Stormwatch, Stormfall – Nov. 1, 2011

Aventa Ensemble
Bill Linwood, conductor
Darnell Linwood, horn/John Lowry, violin/Miranda Wong, piano
Nov. 1 , 2011 Victoria, BC
By Deryk Barker, Music in Victoria

It is a truth not entirely universally acknowledged, that one attends a programme of contemporary music expecting the sense and the intellect – although not necessarily the emotions – to be engaged. I was dramatically made aware of this, or rather its converse, during the final work on Tuesday evening’s remarkable programme from the Aventa Ensemble and conductor Bill Linwood.

But to consider the programme in the order it was played…

Rodney Sharman’s Prelude to elsewhereless was first performed a few weeks ago, during Aventa’s tour of Canada. This was its first performance in Victoria (and possibly BC). The music, scored for violin, piano, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn and doublebass, is an arrangement of an orchestra interlude from Sharman’s 1998 opera, elsewhereless. Slowly pulsating chords provide the backdrop for a series of lyrical, cadenza-like passages for violin – here beautifully played by Müge Büyükçelen, the work’s dedicatee. This was charming, delightful music which actually inspired – to my considerable surprise – a desire to hear the whole opera.

Justin Christensen’s Hand I used to hold was receiving its world premiere – and Christensen himself was present, to receive the Jules Léger Prise for New Chamber Music. Hand (if I may so abbreviate its title), was a far less gentle work than Sharman’s. It employs larger forces (violin, viola, cello, doublebass, clarinet, horn, trombone, flute, percussion and piano) and opens with a busy almost violent passage. In fact, the musical process seems to be one of more quiet, almost lyrical passages gradually subduing the violence, which returns several times, but each time, apparently, shorn of some of its edge. I particularly enjoyed the sparse close, clarinet and piano and then the eerie sound of Mark McGregor blowing through his piccolo. I just wish I’d understood Christensen’s explanatory note: “Do we all have a ranz des vaches, and does it help?” Even if you omit the Oxford comma, I’m afraid my reaction is still “well, quite”.

With all due respect to Messrs. Sharman and Christensen, there is no denying that the main interest of the evening was in the two works by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Stormwatch, Stormfall is an Aventa commission and was receiving its first performance. Written, the composer tells us, during a winter of particularly fierce storms and snows, the music has passages of considerable instrumental virtuosity and others of a lyrical near-tranquility. Darnell Linwood, John Lowry and Miranda Wong played what is clearly at times fearsomely difficult music with panâche and commitment.</blockquote> I particularly enjoyed the “bouncy” (my notebook) piano solo from Wong and the “final quick curtain” (the composer) with which the music ends. This was one of those pieces which require, nay demand, a second hearing.

I must confess, though, that it was the final work of the evening, De Assumtione Beatae Mariae Virginis, which made the greatest impression on this particular listener. De Assumtione was impressive enough when Aventa first performed it in February 2004, the work’s second-ever performance.

Fast forward almost eight years, though, and there was a new depth and an emotional feel to the music which I take to be the result of increased familiarity with the score, a greater cohesion of the group itself, but, most of all, with Linwood’s maturing as a conductor and interpreter. All of the attributes of that earlier performance were still present – the “almost supernatural” instrumental colours, the unearthly beauty, the sense of tranquility at the music’s heart.

What was new, though, was that emotional depth, underpinned by Linwood’s remarkable ability to convey the pulse of even the busiest, most complex passages: the ‘scherzo’ section, for example, possessed a real spring in its triple-time step. This was, in fact, an almost Romantic performance, culminating in the almost overwhelming sense of joy, of ecstasy, in the closing passage, where the instrumental combination (especially the high wind and the crotales) brought the aural experience to the threshold of pain.

The entire ensemble played superbly, but special mention must be made of Louis Ranger’s extraordinary trumpet playing which was, if anything, even better than in 2004.

It might seem odd for a determined non-believer to find an emotional connection to what is dogma of a particular religious group (the Roman Catholic Church, in this instance); yet surely this is no more strange than being moved by Orfeo’s “Che faro senza Euridice”, despite the fact that Gluck’s opera is based entirely on Greek mythology.

This was a truly magnificent performance of a work which seems simply to grow in stature with every encounter. As indeed do Aventa and their conductor. This much-anticipated event, if anything, exceeded my expectations.