Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Scene Report: New Music

Scene Report: New Music

Keen readers might remember a few months ago when I was supporting a new-fangled initiative called the New Music Passport. Well, I settled in to using mine, and by chance I made it to three shows that were clustered within a few days, making for a nice chance to get a bit of an overview of a cultural realm that's a little outside my normal routines. Going to three events in a row like this was also a chance to quickly build up a repertoire of familiar faces. Besides a dedicated audience that turned out for multiple shows, one could get a sense of musicians from one organization in the crowd at the other shows — both signs of an engaged community.

Esprit Orchestra: Orion. Thursday, January 31, 2013.

The Ensemble: One of the big guns on the local New Music scene, Esprit is "Canada's only full-sized orchestra devoted exclusively to performing and promoting new orchestral music". This gives them the scale to tackle works for larger ensembles, and in turn there's a more visceral impact that you can only get from a true orchestral wall of sound.

The Venue: This show was at Koerner Hall in the Royal Conservatory of Music — a beautiful venue that I don't get to often enough. A large space that manages to feel friendly via its curvaceous features, it's a really lovely-sounding room — and as a relatively new venue, it still feels sleek and fresh. The seats also have some of the ass-friendliest cushions in town, one of those oft-overlooked features that really allow you to settle in, relax, and groove to the sounds.

The Music: This programme was assembled to celebrate three separate anniversaries. It's been thirty years since the death of Claude Vivier, who has since become one of the very select number of Canadian art music composers that is played outside his nation of birth. That alone is enough to imply that he should be more famous 'round these parts — never mind his opera/concept album-ready biographical backstory, capped with a particularly tawdry death scene.

His Orion, self-described as "a melody on the trumpet... instrument of death in the Middle Ages", really seems to reflect darkly on his own stormy life. And it might have been me reading back into those biographical facts, but given how much angst and melodrama there was in the music, the ensemble would have done well to fully embrace it, instead of reining it in enough that no one's monocles would drop out in shock. This is a piece, after all, that instructs the percussionist to start shouting, and given how the strings cut in right after that like death's choir descending, it should be a mortally-wounded cri de coeur1 — instead, what we got here was a polite bellow that sounded like Harry Belafonte's day-o. Of course, maybe I'm going beyond the writer's intent, and trying to turn this into a piece entitled "Queer Catholic Angst + Fatal Existential Crisis", but this should have simultaneously more operatically melodramatic and fucking punk rock.

The second anniversary being celebrated, taking up the second half of the programme, was the centenary of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps. The Rite of Spring is rather notorious for nearly causing an art-riot on its première in April 1913 — and ever henceforth a flagpole for convention-challenging musical provocations. What musta registered then as a terrible clamour sounds more like a garden-variety cataclysm a century later, and more than the pagan ritual described in the piece's original ballet it feels like a flash-forward to the war-fury that would soon be consuming Europe. It still registers as a bracing bit of music, though, even as presented in a Johnathan McPhee's re-orchestration for reduced orchestra.

And arching over those other anniversaries is Esprit's thirtieth an an ensemble, being celebrated throughout this whole season. In a sign that they're staying relevant, the most intriguing item on the night was the unveiling of a new piece by Paul Frehner that was commissioned for the occasion. His Phantom Suns had a vibrantly visual quality to it — a hazy, warped shivering delivery that tangibly evoked the title's sundogs. The smeary microtonal slides felt like the musical equivalent of shaky 8mm handheld footage, false suns vibrating at the the edges of the frame. It didn't quite maintain the luminescence of its opening — the second movement, which moved tangentially to incorporate references to cryptography didn't register as clearly — but this was an exciting piece that will hopefully live on past this first performance.

The Vibe: This was undoubtedly the poshest of the three shows I attended. When I presented my Passport to get my $5 seat, I was expecting something up in the rafters, but was pleased to end up not too far back on the floor, in a single-seat left over in the middle of a row. When I saw Adrienne Clarkson settling into the row in front of me, I figured I had done pretty well for myself. Unsurprisingly, this had the most intense "night-at-the-symphony" vibe, and with $55 regular tickets, caters to the more bourgeois set. But if you can afford it, it's a nice night out. There was a pre-concert talk, and the concert program came with a glossy three colour cover.

Coming up: Esprit's season concludes on Thursday, March 28, 2013 with 30 and Counting!, further celebrating their anniversary season. The highlight there looks to be Burn, a new double concerto composed for the occasion by Erik Ross, featuring the sax work of Wallace Halladay (about whom there will be more below) as well as arrangements of "Purple Haze" and The Twilight Zone theme.

The Toy Piano Composers: Artistic Differences. Saturday, February 2, 2013.

The Ensemble: Now in their fifth season, TPC are "a collective of emerging composers" banding together to present new works in a smaller ensemble (the core group is six members).

The Venue: I always feel a little out of sorts going to Yorkville, but Heliconian Hall (located behind Hazleton Lanes) was a gem of a venue. The spot was new to me, but the former church has been home to the Heliconian Club (for "women in the arts and letters") since 1923. "Homey" and "cozy" come to mind, and I felt immediately relaxed in the intimate space, which doesn't fit much more than a hundred people in the audience.

The Music: All of the night's pieces were new compositions that were inspired by works of art. Most of the artworks were paintings, although Christian Floisand's Sylvian Swocery responded to a piece of concept art from the Sword & Sworcery video game and Chris Thornborrow's "Walking" was inspired by Ryan Larkin's famous NFB animation of the same name. For many, both the original pieces and the composers were on hand to give a sense of what they were responding to in the works.

All six were engagingly composed and performed, but I was especially taken with Patrick Murray's "Skin and Bone", which conveyed the inner glow and fleshy tactility of Ognian Zekoff's large-scale oil-painting of a pair of hands.

