“A Prairie Christmas” adds momentum to SMC music series

Janelle Nadeau

by Larry Danielson

The Nadeau Ensemble presented “A Prairie Christmas” at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Winkler on Sunday, November 26. The performance was the second in the 2023-24 subscription series of Southern Manitoba Concerts, a regional organization which this season is celebrating its 50th year as an arts tour sponsor.

“A Prairie Christmas” was a well-crafted program that offered both variety and familiarity, intended to immerse listeners in the “sounds, stories and memories” of their holiday heritage and to evoke joy, nostalgia, and solace. The afternoon performance included 16 songs of the season, with a mixture of instrumental and vocal numbers and two audience sing-along opportunities. Selections ranged from such familiar standards as “Joy to the World,” “We Three Kings,” and “Silent Night” to French carols, Jewish melodies, and lively Spanish numbers.

“Passacagalia” and “Baroque Flamenco,” both in the second half of the program, elicited a strong audience reaction, especially the dramatic flamenco performance which prompted spontaneous cheers. Playing the Baroque minuet fused with Latin rhythms, harpist Janelle Nadeau demonstrated amazing virtuosity. Her hands were almost a blur as she strummed the harp strings and slapped the sound board.

Nadeau, organizer of the ensemble, is a prairie girl from Fannystelle, Manitoba who now resides on the West Coast and performs regularly with the Vancouver Opera, the Vancouver Symphony, and a variety of other music groups.

Early in the SMC concert, she introduced the three other gifted members of her ensemble. Joaquin Ayala, a musical colleague and friend of 18 years, plays a variety of medieval instruments, including nykkleharpa, harmonium, and hurdy gurdy.

Cellist Natanielle Felicitas, now Winnipeg-based, is classically trained but comfortably crosses genres to perform folk, pop, and experimental music. Quinton Bart, like Felicitas, is Winnipeg-based, and like Nadeau was raised in rural Manitoba. In the Winkler concert, he played both the double bass and the hurdy-gurdy.

The medieval instruments, though no longer common in most performances, matched the music well, complementing the harp and cello with a European folk sound. Several readings, interspersed between the musical selections, reflected the theme of light coming into the darkness. They seemed fitting both for our early winter season and for an audience emerging from post-pandemic times.

Nadeau said at the outset of the concert that it was “a massive pleasure” for her to be with the audience and to perform again during SMC’s historic 50th year. This November concert in Winkler marked her third appearance in the Southern Manitoba Concerts series. She first appeared in a Valley Arts concert in 2011-12, when SMC was celebrating its 40 anniversary. She returned five years later, offering her first “Prairie Christmas” performance, in the company of world-renowned Celtic harpist Kim Robertson. Then, as now, Joaquin Ayala accompanied her with medieval instruments.

This most recent concert reflected Nadeau’s steady growth as an artist, with impressive harp skills developed through years of practice and a comfortable stage presence gleaned from hours of live performance. “A Prairie Christmas” was a crowd-pleaser and the ensemble well deserved the standing ovation. For Nadeau, the concert also was a family affair. Not only were her parents on hand to assist with logistics and administrative details, but her young son Aevan attended one of her performances for the first time.

Sharron Wiens, SMC’s current president, welcomed the large audience of subscribers to the Christmas-concert and commended the community-minded citizens who years ago volunteered much time and energy to begin the series. Their vision has lasted five decades and SMC now attracts subscribers from over 20 rural communities in the region.

Dedicated to bringing high-quality yet affordable music to residents in Southern Manitoba, the organization has become one of the longest running and most successful musical tour sponsors in the country. SMC’s longevity is in itself a remarkable achievement; it has outlasted the predictions of tour-sponsoring experts. Many comparable organizations last only ten or fifteen years, especially if they host their programs in multiple communities, as SMC always has done.

Like many nonprofit arts organizations, SMC has faced the challenge of regaining its momentum after the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown but, judging by the size of the Sunday audience, it is making good progress. A number of the subscribers at the Christmas concert likely could disclose the secrets of SMC’s survival and success, having themselves served at one time or another as volunteers with the organization.

High on the list would be programming, the choice of artists who grace the stage in fall, winter and spring. From the outset, SMC has sought to bring to the region professional performers who are inspiring, affordable, and appealing to an inter-generational audience. Long-time subscribers may recall such well-known names as the Vienna Boys Choir, guitarist Liona Boyd, pianist Anton Kuerti, violinist James Ehnes, tenor Ben Heppner, the Von Trapp Family Singers, Tafelmusik, Black Umfolosi, the Ennis Sisters, the San Francisco Opera Company, the National Arts Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and many others.

A notable strength of SMC programmers has been their ability to identify emerging artists, those who may become household names in the future. Cellist Shauna Rolston was still a youthful musician when she played in the series. The East-coast based Rankin Family appeared here just before they gained national prominence. Even the Canadian Brass were not well known when they first performed for SMC. They have favoured the series by returning several times since gaining world acclaim, most recently as this season’s opening concert.

Besides bringing well-known and emerging artists into the region, SMC since its beginning has sought to feature regional talent. The program archives for the Valley Arts concert records the appearances of Loren Hiebert, Wes Hamm, Leanne Zacharias, Cristina Zacharias, the late Ben Kehler, and many more. Both Loreena McKennitt of Morden and Rosemary Siemens of Plum Coulee performed in SMC’s Valley Arts concerts before going on to international renown and global music careers.

A second “secret” of SMC’s success has been its ability to attract long-term, committed volunteers. Like the community-minded citizens who started the tour-sponsoring series, these individuals donate hours of their time to insure that people in the region can enjoy quality arts programming at affordable prices. Their dedicated service allows SMC to offer subscriptions at a fraction of the cost that might be required in a larger urban centre.

Yet another SMC strength that casual concert-goers might not notice is the organization’s history of financial prudence. In addition to the contribution of volunteers and the generosity of regional donors, SMC takes a conservative approach to budgeting, occasionally taking risks but trying not to be overly optimistic about future revenues. Even with hard work and careful planning, things can go wrong. The recent pandemic shutdown is proof of that. In the early years, the organization established a small reserve fund that could be tapped in the event of contingencies and that has enabled SMC to survive some of the ups and downs that have come its way.

As well, while individual tickets are available for sale, SMC remains primarily a subscription series. This saves money for those who subscribe by focusing the marketing investment on the season rather than concert-by-concert programs. It also makes it possible for SMC to rely on volunteer marketing efforts and not to incur the cost of paid staff.

One thing that SMC does not do is ask performers to reduce their fee. The organizers know that in Canada most artists have precarious working conditions—fluctuating income, lack of benefits, and limited funds to develop new performances or to seek further training. With SMC, approximately 70 percent of every subscriber dollar goes directly to the performing artists.

A final “secret” in SMC’s success and longevity may be the least apparent, its commitment to working regionally and hosting concerts in several communities. The regional concept—being co-operative, not competitive—brings distinct challenges including finding enough volunteers from each community and adequate facilities to suit the needs of performers and a large-audience. Yet each community brings distinctive strengths to the table. SMC can draw on a broader range of expertise with local representatives speaking to the needs and interests of their particular area.

SMC speaks of “Concerts Connecting Communities” and that was evident at “The Prairie Christmas Concert.” Before the concert and during intermission, many subscribers visited in the Emmanuel church lobby or in the sanctuary, talking about the music or catching up on events in their lives. It seemed clear, as one organizer said, that after the months of pandemic isolation “people were ready to come out.” It also seems clear that after years of arts tour-sponsoring, the SMC vision is still alive and thriving.