AN INSPIRED 85TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION FOR R. MURRAY SCHAFER WITH THE VANCOUVER CHAMBER CHOIR

Christina Cichos (soprano), Fabiana Katz (alto), Steven Belanger (baritone), George Roberts (narrator), Vancouver Chamber Choir, Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, Jon Washburn (conductor), Chan Centre, July 6, 2018.

 All photos by Matthew Baird

All photos by Matthew Baird

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This concert celebrated the 85th birthday of distinguished Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.  It also celebrated his more than 40-year association with the Vancouver Chamber Choir and conductor Jon Washburn. The choir has now performed 27 of his works, including 12 commissions, and has made three CDs entirely devoted to his compositions. Two of the pieces performed on this occasion were composed relatively recently: Narcissus and Echo (2009) and the bigger-scale The Love that Moves the Universe, written for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. While one can regard Schafer as a true pioneer of ‘soundscapes’ and various experimental techniques, it is his awareness of the beauty and sensuality in textures, his sense of dramatic balance, and his commitment to exposing the ‘sonic pulse of the earth’ that often speaks most readily to the listener.  Everything was refreshing and uplifting about this concert, and the choir and orchestra were at their best. The documentary film and video of the composer’s ‘Sun’ shown in the first half only added to the radiance of the proceedings.

Schafer has long lived in rural Ontario, yet one recalls his strong Vancouver roots. He was enlisted by Simon Fraser University to work on soundscape projects in the late-1960s, at the very start of the (then more experimental) institution. Everyone knew of his work locally: his iconoclastic perspective on sound and the environment; his idea that ‘sound is independent of its creator’; and his early (1977) book, The Tuning of the World.  Later on, an important idea was that humans could create too many sounds, to potentially negative effect. One likely never appreciated just how influential his ‘ecological soundscape’ focus would become. Schafer won the Glenn Gould Prize in 1987; most of his Juno awards came in the next decade. He received the distinguished honour of Companion of the Order of Canada in 2013. The composer’s works have been performed regularly throughout the world and I was delighted to hear the Banff Competition-winning Rolston String Quartet’s performance of his early String Quartet No.2 (‘Waves’) last October. It’s engulfing sense of beauty and flow was absolutely distinctive. 

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The children’s vignette ‘The Star Princess and the Waterlilies’ (1984) started things off with an appealing freshness, an early work with narrator that fuses a naturalistic motif with a lovely childlike sense of wonder.  George Roberts did a fine job in telling the story, while the choir consistently brought character to a relatively simple musical fabric. The choir starts off with striking glissando, yet while these effects and some quarter tone slides appear throughout the piece, it was the charm of the singers in bringing delight to the skipping rhythms of the children’s tunes, while artfully sustaining the many soft legato lines, that stood out.  Fabiana Katz brought a touching simplicity to the Star Princess. There was sensuality and beauty throughout, and it intrigued me how wide ranging the expressive references were: some passages (those depicting the cacophony of animals at the beginning) possibly harked back to the ‘bleating sheep’ of Strauss’ Don Quixote while the innocent purity later on suggested a feeling akin to Britten’s Saint Nicolas.

The story of Narcissus and Echo derives from Ovid: a young hunter obsessed by his own beauty, who falls to his death after seeing his image reflected in a pool of water. Tiresias is the blind prophet telling the story, splendidly conveyed through the clean, firm tones of Steven Belanger, assisted by Echo (Christina Cichos) and the choir. In exploring the ephemerality of beauty, the dramatic force of Tiresias often plays off against an engaging lyricism from the choir. Offstage soloists, oscillating textures and antiphonal effects all come into play. The evolution of these musical textures was inspiring, as was the range of expression in Belanger’s narrative. The scene where Echo dissolves into nothing was special, a lovely fusion of timelessness and beauty, while the closing farewell to Narcissus – pianissimo with offstage soprano – secured a moving sense of resolution.

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The major work of the evening was The Loves that Moves the Universe, scored for both choir and orchestra, using text from the first and last cantos of Dante’s Paradiso in The Divine Comedy. One found many characteristic Schafer effects in orchestration – all the glissandi, insistent tremolos, slicing pizzicato that one recalls from his earliest days – but these were very artfully integrated with an engulfing lyrical flow that highlighted waves of choral and instrumental sound. The work involved moments of soft deliberation as well as ones of unbridled, frenzied momentum, yet maintained superb cohesion, possibly due the composer’s skill in imparting geometric symmetry to the structure (‘the geometry of the spheres’) and exploiting a role for circular form in particular. To add emphasis to this design, the ensemble was set in a large semi-circle in performance, with each singer paired with an instrumentalist. There was both a universality and a physicality in the work’s unfolding, but also a strong emotional resonance too.  In the closing Canto 33, one noticed the wonderfully ripe expression of the lower strings, building strongly and inexorably alongside the ‘love’ in the choir’s expression.  This was quite an experience – almost a transcendent ‘romantic’ one -- and the deep commitment of all performers was evident throughout.

For all the sharper, more abstract aspects of Schafer’s writing, it was noteworthy just how accessible and directly communicative these pieces were. It was a magnificent birthday celebration for a composer who has sought innovative musical and literary expression for 60 years. Jon Washburn also contributed an illuminating slant on the choir’s long association with Schafer, savouring an early story about the premiere of ‘Miniwanka’ (The Moments of Water) in 1973. The maestro expected the score to arrive in normal sheets of music; instead, it turned up as a scroll that unwound to about 20 feet. To recreate the obvious surprise, Washburn and his assistants illustrated right in front of us what the unraveling of such a scroll looked like. Fine videos of the composer’s ‘Sun’ (1986) – presented in quasi-scroll form – and the recent National Film Board interview in the composer’s home (see below) were also aired. 

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2018

THE SCHAFER EXPERIENCE