THE NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL
VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Rascher Saxophone Quartet, Standing Wave: Orpheum, January 17-20, 2014
The Vancouver Symphony’s first-ever New Music Festival was artistically a resounding success. Sixteen works were performed over the four day period, with a wonderful range and variety. The programming of the works was outstanding, starting from five chamber works played admirably by Standing Wave on the first day, moving to small orchestra compositions on the second, before the full orchestra took over on the final days. All the works were accessible to music lovers, and the experimental compositions were pretty interesting. Presented this way, we were truly taken on a ‘voyage of discovery’, with strong cumulative impact. I personally wished the festival could continue for a few more days.
There is no doubt that a key reason for the festival’s success is that Bramwell Tovey and the orchestra really relished the opportunity to play these modern works. I have seldom seen the VSO as ready to take on the challenge of performing so many different works in such close succession, and they produced inspired performances. In fact, everyone contributed to this elevated performance level: the Standing Wave Ensemble, the remarkable Rascher Saxophone Quartet and expressive soprano, Robyn Driedger-Klassen. Equally key was the presence of Australian composer/ violist Brett Dean (b.1961), the festival’s ‘resident’ artist, who seemed to act as an integrating force for everyone, working with musicians and composers alike, and showcasing five works of his own that showed just how good ‘new music’ can be.
The outstanding thing about Brett Dean’s compositions is just how strong and finely-crafted they are, using the orchestra’s full resources with fluency, confidence and imagination. They are tightly-argued, texturally-subtle, and intellectually aware, but they always manage to find emotional impact too. There is an intensity and ‘life-force’ in Dean’s music, and a strong dramatic sense. In my opinion, the composer very seldom settles for routine: there is always something new arising as the music develops. With today’s composers, it is sometimes difficult to link them to the past. Brett Dean certainly uses modern experimental effects in his music but his music pays an effective debt to earlier 20th C. masters. One can see links to Hindemith, the New Vienna School, and Bartok. Perhaps one also sees the emotional and dramatic reach of Carl Nielsen at places as well as the structural cogency of Sibelius.
Dean’s ‘Water Music’ (2004) is literally all about ‘life-force’, initially presenting all the subtle properties of water, its bubbling, gurgling, flowing, and creeping, then moving to its sheer force and power, ending the work tellingly with a portrayal of the desperation of a world without this invaluable resource. Starting from a very quiet bubbling (created by blowing into water bowls), then eventually combining this with the soft, liquid tones of the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, the first movement was all about the control of texture and motion. For me, the stroke of genius here was the introduction of the solo trumpet later in the movement (and subsequently) that seemingly operated as a ‘voice’ commenting on the proceedings. The tumbling torrents of the following scherzo were sharply etched and very powerful but the more bleak ‘waterless’ world started appearing subtly at the movement’s end, phrases becoming shorter and more terse. Even without many motifs, strong control of rhythm and texture allowed the last movement to build to a real sense of desperation. One could almost hear the moans and snorts of panicked animals anxiously seeking water, their breath shortening as we progressed. Vivid orchestration indeed but subtle too, and played with conviction to its abrupt end.
Dean’s Viola Concerto of the same year was of great interest since the composer played the viola himself, showing just how much he has kept fit since his early days when he played for the Berlin Philharmonic. The demands on this instrument’s range are pretty formidable. Starting from an interval vaguely reminiscent of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, and with an astringency of orchestral texture somewhat in the New Vienna tradition, the work touches extremes, carefully negotiating a tension between a quiet, austere lyricism and strong motion and attack. This creates an ongoing sense of struggle in the work. Even the quiet and contemplative last movement sees the viola consistently in combat with various choirs (notably winds), always attempting to push out to get its message heard. This is a complex and tightly-knit piece that certainly one wants to return to.
The concert suite combining selections (including Songs of Joy) from Dean’s opera ‘Bliss’ (2004/8) certainly had a host of exotic experimental effects -- background tape, a wheel of fortune, wind wands, and the like -- all trying to recreate the spirit of Peter Carey’s novel about an advertising agent who awakes from a deadly heart attack in Hell and eventually achieves bliss there. But it was the power and intensity of the music that really stood out. Of course, Hell’s Gate has attracted many composers but this attempt was certainly most vivid. So many imaginative orchestral effects and textures were presented: boldly plucked unison strings as anticipating Hell (gently-plucked strings are usually reserved for Heaven!), a fleeting appearance of the devil’s violin, and so on. Then, onto beautifully-crafted and atmospheric cabaret music, smouldering, jazzy, with the vulgar yet touching ‘Ballad of Little Titch’, delightfully sung by baritone Peter Coleman-Wright. The final Song of Joy introduced a lovely restrained lyricism that took us to the ultimate resolve, a blissful and unencumbered world of forests and trees.
I should stress again just how well Bramwell Tovey and the orchestra brought out the force and originality of these works. The recording of the Water Music with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the Rascher Saxophone Quartet is on BIS-CD-1576 and the composer’s own performance of the Viola Concerto with the Sydney Symphony is on BIS-CD-1696.
Of the two other works, ‘Five Short Stories’ offered five miniatures for small orchestra with a Hungarian inspiration. With fresh and carefully sculpted string textures, and a good dramatic sense, they were of immediate appeal, perhaps with a hint of the style and atmosphere of Bartok’s early Suite for Orchestra, op. 4 and his Two Portraits, Op. 10, and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Certainly at the same level was the ‘Sextet’ for chamber ensemble, just composed. Written so economically, it conveyed so many things so well. The control of texture at the opening (especially in the bass) allowed a very subtle unease to emerge, amplified by a really haunting solo for clarinet. The following scherzo had such clean and natural motion, freer and wilder. The closing quiet sylph-like flute passage was of particular interest, since it was developed almost in parallel with the more ambiguous and possibly forlorn ‘bird call’ that ended the final movement.
