Angela Birdsell was in grade 3 or 4 when she saw the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for the first time.
It was during a school field trip to an afternoon rehearsal at the Centennial Concert Hall, which, in the 1970s, was still fairly new. Birdsell, who would have been just eight or nine at the time, was struck by the grandness of the hall, the plushness of the blood-red carpet and those pleasing rows of red seats.
But it was the moment when the musicians raised their instruments that left the most indelible impression.
"I remember just being electrified by the sound of the orchestra tuning up," she says. "It just opened my little psyche to a whole other world out there."
Now, Birdsell, who is in her 50s, has returned to her hometown to serve as the executive director of the symphony orchestra that inspired her to pursue a decades-spanning career in the arts.
Birdsell previously served as the director of orchestra and opera at the Australia Council for the Arts, and orchestra and opera program manager at Canada Council for the Arts. She is also an experienced arts management consultant, with Ottawa Live Arts Community, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and the Saint John Theatre Company among her clients.
She will begin in her new role at the WSO on July 5, succeeding outgoing executive director Trudy Schroeder, who spent 13 seasons with the organization.
"I’ve always believed that the arts save lives. Whether it’s symphonic music or theatre or dance or contemporary music or popular music, the Winnipeg Folk Festival ‐ whatever the art is, I believe it saves lives." –Angela Birdsell
Taking the helm of a performing arts organization during a global pandemic that has rendered stages all over the world silent for these many months is "daunting, scary and fascinating," Birdsell says.
"I will say the one thing is that if a person were going to head into any performing arts or or a symphony in particular, they’re fortunate to be heading into the WSO on the tail of Trudy Schroeder’s long leadership," she says.
"I’ve worked in the orchestra sector in Canada and Australia for some years, and Trudy’s work has been nothing short of legendary. Everybody’s just so impressed with what she has done with this orchestra.
"It’s not an orchestra that went into the pandemic already walking a fine line; it went into the pandemic in a very healthy position. So from that perspective, I consider myself very fortunate."
Birdsell is uniquely positioned to lead the WSO into a new normal; orchestras and their place in the digital economy has long been an area of interest and research.
"I think orchestras have been struggling with the whole digital piece for almost a decade now," she says. "I wrote a research piece on it back in 2009 and we were all struggling to say, ‘How do we do this?’ ‘We don’t have the capacity, how do we get the capacity?’ etcetera. Meanwhile, a lot of organizations have just jumped right in and done it, especially during this pandemic — pivoting within a couple of weeks.
"Orchestras are feeling, OK, this has been forced upon us, we’re picking it up and we’re running with it. And maybe it’s not as complicated as we thought it would be, and maybe there are now ways to reach out to audiences that can’t either make it downtown or can’t make it to the concert hall in general. I think that it’s going to continue in some way, shape or form even after we return to live performances."
Returning to live performances won’t be without challenges either. When will people feel comfortable attending concerts? Will they wait until infection rates drop or until people are fully vaccinated? These are all questions the WSO will have to consider. But at the same time, Birdsell expects that people are hungry for live experiences, "and to have that sense of being together in a concert hall, or in a park, or in a venue where live music is happening."
That goes for musicians, too.
"I come from a voice background, and I’ve been joking to myself about singers in a dangerous time," says Birdsell, who has a graduate degree in music (voice) from Université Laval in Quebec City. "Who knew that choral singing would become a dangerous activity?"
Birdsell knows she cannot predict the future, but that doesn’t meant she doesn’t have dreams for the WSO — such as resurrecting the much-anticipated Netherlands tour that had to be scrapped last spring and, looking further ahead, picking up on another area the organization has been working on: the creation of a dedicated home for the WSO — a "teaching and learning centre of excellence," as Birdsell puts it — outfitted with possibilities for further digital outreach.
Birdsell is excited to be back in Winnipeg after a 30-year absence, and is eager to ensure that the WSO remains an "indispensable" part of the city. As she points out, one doesn’t necessarily need to be a season-ticket holder to benefit from the direct and indirect economic impacts of having a symphony orchestra in one’s community.
But she also thinks about that little girl from the North End who thrilled at the discordant anticipation of a tuning orchestra, and just how powerful those heart-racing moments of discovery that happen in a hushed hall or theatre can be.
"We never know when those magical moments are happening for individual in an audience or in a school concert or in a Sistema program," she says, referring to the the orchestra’s school music-education partnership. "We have to have faith and continually remind ourselves that they’re happening.
"But I’ve always believed that the arts save lives. Whether it’s symphonic music or theatre or dance or contemporary music or popular music, the Winnipeg Folk Festival — whatever the art is, I believe it saves lives," she continues. "We have all of these great phrases, like, ‘the arts enriches our life’ and it makes communities better, and all of these things — and they’re all true.
"But I fundamentally believe that the arts save lives and, although we can’t always tell when those moments happen, they do happen. And that’s why I do the work I do."