By Holly Harris
WINNIPEG — In the 24 years since its inception, Winnipeg’s contemporary music series GroundSwell has offered audiences a steady diet of cutting-edge artists from emerging to internationally renowned composers and musicians.
The penultimate concert of its 2014-15 season presented Canadian pianist Eve Egoyan, selected by the Canadian Broadcasting Company as one of the country’s 25 greatest classical pianists, in two distinct solo concerts held at the University of Winnipeg’s Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall on Feb. 26 and 27. It also marked the Victoria, B.C.-born, now Toronto-based artist’s local debut in this mid-sized Prairie city located due north of Fargo, N.D.
Internationally acclaimed for her nine recordings and virtuosic performances, Egoyan is equally renowned for her spirit of musical adventure, actively commissioning works from a broad range of composers, including James Tenney, Alvin Curran, Ann Southam, Rudolf Komorous, Maria de Alvear, Michael Finnissy, and Jo Kondo. She is also beginning to compose her own piano works — a tantalizing prospect that promises rich musical fruit in coming years.
In contrast to many top-down arts organizations, GroundSwell has always run as a collaborative democracy. Each of its regular five concerts is curated by one of the longtime members of its artistic directorate, currently comprising the following Canadian composers: Michael Matthews, Diana McIntosh, Gordon Fitzell, and Jim Hiscott, as well as this year’s guest curator, Örjan Sandred. GroundSwell’s eclectic programs range from solo artists to creative combustions of new music, visual art, theater, dance, and spoken word. This time around, the curator was Hiscott, a Winnipeg-based composer whose folk-flavoured music, including works for his own button accordion, have been frequently heard during the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s annual New Music Festival.
The first of the two programs, entitled Folklore, opened with Turn (1973) by Danish composer Per Nørgärd, which in many ways proved the most satisfying work of the night. Egoyan immediately established a steady pulse with each percussive strike on the piano, creating multi-layers of ghostly overtones. One bass note grounds the treble chords in a prismatic unfolding of sound. As the work progresses, the pace gradually accelerates into widely sweeping arpeggios that also bore witness to Egoyan’s technical prowess. The dynamic performer is also skillful at creating real drama and suspense, with Nørgärd’s piece (originally composed for the brittle Baroque clavichord) finally trickling off into the ether.
The late American composer and theorist James Tenney is one whose music we don’t hear often enough. To Weave (a meditation) (2003), one of the evening’s two Egoyan-commissioned works, is a contemplative journey through both time and space. The soloist navigated its opening pointillism with a sense of resolve, focused on the task at hand while establishing the overall picture. Remarkably, she also instilled lyricism into its fragmented, sparsely conceived tonal landscape. The 12-minute piece is built like a continuum wave that Egoyan rode with fierce concentration.
The third piece of the evening, Toronto-based composer Linda Catlin Smith’s Nocturnes and Chorales (a 2014 commission) pays homage to Chopin, Satie, and British composer Michael Finnissy, whom Egoyan regularly champions. Egoyan sustained the intensity throughout the nine episodic movements, including its first nocturne, scored for left hand alone with effective sotto voce passages. Each movement possesses its own character, with the poised artist artfully ensuring that the listener’s interest always held, from bell-like chords to extreme dynamic contrasts and a full exploitation of the keyboard.
However, by this time we were ready for more fireworks that would also showcase Egoyan’s bravura technique. This was the night’s only flaw. So much of the program felt quietly introspective and, at times, even flat, with an oddly imbalanced selection of works that didn’t fully reflect the spectrum of the pianist’s compelling artistry. The puzzling fact that there were fewer than 25 audience members in the already intimate hall also diminished the energy of the concert. Even Egoyan appeared surprised when she first took the stage, and the paltry applause, despite the committed listeners’ best efforts, would have made this challenging for anyone.
Nevertheless, the concert did end with a bang: Finnissy’s Folklore, Section 2, for Sir Michael Tippett. Egoyan realized the dramatic work’s undulating currents, seeming to only use its pregnant pauses to steel herself for more, including rolling trills and cascades of sound.
The second concert, which I did not attend, was titled Simple Lines of Enquiry after a large-scale, 12-movement piano work that Egoyan has recorded by the late Canadian composer Ann Southam. The Winnipeg-born Southam, one of Canada’s first prominent women composers, spent most of her life in Toronto before her death at age 73 in November 2010. Notably, she co-founded Winnipeg’s Music Inter Alia new music series, a direct forerunner of Groundswell, in 1977 with Diana McIntosh that ran until 1991. Southam wrote primarily for small forms, including solo piano and electronics with her sparsely textured works known for their eloquent lyricism.
The quiet ethos of Simple Lines of Enquiry, which can be sampled here, speaks as much with its lengthy pauses and meditative silences as it does with its 12-tone-based, arching lines. Southam collaborated with Egoyan on several other pieces, with the latter performing the world premieres of piano solos: Qualities of Consonance (1998), and In Retrospect (2004), as well as Figures (2001), written for piano with string orchestra.
A multimedia event typical of Egoyan’s restless creative spirit, Simple Lines of Enquiry was presented alongside video projections by Ontario-born David Rokeby, Machine for Taking Time (Boul. Saint-Laurent). It was billed as part of her ongoing Earwitness hybrid projects blending sound and visual elements, and explained as a meeting of two independent works of art that move through time in compatible ways without being explicitly synchronized: “Both works involve a process of unfolding – a camera pans across a city and across time; the music explores of the emotional possibilities of a twelve-interval row. Each embraces extreme detail and timeless expansiveness.”
Holly Harris is a classical music and dance critic and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. She also writes for Symphony, The Strad, Opera Canada, Opera Today, Dance International, The Dance Current, and The Canadian Encyclopedia.