Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival plies Water Music

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Among the many extraordinary accomplishments in Bramwell Tovey’s résumé is that during the 1990s he initiated one of North America’s most successful new-music festivals—in chilly Winnipeg. When the conductor fled Manitoba’s sub-Martian temperatures to become music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 2000, many expected him to do the same here, but it’s only now that he’s attempting to replicate his Prairie feat. With the VSO’s inaugural New Music Festival kicking off this weekend, it seems a good time to ask the conductor one simple question: why now?

Or, to put it less politely, what’s taken him so long?

Reached by cellphone en route to a recording session in Wales, Tovey summons up past glories before getting to the meat of the matter. “The Winnipeg festival was so big and successful...that it used up an enormous amount of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s resources,” he recalls. “But it also created its own life force, as it were. We used to have houses of 1,100, 1,200 a night, going up to two-and-a-half thousand for the opening and closing galas. So it was an incredible event, and when I came to Vancouver I was hoping that I would be able to replicate it.”

The time just wasn’t right for such a risky venture—but now, with the orchestra on sound financial footing, it is. With four concerts in as many days, the event will showcase many of Vancouver’s finest composers, including John Korsrud, Jocelyn Morlock, John Oliver, Peter Hannan, and the VSO’s own Edward Top, along with local luminaries Standing Wave and Berlin’s even more highly regarded Raschèr Saxophone Quartet. Tovey’s particularly happy to present several works by Australian composer-performer Brett Dean, who’ll also star in his own Viola Concerto.

“There’s really a close connection between Australia and Canada, and British Columbia in particular,” Tovey notes. “When you go up to Whistler, you hear more Australian accents than Canadian accents. So I thought, ‘Let’s hear something of the music, because it’s very vibrant, it’s very alive.’ ”

As proof, Tovey cites Dean’s Water Music, a feature for orchestra and saxophone quartet, both because it brings some otherworldly electronic touches into the concert hall, and because it addresses something that’s of particular concern to those of us on the West Coast. “What Brett does with a lot of his music, and particularly with this piece, is that he articulates issues that are current in our society,” the conductor says. “At the same time, you can listen to Water Music and just take it onboard as an abstract work of art; you don’t have to read, necessarily, any kind of water agenda into it.”

That agenda is there, however. “I think my music is the sum of who I am as a musician and what interests me,” says Dean, in a separate telephone interview. “I like to think that it’s somehow relevant to what’s going on in the world, but it also grows out of the music that I’ve loved and played all my life.

“That said,” he continues, “water is increasingly going to become one of the great political battles, particularly as clean water becomes an increasingly scarce commodity. Also, obviously, in Australia—the world’s driest continent—how water is used or misused has always been a matter of contention.”

Water Music’s third and final movement, Dean adds, was explicitly inspired by the prolonged drought Australia suffered during the past decade. Even so, a chance to encounter his work firsthand, along with pieces by some of Canada’s best, should certainly slake the cultural thirst of adventurous listeners.

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