The VSO’s composer-in residence has been experimenting with a new compositional technique in recent years. Stated roughly, very basic note sequences (tunes) are continually subjected to what might be called ‘wave’, rather than traditional fugal, treatment. As we know from sporting events, a wave is created when different sections of the audience stand up just when its predecessor sits down. In Top’s compositions, different orchestral choirs take on the note inherited from the previous group, passing this along indefinitely to create a distorted elongation (‘echo effect’) of the original motif. In the composer’s ‘Fugue States for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra’, the Rascher Quartet play a major role in driving a simple motif which flies around the orchestra in fact very much like an irritating ‘fly’, that pops up in one corner of the room, then is suddenly in the other, then on the ceiling, and so on. Much like Randolph Peters’ piece ‘Musicophilia’ that we heard earlier this season, this effect is identified with a neurological disorder. This germinal motif is eventually slowed down. The echo effect at the slower tempo allows the development of warmer and more settled textures with the ‘fly’ only making an occasional appearance. The chamber work ‘Pots and Pans Are Falling’ uses roughly the same technique, where the strings gain an almost skittish, pulsating quality in presenting these distorted ‘motion fragments’. The basic motif is introduced by a tape of a young violinist practicing a simple tune, and registers time and again throughout the work, eventually becoming quite haunting. Once again, the opening intensity is softened as we proceed, becoming more legato in feel, and at times conjuring up a ‘folk’ feeling in the tradition of, say, Stravinsky.
OTHER CHAMBER PIECES
As is apparent in Edward Top’s descriptions of the motivations for his compositions, and is carried on with the following composers, there is a movement today to see music as the custodian of unsettling events: neurological disorders; environmental decay, assassination of children and other tragic moments, and so on. Is this a new era of Schubertian (or Mahlerian) woe or is this simply the new social responsibility of the composer? In any event, it strangely anachronistic to think of today’s ‘new music’ having to satisfy what is essentially a 19th C. demand for ‘programme music’. What is comforting anyway is that it is almost impossible to infer the programme from the music if you just listen to the music as such. In all of these works, the Standing Wave ensemble gave us particularly fresh and conscientious performances, illustrating the now-standard ‘sextet’ chamber music arrangement of two strings, two blown instruments, and two struck instruments.
Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Still Life with Avalanche’ is a particularly well-written and fluent piece, starting and ending with enigmatic mystery, but having the exuberant feel of piano quartets of the past in between. The work has energy and tenderness, and makes innovative use of the harmonica. Kati Agocs’ ‘Crystallography’, set to poems of Cristian Bok, draws fine imagery as sung by soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen. The opening songs have some of the wondrous ease and flow that one might find in Canteloube, moving through a more uncompromising, almost New Vienna posture, finally to an even more modern orchestration where exotic rhythms abound. With the soft taps of the xylophone ongoing, the close has a hypnotic Bolero-like feel. Though Marcus Goddard’s ‘Raven Tales’ was inspired by serious First Nations concerns, it was also quite a vivacious work, some of the bustling wind passages might have made Poulenc or Milhaud proud. It was the second movement that really seemed to dig into deeper matters, with some of the piano work reminiscent the type of pain and defiance that one finds in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet.
OTHER ORCHESTRAL WORKS
Local composer Jennifer Butler’s musical lament for the ocean ‘Bleak Skies’ started from warm string textures on a ground bass but was eventually dominated by a persistent, disquieting piccolo that brought many shades of torment to the work. Structurally, it was interesting that the piccolo seemed to gravitate to a fixed high note just like the bottom strings did earlier with the low note. The prospect for the ocean may be ‘bleak’ but I prefer something like ‘Disquieting’ Skies as a more accurate title for what was actually going on here. Jocelyn Morlock’s ‘Aeromancy: Concerto for Two Cellos’ was quite a lovely work which immediately took me back to the 20th C. English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto or Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto. The innovation was to add xylophone ‘sparkles’ to this texture. The two cellos (Ariel Barnes and Joseph Elworthy) more accompany the orchestra imaginatively than directly interact with each other. The expression here gains by its relative austerity and the only thing I felt is that the eventual entrance of the horn in the second movement made the texture too fulsome.
Alexander Pechenyuk’s ‘Parallax’ was one of the riddles of the festival, not because of the music but because no one, not even the composer, could seemingly explain what the title meant. Other than that, this was a tightly argued piece, combining abrupt dramatic statements with a sensual lyricism, ending serenely. It was a nice change of pace to move to UBC graduate, and band leader/ trumpeter, John Korsrud’s composition, ‘Come to the Dark Side’. This was an upbeat, jazzy piece with all the right type of motion and rhythm, Korsrud contributing pretty stunning and virtuosic solos himself.
Even though the work was written a quarter-century ago, Peter Hannan’s ‘Trinkets of Little Value’ still casts a strong spell. With lyrics based on words in use at the time of Canada’s discovery, it really takes one back in time and feeling, and suspends you there. Robyn Driedgher-Klassen was truly at her best; her vocal expression in the second movement was particularly touching. John Oliver’s ‘Up Wind’ has an abstract inspiration, and consists of three movements of contrasting ‘lines and shapes’, each built on only a few notes. This work is difficult, and I am afraid it will take more than one listening to understand why the pieces naturally fit together and to establish what the overall emotional impact is. So far, I find the first movement solidly-constructed, the astringency of the second interesting, but I find the last movement somewhat overwritten and too lush in orchestration.
In any event, a rare opportunity to see all these varied works together. This festival truly added up to something bigger than its parts. We sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait too many years for the VSO to give us this wonderful experience again.
© Geoffrey Newman 2014