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Welcome to the 21st Century

Koerner Hall
05/25/2016 -  
Nicole Lizée: The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fibre-Optic Flowers]
Mark Applebaum: Darmstadt Kindergarten
Franghiz Ali-Zadeh: Reqs
Fodé Lassana Diabaté (arr. Jacob Garchik): Selections from Sunjata's Time
Tanya Tagaq (arr. J. Garchik): Snow Angel – Sivunittinni
Tanya Tagaq & Kronos Quartet: Nunavut
Aleksandra Vrebalov: My Desert, My Rose
Geeshie Wiley (arr. J. Garchik): Last Kind Words
Laurie Anderson (arr. J. Garchik): Flow
Mary Koumoumdjian: Bombs of Beirut

Tanya Tagaq (vocals)
Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), Sunny Yang (cello)

T. Tagaq & Kronos (©Lisa Sakulensky RCM/Koerner Hall)

A buzzing audience attended this concert opening the third annual 21C, the Royal Conservatory’s festival of 21st century music. The 11 works on the program (plus two encores) vividly presented a wide array of influences that today’s composers work with. The composers – from six countries – included eight women.

The Kronos Quartet have been active (very!) for 40 years and have commissioned about 400 new works. Beginning this (2015-16) season they have begun a project Fifty for the Future: 50 new works over five years, from 50 composers (25 men and 25 women). Four of the pieces on the program were from this project.

The program opened with the Canadian premiere of a 2012 work by Nicole Lizée, The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fibre-Optic Flowers]. It amounts to a tribute to a pioneering composer in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s, Delia Derbyshire. The Kronos players have microphones attached to their music stands and their use came evident when electronic modulations of the live instruments mixed with the recorded sounds from two reel-to-reel tape machines. Electronic oscillations mixed with string playing that resembled hoedown music; a typewriter also figured in the script.

American composer Mark Applebaum was on hand to explain his piece, Darmstadt Kindergarten, and to coach the audience in its participation. The six-minute work is designed for both instrumental playing (as one would expect) plus silent gesturing. A “vocabulary” of over 100 gestures is assigned to the players to perform when not playing. In the first section all four players play their instruments. Then in the second section, the first violin puts down his instrument and goes through a litany of gestures. In the third section, the second violin joins him, until, in the fifth section, all four are silently gesturing, Then at the very end the audience joins in with their newly-learned series of seven gestures. The audience loved it.

Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Reqs means “dance” and the result is rhythmic and bouncy, with plaintive undertones, highly reminiscent of Bartok. Energetic and engaging, it is one of the 50 new works of the Project.

Fodé Lassana Diabaté is from Guinea. His five-part work Sunjata’s Time, composed originally for the balafon, is about Sunjata Keita, the leader who established the Mali Empire in the 1200s. We heard two sections from it: “Nana Triban”, which depicts an episode in which Sunjata’s sister uses her feminine wiles to help overthrow a rival; and “Bara kala ta”, the final episode, referring to a childhood event that foretold the hero’s eventual success. The music, arranged for Kronos by Jacob Garchik, is disarmingly lilting with a relaxed, almost nonchalant, way about it, especially considering the epic events referred to. There was much warmth and charm in this, another of the 50 new works.

The headliner of the evening was Tanya Tagaq who has given the traditional Inuit art of throat singing new prominence. Her collaboration with Kronos resulted in Nunavut in 2006, a wordless drama in which she employs a huge range of sounds. It isn’t easy to describe throat singing; it is a kind of vocalized breathing (traditional singing could also be so described), but it isn’t traditional western vocalise, nor is it gutteral, chanting, or yodeling. It started out as a playful game but has emerged as a unique mode of expression.

We also heard two brief world premiere pieces, Snow Angel, a tribute to a member of Kronos, and Sivunittinni (“the future ones”) on the theme of alienation from nature. Ms. Tagaq is a very personable performer and her works are both abstract and compelling.

Aleksandra Vrebalov, from Serbia, now US-based, has written 13 works for Kronos over a 20-year span. My Desert, My Rose is loosely defined on the page as she intends for the players to interact instinctively to bring it together in performance. It motors along in what seems like a headlong pursuit – and it’s very exhilarating.

Geeshie Wiley was an American blues singer about whom very little is known. She made six recordings in the 1930s that have become landmarks of the genre. Jacob Garchik’s arrangement of the song Last Kind Words featured the tune carried by violinist David Harrington, with the other players strumming their instruments. This lively charmer was followed by Laurie Anderson’s Flow, another Garchik arrangement (from 2010). The two-minute gem floats gently out of the air for a brief benediction before melting away. A moment of bliss!

This was followed by an utter contrast, Mary Kouyoumdjian’s aptly-titled Bombs of Beirut. The composer is of Lebanese descent (now in New York) and the subject is the civil war of 1975-90 during which her family was forced to flee. The 30-minute work features a recording of several unnamed survivors of the conflict giving rather laconic accounts of what they experienced while the quartet plays. It was difficult to discern all the words. (The complete script was in the printed program, but the lighting was too dim to read – which would have been distracting in any case.) Toward the end of the work there is a four-minute episode when we hear a recording of a bombardment, and it is even noisier than one could imagine. The stage and auditorium were in darkness for this period – and there was a warning in the program that anyone suffering PTSD might want to avoid this work. It certainly made a powerful impression, but the problem with such a high-powered, harrowing sonic document is that it renders musical comment puny if not superfluous. Right after the onslaught a line from the narrative stood out as the understatement of the evening: “It was very emotional”. I predict the 21st century will call forth more musical compositions to dealing with war, a very tough subject.

Despite the length of the program there were two encores. The first was by Indian composer/violinist Dr. N. Rajam for which the quartet chameleoned itself into a raga ensemble with sitar sounds while the cello was used as a tabla. The second was an arrangement of a Pete Townshend (yes, of The Who) piece from 1971, Baba O’Riley, a tribute to Terry Riley. This was fun – but marred when Kronos turned on their amplification, conjuring up an overly-amplified rock concert. I suppose that was the intention, but Koerner Hall is not the place for such bludgeoning.

(Besides, after experiencing the Lebanese war, I yearned to hear Laurie Anderson’s evanescent treasure again.)

Was everything in this concert a wild success? No. (And who would expect that?) But it certainly gave much food for thought.

Michael Johnson



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