Symphony Shines In Rich, Rewarding New Music Festival

Vancouver Symphony music director Bramwell Tovey with composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock.
(Photos by Matthew Baird)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – “Everything old is new again” could have been a slogan for the fifth annual Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival, which ran Jan. 18-22 at various venues. This is the last season for longtime VSO music director Bramwell Tovey, an ideas person if ever there was one. During his tenure, the orchestra has championed music by women, seen extensive player renewal, programmed a complete Mahler symphony cycle, created a Vancouver Symphony School of Music, and established the New Music Festival.

The new-music sextet Standing Wave opened the festival with a chamber-music concert.

Given that Tovey is an impressive composer as well as conductor, it should come as no surprise that new music representing various styles and schools has become something the VSO does well – and, just as importantly, something that the orchestra’s core audience has come to expect and even welcome.

A significant part of this willingness to explore has been enhanced by the interplay between Tovey and VSO composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock. Aside from Morlock’s flair for programming and obvious gifts as a composer, past festivals have seen on-stage banter between conductor and composer reminiscent (for those of us old enough to remember) of the heyday of Sonny and Cher. Indeed, VSO Festivals have been remarkably lacking in the dour pomposity that so often blights the new music world. And – surprise, surprise – the audience seems prepared to listen with open ears and to anticipate enjoyment. Add-ons like pre-concert chats, panels, and post-concert receptions complete with DJ add extra pizzazz to the overall atmosphere.

Festival Five opened with an evening of chamber works presented by Standing Wave, a local new music sextet with strong VSO connections and presented in the VSO’s home base, the Orpheum Theatre. The program set the tone of the festival with an anchor work from the 1970s and further pieces with a then/now resonance. The best of the latter was Pavane, Galliard, and Variations by the VSO’s very first composer-in-residence, Rodney Sharman, based on music by William Byrd. Sharman’s affectionate reconsideration exploited the ensemble’s strengths and created a memorable meditation on time and style. As successful in its own way was Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak, which harkens back to voguish minimalist traditions of the ’70s – the era just before Muhly’s birth in 1981. The even younger Québec-based James O’Callaghan contributed another homage to new music’s heroic past with a stylish instrumental cover of a section of Bernard Parmegiani’s purely electronic 1975 De Natura Sonorum.

Rachel Barton Pine played the premiere of Marcus Goddard’s Violin Concerto.

The program ended with a revival of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union, also from the mid-Seventies. Andriessen has had a lasting influence on composers in Canada, and in Vancouver in particular. Hearing Worker’s Union after all these years, it was hard to see what all the fuss was about when the open score opus was new, despite a committed performance from Standing Wave augmented by a pair of extra instrumentalists. Music past its sell-by date?

The old/new interconnection played out even more obviously in a program presented in conjunction with Early Music Vancouver the next night, “Music for Old Instruments: After Bach,”  featuring the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. The eclectic evening at downtown Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral began with a spry curtain raiser exploring microtonal pitch shifts by Sharman, who curated the event. It was perhaps a poor choice to follow it with more of the same from Douglas Finch, whose Chorale-Threnody, a charmless meditation on gloomy themes from Bach, proved of purely academic interest at best. But Revenant by Jocelyn Morlock got things back on track. Morlock takes as her point of departure Bach’s famous Musical Offering theme. The intrinsic elegance of her work shone out, as did her real love for early instruments. The longish program’s first half ended with a pair of improvisations from the PBO’s Alexander Weimann, harpsichord, followed by Bramwell Tovey, piano, and then some deliciously rambunctious riffs on Gershwin dished up as a four-hand duo.

The second half had greater cohesion. Weimann played Ligeti’s wonderful Passacaglia Ungarese, followed by a glorious performance of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. The evening ended with Sinfonia Della Passione, a (very) new piece by Tovey, which used the same instrumental complement as the Brandenburg but was characterized by a sort of neo- neoclassical drive and extended harmonic language. No one can steal the show from the Fifth Brandenburg, but Tovey’s work held its own.

