphonies created in the palaces of European royalty.
Saturday will also be the first time the WSO has performed before a live audience at the concert hall in almost a year. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented audiences from watching and hearing the WSO live last season, save for a couple of autumn shows that provincial health officials allowed because of a low number of positive virus cases, and an appearance at August’s Unite 150 concert at Shaw Park, where WSO musicians accompanied pop star Chantal Kreviazuk.
The musicians are excited about performing before a crowd once again instead of looking out toward empty seats, as they did during last season’s shows, which were streamed to homes of subscribers and ticketholders.
"The same way when you’re a football player and there’s a crowd in the stands that get you charged up, it’s very much that way for musicians as well," Hay says. "I think this is a really good opener because we’ll be encouraging the audience to participate, to clap and stomp their feet. This show would be a very different animal if we were playing to an empty hall."
Ticketholders must provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, such as the Manitoba vaccination card, as well as photo identification, to attend. Masks are mandatory. Children under 12 can attend as long as they are accompanied by a fully vaccinated adult.
There will also be reduced capacity in the concert hall to promote physical distancing and the 90-minute shows will have no intermission to prevent mingling between sets.
Hay, who is ordinarily a violist in the orchestra, will be playing banjo, guitar and mandolin this weekend as part of neWSOunds, a four-piece group that includes Anstey, part of the orchestra’s first violin section, on fiddle, Kemp, the WSO’s principal timpanist, on percussion and principal bassist Meredith Johnson — who began his double-bass training in the home of country music, Nashville — on bass.
Backing them up will be the orchestra, led by associate conductor Julian Pellicano.
While Hay’s banjo expertise plays second fiddle to the viola, he has spent a fair share of hours practising "rolls," the fundamentals of the three-finger banjo style popularized by Earl Scruggs, the first virtuoso of the metallic-sounding five-stringed instrument.
"I always tell people I would wake up in the morning and turn on The Price Is Right and I would keep practising these rolls until I was able to place bids on certain items and still keep the rolls going," says Hay, who grew up in Brandon and earned music degrees from Brandon University and McGill University in Montreal before joining the WSO in 2006. "I love the process of learning something new, applying everything I know about learning the viola into something completely different."
Orchestral musicians have spent their lives learning, practising and playing music — members of the symphony learned to play piano growing up as well as the instrument they earn their living with — so they will often learn another instrument quickly, says Hay, who will also play mandolin and guitar in the weekend concerts and knows how to play the violin as well.
The easiest musical transition for him is when he plays the mandolin, which he has performed with the symphony before and accompanied the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in its version of Romeo and Juliet.
"The strings on the mandolin are the same as a violin, except they’re doubled up. All the fingering, all the left-hand stuff is essentially the same, so I encourage my friends who are interested, if they’re fiddle players or violinists, it’s a good instrument to pick up as a secondary instrument.
"You just need to learn the picking, which is no small feat."
Anstey grew up in St. John’s, N.L., and began learning the violin at two and the fiddle when he was five. His grandparents, who watched Maritime fiddling legend Don Messer on television in the 1960s, encouraged him to learn Newfoundland folk tunes as well as traditional songs from Ireland and Scotland.
His violin training landed him a job with the WSO in 2005, but his time learning the fiddle helped him become a four-time finalist at the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championships in Ottawa.
Switching styles has become second nature to him, but never the twain shall meet. The posh-sounding violin is frowned upon in the folk music world he grew up in, and there’s certainly no room for winging it in an orchestra.
"I do try to keep both styles separate. I don’t want any my fiddling bowing style to make it into my classical playing and there are some aspects of classical music that don’t fit into fiddling," Anstey says. "When you’re playing classical music you’re usually trying to replicate exactly what’s on the page, with all the various instructions you get for dynamics and articulations... In fiddle music you’re encouraged to decorate and improvise a little bit."
The group began performing live in 2015 as the WSO Band with Pellicano on percussion, performing pop-up street shows or in Winnipeg Square’s food court to help promote the orchestra. Kemp eventually took over for Pellicano and the band got a new name — neWSOunds — and an opportunity in the spotlight for the WSO’s holiday concert last December.
"It was the first time for a lot of our patrons to see them play and perform," Pellicano said when the show was announced during the WSO’s season unveiling in the spring. "It was a very popular part of our holiday show. They sounded great and it was a lot of fun, so that’s how we got to playing the Bluegrass Symphony concert.
"These are special individuals who want to branch out."
My WSO TV
Live concerts by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra are back but the orchestra will continue to provide a streaming option for its performances.
The WSO turned to streaming its concerts last fall when provincial health officials called a halt to live events as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A new program announced earlier this week called My WSO TV provides options for audiences to watch a single show for $10 each, $15 per month or $99 to subscribe to the entire season’s performances. Each concert will remain available for viewing for 30 days.
The orchestra will email links to the shows, which will be broadcast on the video-platform site Vimeo.
The weekend shows won’t be a total hoedown, however. The neWSOunds band will also perform tango music by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla and provide folksy interpretations of classical works by 20th-century American composer Aaron Copland.
The accordion is a key instrument in tango music, so don’t be surprised to see Pellicano play the instrument he first learned in his teens growing up on Long Island in New York.
"My parents being from Italy, it’s pretty common to have somebody in the family who plays the accordion," Pellicano said. "When I was about 14, my grandfather had played the accordion but had to stop because of his arthritis. He had an old accordion lying around and he gave it to me.
"At 14 years old I started practising a lot, without any reservations... I was probably the only 14-year-old accordion player within a 50-mile radius of my house."
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.