‘Modern,’ Really Modern Works Provide Spark In Concert’s Historical Arc

Members of Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble performed Edgard Varèse’s ‘Octandre’ under artistic director Owen Underhill. (Photos by Rei Ikeda)

VANCOUVER — A visit from a guest composer, music for Asian instruments, and a landmark modernist composition were interwoven to create a weekend pair of provocative concerts (Nov. 25 and 26) for 2023 by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble.  

Founded two decades ago, the Turning Point defines itself as a collective of musicians. Which it is, but it’s very much guided by the particular vision of composer-conductor Owen Underhill. His notion was an ensemble with Janus-like focus on both new music and the modernist legacy of the 20th century. “Harmony of the Spheres” at the University of British Columbia’s Telus Studio Theatre was exactly in keeping with Underhill’s dual mission.

Edgard Varèse’s 1923 Octandre, conceived for a stripped-down combination of four winds, three brass, and double bass, drew on many of the ensemble’s core players, who delivered a strong, stylish reading of the landmark score. It’s replete with a lexicon of modernist virtues. Relative brevity and innovative approaches to color and texture convey a sense of discovering a new world of sound. That the work was created a century ago emphasizes Varèse’s considerable achievement, because Octandre sounds as fresh as many 21st-century compositions and retains its potent power to astonish.  

Naoami Sato was soloist on the Japanese wind instrument known as the shō.

In a pre-performance chat, Rijnvos told the audience that Riflesso sul’incontro was part of his series of companion pieces that act as glosses to existing “classics from the last century.” As a number of similar pieces by diverse composers amply demonstrate, companion pieces using the eccentric scoring models of the modernist greats can be something of a double-edged sword. Embracing the color palette of another composer is no guarantee of success, and comparisons are unavoidable. Rijnvos explained his practice by comparing it to Christo- and Jeanne-Claude-wrapped landmarks. Although a good analogy, one could argue that beyond a few very fleeting references and the same ensemble of winds, brass, and bass, Riflesso sull’incontro is all about Rijnvos’ sound world, not Varèse’s.

In curating “Harmony of the Spheres,” Underhill paired Octandre with a 2019 piece by Richard Rijnvos that refers to, complements, and converses with the Varèse. Born in The Netherlands in 1964, Rijnvos trained at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and the Musikhochschule in Freiburg. He has taught at the U.K.’s University of Durham since 2009. Rijnvos traveled to Vancouver for the performance. His 2019 Riflesso sull’incontro ended the first half of the program and his new Aphrodite concluded the concert.

Before Riflesso sul’incontro, it was time to meet another guest, shō virtuoso Naomi Sato, playing a work by Toshio Hosokawa (incidentally, another composer with links to Freiburg’s Musikhochschule). In Wie ein Atmen in Lichte (“Like a breath in the light”), Hosokawa pays homage to the ideas and theories of Rudolf Steiner. The piece is glorious and was delivered with patrician solemnity and insight by Sato. Her playing has a meticulous confidence and revels in the expressive power of the traditional Japanese wind instrument with sounds that are otherworldly and luminous, clear, honest, and, ultimately, moving.

Timothy Chan played Chinese sheng in Owen Underhill’s 2016 ‘Gossamer Thread—Yousi Shu.’

In the program notes, Rijnvos waxed eloquent about his compositional process in terms redolent of the seminar room. They were of interest, no doubt, but not necessary for an audience to react to the music, which is strong and effective, though occasionally a bit loquacious. Rijnvos knows how to work a room, and his music speaks with purpose. The work’s “pulsing patterns” and “crippled repetitions” superficially evoke American minimalism, but the result is all Rijnvos.

The second half of the program offered two substantial works, starting with Underhill’s own 2016 Gossamer Thread—Yousi Shu. The composer was originally commissioned by the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, an ensemble whose raison d’etre is the exploration of instrumental fusion featuring multicultural mashups of instruments Eastern and Western.

In his recent re-casting of the piece, Underhill uses conventional strings plus flute and clarinet, but keeps Chinese sheng, deftly played by Timothy Chan, as a solo voice. Lyrical passages alternate with dance-tempo interludes that to my ear are reminiscent of mid-century Neo-classicism. The marriage of sheng with Western instruments works well, with the sheng blending nicely with flute and clarinet while showcasing its own color in the concertante work.

Turning Point Ensemble artistic director Owen Underhill spoke with composer Richard Rijnvos during the concert.

The grand finale, in the best sense of the phrase, was more Rijnvos: his new Aphrodite for shō and string sextet. The Telus Studio Theatre, a sort of industrial postmodern re-invention of an 18th-century opera house in miniature, proved the perfect place to present Aphrodite with the spatial separation stipulated by the composer. Naomi Sato stood at the center of a hexagon of seated solo strings, with conductor Underhill off-center holding things together.

Rijnvos’ detailed program note explained that the ideas explored in Aphrodite are suggested by “ancient Greek philosophical abstraction” and the contemplation of “the various proportions in the movements of celestial bodies.” For those unmoved by such things, the music was (dare one use the word?) enjoyable. Rijnvos’ use of time and proportion creates an extended piece that moves with assurance right until the end, when all the musicians save Sato slink from the stage — perhaps a 21st-century retread of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.