The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra reported in its 2015-2016 Annual Report an accumulated surplus of more than half a million dollars. Financially, things were not always so rosy. At some point in its now almost seventy-year-old existence, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra had a staggering deficit of three million dollars. Along the way, there had been accomplishments, but also labour issues, poor concert attendance, and instead of getting a raise, musicians in this professional large-market Prairie orchestra took a fifteen per cent hit in their salaries.
One could argue about the extent to which an orchestra’s health is dependent on the larger economic reality, the waxing and waning of government support for the arts, the changing tastes of audiences, marketing, and sometimes fateful decisions by individuals in leadership positions. Yet, at least some of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s financial and artistic success over the last ten years can be attributed to its current music director, Alexander Micklethwate. Hired in 2006, he brought with him an enormous dose of enthusiasm and openness to fresh ideas and sounds.
A case in point is the Winnipeg New Music Festival, which was established in 1992 by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s former artistic director Bramwell Tovey with award-winning composer Glenn Buhr and the late Max Tapper, the orchestra’s then outgoing executive director. As co-curator of the WSO’s New Music Festival, considered to be the largest of its kind in Canada, Micklethwate passionately embraces this celebrated one-week boundary-pushing, often genre-bridging musical event during the depth of winter, which showcases contemporary composers’ works. I spoke with him not long ago and asked him about his vision and role in making innovative new works, including those of Canadian composers, emotionally and intellectually accessible to an audience.
Krystyna Henke: What control do you have over programming, over deciding what music is going to be chosen for the performance season?
Alexander Micklethwate: Well, I mean, there are two parts. We have our regular season with 12 masterworks and classical concerts. And then we have the Winnipeg New Music Festival since 26 years. In both I’m the artistic director, so I’m giving the big direction. We have a programming committee of musicians and members of the administration, the vice president of artistic planning. That’s the one group. And for the Winnipeg New Music Festival we have a curator. This year we have Matthew Patton, and Harry Stafylakis is the newly hired composer-in-residence, and me, being the artistic director over the whole thing. I’m looking always for big pillars, big projects, like an overall direction. And then we kind of go into the nitty-gritty and fill it out.
With the New Music Festival, it’s a very interesting process for me now, because when I started 10 years ago - it was always an international festival in a way, it was very creative - but in those 10 years, several new doors, let’s say, of New Music, were opened to me. There is the classical tradition that one almost can trace back from Beethoven to our composers nowadays and then there are the outliers, the people - composers, artists – that come from, that didn’t study classical music, that come from funk, drone, from choral singing, or whatever, and independently in a way create their art. Since roughly four, five years, the Festival became this really interesting coming together and synergy of those different traditions: the traditional way and the really out there, non-traditional way.
KH: Are you at all concerned with the definition of what is New Music?
AM: So, five years ago we had an Icelandic focus and this was basically this one big door that was opened to me by our now curator, Matthew Patton. We flew to Iceland, to Reykjavik. I visited recording studios and talked with artists and composers. And the idea there was that they’re just making music. They’re not classically, or whatever, pop-oriented. They’re just… everybody seemed to be more doing whatever they want to do.
Valgeir Sigurdsson is a record producer for Bjork’s records. He worked for Bjork, but then he’s composing his own music and we did a world premiere of his work a while ago. So, suddenly the genres blurred. Generally, there’s a whole new scene of composers that, as I understand, it’s just music, and which is a big break from the traditional way. Me, being from Germany… especially in Germany, it seems like after the Second World War, there was a bigger and bigger divide between what audiences liked and what composers produced. In more technical terms, in Germany it wasn’t allowed to write a major or minor chord. It was all conceptual or all serial or all highly intellectual.
And there is a big counter current going on in different parts of the world that is completely opposed to this and you are actually creating music that is, I wouldn’t say popular, but it uses… everything is allowed again. Although, there are other directions that I wouldn’t really call New Music in our sense – symphonic New Music or classical New Music – because it is more commercial maybe, and has a different reason or a different tradition. So, that part I’m not so interested in. But the canvas opened up amazingly in the last ten, twenty years.
