A Q&A with WNMF Artistic Director Daniel Raiskin

Maestro Daniel Raiskin sits down to talk about the responsibility he feels for the Winnipeg New Music Festival and his absolute love for new music.


As music director of the WSO, what does the Winnipeg New Music Festival mean to you?

The first time I learned about the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (knowing that there is a place called Winnipeg in Canada) was actually through the New Music Festival many years ago. It was then led by the former WSO Music Director Andrey Boreyko, who is a good friend. I actually almost made it to Winnipeg to participate in one of the festivals as a soloist on his invitation, but something didn’t work out with dates or a visa, I don’t remember anymore. Nonetheless, I knew the orchestra here in Winnipeg distinguishes itself through this incredible project in the midst of winter, dedicated to music which is written very recently (or as we say, where the “ink is not really dry on the paper”) and represents some of the most important composers of the contemporary times. When the possibility of becoming the WSO’s next Music Director came about, one of the most interesting points for me artistically was the presence of this festival and ability to work with living composers, to bring composers that were probably not formerly exposed in Canada and Winnipeg, and really to have our own kind of “contemporary music laboratory” that makes the whole endeavour, the whole undertaking of being a symphony orchestra, much more relevant than just playing music which is well known and established.

What is it like to “inherit”, so to speak, such an in-depth and renowned project?

I knew I would be standing in the big shoes of my predecessors – Bramwell Tovey, who was one of the instigators of the festival, and his successors, both Andrey Boreyko and Alexander Mickelthwate, who in their own way made a very strong mark on the development and continuation of the festival. It was challenging, but it was also a great opportunity for me to let my own musical voice and choices be heard. If it was not for the pandemic, we would have been continuing in that direction, but I was really glad that in the first two years we were able to bring people such as Pēteris Vasks, Michael Daugherty, and Sarah Kirkland Snyder to Winnipeg, as well as a myriad of other great performers and composers. So, I knew WNMF was a great responsibility, but I also had a great appetite for that because both as a player and as a conductor, I’ve always been very open, curious, and interested in new music. You have close collaboration with living composers, simply because you can ask questions, you can try things out, you can quarrel, you can disagree, you can get inspired, you can discover so many things, and any time you have a question, there is very often the listening ear in the audience of the composer who has just created that piece, or the piece was written a few years before. That’s, of course, a very different thing than conducting symphonies by composers whose works are from the 20th century or even way before.

Is there anything particular you are hoping audiences will experience or take away from the 2022 WNMF?

Despite a very unfortunate case of having to dismantle basically all the original plans for the festival due to ongoing pandemic restrictions and uncertainties (which happened for the second time in a row, the 2021 WNMF underwent changes as well), I am still very hopeful that it’s going to be a great opportunity to hear a lot of exciting works performed by exceptional artists. The 2022 festival has a huge Canadian component and also a “way back” component, whether it’s Winnipeg-born composer Eliot Britton or our own great musicians of the orchestra, including solo/chamber ensemble performances with assistant conductor Naomi Woo, concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, associate concertmaster Karl Stobbe, principal cellist Yuri Hooker, and additionally featuring other established Canadian composers such as Nicole Lizeé and our own Composer-In-Residence Harry Stafylakis. I’m also very much looking forward to seeing and conducting the work of Kelly-Marie Murphy again, who was selected to be our Distinguished Guest Composer. Though these performances are going to be on a smaller scale, the intensity and “personal touch” of these concerts will absolutely be evident. For example, the second concert of WNMF features pianist Steven Beck, who is very well known for his relationship with many living composers and for premiering their works, will also play a work by Sarah Kirkland Snider, kind of underlining this continuity of appearances during the festival of composers and musicians that played an important role in WNMF history.

The festival will culminate for me personally in the orchestral concert, which though it is small scale, it’s going to be very, very impactful. The work by Sofia Gubaidulina, which was written in 1982, is by now almost considered a “classic” of the contemporary music scene. Her piece is of such incredible strength, spirituality, and conviction – conviction in the terms of someone who believes in their rights to have faith, and to be different, and not be afraid of that. This is something Gubaidulina has proved over her very lengthy career, as a trailblazer and female composer who turned ninety (!) last year. It’s emblematic that we kept her work on our program because she represents so much passion for what is significant – when you have an aim, when you have a belief, and you are not afraid to follow this path, it will always lead you to the truth and the light. This is definitely what we need in these difficult times.

And finally, this festival is a great example of teamwork, where at the last moment we are still able to present a great lineup of performers and works to perform. I think the spiritual impact of this festival will be very great – we will be able to give a lot of various emotions to the audiences who are going to tune in, whether through the livestream or if the restrictions permit, to those attending the concerts in person.


Is there anything about composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s background or compositional style that speaks to you?

