New Music Festival takes centre stage

As her music started, the ceiling and walls of the Orpheum flew away, revealing the star-filled heavens. My mind told me it was all a trick of orchestration (glockenspiels do twinkle like stars), but there was much more to Morlock's music than just tricks.

I was almost stupid with breathlessness when I stepped through the bright yellow façade of Culprit Coffee at Vine and Fourth Avenue. I'd raced over from Mount Pleasant on my bicycle to meet with composer Jocelyn Morlock and I didn't want to be late. Her time is precious.

Not only was the Vancouver Symphony going to perform her double cello concerto, Aeromancy, but Diana Krall had asked her to fly down to Australia to be librarian for a tour. There'd be no time to fly there from Vancouver, though, as just prior Jocelyn would be in Newfoundland as composer-in-residence for the Newfound Music Festival. Try to imagine flying from Newfoundland to Australia (I understand they test astronauts' endurance for long space missions by flying them from Newfoundland to Australia). Oh, and she's also composer-in-residence for Music on Main at Heritage Hall. This is a busy lady.

I got my coffee and looked for a seat just as Jocelyn walked in. She was a little breathless too and we both smiled apologetically for being late. "Sorry." "Sorry." This was going to be good. I wanted to ask Jocelyn to explain Aeromancy to me. Not necessarily the archaic form of divination gained from watching weather patterns, but how aeromancy could be conveyed through music and why she would find it worthy subject matter for her double concerto. There was also the matter of the two cellos, but that would follow.

To the Orpheum

Last night at the Orpheum, conductor Bramwell Tovey brought Jocelyn on stage for a quick audience-facing chat (as he does with all the composers in the VSO New Music Festival). Bramwell is probably one of the most amiable conductors who ever walked this earth and his charm draws the best out of everyone around him, the composers, the musicians, and us - the audience.

Jocelyn told us first that aeromancy is a type of "Witchcrafty divination" and that her piece is nocturnal, but not a nocturne. Aeromancy sets the listener in the night sky looking back on the world below. I wondered, "Well, Tchaikovsky needed real canons to get listeners into battle, how's Jocelyn going to get us into space?" Then the stage was hushed in indigo and the music began.

As her music started, the ceiling and walls of the Orpheum flew away revealing the star-filled heavens. My mind told me it was all a trick of orchestration (glockenspiels do twinkle like stars), but there was much more to her music than just tricks. Morlock's musical palette includes sparkle paints, but she also stirs the waters below until they’re a jewel box of luminescence under the night sky. And we're aloft. How is that possible?

Back at Culprit, I'd learned that her two talented solo cellists, Ariel Barnes and Joseph Elworthy, would perform in ways that would turn our expectations of the cello upside down. Instead of lusty deep sonorities that on occasion rocket up to dramatic heights, the cellos do the opposite. Ethereally, they hover over the terrestrial orchestra like wisps of clouds or swifts flying in unison. Bramwell was onto her meteorological interests with a quick pun that the cellos were "stratospherically high." Indeed they were but we were there too—giddy with height and utterly bought into her divinations.

Like Morlock, Australian native Brett Dean has the magic in his chops to produces vivid colours and authentic emotions through music too.Also like Morlock, his narrative isn't afraid to hike us out to explore side stories knowing he'll return us safely. Even his troubling "Komarov" movement from Short Stories (an homage to Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov) conveyed—with great economy—the disintegration of the doomed cosmonaut's Soyuz space capsule and with it the betrayal by the Soviet system that had abandoned him to die in space.

Something I most value in Morlock's music is its sincerity. It's everywhere in her writing. "You can't possibly predict the future", Morlock had told me in the café and then revealed her real source of inspiration: Benjamin Britten. In the café she'd read to me from Peter Grimes:

"Who can decipher,

In storm or starlight,

The written character of a friendly fate...but if the horoscope's bewildering...

Who can turn skies back and begin again?"

Her music invites you to explore the unknown, but I was never concerned that she's aimless or lost. Even at her most wispy, her writing is surefooted.

We still hadn't quite digested the first movement of Aeromancy when the second movement disrobed in front of us. High cellos sailed again like Theremins over the orchestral plain below and, without ever seeming referential, I suddenly found myself thinking about Britten's Four Sea Interludes. When we'd soared as high as we could, two horns entered with sudden beauty and just enough ballast to return us back to our seats in the Orpheum. We sat for a moment in speechless wonder. And then someone's cellphone went off.

New Music for a New Day

It wasn't long ago that symphony patrons would run the gauntlet of Granville Street's "Entertainment District" only to enter the Orpheum and be further assailed by New Music programming equally alienating. Not that it was bad, but it didn't seem to evoke community the way Tovey's new creation has. Back then, most Rachmaninoff-loving symphony goers came to dread New Music.

Last night as patrons entered the lobby, emerging young artists from UBC's School of Music rounded out the pre-concert talk with New Music works presented in an almost salon atmosphere. While talented Paul Hung performed a challenging Toru Takemitsu piece for solo flute (which included shouting, keening, and I think even some spitting into his flute), senior patrons mingled with eager young music students and an even younger bevy of children (children at a New Music concert?) who peered down with wide eyes from the mezzanine. Tovey’s New Music Festival is a new day.

In Tovey's words, "Music describes what it is to be human, New Music describes what it is to be human - now".

image courtesy of UBC School of MusicThe 2014 VSO New Music Festival runs January 17 through 20. Jocelyn Morlock’s Aeromancy  was previously recorded and will be released on Naxos Canadian Classics label in 2015. In the meantime, Centrediscs is releasing her CD, Cobalt, in March 2014.

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