The idea of performing brand-new compositions on the instruments of the baroque era—as the Pacific Baroque Orchestra will do during this year’s edition of the annual Sonic Boom festival—might seem odd. But to PBO artistic director and harpsichord virtuoso Alexander Weimann, there’s nothing untoward about it at all.
“Period instruments and their players are one segment of the market as peers among other genres, and it seems quite natural that composers of acoustic music would turn their ears and imagination to these slightly distant or exotic types of instruments,” he reasons in an interview from his Ladner home, hinting that curiosity is a primary motivation for composers—the same kind of curiosity that now finds them incorporating instruments from beyond the western orchestral tradition into their scores.
“For us players of baroque music,” Weimann continues, “it’s important to keep in mind that when our music was written, pretty much every musical performance was a premiere, and almost exclusively the brand-new was played. When the first Academy of Ancient Music in London formed [in 1730-31], a composition had to be older than 20 years to qualify for the attribute ‘ancient’! So it seems all too logical for PBO to play its role also with new music.”
It’s not only modern-day composers—including Edward Top, Trevor Tunnacliffe, Kamran Shahrokhi, F. Scott Thompson, Carl Winter, and Henry From, all debuting works with the PBO—who benefit from stretching their sonic palettes. Working in the contemporary field “keeps the player alert”, Weimann says. “Nothing in life or art is more detrimental than navigating on autopilot…instead of listening to what every piece wants to tell us, and being responsive to the little signs we perceive when we open our eyes and ears. To do something quite different now and then is very helpful to stay alive.
“Of course, in nowadays compositions we get to do things that we are not so used to,” he adds, citing “uneven metres [and] going to the edge of playing technique” as among the skill-testing factors in the PBO’s March 22 program at the Orpheum Annex. “But I love that. It’s freeing.”
The inclusion of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra as Sonic Boom’s resident ensemble will pay dividends for composers and listeners alike; under the direction of first Marc Destrubé and then Weimann, the ensemble has become one of North America’s most accomplished and adventurous period-music ensembles. Also noteworthy at Sonic Boom is the presence of artist in residence Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, a fearless and gifted pianist who’ll premiere works by Rodney Sharman, Jennifer Butler, Jeffrey Ryan, and others at the Vancouver Academy of Music on March 21. Amateur composers will still be featured in most festival events, but Sonic Boom’s jury process aims at keeping musical standards high—although Weimann doesn’t have much to say about that.
“I was not part of the process, and I think it’s for the better,” he notes affably. But he also notes that he and the PBO were able to confer with all of the chosen composers and discuss the possibilities of their instruments, a situation he describes as “luxurious”.
“I really embraced this cooperation,” he says. “The creation of music is eminently human and basic and important, and we are privileged to have this organization.”
Vancouver Pro Musica presents Sonic Boom at various Vancouver venues from next Thursday (March 19) to March 22.