By Holly Harris
WINNIPEG – Being invited to perform at Spring for Music (S4M), the annual showcase of North American orchestras at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall, is a noteworthy feather in the cap for any musical organization.
But being this year’s sole Canadian orchestra – as well as the third Canadian ensemble to appear at S4M, which concludes this week after four festivals – also attests to the programming strength of symphony orchestras north of the 49th parallel.
Conceived originally as a four-year “experiment,” S4M features six concerts May 5 through 10. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) appears on May 8, when it will perform a quintessentially Canadian contemporary program featuring living composers. The triple-bill of all New York premieres conducted by WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate is infused with Canada’s indigenous cultures and celebrates the legacy of its revered senior composer, R. Murray Schafer, who turns 81 in July.
“It’s a huge milestone,” said WSO executive director Trudy Schroeder, who joined the organization in 2008. “It’s also a recognition of the special work going on here in Winnipeg, and [of] our ongoing commitment to new music.”
The mid-sized Manitoba city of 750,000, located just over 200 miles north of Fargo, North Dakota, boasts a particularly strong arts scene. Designated “2010 Cultural Capital of Canada,” its major arts organizations include the Royal Winnipeg Ballet – North America’s oldest continuously operating ballet company – Manitoba Opera, and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, which all rely heavily on WSO players.
The WSO was invited to apply to S4M nearly three years ago. It received the official nod in January 2012 that it had earned one of six coveted spots from a field of 33 competing North American orchestras, chosen in particular for its unique, risk-taking program. Only two other Canadian orchestras, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (2011) and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (2012), have appeared on its stage.
As a point of fact, this is not the first time the WSO has performed at the iconic venue. Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi, now entering his 40th year with the American institution, recalls working backstage in 1979 – the last time the orchestra performed there, under Piero Gamba’s baton – including meeting then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who attended the star-studded benefit concert featuring Jorge Bolet, Byron Janis, Yehudi Menuhin, and Jean-Pierre Rampal, among others. That particular concert, he said, was also notable for producing the first digital recording made at Carnegie Hall.
“The Spring for Music series has been really wonderful because it allows people to perform music that normally doesn’t get heard,” said Francesconi. “And as Isaac Stern used to say, it’s a high water mark when you’re performing at Carnegie Hall.”
It will also signify that the 66-year old symphony has come of age. For the past 23 years, its internationally renowned New Music Festival (NMF), held each January, has boasted an impressive roster of distinguished guest composers, including John Corigliano, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and Kaija Saariaho, as well as Schafer, featured each year.
Mickelthwate, now in his seventh season on the WSO podium (and who marks his own Carnegie Hall conducting debut this week), said there is a direct relationship between the NMF and being chosen for S4M.
“One hundred per cent,” said the German-born maestro, and former associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “When I first arrived here, I always felt our programs were like the ‘tree that falls in the forest and no one hears it.’ I knew that the WSO does all this amazing work, but not everyone knows it. Performing at S4M will let us show what we are doing here, both in terms of our high level of playing as well as our city’s unprecedented creativity.”
Carol A. Phillips, executive director of the Winnipeg Arts Council, further attests to the significance of the event being held in arguably the world’s greatest hotbed of arts and culture. “I think that New York will find out what we in Winnipeg already know – that our artists are among the best anywhere,” she said.
Mickelthwate notes that Schafer’s evocative Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (2011) – his first and only symphony composed in a more classical idiom – likely seized the attention of the S4M committee. “He’s the one composer everyone knows outside of Canada,” he said. “This very evocative work is like taking sound waves almost out of the ether, floating off other symphonies, and putting them back together. It’s more an episodic fantasy where you get the sense or feel of a symphony.”
The program also features Derek Charke’s Thirteen Inuit Throat Song Games, featuring acclaimed Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and WSO composer-in-residence Vincent Ho’s The Shaman: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, which showcases Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Ho describes the mesmerizing musician as a modern-day shaman. Glennie gave the world premiere of the dazzling three-movement work during the WSO’s 2011 New Music Festival.
“She has the uncanny ability to draw the audience into a magical world and take us on wondrous journeys that are beyond material existence,” the composer said. “Every performance she delivers leaves the audience spellbound and spiritually nourished.”
Mickelthwate also enthuses about Charke’s imaginative piece, which unfolds as a synergistic melting pot of classical and indigenous influences. Composed originally for the Kronos Quartet, it received its WSO premiere in 2010. During its 13 sections *with titles such as “Sound of Water” and “Story of a Goose”), Tagaq’s amplified, pure guttural utterances provide counterpoint to the string players’ raspy, growling textures, which emulate the otherworldly sounds of the age-old Inuit vocal games called katajjak.
“Nobody else has done this before,” Mickelthwate said. “It’s almost like ethnic minimalism but in a very ancient form.”
The WSO’s appearance at S4M heralds an unprecedented wellspring of community support – the lifeblood of any arts organization – with over 800 Manitobans making the trek to the Big Apple to cheer on their hometown orchestra. The WSO successfully completed an “Adopt-a-Musician” fundraising campaign (modeled after the Edmonton Symphony), with all 74 of its musicians, composers (all attending), guest artists, and conductor “adopted out” to cover their costs to attend S4M. The venture raised $250,000 to ensure a viable, fiscally sound tour, with its total budget of approximately $560,000.
Schroeder also sings praises for the S4M organizers, whose committee provides the venue and performance fee of $65,000 (US) for each participating orchestra.
“I want to give them a lot of credit, including (artistic director/CEO) Thomas Morris, (festival director) David Foster, and (public relations director) Mary Lou Falcone, because what they have created is a huge opportunity for orchestras,” Schroeder said.
“Performing at Carnegie Hall is not only an affirmation of where we are now, but also a strong indicator of an orchestra that is on the rise, not on the fall. We’re having a lot of fun with this and the community is also having fun. It’s really quite beautiful.”
Holly Harris is a classical music/opera/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.