December, 2011 / Author:

Richard Lee, the WSO’s resident conductor

Richard Lee
From the time his mother sat him down at a toy piano when he was three years old, Richard Lee has spent his life immersed in music. Formerly Conductor-in-Residence of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and Assistant conductor of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, Richard is currently Resident conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, conductor of the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra, as well as Music Director of the Korean Canadian Symphony Orchestra, based in Toronto.  

Live music has been called transformative. What does this mean and how would you try to convince listeners that it is a better experience than sitting at home listening to the same music on their stereos or iPods?

It IS transformative, when the stars align and the performance just has that little extra intangible element. It is also direct and unadulterated, as opposed to pretty much all recordings, including live ones. No question that the editing and proofing and tweaking and patching involved in producing a typical recording, pop or classical, generally produces a more idealized, more perfect sound, but it is far from spontaneous and free. I think both performers and listeners are expecting a more holistic experience, with less attention to the nitty gritty of each note and nuance. There is also something very inspiring seeing the skill and the sweat that goes into a performance that heightens the thrill of a live show for me.  

Some people might say the WSO is almost an anachronism – a form of entertainment developed for a past era. How do you attract audiences with shorter attention spans who are accustomed to the digital age of entertainment?

This has always been a strange concept to me, almost like saying music is an anachronism. On a fundamental level, music is music. Good music is good music. Bad music is bad music. Whether it is produced by a lute, acoustic guitar, Fender Stratocaster or computer, it still has to stimulate you intellectually, musically and artistically, assuming that you’re really listening to it. Certainly, newer is not always better, at least when it comes to music, anyway. It is true that many of the instruments that the WSO musicians play on stage are less familiar to many of us. This is a sad indictment of the incredible lack of breadth in the typical North American school. I was one of the lucky ones, as music, particularly classical, was always playing around the house when I was growing up.

It is definitely true that it is hard to deal with the length and complexity of an average classical music concert. Even I get tired and bored listening sometimes! The most obvious solution to the attention span issue is keeping the length of the show on the shorter side, my preference being around 70 minutes of music, which is much less than average. The WSO has the Soundbytes series, which will feature shorter classical works, and will always feature some sort of narration and analysis to help listeners contextualize and appreciate the music at a deeper level. Not to say that it’s all on us. I hope that society figures out soon that the good stuff in life isn’t all flash and dash.

This season’s lineup is an eclectic mix of well-known classical composers, modern composers who aren’t well known to audiences, and includes music from rock (Procol Harum, Moody Blues), and something for kids. How did the WSO choose this year’s lineup?

Eclectic pretty much sums of every WSO season. Winnipeg is a city with a broad range of tastes in music, from the most exotic and challenging, to the popular and tuneful. With this incredible range and variety in mind, the WSO’s programming committee, with music director Alexander Mickelthwate at the helm, tries to come up with literally something for everyone. Try this…flip through the WSO brochure or browse its website and I guarantee that there’s a concert or two or 10 that you wouldn’t mind seeing.

What are the challenges in presenting such an eclectic range of music?

Flexibility, period. Within classical music, one plays Bach differently than Beethoven, who is in turn very different than Berg. Add prog rock, jazz, pop, ballet, ethnic, film score, etc. to this mix and you get a sense of how flexible the musicians have to be. Sometimes, we do three wildly different programs in the same week! It’s a real challenge, but we’re very, very good at adapting.

What are the most interesting pieces for you to perform and why?

Intellectually, modern music can be complex, difficult to study and subsequently conduct. Artistically, I love classical music (Mozart, for example) and baroque music (Bach). Undeniable beauty and craft, but the music itself has so few instructions on how to perform it. Sometimes the composer doesn’t even tell you how fast it goes! It’s a challenge to bring a work of music like that to life.

How do you attract great musicians/conductors to Winnipeg?

It’s important to clarify here that in many cases, the best-known musicians and conductors are not necessarily the greatest ones. I think great musicians will want to make music in a meaningful way, wherever that might be. I think Winnipeg is a charming and exotic locale to many. Certainly, you would not be able to experience a winter like ours while working with a great orchestra at the same time in many other places! Having said that, money is definitely a factor. 

For orchestral musicians, the reputation of the Winnipeg Symphony within North America suffices to attract good candidates to audition here. Affordable housing helps, too.

Are you able to tap local talent for the orchestra?

An orchestra at the level of the Winnipeg Symphony must be able to attract strong players from everywhere. There is a contingent of locals, though, including Ray Chrunyk, who also serves as our librarian. The majority of musicians are from outside the province though. For soloists, we certainly try to use locals whenever possible, as audiences certainly want to see “themselves” featured on stage whenever possible.

