The 2023 Winnipeg New Music Festival promised us tales of the ancestors with its opening concert of the same title presented on Saturday night. But that didn’t tell us that an explosive conflagration of genre-changing cultural forces could deliver an emotional punch capable of carrying us into the future and beyond.
The annual celebration of contemporary music, which runs through Friday, February 3, presented its first of five evening concerts, “Tales of ancestors,” featuring five different works led by WSO Music Director and WNMF Artistic Director Daniel Raiskin.
Classical music review
Winnipeg New Music Festival 2023
Tales of ancestors
Saturday, January 28
Centennial Concert Hall
★★★★ 1/2 of five
The two-hour (including intermission) program marked the local debut of Toronto troupe Red Sky Performance with artistic director/choreographer Sandra Laronde “Adizokan suite.” An eye-popping and ear-shattering collaboration between her and Brandon, MB-born composer Elliott Britten of Métis heritage, no stranger to the WNMF stage, explores Indigenous connections to ancestral origins.
Baker Lake, NU-based and notably Winnipeg-born throat boxer Nelson Taguna, performed live, as he did during the world premiere of the seven-part piece with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in October 2017. The charismatic artist quickly established himself as a musical con artist as the undisputed star of the night; able to magically fuse traditional Inuit throat singing with funky beatboxing rhythms, leaving many WSO players gaping.
Britton’s live orchestral score, infused with pre-recorded songs by guest Anishinaabe artists and processed electronic sound effects, further accentuated Tagoona’s intuitive utterances. Kudos to Raiskin for expertly directing all the forces through the 22-minute cut from the original 47-minute work. Striking visual images projected on the screen at the top of the stage, including dancers seemingly ablaze with colorful lighting effects, often feel like a dreamscape as they create this all-sensory, immersive experience for the enthralled audience.
It is also incredibly moving to see local dancers: Theodore Bison, Kante Bison, Ian Akiwenzi and John Hupfield in full traditional dress, including sacred eagle feathers representing their own ancestors, performing alongside a fundamentally white musical ensemble originating in Europe. Laronde’s fearless artistic vision makes a compelling case for the power of “art” to respond to and become part of these wholly critical, ongoing dialogues and calls for truth and reconciliation that are never more necessary than today. As expected, the performers received a standing ovation with thunderous applause from the clearly excited audience.
The evening opened with this year’s guest composer, Kalevi AhoFanfare from Winnipeg,” the lively world premiere commissioned by Raiskin to herald the WSO’s ongoing 75th anniversary celebrations. Bursting with musical ideas, the celebrated Finnish composer (present) makes effective use of the unique instrumental timbre of each movement, although (probably) more rehearsal time would have given this piece more weight as a festival opener.
The bill also featured the world premiere of WSO Composer-in-Residence and WNMF co-curator with Raiskin, Charalabos (Harry) StafilakisPiano Concerto No. 1: Mythos,” spiced with his own Greek heritage and performed with aplomb by guest American pianist Jenny Lynn.
There’s a time-honored adage to “write what you know,” and the New York-based composer’s deeply personal work resonates with fleeting folk influences, including excerpts from Lynn’s piano that evoke a traditional balalaika. More of these idiomatic references as the lifeblood of the piece would have been welcome. However, Stafilakis, a classically trained pianist by trade, also draws on the raw energy of his musical roots as a self-described “metalhead,” his opening concerto often propelled by propulsive, rhythmic energy, his bold, muscular virtuosity rendered clear and light from its thinner moments.
The WNMF also rightfully paid tribute to its late co-founder and former WSO Music Director Bramwell Tovey, with the esteemed conductor/composer “Sky Chase.” A poignant slideshow of archival images from Tovey’s 12-year tenure with the WSO, projected across the top of the stage, became the fine touch of the evening, as the musicians played their heart and soul for their larger-than-life, much-missed maestro. who gave so much to the Canadian symphonic world and had much more to say before his untimely death last July.
The evening ended with “ by the American composer Missy MazzoliSymphony (for Orbital Spheres),” an introspective, textured work that swirls and pulsates, billed as “music in the shape of a solar system” and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The WNMF runs until Friday 3 February, with more information available here.
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