Some people love the holiday season, living only to tip Avalon eggnog down their throats while crooning about sleigh rides and little drummer boys.
Others have a more pragmatic approach, like Music on Main’s new composer in residence, Nicole Lizée. Sure, she’s looking forward to contributing an avant-garde carol to MoM’s upcoming Music for the Winter Solstice, but what she really needs is more time—and she figures that the night of December 21 is when she’s going to get it.
“Being the longest night of the year,” the Montreal-based artist quips in an email from an airport somewhere in Europe, “it gives me more time to finish my orchestral parts.”
The globetrotting Lizée has been so busy, in fact, that she’s still working on the aforementioned carol—which, at the moment, looks like it will depart from her usual electroacoustic style but will continue in the vein of pop-culture-quoting pieces like Hitchcock Etudes or 2600 Dollar Man. Kate Bush, Andy Williams, and Perry Como have been on her mind, she says, so the only sure thing about the as-yet-untitled piece is that new music doesn’t get much newer than this MoM commission.
And new-music programming doesn’t get much friendlier than what singer and violinist Caroline Shaw, pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, songwriter Veda Hille, and guitarist Adrian Verdejo will deliver next week, in the third installment of what is quickly becoming a midwinter staple.
The roots of the event, Music on Main artistic director David Pay says, go back to a spur-of-the-moment decision he made early on in his company’s existence.
“When we started, in 2006, we went to the Cellar Jazz Club and did a month of Tuesdays in November,” he recalls, in a cellphone conversation with the Straight. “It did well, so we kept it going into December—and I remember the reaction from the audience when I announced that we were going to continue, but that we wouldn’t be doing any Christmas carols.
There was actually a whoop from the audience: people were excited that there was going to be non-Christmas music to listen to at Christmastime.
“I don’t think that’s out of any abject hatred for Christmas,” Pay adds. “I think it’s just this desire to have some deeper connections than maybe ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ might bring.”
Pay eventually relented on the Christmas-carol ban: Alfredo Santa Ana and Shaw have written seasonal pieces for earlier solstice shows, and both will be reprised this year. Shaw’s sing-along “Winter Carol”, in fact, was an instantaneous audience favourite, as Pay recalls.
“Last year,” he says, “I remember looking over to an audience member who has become a friend, and she had been singing along, as we all were, and both of us were singing with tears in our eyes.
“It’s all about this idea of everyone coming together and listening together at this time of year, when we’re all totally harried and running about and trying to get everything done. It’s a real… Not even a luxury, but a real privilege to sit in a room with 100 other people and listen to music together. That’s what makes my job great!”
Rodney Sharman, who has a premiere in this year’s program, was also in the audience last year, and recalls Shaw’s piece fondly. It was “a kind of secular hymn”, he says in a separate telephone conversation. “I normally dislike audience participation intensely, yet I was very moved and very happy to be involved in it. I think it’s a marvellous idea.”
This year, Sharman’s contribution is for Guitar, commissioned by Verdejo through the Canada Council. It’s not seasonally themed in the least, but Pay says that he hears qualities in Sharman’s music that are very much in keeping with what Music on Main hopes to achieve with its solstice programming.
“Rodney’s sound-world, for me, is warm and filled with beauty—so it seemed like it would be a good fit,” he explains.
It’s all about illuminating what can be a dark time, which makes Music for the Winter Solstice a gorgeous gift to Vancouver’s concertgoing public. Lizée’s getting into the gift-exchange spirit, too: she’s not charging Music on Main for her piece, but trading it for figure-skating lessons. What could be more festive than that?
Music on Main presents Music for the Winter Solstice at Heritage Hall next Thursday and Friday (December 15 and 16).