My big failure here will be not capturing the inner conflict of some of my friends from Vancouver’s choral community who were too busy singing at the Zelda: Symphony Of The Goddess concert to catch a set of mammoth singing by Alberta’s Pro Coro that very night. My slightly smaller failure will be not having the divinity to have made more sympathetic noise leading up to what turned out to be a happenstance contemporary a cappella festival closing with Victoria’s Vox Humana.
I’ve only known Brian Wismath’s Vox Humana ensemble from a sliver of it’s sterling silver reputation. They came into town with a thick program of contemporary a cappella works (Including an immaculate little gem penned by Vancouver’s Rodney Sharman). Myself and a bunch of choral-friendlies sat in a cocky lump in the second row and were pretty much bowled over from the moment their sopranos showed off an immaculate blend at the opening of Karl Siegfried’s Shaker Songs.
It’s never unwelcome to be shaken by visiting ensembles who owns their art so effortlessly and it’s doubly exciting when that shake has the potential to loosen the foundation of your own art a little. Contemporary classical music is fortunate to have such a close ally in choral music. Choirs seem to suffer from little of the hand-wringing or girdle-cinching that our instrumental brothers and sisters are afflicted with. We, of course, err as all humans are; and we stumble when we forget that total ownership of the art is much sexier than presenting a concert program that meets a logical goal. From my own mumbledy-mum years of attending concerts that featured trace strains of music of the living, I would guess that the rulebook for presenting contemporary classical music is only about two pages thin and reads as follows:
- The concert shall consist of two or three “iconic” pieces and one “contemporary” one. The contemporary piece shall be presented after intermission so that the audience is day drunk dazed and are unlikely to remember that music occurred or storm out of the hall in a silver haired huff.
- If no alcohol is being served at intermission, the contemporary piece of music will be at the start of the concert. Hopefully, audience members will be noisily entering as it is being played and people will just think that the orchestra is either warming up or secreting patio furniture.
- We don’t play contemporary music.
Vocal ensembles seem to not care for such trifles and sometimes seem blissfully unaware they even exist. To demonstrate this carefree disregard for your grandmother’s sensibilities, Pro Coro at one point switched gears from the silly choreography of conductor Michael Zaugg’s own arrangement of All About The Bass to the Maori chanting in Mason Bates’s Observer In The Magellanic Cloud. It might look cock-eyed in a program but once you’re in the room with it you realize that in an age where people really do listen to everything there’s little reason to segregate music stylistically. Especially when it’s done so well. Pro Coro practically left us gasping at the sound they were able to conjure in the familiar setting of Ryerson and probably left an envious little lump in our throats as we only get to hear this fantastic ensemble once in a while.
For the first time ever, and I hope it won’t be the last, I was able to saunter down Commercial Drive to my favorite restaurant/pub, order my favorite beer, and enjoy one of my favorite of Purcell’s theater works in an informal setting. It was a treat to see Dido and Aeneas performed on the Cafe Deux Soleil stage that I normally associate with slam poetry and open mic nights.
Besides being in English, Dido And Aeneas clocks in at a brisk hour and a half which makes it an ideal candidate for a new opera company’ first outing. The singers are all familiar faces in the music scene out here and it was a real treat to hear them sing this fabulous score. If you’ve read this blog before you know I gush about the composer in this space again and again.
Opera After Hours, which I believe is the brain child of Chris Bagan and Debi Wong, has adapted the libretto to present a socially aware message about bullying and it’s consequences. It’s a cool idea and it was effective in a way that I’m not sure was necessarily planned. The message of an anti-bullying campaign has something to do with dealing with bystander apathy or being sucked into the mob mentality against more empathetic judgment. I noticed that audience easily slipped into the role of becoming part of the mob as the cast delivered barbs directed at Dido, relayed both through song and texts from the cast, and it was an odd juxtaposition for me to be simultaneously aware that she was going to kill herself at the piece’s conclusion and tittering politely to my stout.
I also can’t help but be in love with presenting smaller theater pieces like this in a setting that isn’t a stuffy concert hall. Too bad tonight’s concert is sold out. Here’s hoping I can be around for their next show.
