New Music - In The BlackSunday, January 26, 2014
Today I went to a concert at a beautiful new venue, Pyatt Hall, 843 Seymour Street. It is in the building where the Orpheum Annex is. Both venues while adjacent have a difference. Pyatt Hall is run by the VSO School of Music and the latter is part of Civic Theatres, the city entity that runs the Orpheum, the Playhouse and Queen Elizabeth.
The concert was at 2. I crossed Smythe at Seymour and I noticed that people were entering the Orpheum, This was because it was part of the VSO’s Sunday Series of concerts. A great majority of the people seemed to be seniors and I saw quite a few walkers and canes.
|Laura Vanek & Clare Yuan|
I thought to myself, “Luckily I am going to a concert of new and contemporary music so I will be the oldest person around. I will be surrounded by youth. That was not quite to be.
After the concert, and more on that below, I had a chat with New York City born Michael Bushnell who has almost specialized in composing for dance. I asked him why there were so few under 30s that afternoon at Pyatt Hall. He told me that he did not understand. “After all,” he said, “people want to see the latest films.” I mentioned to him all the recent activity in new music, modern dance and experimental theatre in Vancouver. Since Bushnell does hail from New York he immediately told me that the local scene had no comparison with New York’s. I intimated that Vancouver was a sort of backwater and therefore it is amazing that our scene is as rich as it is. And that is the case. I have recently been in Buenos Aires and Mexico City and I can attest that those two very big cities are still extruding 19th century ballet, symphonic music and plays that aren’t all that experimental. I think it unfair to compare Vancouver to New York City. But then the Metropolitan has Nicolas Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women (French, Les Andelys 1594–1665 Rome) and we have Emily Carr. It is unfair to compare but I think you might know what I am getting at. In the end Bushnell and I agreed that with Vancouver being a smaller city things are pretty good.
At a recent New Music Festival of the VSO I heard a young pianist, Elliot Kam play Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Piece No. 4 during the pre concert chat I was astounded. I told my friend violinist Marc Destrubé about it. He wrote:
I met and heard Fred R. play that piece at a festival in Holland many years ago. A rather mild-mannered fellow, with strong ideas and very intense music, indeed.
Of course I felt jealous of Destrubé’s opportunity to listen to the very composer playing that piano piece.
That brings me to the delights of going to new music concerts in Vancouver.
The delights involve listening to a piece of music that may have never been played before. It might involve having the composer around. It might involve being able to talk to the composer. It might involve watching the composer perform his work as I did today.
Composer Owen Underhill who was 60 today performed, on the piano, his Two Songs without Words (1998/99) with vibraphonist Daniel Tones.
The other works, Canzone di Petra (2004) (Laura Vanik, flute & Albertina Chan, harp), Cloud over Water (2009) (Daniel Tones, vibraphone), Cantilena (2002) (Marina Hasselberg, cello, Clare Yuan, piano), Dompe (1986) (Janna Sailor, violin, Marina Hasselberg, cello, Clare Yuan, piano), By Backward Steps (2000) (Janna Sailor, violin, Albertina Chan, harp), and Two Songs without Words.
The finale was a first time ever (World Premiere) Ten Miniatures (2013) for flute cello and piano (Laura Vanek, Marina Hasselberg and Clare Yuan.
Here I must digress to explain how it came to be that Owen Underhill celebrated his 60 with a concert of his music.
Two young and enterprising musicians, flute player (that prevents me from the conundrum, flutist or flautist?) Laura Vanek and cellist (no conundrum here) Marina Hasselberg have formed the Novo Ensemble. The two are the core and then they associate with other musicians for concerts such as the one I went to today. In today’s case they associated with Cordei (Albertina Chan and Janna Sailor, Daniel Tomes, and Clare Yuan.
I am also quite sure that Vanek and Hasselberg then persuaded Owen Underhill (a sweet man not likely to deny anybody a reasonable request) to compose something for Novo Ensemble that would include the composer at the piano. The result was the wonderful finale for the concert, Ten Miniatures which were based on 10 miniature paintings of the mid 18th century Mughal period in India that Underhill saw in a recent trip which he viewed at the National Museum and the Taj Mahal Museum.
The ten little pieces (miniatures they were) seemed to go hand in hand with their titles. I indeed did imagine the elephants in Royal Procession and the pursuit of the great beasts in Ladies Hunting Tigers.
Without being a music critic (I have no knowledge of music as such) I can attest with that with the exception of Dompe (1986) which might have woken up a few lazy concert goers with just the right amount of dissonance the bulk of Underhill’s compositions where melodic, but challenging enough to keep one on one’s toes. And any composer who will write a piece for a solo vibraphone is just fine in my books. This enabled me to ask vibraphonist Daniel Tones why it is that his ilk use four mallets. His answer was simple, “We begin to learn with two, but soon enough four give us more variety and capability although the mallet on the left side of my left hand is the one I use least.”
We live in an age that I call Access Denied. This means that if you go to a rock concert or something of that sort you have no chance of meeting the performers. In Vancouver we have a standing tradition that in VSO, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Turning Point Ensemble and other concerts of classical music or new music you can always mingle with the performers after. The same is true for most theatrical presentations and Ballet BC and modern dance performances. In the Orpheum, that left door on stage right is always open for anybody who might want to chat with a musician after a concert. At the Queen Elizabeth the exit on stage left leads to a door to which you can then ask to talk to a dancer (particularly if you have your young children in tow).
In many of my other blogs on concerts I repeat the fact that I sit dead centre and as close as possible. Today I noticed many things by being there. For example I could see something that looked electrical in the vibraharp (I like to call vibraphones that because they remind me of John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet) and yet the instrument was not plugged in. Tones and Underhill both explained that in some cases the tremolo/vibrato effect can seem gimmicky so that option was not exercised.
What really hit me when Hasselberg was playing her cello in Cantilena was that the sound of her instrument was particularly present within my ear. I remembered the high school physics experiment of vibrating a tuning fork and bringing another (of the same frequency) close and how that second tuning fork would then vibrate in sympathy. Much has been said that the cello is the instrument that most resembles the human voice (Turning Point Ensemble Co-Artistic Director and trombonist Jeremy Berkman begs to differ and says the trombone is that instrument) so I felt today that Hasselberg’s cello and I were somehow together and one. I wonder if anybody in the back rows might have felt the same. I doubt it! Cantilena was originally commissioned by cellist Ian Hampton who was was a founding member of the Purcell String Quartet from 1968 to 1989—as well as a former member of the London Symphony Orchestra, Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and CBC Radio Orchestra. I remember him because of his unusual humour. I called him a few times and he had an answering machine message that was as funny as that of Vancouver composer Jocelyn Morlock. Underhill's composition, I noticed, had lots of humour in it.
Finally I must add that in today’s concert which featured one composer five women and one male vibraphonist, those five beautiful and young women were all wearing little black dresses or black dresses, fishnets or lacy variations, wonderful shoes and the vibraphonist had the neatest hair done with plenty of greasy kid-stuff. The idea that musicians that play classical music or new music must dress conservatively is pure bunk. The performers today could have easily been in a fashion spread.
In my photograph of flute player Laura Vanek seen from behind you might discern red lacquer in the underside of her black pumps. Could they possibly be Christian Louboutins?