Archive for Music Matters

How it ends…not with a bang, nor a whimper…

Scientists speculate sometimes that an asteroid impact would be what it would take to throw us all back into the Stone Age. But no one ever imagines that the end of modernity could actually turn out to be something much less dire…

How it turned out was a coronal mass ejection.

With our power grids destroyed, modernity as we knew it came to an abrupt end. Lacking satellite communications, international travel, automated traffic systems, and mobile phones, we could do nothing but gather with our friends around the piano, singing by candlelight.

Instead of the Stone Age, we’d been thrown back into the Biedermeier.

“They all agreed that they could scarcely remember the time when ceaselessly checking their iPhones seemed so important.”

Nu:BC Collective unmasks madness fit for a king

The following is a review written for publication in The Vancouver Observer.

Masque-19-VO

 

“I’M NERVOUS!!!!! If you want to know what is the matter with me I AM NERVOUS!!!”, quoted tenor Will George on his Facebook profile just hours before his title role performance in Eight Songs for a Mad King. Will was justifiably nervous: Eight Songs, based on the real-life madness of King George III, is a tour-de-force treatise of modern vocal techniques­ spanning a mighty range of over four octaves.

It’s not just for the madness I’d come. (Sir) Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs ranks, along with Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring,among the top twentieth-century works of contemporary concert music.

“Who has stolen my key?”

Sadly for UBC-based hosting ensemble Nu:BC Collective (flutist, Paolo Bortolussi; cellist, Eric Wilson; and pianist, Corey Hamm), the first part of the programme was arguably more maddening than the featured work. Like falling dominos, each of the electronic pieces fizzled making nervous geeks out of respectable UBC composers Bob Pritchard and Keith Hamel. While they strained over their laptops, the audience stared expectantly forward at idled musicians who for their part stood helplessly clutching perfectly functioning acoustic instruments. Finally, pianist Corey Hamm rescued the moment with a little Bach-Gounod arpeggiation and the audience filed out for an extra intermission.

“Blue-yellow-green is the world like a chained man’s bruise.”

On our return, the stage was set for the entrance of the king even though Diane Park’s inventive set design, a triumph of economy, looked as if she’d done it on a budget of no more than $75. I have no idea the actual cost but after the performance, Diane said how much she’d enjoyed the challenge of designing Eight Songs  because of how it sits in the nearly uncharted waters between chamber music (“No sets required if you please”) and music theatre (“My dad’s got a barn—let’s put on a show!”).

8Songs-cages

 

The trick in all this is making musicians—who in a strict sense can’t act—be part of the action. To accomplish this, Diane enclosed each of the four front musicians in bird cages and dressed up their formal concert attire with brightly coloured neck scarves and feathers making them look vaguely like late eighteenth century birdmen. There, they could go about their music-making business while doubling for theatrical purposes as sets.

The remainder of Diane’s budget was reserved for Will’s regal purple robe (with genuine thrift store ermine) and of course that extra violin that would later become pivotal to the action. At key junctures in the performance, Will disrobed revealing a little more of the history of the period—most effective was his recoiling horror on discovering the lining of his robe was sewn in with an anti-royalist American flag.

8Songs-costume-fitting

“Sometimes he howled like a dog.”

Singers, unlike musicians, are expected to be able to act and sing and all the rest. For this performance, singer Will George was at his best. After the performance, Will described his preparation for the role: “When I started preparing the piece, I wasn’t sure how I was going to produce all the sounds and extended techniques required. As I started listening to modern recordings and watching YouTube videos, I noticed that almost none of the performers were attempting these techniques, much less the pitches. This took a little pressure off, but I did want to be as faithful to the score as possible.”

