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Proper conduct 

Symphony Nova Scotia hires young dynamo Dinuk Wijeratne to be its assistant conductor. Jane Kansas gets his story.

It is, to use Dinuk Wijeratne’s word for it, serendipitous that he is here in Halifax, of all places.

Wijeratne and his mother, Vino, a well-known ballet teacher in Dubai, wanted to be residents of Canada. Why Canada? Because Vino’s best friend lives here. In Toronto? No. In Vancouver? No.

In Clayton Park.

So Wijeratne was already focussed on Halifax, already had ties here, when he saw a posting for a two-season contract as Resident Conductor with Symphony Nova Scotia. He went through the application process, sending in a video, making the short list, coming here to audition by conducting the orchestra. Wijeratne had to prepare an entire Beethoven symphony plus work by Wagner—they were required. Wijeratne chose a modern string piece as well, by Canadian Christos Hatzsis. After he finished conducting, Bernhard Gueller (the music director, a German, a Beethoven specialist) said to him, “I miss the aggression.” Wijeratne got the job.

The SNS offices are on the third floor of Park Lane. In a small room there Dinuk Wijeratne is formal, yet quick to laugh. In person he is small, elfin. And cute. When he gets lost in thought he tugs at the top of his left ear.

About his job here he says, “I feel very lucky. It’s rare that a student walks away from school directly into such a job. Usually you have to do a lot of crap work first.”

Born in Sri Lanka, raised in Dubai, Wijeratne studied composition in England and then at New York’s Julliard School. He has already had his debut at Carnagie Hall as a conductor, composer and pianist. He’s 27 years old.

Mozart was the first classical composer Wijeratne heard. When he was about 12 years old, he was still living in Dubai, in a villa near the Persian Gulf. He had bought a audio tape box set of Mozart’s work; he doesn’t know why anymore. He thinks it might have been the art on the box. He had just been on holiday in Sri Lanka, and had returned with a Sony Walkman. At night, with the lights off, he tried a cassette and the player for the first time. The first thing he heard was the first movement (not the second movement; that’s the one made famous in the film Elvira Madigan) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C.

“It was the most perfect thing I had ever heard,” says Wijeratne. “I thought, whatever this is, I want to do it. Whatever it takes.” Wijeratne’s eyes close briefly. “I hadn’t imagined anything so beautiful.

“I still gravitate to Mozart. I am less about struggle and more about grace and beauty. It’s all relative. Beethoven and Brahms are more about struggle. Well, it’s not that I’m not into struggle—I am. Struggle is essential to art. It’s drama and melodrama I’m not much into.”

That we have someone as young and passionate as Wijeratne, and that he has strong ties to Halifax, is wonderful. That he believes in the “universality” of music gives a promise of collaborations to come. Wijeratne founded the cutting-edge New York-based multimedia group NEOLEXICA in 2003, together with Turkish DJ Umut Gokcen, Silk Road Ensemble artist Kevork Mourad from Armenia and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh (a soloist with Daniel Barenboim’s Divan Orchestra for Arabs and Israelis). The quartet combines live illustration with a uniquely multinational blend of acoustic and electronic music. Wijeratne and Kinan Azmeh continue their long-standing recital partnership of original compositions and improvisations which explore new sonorities, Middle Eastern and South Asian influences. It’s easy to fantasize about him hooking up here with folks like Mitchell Wiebe, Lukas Pearse or Peter Togni.

This summer Wijeratne will meet in Los Angeles with a tabla-playing friend and work on writing a piece in New York.

“I still need to slot in my own art,” he says, “Conducting full-time wouldn’t give me enough.” And next autumn, Halifax will have him again.

Wijeratne next conducts SNS at the Rebecca Cohn, on February 17, with soloist Matt Mays and songs by Mays arranged for orchestra.

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