Hitting The High Notes
70 years after its inception, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra continues to be the heart and soul of the city’s arts community.
Music is embedded in Winnipeg’s DNA. Our prairie town has always marched to a different drum, and we have plenty to show for it: the birthplace of musicians like Neil Young and Burton Cummings, Winnipeg also boasts world famous festivals, a lively music scene, some of the oldest and most esteemed arts institutions in the country.
Among these institutions: the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Celebrating its 70th season, the symphony is integral to the city’s cultural life, delighting more than 100,000 audience members each year with almost 300 concerts.
The WSO first opened its curtain in December 1948 to an audience of 3,000, and within six seasons had become one of the top four orchestras in Canada. It regularly tours throughout the country and has participated in hundreds of radio broadcasts, released numerous recordings, launched and nurtured an internationally renowned New Music Festival, and played twice at Carnegie Hall. The WSO also provides the music for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Manitoba Opera Association.
“Not many orchestras are able to switch so seamlessly between the classics, pop, Broadway, and playing with young local indie bands such as Royal Canoe, not to mention the amount of new music they play during the New Music Festival,” says music director Alexander Mickelthwate. “It’s astonishing really.”
With a nucleus of 67 musicians, the organization has attracted professionals from around the world who have established significant careers here and a have made Winnipeg their home (currently, a husband, wife, and daughter all play in the string section).
Cellist Arlene Dahl, who has been with the symphony for almost four decades, continues to feel the anticipation and excitement of a live performance. One of her most memorable nights, they played for one thousand recent immigrants to the province. Music transcended language and spoke to the power of the human family, creating a transformational moment not only for the audience, but for the musicians as well.
Equally moving was the 2014 performance at Carnegie Hall. The WSO was chosen from more than 30 orchestras across the continent, and wowed the audience with their all-Canadian program. “What enhanced our experience was not just playing in that hallowed hall or playing with Dame Evelyn Glennie or playing R. Murray Schafer’s Symphony No. 1,” Dahl says. “When we walked out and saw almost 1000 Manitobans waving their patriotic red scarves and sharing our victory, that brought the tears.”
The transformative power of music reaches beyond the Concert Hall and into the community. As part of its outreach programs, Musicians in Healthcare offers performances at various care facilities in Winnipeg, uplifting patients, visitors and staff. The WSO also presents educational programs for more than 40,000 students annually, including Sistema, a daily, intensive after-school music program in Winnipeg’s inner city that is offered at no cost to the students. The impact is substantial, including improved classroom attendance and grades, greater parent involvement in the schools, and a growing self esteem in the students.
The orchestra is among Canada’s most innovative. Now in its 25th year, the New Music Festival explores new and rarely heard works by composers from around the world. The Festival was founded by music director Bramwell Tovey and the WSO’s first composer in residence, Glenn Buhr. The festival continues to flourish and draw international attention under the leadership of Alexander Mickelthwate.
Mickelthwate has been the force driving the symphony for the past twelve seasons, a fearless promoter of the value of music in people’s lives. Under his direction, the WSO has bridged education and entertainment, gaining a reputation for being both accessible and compelling. The Symphony’s 70th anniversary season coincides with the final year of Alexander Mickelthwate as music director.
“We try to be part of the fabric of the community in every kind of positive way,” says Tracy Schroeder, the WSO’s Executive Director. “I watch our audience members come in frazzled and then leave glowing from the experience. One patron said to me, ‘just being here tonight, I was so glad to be alive!’ The WSO is not just relevant but indispensable,” she says. “It’s why we do it.”
For a whole host of Winnipeggers — kids taking in their first symphony experience during the Kids Concert Series, local music fans watching their favourite bands partner with an orchestra, new music enthusiasts encountering boundary-pushing works, and season ticket holders delighting in new interpretations of the classics — Schroeder’s words ring true. This world class outfit with local pride is music to our ears.