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Boulez remembered/Bashaw introduced

The Betty Oliphant Theatre
02/15/2016 -  
Pierre Boulez: Incises (1) – sur Incises (2)
Howard Bashaw: Postmodern Counterpoint - Antiphonals and Canons with Gabrieli Remembered (3)

Doug Stewart (3) (flute), Dianne Aitken (3) (alto flute), Max Christie (3) (clarinet), Michele Verheul (3) (bass clarinet), Chris Gongos (3), Bardhyl Gjevori (3) (horn), Jim Gardner (3), Robert Venables (3) (trumpet), Jan Owens (3), Ian Cowie (3) (trombone), Mark Tetrault (3), Scott Irvine (3) (tuba), Stephen Sitarski (3) (violin), Doug Parry (3) (viola), David Hetherington (3) (cello), Roberto Occhipinti (3) (double bass), Simon Docking (1), Stephen Clarke (2), Wesley Shen (2), Gregory Oh (2) (piano), Erica Goodman (2), Sanya Eng (2), Angela Schwartzkopf (2) (harp), Rick Sacks (2, 3), Ryan Scott (2, 3), David Schotzko (2) (percussion), Robert Aitken (2, 3) (conductor)

P. Boulez & R. Aitken (© André Leduc)

This concert was intended to celebrate Pierre Boulez’s 90th birthday (which occurred last March), but, because of his death in January, it become a commemorative event. Robert Aitken, founding director of New Music Concerts, had collaborated with Boulez over the years. Boulez performed in Toronto in 1991 conducting his Ensemble intercontemporain, and also visited the city in 2002 when he received the triennial Glenn Gould Prize.

Whoever compiles a compete catalogue of Boulez’s work will have quite a complex task. While his output wasn’t large, he spent a lot of effort revisiting older pieces, as seen with the two works played in this concert’s first half. Incises (translated as “interpolations”) was composed in 1994 as a required work for a piano competition. It’s a dynamic 5-minute piece with a subtle structure and I’m sure posed a degree of challenge for the competitors. Simon Docking, an Australia-born pianist now resident in Halifax, Nova Scotia, gave an energetic performance.

sur Incises was composed in 1996-1998 and then reworked in 2006. Here Boulez took the material of Incises and used it to devise a 45-minute work for three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists working on an array of instruments - a marimba, two vibraphones, chimes, steel drums, etc. Boulez also used a series of pitches presented to him twenty years earlier and used in Messagesquisse, a tribute to the Swiss conductor/impresario/patron extraordinaire Paul Sacher.

The work’s complexities are such that Robert Aitken, NMC’s founding director, was compelled to use his considerable powers of persuasion to get additional funding for the extra rehearsal time. I won’t even try to précis the composers notes on the piece - I’ll just describe it as a musical voyage traversing a singular and intricate terrain. While it might be termed cerebral it is not dry - quite sensuous in fact. The first of its two parts has a moody episode that calls to mind Gershwin’s Summertime. The second part comes across as a reboot of the first leading to ruminative episodes while the various instruments wrap their sounds around one another. There are timbres reminiscent of Messiaen, one of Boulez’s mentors. It ends with a very tangy chord.

Of course the players followed scores, but it struck me that performing the work must be like performing Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot while eight other players are also performing it. Rather scary to do, but entertaining to watch and listen to.

The work’s demands are such that it resists being performed as a repertory piece, making it more of a festival piece for a group specially assembled to wrestle with it. (One reason for NMC’s existence.) Of course right now music schools are hard a work training a new generation of super-musicians who will find it easy.

The second half of the program was devoted to a world premiere by Canadian composer Howard Bashaw, born in British Columbia in 1957 and now teaching at the University of Alberta. Postmodern Counterpoint has a subtitle: Antiphonals and Canons with Gabrieli Remembered. In remarks before the performance, Bashaw acknowledged the ill-defined nature of a term such as “postmodern”, stating that in his approach is inclusive of a diversity of styles. This is certainly the case with Postmodern Counterpoint.

The work requires 18 players. There are two percussionists, with the rest divided into four quartets: one of strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass), one of woodwinds (flute, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet) and two of brass (trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba). The two brass quartets sit on either side of the platform. Howard Bashaw was a tuba player (maybe still is) and he has given them some high-profile passages and a prominent place on the stage.

The 45-minute work is divided into nine clearly delineated sections, each with its own title. They range in length from 50 seconds (the third section titled “Paired and Re-Paired”, a ghostly little piece described as “austere” using brass only at the end) to over six minutes (the eighth section titled “I dunno, retro-minimalism maybe” which features an evolving structural progression starting with the percussion then gradually joined by the other players.) We heard the finale of the opening section, “Badass Toccata for Conductor”, three times due to a “mishap” - such are the pitfalls when performing something new and innovative.

The fifth section (“Fraction and Refraction: Colour Organ, Stained Glass and Puzzling Aleatory”) could be described as the work’s adagio movement, starting with just the strings, then joined by discreet percussion, with the music gradually swelling as others join in. The following section, “Feat and Defeat: Party Automatons Get A Round”, is definitely the scherzo. It features a “percussion conveyer belt” credited to percussionist Rick Sacks. A series of objects (one of them a duck decoy) traveling on a conveyer belt are struck while the rest of the group play what can best be described as cartoon music with a genesis dating back to Spike Jones.

The final section, “A Modern Dance Conspiracy”, has a jazzy feel (descending perhaps from the dances in West Side Story) as it piles on rhythmic complexity.

Despite its playful titles, the work is a serious exploration of (in the composer’s words) “antiphonal dialogues arising from contrapuntal textures”. While Gabrieli is honoured in the title there are no quotes from his music or attempt to recreate antique timbres. It’s great that NMC was able to get funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to create such an ambitious work. I can foresee symphony orchestras talking it on, although they would have to borrow Mr. Sacks’s zany conveyer belt.

An audience of healthy size came out to hear this concert. They seemed pleased - there was lots to be pleased about.

Michael Johnson



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