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Audience admires illuminated ice instruments

No icy reception at this ice-covered concert

The University of Manitoba Percussion Ensemble wowed the crowd at a very chilly concert

February 19, 2019 — 

Many Canadians are wistfully anticipating the return of the outdoor concert season. To that, Winnipeggers say, “Every season is outdoor concert season.”

On January 25, a sold-out crowd attended the Manitoba premieres of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit and Terje Isungset’s Beauty of Winter at Glacial Time, a Winnipeg New Music Festival show held directly on the frozen Assiniboine River at The Forks in the open air Sub Zero Pavilion. It was the first time the pieces were played on water, and in freezing conditions.

Braving the -30 Celsius temperatures, the audience bundled up in parkas and sleeping bags to watch the performance , which turned out to be one of the coldest nights of the winter. The onlookers created a haze of frozen breath hanging over the pavilion as they sat on benches carved of ice and wood.

The innovative concert featured instruments made of ice, with the University of Manitoba Percussion Ensemble distributed throughout the crowd to create an immersive piece evocative of the sounds of a stark and forbidding winter landscape. That Mother Nature provided especially arctic conditions only added to the atmosphere. At one point, the unique Winnipeg environment surrounding Pavilion Sub-Zero provided a percussive cameo as trains rattled past the venue during some of the crescendos in the piece, which only added to the haunting musical experience.

The Percussion Ensemble, led by percussion instructor Victoria Sparks and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) resident conductor Julian Pellicano, had treated University of Manitoba students to a preview of the concert earlier in the week, to troubleshoot any potential problems before the concert on the river.

The students showed their mettle and devotion to music by standing outside for thirty minutes in the bitter cold and unrelenting wind. Pellicano found that he had to wear ski goggles while playing to prevent his eyeglasses from fogging up in the cold, while Sparks enlisted the help of some large chunks of ice to keep her music stand from toppling over in the wind. By Friday, the concert had been polished to perfection.

“When our hands get cold, it becomes difficult to grip, which made it hard not to drop our sticks” said Sparks. “Most of us taped our sticks with thick sports tape to make them easier to hold.”

“I loved how the piece ended,” added Sparks.

The piece was due to finish with various tinkling bells interspersed with bird calls. The final notes were to finish on Sparks’ command. However, one of the performers, standing high above the crowd, missed Sparks’ nod, and played a final, melancholy, lingering call after the other performers had finished.

“As his bird call faded away, I just thought, ‘That was perfect!'” she recalled. “It was the perfect ending to have him up high playing that last bird call just a little bit in the distance from the rest of the sounds.”

“It wasn’t what we had rehearsed,” said Sparks, “but as is often the case when you’re performing these kinds of pieces, if people trust their instincts and the players trust and react to each other in a meaningful way, then things work out even better than you had initially planned them!”

Though their mitts muffled the clapping, it was clear that the audience was thrilled by the unique experience. After the concert, the appreciative crowd filed into The Forks to thaw out and chat about the concert.

The University of Manitoba Percussion Ensemble will next play in Shared Spaces, featuring music by Ivan Trevino, Stephen Whibley, and Nathan Daughtrey. The concert will be held on March 17, 2019, in Room T2-145 of the Tache Hall Addition. For more information about the event, please visit

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