Meet our Organizers: Brent Johnson from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Culture Days

Mar 14, 2022

Meet our Organizers Series
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The annual Culture Days celebration would not be possible without the creativity, hard work, and passion of our organizers. Through this series we want to highlight some exceptional organizers and arts and culture champions who help make the Culture Days celebration what it is across Canada. Recently we caught up with Brent Johnson, Associate Director, Education & Community at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO). We wanted to know more about his work connecting community and music through experiences—here’s what Brent had to say.

Brent Johnson. Photo credit: Chronic Creative.
Brent Johnson. Photo credit: Chronic Creative.

Hi Brent! Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Brent Johnson, I am the Associate Director, Education & Community at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO), and this is my 11th season with the orchestra. My role has changed and grown over the years to include even more of what I love most—connecting community and music through experiences. My department does a wide range of things including a vast array of educational programs, which these days is mostly virtual content and experiences, but usually involves engaging large numbers of students with different kinds of experiences, from attending a rehearsal, to performing on stage with the orchestra and everything in between—all designed to remove barriers and make the orchestra both inspiring and accessible.

If you had to describe Winnipeg using 3 words, what would they be?

Cold (or hot), welcoming, creative. Ok, that’s technically four words, but Winnipeg is a city of extremes, and we certainly have experienced extreme weather more frequently lately, with +40 in the summer and -40 (or colder) in the winter. Winnipeggers are also extremely welcoming to anyone who visits, especially to anyone who wants to make this great place their home, and we are extremely creative. Our entire community is filled with resilient people who do and create beautiful things that constantly amaze me.

How would you define the WSO’s role within Winnipeg’s artistic community?

The WSO is deeply integrated and connected with so many facets and folks in our arts community. We have been fortunate to collaborate and make music with many of the most amazing people from within our own community. Our role is a combination of leading, listening, and collaboration. By lead I mean we are a large organization so a lot of people look to us and how we serve our community, and we try hard to honour that role by being innovative and reflecting our community in what we do. But, like I mentioned, our community is also extremely creative and innovative, and there are so many great ideas and wonderful artists right here in our own backyard, so we are always listening and looking for wonderful new artists and projects with whom we can collaborate and share the stage.

We have tried many different things over the years, and maybe that is one of the great things about Culture Days—it inspires us to innovate and use it as an opportunity to connect with individuals and communities that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to do so.

What do you look forward to the most each year as Director of Education & Community at the WSO? Which community and education programs/initiatives really move you?

That’s a tough one—I love everything I do, because it is all so amazing and fulfilling. To pick one, just before Covid we held our first two relaxed experiences at two matinee concerts. While I was very nervous about doing this for the first time, we were so fortunate to have the guidance of wonderful partners and collaborators at the Canadian Mennonite University Music Therapy program, and Prelude Music who helped us design and implement what was a really inclusive and welcoming experience. I’ve never felt such joy and excitement in Centennial Concert Hall as I did during our first relaxed experience concert—patrons came running up to myself and my colleagues afterwards to express their gratitude for welcoming and accomodating them in this way. Unfortunately, Covid had other plans for us after that, and we have had to cancel a few times since then. We do have plans for more relaxed experiences soon. As I reflect on what I love the most, not only is it the joy I feel when others are having really positive experiences, it’s also the excitement, passion, and expertise of others that is a motivator and a driver for me—I love learning for our partners, and working with them to create even better, more meaningful experiences than we could on our own.

RBC Conductors Showcase. September 2021. Photo credit: Chronic Creative.
RBC Conductors Showcase. September 2021. Photo credit: Chronic Creative.

The shifting pandemic continues to present unique challenges for the performing arts. How is the WSO adapting to maintain community engagement, accessibility, and participation?

Covid has indeed been challenging, and has tested us in countless ways, but we have also been fortunate to be able to adapt by embracing streaming and sharing our concerts virtually. One of the really beautiful aspects of this is you can go back and revisit your favourite moments, or watch a concert outside of the time of the live concert. Streaming has also opened doors to reaching communities that are normally too far away for us to visit, or for folks to come experience us at Centennial Concert Hall, and to folks who face barriers to physically coming to see us in-person.

How did you first hear about Culture Days? Why do you feel compelled to have the WSO participate year after year?

Truthfully, I think my first year at WSO was the first year I learned of Culture Days. We have tried many different things over the years, and maybe that is one of the great things about Culture Days—it inspires us to innovate and use it as an opportunity to connect with individuals and communities that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to do so. Plus, there are just so many incredible Culture Days opportunities in Manitoba, we have decided to really embrace it and make Culture Days part of the fabric of what we do at the WSO.

A conductor showcase, a community celebration, and a beer journey. Tell us more about these super cool Culture Days events that the WSO put on in 2021.

We were really fortunate to be able to offer, for the first time, a combination of virtual and in-person events as part of Culture Days this fall. The RBC Conductor Showcase is typically a biennial event that is an important part of our strategy to support and provide opportunities to emerging Canadian artists, in this case conductors. With a bit of creative scheduling we were able to expand to a two-day event as part of Culture Days that for the first time had a public concert, and a post-concert conductor chat at one of our amazing partners and neighbours, Nonsuch Brewing Co., who does indeed create delicious beer journeys (like a flight, but without the paddle). In expanding the showcase, not only were we able to provide more learning opportunities for our participants, we were also able to demystify conducting a bit by providing a glimpse into both the process of conducting an orchestra, and what goes through a conductor’s mind while they are on and off the podium.

Our Community Celebration Concert is a growing WSO tradition that also took place as part of Culture Days for the first time this year (thanks Covid, this should have been the 2nd year…). It is a wonderful opportunity to showcase some of the amazing emerging talent from within our own community, and it too is a wonderful way to open our doors to folks who might otherwise not come to experience the orchestra whether they attend in-person or enjoy it virtually.

WSO x Kilter Brewing Co. “good music & good beer” event. October 2021.
WSO x Kilter Brewing Co. “good music & good beer” event. October 2021.

We also collaborated with another local brewery, Kilter Brewing, who hosted an evening of chamber music performed by a quartet of WSO musicians. I have to credit my colleague Anna who recently joined our team in a new role; she is very thoughtful and terrific at curating unique experiences. We were gifted with a beautiful fall evening to share this experience with a very full house of Winnipeggers who were eager to experience the WSO in a new, more intimate context, and paired with great local food and drink, all of which made for a really enjoyable evening.

It’s a brand new year! What are you most excited about for the WSO in 2022?

I will be the first to admit that I am looking forward to returning to more in-person experiences, and hopefully with fewer Covid restrictions. That said, we will also continue livestreaming concerts, and I am excited to see how we can leverage virtual experiences to connect with even more of our community. As a parent of young children, it even makes it easier for me to experience the orchestra, and virtual experiences remove so many of the barriers that might otherwise prevent someone from coming down to experience us in-person at the concert hall. It’s a whole new era for the arts, and I am excited to see what we and other arts organizations are able to do with these new virtual platforms.

This article is part of the Meet our Organizers blog series. Find more profiles here.