Elizabeth Volpé, harp, Ensemble directed by Gordon Gerrard, Works by Scelsi, Good, Top, Benjamin, and Korndolf, Orpheum Annex, April 26, 2015.

The VSO’s Symphony at the Annex series once again displayed a taste for artful juxtaposition in a concert of ‘new music’, some by familiar composers close to home. Beginning with a composition for strings by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, we then moved to new works by VSO Composer-in-Residence alumni Scott Good and Edward Top, a finely-crafted piece by British composer George Benjamin, culminating with a Nikolai Korndorf’s compelling work for chamber orchestra and two harpsichords, Let the Earth Bring Forth.  I had a strongly positive response to some of the works, a more qualified one for others, but I was impressed with the uniform excellence of the ensemble directed by Gordon Gerrard, also joined by exquisite harpist, Elizabeth Volpé. 

Scelsii’s Anagamin is a futuristic abstract work with a curious inception. The composer did not actually write the work himself; instead he had it notated by musicians who had access to recordings of him improvising on an ondioline (a type of early electronic keyboard). As a pioneer in experimental music, Scelsi clearly luxuriates in timbre and texture and his patterns of tones and overtones do create a unique concept of structure.  However, it seems that this particular work never quite breaks free from the ad hoc nature of its origins, being less than fully cohesive and sometimes disorienting in its lack of intelligibility.  A profitable comparison may be made with George Benjamin’s Olicantus performed in the second half of the programme, as both pieces are tightly-knit explorations of combinatorial patterning, dictated by the hierarchy of tones. Benjamin has the absolutely solid technique and focus that such abstraction demands, perhaps due to his time spent under the tutelage of Olivier Messiaen.  For me, his kind of mastery and control translates into a considerably richer and coherent presentation of harmonic relations.  

It was also redeeming to be able to welcome two of the VSO’s previous Composers-in- Residence.  I have always enjoyed Scott Good’s innocence, playfulness and sense of refinement. The Canadian première of his Sonata for Harp and Strings, brought us a short two movement piece originally conceived for string quartet, here performed by harpist Elizabeth Volpé.  The first movement Blue in Violet relies heavily on pentatonic motives slightly embellished with ‘cool jazz’, yielding a sort of American-garbed portrayal of Asian folk music. Volpé delivered her part with stunning clarity in articulation and phrasing, leading the ensemble with both her musicianship and stage presence.  However, I did note some lack of ease in Good’s transitions and, accordingly, some opaqueness in his musical development.  The composer’s choice to keep his structural form incognito also meant difficulties in fully understanding his themes, though I think some of these limitations might be alleviated by expanding the orchestration to include winds, possibly introducing timbral shadings through a flute or clarinet. The second movement entitled West Coasting was apparently conceived as a beguiling imaginary trip down the southern coast of California in an open convertible, but I felt that this description was in some ways even more beguiling that the musical trip we took.

Current Composer-In-Residence for the Vancouver Academy of Music and fellow VSO emeritus Edward Top presented the world première of his three movement work camera obscura: dark chamber.  One always likes Top’s inspirations and his patent honesty and consistency in presenting his craft.  Here, inspired by his father’s photography, the composer has created a powerful primal expression of family angst.  Top combines mixed and complex meter to enhance his penchant for “tangible motives that soon dissolve” which are used as a metaphor of his childhood experiences in the dark-room. The metaphor is enticing, and Top has chosen to amplify the angst by abstaining from using a hyper-meter to govern his metrical changes. The composer has consistently experimented with types of skittering or pulsating echo effects; here I felt that somehow there was just too much rhythmic jerkiness and lack of overall flow. When combined with such avant-garde instrumentation as a traveling truck (the lid of which is used as a giant clapper), I gleaned that Top still has not yet finished his thinking on this promising image.  

For me, the highlight of the night was Nikolai Korndorf’s Let the Earth Bring Forth.  A self-confessedly serious composer with a preference for metaphysical topics, this post-impressionist single movement sonata form for chamber orchestra, two harpsichords, and organ is based on Genesis 1:24.  The familiar tripartite structure of a standard sonata form is enhanced by tonal center changes, mapping an overall movement upwards by a fourth, from A major to D major. The exposition and recapitulation are comprised largely of French horn solos, played over a ground bass provided by the strings and other winds.

While moments of great melodic beauty are given to both the organ and block-flautist, it is the French horns which are given the lion’s share of the work, being cast in the role of ‘voice of God’. These commanding horn solos gain their sublime effect by evoking the force of will of a priest or rabbi reciting liturgy to an incantation tone.  The development begins sweetly and serenely in the parallel minor of the recapitulation, with two harpsichords playing a hymn-like duet which then becomes the underpinning for a recorder solo. This section not only provides a respite from the horns, but undergoes its own transformation, introducing dissonance that never completely dissipates until it is finally brought into line with the return of a major mode. This journey seemingly begins from a place of perfect balance, traverses dissonance, then finds a balance again when the opening texture and orchestration returns.  The work definitely makes its effect.  I find it quite inspiring.

As usual in ‘new music’ concerts, there were some hits, misses and possible re-thinks here. But the programming and execution were absolutely excellent, providing a stimulating cross-section of new music for chamber orchestra.


© Kate Mackin 2015