Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 2 (Winter 2001-2002)

Sincere Dedication to Contemporary Music at Massey Hall's NuMu Festival, Toronto, November 2001

With all contemporary music, reactions vary from loathing to adoration. What is particular to contemporary music is that the whole gamut of reaction occurs with regard to a single work, from one person to the next. Festivals of new music are essential phenomena providing a venue for performance and a chance for exposure and interaction in still a small group of modern music aficionados. I attended every concert of the NuMu festival from November 18th to 24th at Massey Hall, and will provide a brief overview of selected performances.

Soundstreams, November 18th, the opening concert, presented the exceptional Danish Ars Nova choir with evocative compositions by Danish composers Per Norgard and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Estonian composer Arvo Part. Fundamentally tonally based works, these pieces do not demand the insistence of atonality in order to validate their inclusion in a contemporary music festival. The intrinsic beauty of Norgard's “Abendlied” from his Zwei Wolfli Lieder (1979-80) and Winter Hymn (1976 -arr. 1984) and Part's Magnificat (1991) were intelligently juxtaposed with the simplicity of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Statements (1969) and humour of Norgard's Wie ein Kind (1980), which provided the listener moments of release with interesting applications of voice, vocables, and nonsense verse. The Elmer Iseler Singers joined Ars Nova for a less than satisfying performance of Gilles Tremblay's Les Vepres de la Vierge (1986). The most interesting sections of this work were the uses of plainchant and gongs, which were interspersed with more experimental vocal writing. However, the work was too long and not well structured within meta-structural sections.

The Penderecki String Quartet, performing November 19th, again proved their undeniable mastery of contemporary music. Their performances were dynamic and intense, always with the musical integrity of the work as their goal. The performances of the string quartets of both Piotr Grella-Mozejko's Strumienie snu (1995) and Gilles Tremblay's Croissant (2001) were exceptional, but it is disappointing that these works were overtly self-conscious, erring on the side of pomposity. Raymond Luedeke's Ceremonial Dances (1999) for piano quintet was the most convincing work on the program, providing evocative glimpses into poet Pablo Neruda's group of poems “Toro”. Chris Paul Harman's Amerika (2001) was the winner of the 2001 Jules Leger Prize for New Chamber Music and it was made evident why this intelligent work of interwoven fragments and snippets of sensuality was selected.

On November 20, the Hannaford Street Silver Band and Amici provided an evening of enjoyable, light music. The one disappointment of the November 20th concert was Henry Kucharzyk's Music of Veena, which joined Amici with Veena performer Lakshmi Ranganathan. This work was supposed to portray the shared experience of playing music regardless of background; instead, it portrayed awkwardness in combining written and improvised techniques. Amici seemed out of their element, and were not fully aware of the subtle cues and timing of Lakshmi's art. R. Murray Schafer's Twilight for solo trumpet was brilliantly performer by Stuart Laughton, who was equally masterful three nights later with his unpretentious performance of R. Murray Schafer's The Falcon's Trumpet (1995). This work incorporated off-stage and auditorium ensembles, which brought to life the acoustic majesty of the outdoors.

Of the presentation of new concertos on November 22, Shauna Rolston's performance of Christos Hatzis's Confessional for Cello and Orchestra (2001) was exceptional. Her intensity was equaled by this emotive journey. Based on the Greek Orthodox chant “Ton Nymphona Sou Vlepo”, this work carefully and effectively metamorphoses the chant through juxtapositions and derivations which culminate in a very personal and touching statement at the completion of the work. There was a wealth of reverence to the music of the twentieth century throughout the entire festival, but this regard was overtly manifested on the night of the 22nd. Raymond Ludeke's Concerto for Double Bass (1997) is based on Shostakovich's canonical Cello Concerto no.1 Op.107. The first movement of the bass concerto is a re-writing of the first movement of Shostakovich's concerto, which does more than pay homage in its borrowing of music ideas, texture and structure. Similarly, the world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's effective Concerto Grosso for three cellos (2001) was a striking work that embraced the tonal world of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with the lush abandon of a mature composer embracing his expressive emancipation.

This year's NuMuFest was an excellent festival proving that there is a sincere dedication to new music in Toronto. As a whole, the performers were artistic and genuine, communicating this music fittingly. Watch for the many concerts of contemporary music offered in 2002, as well as the University of Toronto's New Music Festival in Walter Hall from February 8th to 10th.

-Jessica Agrell-Smith

Jessica Agrell-Smith is a Masters student in musicology at the University of Toronto.