By David Gordon Duke
VANCOUVER — New-music initiatives have been big at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, in part because of the sympathetic interest of music director Bramwell Tovey. Himself a composer of note, Tovey has made sure that a good part of his legacy with the orchestra includes a solid commitment to new works. Exemplary of his zeal was a New Music Festival that ran for four evenings in January. Tovey also has created a series of three new-music concerts in the Orpheum Annex, a small space next to the VSO’s main hall, the Orpheum Theatre.
The Annex series opened Feb. 22 with a concert entitled “Displaced Emotion,” an intense and occasionally disturbing program anchored by This Will Not Be Televised, written in 2007 by Nicole Lizée. I had previously heard Lizée’s Sculptress in January in a program of small ensemble works by Vancouver’s Standing Wave new-music group, as part of the Vancouver Symphony’s New Music Festival, and I had found it underwhelming, her willingness to explore pop-culture links to be merely a slangy attempt at topicality.
In This Will Not Be Televised, however, Lizée has created a more compelling work that includes a virtuoso part for DJ (admirably filled by Paolo Kapunan, also known as P-Love, who busily manipulated three turntables) that intersects and kibitzes with a largish chamber group. If the piece is a bit loquacious, it is also fresh and intriguing. Lizée’s textures are often complex, sometimes slapdash, but her work’s overall trajectory made for engaging listening.
The best music on tap came from Zosha Di Castri and Poul Ruders. Di Castri’s Cortège won Canada’s Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music in 2012, and it’s easy to see why. Currently studying at Columbia University, she has a way with sonorities, and her sophisticated use of timbre and hints of neo-expressionism resulted in an often unsettling but surefooted piece.
Ruders’ Nightshade (1987) is a dark, tough, and bass-heavy work. Big, roughly hewn blocks of sonority characterize the work; there is little gratuitous flash and no pandering. Yet Ruders’ intensity and honesty end up being entirely convincing, proving that quality music, however “difficult,” can be effective, as long as it is delivered with genuine commitment, as Nightshade was by Tovey and his impressive instrumentalists.
The trifle Homonymy, by Ontario composer John Oswald, suggests ambiguity. Its sole purpose seems to be to advertise the composer’s success in high school French class. Vancouver composer Jacqueline Leggatt’s Variations on Exact Tensions is a pretty thing, perhaps not quite strong enough for the export market, but purposefully conceived, with measures of moody colors contrasted with faster scherzando elements.
An incongruous but not unwelcome substitution on the program was André Previn’s Four Songs (1994) to texts by Toni Morrison. Soprano Monica Huisman, in town to sing in Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony, received top-quality collaboration from pianist Linda Lee Thomas and VSO principal cellist Ariel Barnes. Previn’s style, just slightly more adventurous than, say, Samuel Barber, in this context sounded positively archaic. But this is a fine work, beautifully crafted. It was delivered with warmth and charm.
The Annex concerts are by no means the end of the VSO’s nods to the new. The orchestra’s composer-in-residence program has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with the tenures of composers Edward Top (who advised on this year’s Annex programming) and now Jocelyn Morlock, who led the concert’s introductory Q&A.
The Morlock-Tovey collaboration is especially fortunate: She works outside the academic tradition and writes in an idiom that, while unabashedly contemporary, actually takes audiences into account. During the January festival, her platform chats with Tovey abounded with genuine enthusiasm, and the two have developed an ironic rapport that totally undercuts the sober (read: dull) solemnity that so often blights new-music events.
Given Tovey’s dual careers as conductor and composer, it’s hard not to look for connections between his various new-music choices and his own tastes. If reluctant to program his own work, he’s shown an unusually broad and eclectic range of interests — everything from Bernstein to Birtwistle and beyond. “Tovey’s” spotlighting of Canadian composers stems from a genuine engagement rather than strategies to please granting agencies. Perhaps because of his considerable success with lighter fare in his appearances with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, his hometown audience gets to see his dark side with more regularity.
David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.