We did it!

Alexander’s take on the Carnegie gig

The WSO on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (Photo by Keith Levit Photography.)

Dear reader,

We did it! The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra travelled to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring for Music Festival next to the New York Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Pittsburgh Orchestra.

Yes, we were the only Canadian orchestra. And not only that, we were the first Canadian orchestra ever that performed three works of living Canadian composers in New York.

We did it. The Winnipeg Symphony performed on the world stage to critical success, witnessed by roughly 900 Manitobans and 1000 New Yorkers.

To move an entire orchestra requires work. Lots of work. And in our case the process started over 2 1/2 years ago with a conversation between Trudy Schroeder, the executive director of the orchestra and myself.

We knew that in the history of this organization there was one event people were still talking about: the 1979 trip to Carnegie Hall. Could we repeat it? How?

We knew about a fast approaching deadline to the last ever Spring for Music Festival in the Big Apple. A festival that would invite six North American orchestras in a one-week period, based on their unique programming, connection to their own community, level of playing and community support.

We aced it. We won that part of the selection process by over 1,000 votes ahead of the runner-up. Soon we received a letter in the mail that we were picked out of 34 other North American orchestras.

But now we had to raise the money, organize the trip, the hotel, the transport of the instruments, the events around the trip, the government support … for over 70 musicians. It’s easy to have an idea. Now the whole administration went into gear to get us there.

And getting us there they did. With bravura.

New York, as you know is big, energetic, full of people, high-rises, 24/7. To me the city is like an abundant stream of life and ideas.

In the two days before the concert I spent time at FAO Schwartz (with my kids), at the Whitney Biennale to look at some very contemporary art, and I went to two other concerts at Carnegie Hall.

The WSO on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (Photo by Keith Levit Photography.)
The WSO on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (Photo by Keith Levit Photography.)

What a beautiful place. Historic. In the hallways you can admire photo after photo of famous musicians that performed there. The conducting batons of Toscanini and Bernstein, original handwritings of Mahler and Strauss.

The New York Philharmonic had opened the festival the night before. After Tuesday’s concert of the Seattle Symphony I ran into agents, PR directors and friends backstage. And it hit me, we actually had made it, from Manitoba to Manhattan, to the centre of the classical music world.

The day of the concert was packed. A breakfast meeting in the morning, after which I took some time to work on the music again. Then lunch and off to Carnegie for our afternoon rehearsal.

A concert hall is a living entity for me. It’s the musical instrument of an orchestra that either enhances all the details of music-making and creates a wonderful sense of unity and inspiration amongst the musicians, or not. Carnegie Hall does this to the fullest extent.

In our 2 1/2 hours’ rehearsal we had to quickly learn to play the hall to its best abilities. The listening was different, so was my conducting. What do the musicians need of me? The space was bright and much bigger than in Winnipeg.

As it turns out it was exactly as I had explained it before with my analogy of an expensive classic Lamborghini.

You just have to tip the gas pedal and it flies of.

The music making in the concert was absolutely effortless and magical. My gestures only had to tip a little and the orchestra responded. The Winnipeg Symphony more than rose to the occasion. We were in absolute unity in that beautiful historic space with the best acoustics and performed, full of pride, Canadian music on the world stage.

Now that we are all back, what stays? Of course many wonderful memories.

Most importantly for me that experienced the fact that we are right up there with the other orchestras. Winnipeg is remote but world class.

And second, that we created an amazing sense of community. Nine hundred Manitobans that supported your orchestra and are passionate about classical music.

If you would like a taste, come to the Concert Hall. The new season is starting in September.


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