Not your grandma’s classical music: Winnipeg New Music Festival takes off with new venue

Not your grandma's classical music: Winnipeg New Music Festival takes off with new venue

The Winnipeg New Music Festival takes flight Thursday evening, and this year some performances during the festival will be held in a new and unconventional place. 

For more than 30 years the event, which invites Winnipeggers to re-imagine their perception of classical music, has been set in the Centennial Concert Hall. This year, two of the festival’s five concerts will be held at the recently opened new home of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. 

“I happened to be driving past in the cab from the airport on my way into Winnipeg a couple of years ago,” said Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis, the co-curator of the New Music Festival and composer-in-residence for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, which presents the event.

“I thought what a perfect opportunity to marry the arts and sciences and to celebrate human ingenuity from all the aspects in which we tackle it as a species.

“So we thought, why not?”

Two of the New Music Festival’s concerts will take place at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. ‘We’re creating a kind of concert hall within the space, so it’s going to be an intimate experience more than you would think,’ said festival co-curator Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The aviation museum is not your typical concert hall. It is a large open space, cascaded with glass windows and filled with an archive of different planes.

Festival organizers had to find ways to address the issue of how sound will travel in the building by ensuring the acoustics are controlled, said Stafylakis.

“We’re creating a kind of concert hall within the space, so it’s going to be an intimate experience more than you would think,” he told host Marcy Markusa in a Thursday interview on CBC’s Information Radio.

Many people think of long-gone musicians when they think of classical music, but the New Music Festival is “not our grandma’s classical music,” Stafylakis said.

It attempts to challenge the audience’s understanding of the genre by adding contemporary sounds to the mix, he said.

That means that many of the musicians will be blending sounds from around the world, experimenting with style and even engaging with audio technology. 

The festival, which began in 1992, launches this year’s edition on Thursday night at the Centennial Concert Hall with a free show aptly named Launchpad, which will give the audience a taste of what contemporary classical music sounds like, Stafylakis said.

The concert will feature the work of nine emerging Canadian composers and four different conductors. 

Work from an array of musicians from around the world will also be spotlighted during the festival, which runs until Feb. 3.

On Saturday, a concert titled Ancestral Tales will feature music from composers exploring their cultural heritage, including Stafylakis, whose piece Piano Concerto No. 1: Mythos draws on the traditions of storytelling and myth-making from his own Greek culture.

The idea of the past informing the present and future is a major theme for the festival this year, he explained, with “the sense of looking forward to the future, of course, but also looking retrospectively at the past and connecting to our roots in a variety of ways.”

In keeping with this theme, the festival’s founder Bramwell Tovey — a former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director who died last year — will also be honoured.

The focus on new sounds, and the experimental nature of the festival, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Stafylakis acknowledges — but that’s OK.

It’s meant to be a space where people can feel free to explore and question their relationship with sound, he said.

“When you go to a contemporary art gallery, the expectation is not that every piece is going to be something that you view as a masterpiece, that you totally emote with,” he said.

“Everything is valid: curiosity, awe, discomfort, confusion. All of these are cool and part of the human experience with the arts that we really encourage on the new music side of things.”