New music, Ho!

The 2010 Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival is set to kick off this Saturday. In anticipation, the Manitoban’s John Herbert Cunningham spoke with WSO composer-in-residence, Vincent Ho, about his impact on the NMF and what festival-goers can expect.

The Manitoban: It was only in 2008 that you were appointed composer-in-residence with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, becoming responsible for the New Music Festival. What do you feel has been your impact to date on the Festival?

Vincent Ho: If I were to pinpoint the one impact I’ve had, it would have to be the re-invigoration of the Festival with the limited resources we had. Before I came on board, ticket sales for NMF in previous years were gradually falling and audience attendance was hitting an all-time low. Through creative programming and some risk-taking, Alexander Mickelthwaite and I were able to revamp the event into a professional product that offers a bit of everything for everyone. Our approach was to make each evening a singular event that could stand on its own, not just another concert that was part of a weeklong Festival. As a result, the first Festival I curated in 2008 sold twice as many tickets than the previous year.

M.: Last year, the Festival opened with an incredible performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. What can the audience look forward to this year that will rival this?

V.H.: That’s a tough one. I would have to say Valentin Silvestrov’s Metamusik for piano and orchestra. It’s a 45-minute epic work, and features Jenny Lin as our soloist (a fast-rising pianist from New York). It is considered one of Silvestrov’s greatest pieces, and one that few orchestras are able to program due to its sheer size and scope. Unlike the propulsive drive of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, Metamusik is far more reflective and delves into the untouched realms of the human heart. It’s one that leaves you speechless when you hear it, whereas Messiaen’s piece left the audience jumping out of their seats cheering.

M.: One of the highlights of last year’s Festival, at least from the audience’s perspective, was a glitz-and-glitter revamped taiko group from Vancouver, ScrapArtsMusic. This year’s offerings include a composition based on the music of Jimi Hendrix. What can the audience expect here?

V.H.: This is a work by Winnipegger Mike Janzen (who divides his time between Toronto and Winnipeg) and is titled Bending Hendrix. I initially had the idea of commissioning three composers to do a set of variations on a theme by Hendrix to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death. However, that idea didn’t work out due to financial limitations. So when we had to pick one composer for the job, Mike was our guy. For this piece, you can expect a solid work that not only delivers Hendrix’s style and spirit, but also brings together the worlds of rock and roll and classical music. The orchestra will be heard in a unique context that is fresh and exciting. The soloist Greg Lowe will no doubt bring the house down with his guitar performance.

M.: What else would you like to tell us about this year’s Festival?

V.H.: Too much to tell. We simply have so much more to offer than ever before. Four hundred of the world’s top climate change scientists will be attending the opening gala concert to celebrate the International Polar Year (this is part of our partnership with the Circumpolar Flaw Lead Systems Study). There will be 11 premieres, including my Arctic Symphony, Canadian throat-singing superstar Tanya Tagaq will be featured in two of our concerts [ . . . ] we have the premiere of Tim Brady’s Amplify, Multiply, Remix and Redefine for orchestra and 20 electric guitarists [ . . . ] There is simply too much to list.

M.: What’s next in the life of Vincent Ho?

V.H.: I will immediately be organizing 2011’s New Music Festival, which will be the 20th anniversary of the event. In fact, I am already at work on the programming. Since it’s going to be a milestone celebration for the WSO and the entire Canadian new music scene, our goal is to make it the mother of all New Music Festivals in the world. I don’t want to give out any details yet, but we already have a few world-class performers and artists lined up for that week.
As far of compositional projects, my next big work is a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie, which will be presented by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra for their 2010-11 and 2011-12 season. I will also be composing a new solo piano work for pianist Jenny Lin for her 2012 tour.

The WSO New Music Festival runs from Feb. 6 to Feb. 12 at various venues. Festival schedule can be obtained at