An Evening of New Music With Bramwell Tovey & The VSOMonday, January 20, 2014
|VSO Music Director Bramwell Tovey|
In 1965 I was a lowly conscript sailor in the Argentine Navy. Because of my English I was able to get a cushy desk job as translator for the Senior U.S. Naval Advisor. I had told the folks that I did not know how to type but played the alto saxophone. So they made me translate. Edna Gahan, an Irish/Argentine was able to read my scribbles and transcribed them with her roller ball IBM typewriter. One day she offered me a try of her peach yoghurt. I told her I had never liked rotten milk. She asked me if I had ever tried it. When I told her "no" she insisted. I have since that date tried to make up for lost time. I eat yoghurt, particularly peach yoghurt, all the time.
In 1963 I went to a contemporary music concert at the University of Mexico. On the bill was some Olivier Messiaen which featured a soprano. I absolutely hated it and equated the soprano’s singing the way my grandmother would have opined, “Los gemidos de Poncio Pilato,” or Pontius Pilate’s moans.”
In 1963 I was taught by my pianist mother that Bach was God and that Mozart was impotent. She listened and played Grieg, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. At about that time I discovered the Archiv Records release of baroque composers. I was smitten. But my taste for music was limited.
|Edward Top, left, & John Oliver|
It was some 20 years ago that I went to a Sunday concert by the VSO at the Orpheum. They were playing one of Shostakovich's early symphonies. This was in the second half of the concert. The first part featured a beautiful Canadian female cellist who sported a silver or gold armband and played a Tchaikovsky cello concerto. As soon as the Shostakovich was on the Orpheum emptied. I calculated that when the symphony had been composed many of the elderly people who had been eager for the Tchaikovsky and were now leaving in droves would have been in their early 20s. This was their music. And yet? And since then I have seen audiences in Vancouver for ballet, theatre, Early Music Vancouver concerts, baroque concerts and symphony concerts, get older and older. Where are the young people? Where are they going? What are they listening to? When I was in my 20s I was going to baroque concerts in Mexico City. This was then just discovered. It was fresh almost avant-garde.
Fourteen years into the 21st century many people equate new or contemporary music to the atonal stuff of Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg. “It is dissonant, remote, it turns me off,” many say of this music. So when new music concerts are announced here in Vancouver few of us take our chances. But if we listen to Philip Glass's music in a TV commercial (there are quite a few) we think we are enlightened.
|John Oliver, left, Brett Dean centre, Edward Top, right|
And here I will make a blanket statement that is purely not true. They will go to concerts of the VSO, which are mostly of music of the 19th century.
This is clearly not true and particularly with the tenure of Bramwell Tovey as the VSO Music Director.
I read with absolute pleasure all the reviews in my hard copy NY Times of Maestro Tovey’s yearly performances with the New York Philharmonic. The NY Times reviewers mention always Tovey’s bantering in his pre concert talks or his comments between pieces. Much is written, too of his enthusiastic and spirited directing.
We have a gem in Vancouver and we do not give the man enough credit for it. He is doing his best to make music accessible. He has helped to demystify music (I don't want to use the epithet classical) so that we can enjoy it without having our noses so up in the air.
Having been present at concerts where the maestro has played his jazz piano or accompanied on the piano a projected Charlie Chaplin film I can attest to his appeal beyond wielding a good baton.
On Monday I attended the fourth and last segment of this year’s first ever New Music Festival. Alas I am so sorry to not having gone to the three others on Friday January 17, and Saturday 18 and Sunday January 19. On Sunday I would have liked to haver hearr Peter Hannan's Trinkets of Little Value. How many of you might know that his instrument of choice is the recorder? Specifically on Saturday I missed Jocelyn Morlock’s Aeromancy: Concerto for Two Cellos. One of the cellists is my friend and virtuoso Ariel Barnes. And giving it further thought I am a fan of Standing Wave which performed on Friday. I happen to know all of the 6 members of that group who have filed past my camera at one time.
It was Standing Wave percussionist Vern Griffiths who played the snare drum, in a most unusual location in a performance of Ravel’s Bolero a few years back. It was with the VSO and I was sitting front row. Tovey put Griffiths on the front of the orchestra at the edge of the stage. I had brought my Radio Shack sound level meter. The sound at one point went past 120 decibels! Forget some of those rock concerts for that kind of impact.