I was actually very lucky to meet her on a couple of occasions. As a violist, I played both her viola concerto and also a piece she composed for two violas and orchestra (I played the Russian premiere of this work quite a few years ago). She is very withdrawn and not easy to connect to, but once it happens through her own music and you show a genuine interest in her music through questions you ask and the curiosity you show, she opens up. It’s a very interesting process because, for her, every note is a kind of world and universe. She fills the notes with lots of meaning. It’s never a random combination of sounds and rhythms, it’s always based on her ideas of proportion and shape and form. One of the strongest features of her music, as complicated as it sometimes can come across, is the fact that very often it relates to a kind of human physicality – it’s very easy to hear the sound of someone shutting his eyes or somebody’s breathing, someone is in agony, someone is very pensive – you can almost sense the silence when one is there, you can feel the warmth of the wind, you can feel the stream of the water or the thirst in lack of that. You can actually feel the reality of which music often speaks. I think for her, the departing point was this understanding that from a very early age, she had to conceal her spiritual and religious interests in a country that was very punitive of any expression of religion. In a way, religion is an expression of someone’s beliefs, conviction, and freedom, and in a country that forbade any freedom – religion was deemed to be dangerous for that matter – it was especially difficult. But for her, it was never an expression for the outside, it was always something that she kept very much inside, where it grew and became very powerful.

What prompted you to program her work Seven Words?

The piece I chose for WNMF, Seven Words, is for cello and bayan, which is a very curious combination. She’s one of the composers that has written extensively for the bayan, which is a kind of accordion but doesn’t use the traditional piano-like keyboard, it’s more like a button keyboard. This combination of instruments allowed her to reflect some very distinct features of human nature and physicality – you can really feel someone breathing heavily, you can feel the blazing sun in a windless desert, you can feel the thirst, you can feel the flies – it’s so incredibly naturalistic in a way. But it grabs you by the throat simply because it doesn’t try to preach anything, it just shares with you this true phenomenon of believing in something. It doesn’t necessarily (for Gubaidulina even) mean believing in God, it means to be a certain aim, a certain very clear, distinct aim. That’s why I think, particularly in the times we’re living through, this work is filled with relatable agony and pain but also forgiveness, hope, and light. This really manifests the path she took – the work for two violas that I played is called Two Paths, and somehow, one is the right path and one is the wrong path in this piece, and she always seemed to take the wrong path in the eyes of the Soviet authorities from which she suffered quite a bit. But that “wrong path” proved to be right, with composer Dmitri Shostakovich even encouraging her to “continue on your ‘mistaken’ path”.

Can you share a bit about the composition that opens the January 28th concert?

We combine Gubaidulina’s work with a work by Kelly-Marie Murphy, who was selected to be our Distinguished Guest Artist for the 2022 New Music Festival. We were supposed to feature several of her works, but we are now just performing one work that was written in 2020, and the title and program are very much fitting at this moment. The work is called In the Time of Our Disbelieving. Kelly-Marie speaks about the piece as being austere and somber and somewhat agitated, sort of reflecting her own fear about current events. It’s a single-movement work that uses a cell of four notes and remarkably, this is a cell I realized completely genuinely is also the monogram of Shostakovich, which is DSCH (notated as D, E flat, C, B), and he often used it in his works. I just conducted his Tenth Symphony which is filled with his musical monogram, and I asked Kelly-Marie if she consciously used Shostakovich’s monogram. She was actually surprised that I found an example of it, but I am completely convinced that it is there- it is transposed, or even sometimes in original form. It’s interesting because the name of Shostakovich came up also in relationship to the music of Gubaidulina, and obviously for me, this is one of the most important musical pillars in my universe when we talk about the music of the twentieth century, which makes it a very intriguing (but maybe coincidental) connection.

Kelly-Marie Murphy talks about her work as something that describes the crisis of disbelief, the cruelty of refusing to recognize reality, whether about ourselves or the world around us. The work was written in December 2019 until February 2020, on the heels of the Australian wildfires, which ended up being the worst wildlife disaster in modern history, followed by floods, followed by a global pandemic. It seems like a very dark piece, but in a way, it’s just simply very true. I always enjoy working with music that is able to turn a mirror, both on the person who created it and the people who are performing it, but most importantly, on the people who are consuming it, who are listening to it. It’s an opportunity for us to put down lots of questions and try to find answers in times when it’s not a very easy process.

It seems like a pretty “dark message” program for the last concert of the festival, but the 28th of January is actually my birthday, and I always say the greatest way to celebrate your birthday is among musical family. My birthday always coincides with the New Music Festival and this time, it’s the last concert of the festival, and though it’s a pretty somber kind of program, I think it will also give a lot of strong emotions that can carry us forward. I’m really looking forward to leading and participating in the festival this year.