Imaginary Worlds - Hubcaps & Tail LightsSunday, September 21, 2014
Some time ago I found a wonderful reference to one big difference between the web and magazines/newspapers. It was something like this, “Space in magazines is limited, and on the web the real estate is infinite.”
What that means to this blogger is that I can write to whatever length I want and since I am my own editor I can ignore what a real editor would say to me if he (No he/she, I am a stickler for my 1979 third edition of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White – The Elements of Style) were to edit what follows with, “Get to the point.”
|Jonathan Bernard tuning the tronbong|
On Friday I attended with my friend Graham Walker (since both of us are into shoes we noticed two salient facts. One, the only male musician not wearing black shoes was cellist Ariel Barnes. His brown shoes looked expensive. Lan Tung, playing an erhus and a gaohu, wore beautiful, blue, classic, silk Chinese slippers in the first half but for the second she wore what looked like patent-leather sandals with low heels) a Turning Point Ensemble concert, Imaginary Worlds at the just right (and less claustrophobic venue to that black box in the bowels of Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus) Vancouver Playhouse.
With the exception of Johan Strauss’ Emperor Waltz nothing in the program woke up my memory banks. It was all new. I did not know what to expect.
Everybody in Vancouver must know that VSO Artistic Director (née the conductor) Bramwell Tovey is warm and likes to palaver. We all love him for it and he is even more appreciated in New York City for his summer concert series there with the NY Philharmonic.
Fewer might know that Turning Point Conductor Owen Underhill is much shier but also much sweeter than the Artistic Director. In fact I would say that Underhill is as sweet as a man can be and when he told us before the concert that the Arnold Schoenberg-arranged Strauss Kaiserwalzer would take us back to another era, he was absolutely right.
But he would never have suspected that I did not go back to Vienna. I have never been there. I went to the Mexico City movie house el Cine Roble where in 1956 I saw Grace Kelly, Alec Guinness, Louis Jordan and Agnes Moorhead in Charles Vidor’s The Swan.
I know that the music of the film was composed by one Bronislau Kaper. But in spite of that fact I have always thought (but erred) that Grace Kelly and Louis Jordan dance to a waltz and that the waltz had to be the Emperor Waltz.
Turning Point Ensemble, with that first song took me back to a time when I had an unabashed infatuation for Grace Kelly (and particularly her neck). When the film came out her marriage to that Monaco interloper was a done deal. I was devastated so I finished a huge bag of pistachios. I was so sick that I did not eat them again until two years ago.
The musicians playing the waltz were all smiles. They were having lots of fun while I was melancholic and morose.
The rest of the program was one surprise after another. Would-be music fans usually avoid new music, or contemporary music. They cite its remoteness or some sort of inherent atonality or dissonance.They like their tried and true. They like their four seasons of entertainment and culture without storms.
I would tell these people that some music has to be seen and heard. If you are not an opera buff listening to a CD of Il Trovatore with Plácido Domingo is going to do nothing for you. But, if like me, you heard Domingo back at the Bellas Artes in Mexico City in the early 70s you could learn to appreciate opera.
The same applies to new music, particularly the kind that Turning Point Ensemble plays. Their smiles, and their passion quickly overpower you like a virulent flu.
Two pieces, Hua Yan-Jun’s Er Quan, arranged by Mark Armanini and Armanini’s Gallop both played by Lan Tung on a lower register erhu and a gaohu (the latter piece with soloist percussionist Jonathan Bernard) revealed to me the warmth of an ancient Chinese instrument that I used to find unpalatable. Seeing it being played made that difference. I am now a fan of the instrument and if you look closely (you must be up close, as we were on the front row) you will note that the sound box at the bottom of the long neck gets its sound from the vibration of a stretched python skin!
Of late there have been several articles in our Vancouver Sun that have helped to separate and antagonize the oriental community and those of us who are not part of it. Mark Armanini is single handedly doing the very opposite. Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1892:
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
Through his music Armanini is fighting back. I can only recall former Lieutenant Governor David Lam as someone who wanted to help join the communities.
Claude Vivier’s Et je recerrai cette ville étrange (1981) was a fresh composition by a Canadian composer that this blogging idiot had never heard of. From the program notes I read that the piece was entirely monodic. This means that every musician was playing the same exact melody. And yet, I would have never known. It was haunting.
False Ceiling (2012) by Tajic-Swedish-Canadian composer Farangis Nurulla-Khoja born in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) was a tad more difficult to understand but I soon found that understanding is not all that important. The piece featured solo violinist Mary Sokol Brown and percussionist Brian Nesselroad. The dramatic lighting of just these two in a darkened Playhouse stage added to the drama of the moment. I wish I had brought my 12-year-old granddaughter Lauren who is studying the violin. She would have been amazed at the sounds and noises that Sokol Brown got out of her violin. It was also fascinating how Nesselroad balanced playing the vibraphone, the various percussion instruments while turning his extra wide sheet music and doing his utmost not to drop it when he shifted it to one side. The rustling noise of the falling music might have ruined it all!
The second composition by Farangis Nurulla-Khoja, a world premiere commissioned by Turning Point Ensemble, Le jour ma nuit, had an interesting premise which I state here from the notes.
It is an attempt to create a labyrinth of time and memory through subtle transformations of timbre and gesture, and the mixing of particular sonorities with ragged rhythms. Sensa misura (without metre) sections in the piece continue for a while, eventually drawing the listener into the complexity of the sound through slight imperfections. This trance-like listening state aims to erase one’s conscious memory of preceding details in the piece, leaving behind only a disturbing sensation.
The above reminds me of some of the poems of former Canadian Poet Laureate George Bowering who uses many methods (none involving drugs) to find ways of writing randomly.
The last composition Gougalon (Scenes from a Street Theatre) (2009-2011) by composer Unsuk Chin a South Korean composer (and since most of you, as I, don’t have a clue about that first name Unsuk, I must reveal here that the composer is a woman and that she has a fine and very dry sense of humour. Consider the six titles of her piece”
1. Prologue –Dramatic Opening of the Curtain
2. Lament of the Bald Singer
3. The Grinning Fortuneteller with the False Teeth
4. Episode between Bottles and Cans
5. Dance Around the Shacks
6. The Hunt for the Quack’s Plait.
Gougalon does not refer directly to the dilettante and shabby music of that street theatre. The memories described above merely provide a framework, just as the movement headings are not intended to be illustrative. [!]
I cannot stop here without first mentioning that my favourite Vancouver pianist, that percussive Jane Hays with lovely big hair, in Claude Vivier’s composition tackled simultaneously the piano, with her left hand, and the celeste with her right. At the interval I asked her about it. It seems that the score lists two players but this was purely done to save money. Then she added (and I had not noticed) that with her left foot she handled the piano pedals and with the right the celeste!
In Gougalon, Hayes was helped by bassoonist Ingrid Chiang who can also play a mean piano. The piano was a special Tom Lee Music instrument that had screws and other stuff attached which Hayes scratched and banged while the bassoonist took care of the ivories.
All in all a concert to savour in one’s memory. As I left I spotted Turning Point Ensemble’s bass trombonist, Sharman King/ I mentioned what a pity that the concert was played once and probably the program would never be played again. It was then that inspiration hit me:
If a miracle happens more than once it isn’t one.
Addendum: Vancouver's all powerful union of percussionists Bang Chapter II would have objected in seeing so many string, wind and brass musicians also shaking maracas, etc. Permission was requested and granted so there were no pickets outside the Vancouver Playhouse.