Thursday, October 8, 2015

Music for a Thousand Autumns at the Orpheum Annex

Last night the Turning Point Ensemble opened its tenth anniversary season at the Orpheum Annex. It was my first time at this newish theatre, built--along with the Vancouver Symphony School of Music's Pyatt Hall--as one of the cultural amenities attached to the high-rise tower that went up where the old Vancouver Place cinemas used to be. Located on the second floor, with street signage that is negligible, the space can be hard to find. However, at approximately 150 seats, with a perimeter balcony around which you could squeeze about 30 more if needed, it's a nice, intimate size. And its warm, wood-panelled interior is well-suited to the acoustics of a chamber ensemble.

While devoted to the musical repertoire of the early-twentieth century onward, as TPE Artistic Director Owen Underhill noted in his opening remarks, the ensemble has always had a special mandate to commission new work. To that end, last night's all-Canadian program featured two world premieres, as well as a work newly revised especially for TPE. First up, however, was the great Alexina Louie's Music for a Thousand Autumns, one of her first commissions after returning from studies in the US in 1983. An additional special treat of this program is that all of the composers are present in Vancouver and so we got to hear from each of them in advance of the performance of their work. Among other things, Louie told us that the piece was an attempt to reconcile her Western musical training with her Chinese heritage (she grew up in Vancouver). Thus, in the interplay between the percussion, the strings and the wind instruments of this piece--especially in its second movement--we hear a beautiful take on the ancient Chinese instrument known as the chin (a sort of fretless zither). The third movement also builds to a wonderful, crashing piano cadenza, which Jane Hayes played with marvellous energy and sparkling colour.

In his remarks, Anthony Tan told us that his music is an exploration of sound on a purely sensory level. He is not interested in social or cultural influences, or having his music "represent" anything. Rather, as in the case of the piece we heard last night, On the Sensations of Tone #1 (jointly commissioned by TPE and the Ensemble contemporaine de Montréal), he is trying to foreground the physical experience of timbre. This means that Hayes plucks the strings of the piano and clacks the side of it with her nails as much as she plays the keys; that the flautist (Brenda Fedoruk) and clarinetist (Erin Fung) get up every now and then to have impromptu quasi-tuning sessions with Hayes; and that they, together with violinist Mary Sokol-Brown and cellist Ariel Barnes, all work noise-makers underneath their shoes at various points in the piece. It was certainly a most visceral experience of sound, and one that--for all its strange dissonance--was not without its tonal pleasures.

Linda Catlin Smith's Gold Leaf was created for the Glenn Gould School's New Music Ensemble in 2010. In it she was trying to think through the process of composing for a chamber orchestra, in which each of the instruments has a distinct personality, while also needing to come together to create harmonic colour. She likens the process, in her program notes, to a painter's palette, with in her case the percussion adding an outer layer of shimmer, as in the gold leaf of a painting by Klimt.

Percussionist Jonathan Bernard is certainly given a workout in this program, especially in the final two pieces. Vancouver-based Dorothy Chang's Three Windows was created in 2011, inspired by the views over the Strait of Georgia from her UBC condo (where she teaches in the Faculty of Music). The first movement is based on the motion of clouds, the second on the swirling flight of an eagle, and the third on the sights and sounds of human construction on the UBC campus. Hence the swelling scherzo-like cacophony of "metal on wood" that Bernard is charged with leading at the end of this work. Something very much approximating a drum solo for Bernard also concludes the world premiere of Louie's A Curious Passerby at Fu's Funeral, which the composer informed us started from the premise that she knew TPE's members "could play really fast." The piece was certainly played at full throttle by all concerned and was a most energetic way to concluded the evening.

TPE goes on the road with this program in the coming weeks: to Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Then it is back to Vancouver for another world premiere: the chamber opera air india [redacted], on at SFU Woodward's from November 6-11, and not to be missed.


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