The Vibe: In "playing" music, especially self-serious art music, the sense of "play" is often lost. Even while respecting the integrity of the compositions, TPC kept a playful vibe throughout, extending to the introductions and chats with the composers.

It was noteworthy that this was the only show of these three I saw to feature woman composers — something that shouldn't be an oddity in 2013. That was one more thing that made me feel like this isn't just source-material for the academy or museum — the vibrant exuberance here was more akin to how I feel at a regular gig. The group's DIY spirit makes them the indie rock band of the New Music scene, and they should be embraced as such — this is a group that's ready for an audience outside the cloisters of the classical crowd.

The concert program was also photocopied DIY-style, and the venue has a bar at the back, so you can enjoy a beer while the music is playing. There were also free snacks on offer at intermission. As mentioned, the introductions to the pieces were well-integrated into the program itself.

Coming up: TPC's season concludes on March 23, 2013 with Threshold, with the group playing host to Montréal’s Ensemble Paramirabo. I was quickly converted to being a fan, and look forward to seeing the group again. TPC offer very affordable $10 advance tickets, so this is the group to see for anyone wanting to get their feet wet in contemporary composed music.

New Music Concerts: Canadian Music, Past, Present and Future. Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Ensemble: What might seem like a frightfully generic name is explained by the fact that NMC were the first in the field, founded in 1971 when New Music was that much newer as a concept. That makes them an institution with a bit of an old-school feel (their social media presence, for one thing, is a bit less-developed than the other groups) — but also with a proud track record and strong institutional memory in the form of musical director Robert Aitken, the group's founder who remains a ubiquitous presence at local New Music events. The group has been supporting Canadian composers from the outset, all while keeping connected with the broader global cultural context.

The Venue: Although NMC also presents some smaller shows at The Music Gallery and Gallery 345, its main home is the Betty Oliphant Theatre. Part of the National Ballet School, I'd walked past the theatre's modest Jarvis Street entrance countless times without realizing there was a high-calibre venue behind the doors. Designed as a training facility, it was "modelled after the performing space at the O'Keefe Centre", which was formerly the National Ballet's home. That meant there was a very large stage and a lot of open space in the hall, though it was still a fairly intimate space with the 300 retractable seats feeling close to the action. The huge footprint of the stage sometimes threatened to swallow up the ensemble — especially in the smaller group pieces — but it sounded very good.

The Music: A solid mix of established names and up-and-comers meant this was a good overview of the breadth of NMC's musical interests. At the established end of the spectrum, the night began with 2011's Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp by R. Murray Schafer — probably as big a celebrity as there is in the Canadian New Music firmament. This piece felt like a springtime trip to a protected forest glade, gently lyrical at first before the later movements gathered in a evening's sober stillness. That was followed by John Weinzweig's Interplay, commissioned by NMC back in '98. Weinzweig — a founder of the Canadian League of Composers and proponent of serialism — was known as the "dean of Canadian composers" for his lifetime of teaching and writing, but this piece (as implied by the title) was far more playful than didactic. A series of musical conversations between piccolo, tuba and piano, this would work perfectly as "dialogue" in a wordless cartoon, the high trills and low blurts caught in a constant back-and-forth mediated by the piano that occasionally wanted to upstage them. The comedic element was driven home midway through as the piccolo and tuba players started shuffling their chairs closer and closer to the piano, before standing up and leaning in to utter an exclamation to the pianist's face. It was a bit long, but at least managed to keep undercutting itself in ways like that.2

The "then" was rounded out by Brian Cherney's clockwork confection Die klingende Zeit while the "now" of the programme was represented by works from two young composers. I've encountered Adam Scime before, and his In The Earth And Air showed a development of some of the themes and techniques in evidence at his Music Gallery show. Here, his music flowed from his use of imagist poetry, employing texts from James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Brandon Pitts. Those were set for soprano Carla Huhtanen to sing, and while I don't fully "get" operatic singing — it doesn't convey emotional cues in a way that I can register — the layered strings created a slightly-prickly sound blanket that I could appreciate.

My fave piece of the night was the evening's other première, Brian Harman's En Masse. Part of that might arisen from the fact I was stoked to see Wallace Halladay — one of the city's best reedsmen — on stage, but Harman created an intriguing backdrop for him, with percussionist Rick Saks well-deployed here. "Inspired by elements of ritual in music", Harman evoked group-singing and incantations (especially audible in some of Halliday's ace blowing and clacking) that moved from pleasingly dreamy swoops to faster exchanges.

The Vibe: Cutting the difference between the two above shows, this had a bit of turtleneck formality set against a more stripped-down, intimate scale. Tickets are still on the steep side (this one had a walk-up price of $35), but this was a very worthy excursion. The show was preceded with a conversation between Aitken and several of the night's composers, and there were some free snacks and wine available afterwards for those inclined to mingle.

Coming up: NMC's season finishes with "A Tribute to Gilles Tremblay" on Saturday April 27, 2012, featuring works for solo piano by Louise Bessette.

By way of summing up, I should mention how pleased I was that all of these organizations chose to participate in the New Music Passport program — it's a wonderful tool to reel in curious ears and I hope it's brought back again next year. For us hoi polloi, it's an expensive proposition to dip a toe into the high culture, so anything that makes this sort of music accessible is definitely to be applauded.

1 It brought to mind John Lennon's comment: "when you're drowning, you don't say 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,' you just scream."

2 On what would have been his 100th year, John Weinzweig will be receiving a "Centenary Celebration Concert" at U of T's Walter Hall on Friday, March 8, 2013. Admission is free — more info here.

No comments:

Post a Comment