Living Toys – Feb. 3, 2012

Living Toys
Aventa Ensemble
Bill Linwood, conductor
Anne Grimm, soprano / Benjamin Butterfield, tenor / Gavin Bryars, double bass
Feb. 3, 2012 Victoria, BC
By Deryk Barker
Music in Victoria

Arnold Schoenberg once famously remarked that there will always be plenty of music to be written in C major.

The first part of Friday evening’s concert, third in the Victoria Symphony’s New Music Festival, might have been designed to demonstrate the truth of Schoenberg’s dictum, with two works composed in the 21st century which, if not actually in C major, were certainly unabashedly tonal.

Quite why Anthony Genge’s The Human Condition is so called I could not say, especially as it was neither nasty nor brutish – although it was fairly short.

The first part was all shifting harmonies, the second more lyrical. Both parts were luminously scored and the performance most persuasive. I overheard another audience member after the performance refer to its “gorgeous textures”, a verdict with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Gavin Bryars’ Eight Irish Madrigals – here receiving their premiere in Canada – are setting of translations of Petrarch by the Irish poet and playwright J.M. Synge (author of “The Playboy of the Western World”) mostly for soprano and tenor – there were two songs for the tenor alone.

Accompanying the voices was a string quartet, but no ordinary quartet: Bryars’ liking for the lower instruments is well-known and his quartet consists of two violas, cello and doublebass, on Friday played by Yariv Aloni, Kenji Fusé, Alasdair Money and Bryars himself.

It is difficult to comment on the individual songs in the absence of either texts or titles. I, for one, would certainly have appreciated the latter.

The lower pitch and textures of the instrumental quartet tended to add a somewhat mournful air to the music – but then Petrarch’s sonnets are seldom a barrel of laughs either. Anne Grim and Benjamin Butterfield sang beautifully, although from where I was sitting, her voice tended to overshadow his; and the accompaniment was such as to make me hope that one day Bryars will compose a work just for them.

If the opening half of the concert tended to undermine Aventa’s reputation as fearless purveyors of the rhythmically complex and distinctly-less-than-tonal, then the second half made up for it with a vengeance.

Perhaps to put the audience (or the ensemble itself?) in the right frame of mind, the interval gradually developed, instrument by instrument, into what seemed like a collective improvisation. It was noisy and it was fun.

Living Toys is the work with which the then-22-year-old Thomas Adès made his name. It is a terrifically assured work, but also clearly the work of a young composer, with its tendency to include virtually every trick of the modernist composer; it does rather sound as if Adès is saying to the audience “listen to what I can do!”

The work is in five sections with three “more volatile, dynamic paragraphs”, to quote the composer, although the boundaries are not always easy to discern. It portrays a child’s dreams of adventure and heroism.

The music itself is busy, frequently extremely complex and was, of course, played with tremendous accuracy and verve.

I have to say, though, that to write music involving dying “a hero in outer space” and to call the relevant section “H.A.L.’s Death”, without anywhere, insofar as I could ascertain – and I know I was not the only one listening for it – referring to “Daisy Bell” (“A Bicycle Built for Two”), is surely downright perverse. (And having being born three years after the film was released is no excuse either.)

It is difficult to imagine any of this music being performed better.

As usual, a fascinating evening.