VSO NEW MUSIC: ‘THE RESOUNDING EARTH’
The Resounding Earth, VSO/ William Rowson: Music by Brumel, Gimon, Pentland, Nobles, Morlock, Allen and Brant, Orpheum Annex, February 23, 2019.
The VSO’s presentation of ‘The Resounding Earth’ was a worthy follow-up to the orchestra’s New Music Festival in January, and also shared some of its naturalistic focus. Jocelyn Morlock’s carefully curated programme, which included four world premieres by Canadian composers, highlighted the genre of spatial music. In such works, the composer’s instructions extend not only to the music but also to the physical placement of the instruments: spatial separation of sounds is an explicit ingredient in enhancing the work’s contrast, aura and overall communication. This concert itself had an attractive contrast in the pieces performed and yielded a fine display from a reduced VSO ensemble conducted by assistant conductor William Rowson. The event was presented as part of the VSO’s Women’s Voices initiative to promote gender equality in the arts.
Aspects of spatial music can be found as long ago as Gabrieli’s antiphonal brass, and there is a well-enshrined tradition in 19th and 20th century music to employ offstage soloists, choirs and brass to heighten dramatic contrast. Perhaps the most demonstrative spatial example at this concert was the culminating one, Canadian-born Henry Brant’s On the Nature of Things, After Lucretius, which employs strings on the floor, brass in the front of the balcony, with woodwinds behind them. A true master of the genre, Brant (1913-2008) creates spatial groups, which oppose and collaborate with each other, using rich, deep voices which harken back to Baroque constructions. The piece suggests a rare glimpse into flux and transformation. Perhaps one might see the woodwinds as the female aspect, where the brass and the solo horn in particular constitute the unbridled masculine concept – the wild impulse that both hunts but also protects and cherishes. The strings then define the civilized world of order, reason that takes no brook with emotion of any kind. Brant uses spatial separation to emphasize the rhetoric of the program – to show opposing views, together in harmony but not in space and time, the differences in the underlying tensions, while always managing to secure coherence.
After Morlock’s inspirational arrangement of the Kyrie from Antoine Brumel’s ‘Earthquake Mass’ at the beginning of the concert, naturalistic exploration followed in the world premiere of Katerina Gimon’s Ice Forms, which descriptively documents ice formation on lakes in Ontario from the early winter freeze to the spring break-up, when temperatures warm and the birds return. The VSO ensemble likely surpassed themselves with their realization of parts of this score; effects of icy winds were incredibly realistic and could easily have been mistaken for a genuine Foley track. The piece is well-constructed and the composer uses her chamber forces intelligently, though sometimes I felt she did a better job in depicting the break-up of ice (with increased textural warmth and birds arriving in the high woodwinds) than its initial formation (with its distilled crystalline layering, expansion/ contraction, etc.).
After Barbara Pentland’s spatially experimental and rhapsodic Trance, the world premiere of Jordan Nobles’ The Library of Babel was up next. This work derives from ‘a series of melodic cells to be performed at the musician’s discretion, taken from an actual melody that never reveals itself.’ It’s a fine experiment in temporality and the nature of connection between artists as they perform together.
Mike WT Allen clearly knows how to write music that he would like to perform. Orchestrated in powerful ‘big band’ style, Allen’s work is fresh, infectiously rhythmic and warming. This world premiere of Flashlight displayed thrust and sweeping exuberance, which largely overrode a slight cumbersomeness in transitions and cadences.
Jocelyn Morlock’s own premiere piece Arcadia derives from the plainchant of Hildegard von Bingen (and doubtlessly the mythology of ancient Greece), inspired by von Bingen’s idea that music can create utopian purity and a full integration with nature. The work uses modal components, subject to accretive layering, and starts by recreating the imagery of a suspended utopic place, as subtly orchestrated by percussion and strings. Morlock’s works always show expert handling of the canonical conventions of musical rhetoric, which she can then transform in a way that suits her specific purpose. In the assumed idealized place where no entropic element can enter, the composer naturally allows such forces to enter, push forward unpredictably, and upset, as they always do in life, yet a simplicity of utterance and resolution is reclaimed at the work’s end.
A fine feast of world premieres for a sold-out audience.
© Kate Mackin 2019