Poems squeezed from music – Feb. 5 ’08

Poems squeezed from music, and other delight


From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
February 5, 2008
AVENTA at Philip T. Young Recital Hall, Victoria B.C. Sunday Feb. 3

The week-long Victoria Symphony Orchestra’s New Currents Festival ended on Saturday night (an excellent new flute concerto by Victoria composer Anna Hostman was one of the premieres), but the new music continued. On Sunday, Aventa – Victoria’s superb contemporary-music ensemble – premiered two substantial new works, one by Michael Oesterle, another by Peter Hatch, both Canadians; pieces by London-based Torontonian Christopher Mayo and Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen completed the program.

<blockquote>A stranger might deduce from this program that the new music of this part of the world and decade has a recognizable stylistic fingerprint. We know better, but Aventa, directed by Bill Linwood, has a knack for putting complementary compositions together. For those of us who think contrast is overrated, their programs are a treat.</blockquote>

Hatch’s Dulcian Patterns was the ideal way to warm up this small hall. Strategically placed off-stage players reinforced a small, mixed chamber ensemble on stage for an experience in “surround sound” that was not at all gratuitous. The dulcian in the title refers to the bassoon’s Renaissance predecessor, and the bassoon takes a major role (very nicely played by bassoonist Catherine Carignan). But it’s not a concerto per se, even though the bassoon’s timbre is often a focusing point: The other instruments play at shadowing it, or disguising it with unisons, while the off-stage instruments confuse our confidence about where sounds are coming from and who is actually making them, quickening a parade of bright, fresh sounds in a swirl of sound waves. Hatch channels bits of the past, discreetly: We get stuck, like a stylus on vinyl, at repeated attempts to start a climax reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan; the bassoon inhabits the range of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for most of one movement, throws out jagged scales that would be at home in contemporary jazz in another; and we pass through Steve Reich, maybe a hint of Claude Vivier.

Oesterle’s wonderful Territio Verbalis was inspired by the mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, and his mother’s trial for witchcraft (the volatile mix of folk medicine, abrasive personality and greedy neighbours). It might be called a trumpet concerto, but Oesterle, like Hatch, avoids the standard rhetorical pitfalls of that genre. The trumpet speaks most prominently (soloist Louis Ranger made that speech eloquent as well), but all the instruments in this piece talk. Talk is the subject: Hearsay and superstition; polyphonies of gossip and refutation; vicious, sputtered accusations of small ambitus; and lyrical defences with long, mellifluous lines (and all set within a tense, pulsating background of complementary fascination). We don’t need the story – music constructs its own integrities – but it does guide our thoughts, to the multiplicity of spoken phrases, the momentum of slander, and the inevitable clash of human mess with abstract order.

Three poems by Gwendolyn MacEwen converge (and carry) Mayo’s A Breakfast for Barbarians for 15-piece mixed ensemble, soprano, and narrator: one poem is spoken (Skulls and Drums); one is sung (the title poem); one is wordless (The Death Agony of the Butterfly) but hardly mute, for this poem is the orchestra’s. Subjects converge as well: Appetites insatiable for music, for art, for words turned into art. I liked the sense that the poems were being squeezed out of the music, the occasional smear of Berg in the ensemble, and the juxtaposition of hyperbolic vocal line (soprano Heather Pawsey) with the potent, clear, soft-shoe narration (Christopher Butterfield).

The dense, painterly textures of Abrahamsen’s Winternacht were often very beautiful, ranging from a pointillist impressionism to an almost monotone abstraction: darkness, with darker corners. One imagines spending one’s time as generously with a single painting as one did with each movement: Finding those places of harmony within the crosshatch of detail; following an undulating line until it dissolves.

One also imagines spending more time with Aventa.

Special to The Globe and Mail