I was a little disappointed that UBC hadn’t provided a budget for the Symphonic Winds to allow them to be costumed for their rendition of music from Starwars and Lord Of The Rings. You would think that an institution with a top-level opera program, with accompanying costume department, would kick a couple of bucks down to those of us in the pit for at least a bass clarinet with a bell in the shape of a Darth Vader helmet or perhaps some flutes with lightsabre footjoints. I’m being facetious of course. Even the Deathstar must have had an accounting department that had to tell the Emperor that his budget stopped somewhere.
The Lord Of The Rings Symphony is not what you think it is. At least, if you’re thinking of Orlando Bloom’s tender chin as accompanied by Howard Shore’s sweeping stringscapes it isn’t. For one, there are no strings (HA!). For two, see Mr Bloom’s agent and pass his derisive laughter along to your accountant. This five movement work comes to us from the desk of Johan de Meij and was penned a long time ago in what might seem like a galaxy far away (1987). The composer chose to make each movement a musical portrait of a prominent component of Tolkien’s trilogy. It’s probably not surprising that the strongest chunk of music was also the portrait of the most interesting and complex character from the books: Gollum (Smeagol). Tolkien constructs Gollum as a perpetually cursed figure with an unrelenting desire for the titular ring at the cost of both his body and mind. In a move that would expunge even the most well worn saxophone joke from the lips of even the most dashingly witty concert reviewer, the composer chose the soprano sax to play an eerily alluring cadenza that spoke to the mournful state of Smeagol’s existence.
The most welcomingly-wild and off-the-rails piece on the program was a work by Huck Hodge entitled, from the language of shadows. The music was inspired by F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film, Faust and aptly captures the spirit of doomed damnation. Writhing, almost eldritch, lines and punchy brass salvos dominated the work. Common practice harmony was not entirely non-existent as I did find myself latching on to a beautiful and mournful little chorale that crept into the score. Venturing into a soundscape bereft of familiar landmarks can be a harrowing listening experience. The composers I love who do it well will often include a touch of something that, perhaps is completely foreign when in context, but ends up being so sagely satisfying and familiar that one doesn’t object to it. In fact, the opposite is usually the case wherein the listener is pulled in deeper and they end up appreciating what they once might have scowled at. The band chose to perform the piece alongside excerpts from the film from which it was inspired and the end result was terrifyingly effective. Having the visual element was definitely a welcome help for us trying to find our way through such a complicated piece of music. And it didn’t hurt that the film itself was absolutely gorgeous:
Also, much to our delight, they played Starwars. Not some haphazardly titled work about dueling constellations that has nothing to do with J.W.’s iconic score, but the real thing. Minus strings (DOUBLE-HA!). My ventricles collapse a little bit, mostly out of empathy, for woodwind players who are forced to play string lines. It doesn’t always work and often it can be tragically annoying to know that you’re playing a line that somebody obviously just copy and pasted from a cello part with no thought for your lung capacity, your instrument, or your sanity. However, this DID seem to work well. I’d be curious to hear a player’s thoughts about it.
Also, much to our delight, Rob Taylor dressed up like Obi-Wan and almost gave a downbeat with his lightsaber. However, based on his knowledge of familiar catchphrases from the trilogy, I have extreme doubts that he’s even seen them.
I went there. Oh snap.
Schoenberg’s name has become sadly synonymous with padlocks on emergency exits in concert halls and the punchline for jokes about musical elitism. Perhaps due to his gaunt facial features, a few well known musical scandals, anti-semitism, and a lack of understanding about what atonality actually is (Schoenberg would slap me and say ‘pantonality’), there is a populist image of him as some sort of terrifying musical cyborg. Rather than a merciless maverick who was breaking away from tradition, the composer saw himself as both inheriting and contributing back to it.
I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition! – Arnold Schoenberg
Last night was the opening concert of the VSO’s series at the Annex which is dedicated the dots of both living composers and those who haven’t been dead long enough to decompose.