Masque 16

During the performance, Will took some opportunity to interact with the audience and particularly with the musicians, but otherwise his actions all seemed to precipitate from his inner mental anguish. Perhaps the blocking was a little jerky but I hardly noticed for the fact that Maxwell Davies’s music is so endlessly interesting. From the opening chords, which disassembled from rhythmic unison into chaos to Corey Hamm’s rapid transitions from harpsichord to piano to play a few baroque flourishes here followed an instant later—and several decades musicological speaking—with corresponding flourishes in Mozartian classical style there. Even when referencing earlier composers, his music never sounded referential. Indeed, it provided us with the context needed to appreciate the unfolding drama.

“Poor fellow, he went mad.”

There’s a long tradition of on-stage musical instrument destruction but they’ve occurred mostly in rock and jazz circles, not so much on the classical concert stage. In fact, Eight Songs may be the only such work. Most audience members last Thursday would likely have known of this scene, so as Will George snatched Mark Ferris’s violin and then smashed it to pieces on the stage right there in front of us, there was an air of quiet that seemed downright pornographic. This sort of behaviour is to chamber music what CGI is to the movies—both for titillation and expense.

Sadly, there was only one performance of Eight Songs but, hey, if you’ve got an old violin you’d like to sacrifice, Nu:BC and company might be willing to mount it again.

Smash-violin

Masque

Nu:BC Collective’s performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King is part of a series of new music concert continuing throughout April. I can’t say for sure if any violins will meet their end, but the line up is otherwise very promising.

Upcoming in the Masque series:

  • Apr 17 & 19 – Turning Point Ensemble – featuring works by Benjamin Britten, jazz artist Tony Wilson, Bradshaw Pack, and arrangements of medieval and renaissance music by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.
  • Apr 24 & 25 – musica intima – featuring music befitting a Venetian Carnival – masks, theatrics, and salon-style seating, and vocal works by Adriano Banchieri, Orazio Vecchi, Giovani Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.

Vancouver Chamber Choir explores spring’s veiled splendours

The following is a review I wrote for The Vancouver Observer.

 

Vancouver Chamber Choir - Orpheum, 2015

When it comes to springtime, redemption is a less marketable commodity than, say, bunnies and chocolate eggs, so on a blossom-filled Good Friday, I was surprised to see that the promise of crucifixion, mortal sacrifice, and death was enough to pack the Orpheum with an audience enthusiastic to try a bout of the Vancouver Chamber Choir’s darker fare.

After the opening work, VCC Conductor Jon Washburn revealed his enthusiasm, “Isn’t it a gem?” he said. The gem, Heinrich Schütz’s Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (The Seven [Last] Words of Christ) was indeed a gem—hidden in a jewel box, shrouded in velvet, and encased in solid seventeenth century solid German cabinetry. I revelled how, with clockwork precision, it unveiled its beauty layer by layer.

Vancouver Chamber Choir

Photo courtesy Vancouver Chamber Choir

Next up was Schütz’s Italian contemporary, Giacomo Carissimi, who took us back much further to the early days of the Old Testament. Maestro Washburn told us the tale concerning the tragedy of Jephthah, an Israelite general who made a vow that if God would deliver them from their enemy, the Ammonites, Jephthah would offer up the first who greeted him on his return as “a burnt offering”. Tragically, that turned out to be his beloved daughter, Filia. Carman J. Price, tenor, sang Jephte and Catherine Laub, soprano, captured Filia’s fall from girlish innocence to condemned outcast in a way that to me felt as contemporary and horrific as anything on the evening news. Although her role was relatively small, Fabiana Katz, alto (historicus) also picked up on the horror in a way that made my ears snap to attention.

Even though the Requiem is sung in Latin (duh, it’s a requiem), there is something so innately French and nineteenth century about Fauré’s treatment of it. Fauré’s Requiem seems synonymous with Gustave Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris par temps de pluie, the way it portrays everyday life (and death) as a gentle thing.

"Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day - Google Art Project" by Gustave

Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Chicago Museum of Art

Fauré is masterful in his reduced orchestra, replacing violins with the throatier violas, decimating the woodwind section but for a couple of bassoons, and retaining only an echo of brass (2 horns, 2 trumpets) enough for one or two volleys, but more in the sense of Haydn and Mozart than the resources his contemporaries had at their disposal.

While the performance was fine and reverent and all, it didn’t really congeal until soprano Siri Oleson captured our attention with Fauré’s indescribably gentle Pie Jesu. With that, I think many audience members succumbed to very personal reflections and, in some cases, even tears.

For the Fauré, the Vancouver Chamber Choir was joined by the Pacifica Singers and the Vancouver Youth Choirand their inclusion added much to an already full programme. Now we see all the faces of Vancouver— many cultures young and old come together­—singing.

If you missed this concert, springtime is full of singing:

  • 24 April, the Vancouver Chamber Choir presents Youth & Music 2015 – New Choral Creators at Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale
  • 1 May to May 3, The Vancouver Youth Choir participates in Canadian Cantando Music Festival up at Whistler.
  • Also, for those of you whose interest in choral music goes beyond mere listening, the Vancouver Chamber Choir is holding auditions for professional-level singers on April 25 and May 23. Contact Grant for an appointment at grantwutzke@live.com

My Six Keys to Achieving Excellence

I just read Tony Schwartz’s recent blog on the Harvard Business Review describing the six keys to achieving excellence. I enjoyed it and was inspired. Then, I thought how my music training, apart from providing a lifetime of enjoyment playing music, has given me a first-hand experience achieving excellence. Sometimes, I forget that not all people have had that excellence, so they don’t know why things are tough or don’t they don’t get the results they want.

I’ve taken Mr. Schwartz’s six points and applied them to my experience in music to draw some inspiration in other areas of my life where I feel, er, less accomplished:

  1. Pursue what you love. This is a no brainer as nobody in their right mind would pursue music for any reason other than he or she loves it. A couple of years ago when I started questioning the wisdom of leaving a promising career as an orchestral musician for technical writing (what?), I had an epiphany that has helped me rejig my career back into something I can say I love.
    I was using my head to make big decisions (what shall to do with my life?) and my heart to make small ones (what should I have for lunch today?). I should have been doing the exact opposite.
    I realized I’d been directing my life to things that were rational and, um, boring instead of inspiring. On a daily basis, I was being capricious in a way that was essentially undermining my plans. I needed to start doing the exact reverse: plan my life from my heart and my daily affairs from my head. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” — “Practice!”
  2. Do the hardest work first. In music, the fastest way to do something is slowly. Orchestral musicians meticulously dissect a passage of music until they can play it with ease. Getting to the ease part can take a long time and a lot of patience, but things don’t necessarily come easy—even in music.
  3. Practice intensely, I think people imagine that playing music is relaxing. Well, it is but only after conquering the Himalayan peaks of practice. I don’t know whether musicians practice because they love music or they love music because they practice so much. I think I practiced my way into loving music. It became all consuming in the best possible way. Don’t do things by half measure.
  4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. There is nothing so humbling as bearing your soul before a more accomplished musician. I’ve always been suspicious of the self-taught musician. How can anyone grow surrounded only by there own opinions and habits? There’s no better way to acquire new abilities and to go beyond what you thought yourself capable of than by seeking out an expert to help you reach your goals.
  5. Take regular renewal breaks.When I studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts, we would play chamber music in the morning and then go skiing in the afternoon. By the next day we were indeed renewed. Besides, when you’re doing what you love (or loving what you do), you’re integrating new information all the time—even when you’re asleep.
  6. Ritualize practice. As a musician, I really liked playing scales. It was like a morning ritual. I had the most brutally difficult study book I’d found somewhere. It was called, “Vade Mecum” which I think means “Take along companion” and it was actually written for flute. It included every possible scale and arpeggio configuration in every register. Two hours of that and I felt like I could wrestle a bear!

