Alexander Mickelthwate celebrates his 10th year at the helm of the WSO

By Dorothy Dobbie
By Dorothy Dobbie

The tuning stops. A hush falls over the Concert Hall. Alexander Mickelthwate strides onto the stage and takes his place on the podium to enthusiastic applause, warmed by fondness.

It has been 10 years, but Winnipeg audiences still love to see their maestro rising to the balls of his feet, his arms raised to signal the music to begin. They relate to his warmth, his honesty and his sincere humour. What you see is what you get, and they recognize it. There is no pretention to this man, no hint of the phony or the stuffed shirt. He is just Alexander, embracing the music and sharing it with you in the same spirit of generosity that he does everything.

Alexander Mickelthwate. Photo courtesy of WSO.
Alexander Mickelthwate. Photo courtesy of WSO.

It was love at first sight
When Alexander first played with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 2005, he was a mere tad of 36. The WSO was looking for a conductor at the time and because the Winnipeg audience fell in love with him immediately, Alexander was signed, with his first concert scheduled for 2005-06.

That first year was the worst. The orchestra had been displaced from the Centennial Concert Hall to allow for Phantom of the Opera to use the facility. For the first few months, Alexander and the orchestra played to tiny audiences in unlikely places such as the West End Cultural Centre and old movie houses. Even when the concert hall was available again the audiences remained discouragingly small.

Things had reached an all-time low for the WSO. The WSO was alienated from the community. The fragmented administration was alienated from the board. The musicians were still stinging from the 2001-02 lockout.

Thanks to the exclusion from the Concert Hall and a list of bad decisions by a string of short-term managers, Alexander’s new employer was in deep trouble financially, ringing up a $750,000 deficit that season. Still, he never faltered, plunging into the arena, determined to make his mark and to help solve the problems. He was more than willing to get involved with fundraising, to attend any luncheon, speak to any organization, make phone calls, to help get the orchestra through these dark days.

A Mickelthwate reunion
His pretty and successful young designer wife and small child, Jack, joined him at the start of his second season. Fresh from Los Angeles, Abigail arrived in her flimsy southern clothes, little Jack in tow, to a miserably cold and blustery day at the beginning of September in one of the earliest falls on record. “Where can I go shopping to get something warm to wear?” was all she said, shivering as she and the little guy were bundled into a waiting car.

Abigail was carrying baby number two, and the deal was that this was Alexander’s turn to pursue his passion, to build his career, while she stayed home for a while and played Mom. She was intellectually prepared for a cold winter but thought it would be fine – after all, there was a swimming pool and a gym in the Osborne Village highrise they leased. It was a major discouragement to learn that neither was in operation, and the long, cold, lonely winter stretched ahead interminably.

There was hope at the orchestra, though. They were back in their home hall as the season started, and the board had been reinvigorated with some new people and positive energy. They began the year with a strategic planning session that lifted the spirits of everyone. At last, the WSO had a goal and a plan that offered a clear and positive direction. Alexander was part of that planning, and his optimism made a big contribution to the energy and direction that followed.

At the end of a long day of strategic planning back in September 2007. Alexander and the strategic planning committee began to look to the future of the WSO. Left to right: Ed Martens, Ray Hotoda (then assistant conductor). Cheryl, Jan Kocman (WSO principal flautist) Muriel Smith, then E.D. Dale Lonis, Trudy Schroeder, Dorothy Dobbie, then Chair, and Richard Turner, Principal harpist and long-time board member. Kneeling are Lorne Sharf and Alexander.

Trudy Schroeder comes on board
As the season began, an important new board member was added. Trudy Schroeder, who had been shortlisted for the post of executive director, was enlisted for her energy, experience and interest in classical music. At the back of the board chair’s mind was the possibility that the current ED might not make it in the long term. Trudy would be a wonderful backup should things not work out with him.

Not surprisingly, E.D. Dale Lonis resigned in March of that season. Trudy, now well versed in the issues, willingly stepped into place. She and Alexander would become a tight team over the next eight years.

Now Alexander began to come into his own as he explored new ideas and let his passion for edgy music occupy centre stage at the New Music Festival. He engaged with high school kids who saw this Kevin Bacon look-alike as some kind of rock hero.

