Powerful performances open the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival

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At the Orpheum on Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18. Continues until January 20

As of last Saturday night, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural New Music Festival was only two days old, but already a tradition had emerged: the frequent addition of raucous foot-stomping to the audience’s energetic applause. Early on in the festival’s first night, those seated on-stage—behind, in this case, featured ensemble Standing Wave—found that their bleachers provided a resonant surface for happy feet, and Saturday’s crowd followed suit, providing a clattering response to music director Bramwell Tovey’s introductory remarks, to the various composers who explained their pieces, and to the works themselves.

Point made: contemporary music is a vital force, and demands more than polite clapping. That message was further driven home by powerful performances of scores that were variously lush, intriguing, and surprising. Halfway through the festival, which continues at the Orpheum on Monday night, it’s fair to say that the VSO’s latest undertaking is an aesthetic success—and despite fierce competition elsewhere, it didn’t do too badly at the box office, either.

Granted, more listeners could have turned out for Standing Wave’s opening-night set, but there were certainly more bodies in attendance than the group normally draws to its Cultch concerts. Veterans and newcomers alike were treated to a typically flawless performance from this all-star band, with an early highlight being opening number Still Life With Avalanche, from American composer Missy Mazzoli. Here was music that sounded truly new, mostly in the way that Mazzoli takes familiar-sounding pop-music tropes and then atomizes them: one minute everything is humming along in reassuringly consonant form; the next, sounds are whirling about in the most unfathomable way. Mazzoli’s avalanche metaphor is apt, but tornado might be apter—and I doubt I was the only attendee who went home and Googled the 34-year-old New Yorker to hear more.

With the exception of Kati Agócs’s strident, bongo-fuelled Crystallography, the rest of the program was of similar, if less startling, quality. Particularly notable were VSO trumpeter Marcus Goddard’s Raven Tales, in which the iconic bird’s liquid song was embodied by Vern Griffiths’s woody marimba, and violist and composer Brett Dean’s sombre but beautifully made Sextet (Old Kings in Exile).

Dean cemented his reputation as one of Australia’s best with Night 2’s Short Stories and Water Music, both performed by small orchestra rather than chamber ensemble. Titled “Devotional”, “Premonitions”, “Embers”, “Komorov’s Last Words”, and “Arietta”, the first piece’s five sections gave further evidence that Dean is a masterful technician with a bent for the sepulchral, but Water Music was something else again. A feature for Berlin’s Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, it found the four horns cutting channels through the orchestral strings with an appropriately torrential outpouring of virtuosity; electronically amplified water sounds also helped set the tone, at least until the effectively arid third movement, “Parched Earth”.

Perhaps appropriately, Dean’s earth and water were preceded by the ravishing cloud-castle fantasy that is local composer Jocelyn Morlock’s Aeromancy Concerto for Two Cellos. Playing angelically in their chosen instrument’s highest register, soloists Ariel Barnes and Joseph Elworthy were perfectly matched, soaring above a bed of pillowy strings and starry glockenspiel. But the music wasn’t all airiness and light: burnt-sugar horns brought a bittersweet physicality to the mix.

Aeromancy is the sonic equivalent of crème brûlée, and perhaps it should have been dessert. That, though, came when the Raschèr Quartet returned after Water Music to perform the fourth movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Old music, yes, but in this unconventional context we heard it as new.

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