The last time tickets for a performance at the Yukon Arts Centre were in such demand, it was for the White Stripes. The centre has no online booking facility, so fans spent the night on a Whitehorse sidewalk to nab one of the 424 tickets - which were gone in eight minutes.
Centre director Eric Epstein learned his lesson: When he heard that Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra was making its first-ever trip to the Yukon to perform tonight as part of a 20-day Western Canada tour, he decided to capitalize on the expected rush of interest.
"I knew that we could sell a lot more tickets than we have capacity for," he explains from Whitehorse by phone. "So I set up a lure: Those who signed up for our Art Lover's package of six shows in one season were given the first chance at tickets for the NAC Orchestra."
It was a wily move on the part of an organization that must rely on a patchwork of subsidies and box-office receipts to cover its costs: More than 100 passes sold before they released tickets - and the waiting list is "huge."
Epstein is thrilled that such important musicians are travelling so far north. "We haven't seen an orchestra of this magnitude since the Toronto Symphony came in 1985," he recalls. Back then, Whitehorse didn't have an arts centre, and the symphony played in the auditorium of a local high school. "We raised money that night to buy a Steinway piano," he adds. "And what is really neat is that [NACO soloist]Jon Kimura Parker will be playing that very instrument."
Boris Brott, the NAC Orchestra's principal youth and family conductor - who will lead the student matinee Yukon performance, was one of the first performers to ever tread the art centre's boards. "I was there at the opening," he says. "I was with the McGill Chamber Orchestra." That was 26 years ago, and the memory remains fresh in Brott's mind: "I remember very clearly trying to fit all the instruments onto the DC-3 we were flying in," he says with a laugh.
While he is delighted that the orchestra's evening concerts are in such demand, for Brott, the real worth of the NAC is its educational outreach program. "The children's concerts are special," he says. "That is the kernel of it - what relevance this wonderful classical music has to the next generation."
He credits the orchestra's music director, Pinchas Zukerman, with the level of continued commitment to education. "For most directors, the educational aspect is considered something that has to be done - it is treated as a secondary part of the work and usually the young assistant conductor is dispatched to take care of it. But Pinchas is insistent that we will spend our resources this way."
The NAC Orchestra's director of education, Claire Speed, says there is a lot of excitement about the Yukon trip - an expensive operation involving 60 musicians and another dozen or so staff. The route was planned around making the Whitehorse leg of the Western tour affordable - the company is flying there by charter plane from Prince George, B.C.
Once there, musicians will cram as much work in with students as can be managed in a two-day trip. More than 400 high-school students will attend a matinee, and individual musicians will oversee workshops with local music students. The Whitehorse Suzuki Strings Association Group is currently without a teacher, so violinist David Thies-Thompson will mentor a group of 14 violin and viola students.
For Brott, the excitement is in seeing the reaction of children experiencing their first exposure to live classical music. "They are about the toughest audience you will ever have - you have to work to win them over," he explains. "But you are opening a new world to them and it is not just the music, but the salutary effects of the mental, emotional and creative developments that are stimulated. Each one is significant."
Whitehorse Art Centre's Epstein is already thinking about how to keep the momentum going after the orchestra leaves. "We are talking about reconnecting through the orchestra's broadband studio," he says. "It's possible there will be music lessons available over the Web."
The auditorium itself, he says, might surprise the musicians: "It is incredibly well equipped - it may even be the best venue they have ever played in."
He remains optimistic that the appetite for art in his hometown will encourage more companies to make the great trek north. "Keep showing your interest" is the key, he insists. "Eventually the world comes to you."
The National Arts Centre Orchestra's tour of Western Canada began Friday in Vancouver, stopped in Prince George, B.C., last night and travels to eight more cities after Whitehorse. The tour concludes in Winnipeg on Nov. 12 (for details: http://www.nacotour.ca/en).