Balkan Music: Re-Thinking Dissonance

This article was published in July on the Vancouver Observer website. In it, I explore the idea as dissonance as valuable in its own right (not all dissonances have to be resolved) through the medium of the rich and exotic world of Balkan music. Below, I’ve included a short excerpt, all the images, and a link to the complete article.

“In her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, author and cultural historian Barbara Ehrenreich contrasts the “epidemic of melancholia” that pervades much of the modern world with the “phenomenon of communal, shared ecstatic ritual” that existed in our own culture even until the 17th century.

“Western tonal music is based on the dichotomy of dissonance and consonance where unstable dissonances seek their resolutions to consonant sonorities”, states Kalin Kirilov, the camp’s expert on Bulgarian harmony. “If you compare music to energy”, he continues, “the dissonances carry a more powerful charge in comparison to the consonances.”

Read the full article on the VO site. It’s been renamed The Balkan Music and Dance Workshops: re-thinking dissonance originally published 29 July, 2011.

Pedal power and the builders of musical instruments in Vancouver

Last December, I developed an interest in Vancouver’s hidden music makers—the builders of musical instruments. I wrote a double-barrelled story about natural fibre horn maker, David Gowman, and harpsichord maker, Craig Tomlinson.  Now, let me tell you about the Furnaphone, and why “anything’s a potential instrument.”

Drummer Dan keeps his carbon footprint small getting to his next gig.

Drummer Dan keeps his carbon footprint small getting to his next gig.

With Bike to Work Week, Velopoloosa, and the In the House Festival all converging this weekend, the stage is set to highlight another fascinating musical instrument maker, Daniel Lunn.

Daniel is making a name for himself as a drummer (and guitarist) around town, but for someone who plays an instrument that is legendary for its lack of portability, it’s his mode of transportation that caught my attention—by bicycle.

» Read more..

Get your Brit on – at VanDusen Gardens

I was initially drawn to VanDusen Gardens this rainy Victoria Day week-end through a friend, and fellow musician. He posted a concert on Facebook of the Little Mountain Brass Band‘s forthcoming performance at Van Dusen Gardens, although the main event was the British Classic Car Show. Hosted by Western Driver, the car shows draws classic auto enthusiasts and gawkers of many stripes from around Vancouver, BC, and several US states to the south.

For $14, I got to hear a little bit of sweet band music and see more Morgans, Triumphs, Minis, Metropolitains, Bentleys, Rovers, and MGs as well as more brollys than I may ever need to see again. In fact, with the re-appearance of the rains, it gave me an added sense of Britishness to stiff-upper-lip it with the tweed set, hobnobbing with those who’d prefer to debate shades of hunter green than, say, head to the beach.

More pictures on Vancouver Observer site.

Music Review: Ederlezi strikes gypsy heart in Strathcona

I was at a Balkan music festival and was compelled to write a review (compelled and too stoked to sleep). Below is an excerpt from the review posted on the Vancouver Observer site.

Orkestar Slivovica

Orkestar Slivovica at the Russian Hall

Tonight, I attended part one of the two-part concert week-end known as Ederlezi – Balkan Brass Festival (6-7 May at the Russian Hall). Billed as a “Roma Spring holiday”, it features no fewer than three Balkan-style brass bands: Orkestar Zirkonium from Seattle, Brass Menazeri from San Francisco, and our own Orkestar Slivovica. There were also two lovely belly dance troupes, (and assorted vendors of Balkan eats and drinks), but the stars of the show are the brass bands.

The evening began with Orkestar Slivovica, which I thought was playing a little more up tempo than the last time I heard them at the Ukrainian Hall. Perhaps, they were intimidated by the quicker and sharper performances of their American counterparts. Gradually, they eased into their signature pelvic back beat and things began to heat up. That’s the thing about this music: if you’re not willing to let go with the hips, you’re not going to enjoy it. But they let go, and so did we—especially as the Šljivovica (Balkan plum brandy) started flowing.