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony inhabits his awkward transitional phase between obscurity and becoming pantonality’s unwilling patriarch. It almost starts with a musical joke that sounds like a high diver fumbling his approach and then somehow mangling a perfect score: after what sounds like resistance to an explicit shave-and-a-haircut, there is a set of rising fourths that resolve emphatically onto a white vanilla major triad. He teases us with this musical event throughout the entire work. A favorite iteration is a transition in the middle of the piece that gives birth to the rising fourth motive on the natural harmonics in the strings, ending with the bass (Culminating in the unique once-in-a-lifetime event known as “The Dance Of The-Only-Time-Someone-Looked-At-A Bass-In-A-Concert-Hall-Ever”).
Brian Current’s Inventory left an undeniable impression on the audience. Sung with enormous richness of character that was equally hilarious and terrifying by Robyn Driedeger-Klassen, it tells the story of a woman downstairs at a shoe store literally taking inventory of the stock. Part of the initial fun of the piece was some of the wordplay. I couldn’t help but be smitten by lines such as, “Mai Tai nut meg platform wedges”, and “Espadrille gosgrain ribbon ankle-wraps”. But the fun quickly runs dry as the protagonist hints at some of the darkness that lies beneath:
In this basement mortuary
Boxes shroud me like a tomb
Songs I know on the stereo
For yet another hour alone.
The other exceptional standout from the evening was Maestro Tovey’s english horn concerto, The Progress Of Vanity. I haven’t had many opportunities to hear Tovey’s dots before (I completely missed out on everything to do with his opera, The Inventor) but his taste for jazz is very apparent; especially in this piece’s incredibly funky middle movement. The ostinato that drove it was my take-away ear worm of the night. It also gave us an opportunity to get to know a long-time resident of the VSO, Beth Orson, in a context that did her playing great justice.
If you’re trying to make some noise then it stands to reason that you could do with a bang of some kind. The VSO accomplished this heartily on the closing night of it’s first New Music Festival.
The titular piece of the program, Brett Dean’s Moments Of Bliss, is a set of pieces, almost in effect a reduction, of the composer’s opera based on Australian writer Peter Carey’s novel, Bliss. The novel relates the happy incident of Harry Joy, a successful businessman, father of two, and well-liked “good ol’ bloke” suffering from catastrophic heart failure. He dies. After being dead for four minutes he awakes to his former life convinced that he is in hell: his wife is having an affair, his children are into drugs, and his company is producing all manner of cancer causing chemicals. The rest of the story revolves around his coping with the realization that, before his heart attack, the whole time he thought he was blissfully happy he was barely coping with a life of total misery.
Brett Dean’s score does much to affirm where the bar is set for what one can expect from their hometown orchestra. Aside from the epic mass of noise of coming off the stage (Verdi sounds like patty-cake in comparison), the musicians swung noise makers over their heads, incorporated electronic instruments, and even engaged in some genuine theatrics with a roulette wheel (Complete with feather boa!) to help set the scene of Harry Joy’s arrival in hell. Baritone Peter Coleman-Write appeared as Harry Joy in the opera’s premiere and reprised that role for us on stage this night. The exceptionally witty text of The Ballad Of Little Titch, a tall tale the protagonist tells the police in attempt to talk his way out of a jam, owes much to his lively performance:
His father was tall, his brothers were tall,
but he and his mother were terribly small
He was greeted by catcalls and withering cries
by bullies who mocked him because of his size
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard such exciting orchestral music in a live context before. I’ve listened to recordings by my own favorite heavyweights and read some of their scores that occasionally became ochre with the sweat of a million sawing violins but the music never made the journey across the pond and into my local concert hall. If it has, SHAME on me. I really hope that this festival typifies the organization’s renewed commitment to contemporary music and that it continues to provide us a live outlet for big music making.
Great concert! Where were you?
I had the faintest of hopes that we would get through the night’s concert, a series of new works for orchestra culminating in Australian composer Brett Dean performing his own Viola Concerto, without succumbing to our primordial instincts and telling viola jokes. But sure enough, during some stage banter with the composer the Maestro quipped at how it’s larger size meant we would have to hang around longer were we to wait for it to burn; a trombonist guffawed, the audience tittered haughtily, and a slurry of violists rolled their eyes to let us know they had heard it before and won’t all of you be sorry when Mr. Dean finally picks up his bow.
