Words surround this year's Sonic Boom festival

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      The annual Sonic Boom festival, which takes place this weekend, is a reliable source for truly new music: the juried event, produced by Vancouver Pro Musica, specializes in premiering pieces by a wide array of B.C.–based composers. This year, though, listeners will also be treated to some well-worn literary classics, courtesy of the festival’s focus on song. Edgar Allan Poe, William Butler Yeats, and an anonymous 16th-century balladeer are among the writers who have lent their words to Sonic Boom’s kickoff concert, sometimes to surprising effect.

      Poe’s macabre “The Conqueror Worm”, for instance, has inspired Wylie Ferguson to craft one of the event’s most challenging scores. “It’s half sung, half recited, and I would say it’s probably the most avant-garde piece on the program,” explains tenor William George, whose Erato Ensemble hosts the evening. “It goes with the poem, though. There’s a lot of cacophony at times, but I think he was trying to musically translate the poem.”

      Yeats’s “When You Are Old” is also a reflection on mortality, but in this case composer Nicholas Ryan Kelly has given Erato’s other singer, Catherine Laub, a somewhat easier task. “It’s a lovely traditional art song for soprano and chamber ensemble,” says George, interviewed by telephone from his North Vancouver home. In turn, the traditional “The Death of Queen Jane” belies its ancient origins in Erato cellist Stefan Hintersteininger’s arrangement. “It’s very accessible, almost Michael Nyman–esque,” George notes, referencing the composer some consider the English Philip Glass. “There’s some minimalism, and both singers are playing percussion as well. He did a really good job, keeping the folk melody but also creating a really cool arrangement.”

      George has contributed to previous Sonic Boom programs, both as a singer and as a composer, but this is the first time Erato has served as the festival’s ensemble in residence. “We always try for an ensemble that reflects, first of all, a commitment to performing new music, and also one that has a diverse instrumentation,” Pro Musica president Craig Day explains in a separate telephone interview. “So Erato is really neat, because they’ve got woodwinds, they’ve got vocalists, they’ve got string players, and they’ve got a pianist. It’s a very interesting combination that composers rarely get the opportunity to write for. That’s what really appealed to us about them.”

      Local composers have responded in kind. Although application guidelines allowed them to write for as few as two of Erato’s players and one singer, most ended up utilizing the full band, which includes such respected players as saxophonist Colin MacDonald and guitarist Adrian Verdejo. With just a few days to go before showtime, George is flattered and perhaps also a little flustered by the respect shown.

      “At first, we felt really honoured to be chosen,” he says, laughing. “And then when we received the scores, we felt very afraid. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into?’ But as we’ve been working on the pieces, we’ve really been getting more excited about how much variety there is, and how much we’ll get to do in one concert. To go from one style to another so quickly is really exciting—and nobody will be bored.”

      The Erato Ensemble performs at the Orpheum Annex on Thursday (March 27), as part of Sonic Boom. The festival opens with a lecture-demonstration by composer John Oliver at Pyatt Hall on Wednesday (March 26), and continues through Sunday (March 30). See the Vancouver Pro Musica website for full venue and schedule information.