Kronos Quartet, Standing Wave Ensemble, VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, with Paul Marleyn, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa and Brendan Wyatt, Orpheum, February 25-28, 2016.

 All photos courtesy of the Vancouver Symphony.

All photos courtesy of the Vancouver Symphony.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s third New Music Festival provided yet another fine opportunity to sample the work of current Canadian and international composers, and to better understand contemporary directions in musical construction and expression. Since a number of composers were physically present – and indeed ‘living’ -- there was naturally an immediacy of experience and symbiosis that one does not get at concerts of ‘dead’ composers. The festival has already received admirable reviews, yet there is some merit in taking some time to think about its contents and how they resonate in the memory.  The festival travelled down many interesting avenues, but it does seem in looking back that the proceedings tended more towards the comfortably enriching than the particularly challenging.  Only a few works pushed boundaries in a fully unfamiliar way and, with so many short works, the feeling was possibly more that of a fine buffet of well-crafted professional pieces than a full-fledged dinner.  Perhaps the comfort and access of the general public was a consideration, or perhaps it was simply the need to represent so many composers with a tie to the VSO’s heritage.  As a matter of fact, it was not clear how much of the audience was the general public, rather than fellow musicians and composers. In any case, a clear treat was seeing the high quality of execution present, the VSO under Maestro Tovey, the Kronos Quartet, with the Standing Wave Ensemble maintaining the enviable standards we have witnessed from the very first festival.  Composer-In-Residence Jocelyn Morlock and Maestro Tovey moderated the proceedings in their inimitable style, possibly even gaining more discipline and natural flow this year.

The first part of the Saturday night concert, entitled ‘Sacred and Profane’, was particularly accessible -- featuring works by Linda C. Smith, Glen Buhr, and Jennifer Higdon. All testified to the popular preference to explore the genre of a single movement, programmatic tone poem, with its ability to build atmosphere, emotional intensity and unity over a short span.  Here we saw worthwhile constructional templates but, rather than using moderate tempos to move inward to particularly distilled and rarefied feelings, the works often ended up with a warmer, but possibly sentimental, veneer.  Glenn Buhr’s in gloriam aimed to go deep, but the cello’s warm mystical utterance – ravishingly played by Paul Marleyn -- arguably came off as too soft-centered when combined with relatively unadventurous orchestral tensions.  Smith’s teasing combination of lyricism with uncertain tonal resolution in Adagietto was fetching but her more fulsome use of the brass later on took us back to the commonplace. Nonetheless, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral stood out as more tightly conceived and crafted, and her sense of instrumental ingenuity added significant dimensions to a fairly conventional, Copland-like pastoral palette.

The continuing fascination with French films of the 1950s and ‘musique concrète’, coupled with the legacy of the second Vienna school and sound art, ushered in a worthwhile first night under the title ‘Nouvelle Vague’. This featured the Standing Wave Ensemble performing, as the title translates, ‘New Wave’. The first of two new works by VSO Composer-In-Residence Jocelyn Morlock, Undark, yielded strong introspection about the unintended health hazards from new inventions, using the Phrygian mode and weeping effects in the winds and subtle ensemble writing to capture the combination of intrigue and sorrow involved. The opening string writing is eloquent, hinting all so slightly at the feeling of Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’, moving forward with a definite sense of the unresolved.  Perhaps the starkness of the utterance later on is slightly undermined by the ongoing piano rhythm, which was subject to little variation in dynamic levels, and seemed to smooth over the subtly shaded dimensions of bitterness, rather than casting a haunting shadow of inevitability.

For all its subtle Eastern influences, the uniformity of the piano’s rhythmic energy also seemed to undercut the personal dimensions and resonance of Jeffrey Ryan’s choreographically-inspired Readings from the Book of Love, although reducing this composition from an hour to a fragmented fifteen minutes as a matter of performance expediency hardly did service to the fertile talents of this composer. Nicole Lizée’s The Hitchcock Etudes, used the music and sometimes frozen and distorted female images from a number of Hitchcock classics as a base for effective deconstruction, extending her program to use technological ‘glitches’ in traditional media transmission as a vital input into compositional construction. The instrumental forces often imparted a jagged, larger than life, edge to the film distortions, though they did not seem to have much of their own autonomous voice.

Two works in the Standing Wave concert that one could not help but notice were Gordon Fitzell’s evanescence (2007) and Philip Glass’ classic Music in Similar Motion.  The former is a well-constructed piece that uses a host of familiar modernist devices from the New Vienna School forward. Yet it maintained a tough minimalist integrity, and kept focus with nicely suspended lines and a telling sense of space.  Glass’ piece is hardly ‘new’ but it is always good to go back to the composer’s early days just to see what the fuss was about 45 years ago.  Standing Wave did an excellent job with its mesmerizing rhythm and texture, stopping the work at about 15 minutes; the accepted maximum is about 25, though it might in principle go on forever. 

The second evening, ‘Moments in Time’, with the Kronos Quartet, turned out as a study in ethnomusicology, with nine pieces total. Perhaps the most important item was the Canadian debut of Mary Kouyoumdjian’s tour de force, Bombs of Beirut, a three movement study on the lasting effects of war on the family unit and individual psyche. Based on first person reports from the Lebanese civil war, it has a definite immediacy and is a brutal and punishing work for quartet and tape.  It is also testimony to the composer’s own personal effort to overcome adversity in pursuit of art.

