The joys of ‘(re)-creation’ guide Vancouver’s 2020 New Music Festival

CanadaCanada 2020 VSO New Music Festival [1] (GN)

Viviane Hagner (violin) and Otto Tausk and the VSO © Matthew Baird

(1) Chin, Saariaho, Lizée: Viviane Hagner (violin), Kari Kriiku (clarinet), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor). Chan Centre, Vancouver, 11.1.2020. 
Chin – Violin Concerto (2001)
Saariaho – D’om le vrai sens for Clarinet and Orchestra (2010)
Lizée – Behind the Sound of Music (2014)

(2) Adès, Richter: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 16.1.2020.
Adès – Suite No. 2 from Powder Her Face (2017)
Richter – Recomposed (2012)

This year’s New Music Festival happened to coincide with a (rare) snow week in the city but, fortunately, these opening and closing orchestral concerts were little affected. One interesting feature was the appearance of current VSO conductor Otto Tausk beside his long-standing predecessor Bramwell Tovey, who founded the festival in 2014. The general theme was ‘(re)-creation’ and, in the first concert, German violinist Viviane Hagner and Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriiku returned, respectively, to Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto and Kaija Saariaho’s D’om le vrai sens – works they had premiered. In Tovey’s closing concert, it was Thomas Adès’s (re)constitution of an orchestral suite from his opera Powder Her Face joining hands with Max Richter’s (re)composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Canadian Nicole Lizée contributed her own (re)imagining of The Sound of Music in the first concert and had an outing to herself later in the festival. Overall, it was an interesting combination of pieces where a cinematic component, either musical or visual, often came into play.

By far the purest piece was Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto. The work was received with excitement from the outset – winning the Grawemeyer Award in 2004 – and it survives the test of time well. The piece fits broadly within the standard three-movement concerto form, adding only an additional scherzo. It is a beautiful, sensitive work that finds a natural motion from beginning to end, balancing a searching lyricism with a modernist percussive structure.

Viviane Hagner has recorded the work with the Montreal Symphony under Kent Nagano. Having lived with it for two decades, she has clearly developed great art in weaving between the orchestral strands to achieve coherence and intensity. She does not have a particularly big tone but has a sophisticated appreciation of the variety of tones needed, and she varies her attack: she can muse, dance and protest with remarkable facility and does not shy from her feelings. As affirmed here, it is the work’s emotional suspension and sureness of line that make it special even though it moves through many different colours and never completely severs its ties to a historical legacy. While there are clear links to Ligeti (Chin’s teacher), the soloist’s use of open strings at the very beginning and throughout the first three movements seem to pay a debt to Alban Berg’s concerto; the rhythmic point of the finale hints at Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2; and suspended cells of colour come forth with a Debussy-like countenance. Hagner never lets us forget this mix of past and present, but the result stands triumphantly on its own. The way the tender, searching strands of her opening violin whispers reappear at the work’s end achieves a wonderful feeling of classical symmetry. Otto Tausk and the orchestra were most attentive compatriots.

Kaija Saariaho’s clarinet concerto, entitled D’om le vrai sens after a medieval tapestry depicting the five senses, is more cinematic. The clarinetist spends very little time in the soloist’s position onstage, sauntering through the orchestra and occasionally wandering up the aisles of the theatre in Pied Piper fashion. A spotlight was used to keep track of him. As is well recognized, Kari Kriiku is a master at producing vivid sounds on his instrument, cultivating squawks, cries and bulges I have never heard before, and he has a remarkable control of dynamics over a full four-octave range. The virtuosity of the clarinetist is set against the slabs of shimmering orchestral weight and delicate percussion textures that Saariaho characteristically provides, but it is the spatial dimension that is intriguing. Just how much of the work’s communication depends on where the soloist’s sound locates relative to that of the orchestra? I admit I did not get a firm answer to this question. What stood out most was the soloist’s role as musical spokesman and traveller, his sense of fantasy and his gyrations throughout the theatre: entertaining, but probably a bit too visual for me. The work ends on a pedal note that seems to last an eternity, the soloist engaging in an extended cadenza in the left aisle while the violins file off the stage.

