ISCM World Music Days's Life Reflected makes for a sonically innovative yet downbeat opening event

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      A National Arts Centre Orchestra production. Presented by ISCM World New Music Days and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. At the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts on Thursday (November 2). No remaining performances

      Should it ever make it to the small screen, Life Reflected will be stunning and unusual television. Its combination of symphonic music, visual imagery, dance, spoken word, and social commentary would provide an intelligent and provocative oasis in the medium’s bleak landscape of reality shows, sport programs, and talking heads. The overall package, assembled by National Arts Centre Orchestra artistic director Alexander Shelley and creative producer/director Donna Feore, draws upon the talents of artists as diverse as writer Alice Munro and actress Monique Mojica, not to mention featured composers Zosha Di Castri, Jocelyn Morlock, Nicole Lizée, and John Estacio. And on the opening night of the largest contemporary-music festival Canada’s ever seen, all four of its scores were immaculately performed.

      So why did it seem to fall just a little flat?

      I’ll be puzzling over this for weeks—as, I suspect, will other audience members. But, for now, a few random thoughts:

      Live orchestral music does not need visual accompaniment. Despite Shelley’s perfectly valid claim, in these pages last week, that much of the best symphonic music has been written to accompany ballet, good music provides a narrative all its own. Here, the images mostly seemed superimposed on the music, and the effort of watching them somehow made the music smaller (the exception being Lizée’s homage to astronaut Roberta Bondar, Bondarsphere, in which the composer’s own audiovisual collage effectively amplified the sound).

      We’re used to the Orpheum. In concert, the NACO sounded lean and quick, but less viscerally present than our resident symphony, and which is probably the venue’s fault; acoustically the Centre is dry and muffled compared to Vancouver’s grandest public space.

      What should have been a gala was anything but celebratory. Three of the four stories told here—Lizée’s piece again being the exception—proved decidedly downbeat. There’s “a lot of killing” in Di Castri’s Munro-inspired Dear Life; the teenage protagonist of Morlock’s My Name Is Amanda Todd dies by her own hand; and Estacio’s I Lost My Talk, which sets a short text by the late Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, deals with the painful and ongoing legacy of the residential school system.
      Estacio’s piece was a particularly odd choice to end this intermissionless, hour-plus evening; Mojica’s on-stage reading of Joe’s plainspoken words left many listeners pondering their own complicity in this shameful public failure. There was also a strange disconnect between Estacio’s blustery, conservative score, the projected images of Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith’s ritualistic choreography, and the night’s intent of celebrating new forms.

      Which were here; don’t get me wrong. Di Castri’s orchestral textures were extraordinary, blending instruments in a kind of acoustic synthesis that resulted in gorgeous, newly discovered tones. Morlock has a gift for emotionally affecting music, and My Name Is Amanda Todd came across as the essence of tenderness and compassion. Lizée sometimes relies too heavily on pastiche, but Bondarsphere’s combination of low-fi electronics, vintage news broadcasts, and sophisticated timbral play was very bit as dizzying as a real ascent into space.

      A good start to World New Music Days, which continues at various venues through Wednesday (November 8)? That’s debatable, but Life Reflected was certainly provocative enough to serve—and I do hope it will have a second life for home viewing.