Alexander arrived in Winnipeg bearing a huge amount of admiration for Winnipeg film producer Guy Maddin and was soon in tight collaboration with Guy to feature Maddin’s Brand upon the Brain at the New Music Festival. It was a coup when they were able to convince actress Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, to narrate the film, which was enhanced by the orchestra playing and sound effects from an on-stage full Foley team. It was a creative and magical evening.

Celebrating indigenous cultures
This was just the beginning. Alexander had a dream of bringing together indigenous artists from Manitoba and around the world to create and make a new kind of music together. He started the indigenous festival which played for three years, gaining federal support and the support of other donors, but little audience understanding.

Perhaps Alexander was ahead of his time, but his idea is worth pursuing again, as the modern world is developing a new respect and understanding of the contribution these cultures make – especially here in Winnipeg.

In spite of its short life, the Indigenous Festival helped promote the career of aboriginal artist Tania Tagaq and spawned the interest that led to an invitation to play Carnegie Hall in New York.

Alexander’s choice of composer in residence, Vincent Ho, brought further acclaim. Vince brought his own deep understanding of the indigenous culture to his music and introduced it to the world under the banner of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Through all these and other important breakthroughs, Alexander soldiered on, offering innovative ideas and new kinds of music to Manitobans along with the time-honoured classics. He celebrated other cultures: the Chinese, the Icelandic, the East Indian, and made new friends for the symphony at every turn. He was the genuine article and Winnipeg audiences, even those who don’t attend the symphony, responded.

For five years, he and Trudy hosted a one-hour radio show on CJOB, slowly building a following. He went out at dawn with the station’s Brian Barclay to report on the weather. He continued to perform at schools, and every time he conducted a concert, he did so with a pre-concert show on the Piano Nobile where he patiently explained the concepts behind the pieces attendees were about to hear, peppered with anecdotes about the composer.

A pre-concert tradition
Ten years later, Alexander’s pre-concert talks are part of the evening’s experience for many of the audience who come early to get a seat on the Piano Nobile and line the balconies to hear him speak, which he does with endearing vocal sound effects.

Alexander has been generous in sharing the stage, giving all credit to his players and providing them with every opportunity to shine.

He has brought many new ideas to the fore. He saw the potential of El Sistema in a city such as Winnipeg and fought for its establishment here, speaking with Trudy as champions for the idea to widely diverse audiences.

El Sistema teaches the playing of classical music to very young children for three hours a night during the school year and feeds them dinner to sustain them. It has been a life changer, not just for the children but for whole families, whose lives are transformed by the magic of music and the hope it offers for their future.

During all this, another son, this one named Jake, was born and Abigail later picked up the threads (no pun intended) of her old career by working for some years with Mondetta. In spite of this, it wasn’t always easy living in a strange city with few friends early on (although there is no limit to their numbers now). For the career-minded Abigail, there were many adjustments, but she finally found a certain contentment in her new surroundings. The Mickelthwates bought a home in Crescentwood and as she watched Jack grow up, race home from school, throw his books on a chair shouting that he was going out to play without any fear, Abigail began to appreciate the value of living, as she called it, “in Leave it to Beaver-Land.” Winnipeg was safe. The kids were growing up with hockey and music as a steady and stimulating diet.

Meanwhile, the WSO has steadied itself, becoming financially stable and regaining its foothold again the hearts of Winnipeggers. The orchestra now has a diverse and stable board of dedicated and sensible volunteers. It has a wonderful and intelligent executive director, a strong administrative staff, a cohort of talented musicians and, most of all, it has a beloved maestro.

And now they’re really home
Now, in his 10th year, Alexander has every right to look back with a deep sense of accomplishment. He can feel secure in the love the audience and many other Winnipeggers have developed for him.

It is pretty certain that he returns this love. This winter, he and Abigail decided to take the big plunge. They have applied for Canadian citizenship.

What a compliment to us. And how thrilled we are to have him among us as an equal and a partner.

Welcome again. And thank you, Darling Alexander.

Dorothy Dobbie was president and chair of the WSO (2006 to 2012) from the second to the seventh year of Alexander’s tenure.

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