KH: Is the music becoming more accessible to lay audiences now?
AM: Absolutely, one hundred per cent. But the interesting thing is, and I’m trying to figure this out myself actually, worldwide, how things develop, like in Russia, in Eastern Europe. Since the seventies there is this whole Eastern transcendentalist movement, but not a movement, I think they were individuals, like Arvo Part, Concelli, Gorecki, that were outsiders and were not part of that, let’s say, Parisian and German way of thinking about music. And they wrote extremely post-romantic, post-modern works that are so… audiences rave about. I mean, they’re very touching and beautiful.
Everywhere it started in different ways, but for me personally it started five years ago when we had this Icelandic festival. And since then I’m opening up to everything. Like this coming New Music Festival, we have a 12–hour drone night, a drone being something that is held for longer periods of time. It can be drumming, it can be singing, it can be everything, it can be extremely cerebral and with little fluctuations. In a way, it’s extreme minimalism, so we will have that. But then we have also a Turkish composer, Fazil Say, who writes post-romantic modern, with a real exotic Middle Eastern influence. I love the piece. It’s very… it’s like Mahler. It comes from Mahler. In a way, it continues. I mean… the audience will love it.
KH: In the New Music Festival you have symphonic works and you have smaller works, as well, right?
AM: Yes. There will be one evening in the basement of our Bay department store, which is empty and huge and there will be chamber groups, from string quartets to solo piano…
KH: Is that normally where the New Music Festival is held?
AM: No, it’s the first time. So, I’m basically part of the producers. I’m producing and finding the spaces and helping to create the overall visual feel.
KH: Tell me more about what the philosophy behind that is. I mean, is that done to draw a particular audience or to tell an audience how to feel or how to think about a piece?
AM: Well, first of all, it’s actually about creating really awesome events that are completely emotionally charged, where it’s not what one would consider for a symphony orchestra. There’s a disconnect between what happens on the stage and the people that go, the audience. It’s more like what in the popular culture people would recognize as like a Cirque du Soleil event where it’s, oh my god, you’re stunned. You’re part of it, in a way. So, that kind of feeling we’re striving for in the concert hall, but then trying to find alternative venues.
Last February, at the last Festival, we went to our big Pan Am pool, a big Olympic sized pool, and performed a work called The Sinking of the Titanic. It was not the full orchestra, maybe twenty musicians. They were situated on the diving boards and then there was a chorus in the rafters, in the stands, and we had the light out and it was all blue and it was filled with fog. It was an absolute surrounding… an all-encompassing experience.
KH: And, so there was water in the pool.
AM: Water in the pool. We had synchronized swimmers in the pool. It was magical.
KH: What was the sound like? I think of swimming pools as very echoey.
AM: Well, first of all, it was quite a production, because we turned the fans off. It was quiet. And then the echoey part suddenly became part of the performance. It was actually stunning.
KH: Was this written into the piece?
AM: Well, in a way. I mean, in a way, yes. The music was written for a concert stage, but the music lends itself… Basically it’s the song, that famous tune that the quartet played on the Titanic when they sank, Nearer My God to Thee, and then the composer imagines how it would sound if the music would continue playing under water, going deeper and deeper. So, it kind of gets like slower and more distorted, slowly. So, you’re right, yes, the space completely played with that and used that.
KH: And could you describe what will happen this year in the Bay department store? Where will the musicians sit and where are you in relation to the audience?
AM: It will not be the full orchestra. It will be a huge circle, a fairly big circle. In the middle a piano and on one side a sort of screen. So, one part of that performance will be in that circle and the audience will be surrounding it. But then the whole point is that it’s such a deep space – it goes really far into the corners – so we will set up most likely two different locations in the different opposing corners of that space that will be then mysteriously lit. And you suddenly have sound come from those corners and the audience stays, though. And it becomes this really surreal, otherworldly experience. That’s the plan.
by Krystyna Henke
photo credit Grajewski Fotograph