An orchestra with a sound all its own

An orchestra with a sound all its own


norman lebrecht

November 01, 2015

I have spent the past three days in Winnipeg, where the symphony orchestra is playing the local premiere of Mahler 10 (Deryck Cooke score) and I’ve been filling in the background.

Winnipeg is a sub-Arctic city of 650,000 in the middle of Canada. Many of the people I meet, especially musicians, were born and educated in Winnipeg and never want to live anywhere else. Winnipeg has been designated Canada’s cultural capital and has a rich and varied offering. It even has a contemporary music festival.

The orchestra never tours and no other symphony orchestra ever plays in Winnipeg. As a consequence, I heard a modern rarity – an ensemble with a sound and character uniquely its own. Most of the principal players – viola, flute, bassoon, tuba, several others – could take a seat in any world-class orchestra. The music director, Alexander Mickelthwate, has lived here for ten years and they want to keep him.

Both Mahler 10 performances were intense and engaging. Every twist and turn in the score was fresh and surprising to my ears, in part (I suspected) because the orchestra is not trying to sound like any other. Hearing the orchestra in Winnipeg was an escape from enforced homogeneity.

Berthold Goldschmidt, who premiered the Cooke Mahler 10, once told me that as a young man he could travel from Bochum to Bremen and hear a completely different, authentic Beethoven sound, such was the character of orchestras in the age before mass travel and recording.

That’s what I heard in Winnipeg: an orchestra with roots and personality. Long may it last.



  • Rob McAlear says:

    Winnipeg’s latitude is 49.89 degrees.

    London (UK)’s latitude is 51.30 degrees.

    Sister sub-Arctic cities…?

    • GGC says:

      True. Some people are surprised to discover that Madrid (Spain, southwestern Europe) is at the same latitude as New York City.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Geography aside, given Norman’s propensity for crafty phraseology, everything south of 66˚N lat. is, in effect, “sub-Arctic”.

    • Geoff says:

      The capital of this country is Ottawa and it is close to the latitude of the South of France and Milano, maybe we are sub tropical.

  • V.Lind says:

    In the first place, while certainly cold in winter — the corner of Portage and Main is said to be the coldest corner in Canada during the season — Winnipeg is hardly what is classed in Canada as sub-arctic. In fact it finds itself at the geographical centre, longitudinally, of North America. Not Canada, the whole continent. If you consider what is due south of Winnipeg, and then recall that there is as much again north of there, you realise that you are well clear of the Arctic circle. The term is widely used in Canada to describe the coldest parts of winter, and is used as frequently in Ottawa, Montreal or Halifax as in Winnipeg or Edmonton to describe brutally cold days (or stretches).

    And the WSO may not tour much, but never is incorrect. Otherwise who was that I saw in 2011 at the National Arts Centre as part of their Great Performers series, starring James Ehnes as guest soloist?

    Your assertion that Winnipeg was designated Canada’s cultural capital is somewhat misleading. The programme to enumerate Canada’s Cultural Capitals named 42 different communities within the lifetime of the programme. (It was cancelled in 2012 by the soon-to-be former Harper government).

    But you are right that the city is a vibrant cultural centre. Aside from several excellent musical ensembles, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is the oldest in Canada, the Manitoba Theatre Centre is just the largest of many theatrical organisations, and there are plenty festivals in all musical genres as well as in theatre and children’s theatre, film, etc. And, of course, its most famous son, Neil Young. It has had several notable and generous patrons, and community support is high in a city so distant from others — the surrounds are national arks and heritage sites and farms and forests and lakes.

    • V.Lind says:

      That would be national parks — I am (marginally) a better left-hand than right-hand typist!).

      Oh, for an edit function here…

    • J. L. Nichols says:

      The Winnipeg orchestra certainly does tour: it played in Carnegie Hall in 2014, with Alexander Mickelthwate the conductor and Dame Evelyn Glennie the soloist.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Very rarely.

        • Max Grimm says:

          “Very rarely” ≠ “never”

        • Herbert Pauls says:

          Indeed. With emphasis on the word “very”. The Carnegie Hall tour (if you can call a single, one-off, performance a “tour”) was seen here in Winnipeg as a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of those involved, to the extent that, as I recall, something like 600 very proud residents bought expensive tickets to New York just to enjoy the show and demonstrate their support.

  • Jmrd says:

    I live in Thunder Bay to the east of Winnipeg. We are a sub-arctic(LOL) city of 120000 and we have a great small orchestra. It’s essentially a chamber orchestra although they call themselves the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. It is similar to Winnipeg in that many of the musicians are locals. They do a great selection of classical and pops concerts each year. They dont have the size to the big symphonies so they do smaller pieces and occasionally they will do obscure pieces that I have never heard before. The most fun I had at a concert last year was watching them perform a world premiere of a great piece by Canadian composer Jordan Pal. The one percussionist was very busy playing a bunch of strange instruments, he played expertly and got a big ovation afterwards. Considering the size of the city they get a pretty big audience at our excellent 1500 seat auditorium. I can assure you that classical music is alive and well in the north.

