The first winter in Winnipeg is usually an eye-opener for the city’s newcomers. That includes Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Raiskin.
The Russian conductor has experienced his share of cold winter days growing up in Saint Petersburg, but it’s Winnipeg’s grin-and-bear-it attitude that has caught his attention more than the bone-chilling temperatures.
"I am having the time of my life working with the WSO and even with the cold winter time in January, it actually added some positive vibes," Raiskin says during a telephone interview from the Czech Republic, one of his stops during a late February conducting tour in Europe.
"My wife and daughter were with me, and we were skating on frozen rivers and having some fun. I’m meeting new people and every time I’m home in Winnipeg and connecting as much as I can with people who care for music and art."
“I am having the time of my life working with the WSO and even with the cold winter time in January, it actually added some positive vibes." -Daniel Raiskin
Raiskin and the WSO kept a busy schedule during the first half of the orchestra’s 2018-19 season. The season began with a flourish — Raiskin’s debut as music director with Grammy Award-winning pianist Emanuel Ax — and has hardly eased up.
"With every program so far with the WSO, starting with the season opening with Emanuel Ax, and the Mahler first symphony and the programs with The Rite of Spring and the Aboriginal School of Dance, and Messiah with the magnificent CMU choir, and the program dedicated to the memories of the First and Second World Wars, all of these were really important moments of growing together and understanding each other," says Raiskin, who returns to the WSO podium on March 15 and 16 with performances of Verdi’s Requiem.
"I think things have gone very well. I’m still somehow digesting this incredible experience of the recent past of the New Music Festival, which was my first."
During the launch of the Winnipeg New Music Festival, Raiskin joined in with hundreds of lovers of the symphony and of winter when the festival took to the frozen waters of the Assiniboine River for a winter concert that won’t be soon forgotten.
Temperatures dropped to -25 C, but that didn’t stop a packed house at a new amphitheatre-shaped warming hut to listen to the night’s headliner, Norwegian composer Terje Isungset, who played with instruments made from ice.
Isungset crunched thick cylinders of river ice into crushed ice, mimicking the sounds of boots on marching on snow, and he created a variety of sounds with a giant ice horn, while the crowd danced along to keep the blood flowing.
"I think just underlines the kind of unique and special character of Winnipeg and Winnipeggers when it comes to what they care for. So many came and stayed until the end — 500 people," Raiskin says. "It was incredibly heartwarming. It was really like descending on a deserted planet. The oxygen masks were missing but the rest was there."
The show’s success has created a dilemma: how does the WSO and the new music festival follow up such a spectacle?
"So many people are asking me now, ‘So what are we going to do with this open air next year?’ It’s not easy to re-invent yourselves every year, and doing something unique."
“So many people are asking me now, ‘So what are we going to do with this open air next year?’" -Daniel Raiskin
Later in the 28th annual festival, Raiskin conducted the WSO and the Washington, D.C., group Animals as Leaders for a rare combination of orchestra and heavy metal.
"It’s not for me to judge, but from what I hear in terms of reactions, both audience and musicians, it was definitely something that didn’t go unnoticed," Raiskin says. "That was a lifetime experience for me. It’s a festival with such incredible history and heritage already, so being part of it was great."
• March 1-2: Pianist Janina Fialkowska and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, with conductor Gemma New
• March 5: Rising Stars, with tenor Anton Sokalski, soprano Kira Fondse and cellist Juliana Moroz
• March 8-9: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in concert
• March 15-16: Verdi’s Requiem, with the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir and the CMU Festival Chorus
• March 22-24: Guys and Dolls, with Rainbow Stage and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Recreational Division
• March 29-30: Holst’s The Planets with imagery from NASA’s observatories
Tickets at wso.ca or at 204-949-3999.
Despite the warm welcomes, not everything is rosy for Raiskin and the WSO. The conductor remains concerned about the state of the Centennial Concert Hall’s orchestra shell, which has been inoperable for four years.
The WSO has requested $2.6 million in funds from the provincial government — the province owns the concert hall — to repair it and talks on the project are underway.
Without the orchestra shell, audiences fail to hear the WSO at its best, he says.
"This is something that has been bothering me from the very beginning," Raiskin says. "The only time I experienced this orchestra with a concert shell in function was on my very first visit in February 2015. Shortly after that it collapsed. It’s now more than four years it’s in such condition.
"This definitely added some unnecessary troubles to us. I really emphasize the necessity of this issue being tackled and I hope it’s going to be looked at, because it is just unsustainable the way it is."
Arts and Life Editor
Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.