Young symphony

New music has the symphony splashing

As if being the only symphony orchestra with an annual contemporary festival in North America isn’t different enough, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) is adding performance formats that have never been seen here before to its New Music Festival.

“This year, we tried to figure out how we could make it interesting, fun and different,” WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate says. For the festival’s 25th anniversary, they wanted to make sure it was spectacular.

Mickelthwate says the festival will bring to Winnipeg North America’s most important percussions group, So Percussion; Golden Globe nominated composer David Lang; and one of the most important female composers, Joan Towers. 

“She’s a real living legend,” Mickelthwate says of Towers.

Combined, the events taking place from Jan. 23 to 29 form a festival that people wouldn’t be able to find in other cities, including London and New York, Mickelthwate says.

“It’s something that all Winnipeggers should know about. It’s a total treasure,” Mickelthwate says.

He says it’s particularly of interest to students because it’s something different.

“Every university student is a totally interesting person looking for new things, discovering new things. This is exactly that,” Mickelthwate says. “For me, it’s always the most exciting thing in the year. It’s this big international gathering of creativity.” 

This year, the New Music Festival will take over the Pan Am Pool on Jan. 28 for a performance of Gavin Bryars’ Sinking of the Titanic.

“It’s very magical, atmospheric and beautiful,” Mickelthwate says.

Five groups will play their instruments on the diving boards while two school groups sing in the rafters and two synchronized swimmers do a routine in the water.

“The idea is to create this all-surrounding experience,” Mickelthwate says. “We are all basically on the stage. There is no difference between stage and auditorium.”

He says this is a once in a lifetime experience for Winnipeggers.

“It won’t happen again. Ever. I think,” Mickelthwate says.

Travis Harrison, a WSO bass player, won’t be performing at that show, but says he will be in the audience and will perform in most of the other shows.

This is the third year Harrison has been with the WSO, so it’s not his first go-around with the New Music Festival.

He says most of the music has not been performed before. The pieces that have, may have a recording, but are not as recognizable to the musicians as a Mozart symphony.

During the week of the festival, they perform about the same number of concerts they usually would in a month and a half of regular WSO programming, Harrison says.

“You can imagine the excitement going around is pretty extreme,” Harrison says.

And that isn’t just with performers.

Harrison says at most shows there is a “sea of grey hair,” but at the New Music Festival, he sees a younger audience drawn in.

“It’s one of the most accessible concerts that we do,” Harrison says.

If you have any questions for Harrison, you’ll be able to chat with him after shows over a glass of wine.

Mickelthwate says there’s usually a barricade between the audience and performers at symphony events, but the WSO works to make festival events more interactive.

“It’s something that doesn’t happen at that level anywhere else,” Mickelthwate says.

Published in Volume 70, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 14, 2016)

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