MusicFest Vancouver's vocal program busts bounds
MusicFest Vancouver has never been easily slotted into classical, jazz, or world categories. But as the festival has evolved, its inclusivity has proven a huge asset: by not sticking to strict definitions, its new program director Matthew Baird says, it’s been able to let artists push into more adventurous territory.
“My observation is that as much as we like to think of a musical performance in one genre, most musicians have interests far beyond what they normally do. They might have an interest in jazz or pop music of the ’30s. So allowing musicians to explore other directions—that’s part of what the festival can do.”
This year, the event’s vocal programming is a perfect example of how far “choral music” can be pushed. It doesn’t just have to be a huge choir singing George Frederick Handel in a cathedral. It can be Nordic Voices, a six-member Norwegian ensemble that stretches its repertoire between old Scandinavian hymns and edgy contemporary work.
“A lot of the dynamism of that group is just what an amazing instrument six voices can produce. It can be a beautifully tuned chord or can be an anguished scream of ecstasy,” Baird says. “Some sounds are so off-the-wall crazy, you think ‘How do they do this?’ ” says Baird of the program called Ciels, which covers everything from Maurice Ravel to contemporary composer Madeleine Isaksson.
Bookending the festival is an entirely different vocal ensemble, New York Voices, a veteran quartet that will play with a jazz trio at the fest-closing VanDusen Botanical Garden concert. It resembles groups like Manhattan Transfer, but it’s not easily categorizable: its members draw from R & B and Brazilian traditions, and serve up a lot of their own, fresh writing.
“You have these four voices and you think what a great range of sounds they make, whether it’s scat, or sounding very instrumental,” describes Baird. “It has a really, really rich texture, with fantastic tuning, fantastic arrangements.”
Other artists will similarly defy pigeonholing and explore different directions at the fest, such as the Borealis String Quartet performing 20th-century dance hits or banjo virtuoso Jayme Stone interpreting music from around the globe. Such exploration is something Baird hopes to promote more of in future renditions of the fest: he’d love to put diverse artists into the same concert and see what happens. He points readily to the Ottawa Chamberfest, programmed by Gryphon Trio cellist Roman Borys (whose group makes an appearance at the fest here): on July 31, it found four cellists playing Seattle grunge hits to a packed house.
“I think having the adventurous spirit to do these things is really to be lauded. Music as a museum art is a static medium,” Baird says. “Everything’s valid: there’s no less art in a really well constructed pop song than an art song by Debussy,” he insists, adding that classical music will always be a staple in the program.
“I don’t expect anyone to be crazy enough, except for me, to attend everything,” he concludes. “Most people will come and nibble at two or three concerts and might bring a friend who might go on to some other concerts.”