Wide-Ranging New Music Festival Adds Luster to the Vancouver Symphony’s Centenary Celebrations

CanadaCanada 2019 VSO New Music Festival: Nathalie Paulin (soprano), Vern Griffiths (percussion), New York Polyphony, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor), Orpheum Theatre and Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 16-19.1.2019. (GN)

The Vancouver Symphony’s ‘Day of Music’ (c) VSO

DoolittleReedbird (World Premiere)
Sandström – ‘Ocean Child’
AdamsBecome Ocean
Vivier – ‘Lonely Child’
LizéePerxploitation (World Premiere)
Dutilleux – Symphony No.2 ‘Le Double’
Brown – ‘Missa Charles Darwin’
Smith – ‘Kyrie Cunctipotens Genitor Deus’
Tallis – Mass for Four Voices
Three American Folk Hymns (arr. Gregory Brown)

January started off with another bevy of VSO100 events, culminating in a massive celebration on the orchestra’s actual birthday (26 January). More than 100 free concerts in multiple venues were featured, and more than 1000 performers both young and old; the orchestra performed the closing concerts. This was a terrific success, with more people than one could possibly imagine showing up and making a day of it – 14,000 in total. It certainly revealed how many different groups the VSO could reach if it had the resources. The city has now declared this date its ‘Day of Music’. Before that, the symphony had a celebrity event with legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a four-concert New Music Festival that was particularly accessible to the general public. Coupled with earlier celebrations in September, this was a massive project to bring off, and VSO President Kelly Tweeddale, her administration and the VSO’s new Music Director, Otto Tausk, must be congratulated on carrying everything off with such aplomb.

The New Music Festival was the most extended event, and it was weird and wonderful in its own way, with widely contrasting works that ranged from two by Nicole Lizée and John Luther Adams with bold visuals to an opening performance of a Mass set to the controversial text of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. If Nature rules for Darwin, so too it ruled in the last orchestral concert where composers Emily Doolittle and Jan Sandström joined Adams to carry on the naturalistic feast – very Pacific Northwest indeed! This was preceded by a French/Canadian concert, featuring composers Claude Vivier and Henri Dutilleux, and a fine chamber music event with the Standing Wave Ensemble. All the concerts except the latter are discussed here.

The final orchestral concert, featuring works on the ocean, was one of the most appealing. The big piece was John Luther Adams’s Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean (2013), originally a commission from the Seattle Symphony. The powerful contours and dynamics of this 40-minute soundscape are overwhelming, capturing all the unbridled power, quiet majesty and deep mystery of the sea, mystical and transcendental in its reach. The VSO and Otto Tausk did an estimable job at controlling the textures and subtle flow of the piece, and the orchestra’s unanimity in the big climax in the middle was impressive.

While Adams’s piece occupies its own compelling idiom, in assessing its vistas and sheer expanse and listening to smaller effects like the way bubbling water was depicted, I actually felt additional appreciation for the orchestration techniques of Maurice Ravel, who managed a number of these effects in his Daphnis et Chloé. The main addition here was the presence of underwater visuals on the screen, beautifully shot by Peter Mieras, which grabbed their share of attention. I don’t think they were a distraction – and may have added intrigue for younger patrons – but they definitely yielded a different experience than if one’s own imagination created the imagery. One did wonder whether the roar and crashes in the music could actually be heard underwater; a possible interpretation is that the sounds are not descriptively literal.

The Adams was preceded by Jan Sandström’s ‘Ocean Child’. It’s an economical and sensitively drawn piece with moments of powerful steel, vivid colour and motion, and occasionally rich string textures, but balances these with moments of deeper contemplation where wind soliloquies (flute, clarinet) float over a much sparser fabric. I enjoyed the work’s cleanness of design and purity of expression. Canadian Emily Doolittle’s Reedbird started the concert, a VSO commission and a world premiere. It is also a finely-crafted work that could be performed effectively as a wind octet, though there were more wind and brass enlisted here. The composer’s initial inspiration was the sound of the bobolink, appropriately slowed down and reconstituted, but I did not find the reference particularly apparent. It is a loveable piece, starting from a catchy, sometimes jazzy, opening foray in the spirit of Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik, followed by a more lyrical episode in which intertwining minor-key wind interpolations create a more mysterious hue, and finishing off with another catchy little tune set with decisive rhythms that seldom puts a foot wrong. Quite enticing: pieces like this are not thick on the ground, and I am sure many ensembles would enjoy playing it. Tausk and the orchestra did a fine job with both works.