Monday’s concert featured excerpts from Australian (VSO-Visiting-Composer) Brett Dean’s from his opera Bliss which included the tough looking but lyrical tenor of the original performance of the opera, Peter Coleman- Wright. For anybody who has ever read Australian author Peter Carey or read his Magwich, this just might lure you into reading his novel Bliss on which this opera is based.
From our (I had been invited by Vancouver composer/saxophone player/teacher/director of Colin MacDonald's Pocket Orchestra) Colin MacDonald) seats at the edge of the balcony we able to see a full (really full) VSO arrayed, which included Corey Hamm providing all kinds of sounds (including barking dogs) on a synthesizer. The almost long (it went by too fast to seem so) performance which occupied the second half of the concert had everything. It was loud, it was quiet, it had melody and whatever dissonance that may have alienated anybody, I did not note.
The first half of the program had two compositions. One was by Dutch, VSO Composer-in-Residence, Edward Top and the other by Vancouver’s John Oliver. Oliver’s Up Wind was full of surprises. Oliver explained that smells are never noted up wind, only down wind. All I can report is that the sweet sounds of his three-part composition could have been smelled down-wind with pleasure. There is an enthusiasm in this tall composer’s ever present face that not only would I listen to more of his music but I would also buy a used car from him.
Edward Top’s Fugue States for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra featured the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet based in Germany. It is not often that you see a bent (as opposed to a straight soprano sax that resembles a silver plated oboe or clarinet) soprano saxophone. I asked MacDonald why he plays on a straight soprano. He gesticulated like an old man with severe arthritis and put his hands close to his mouth and I understood immediately. It must feel awkward to have so many fingers close to the body!
I must digress a bit here. If Bramwell Tovey were to lose his right hand in an accident he would become one of Vancouver’s ablest stand-up comics. He is that good. When Top explained that his composition (about a mental malady called Fugue State in which those who suffer it have memory lapses) was based on the first five notes of the scale, Tovey added that only one other piece of music has that premise and that is W. C. Handy’s When the Saints Go Marching In. Soon after all of that we were in laughter. And Tovey was not about to ignore an Orpheum that was perhaps 35% full. “So we have our core of enthusiasts here tonight!”
Top’s piece had me on the edge of my seat as I attempted to figure out which section of the orchestra was playing those five notes.
Best of all there is something to be said for hearing compositions that have either never been played (Top’s was a world premiere) or pieces that most of us have not heard before.
Higher up in the balcony I noticed a man. I went up to him and asked him, “Is your name Alexander?” He answered, “Yes.” I then told him, “It is so pleasant to see the President and CEO of the VSO attending one of his symphony’s concerts on a cold Monday night." Jeff Alexander smiled at this.
In the audience I spotted at least over 15 Vancouver new music and contemporary music composers. Had an errant US cruise missile hit the Orpheum it would have indeed been a musical tragedy for our city.
If all the above was not enough, the series had a pre-concert chat in the upper lounge, the Wescoast Energy Hall (it has a bar) of the Orpheum which featured Paolo Bertussi and Corey Hamm (directors) of music by emerging artists. On Monday, a beautiful Steinway resisted demolition by the likes of Vivian Sham (she played I leap Through the Sky With Stars by Alexina Louie, Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Piece No. 4 played by Elliot Kam, and Nicole Linaksita performed John Paths Jettatura.
The three composers explained their pieces and it was just five minutes before the concert began so we only had just a few minutes of silence to gather our thoughts.
But I must record here that when Elliot Kam sat at the piano, Glenn Gould-like face almost on the keyboard to play that Piano Piece No. 4 I told myself, “This is going to be hard to beat.” I was almost right.
After the concert we were told we could gather at the Wescoast Energy Hall Lobby. A gentleman was playing jazz (and Bésame Mucho) on the Steinway and there were many of the performers, Bramwell Tovey, all those composers all casually chatting while imbibing drinks. I con only say that a fireplace would have hardly made the place feel any warmer.
It was three years ago and thanks to that other orchestra, The Turning Point Ensemble, which plays new music or music from the 20th century that is not performed frequently that I finally discarded my dislike of Olivier Messiaen. They played his Quartet for the End of Time . On the violin it was Vancouver’s Marc Destrubé whose Microcosmos String Quartet is another purveyor of exciting music of the 20th century like Britten and Bartok. Like peach yoghurt you just have to give it a try.
Frederick Rzewski Piano Piece No. 4
Frederick Rzewski Piano Piece No. 4