One of many reasons to turn up for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival is that no one really knows how it’s all going to sound. I have been attending, off and on, for more than half of the twenty-five years of the festival’s existence, and have been startled, wearied, amused and delighted, but rarely bored. The unexpected quality of the festival – none of the works on the January 23 opening program had been played in Canada, and one had never been played anywhere before – is a major appeal, especially for the younger-than-usual audience. What was unexpected for me on opening night was my pleasure in taking home, as a prized new possession, a bit of broken twig to commemorate the memorable performance of Man Made by David Lang.
The bundles of twigs were used by the quartet So Percussion, who moved on from snapping twigs in a surprisingly mesmerizing manner to using mallets on bottles and finally to drumming in a more conventional way. So Percussion was the definite hit of the evening, so word of mouth will hopefully mean that many people turn up for Sunday’s concert, involving more of their music. Man Made, said the composer, features interplay between the primitive basis of percussion and the more sophisticated possibilities of a symphony orchestra, which must, however, build on those primal qualities. What was fascinating to me is that I never wavered in my loyalty to the elemental stuff So Percussion was doing, which arguably triumphed in the conversation between orchestra and primal beat.
Local composer Glenn Buhr contributed the world premiere, Solstice ii, a Zen-like beauty that was a tremendous workout for principal flutist Jan Kocman’s lip muscles. David Lang’s Mountain was next, featuring terrific bursts of sound and the accumulation of forceful repeated phrases undergirded with subtle variations. It was great to hear from the evening’s composers, all in attendance, who were very funny: Lang telling us that Mountain was a commission about nature (yet he’s not fond of nature), and Joan Tower saying that the title of Concerto for Orchestra was a kind of cop-out because she wasn’t sure what else to call it. She also, disarmingly, told the audience that it was very long (which it wasn’t) and to be alert for the amazing tuba part.
Joan Tower’s piece dates from 1991 and has not been performed in Canada before. It is a thoughtful and grown-up work with beautifully orchestrated ideas. At moments it reminded me of John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine – one of the twentieth century’s most wondrous compositions – propulsive, urgent, complex in meaning and texture. Concerto for Orchestra is well worth hearing again, and one asks why it took so long for such an important piece to make it onto the stands of a Canadian orchestra. This is why composers love Winnipeg and the New Music Festival. The very best living composers happily come here, often thrilled to hear their music played at all, never mind played so well. In 2013, when Steve Reich was here, I stood a few feet from him and thought: this guy is the Joe diMaggio or Gordie Howe of contemporary serious music, and here he is, standing there, wearing a ball cap like a regular guy. (For anyone born after 1980 or so: sorry. I don’t have more recent sports analogies that spring to mind.)
There was a post-performance set from Glenn Buhr’s more mainstream Button Factory Band – well, mainstream if setting bits of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for rock band and having a significant Manitoba novelist play harmonica are mainstream. It was very enjoyable. All evening the musicians looked like they were enjoying themselves; more casual than usual, the orchestra was even smiling, and I saw a violinist teetering on a fit of laughter in Mountain. The young girl in my aisle who spent the evening waving her hands and conducting with vigor had a good time too. I’m not sure, however, what was up with the dog I may have heard barking off to my right.
Sue Sorensen teaches English at Canadian Mennonite University, has very little musical training, but knows what she likes. Right now, she likes twigs.