Five Fast Questions with new WSO resident conductor

Even though he had never been to Winnipeg, American conductor Julian Pellicano didn't hesitate to apply for the resident conductor position at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Julian Pellicano moved to Winnipeg from Boston to be the new resident conductor for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. (Kelly Davidson)

Even though he had never been to Winnipeg, American conductor Julian Pellicano didn't hesitate to apply for the resident conductor position at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

He had heard about the orchestra, and the vast cultural life the city has to offer.

Pellicano recently made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall with pianist Boris Berman. "It is an iconic space, located in an amazing part of New York, and the acoustics are superb," he reccounted.

"The thing I love about Carnegie Hall is that even if you are in the top balcony, about 100 yards from the stage, you can still hear every note crystal-clear with the same amount of colour and intensity as if you were in the $300 seats. And because of that, you get all strata of music lovers coming to hear concerts there, from the poorest music students to the wealthiest of New York high-society."

Pellicano will go to New York with the WSO when they perform there next spring.

November is a particularly busy month for Pellicano with a WSO pops concert, a University of Manitoba symphony concert and the Winnipeg premiere of a new work based on Roch Carrier’s classic Canadian story, The Hockey Sweater.

SCENE wanted to get to know Maestro Pellicano better:

When did you decide you wanted to be a conductor?
When I was 15 I played timpani in an orchestra made up of kids from all over the county where I grew up on Long Island near New York City. I'll never forget the day of the first rehearsal with this orchestra because it was my first time hearing the sound of a string section, live, which at that point was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I just fell in love with the sound of those strings and then fell in love with the sound of the orchestra.

At the same time, I inherited my grandfather's collection of old opera LP's that he collected in Italy in the 1950's. Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci just blew me away, and I probably listened to it about 1000 times when I was a teenager. For the next ten years I did everything I could to get closer to that sound by playing in more orchestras, going to as many concerts as possible, studying orchestral scores and eventually conducting.
Conductor Julian Pellicano moved to Winnipeg to be the new resident conductor. (Kelly Davidson)
Can you describe the feeling you have when you are conducting?
It's not easy to describe in words, in the same way that music is difficult to express in words. I feel the sound in my hands, and this is a mystery that I can't explain because there is nothing there, it's just air.

I once studied Qigong in a park in Baltimore for about a year, and our teacher always started the morning by asking us to place our hands on "two columns of air". At first I didn't feel anything, but after a few months of practice, I felt them. I still don't know how this works, but I understood that this experience was related to my work as a conductor in a big way.

There is also the sonic experience of being in the centre of the orchestra's sound. It's like when you get close to a large waterfall, the sound of the water is just overwhelming but beautiful and there is a cool wind that the waterfall creates on its own that hits you. That is what it feels like.

You’re a big advocate for the work of living composers. What is it about contemporary music that appeals to you so much?
Music is music, and as a performer I don't separate old and new music. I approach contemporary works in the same way as I would music by Mozart, by continuously asking myself, "What is this piece saying and how can we make this clear to the listener?." The difference is that contemporary works are written by people NOW, and because of the experience of living in the twenty-first century, the music expresses an essence and a zeitgeist that is not possible in Mozart's music. I embrace that idea when performing works of living composers.  

You're conducting a kids concert called The Hockey Sweater. Can you tell me about that?
As the parent of a three year old, I know there is definitely a need to be in a place where my daughter can just enjoy a cool experience and express her 'three-year-old-ness' without me having to worry about it, and that's what these concerts are all about.

Being an American, I only just recently learned about Roch Carrier's classic story The Hockey Sweater, but I'm sure your readers and listeners are already familiar with it. Last year, the wonderful composer Abigail Richardson was commissioned by several Canadian orchestras to compose an original piece of music to accompany the story, which the WSO will perform. The best part about this concert is that not only will Abigail Richardson be on hand to host the concert, but Roch Carrier himself will be there to narrate his story with the WSO performing the music live. It's going to be really cool.

How are you and your family adjusting to life in Winnipeg?
I moved here with my wife and daughter and they are loving Winnipeg. We came from Boston but I'm actually from New York and my wife is from Osaka, Japan, which are two of the most congested and densely populated cities in the world. So we are used to endless grinding traffic, and a general lack of personal space.

We're finding that Winnipeg just has a totally different, more relaxed vibe and we are amazed by the sheer vastness of the prairies surrounding the city. It simply boggles our minds, and we are really getting into the beauty of that. With any luck, we will survive the winter!!

Hear Julian Pellicano on the Weekend Morning Show with host Terry MacLeod on Saturday November 2 between 8 and 9 a.m. Maestro Pellicano conducts the following upcoming concerts: The Hockey Sweater at 2 p.m. on Sunday November 3 at the Concert Hall; WSO Pops Concerts November 8-10; and University of Manitoba Symphony November 20-21.


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