Uncanny beauty and exquisite climax at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival

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      Presented by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. At the Orpheum from Thursday to Sunday, February 25 to 28

      Wait a minute: did Bramwell Tovey just call the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra “a living orgasm”?

      Why, yes, he did, in his oddly sexualized valedictory banter with VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock. Of course, the VSO’s music director went on to clarify that he meant “a living organism”, a conceit that the last work on the last night of the VSO’s New Music Festival fully justified. Keeping Tovey’s Freudian slip in mind, it’s also fair to say that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations provided the festival, the orchestra, and the audience with an exquisite climax.

      The former Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor’s piece certainly reminded us that intelligence is a crucial part of sensuality. LA Variations is a deeply intellectual work, based as it is on a pair of hexachords that, between them, cover all 12 notes of the chromatic scale; these two chords, inverted and arpeggiated and otherwise morphed, form the spine of the composition.

      Around them, however, Salonen has spun a glorious skein of constantly shifting instrumental textures, illuminated, I think, by subtle nods toward various SoCal icons—some of them, like him, European immigrants attracted to the sunny promise of the West Coast. Salonen’s orchestral writing occasionally evokes Igor Stravinsky or film composer Bernard Herrmann; the percussion parts were dense and brilliant enough to suggest Edgard Varèse; a brief bass solo likely paid homage to the great virtuoso and UC San Diego prof Bertram Turetzky.

      All of these varied references and techniques were vividly realized by Tovey and the VSO musicians, the real stars of the evening—and, indeed, of three-fourths of the 2016 New Music Festival.

      Thursday night’s opening concert found several of the orchestra’s stalwarts appearing as members of the Standing Wave sextet, playing an almost all-Canadian program yet sounding just as accomplished and eclectic as the new-music superstars in the Kronos Quartet, who followed on Friday with a tour through South India, Lebanon, Armenia, the bucolic English countryside, and the boisterous coliseums of classic rock.

      Standing Wave arguably had the edge in audio fidelity, its rendition of future Music on Main composer in residence Nicole Lizée’s Hitchcock Etudes sounding significantly crisper than Kronos’s version of the same artist’s The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre-Optic Flowers). Kronos’s occasionally blurry sound actually improved Michael Gordon’s Clouded Yellow, though, turning a relatively simple score into a timeless, transporting dream.

      The VSO itself took to the stage on Saturday, in a concert mildly marred by a programming gaffe: three subdued, reflective pieces in the first half were one too many. But the energy displayed in a postintermission take on Mark-Anthony Turnage’s turbulent Three Screaming Popes impressed—and was an enjoyable contrast to the stark poetry of Rodney Sharman’s study for a crouching figure, scored for dancer, piano, and amplified string quartet, and also inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon.

      Turnage and Sharman aside, the second night of orchestral programming was the better one. In addition to LA Variations, Sunday featured the minor success of film composer Thomas Newman’s It Got Dark, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra with Kronos in the starring role; a lovingly attentive reading of the tonally conservative but captivating Regenerations, by VSO associate principal trumpet Marcus Goddard; and the uncanny yet toothsome beauty of Morlock’s Earthfall, a world premiere that deserves an encore soon.

      The only sorrow we felt on leaving the hall is that it will be 12 months before we hear such richness again.