As Winnipeg cools to -26 C Saturday night, some of the world’s hottest names in classical music will be warming up at the Centennial Concert Hall.

For the past 24 years, Winnipeg has been setting the bar for New Music Festivals – New York City and San Francisco only recently followed suit, and according to Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Alexander Mickelthwate, neither of them compare to what Winnipeg has to offer.

“It’s this really interactive thing with the artists, with the composers, with the musicians, with me in this one space for one week and every year we hear that there isn’t anything like this worldwide,” said Mickelthwate. “I mean the New York Philharmonic Biennial started last May for the first time. For the first time! New York. It’s crazy.”

This year’s festival is pulling in talent from across the world – Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and John Luther Adams will be here, the Arditti String Quartet (also known as the world’s most precise string quartet) kicks off the festival on Saturday and even the New Yorker’s Alex Ross will be flying in.

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra rehearses on Thursday for the New Music Festival, which starts Saturday, Jan. 31 in Winnipeg. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

“What I love of this year’s festival – I want to create this community of creative people that are coming together and if you like classical music or not, [it’s] the place to go,” said Mickelthwate.

Mickelthwate and just about everyone involved in the festival are trying to stress one thing: the fest isn’t just for classical music lovers.

They'll be covering everything from electronic music to compositions from Arcade Fire's Sarah Neufeld. Also in the mix, is a night devoted to the intersection between film and music — including a work matched to scenes from Hitchcock films and a work from the Quay Brothers.

Not to mention the music, food, art and a ton of chances to have a drink and talk with everyone who’s playing in the fest.

“There’s Q and A with the composers, with the artists. I mean, you cannot call Beethoven or Mahler anymore. It’s like, he is dead. But, now, with those guys, they will be here and you can actually say, ‘That sucked,’ or, ‘Gosh, I loved that. I mean it was amazing,’” said Mickelthwate.

The Centennial Concert Hall will be packed with a food cart from Sherbrook Street Delicatessen, a bunch of art installations (at least one of which is interactive) and before and after the show, it’ll have artists and musicians.

They’re even decking out the Piano Noble with fancy furniture from Art Upholstering.

James Tenney

This is James Tenney. Tenney was an American composer known as "the most famous unknown composer in the world," and there's a whole night dedicated to his influence in this year's New Music Festival. (Courtesy Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

 “We’re going to have all of these artists from New York, Alaska, Germany, London, plus some great home grown talent all hanging out at the concert hall,” said Neil Middleton, the marketing director for the WSO. “You have to come with an open mind … you’re going to be exposed to a lot of different things.”

Middleton says to leave any preconceived notions about the symphony at the door because for the next seven days, things are going to be a little different at the concert hall.

“Come to the party. Come meet the artists. That’s really the huge opportunity about this festival. It’s not just about hearing this thing on stage but actually engaging with the people afterwards,” said Middleton.

And don’t be intimidated.

The festival usually draws more than 800 people a night, and according to Middleton, “there are maybe 50 people in the city who are going to know any of the names [of people in the festival] … You don’t come knowing stuff, you come to learn.”

One thing that is required?

“You have to come with an open mind … you’re going to be exposed to a lot of different things,” said Middleton.