The Whitening of the Ox and The Firebird: Vancouver Music Festival's Contemporary Music

Tyler Duncan and Turning Point Ensemble performing "The Whitening of Ox". Photo credit: redlemonphotography

The Turning Point Ensemble performed an intriguing program of contemporary music last night as part of the Vancouver Music Festival. The program included the Firebird Suite, by Igor Stravinsky, and the whitening of the Ox, by Jeffrey Ryan,  both inspired by folk legends.

The Firebird Suite is a 1910 ballet, originally written for a full orchestra. The arrangement of the suite for the turning point ensemble was done by Michael Bushnell. It was a very clever arrangement with about half of the original fifty minute ballet score performed

Conceived from a mixture of the Russian folktale, Kaschei, and the unrelated mythical creature, Firebird, the story centers on Prince Ivan, who with the help of a Firebird destroys an evil magician named Kaschei and his beloved princess.

The performance of the Firebird, under the baton of Owen Underhill, was packed with passion and precision. The range of colours in the orchestration of this piece is astonishing. In terms of changes of dynamics, there was so much going on that there remained no chance of boredom or distraction.

To add to this already lively performance, the artist, Mardi, worked on stage to create an image of the Firebird on a canvas. The painting was donated by the artist to Vancouver MusicFest as a part of MusicFest fundraiser.
Next in the program was J. Ryan's "The whitening of the Ox". Ryan explained that he was impressed by the Canadian poetry written based on this Asian folk legend a long time ago and decided to set it to music.

The "The Whitening of the Ox" poem by K. V. Skene is told from the perspective of the person struggling to whiten an ox. Whitening, symbolizes enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. The poetry is fierce and often deals with despair of solitude and hardship of the process of becoming selfless.

  The poem, inspired by 15th-century illustrations by Tensho Shubun, divides the stages of this story into ten. Ryan's music follows the ten stages. The music is at times restless, and at times meditative. From my experience of Ryan's music, this was the most introspective and contemplative of his music, so far.

Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan delivered a genuine and strong performance and seemed like the perfect choice for this role. Along with the Turning Point Ensemble, his performance shook up the listener and resonated deeply within.



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