Friday, April 12, 2013

Artful Art Song at SFU

Last night, amid the ongoing line-up of spring arts showcases featuring the work of our super-talented Contemporary Arts students at SFU Woodward's, it was the musicians' turn to shine.

As Professor David McIntyre (doing double duty as conductor for the evening) announced before the concert, at SFU the music program is focused exclusively on composition. There is no performance-training component. Instead, senior composition students benefit each year from collaborating with a stellar line-up of local guest artists, who are invited to interpret and offer feedback on the students' work. Additionally, students hone their skills by composing to a rotating set of instruments and forms, depending on who is teaching the course. This year the focus was on the art song tradition, with students invited to set existing text to music for piano (guest artist Tina Chang), viola (guest artist Marcus Takizawa), soprano voice (guest artist Heather Pawsey) and mezzo-soprano voice (guest artist Melanie Adams).

Six songs and one opera scene were presented and, with one exception, I was consistently amazed not just by the depth and intelligence of the compositions themselves, but also by the startlingly original choices in text. (The one exception, in this regard, was the rather cliched use of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as the text for Chris Lachowski's otherwise charming score.) Highlights included Maren Lisac's dramatic call and response setting of Shane Rhodes' found poem "as may have been grunted" (comprised of words taken from the transcript of Treaty 5 negotiated in 1875 between Queen Victoria and the First Nations of Northern Manitoba); JJ Hartmann's thematic explorations of temporal phrasing and duration in relation to Elee Gardiner's "Backstich," a poem about sewing; Clinton Ackerman's wise and witty staging of two arias based on a scene from Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets in which Joanne (Pawsey) asks Rhonda (Adams) to help her commit suicide like Ophelia (demonstrating, in the process, that Thompson is perhaps our most operatic of playwrights and that Lion in the Streets, her masterwork, is perhaps ripe for just such an adaptation); and Lee Cannon-Brown's gracefully spare and simple score for Robert Creeley's "Intervals," a poem that is itself about "identity singing."

Scott Jeffrey chose Canadian poet (and Globe and Mail reviewer) Fraser Sutherland's "In the Provinces" as the basis for his song, and in the dissonant play of the viola with the cascading harmonics of the piano brilliantly captured the mix of wit, irony, and social critique at work in the poem. Alex Mah, graduating this year, worked with Contemporary Arts film professor and award-winning poet Colin Browne, setting "Swan" (from Browne's recently published collection The Properties) in a way that not only evoked 1960s experiments in sound poetry, but that also highlighted the contemporary art song's debt to minimalism.

That specific artistic debt is something Alex and Scott have been educating me on in their final essays for my FPA 319W course ("Critical Writing in the Arts"), which, respectively, are on on the indie classical music label/collective Bedroom Community and its most famous art song composer, Nico Muhly. Both Alex and Scott write as crisply as they compose, and I wish them and all their colleagues much success in their future careers.


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