Sonic Boom '06

Featuring the Turning Point Ensemble. A Vancouver Pro Musica presentation. At the Western Front on Saturday, March 18

For water babies-in these waters, at least-July is the magic month when the frigid Pacific finally warms up enough for swimming. Enophiles treasure November, when the first cases of Beaujolais Nouveau are rushed to the stores. And local devotees of contemporary music have March to look forward to, because that's when the annual Sonic Boom festival unloads its bounty of new works, new composers, and sometimes even new ensembles.

This year we have a bumper crop-at least on the evidence of Saturday's concert, which featured a dozen new works by as many different composers, all played with poise and clarity by the Turning Point Ensemble.

A number of general conclusions can be drawn from this showcase, including the notion that academic composer is no longer a pejorative term. Most of the featured tunesmiths are connected with either UBC or SFU, and their instructors appear to have given them the tools with which to construct their own sonic personas.

Granted, most of the composers shared a similar outlook. To begin with, the music was overwhelmingly tonal. The influence of minimalism could occasionally be heard, but only in the background. Graphic notation seems to be making a comeback, and improvisation is no longer entirely taboo. And in general, the pieces were reflective, even melancholy.

There was some audience debate about this last point. Is it simply that Vancouver's grey winter weather has seeped into the composers' collective consciousness? Are people unsettled by the worldwide threat of war and terrorism? Has musicmaking itself become elegiac, given the diminishing importance of music in our visually driven culture?

It might just be that composing is intrinsically solitary, and solitude lends itself to introspection.

That was certainly the case with Nebojsa Macura's Reflections on Solitude. Marked by curdled brass from trombonist Jeremy Berkman and trumpeter Marcus Goddard, it seemed a message from the cell-or from some student's lonely digs.

One would also expect melancholy from a work whose title is taken from an Edgar Allan Poe fantasy, and in John Burke's ”¦in a sort of runic rhyme piano and tubular bells toll a sombre requiem. For what, Burke doesn't explain, but the mood proved sufficiently communicable.

It was not all doom and gloom, however. Joanna Chapman-Smith's sinuous Blowhole brought vivid nature-whales and waves-into the concert hall, and trumpeter Goddard's Voices Rising was just beautiful, although I did wonder if he was having a bit of a private joke when, at one point, Berkman was asked to sing a piping, wordless refrain.

Space does not permit me to mention the other composers on the bill, but their work was no less worthwhile. This concert might have marked the debut of a new trio: Berkman, cellist Peggy Lee, and clarinetist Franí§ois Houle split off from the ensemble to open each set, playing pieces that were either unconventionally scored or partly improvised. Their profound rapport was immediately recognizable, and deserves further exploration.