    I’ll plug their webiste, its

  • Augie says:

    Are Winnipeg musicians cut off from audio and video recordings by other symphonies? I understand the point being made here, but no musician in the classical world plays on an island, and that’s been true for a very long time.

  • Andrey Boreyko says:

    Its very good orchestra indeed, and i always recall with with big pleasure my time there. We have even recorded DVD with Mahler 9, which i am really proud of.
    Glad to read the orchestra is in a good shape. Bravo, Winnipeg!!

  • MacroV says:

    When I lived in Canada a decade ago, the CBC would broadcast a lot of the Canadian orchestras, including Winnipeg, and yes, they were excellent. For better or worse, these days any orchestra that pays a living wage (and many that pay less) is good, if not excellent. The only constraint, really, is the money available to do creative programming, enough performances to maintain conditioning, and administrative/artistic leadership.

    • Geoff says:

      The CBC has not broadcast live on radio or TV any classical concert by any Canadian orchestra for many years. They disbanded the CBC orchestra because it cost money. We get little offers of bits and pieces of the popular classical recordings but nothing to be proud of. There are a least a dozen orchestras throughout the country that the CBC almost totally ignores.

  • Anthony Kershaw says:

    The leader, Gwen Hoebig, is a fantastic musician.

  • Jasper Lennon says:

    I was fortunate enough to attend the WSO’s Mahler 10 performance, and as always, was captivated by the orchestra’s unique sound and daring presentation of such a challenging work. They have been one of my favourite orchestras, and any time I’m in town I make it a point to hear their concerts.

    Though I was happy to read your article about the WSO, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a misleading element in your description of the orchestra. To suggest that this is a provincial or ‘outlying’ symphony orchestra is misleading. From my understanding, only two of the musicians are from Winnipeg originally, and their roster is filled with musicians trained at such distinguished and lauded institutions as McGill, UBC, the Glenn Gould School, Curtis, Colburn, Rice University, Indiana University, Juilliard, etc. They have performed around the world, with New World Symphony, Hyogo, Verbier, Aspen, Lucerne, etc, and have also gone on tour as an orchestra as recently as 2014.

    And, they don’t have just any New Music Festival, but perhaps the best one in Canada, with guest artists John Luther Adams, Steve Reich, Georg Friedrich Haas, and the Arditti quartet in recent years!

    For others reading this comment, if you find yourself in Winnipeg, be sure to check out this gem of an orchestra! : )

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      You have succeeded this participant in putting Winnipeg on his bucket list. Thank you!

    • Travis says:

      As a musician in the orchestra, I can confirm this. It’s true that while (like many orchestras) we come from all over, we do feel a little stranded in the middle of the country! Thank you for your care and passion for the WSO!

  • Gianmaria says:

    It’s actually quite refreshing to hear that an orchestra has a very specific sound. It seems to be something that has gone lost in the past few decades. Congratulations to the players and their conductor to be able to make such an impression!

  • Pierre Meunier says:

    Other commenters have noted some [redacted: untrue] misperceptions in Mr Lebrecht’s post following his short 3 day visit to Winnipeg for the WSO Mahlerfest. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is indeed a very good orchestra with highly talented musicians. Unfortunately, 3 days and one concert are not enough to make a sound and concluding judgment on any orchestra. Mr Lebrecht’s comments on the WSO’s poor performance of Mahler’s 10th Symphony in saying that “Both Mahler 10 performances were intense and engaging. Every twist and turn in the score was fresh and surprising to my ears, in part (I suspected) because the orchestra is not trying to sound like any other. Hearing the orchestra in Winnipeg was an escape from enforced homogeneity” are lenient. This was not a good performance. It’s sad because we know that the orchestra could have done better. Whished Mr Lebrecht would have attended the September 25 concert under the direction of guest conductor Mario Lehninger. He could then have heard and appreciated the great sound and musicality this orchestra can achieve, as it often does with other emerging and established guest conductors. We know how good the members of this orchestra are and they know how much better they can perform. Alexander Mickelthwate has been the music director of the orchestra for the last 10 years. As many others who came to Winnipeg for a short time and decided to stay, Mr Mickelthwate may not want to leave Winnipeg, but I don’t know who are “they” who want to keep him as music director. He is a very charismatic communicator and highly talented in public relations. He helped the orchestra improve significantly its financial situation and he deserves recognition for this. But they are very many who consider that Mr Mickelthwate should now pass the baton to a new director who could bring this orchestra to its full musical potential. Then the WSO could go on tour and start recording.

  • Helen says:

    After reading these comments, Winnipeg is on my bucket list too!