Composer Rodney Sharman finds fresh sounds for old instruments in VSO New Music Festival

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      It’s not that they’re incestuous, exactly, but they’re certainly intricate.

      Untangling the skein of relationships that makes up the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 New Music Festival would require a flow chart as complex as a certain orange buffoon’s business dealings—although in contrast these sonic connections are happy ones, and no one’s getting stiffed or slighted.

      With the festival expanding this year to six concerts, there simply isn’t space to go into everything that’s on offer. So let’s look at a pair of events in particular: the two nights of New Music for Old Instruments slated to take place at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday and Saturday (January 25 and 28).

      This intriguing collaboration between the VSO and Early Music Vancouver was hatched between the symphony’s music director, Bramwell Tovey, and EMV’s relatively recently installed artistic director, Matthew White, with the latter suggesting that composer Rodney Sharman be brought in to program the two nights.

      As Sharman is a former VSO composer in residence, it seemed a natural fit—and the connections only get deeper from there. In curating New Music for Old Instruments, Sharman went all the way back to his teenage years in Victoria, where he inadvertently found himself enmeshed in the very early days in what has since become an established, and somewhat Canada-centric, genre.

      “What year did Nixon resign? It was that summer,” Sharman recalls on the line from his East Vancouver home, before going on to explain that 1974 found him attending a colloquium that featured gambist Peggie Sampson, harpsichord virtuoso Colin Tilney, and future Turning Point Ensemble codirector Owen Underhill performing brand-new scores on some very old instruments. The beauty of that sound has stayed with him ever since.

      For Sharman, part of the appeal has to do with how baroque musicians, particularly string players, approach their instruments.

      “In modern string playing, the difference between up-bow and down-bow tends to be minimized, so that you can achieve the long line,” he explains. “It is as much like opera singing as possible, whereas in baroque performance practice the difference between up-bow and down-bow is cherished. This is what I mean when I speak of the refinement of [baroque] bowing: these small differences are perhaps more like speaking than they are like singing.”

      Composer and VSO New Music Festival curator Rodney Sharman.

      This vocal, even conversational approach to music-making will be particularly apparent on the second night of New Music for Old Instruments, which centres on VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock’s appropriately radiant Golden and features the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Alexander Weimann.

      Also prominent will be countertenor Reginald Mobley, who’ll add an extra chronological wrinkle by performing some American Songbook standards, appropriately rearranged for the PBO.

      More connections? Weimann’s interpretation of the Sesame Street favourite “Bein’ Green” was originally crafted for EMV’s White, back when he was a working singer rather than an arts manager. And Sharman’s take on Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” owes as much to Lady Gaga as it does to any Jazz Age crooner.

      The first concert, in contrast, features a smaller ensemble, with soprano Camille Hesketh handling vocal duties. That night, Sharman explains, offers an especially welcome chance to revisit Peter Hannan’s Trinkets of Little Value, based on the Iroquois dictionary that the French explorer Jacques Cartier compiled while overwintering on the St. Lawrence River during 1534 and 1535.

      “These words from Renaissance Iroquois—which is where we see the word Canada for the very first time—will be sung by a soprano with instruments that would have been around when Cartier was here,” he notes, adding that “it’s much richer” with these period instruments than in the alternative orchestral score.

      Other elements that have Sharman excited include Weimann’s solo harpsichord performance of György Ligeti’s Continuum—“one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire,” he notes—on Night 1, and the improvised coda planned for the end of Night 2, in which Mobley will join Tovey and Weimann, both on piano, for a lighthearted romp though the jazz canon.

      “That’s kind of the dessert on the program, with an open bar,” Sharman says, laughing. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Alex Weimann as an improviser, but he’s superb!”

      Not quite your normal cathedral fare, but it sounds like an appropriately festive finale for two nights of truly innovative programming.

      The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Early Music Vancouver present New Music for Old Instruments at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday and Saturday (January 25 and 28), as part of the VSO’s New Music Festival. For a full schedule, visit the Vancouver Symphony website festivals.