The visual extravaganza of the preceding VSO concert was the world premiere of Nicole Lizée’s Perxploitation, dedicated to the VSO’s principal percussionist, Vern Griffiths. Compared with her earlier adventures, there can be little doubt that Lizée’s visual techniques have become more sophisticated and wide-ranging. Nonetheless, as one of the pioneers of ‘glitch’ music (e.g. pairing original music with historical film visuals that are distorted and/or recast by malfunctioning technology), one would not expect her artistic development to be without glitches either. The current work has all the makings of a ‘concerto’, but the interaction between the screen images (sometimes also of drummers) and the percussionist (orchestra) seems to go only one way: the music accompanies or duplicates the screen images, but never leads. Vern Griffiths put on a masterly show with the range of percussion at his disposal, but he seemingly had no cadenzas where he could innovate on his own and thereby induce new images. One dimension of this problem may simply be the success of the composer’s visual art: her image distortions and repetitions can be quite engrossing on their own (varying between macabre, funny, trivial and funky in a 1970s or, as she might say, 1990s way). Another is that the balance between the musicians and the visuals seems to perennially go against the former. I remain agnostic on the success of Lizée’s musical component, which typically seems too passive. Her overall corpus of work is significant, but it is also an acquired taste, and I am still waiting for her to produce a work where the music prompts the images explicitly.

Iconic French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier lived a storied life: born from unknown parents and growing up poor in Montreal, he composed from his teens (initially influenced by Stockhausen) and left almost 40 works when he was tragically murdered in Paris in 1983 at age 35. ‘Lonely Child’ (1980) is one of his most beautiful and expressive works for voice, and has been championed by the estimable soprano Nathalie Paulin, who sang it here. The song starts with all the gravity of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, as placed over a simple, questioning string legato. In his desire to use colours rather than chords, Vivier provides innovative and arresting development. Many parts of the piece have a contemplative stillness to them, though the colours and feelings are still rich and pungent. Some of the vocal line requires the soprano to gurgle, cluck and emit other exploratory sounds, but they seemed to fit with the design. I was also taken by the raw emotive power of the later passages, one in particular where a reedy combination of strings and winds conjure up an organ-like sound. This intensifies the singer’s expression similar to the way Janáček’s organ perpetuo moto creates a feeling of frenzy in his Glagolitic Mass. Paulin was successful at conveying both the feeling and the strangeness of the utterance, and Tausk’s conducting was most sensitive.

Henri Dutilleux’s Second Symphony ‘Le Double’ is a well-established modern work. What stands out about the piece is its ingenuity in utilizing the interactions between a large orchestra and a smaller one of 12 players, and the way its jeweled objectivity nonetheless manages to find an almost mystical sense of space and suspension. Given historical references (e.g. Yan Pascal Tortelier), Tausk and the orchestra gave a creditable reading, but one which could have been more transparent in displaying the interactions between the two orchestras. The composer did not intend the members of the small ensemble to be soloists per se, but more defined contributions from the clarinet, oboe and viola in the opening section would have been beneficial. I never think of this work as having any romantic pretense – it is more about agnostically suspended fragments of sound and structure – but this was not quite my perception here. The strings seemed too shaped and rich at the opening of the work’s second part to convey the austerity of the utterance, and the subsequent brass punctuations seemed to seek too much meaning. The quiet closing section perhaps needed to be even more timeless and suspended. In any case, with likely limited rehearsal time, this was still enjoyable: how often does one get to hear this excellent work?

The choral concert (cosponsored with Early Music Vancouver) featured Gregory Brown’s ‘Missa Charles Darwin’, sung by the New York Polyphony. It was likely the most controversial experiment of the festival, aiming to set a traditional Catholic Mass to the text of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Here it is the continuing process of natural selection which is praised (‘There is grandeur in this view of life’), and individual death as such is neutral. This view will resonate with those who defend versions of Holism and Materialism, but not those who honour the sanctity of death. While one can potentially set many different texts in the form of a Mass, the intellectual intrigue of this one is that the music twists and turns in an evolutionary manner and at least implicitly traces the development of the genre from early times to Duruflé. Ingenious as that concept is, I am unsure about the emotional reach of this effort, at least as presented here. The four-member New York Polyphony is an enthusiastic group, evidently excelling in modern songs which require considerable rubato and strong projection. However, they do not seem to be as skilled at conveying an austere mystery and stillness in their singing. The composition needs exactly this component of mystery to contrast with its weaving energy. There was simply too much uniformity in the vocal gestures and too much over-projection from each part; if sometimes the ensemble could just quietly sit with the music and expose its subtle hues, the emotional depth of this writing might be probed more clearly. Nonetheless, it is a well-thought-out compositional idea.

So, a truly eclectic New Music Festival to go with all the other VSO100 celebrations. The orchestra did a fine job at quickly assimilating the diverse pieces, and Maestro Tausk carried everything very well. I am inclined to think that this was the conductor’s best effort yet in his first half-year as Music Director. The ‘Day of Music’ got a splendid response, and one hopes that we do not have to wait another 100 years to see this again.

Geoffrey Newman

For more about VSO100 events click here.

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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