In just over a year, Winnipeg arts groups have grown from technological babes in the woods to savvy veterans of the livestreaming game.
More than a half-dozen online events from city organizations are scheduled for June, including a symposium focusing on women in jazz, classical music performances by Winnipeg’s two main orchestras and a world première of a play that focuses on 2020 events that continue to shape our world: the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local arts streams in JuneClick to Expand
June 1: Manitoba Opera: The Solo Sessions with Aaron Hutton, Lizzy Hoyt, James McLennan, Stephanie Sy, Lisa Rumpel, Laura Loewen, Seanne Buenafe and Lisa Bell. Vimeo on demand starting June 1, Five epsidoes for $31.50, mbopera.ca.
June 5: Women in Jazz Symposium, 10:30-2 p.m., adults $25, students $15, winnipegjazzorchestra.com
June 10: Victoria Sparks, James Sommerville and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, 7:30 p.m., $20, themco.ca
June 11: Winnipeg Folk Festival presents Blue Rodeo, 8 p.m., $45 plus fees, winnipegfolkfestival.ca
June 22: In Conversation with Sheila Jordan, 7 p.m. $16.93, jazzwinnipeg.com
June 22: Cluster: New Music + Integrated Arts Festival at the West End Cultural Centre, 8 p.m., $15 or pay what you can, wecc.ca
June 24-July 11: Voice, by Ismaila Alfa, at the Prairie Theatre Exchange, $20, $35 per household or $10 for students, pte.mb.ca
June 29: Concerto for Two Cellos, with David Liam Roberts, Yuri Hooker and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, $25, wso.ca
The pandemic has wiped out 15 months of arts and cultural events around the world, and two consecutive festival summers in Winnipeg, a time when the city’s entertainment scene and community spirit are at their peak.
What was left to the heads of arts and culture groups was the unknown: presenting online concerts to locked-down audiences yearning for entertainment but unsure what they would see.
The journey began with phone-camera videos recorded in musicians’ homes distributed for free on YouTube and has since grown to efforts that are filmed, directed and edited by professionals using state-of-the-art equipment purchased with funds from grants and donors. The productions take place on stages converted especially to present artists in the best light on televisions.
Daniel Raiskin, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director, described the transition to streaming performances as flying an airplane while it was still being built.
Manitobans found how high that plane could fly with livestreamed shows during the Festival du Voyageur in February. It used funds from the province’s Safe at Home Manitoba program to produce more than a week’s worth of concerts with a wide variety of performers. Dozens of other groups and individual artists followed suit.
The Safe at Home program shows were free though.
"The big challenge is whether people will pay money for it," Angela Heck, the executive director of Jazz Winnipeg says. "Last year, all the content we put out there was free and was really an opportunity to highlight our local talents."
Jazz Winnipeg had to cancel the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, but last year it provided streams of concerts filmed in the gardens of Dalnavert Museum and the lobby of the ALT hotel. In all, the organization presented 61 events that showcased 151 local performers to more than 60,000 online viewers from Manitoba and around the world, Heck says.
Her background in film and TV production — she’s also a documentary film producer — made the transition to online performances simpler, and Jazz Winnipeg has plans to do something similar this summer, if health regulations allow it.
But it is also offering a livestream conversation with jazz great Sheila Jordan on June 22 at 7 p.m., and is charging $16.93 for it.
"The challenge is, there is so much content out there now. You’re competing with Netflix. You really are," Heck says.
The WSO has charged $25 for livestreamed concerts — its next one is scheduled for June 29 — which give subscribers a chance to watch the events at a time of their choosing and allows for repeated viewings. Access to better equipment and learning more about putting on livestreamed shows has made the shows better, and it promises to continue with them even when audiences are allowed back to the Centennial Concert Hall to attend WSO concerts.
The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra is doing something similar with its spring concert series, which continues June 10 with percussionist Victoria Sparks and french hornist James Sommerville performing with the MCO. The series was planned to be held in front of live audiences, but instead it will be streamed online, with the MCO selling $20 tickets with links that can be shared with up to five households.
"When it became apparent that we weren’t able to have the live concerts this spring as we had planned, we rejigged things so that we were playing material that could be easily played with the musicians sitting apart from each other," Vicki Young, the MCO’s managing director, says.
The MCO felt growing pains early on though. It had recorded two shows held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery with small audiences last summer, but Young says staff had to learn how to edit the concert footage, market the online shows and figure out how to send automated links to viewers in different times zones around the world.
"We’ve had people joining us from Germany, Japan, Brazil and the States, and that’s been really encouraging," she says. "Even more important is when we hear from people in Manitoba that either they’re hearing us the first time or how much they appreciate seeing people they used to be able to see live in concert."
It’s common for musicians, actors or other artists to collaborate and create something greater than artists could make apart. During the pandemic, whole organizations are teaming up to turn up the volume on groups silenced by cancelled shows.
One instance had the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre converting its Tom Hendry Warehouse theatre into a soundstage so the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra could produce livestream shows to its fans. The WJO pooled grants from Manitoba Safe at Home, the Assiniboine Credit Union and the Winnipeg Foundation to create four livestreamed concerts that can be viewed on YouTube.
They partly replaced the orchestra’s planned concerts in the fall of 2020, but its planned release of a new album, Twisting Ways, took place in May.
"It was a challenging year, and we were able to accomplish only a fraction of what we would in a normal year," Richard Gillis, WJO’s artistic director, writes in an email, adding it was able to take part in several student and composing workshops in addition to the livestreams in 2020 and early 2021. "We were able to focus more time and resources on our recording release, (and) this has turned out to be a very significant project that is receiving great reviews internationally."
While arts groups have gained confidence in producing online shows, they miss the emotional and bottom-line boost of artists performing in front of excited fans.
"(Livestreaming) is never going to replace what in-person is," Heck says. "We’ve had generous donors and sponsors are behind us. The community is supporting us but the revenue model of online has not proven itself to be particularly viable at this point."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.