East Greets West In A Now That Sounds Like Then

Robert Aitken conducts New Music Concerts
1970s modernism is dear to the heart of Robert Aitken, who leads New Music Concerts, now in its 44th season.
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – This city certainly doesn’t lack for contemporary music presenters. One of the oldest is New Music Concerts, a chamber music series now in its 44th season under the artistic direction of flutist, conductor, and composer Robert Aitken.

Boulez rehearses with Aitken in earlier decades at New Music Toronto. (© Andre Leduc)
Pierre Boulez, conducting, was among the eminent early visitors.

Back in the early 1970s, New Music Concerts was all about modernism. Prominent figures in the European avant-garde were brought to Toronto for its events: Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Witold Lutosławski, and many others. A few Americans showed up, including John Cage and George Crumb. Canadian modernists were also featured, such as Bruce Mather, Gilles Tremblay and R. Murray Schafer.

These composers were dear to Aitken’s heart. (Some recordings remain.) And although years have passed and times have changed, a New Music Concerts Feb. 14 program at Toronto’s Betty Oliphant Theatre revealed that Aitken still carries a torch for high modernism.

The program was billed as “New Works from East and West,” featuring five composers from Canada and China. Perhaps the idea was to contrast composers from these two countries, but the works performed weren’t much dissimilar – except for the Chinese composers’ use of the pipa (a kind of Chinese lute) in an otherwise Western chamber ensemble.

Rather, the strongest message that emerged from the program was a commitment by the selected composers to the stylistic features of modernism. Indeed, the concert unfolded as a compendium of post-war avant-garde tricks of the trade. All were texturally diverse, structurally through-composed, and more or less atonal. Although these five pieces were brand-new world premieres, completed in 2015, they could have been written 40 years ago.

Shi Fuhong resized
Fuhong Shi wrote ‘Mountains and Seas’ for the event.

Fuhong Shi is a professor at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. She also has connections to Canada, through past studies at the University of Toronto. Her Mountains and Seas (for pipa, flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, violin, and cello, with Aitken conducting) was a kind of stream-of-consciousness dreamscape, full of soft trills and swishy glissandos on the harp. It was a pleasant but ephemeral piece; the only “solid” music in it was a cleverly integrated quote from The Rite of Spring at the work’s conclusion.

The other Chinese composer on the program was Yanqiao Wang. Like Shi, he also teaches at the Central Conservatory, and has spent some years in Canada. Impression: Qing Shui Jiang at Night (for pipa, flute, piano, harp, bass and a pair of percussionists, with Aitken conducting) was based on folk traditions from China’s Guizhou province. The piece is essentially a small-scale concerto for pipa and chamber group, complete with cadenza, and its formal structure gave it a clear sense of focus and direction. Pipa player Weiwei Lan made the most of her moment in the spotlight: Her impressive playing ran the gamut from delicate ruminations to flailing power chords.

Norbert Palej (Johnny Guato)
Norbert Palej (Johnny Guato)

The three Canadian composers didn’t fare as well.

The Grey Hour by Norbert Palej – a professor at the University of Toronto who was born in Poland – was a stark essay, full of pregnant pauses and jarring outbursts. The piece calls for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello, and soprano. The Polish-language text is from a folk song about the setting sun, and it was sung by soprano Stacie Dunlop with laser-like intensity. Palej conducted the ensemble.

Adam Scime, Canadian composer
Adam Scime (@AdamScime)

Dunlop was paired with violinist Véronique Mathieu in from what hand to speak, by Adam Scime, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. The text is from We Beasts, a poetry collection by Montreal writer Oana Avasilichioaei, set by Scime in fragments that were sung, gasped, even yawned by Dunlop. She was up against stiff competition from Mathieu’s fiddle, which produced a fierce barrage of gnarly dissonance. This thin, strident music was relentless, punctuated only by page-turns.

Laurie Radford (music.mcGill.ca)
Laurie Radford (music.mcGill.ca)

Laurie Radford’s meaninglessnessingisms was well named, as its text was an incomprehensible jumble, rendered even more incomprehensible by a looped electronic playback of Dunlop’s voice. Radford, who is a professor at the University of Calgary, was on hand to do the live mix, while Aitken conducted an ensemble of flute, harp, percussion, two violins, viola, and cello.

As this program made clear, there are some composers (especially in academia) who still feel the old-time religion of modernism. It’s good enough for them – and they are happy to write 20th-century music in the 21st century.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of two books: Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould.