Patrician, Populist Impulses Compete In New Music Fest

Bramwell Tovey with the Kronos Quartet and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. (Concert photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony)
Bramwell Tovey with the Kronos Quartet and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a four-day new music festival.
(Concert photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony)

By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER — Over the course of his long tenure with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, music director Bramwell Tovey has emphasized regular performance of contemporary music. February, for example, saw “Something Old, Something New,” an evening of new chamber works with historical allusions; the local premiere of Philip Glass’ Third Symphony; and, from Feb. 25–28, a four-evening New Music Festival.

Tovey with festival co-curator Jocelyn Morlock.
Quick-witted Tovey with festival co-curator Jocelyn Morlock.

When the latter started up three years ago, it was a re-tread of the 25-year-old Winnipeg New Music Festival, inaugurated when Tovey worked in that prairie city. But almost instantly the Vancouver Symphony endeavor morphed into something different: an annual event placing more emphasis on a diverse composer base reflecting West Coast sensibilities, and a heady blend of local, national, and international repertoires.

Two of the four VSO evenings featured small ensembles. Local new music group Standing Wave kicked off the festival on Thursday with a program that included Readings from Book of Love by former VSO composer-in-residence Jeffrey Ryan (a suite derived from a more extended piece for dance) and the premiere of Undark by current composer-in-residence and festival co-curator Jocelyn Morlock.

There was a nostalgic walk down memory lane with a performance of Glass’ Music in Similar Motion from 1969 [listen to it here], and the latest incarnation of Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s Hitchcock Etudes. The latter is a bit of an extravaganza, incorporating manipulated film clips and sound quotes from Hitchcock classics dished up with Lizée’s busy but engaging textures. Also on tap was evanescence, a work by Winnipeg-based Gordon Fitzell created for the ensemble eighth blackbird in 2001, then re-worked to include live electronics. [Listen to it here.]The marriage between live and electronic components can often prove stormy, but Fitzell rose to the challenge with instinctive élan; evanescence was a taxing piece, perhaps, but an effective and endearing one.

The celebrated Kronos Quartet was given its own showcase on Friday. The ensemble’s strong Vancouver following was served an around-the-world tasting menu of eleven shortish pieces, many of them specially created arrangements. The climax of the program was the Canadian premiere of Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Bombs of Beirut (2013). [Watch Kronos play it here.] If good intentions and sincerity were enough to ensure success, this would be a masterwork; instead it’s a well-crafted, post-Bartókian string quartet, played with an overlay of spoken words and prerecorded sounds of conflict.

The program included Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 'Three Screaming Popes.'
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Three Screaming Popes’ took no prisoners.

Saturday saw the first of two evenings of mainly orchestral works, bookended by a pensive Adagietto by Toronto composer Linda C. Smith and study for a crouching figure/étude pour silhouette accroupie, for chamber forces and dancer by Rodney Sharman (the VSO’s first composer-in-residence) with astonishing choreography by Marie-Josée Chartier.

By this point in the festival, two different stylistic/aesthetic impulses had begun to make themselves known. Canadian composer Glenn Buhr, Tovey’s composer-in-residence back in the day in Winnipeg, was represented by his in glorium (2000), very much in the holy-minimalist school of Tavener’s 1988 megahit, The Protecting Veil. American Jennifer Higdon’s lovely Blue Cathedral (also 2000) could easily grace the programs of any mainstream concert in all but the most conservative orchestral season. [Listen to it here.]Well conceived  by Higdon, and showing a masterly command of the orchestra, Blue Cathedral has had sustained success, and it’s easy to see why. By contrast, British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes (1989) makes no compromises and takes no prisoners; it’s an extravagant, intense workout with a raunchy bit of jazz underlay roiling around in its subconscious. [Listen to it here.] Aerial Courser by Christopher Mayo, a Canadian transplanted to the UK, is just as brash. Suggested by late nineteenth-century sightings of what one California newspaper called “Mystery Airships,” the 2009  work (receiving its premiere) reads as a steampunk collection of gnarly machine-like noises, flashy timbres, and explosive rhythms.

The disconnect between populist and patrician ideas continued to play out in the festival’s finale. The Kronos Quartet was back, this time working as soloists in Thomas Newman’s It Got Dark (2009), a fantasy on themes of memory and old Los Angeles. In most contexts, Newman’s faux-naif suite would shine; it’s a affable piece that plays to the strengths of the Kronos musicians. But in the context of three remarkable recent works for orchestra, its charm was decidedly overwhelmed by more serious essays in contemporary orchestral writing.

VSO trumpeter and composer-in-association Marcus Goddard.
VSO trumpeter and composer-in-association Marcus Goddard.

VSO associate principal trumpet Marcus Goddard is also the orchestra’s composer-in-association. The premiere of Regenerations showed him operating at an astonishingly high pitch, using his deep insider knowledge of orchestral color. Be it an evocative opening or a passage with a trio of off-stage trumpets, Regenerations consistently thrills, walking the fine line between professionalism and individuality with complete confidence.

As festival co-curator, Jocelyn Morlock’s expansive taste and sometimes quirky predilections were in subtle evidence. I should also mention her engaging ability to thrust and parry onstage with the quick-witted Tovey: their double act introducing pieces is nothing like conventional newmusicspeak, and the event is all the better for it. Morlock writes music that is personal yet of our moment, appealing but never, ever resorting to the easy or the conventional. Her latest orchestral piece, Earthfall, was premiered on Sunday evening as well. With a grand and truly symphonic scope, this is a piece that has it all: detail, color, drama, even what Morlock herself called “a happy ending – of sorts.” Morlock has a beguiling orchestral voice, and Earthfall draws listeners into her compelling sound world.

The same can be said for the concluding work of the festival, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s L.A. Variations (1996), a concerto for orchestra written not so much about L.A. as for the spectacular Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. [Listen to it here.] Now twenty years old, the piece is still a wonder: filled with content, not just event, it gives each and every member of the orchestra (not to mention conductor Tovey) an exhilarating, exhausting workout. It panders to no one, neither players nor audience, and says just what it wants to, take it or leave it. In so doing it creates music that has the potential to last as long as there are good orchestras willing to take the care to learn and present exceptional music.

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 teaches at the University of British Columbia.