‘Visual’ would be an understatement when it comes to Canadian Nicole Lizée’s work, which sets original music to projected film scenes that are distorted by the ‘glitches’ that frequently plagued traditional projection technologies. A macabre slant is often created by the images, where normal speech and motion become awkward and pathological. Lizée has been prolific in her projects in recent years, but the dark feel of her Behind the Sound of Music might be a child’s worst nightmare, taking the freshness and inspiration of the movie and turning it into something enigmatic and faltering. That said, her film editing skills seem to get better and better as she proceeds, and rather than just providing a rhythmic strengthening of the film’s music with her own, here she introduced more interesting legato string lines to cut across the rhythms and add body to her orchestral sound.

Under Bramwell Tovey’s baton, the final concert also had a cinematic feel, starting with Thomas Adès’s recent Suite No. 2 from his opera Powder Her Face (1995). No matter how one responds to librettist Philip Hensher’s portrayal of the ‘Dirty Duchess’ (Margaret Campbell), whose scandalous sexual exploits in the 1960s are the stuff of which legends are made, it contains very skillfully constructed music with plenty of colour. Much of it is written in a consciously ‘cabaret’ style, capturing the sensual, off-colour dimensions of her world with vivid orchestration while still leaving room to record the sadness in the protagonist’s situation. This latest suite extends the composer’s previous ‘Three Dances’ from the opera, and is scored for full orchestra rather than a 15-piece band.

Tovey’s performance was engaging but, to an extent, it lacked sharpness and definition. There is a whiplash quality to many of the contrasts in this music, and the strings were slightly too slow to capture it. While the percussion gave a fine effort and the horns put on a magnificent display later on, there was absence of character as we proceeded through the early dances. Perhaps the saxophones were slightly too plain to immerse one completely in this smouldering, off-colour world. There is also a lot of wit in the writing that must come out. The feeling of sadness and melancholy was well conveyed at the end of the work, even if such allusions might have come forth earlier. But it was a fine opportunity to hear contemporary music of both colour and individuality for an audience who likely would not have been familiar with it before.

By the same token, most of the audience would be endlessly familiar with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – which brings us to Max Richter’s Recomposed.  Vivaldi’s famous work seems to almost magnetically invite composers and performers to attempt to inject extra personality into its soul. A few years ago, Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque played the work in the spirit of the wild Italian gypsy string players of the period, while adding complementary pieces by other composers – and wild it was too! Norwegian violinist/composer Henning Kraggerud’s recent CD, Between the Seasons, adds short compositions of his own between the four concertos. Both efforts aim at expanding the naturalism and the mystery in the work. Max Richter also aims in this direction, but he is even more serious: he deconstructs Vivaldi’s composition and puts it back together in a way that embeds his own innovations but preserves the spirit of the original. Richter’s efforts have received ample press since the work’s CD release on Deutsche Grammophon in 2014, some of it enthusiastic and some not. I enjoyed this VSO presentation with concertmaster Nicolas Wright as soloist, absorbing Richter’s novelties and extensions but longing for the purity of the original at times.

The basic contours and thematic content of the work are not appreciably changed, but the composer definitely tries to make more explicit elemental and ethereal features in the work’s aura. The most effective aspect of this reconstruction was the extension of the insistent, repeated rhythms in the Allegros (augmenting Vivaldi’s own) which seem to make nature more of an unstoppable force: the seasons must transform. The bludgeoning rhythms at the end of Winter suggest that the work itself cannot stop: the motion carries inevitably back to Spring, and through the seasons over and over again. This is where one is clearly reminded of the force of the additive rhythms of Philip Glass. Apart from inserting tapes of birds in spring at the opening and a thunderstorm later on (which seemed quite unnecessary), it was the slow movements that gave me the most concern: they consistently sought a more romantic or cinematic veneer than the work rightly needs. There was little purpose in the electronic augmenting of the bass in the slow movement of Spring. The opening up of sparse, ethereal spaces in Summer’s stillness was very beautiful, but the violin should not be playing a nineteenth-century concerto. This extension tried too hard to make explicit the elemental (transcendental) feelings we already know. And why spoil the radiant motion in Winter’s interlude by taking it at half speed and making a dirge out of it. This was the least satisfactory, and most self-conscious, part of the reconstruction.

In any event, some good things here and others less so, but it was an enjoyable adventure overall. Indeed, it was inviting for the newcomer to classical music, but less so for those who already revere the works as is and have all the cinematic elements in their personal imaginations anyway. Violinist Nicolas Wright did a sterling job, and the orchestra played well, even if the ensemble might have been lighter and sharper at times. Overall, I was impressed with the sheer variety in the five works performed in these two concerts and how well the ‘re-creation’ theme worked as a whole.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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