Dean’s Viola Concerto opened up with a short movement he describes as a satellite that introduced us to some of the colors and melodic material that was to come. In retrospect, it would have been easy enough to just cruise along for the ride without getting sucked into the composer’s game of melodic invention as the piece has a very intuitive and intensely dramatic arc to it. However, Brett has an improviser’s mind for melodic invention that leads into such a seductively stitched thicket that it was a pleasure to get lost and try and find our way out again.
The second movement screamed past us like a satellite falling out of orbit. At one point, Dean was playing a series of leaping trills that were colored by percussive snaps from the first desk of each string section; an all-too-literal image of the viola as the victim and the rest of the strings as her schoolyard antagonists. The composer had alluded to the historical tradition of the the cadenza (A short unaccompanied section for the soloist to be featured while the orchestra salivates hungrily like a baboon waiting to pounce on impulse items in the checkout line) in his on-stage talk with the Maestro. The cadenza’s traditional setup is inherited by the form’s forefathers and like any well trod path it’s usually seen coming a mile away. In Brett’s piece the cadenza came at us like a sucker punch in a nursery and left us panting for more.
I remember the words of a composer whose name I can’t remember, which should make you wonder at the depths I have to stoop for my quote mining, saying that you should always start and end a piece at an extreme of some kind. Put simply, either give the audience a bang that jolts their spouses awake or peter out quietly at a nipple pinching pianissimo. Brett’s concerto ends with a series of exquisite glass sighs dyed delicate by the orchestra that serve as a well balanced counterweight to the fisticuffs earlier on.
Great concert, where were you?
It’s a dark tale to be told, and what the Maestro may have left out in his opening remarks was that not only does music give us subtle glimpses of our “inner narrative” but also sometimes straps us to it’s back as it throws itself desperately off the roof of a burning building. Despite the fact that they’re from opposite sides of the world, Jennifer Butler and Brett Dean both managed to pen works addressing concerns about global water calamities in direct and uniquely foreboding ways.
Jennifer’s piece, Under Bleak Skies, opens up on a dark sea of sunken open intervals in the strings. Amidst this churning, we’re introduced to a pair of protagonists played by the piccolo and violin. The story’s dark turn-of-the-tale happens when a calamity occurs, and following a hysterical cry from the ensemble, the violin plummets into the sea leaving the piccolo heartbroken and hunting for her lost companion. The elegance and directness of heart-ache meted out by the piece is a familiar affect and is an effective way of localizing an emotional response to ecological catastrophe.
The closing movement of Brett Dean’s three-movement work Water Music; which bears the moniker, Parched Earth, bring us away from the ocean to an arid desert landscape. I found this movement to be the most exciting of the three as it gave us, not only the greatest variety of texture, but also gave visiting ensemble, the Raschèr Saxaphone Quartet, their best and most exposed moment in the whole work to shine. Like Jennifer’s piece, Brett was inspired by water-woes close to his heart. In Jennifer’s case, the music surmised a tangle of ecological foreboding that would be familiar to most British Columbians. Brett’s music addressed water shortages and drought in his native Australia that have broken long standing records in the recent decade.
As I was consulting the contemporary music concert rule book I noted that, while it’s not quite explicitly stated that one is never to perform music by dead composers in encores, I was elated to hear the Raschèr take on a selection from J.S. Bach’s Art Of The Fugue. Not only do they make a blissful sound together, but the way they took ownership of the music and made it their own made me extremely excited about hearing them take the stage again on Monday.
Great concert, where were you?
The foggy glaze that cozied up to the city was a nice accompaniment for the opening night of the VSO’s first annual New Music Festival. Local chamber ensemble Standing Wave performed a set of pieces written mostly in the past five years that, I hope, was a sign of both the quality of performance and the rapturous noise that was to come over the next three days.
