Younger Crowd Drawn to Symphony Concerts

Nova Scotia Sypmhony

By STEPHEN PEDERSEN
spedersen@ns.sympatico.ca

Thursday night in the Dunn Theatre, Symphony Nova Scotia found the audience it has been longing to find. For the first time in years white hair was outnumbered by dark as the orchestra played a program of entirely new Canadian music for the opening concert of the Canadian New Music Network’s Forum 2010.

The hall was packed.

Following the last work on the program, Dalhousie composition professor Jerome Blais’s setting of a Yiddish folk tune (Dremlen Feigl oyf di tsvaygn), the audience gave a standing ovation. It was probably as much for conductor Bernard Gueller and Symphony Nova Scotia as for Blais’s powerful music and the other five composers on the program.

And it must be remembered that such a program would not begin to fill the 1,000-seat Cohn, and may not have filled the 250 seats of the Dunn had it not been for the number of participants from across Canada gathered in Halifax this weekend to hash out the issues confronting the performance, presentation, and diversity of new music composition in this country.

None of the pieces written by Derek Charke, Mark Armanini, Tim Brady, Paul Cram, Sandeep Baghwati and Blais were difficult to listen to. Charke’s four Inuit Throat Singing Games (chosen from a longer compilation) was chiefly remarkable for the use of bowing techniques (circular bowing and a kind of scrubbing up and down), in imitation of the throaty, scratchy, in-breath and out-breath voicings of Inuit throat singers.

But the piece left the impression that there was more to be done.

Armanini presented a three-movement work, loosely organized and intuitively structured that featured erhu (Chinese two-stringed violin) soloist Lan Tung, music director of the Orchid Ensemble, who has appeared in the Atlantic Jazz Festival.
The movements, Meditation, Gentle Wind and Streams of Light, were mostly modest orchestral water colours with the erhu heard as part of the ensemble and in one or two modest solos.

Brady’s Three or Four Days After the Death of Kurt Cobain showed more direction and vigour, with layered string entries creating a spacious effect. There was little reference musically to Cobain’s style, but a creation within a relatively objective structure of an impressive level of melancholy.

Cram’s Beyond Benghazi, an early work from the ’80s that music fans in Halifax have heard in several different manifestations, featured Gray’s well-structured marimba solo, Cram’s raw, raunchy tenor imagery, and Chris Mitchell’s all-out jazz virtuosity on alto.

Baghwati’s Stele One, a tribute to American composer and pianist James Tenney, who worked and studied with Harry Partch and Edgard Varese, featured a persistent drone, with an endlessly varied series of brief micro-tonal escapes away and into the stream in solo strings, winds and brass.

The texture of this dance of charged particles was at once restless and hypnotic; you lost all sense of time in listening to it. It was probably long but seemed only as infinite as the present moment.

Blais’s setting of Dremlen, based on the murder of 4,000 Lithuanian Jews in 1943, was profoundly affecting. He set the scene of a three-year-old girl wandering the streets looking for her murdered mother and father with an opening reminiscent of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), which featured the poignant melancholy of oboes (Susanne Lemieux and Brian James) and the warm, restrained anguish of the alto flute (Christine Feierabend).
Forum 2010 ends tonight after three nights of concerts and two full days of panel discussions.

Stephen Pedersen is a freelance arts writer who lives in Halifax.