The Turning Point Ensemble's 2018-19 season opener was a program at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre that featured four works by the Czech-Canadian composer Rudolf Komorous. An added bonus was the screening of an opening short film commissioned by the Canadian Music Centre that contextualized Komorous's approach to music, and also his career as a faculty member in the School of Music at the University of Victoria, where he trained several of this country's most esteemed contemporary composers, including TPE Artistic Director Owen Underhill. As an illustrative and pedagogical tool I found the film's animation of several of Komorous's scores to be particularly effective, especially in explaining his method of spatial, or proportional, notation.
Three short works from the 60s through the 80s followed the film. In the first, Olympia, Underhill and Christopher Butterfield, from U Vic, sat on either side of a table filled with an assortment of instruments, some of them more or less recognizable (a melodica, a harmonica), some of them not (a flexatone, acolyte bells). With Butterfield having first set a stop watch, he and Underhill then combined the sounds made from these instruments into what was at once thoroughly strange and wonderfully surprising: who knew the flexatone made that kind of noise when waved in the air? How delightful to insert the nightingale whistle there! Fuman Manga, a woodwind quintet from 1981/85 followed. From a fluttery flute opening it gradually built in complexity, incorporating the deeper tones of the bassoon and french horn near the end in a way that jolted me out of my seat. This first half of the program culminated with 23 Poems about Horses, Komorous's setting of a suite of poems by the Chinese poet Li-He. The English translation of these poems was narrated by Butterfield as Underhill conducted the TPE musicians in another widely eclectic but sonically rewarding score.
Following intermission we were treated to Canadian premiere of a new chamber opera written by Komorous. The Mute Canary is based on a play by the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes (in a translation by Butterfield) and received its world premiere earlier this summer at New Opera Days Ostrava in the Czech Republic. TPE was able to bring the Czech directors (Jan Horák and Michal Pĕchouček) and choreographer (Markéta Vacovská) to Vancouver for this restaging of the work, which features Alexander Dobson as the baritone Riquet, Anne Grimm as the soprano Barate, and Daniel Cabena as the countertenor Ochre. The deliberately non-sensical libretto largely revolves around a bored husband and wife: Riquet wants to go hunting, while Barate wants to know what time it is, while also decrying love and trying to entice Riquet, who is wont to hurl abusive epithets at her, to take notice of her. Into this dysfunctional relationship steps Ochre, a kind of satyr-figure (Cabena clops across the stage in cloven hooves and a swishy white tale). Barate is instantly smitten and wants to know his name; Ochre says he's the composer Gounod, which registers as equally strange to Barate and us in the audience. But then Dadaist operas aren't really supposed to make sense, are they? Much better to revel instead in the sensuous pleasures of the music and the staging, both of which are in this case simultaneously spare and lustrous. Watching Grimm make a perfect circle on the Wong stage floor with shaving cream was, as it were, the absurdist icing on this afternoon's delightful musical cake.