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New music concerts in Vancouver cultivate the sacred, the creative, and the weird

Last week, four contemporary classical music concerts appeared like four very different gardens, showing how Vancouver’s musicians and composers dug deep into contemporary consciousness.

Spring has sprung and Vancouver is a-blossom with gardening. To the casual viewer a garden is merely beautiful, but to a seasoned gardener it’s also hard work. Contemporary art is like a garden in that its true worth requires a little effort on the part of the observer, but the effort invested has many rewards. As Dorothy Parker put it, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think”. Last week four contemporary classical music concerts appeared like four very different gardens, each showing how Vancouver’s musicians and composers dug deep into contemporary consciousness.

The sacred moment – Music on Main

As overhead lights gave way to candles at the Western Front, my first take on Nikolai Korndorf’s String Quartet was that Korndorf had conjured up a ghostly echo of everything ever written for the string quartet—an apotheosis of the string quartet form itself.

To those with a lesser acquaintance of the string quartet repertoire, it may have appeared as a near-agonizing hour of creeping long tones broken only by wind chimes and whispered text. But if you survived the urge to scream for mercy, the opportunity of learning to sit quietly could become enthralling. And I think that’s the point: put away your distractions and listen to yourself for an hour. What most impresses me about David Pay’s “Music on Main” concerts is he doesn’t just find interesting venues for hosting concerts, but he makes them into vessels for listening.

The sacred moment was finally broken with hilarity after the event when I heard a patron (who’d heard a performance of this work ten years ago) remark, “I remembered this piece as having more music”. Kudos to the Emily Carr String Quartet and David Pay for pulling off this difficult work.

The creative process – The Little Chamber Music Series that could

I keep a little scrapbook of ideas and insights. Some of them develop a life of their own, some bond with others before going out into the world, and some live out their days in seclusion. That’s the way of creativity. György Kurtàg’s Kafka Fragments takes the creative scribblings from surrealist writer Franz Kafka’s notebooks and sets them as a virtuoso duo for voice and violin.

The BC branch of the Canadian Music Centre hosted Calgary-based soprano Stacie Dunlop and violinist Andrea Neumann in this concerted produced by “The Little Chamber Music Series that could” an outfit renowned for its offbeat programming. Dunlop and Newmann are virtuoso performers with ample technical skills, but also the presence needed to sustain the emotional suspense across 40 movements. Apart from the screen projection of the original German notebook text (with English subtitles), what kept me going was the insights into the creative process of a very great mind.

Stacie Dunlop

Soprano, Stacie Dunlop (Image courtesy Langley Music School)

Doubtless, Kafka never intended these musings to ever find an audience—that was just him ramping up for greater works—Kafka Fragments is a rare insight into the nuts and bolts of creativity.

Sequitur – Vancouver New Music

Music is full of antecedent and consequence (call and answer, shave and a haircut). Sequitur is one thing following the other and that’s what Vancouver New Music used as a platform to showcase (and contrast) their older new composers with their, er, new new composers. To honour their 40th anniversary, VNM’s concert “Sequitur” featured four such pairings. Two in particular jumped out for me.

Jean Coulthard’s Poem is a lyrical night song for violin and piano and its response, Dorothy Chang’s Nocturne, in nine fragments is no less alluring. Chang picks up beautifully on Coulthard’s bittersweet romanticism. She makes the transition from Coulthard’s duo to a work for large ensemble with very thoughtful orchestration that doesn’t unduly draw attention to itself. Where larger ensembles often engender less engagement from the musicians, it was great to hear solos by Mark MacGregor, alto flute and Ingrid Chiang, bassoon popped off the canvas with genuine freshness.

Dorothy Chang

Composer, Dorothy Chang

Rudolf Komorous’s peripatetic The Seven Sides of Maxine’s Silver Die is itself spurious as host Bob Baker pointed out—a six-edged seven-sided die is a mathematical impossibility. Owen Underhill’s response seems to pick up on the humour of the idea rather than the math and in doing that, The Curio Box showed Underhill at his best. The piece is clean and bright, the ideas follow logically, and the pacing is great.

In his preamble about the work, he promised a tango and a waltz (which filled me with some dread of the derivative) but this curio box resisted offering up any such clichés.

Where the VNM ensemble seemed not to hang together so well in other works, it rose to the occasion. Cellist Rebecca Wenham was already drawing my attention in other works, but when she assumed the solo role in The Curio Box, music making really sparkled.

Owen Underhill

Composer, Owen Underhill

Non sequitur – Standing Wave

Seriously, “Non Sequitur” is not the name for Standing Wave’s performance last Sunday at Pyatt Hall. Billed as a programme of “knock-down, debate-provoking contemporary chamber music event of the season” it was enigmatically entitled “1000 Times This”. But non sequitur was the enduring theme nonetheless, as it ran the gamut from Arvo Pårt to John Coltrane. “Is music rational?” asked the programme notes, but the same could be said for the programming.

Despite the unusual programming, the highlights for me were Rebecca Whitling’s violin playing throughout (particularly in the opening Pårt’s Fratres for violin and piano), the brilliant scoring of Nicole Lizée’s Sculptress (the Montréal composer who’s rocking the contemporary music charts with her trance-like integrations of live and electro-acoustic music), and Francois Houle’s sunny homage to John Coltrane, Feuilles de sons (sheets of sound).

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