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This article was published 30/9/2017 (266 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alexander Mickelthwate’s farewell tour has begun in earnest.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director addressed a crowd of about 400 people from Winnipeg’s business community on Friday afternoon, delivering a keynote speech at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon titled Leading Teams to Harmony.
Leadership is a subject the maestro knows about, having been at the helm of the WSO since 2006. It’s fitting he should give such a reflective talk now; Mickelthwate’s 12th and final season with the WSO — which is in its 70th season — began two weeks ago, with a sold-out concert featuring Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Pearlman. Next season, he will be leading the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.
"I’m actually quite nervous," Mickelthwate, 47, said as he took the stage. "It’s really naked with no orchestra."
He channelled those nerves into an energetic and informal chat about the qualities that make for an effective leader. Good leaders, for example, are like scouts: they’re prepared. He shared a mortifying story about how, upon graduation from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, he landed a gig as the assistant of opera conductor/composer Anton Coppola (yes, of those Coppolas; Anton is the 100-year-old uncle of movie director Francis Ford Coppola). Suffice to say, he didn’t adequately prep Coppola for a performance of Carmen, and was fired the next day.
In many ways, it was his time with the WSO that made him a leader. When he arrived in Winnipeg from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he served as assistant conductor, he was just 35 years old, relatively young for such a senior role. He didn’t have a leadership style, and it took time to find a middle ground between dictatorship and democracy.
"You want to incorporate everyone’s opinion," he told me after the keynote. "It went from that to, ‘No, this is my artistic decision.’"
Being able to communicate (or, in some cases, defend) his artistic decisions and vision to the orchestra — and, for that matter, to the public — is also something he feels he got better at over his time with the WSO. "There were several risks where I was standing in front of the orchestra, and I knew it was hard for them to accept the choices I was making," he says. So, he involved them in the process and, if they didn’t see something, he helped them see it.
During his tenure, he’s led the orchestra to great places, such as the hallowed halls of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2014. He co-curated the New Music Festival, a contemporary music festival that takes place every January, placing Winnipeg in the avant-garde. And he’s been instrumental in helping the WSO — an organization that was "really in shambles" when he inherited it — put bums in seats; single-ticket sales have risen 63 per cent, season subscriptions 42 per cent since he came to town.
"My vision was always to find my international niche, to have kick-ass performances on stage and connect, connect, connect," he says. "Over the years, that’s what I did."
And that’s what he plans to continue to do, while he’s still here. Mickelthwate isn’t thinking in terms of a legacy just yet. Like an orchestra in performance, he’s living in the moment.
"I don’t know when I start looking back," he says. "Maybe in 10 years, I can say ‘Oh my God, I did amazing things.’ Maybe next year. It’s still too close. I think I did create things, but it’s still too close. There’s tons of stuff I’ll miss. It’s unprecedented what we’re able to do. It’s unheard of to take two weeks out of the season and do contemporary music. But also for the size of our orchestra that we do little things like Bruckner’s symphony every other year. Some orchestras don’t even touch it. I’m really lucky and so grateful."
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.