Monica Huisman soprano, Paolo Kapunan, turntablist; Works by Oswald, Leggatt, Lizee, Previn, Di Castri and Ruders, VSO ensemble directed by Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum Annex, February 22, 2015

“Displaced Emotion” maintains the momentum of the VSO’s New Music Festival held in mid-January, allowing a further engagement with contemporary composers and a sophisticated tasting of the avant-garde. Six composers were represented, yielding a compositional variety that ranged from strongly abstract and experimental to politically-motivated.  It was quite an enlightening experience.  The efforts of composer, and VSO maestro, Bramwell Tovey and VSO Composer-In-Residence Jocelyn Morlock to push ‘contemporary music’ programming forward are strongly acknowledged. 

The evening began with a work of political inspiration and mid-nighties zeitgeist: John Oswald’s Homonymy. The title refers to the linguistic phenomena of words with disparate meanings that happen to sound the same.  A key feature of this work is the projection of both homographs and homophones in English and French in noticeably serifed typefaces on a large screen behind the musicians, sufficiently predominant that it gave a feeling of a short film on Canadian bilingualism with a live score.  The music essentially served to give aural punctuation to the visual theme that the task of communicating in two languages at the same time can lead to misunderstanding, as conveyed by the black and white images on screen. For Canadians, the composition was a refreshing aide-mémoire of a time when our national identity as bi-linguists was perhaps in serious jeopardy.  There were some performance issues concerning the synchronization of the visuals to the music.  Bramwell Tovey wore headphones connected to the playback of a ‘click-track’, or metronome, but this sometimes this seemed an encumbrance.  Accuracy might have been better served by redesigning the stage layout so that the musicians could actually see the screen.   

Jacqueline Leggatt’s small ensemble composition, Variations on Exact Tensions, exhibits a strong understanding of texture and counterpoint in a contemporary harmonic idiom.  The work could be regarded on a sort of ‘tone poem’ on finding the balance between opposing tensions.  As a piece, it seemingly implies that such balance is desirable within any formal system, including but not limited to music, demonstrating this on a pleasingly simple theme reminiscent of a French folk song.  Dale Baltrop (violin) and Karin Walsh (oboe) gave their soloistic moments a level of intimacy, combining with an ensemble whose instrumental decisions made this work joyful to listen to.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a spoken word composition by soul and jazz artist Gil Scott-Heron, first recorded in 1970, and appears to be the defining influence for Nicole Lizee’s electro-acoustic work entitled: This Will Not Be Televised. The marrying of pre-recorded elements with live performance is challenging for even the most accomplished of composers.  This piece was performed superlatively well, VSO members being joined on stage by ‘DJ’ Paolo Kapunan, a star performer in his own right.  His commitment to the work and it’s fidelity in reproduction was inspiring to watch.

Andre Previn’s Four Songs for Soprano, Cello, and Piano is an audacious work that sets the poems of Toni Morrison to music. Morrison’s poetry is a compelling, almost heartbreakingly powerful, womanist voice that melds effectively with Previn’s compositional skill, resulting in short free verse songs of towering declamatory power set in “speech-song” style.  While Morrison poems might be seen to inhabit the style or narratology of feminism, her works likely stand as defining statements regardless of gender. The poems selected by Previn for musical setting are testaments to love unashamedly given, unapologetically demanded, and the emotional rewards of a life so completely lived; heady stuff indeed!  I am sure that the key to the successful performance of such work does require some intimate understanding of the role of Woman as Artist but, unfortunately, this somewhat eludes soprano Monica Huisman on this occasion.  Her voice is powerful, as is her presence.  However, the soprano did not make it apparent that she can enter the vulnerability and rich interiority that Morrison encoded into her poems.  I think her enunciation tends to be heavy and that she does not make the most of her opportunities to musically deliver the dramatic impact of the poetry.  Passion is something that Huisman does convey well but, when so unrelieved in its intensity, I find that it soon loses its ability to convey content, here almost falling to a low-level anger with little object.  

Zosha Di Castri’s small ensemble work Cortege (2010) is a challenge for both listener and performer, forcibly bring out just how flexible and technically innovative today’s musicians must be in order to meet the requirements of emerging compositions. Bramwell Tovey is to be praised for the standard of musicianship and leadership exhibited in this work -- very audible in the final product.  What is less clear is what Di Castri is trying to tell us in Cortege.  There are many musical works that have been entitled ‘Cortege,’ and processional marches with pageantry have a history into antiquity.  I fail to see such here, although she describes her work as a ‘strange’ procession.  By the composer’s use of harmony, orchestration, and meter, it seems to me that a ‘place,’ not a procession, is evoked: an oubliette of despair. Nevertheless, Di Castri always shows her dexterity in orchestration and instrumentation and a deft mastery of the materials at her disposal. 

Poul Ruders began writing his Nightshade Trilogy in 1987 and it was not completed until 2003. It was the first of Ruders’ three compositions entitled “Nightshade” that was chosen here.  Nightshades (solanaceae) are plants not only of toxicity but also of nourishment and healing and this piece stands as a haunting demonstration that the aesthetically beautiful can also be very dangerous.  The instrumentation is unusual; contra-bassoon and contra-bass clarinet in Bb -- a difficult instrument to negotiate and played very well by A.K. Coope and Sophie Dansereau.  These instruments are used to produce a riveting sense of menacing, at once dangerous and cloying.  Ruders’ taste in percussion is diverse and timbres of all kinds (particularly in the extreme low range) are present.  Brian Nesselroad’s percussion was a highlight within a formal structure that is best described as one of culmination and dissipation: a building up of textures that then are reinforced or negated by contrasting materials.  His sensitivity in entrances and releases, and his overall presence within the ensemble brought a musical strength to the climaxes that might have eluded a less perceptive performer.   

We await the next edition of our exciting ‘new music’ journey.


© Kate Mackin 2015