Members of Winnipeg’s Steel Orchestra delighted their audience with “something for everyone” at their annual winter concert.
Described by orchestra leader, Ruthven Nimblett, as Winnipeg’s best kept secret, you would not have known it by the “standing room only” attendance at St. Boniface University Auditorium on the afternoon of Sun. Dec. 7.
The orchestra presented a wonderful array of beautiful tones that although unique to the ‘steel pan’, were reflective of a full concert orchestra. The program was a blend of seasonal tunes and carols with classic tunes that were as fitting today as when they were written.
John Lennon’s Imagine and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind continue to convey hope for the future and frustration with conflict and injustice in our world.
Vocalist, Joan Loyd, took the stage to perform her renditions of Put a Little Love in Your Heart and Angel of the Morning accompanied by selected musicians. Jenna Khan of CityTV’s Breakfast Television did a fine job as emcee educating the audience with tidbits of information about ‘the pan’ and the orchestra.
One gets the sense that steel orchestra performance is choreographed as considerable movement is required to produce the required notes in sync with the other musicians.
An audience member commented she was thoroughly enjoying the performance and it reminded her of warmer places. Yet, although the steel pan is most often associated with a traditional calypso or reggae style, it is most definitely not tied to these.
Winter Wonderland had a distinct swing feel while Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale felt just like … well Procol Harum. Feliz Navidad was upbeat and happy as it should be.
After an encore of the opening Carol Medley, the audience was invited on stage to visit with band members and learn about the pan. Many took advantage of this opportunity.
The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra has been part of Winnipeg’s cultural mosaic since 1972. They have performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (the other WSO) and were part of the closing ceremonies of the 1999 Pan Am Games. I also learned that Queen Elizebeth II owns a pan.
The instrument is played with two rubber-tipped sticks and produces the full chromatic scale of notes. Arrangers can create a melodic percussion of heated calypsos, soft jazz and intricate classics for the orchestras.
The pan is the only non-electrical instrument invented in the twentieth century. It is the national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.
Although originally constructed from oil drums, the instruments are now finely crafted to produce the range of sounds of a concert band. In fact, most pans are given the names of instruments familiar to the general public. One pan is referred to as a diminished cello, while another is referred to as a guitar. There is a tenor bass and a low bass. The names reflect the pitch ranges of the instruments and the type of roles they might have in a four part harmony arrangement.
One former member, Meera Thadani, who plays trombone with the Winnipeg New Horizons Band, has played the tenor bass pan with the WSO. She explained, “[Her] role in the New Horizon Band is very similar to what I play in the Steel Orchestra. We keep the beat, and we also have interesting melodies and counter melodies to compliment the other voices in the orchestra.”
“I am finding it lots of fun,” said Lawrence Klepachek, a new member of the orchestra. “Everyone there is very helpful, with hints and taking the time to make sure everyone progresses as well as being patient while you learn a passage that they have mastered long ago. Learning any new instrument always improves your understanding of music and helps to make you a better musician though there are many times one asks, ‘This is hard, why did I decide to do this?'”
The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra always welcomes visitors. Practices are held at 1122 Stanford St. The WSO motto: “You can’t keep a good pan down.”
All photos by Craig MacKenzie