THE VSO’S 2015 NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL: A GUIDE FOR THE UNINITIATED
After the resounding artistic success of last year’s New Music Festival, the VSO tries it again this year from January 15 - 18, presenting an even greater total of 23 compositions, mixing works of Canadian and local composers and those of more established international ones.
Unlike most classical concerts, which feature works that have been evaluated and approved by audiences for centuries, a ‘new music’ festival inevitably is about first impressions and immediate reactions to newly-composed works, without any particular foresight about their longevity or worth. Certainly, there are ‘mini-traditions’ of modern composition, so that one can make some passing judgment relative to these, but in some sense the ultimate worth of these traditions may themselves be unclear.
A good way of thinking about new music is simply to recognize that all the music of the great composers was ‘new music’ when it was originally written. What all of us might give to have lived for a moment in a time when, for example, a brand-new Beethoven symphony was just being premiered! In the very early 19th C, this great composer’s works might have been first played in concerts alongside those of (now little-known) composer Louis Spohr, and others. And guess what? The reaction to the Beethoven would have been quite mixed, while Spohr’s works would have received unanimous praise. To some, the immediate reaction would be that the music of Spohr would live forever and that Beethoven was the possibly forgettable composer!
There are of course many once-popular composers who are now largely forgotten (like Louis Spohr) and they probably should have been remembered. In VCM’s recent interview with the esteemed Quatuor Mosaiques, violinist Erich Hobarth emphasized: “We always aimed to be at the center of the string quartet repertory: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert… But we eventually recognized that the quartet repertory of this time period is so large that we were in danger of ignoring a great deal of good music that is not played any more. So we have also concentrated on bringing to life ‘unknown’ composers up to the early romantic period, such as Arriaga, Werner, Jadin, Gross, and Boëly.”
One can indeed remember all the stories of the greatest works that were violently disliked at their premieres. One readily recalls the near-riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris, while the violins of the Leipzig Gewandhaus literally put down their bows in the last movement of Schubert’s Great C-major Symphony when Mendelssohn first introduced it in the 1840’s. Rachmaninoff is very popular these days, but many of his premieres were dismal, and it took many years for all but a selected few of his works to enter the core repertory. This is certainly the same for Bruckner and even Mahler. Richard Strauss’ early tone poems sealed his initial popularity but then he had to wait for over half a century to be appreciated again. Modern works by Penderecki and Gorecki took the world by storm immediately until their stunning appeal wore off as fast as it initially escalated.
So, a new music festival does give one the unique opportunity to wildly like or violently dislike works on their first hearing, knowing full well that this ultimately could be a misjudgment. More important, you can violently dislike a work and no one will think you are eccentric. Your friends may actually find your observation profound. That is why a new music festival is so exciting. Each evening of this festival promises to be a compelling stand-alone experience, however all four evenings, taken in succession, should add up to a feast of interesting reactions. Four faces will be very familiar to Vancouver audiences -- and we have heard their works before: the VSO’s new Composer-in-Residence Jocelyn Morlock, emeritus Composer-in-Residence Kelly-Marie Murphy and two other VSO associates, double bassist Frederick Schipizky, and Composer-in-Association Marcus Goddard.
All of these composers respond in varying degrees to programmatic stimuli and produce finely-crafted and ‘accessible’ compositions. Morlock, in particular, writes in a neo-romantic, sometimes pastoral, style, where remnants of sonata form can still be discerned by the attentive listener and the construction of sonorous textures is paramount. Her newest work has a particularly suggestive title: That Tingling Sensation. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to call it that,” said Morlock, “but then I thought, no, this is exactly what I want to call it”. Indeed aware of the feelings that music can create, she states: “This about that whole excitement feeling, that hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck standing up feeling that you get when you listen to great music. This is about that visceral sensation.” Of her three works on the programme, That Tingling Sensation will be premiered on the 17th, Theft being presented on the 15th and Ornithomancy on the18th.
The Festival begins with small ensemble works, played by Vancouver’s eminently-accomplished Standing Wave Ensemble. We begin with the work of Claude Vivier (1948-1983), a particularly captivating Canadian composer whose life, as much as his music, grabs the imagination. Vivier’s Pulau Dewata is a percussive work in the style of the Balinese classical tradition (gamelan). Here we can hear the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of Vivier’s early teachers, especially in the cavalier, yet still firm, handling of dissonance. This technique progresses into a more typical gamelan sound, where various kinds of periodic dissonance are used. Vivier traveled to Bali and worked mainly in Montreal, but had his life tragically cut short at age 34, when he was murdered in Paris by a young male prostitute. Pulau Dewata is nonetheless a homage to life; a joyful, straightforward expression, and a touchstone for the cross-fertilization of new music and the pre-Islamic music of Bali and Indonesia. Later in the Festival, we also hear Vivier’s Orion, an orchestral work that treats, in the composer’s own words, “…the euphoria of egocentric despair.” Works by American mainstays of new music -- John Luther Adams and Steve Reich -- round out the opening night panoply of avant-garde compositions for chamber ensemble.
The second evening moves to vocal works and will feature The Phoenix Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. Graeme Langager. The first half includes shorter works from Gabriel Jackson, Paul Mealor, Don Macdonald, Rihard Dubra, Ola Gjeilo, and a Canadian premiere from Jake Runestad. If that was not impressive enough, the VSO and Bramwell Tovey then join the choir onstage for Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe, a jewel of modern liturgical music. Deeply spiritual, this Mass evokes the personal connection to the numinous as prevalent in early music and combines it with the unexpected and exciting harmonies of the modern.
The intriguingly-titled penultimate concert ‘Blood and Ice’ ushers in an evening of challenging orchestral works that explore the darker side of human nature, beginning with Harrison Birtwistle’s Night’s Black Bird (2004), setting the mood for a journey of introspection. Kelly-Marie Murphy chose the mental incongruity of sociopaths as the driving force for her three movement work, Blood Upon the Body, Ice Upon the Soul. Having actually lived next to a sociopathic personality, Murphy undertook her own research into this abnormal and forbidding state as a basis for her musical representation.
Two of Murphy’s works also round out the final orchestral concert with the VSO under Maestro Tovey that is desirably dominated by new works by composers with a VSO association. This includes the Vancouver premiere of Jocelyn Morlock’s Ornithomancy, performed by virtuoso flutist Christie Reside, as well as world premieres of compositions by Marcus Goddard and Frederick Schipizky.
This festival is designed to be user-friendly and to maximize the possibilities for the audience to interact with composers and performers. Listen to a quartet of live composers discuss their work before the concert and meet with them and talk new music at the after-show cabaret. New Music discussions can be contagious and again, at such a festival, your opinion or reaction can never be wrong! All pre- and post-concert events are included with Festival ticketing.
© Kate Mackin and Geoffrey Newman 2015