What are Winnipeg audiences like in comparison to those in other cities where you have worked?

It’s hard to generalize, but I would say that our audiences are incredibly proud of the WSO, and of Winnipeg in general. It seems to me that our audiences are typically Canadian in not being so overt and direct showing this though, especially at concerts. There’s much less cheering and clapping post-concert than say in Quebec City, for example. I’ve booed lustily at an opera in Toronto (along with many others!), and I find it hard to picture here.

Does Winnipeg need to expand or improve its venues for symphony orchestras?

Yup. It’s difficult to explain how a hall affects the sound of the orchestra. A mediocre orchestra in a great hall can sound as good as a great orchestra in a mediocre hall. Essentially, the problem lies with when our hall was built and it follows the trend of most halls of that era. Too large, multi-purpose. The new hall in Montreal, for example, is made specifically for the OSM and seats 200 fewer patrons. The OSM itself is about 40 musicians larger (and louder) than the WSO and Montreal is roughly three times larger than Winnipeg.

The Centennial Concert Hall, to its credit, has vastly improved the hall over the last three years, updating antiquated equipment and adding a system that enhances the acoustics of the hall. Nevertheless, it remains limited by its basic structure and purpose. No hall can accommodate musicals, pop acts, opera and orchestras and do everything well. I think it’s a very good venue for opera.

If there were something you could do that was outside the box – money and audiences be damned – what would it be?

Easy, make concerts free. Or at least extremely inexpensive. And probably burn our white bow ties and tails. Anything to make us seem less “elitist”. If you heard the conversations that often take place in my carpool, you would have a hard time picturing us in tails and fancy gowns.

– For information on the WSO’s 2011/12 lineup, go to

WSO 2011/12 concerts

Mathieu & Sibelius

Dec 2, 3 – The program features Mathieu’s most ambitious, ardently romantic work, performed by the composer’s leading supporter, Alain Lefe?vre.   

A Judy Garland Christmas – Songs My Mother Taught Me

Dec. 9, 10, 11  – Lorna Luft promises fabulous singing, video screen scenes of Lorna and Judy together and great arrangements. 


Dec. 17 – A WSO tradition! No work in the entire history of music transmits the urge to want to sing more than Handel’s Messiah!  

HOT! HOT! HOT! A Night at the Copa

Jan. 20, 21, 22 – Andrzej and Jennifer Przybyl star in this dazzling show featuring the cha cha, mambo and Latin hustle.

Mozart & Schubert

Jan. 13, 14 – A Mozart concerto-times-four and a chance to hear the WSO’s fabulous principal wind players in one of his most delightful compositions!  

Saariaho & Kancheli

Jan. 28 – Kaija Saariaho will present her monumental work Graal Theatre for violin and orchestra. Also featured is Giya Kancheli’s most celebrated work Styx.

Sveinsson (of Sigur Rós) & Jóhannsson: World Premiere

Feb.  3 I – Credo by Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboardist of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Also featured is fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

For Michael – The Music of Michael Jackson

Feb. 10, 11, 12 – With Michael Jackson classics like Billy Jean, Off the Wall, Beat it, The Way You Make Me Feel, Thriller and more, you will be dancing up a storm in the aisles. 

American Masters

Feb. 17, 18 – North American composers are featured in this colourful and vividly themed program, along with Augustin Hadelich and Larry Rachleff.

Dvo?ák’s New World Symphony 

Feb. 25 – The WSO is proud to introduce an acclaimed and exciting multi-media presentation created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Parker Plays Brahms No. 2

March 2, 3 – Jon Kimura Parker performs Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Broadway Rocks

March 16, 17, 18 – Broadway Rocks features the best in up-tempo hits from rock-inspired smash shows such as Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar and more. 

Dawn Upshaw

March 23, 24 – Dawn Upshaw performs an opera and concert repertoire ranging from the sacred works of Bach to the freshest sounds of today. 

Brahms Requiem

April 7 – This is the German Requiem, composed in tribute to his late mother, that first won international success for Brahms.  

The Manhattan Transfer

April 13, 14, 15 – Combined with the original members of The Manhattan Transfer and the WSO, and you get an event to remember.

Buster Keaton’s the General

April 28 – The WSO presents Keaton’s 1926 silent masterpiece The General in a digitally restored print with Carl Davis’s celebrated musical score performed live.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2

May 4, 5 – Mahler’s monumental Resurrection Symphony and his Symphony No. 2 is an overwhelming experience and an unforgettable journey. 

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