Tovey and Alexander Weimann teamed for ‘deliciously rambunctious riffs’ on Gershwin.

Back in the Orpheum Saturday night and under the familiar baton of Tovey, “Cobalt Clouds and Clear Blue Seas,” the first of two festival programs for orchestra, was devoted to concertos and concerto-like compositions. Canadian composer John Estacio’s new Trumpet Concerto, featuring principal trumpet Larry Knopp, began the evening. Only a generation ago a work like Estacio’s would have been anathema in new music circles: tonal, conventionally – though brilliantly – orchestrated, and a traditional vehicle for star soloist. The piece has a Technicolor grandeur and no end of orchestral bells and whistles. Was it a mismatch on a festival of new music? Does it matter in our pluralistic age? The consensus seems to be not at all: some nineteen orchestras have included it on their seasons this year alone.

Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds was another matter, though every bit as pleasing. The work featured concertmaster Nicholas Wright and violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who acted as a sort of unofficial headliner for the festival. It’s a wonderful piece: full of exciting string textures and contrapuntal complexity, it keeps listeners spellbound from beginning to end. The pair of fine soloists plus a large complement of orchestral strings made it a festival highpoint.

Morlock’s Cobalt is another work with two featured violins, performed by the same pair of soloists. Shorter and more enigmatic than the Clyne, Cobalt displays Morlock’s distinguished, ultra-sensitive feeling for orchestral color. (It’s the title work on a 2014 Centredisc recording devoted to Morlock’s orchestral music.)

Just as Thursday’s concert concluded with a new music landmark from the 1970s, the concerto program ended with another work from forty years ago, Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No 1, heard in the version for two flutes. Schnittke’s trademark polystylism (or is it just late Soviet era post-modernism?) can make confounding demands; unsubtle lurches between idioms are intentional, and it’s up to the listener to sort out the point. It leaves me cold, but I note its sustained impact on many younger composers.

Festival panelists Rachel Barton Pine, Nicholas Wright, John Estacio, and Jocelyn Morlock.

Reviewing commitments at Vancouver Opera kept me from hearing “Intimate NMF Cabaret,” in the small Orpheum Annex, a program of nine works – bookended by a Merula lullaby from the seventeenth century ‒ that ranged through miniatures by Varèse and Boulez to recent pieces by Golijov and Kevin Morse.

The Festival wound up Monday evening with “Dawn to Dusk: From Aurora to Wintery Sky,” back at the Orpheum. In some ways the very best was saved for last. The program began with Eve de Castro-Robinson’s slight but charming avian fanfare Aurora. This was followed by the premiere performance of Night, Herself, a just-completed work by Morlock, which references Purcell. A sort of interrupted chaconne, the piece pays homage to the Baroque without any sense of pastiche; the music is lyrical but intrinsically somber, deliberately paced but rife with suppressed drama.

Another premiere followed, a Violin Concerto by VSO composer-in-association Marcus Goddard written especially for Rachel Barton Pine. The work is in the grand manner, brilliantly orchestrated. In the course of three substantial movements, the score exploits a breathtaking range of violinistic effects. Lucky the composer to have a new work premiered with such fire and enthusiasm by a soloist of Barton Pine’s stature. But lucky violinists to have an effective new concerto with depth and intensity. I hope Barton Pine plays it everywhere in seasons to come.

Three shorter works made up the second half. It may have been context, but Andrew Staniland’s Vast Machine, an effective if not highly original moto perpetuo, seemed a bit out of place. Samy Moussa’s Nocturne, though intrinsically unlike anything else in the festival, was a fine addition to the docket, an orchestral adagio that inescapably suggested a twenty-first century Wagner, replete with astonishingly intense low register sonorities.

The evening ended with Kaija Saariaho’s exquisite Ciel d’hiver: understated, elegant sonorities chosen with fastidious care and rendered all the more beautiful by sensitive orchestral playing. Perfect music for a January evening, and a sumptuous close to a rich, rewarding festival.

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.