Home is where the art is for Manitoba-born violist Jennifer Thiessen, who returned to her Prairie roots last summer to be subsequently named Virtuosi Concerts’ new artistic director this month.
Based in Montreal as well as travelling the world as an independent artist for the past 20 years, the 43-year musician is now preparing to lead the chamber music series into its illustrious fourth decade.
"I’m very grateful for the opportunity, and it feels like everything is coming full circle and is meant to be," Thiessen says during a phone interview from the Wolseley neighbourhood home she shares with her Winnipeg-born husband — whom she met in Quebec — percussionist Ben Reimer and their two fluffy cats. "As artistic director of Virtuosi Concerts, I offer my deep love for and experience with chamber music, my tenacious drive to realize the projects I imagine, and my long-term commitment to building a dynamic, fair and relevant Canadian music scene."
The multi-instrumental songwriter, improviser and experimental musician who also contributes to a variety of arts publications takes over the reins from interim artistic adviser Madeline Hildebrand, who has kept things humming with pandemic-friendly programming since VC’s founding artistic director Harry Strub retired in 2020 after 30 years at the helm.
"Jennifer showed a deep respect and understanding of Virtuosi’s past, and has a clear, vibrant and hopeful vision for Virtuosi’s future," Hildebrand, who also served as search committee chair, stated in a prepared release. "Jennifer’s extensive experience in the Canadian music scene as a performer puts her in close touch with the high calibre of artists Virtuosi’s audience expects."
She and her two musical siblings were raised on a farm near Austin, located about 110 kilometres west of Winnipeg, by a mother who is now a retired piano teacher, and a father who is an avid collector and repairs antique clocks when not tending to cattle and crops. Thiessen first moved to Winnipeg to pursue a Bachelor of Theology degree at the former Canadian Mennonite Bible College, taking (then) violin lessons throughout her studies.
After realizing her true passion lay in music, she transferred to the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Music for two years, eventually completing her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Ottawa before embarking on a Masters program at the University of Montreal. Along the way, she morphed into a violist. She also performs regularly on her "viola d’amore," a Baroque ancestor of her chosen instrument.
With the abrupt, if not shocking, cancellation of nearly a full year of performances in Montreal and elsewhere owing to the global pandemic in 2020, she and Reimer were thrust — like so many — into an extended period of soul searching. Already planning to return home "someday," they realized that day had come, packing up all their worldly belongings and arriving back in the city last July, with nary a job prospect in sight.
She’s the first to admit that was a gutsy move — both literally and figuratively.
"There are so many people right now trying to imagine what comes next," Thiessen shares candidly, adding that the city felt completely "new" after their being away for so long, with many of her university chums having moved on. "We didn’t know how we would bounce back, but knew we would get to the other side of this and begin to rebuild," she says.
Fortunately, stars aligned at a local music event last summer after the musician befriended Hildebrand, who subsequently invited her to join the Virtuosi board, then beginning its search for a new artistic director. Pumped by the prospect and excited by the challenges of moving into a high-profile arts leadership role — already on her radar — Thiessen threw her bow into the ring, ultimately getting the nod for her clear-eyed artistic vision and the programming savvy on display in her past creative projects. Her new goals include highlighting greater cultural diversity and championing works by women, Indigenous artists and "lost" or seldom-heard composers.
She’ll also strive towards a balance of featuring Manitoba artists with Virtuosi’s time-honoured tradition of showcasing much loved, internationally renowned musicians. She also hopes to enhance its online presence including an updated website and potentially offering "hybrid" concerts with livestream options in future. Strub’s popular Young Artist Program will remain intact, featuring emerging musicians prior to each performance, while the Skywalk Concerts series aspires to return in spring to in-person, free noon hour concerts at the Millennium Library.
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Diehard fans will also rejoice to hear that Virtuosi Concerts will still regularly feature classical chestnuts by such composers as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — works Thiessen grew up performing.
Despite having lived and worked in one of Canada’s most glittering, cosmopolitan cities for the past two decades, the Juno-nominated artist still relies on her humble farming background to guide and shape her artistic practice, in which she will balance her new position with Park Sounds, her duo with Reimer; another titled S[ILK]S in conjunction with Andrea Young; Toninato/Thiessen with saxophonist Ida Toninato; and her individual songwriting career under the moniker of Daily Alice.
She parallels her diverse creativity, propelled by a restless imagination, to the time-honoured practice of crop rotation, in which farmers plant different crops sequentially on the same plot of land to maximize performance and weather whatever storms Mother Nature throws at it.
But she also credits for her fierce determination to do whatever it takes to realize her goals, and achieve her dreams.
"Surly stubbornness," she says with a laugh. "It’s that raw, driven survival instinct that I think most musicians would relate to, because working in this industry can be very tough. It’s what farmers are born with, and when you have something that really matters to you, the rewards are so great that you can’t imagine doing anything else."
The internationally renowned 2022 Winnipeg New Music Festival pulled three rabbits out of a hat last week after ongoing, pandemic-related public health orders forced it re-imagine, revise and rebuild its original lineup of nightly concerts originally slated to run Jan. 22-28.
The annual celebration of contemporary music and culture, presented entirely online last year and currently marking its 31st anniversary, will now be presented as a more compact, COVID-19 friendly trio of programs co-curated by WNMF artistic director and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra maestro Daniel Raiskin, with WSO composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis.
First up is Digital Landscapes, (WNMF1) an eclectic program of Canadian works exploring the world of technology, mathematics and social commentary, being presented Tuesday, Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m., including performances by WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, associate concertmaster Karl Stobbe, Naomi Woo on piano, and guest percussionist Ben Reimer.
The following night (WNMF2) features New York City-based pianist Steven Beck (filling in for an originally billed Vicky Chow) in an intimate evening of solo works by composers Katherine Balch, Olga Neuwirth, Charles Wuorinen, George Walker, and past WNMF distinguished guest composer Sarah Kirkland Snider.
Finally, the festival rounds out Friday, Jan. 28 with The Last Word (WNMF3), as the WSO led by Raiskin features Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy’s In the Time of Our Disbelieving, described as a “powerful reaction to the pandemic that has so stabilized our lives.” Another highlight will be a tribute to legendary composer Sofia Gubaidulina, with a performance of her Seven Words, highlighting WSO principal cellist Yuri Hooker and bayan soloist Roman Yusipey.
“Though we must once again present a shortened version of the Winnipeg New Music Festival due to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, I am pleased to be able to preserve the core of our programming,” Raiskin states in a press release.
“The powerful, striving music of Kelly-Marie Murphy and the deeply introspective Seven Words by Sofia Gubaidulina anchor a set of concerts that seek to both celebrate and to question in equal measure.”
Proof of full vaccination must be presented at the door and all patrons must be masked. House capacity limits of 250 audience members will be maintained in accordance with ongoing public health orders, with each show being offered both for in-person audience and via livestream.
For tickets or further information, call the WSO box office at 204-949-3999 or visit www.wnmf.ca.