Toronto Creations Fest Winds Down After 14 Seasons

Vikingur Ólafsson gave the North American premiere of Daníel Bjarnason’s ‘Processions’ with the Toronto Symphony.
(Photos by Jag Gundu/TSO)

TORONTO – There was a sense of hail-and-farewell at the opening of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 14th New Creations Festival, an annual showcase of new and recent music established by outgoing music director Peter Oundjian. The orchestra’s 2018-19 season announcement gives no indication that the festival will continue.

There are some reputable names in the valedictory run. Potential highlights on March 7 are the Canadian premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Duo Concerto for violin and cello and the North American premiere of James MacMillan’s Little Mass for children’s chorus. March 10 brings together Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Insomnia and John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony. Oundjian led the TSO through the latter opus in 2014.

Composer Daníel Bjarnason conducted his own piano concerto.

New Creations would not merit the name without a world premiere. This is supplied on March 10 by TSO composer-adviser Gary Kulesha. If his Double Concerto is not quite (as it is billed) the first for violin, viola, and orchestra since Mozart’s Symphonie concertante, it is certainly a rare instance of this scoring.

The opening concert of March 3 was lower on star power. Most noteworthy was the North American premiere of Processions, a three-movement piano concerto by Daníel Bjarnason that scanned as a clinical X-ray of early-20th-century hits that lacked the flesh of romantic orchestration and the blood of romantic harmony.

Big statements were there, with the Icelandic composer in extrovert form on the podium. Small statements as well, especially from the piano as played by his compatriot Vikingur Ólafsson. Anti-cadenzas of disarming tranquility seemed to suggest (but not reference) the middle movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G.

[Below, Ólafsson in the opening of the work with Bjarnason and the Basel Sinfonietta.]

There were dissonances and consonances and mysterious trills that led us into the ether. Harmonies zigged and zagged unpredictably. Percussion was ample and exotic but generally discreet. Indeed, the rhythms that began the third movement (subtitled “Red Handed”) seemed all the more off-kilter for their simplicity.

Bjarnason duly added piano flurries to this finale and ended with Morse-code repeated notes. Another interesting effect. But few of the gestures seemed to emerge from a genuine expressive impulse. Was this parody or prophecy? Recollection or rejection? The most positive word I can apply to the half-hour score is disturbing.

So much for my response. The crowd in Roy Thomson Hall welcomed Processions as they might a bang-up Rach 3. They were more moderately appreciative of the Canadian premiere of Larry Alan Smith’s Symphony No. 4 of 2016, a well-meaning but unoriginal exercise with a dawn-like beginning, modal harmonies, open intervals, sonorous brass chorales, and a chase-scene finale.

Peter Oundjian conducted the Canadian premiere of Larry Alan Smith’s Symphony No. 4.

The first movement was not 12-tone but 12-tone-ish, using a dozen notes in a palindromic pattern. Such schemes do not guarantee interesting melodic narratives. Splendidly precise in the Bjarnason, the orchestra made suitably robust sounds in Smith’s 22-minute work under Oundjian’s exacting direction.

Best was the 10-minute starter, Dust Devils by Edmonton native Vivian Fung, a professor at Santa Clara University whose music is getting around. While the title refers to a natural whirlwind, there were many sonorities of the industrial iron-foundry type in this engaging overture of 2011.

Blowing through brass instruments to produce pure breeze is nothing new, but it was refreshing to hear this technique deployed to real dramatic effect. Again, Oundjian showed full sympathy with the score and elicited an exciting performance from the TSO.

Always good with the microphone, Oundjian interviewed the composers and thanked his soon-to-be ex-orchestra for having learned so many notes over the years. It is possible to argue (as the TSO has done) that contemporary music is heard by more people if it is bundled in a subscription program. All the same, a fun festival has been lost, along with its attendant atmosphere of celebration.

Few initiatives can be expected from the TSO for at least two seasons, while former music director Andrew Davis provides stopgap leadership. No obvious successor to Oundjian has emerged, and there is also a search for a new chief executive.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.