Winnipeg Festival Takes ‘New Music’ To New Territory

The Winnipeg Symphony and music director Alexander Mickelthwate are focusing on Boulez and Zappa during the festival.  (Keith Levit Photography)
The Winnipeg Symphony and music director Alexander Mickelthwate are focusing on Boulez and Zappa Jan. 25-31.
(Keith Levit Photography)
By Holly Harris

WINNIPEG – For the past 23 years, like a mid-winter rite, contemporary music fans have braved sub-arctic temperatures to attend the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s internationally renowned New Music Festival (NMF). The week-long fête offers seven nightly programs Jan. 25-31, with this year’s eclectic festival titled Beyond.

Alexander Mickelthwate is in his seventh season in Winnipeg.
Alexander Mickelthwate is in his seventh season in Winnipeg.

“This year we go beyond our regular conceived version of what is contemporary music and break out into new genres,” says WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate, now in his seventh season with the orchestra, and former associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “In Beyond, we are delving into new spiritual, emotional, psychological, and historical depths of music.”

This mid-sized Manitoba city of 750,000, located just over 200 miles north of Fargo, N.D., boasts a particularly strong arts scene.

Designated “2010 Cultural Capital of Canada,” its major arts organizations include Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet – North America’s oldest continuously operating ballet company – the Manitoba Opera, and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, which all rely heavily on WSO players.

“Winnipeg has the most amazingly supportive, funny, quirky community, and is such a hotbed of artistic production,” says WSO executive director Trudy Schroeder, who joined the organization in 2008. “For whatever reason, it’s a generating point for incredible artists. When people think of the cultural heart of Canada, Winnipeg always comes to mind.”

Pierre Boulez and Frank ZappaThis year’s festival explores the relationship between French composer Pierre Boulez, whose music is deeply rooted in European tradition, and American maverick Frank Zappa, who broke down creative walls with his genre-defying music. Other featured composers include Glenn Branca, Mychael Danna, Eyvind Kang and Venetian Snares – with the diverse week promising many “aha” moments, according to Matthew Patton, the Winnipeg-based composer who is NMF artistic associate and co-curator with Mickelthwate.

“These are important artists who have changed how art and music is perceived,” Patton explains. “They have contributed greatly to what is a very important paradigm shift in the culture as a whole.  Not only has music changed, but every bit as importantly the audience itself has changed.”

Co-founded in 1992 by former music director Bramwell Tovey (now with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) and former composer-in-residence Glenn Buhr, the NMF has evolved into one of the Winnipeg Symphony’s most highly anticipated events. Both its opening and closing nights are embedded within its regular Masterworks series, drawing more classically inclined listeners who might not otherwise dip their toes into 21st-century waters. Its impressive roster of guest composers from past years includes John Corigliano, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho, and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer. In addition to pre-show chats, panel discussions, and open rehearsals, it also features lively post-show receptions where music fans rub shoulders with world-renowned artists.

Hilliard-Jarmusch-KlineThe NMF’s opening night allows music lovers to bid farewell to the world-renowned Hilliard Ensemble, which retires after 40 years this December. The four-member male vocal group performs Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s searing Litany for vocal soloists, mixed choir and orchestra on the program that also includes Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado and Boulez’s Le Soleil des eaux (The Sun of the Waters). The next night, the acclaimed quartet also premieres Tesla in New York, a fantastical opera by New York City-based writer-director Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline, based on the life of inventor Nikola Tesla.

Forgotten Winnipeg, on Jan. 28, showcases music by composers making international inroads who once called the Prairie city home. One of Winnipeg’s most notable expatriates is film composer Mychael Danna, widely hailed as a pioneer in combining non-Western sound sources with orchestra in film. He garnered a 2012 Academy Award for his original score for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Danna’s The Ice Storm Suite for Gamelan and Orchestra, derived from his score for Lee’s 1997 film The Ice Storm, features Cree composer-musician Anthony Niiganii on Native American flute.

“It’s a piece I’m very proud of,” Danna says during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “It’s one of Ang’s finest films and I think the score is pretty special and unique. I’m thrilled it’s being performed in my hometown.”

Forgotten Winnipeg also includes works by Eyvind Kang, raised in Winnipeg and Regina, Saskatchewan. An eclectic musical artist, Kang plays violin, tuba, and erhu (among other instruments), and draws on classical, jazz, punk, and folk influences in his music. As well, the program features one of the city’s hometown secrets, electronic sound artist Venetian Snares (a.k.a. Aaron Funk), known for his manic clusters of samples, drum beats, and synthesized sound.

Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson
Valgeir Sigurðsson

Unholy Noise, on Jan. 29, features the world premiere of Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Eighteen Hundred and Seventy Five, which commemorates the 125th anniversary of Manitoba’s yearly Icelandic Festival. The NMF has forged strong ties with Iceland’s composers over the years. Mickelthwate traveled to Reykjavík in May 2011 to meet its composers, and become acquainted with what he calls their “calm, meditative, and ambient” artistic ethos.

“For these amazing Icelandic composers, music is music,” says Mickelthwate, who is German-born. “They don’t have that same sense of history based on a traditional European canon. When we played Kjartan Sveinsson’s absolutely beautiful harmonic piece Credo last year, many in the audience were crying. Suddenly there was a real connection between music and the soul.”

The Jan. 29 bill also includes the Canadian premiere of Glenn Branca’s Free Form and the North American premiere of his Symphony No. 11 composed for three sub-orchestral groups that integrate and penetrate each other’s sonic worlds.

The NMF regularly features an evening of music for winds, brass, and percussion. This year’s installment, Ritual Mass, on Jan. 27, showcases an antiphonal mass by Canadian-born maverick Henry Brant and works by Zappa.

Venetian Snares, aka Aaron Funk, is a headliner for Pop Nuit (Wiki Commons)
Venetian Snares, aka Aaron Funk, is a headliner for Pop Nuit. (Wiki)

The final night is typically the largest-scale show of the week, often including massed choirs, multimedia artists, and ballet dancers. This year’s program is titled Richter and Silvestrov: Beyond, (Jan. 31) and includes two Canadian premieres: British composer Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed, featuring WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s deeply moving Requiem for Larissa, composed in tribute to his late wife.

The WSO also launched its gritty new satellite series, Pop Nuit, last year to appeal to a younger demographic and keep the new music buzz going in a variety of additional venues. The late-night acts this year are headlined by acclaimed Michigan-born circular-breathing saxophonist Colin Stetson and the über-hip Venetian Snares. The pair of loud ‘n’ proud shows round out with Winnipeg electronic band Mahogany Frog and Vancouver violinist Hannah Epperson, known for her evocative sound loops.

Already having set the pace and forged new ground during its last 23 years, the NMF is gearing up for its milestone 25th anniversary in 2016. “Music today in the 21st century is becoming less about the establishment and more about a one-world, crossover way of thinking,” says Mickelthwate, whose current contract extends to the 2015-16 season. “New artists are suddenly coming in from the outside who are really creative because they have been considered outside the mainstream. I want to find those voices and continue exploring.”

Holly Harris is an opera/classical music/dance critic and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. She also writes for Symphony, Opera Canada, Opera Today, Dance International, The Dance Current, and The Canadian Encyclopedia.