WSO New Music Festival brings Iceland to Winnipeg

WSO conductor Alexander Mickelthwate is excited about exposing Winnipeg audiences to the music of Iceland. Keith Levit
Composer-in-residence Vincent Ho is excited about exposing Winnipeg audiences to the music of Iceland. Hans Arnold

Alexander Mickelthwate has a lot to do these days.

“Right now, it’s always the busiest time of the year—I have 12 big scores to study,” says the conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, who is currently preparing for the 21st annual New Music Festival.

That’s a lot of paper to look through.

“I have this humongous sucker from (Kaija) Saariaho, a Finnish composer, and we have to kind of build an extension for my music stand,” Mickelthwate adds with a laugh.

This year’s festival, which takes place Saturday, Jan. 28 until Friday, Feb. 3, has been dubbed The Nordic Edition. Over the course of seven concerts in three venues, the WSO will present new works by some of Iceland’s most celebrated composers.

The festival will feature works by Nordic composers like Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson, Daniel Bjarnason, Atli Heimir Sveinsson and Jóhan Jóhansson.

Mickelthwate says local composer Matthew Patton, the festival’s artistic associate, turned him on to the music coming out of Iceland.

Mickelthwate was fascinated by what he heard, and since Manitoba has an Icelandic community, he thought it only made sense that this year’s festival should showcase the island country’s music.

“We had several listening sessions where it became apparent that this is absolutely stunning stuff,” Mickelthwate says.

Vincent Ho, the WSO’s composer-in-residence, agrees.

“In Iceland, everybody knows everybody—the music community is a very tight-knit community and there is really no barrier that divides musical styles,” Ho says. “You’ll have classical composers working together with pop musicians, working together with film musicians—all sorts of styles. So there’s this fusion of all these styles of music that’s being made there collectively.”

The festival will include a performance of Credo by Sigur Rós’ Sveinsson, which Ho says is a good example of what he’s talking about.

“We have this musician who’s part of the multi-million dollar, major rock band, and he’s also writing contemporary classical music that incorporates a lot of the things he knows of the pop/rock world, but presented in a classical contemporary context,” Ho says. “That’s just one example of the thing that represents what the whole Icelandic New Music theme is all about.”

Ho says that in addition to the world premiere of his new cello concerto, City Suites (see article below), two of the things he’s most looking forward to at the festival are having Kaija Saariaho present, as well as internationally acclaimed dance group La La La Human Steps.

“Kaija Saariaho is one of the biggest major composers that’s out there today,” Ho says. “She’s renowned all over the world, so to have someone of that calibre, of that stature, here in Winnipeg is a major deal.”

“And La La La Human Steps, to have a dance component, especially considering the calibre and recognition of this kind of group, is a big deal for the New Music Festival and for Winnipeg as well,” he adds.

So while the two have a lot of work to do over the next few weeks, both Mickelthwate and Ho are excited to present Winnipeggers with a variety of unique musical experiences at this year’s festival.

“A lot of heart really went into this festival to make it something really special,” Ho concludes.

Festival passes for the 2012 WSO New Music Festival: The Nordic Edition are available at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and all Ticketmaster outlets for $99 for adults, or $59 for students. Individual tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for students. Visit for more information.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Kjartan Sveinsson, pianist for Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, will make an appearance at the New Music Festival. This is incorrect. We regret the error.

Published in Volume 66, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 18, 2012)

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