Protests inspired sinfonietta’s cantata

The Aventa Ensemble, a local sinfonietta (or small symphony) specializing in modern music, is now in its 11th season and enjoys an international reputation. This week, it was scheduled to make the first of four appearances in new-music series in Montreal, New York, Winnipeg and Calgary — its seventh tour since 2007. Next Tuesday, Aventa will be back in Victoria to give its final concert of the season, its 13 instrumentalists joined by three vocalists from different provinces (among them local soprano Anne Grimm) and conducted by percussionist Bill Linwood, its co-founder and artistic director.

The program will comprise three works by composers familiar to Aventa: Cantata of the Unredeemable Debt, a new work by Michel Gonneville that Aventa commissioned; The Tempest Songbook (2004), by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho; and Black Box Music (2012), by Danish composer, performer and “sound artist” Simon Steen-Andersen.

All three works also appear on the tour programs, so the Victoria audience will be privileged to hear interpretations well-polished by repeat performances.

(Gonneville and Steen-Andersen are participating personally in the tour, which will boast four premières, including another commissioned work by Calgary-based Laurie Radford.)

The cantata, the biggest work on the program, was inspired by last year’s student protests in Quebec and the concurrent debates about the cost of education and the economic consequences of massive student debt, which Gonneville, a music-conservatory teacher in Montreal, witnessed from the inside. With a text by his own daughter, his dramatic cantata explores the concept of debt (broadly conceived) through the prism of one woman’s personal journeys and relationships.

The 40-minute work, scored for three singers, three percussionists and nine instruments, “owes nothing but subliminal ties to current trends,” Gonneville writes, but bears other stylistic debts. Admitting that “historical references” are not rare in his music, he says “Bach, Stravinsky, Webern and other models ‘hang in the clean air’ ” in his cantata, “like eternal and benevolent creditors. …”

Saariaho, who lives in Paris, is a much-admired composer, and though her work is better known in Europe than in North America, it has lately had some high-profile performances in Canada — in Toronto (including the Canadian Opera Company), in Winnipeg and here (Aventa programmed her Lichtbogen in 2007). The Tempest Songbook is a cycle of five songs for soprano, baritone and large ensemble, each one representing the perspective of a character in Shakespeare’s play — Ariel, Caliban, Miranda, Prospero and Ferdinand. (Aventa will perform four of the songs — all but Caliban’s.)

Steen-Andersen, Linwood says, is a composer from whom “we have learned to expect the unimaginable,” and his three-movement, highly theatrical Black Box Music promises to be a wild ride. On the darkened stage there is only a percussion soloist with his hands inside a large “black box,” making gestures and manipulating multifarious noisemakers, the results projected as both audio and video.

Accompanying him are 15 instrumentalists disposed in three groups around the darkened hall, with the conductor at the back and the audience surrounded by speakers amplifying the various sounds.

Steen-Andersen, for the record, describes Black Box Music as “a deconstruction of conducting and puppet theatre as well as an exploration and exploitation of the audio/visual relations inherent in conducting and staging.”

On tour and next Tuesday, he himself will co-ordinate the electronics, while the “black box” soloist will be Håkon Stene, the Norwegian percussionist who commissioned this work.

Tuesday’s concert will be streamed through the university’s Listen! Live program ( archived online. Visit and to view past Aventa performances.