Pots n’ Pans Falling, a piece in the first half by the VSO’s composer-in-residence Edward Top, could be said to be simple to an extremely finely crafted point. He manages to spin a simple melodic idea recorded from a young violin student by staggering it in quick and precise rhythmic iterations to produce a hypnotic delay effect. The piece is a tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. One of the young survivors of the tragedy described the sound of gunfire as sounding like “pots and pans falling on the floor”. When it careens itself into it’s inevitable (yet beautiful and subdued) climax, all the instruments are teetering at the highest of precipices and 26 bell strokes are intoned to commemorate the victims of the tragedy.
Marcus Goddard’s Raven Tales was brought about by a collaboration with First Nations artist Mike Dangeli and written to reflect the varied characteristics the Raven takes on in First Nations traditions. During his pre-concert talk, the composer mentioned that the piece had been edited for length and that he had spent some time fine-tuning it’s pacing. All I can say is that this was clearly time well spent, as Raven Tales cooks like napalm all the way to the roar in it’s concluding measures.
When an organization as visible as the VSO puts on a display of contemporary music you can be sure that virgin ears are in the audience and if all that’s on the program is Varese and Boulez it’s likely they’ll never come back. As noted by composer-in-residence Edward Top during his opening remarks, it really was only about 20 years ago that pretty much all supposedly serious composers were writing in a style that would send the average listener rushing for a soup ladle to gouge out their ear drums (My own verbage added). At least half of the composers on the program were born in the 80’s and have an accessible sound world that likely reflects growing up in an age that loosened the idea of style being somehow tied to merit.
Because contemporary music often only gets to be a footnote on a concert program, or a citation in an index somewhere if not anonymous scrawls in a water closet, and because we tend to draw from an established canon of music rather than trying something untested, contemporary music in the classical world has been slow to kick off it’s reputation of being overly serious and estranged from the ordinary listener. I remember hearing pieces excerpted from the Winnipeg New Music Festival, also spearheaded by Maestro Tovey, on the CBC when the CBC played classical music during waking hours, and what struck me, in addition to the music, was the roar of an audience giving it’s approval. The Winnipeg festival has been going on for almost a quarter of a century now and citing it’s success has been a great way to instill confidence in the management that there is an audience for music written by people that haven’t quite gotten around to dying yet. A lot of the ceremony one finds at a traditional classical concert has been sanded down to a nub for this festival: Performers lose the tuxes in favor of more casual dress, there is seating on stage for the audience if they want to get closer to the performers, and the stamping of feet and whooping of vocal chords is encouraged. I think Maestro Tovey is banking on contemporary music having what it takes, and being sufficiently developed, to reach the audience of it’s time in the same way Beethoven reached his. This first night is an exciting development at the Orpheum and bodes well for music makers and consumers alike.
Great concert, where were you?
I work in a music store and I’ve lost count of the number of times someone came in and eighty-sixed the first six or eight notes of Fur Elise. Lacking a musical background, but with some digital dexterity and an ear, most of us can learn the first few measures by ear. And this joyous process of discovery, most likely stumbled upon innocently in a moment of genuine curiousity, is what causes eyes to roll and hackles to rise.
Fur Elise has become, is, a massive landmark in piano pedagogy. Before it’s well-trodden measures, most of our repertoire has the flavor of the teaching piece. That is to say, most of what we play up to this point has an inuitively felt, if not immediately definable, pedagogical purpose. Children are very apt at recognizing this distinction as they’ll have spent the majority of their life up to this point being taught things by adults. While they may not immediately reject the lectures of their elders, the path for them to do so is clearly laid out for them as they proceed into their teens, and they are likely to feel and express this rejection on a molecular level while they’re still tots.
“I don’t know why I don’t like it. I just don’t.” said every child ever.
Fur Elise is often their first encounter with something that isn’t totally pedagogical. For the first time in their musical education, they’re discovering something rather than having it spoonfed to them and it earns a special place in their musical memory. The broad ubiquitousness of this experience is what is most amazing to me.
I found a YouTube video of Valentina Lisitsa performing it as the last of a set of four encores. The audience’s reaction is noteworthy and very telling. Expecting a fourth, even more bombastic encore than the three that preceeded it, she instead trots out the most frequently performed student recital piece of all time. The chuckles and laughs from the audience die away almost immediately as a conditioned choke chain snaps from the violent whiplash of a thousand minds being blown.
Here’s the link.