Turning Point Ensemble (cond. Owen Underhill), “Music for a Thousand Autumns”, Orpheum Annex, October 8th, 2015 and Standing Wave Ensemble, “Ink On Silk”, Pyatt Hall, October 18th, 2015.

October was a beautiful month for premieres from local composers and performances from chamber ensembles, featuring both Turning Point Ensemble and Standing Wave in concerts ten days apart.

Works by Alexina Louie bookended the Turning Point concert, starting with the title work, Music for a Thousand Autumns and concluding with her newest work, A Curious Passerby At Fu's Funeral. Written while Louie was just finishing her formal training, the former is deeply informed by the sudden death of her colleague and mentor, Claude Vivier.  It is a youthful work, extravagant in its use of materials, and excessively demanding on the instruments.  It is an expression of jejune angst, full of impulse-laden, vibrantly contrasting timbres, yet still sets down all the embryonic orchestration techniques that have stayed with here and developed over the years.  The comparison with A Curious Passerby At Fu's Funeral was instructive.  Louie's new piece did not lack for dramatic colour or texture, but had a more mature control and elegance. Louie uses the montage effect of ‘musique concrète’ but incorporates a host of additional styles, including Asian. One noted her convincing use of oboe and cello used to imitate a Japanese mouth organ, as well as percussion writing that evokes the martial arts films of the 1970's. A very personal work in many ways, but somehow I still feel comfortable categorizing it as a post-modern ‘anamorphosis’ of classical sonata form.

Linda Catlin Smith premiered a revamp of a previous work, Gold Leaf, which featured excellent part writing for winds, lovely affective melodies, and deft orchestration that highlighted the strings and the cello in particular. Smith builds themes from isolated motives, but perhaps shies away from full development.  I feel that her transitions might be tightened, especially in the middle section, but overall Gold Leaf still projects as a shimmery confection.  I did not respond strongly to Anthony Tan’s On The Sensations Of Tone #1. It’s experimentation in using music to manipulate physiological responses of an audience might have been completely outlandish in 1863, but feels rather passé in 2015. I think Tan should embrace a more subtle musical syntax.

Another 2011 Turning Point commission was Three Windows by well-known Vancouver composer Dorothy Chang.  Chang is nothing if not a highly competent composer, and her piece is a redoubtable display of technique.  Chang’s orchestration and harmonic language is reminiscent of a pared down 19th century tone poem, and she deftly evokes place and mood.  While Chang is avowedly inspired by nature, the majestic, the beautiful, but also intimidating, this work strikes me as somewhat too deft, too exact for the complex nature of the scene that Chang wishes to paint.  Perhaps we are only receiving a snapshot of a moment in the life of the artist, not a more enduring pulse.  

 Photo: Janet Baxter

Photo: Janet Baxter

Standing Wave’s delicately programmed evening of new works ‘Ink on Silk’ began with a piece by native Vancouverite and Victoria Symphony’s composer-in-residence, Jared Miller. Miller enjoys Broadway show-tunes and popular music, as well as the musical language of the avant-garde, and the composer’s Guilty Pleasures is an engaging, clever amalgam of these disparate materials -- perhaps an audible working out of the composer’s own question marks as he chooses between writing in the art music tradition or joining the music industry as a craftsman.   Aural Hypothesis by Chinese-American composer Lei Liang is a captivating clearing house of techniques and ideas, held together by idiomatic instrumentation using a standard orchestral doubling of the winds. Liang writes exquisite transparent textures, pairs voices across the orchestra definitively, and uses thoughtful dynamics to illuminate melodic solo moments.  Always on display were the talents of Standing Wave: even the most finely draw harmonies were performed with tender fidelity.  Watching this, combined with their passion elsewhere, was a joyful experience.

In Bright Sheng’s piece Melodies of a Flute, the lion’s share of the work belongs to flautist Christie Reside, whose only possible default was a slight shying away on fortissimo releases. Inspired by the poetry of Li Qing Zhao, Sheng’s work demands that the musicians hear in traditional Western modalities as well as classical Chinese tuning, a task handled admirably.   Vincent Ho has been thinking about how to write for solo tam-tam (a large non-tuned gong) and his ideas are encapsulated in his work Two Sketches. This two movement composition explores all kinds of new ways to use and hear the tam-tam, from scratching and bowing, to partial immersion in water. It served as an excellent etude for anyone looking to master the newest techniques in struck percussion.  Finally, we turned to inspired composer Stephen Hartke and his piece Meanwhile that represents everything good about inter-cultural musical cross-pollination.  Meanwhile is something of a revelation not only because it extremely well written but also because it suggests such an unerring sense of purpose and communication.  The composer has chosen so carefully every component of this work, and it is clear to me that this composition is sufficiently strong that it could be successfully performed with alternative instruments or different sizes of ensemble.

© Kate Mackin 2015