A Rare Partnership

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Last night (March 17), I counted myself fortunate to be among the 100-or-so people who attended Christina Petrowska-Quilico’s piano recital at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio. Petrowska-Quilico is a fixture on Toronto’s new-music scene, who has played works by many Canadian composers over the years. But the composer she’s most closely connected with is a relatively obscure figure (even by Canadian standards): Ann Southam, who passed away last year at the age of 73.

Petrowska-Quilico’s all-Southam recital was, in part, a concert of remembrance. But it was also the launch of a new Southam CD: Glass Houses Revisited. (Centrediscs CMCCD 16511). The recital program was identical to the music on the CD: nine pieces from Southam’s 15-movement piano cycle Glass Houses, composed in 1981 and revised in 2009.

The word "Glass" in the title refers to Philip Glass, and by extension to the minimalist movement in general. But Southam’s music is no pale imitation of Glass’s. On the contrary – it’s better.

I say this as someone who has always felt ambivalent about minimalism. On one hand, I was thankful to Glass, Reich et al. for leading contemporary music back in the direction of tonality and re-establishing a regular rhythmic pulse. On the other hand, minimalism can be obsessive and oppressive, relentlessly busy yet going nowhere. Listen to the first minute of some minimalist scores and you’ve basically heard the whole piece.

Southam isn’t like that at all. Her minimalist works are rich in invention, continually refreshing themselves, like a kaleidoscope that turns slowly but never stops. Each movement is a complex labyrinth, full of twists and turns, from beginning to end. While she favours sunny diatonic sonorities in most of these movements, there’s richness in her harmonic language. Indeed, movement 13 of Glass Houses is one of the most successful due to its mysterious chromaticism. (Go to the Canadian Music Centre’s website and scroll down to Glass Houses to hear an excerpt.)

This music isn’t just beautiful, it’s also virtuosic – and without the ongoing commitment of a pianist who was willing to cultivate the specialized technique need to play it, it’s not clear how a work like Glass Houses could or would have been created. Southam and Petrowska-Quilico’s three-decade collaboration was the kind of symbiosis between composer and performer that occurs only rarely, but can produce remarkable things.