Garth Knox’s cosmically-inspired Selections from Satellites entertained musical pointillism and featured Persian harmonic allusions and interesting up-bowed glissandi. N. Rajam’s Dadra in Raga Bhairavi was a marvel of ingenuity and convincingly reproduced the music of the sub-continent for string quartet.  Regs (Dance), by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh was possibly more of a march than a dance, showing good command over a fairly conventional harmonic language. Michael Gordon’s Clouded Yellow was a very well-crafted meditation, with excellent part-writing for first and second violin, creating a chirping 'whale-song' effect.  The third section illustrated the use of the quartet as ‘drone’, creating an alpha beat, and a delicate and subtle finish, evocative of butterfly flight.  The second Nicole Lizee piece, The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fiber-Optic Flowers) seemed largely technology-driven, with ample use of the glitch effect – metrically derived from a click track.  Other smaller pieces complemented the above and gave us a further sense of cultural immersion and diversity, and obvious evidence of the Kronos’ indefatigable commitment.   Perhaps one has to remain agnostic on the enduring worth of many of these pieces until they feature in larger constructions.

Tougher, nastier works sometimes seem to leave a bigger imprint on the soul, and that was true of the two pieces inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon.  One of the most edifying works of the festival was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes (1988-89), after Bacon’s painting of the same title.  Here we saw real musical density and complexity -- cantankerous, jazzy, yet always confronting head-on the fraudulent idealism of the religious establishment, the realities of war, and cultural survival in its many forms.  This work develops with meaning and farsightedness, and has an immediacy of utterance.  The same type of feeling was present for the choreographic work Study for Crouching Figure, choreographed by Marie-Josee Chartier to music by Rodney Sharman.  It offers graphic insight into a world of trauma; the work requires the dancer (Brendan Wyatt) assume the most convoluted and tortured motions and poses, centered on a pedestal.  The simplicity of the piano writing (all extreme chords), combined with contrasting legato strings, provide a distilled, forbidding backdrop, though it is clear that the music’s significance depends on the dancer’s presence.

Though neither very long nor particularly profound, one work that also had a bludgeoned toughness to it was Christopher Mayo’s Aerial Courser. Recreating the world of ominous flying objects reported in California newspapers in the 1980s, the impressive thing about this piece is how it maintained its power and intensity throughout, as built from small, precise constructional blocks.  The ‘aerial’ effects were quite original.

The last night of the festival promised well, but one slight qualification was that the two world premieres by VSO associates, Jocelyn Morlock and Marcus Goddard, did not leave as strong as imprint as expected.  While both Morlock’s Earthfall and Goddard’s Regenerations aimed fairly big, took on worthwhile constructional challenges, and displayed interesting extremes of motion, dynamics and texture, both still seemed to lack full resolution, their utterance not fully cogent or whole.  Perhaps these works require repeated hearings to reveal their secrets and, above all, their emotional gravitas.  There can be little doubt that both are works of musical integrity, and individual in voice too.

One cannot doubt Thomas Newman’s credentials as a film music writer, and his own personal brand of nostalgia in It Got Dark (2009) exhibited a convincing sincerity, and yielded insight into the joys and pains of urban transformation.  This eight movement work is very much a product of working with the Kronos Quartet, and includes pre-recorded commentary from people reminiscing and contemplating change in the Los Angeles area.  This ‘then versus now’ contemplation was doubtlessly intriguing enough for musical exploration and fostered some originality without being overly sentimental.

Keeping up the California theme -- and closing the festival -- was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s L.A. Variations, written expressly for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  While many might have had qualifications about Salonen’s conducting of standard repertoire over the years, one could never doubt his commitment to modern music, and his own composition exhibited a very fine structural unity coupled with clean, invigorating motion and particularly sensitive orchestration.  The entire set of variations is derived from two hexachords that give rise to a teasing ambiguity between the modal and chromatic (hexachord combinatoriality).   By all standards, this was one of the finest examples of musical construction we saw.

So, an enjoyable third VSO New Music Festival came to a close.  It is not clear that this, or its predecessor, quite captured the sense of occasion of the very first festival – when Brett Dean’s compositions and presence added a remarkable luster.  Nonetheless, there were clear highlights, and the Kronos Quartet’s input of exploratory zeal could only be welcomed. One salutary lesson came out strongly for the less experienced members of the audience: that achieving ‘great’ new music is a bit like mining for gold -- a lot of pieces chase real depth and development without necessarily finding them.  Of course, this was a West Coast show in many ways, and we did not venture near the larger works of the elder living ‘masters’ of Europe or Scandinavia.  Nor were there any full-fledged concertante or vocal works, which might give a more enticing sense of variety, just like the dancer did this time.  For example, when are we going to hear Hans Abrahamsen’s wonderful new song cycle, let me tell you?  And it seems that there might have been room for some homage to Pierre Boulez.  It is not clear where ‘new music’ would be without him, and given his very recent death, this would have been the perfect opportunity.  


© Kate Mackin and Geoffrey Newman 2016