Saturday, March 12, 2011

Electronica Meets Orchestra

March 5 was the second of three concerts in the 7th season of the Toronto Symphony's New Creations Festival.

Essentially works by composers who aren't dead.  Given my previous experience with contemporary music I was skeptical I'd enjoy this.  But John Adams, who's name I've come across in various other orchestra calenders and arts critics reviews, was conducting (his TSO conducting debut) and one of his own works was included,  so I figured, why not try something new?  The performance included 3 pieces: "Torque" by Gary Kulesha (a prominent Canadian composer), "Liquid Interface" (Canadian Premiere) by Mason Bates and "City Noir" (Canadian Premiere and TSO co-commission) by John Adams.

The first that hit me when I walked into the hall, was the amount of stuff on the stage!  I've never seen so many percussion instruments!  There were about 5 different xylophones, glockenspiels, vibraphones etc.  Most interesting were a big white drum like what you'd put ballots in to mix them up for a draw (used in "Liquid Interface" which may be classified as a wind machine) and a little room of  pot lids.  Ok, well not really but that's what it looked like (see photo).  Also 2 harps, and by the end of the evening 6 French horns, 4 clarinets, and 4 trumpets.

Pardon my poor grammar, but for my enjoyment factor 2 out of 3 ain't bad.  Being a casual concert, there was a host, in this case TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian, who introduced the pieces, which is especially nice to have for contemporary items.  He mentioned Mr. Kulesha's passion for fast cars (a Porsche Carrera specifically), and "Torque" growing out of that.  Indeed in the program notes the composer admits that the "image of rapidly rotating wheels (or tires) was in my mind throughout the writing of the work.  This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that I was shopping for a new car during the creation of this composition.  And it may or may not be related to the fact that I acquired a very fast car halfway through the writing process...", that car no doubt being the Porsche.  I really liked this piece!  Indeed the image of a car existed throughout and I was thinking it would fit in well with the Disney Hollywood Studios stunt car show.

Mason Bates (TSO website)
Next the "electronica" for the evening appeared.  If all contemporary pieces were like "Liquid Interface" I think I could say I like contemporary music.   Things with a clear theme really help.  In this case, that theme was water.  But as composer Mason Bates said in his description of the piece the temperature continues to rise throughout so you get water in all forms, not just liquid.  Mr. Bates, located between the strings and percussion, added the electronic bits, often with a techno type beat, via a laptop and large keypad.  It started with ice and real sounds of Glaciers Calving (also the name of the first movement).  Conductor John Adams had an ear piece for this first movement and when asked by Peter Oundjian afterwards said it was a click track for precision.  "Scherzo Liquido", the second movement, had electronic water droplet sounds and if I recall correctly ran right into the third and fourth movements.  "Crescent City" included hurricane, thunderstorm, and ocean parts which "relaxes into a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise where we end the symphony in "On the Wannsee"" (from composers program notes) which featured ambient dock sounds recorded on Lake Wannsee.  The symphony concluded with the water evaporating.  Throughout there were snippets of melody that could be followed which I particularly enjoyed.  What I've heard previously in contemporary music is the use of random beats and rhythmic contortions to drive the piece, giving one the idea a pretty melody is dead.  I'm glad that's not he case.  The percussionists, particularly Mr. Rudolph (who also played a mean washboard) and the other mallet keyboard players, got a workout with 4 mallets quickly moving all over the keys.  Quite exciting to watch.

John Adams (
After a quick musician change with additional horns, and several principal musicians arriving (such as oboe, trombone, trumpet, and French horn) there was a short chat between Mr. Oundjian and Mr. Adams about the creation of the piece.  Apparently "City Noir" was commissioned for the first concert by the LA Philharmonics new music director, Gustavo Dudamel.  So Mr. Adams combined the Los Angeles hollywood feel and his enjoyment of noir films into a piece that he said is similar to a movie score but without the breaks that usually come for the dialogue just when the score is getting interesting (for an interview with him about the piece go here).  I'd say interesting is a good word for it.  It followed more closely the rhythmic drive I mentioned before at points which tends to be when I get distracted.  Perhaps a noir movie accompanying it would have helped me.  There were well executed solos by a guest saxophonist, Timothy McAllister and principal musicians Andrew McCandless (trumpet) and Gordon Wolfe (trombone).  I also enjoyed watching Adams as a conductor.  His beat patterns were mostly easy to follow and there was no lack of energy or enthusiasm from him.  At the conclusion of the piece the musicians eagerly joined in the applause which I tend to use as a gauge for how well they liked the person on the podium.  I'd say he was a welcome guest conductor and indeed Mr. Oundjian had said previously that the orchestra had enjoyed rehearsals and hoped he would come back again soon.

As a first time attendee to the New Creations festival, I look forward to reading more about what next years might have in store.

PS:  I came across this as well.  The TSO got great reviews in the New York Times!

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