VSO New Music Festival – Second Night – Water Music Redux

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It’s a dark tale to be told, and what the Maestro may have left out in his opening remarks was that not only does music give us subtle glimpses of our “inner narrative” but also sometimes straps us to it’s back as it throws itself desperately off the roof of a burning building. Despite the fact that they’re from opposite sides of the world, Jennifer Butler and Brett Dean both managed to pen works addressing concerns about global water calamities in direct and uniquely foreboding ways.

Jennifer’s piece, Under Bleak Skies, opens up on a dark sea of sunken open intervals in the strings. Amidst this churning, we’re introduced to a pair of protagonists played by the piccolo and violin. The story’s dark turn-of-the-tale happens when a calamity occurs, and following a hysterical cry from the ensemble, the violin plummets into the sea leaving the piccolo heartbroken and hunting for her lost companion. The elegance and directness of heart-ache meted out by the piece is a familiar affect and is an effective way of localizing an emotional response to ecological catastrophe.

The closing movement of Brett Dean’s three-movement work Water Music; which bears the moniker, Parched Earth, bring us away from the ocean to an arid desert landscape. I found this movement to be the most exciting of the three as it gave us, not only the greatest variety of texture, but also gave visiting ensemble, the Raschèr Saxaphone Quartet, their best and most exposed moment in the whole work to shine. Like Jennifer’s piece, Brett was inspired by water-woes close to his heart. In Jennifer’s case, the music surmised a tangle of ecological foreboding that would be familiar to most British Columbians. Brett’s music addressed water shortages and drought in his native Australia that have broken long standing records in the recent decade.

As I was consulting the contemporary music concert rule book I noted that, while it’s not quite explicitly stated that one is never to perform music by dead composers in encores, I was elated to hear the Raschèr take on a selection from J.S. Bach’s Art Of The Fugue. Not only do they make a blissful sound together, but the way they took ownership of the music and made it their own made me extremely excited about hearing them take the stage again on Monday.

Great concert, where were you?

VSO New Music Festival – First Night – Standing Wave

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The foggy glaze that cozied up to the city was a nice accompaniment for the opening night of the VSO’s first annual New Music Festival. Local chamber ensemble Standing Wave performed a set of pieces written mostly in the past five years that, I hope, was a sign of both the quality of performance and the rapturous noise that was to come over the next three days. 

Pots n’ Pans Falling, a piece in the first half by the VSO’s composer-in-residence Edward Top, could be said to be simple to an extremely finely crafted point. He manages to spin a simple melodic idea recorded from a young violin student by staggering it in quick and precise rhythmic iterations to produce a hypnotic delay effect. The piece is a tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. One of the young survivors of the tragedy described the sound of gunfire as sounding like “pots and pans falling on the floor”. When it careens itself into it’s inevitable (yet beautiful and subdued) climax, all the instruments are teetering at the highest of precipices and 26 bell strokes are intoned to commemorate the victims of the tragedy.

Marcus Goddard’s Raven Tales was brought about by a collaboration with First Nations artist Mike Dangeli and written to reflect the varied characteristics the Raven takes on in First Nations traditions. During his pre-concert talk, the composer mentioned that the piece had been edited for length and that he had spent some time fine-tuning it’s pacing. All I can say is that this was clearly time well spent, as Raven Tales cooks like napalm all the way to the roar in it’s concluding measures.

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When an organization as visible as the VSO puts on a display of contemporary music you can be sure that virgin ears are in the audience and if all that’s on the program is Varese and Boulez it’s likely they’ll never come back. As noted by composer-in-residence Edward Top during his opening remarks, it really was only about 20 years ago that pretty much all supposedly serious composers were writing in a style that would send the average listener rushing for a soup ladle to gouge out their ear drums (My own verbage added). At least half of the composers on the program were born in the 80’s and have an accessible sound world that likely reflects growing up in an age that loosened the idea of style being somehow tied to merit.

Because contemporary music often only gets to be a footnote on a concert program, or a citation in an index somewhere if not anonymous scrawls in a water closet, and because we tend to draw from an established canon of music rather than trying something untested, contemporary music in the classical world has been slow to kick off it’s reputation of being overly serious and estranged from the ordinary listener. I remember hearing pieces excerpted from the Winnipeg New Music Festival, also spearheaded by Maestro Tovey, on the CBC when the CBC played classical music during waking hours, and what struck me, in addition to the music, was the roar of an audience giving it’s approval. The Winnipeg festival has been going on for almost a quarter of a century now and citing it’s success has been a great way to instill confidence in the management that there is an audience for music written by people that haven’t quite gotten around to dying yet. A lot of the ceremony one finds at a traditional classical concert has been sanded down to a nub for this festival: Performers lose the tuxes in favor of more casual dress, there is seating on stage for the audience if they want to get closer to the performers, and the stamping of feet and whooping of vocal chords is encouraged. I think Maestro Tovey is banking on contemporary music having what it takes, and being sufficiently developed, to reach the audience of it’s time in the same way Beethoven reached his. This first night is an exciting development at the Orpheum and bodes well for music makers and consumers alike.

Great concert, where were you?