An enlightening journey

Last Saturday, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra kicked off their 19th annual New Music Festival. The opening night celebrated the 2010 International Polar Year, and there was certainly an arctic aura in the concert hall. The atmosphere was dim, with blue lighting and artic sounds in the background.

Soon the striking sounds of throat-singing and drum dancing were in the air from the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Performers at the pre-concert show. The arctic theme was furthered in an opening presentation from the U of M’s Dr. David Barber. In harmony with this year being the fourth International Polar Year, he educated the audience about the earth and the warming north. We certainly are increasingly in an “age of climate change awareness.”

Steven Stucky’s “Second Concerto for Orchestra,” a piece originally commissioned for a new Walt Disney concert hall, was the first piece performed. The composition explored nearly every instrumental colour combination possible, and was quite resonant. On the flip side, it was very thick, seemingly aimless and difficult to follow. It was apparently full of musical quotes and inside jokes, but the audience didn’t seem to get them.

Next was the premiere of “Popule Meus,” by John Tavener. Involving only the string section, a solo cello player and a timpanist, the piece was much more intimate than the last. Before the music, Tavener explained how the cello represented Christ, and the timpani “a rejecting mob.” “Popule Meus” proved a very emotional experience. Yuri Hooker treated the cello line so serenely that the juxtaposition with the violent timpani was that much more effective. One could always sense exactly when the inevitable timpani would hammer after the cello’s speaking, but waves of goose bumps were still unavoidable. After the final measures of quiet cello, there were definitely some moist eyes in the audience.

Also premiered were two arctic-themed pieces by Canadian composers. Derek Charke’s “Falling From Cloudless Skies” was an enjoyable blend of electronics and orchestra. While the musicians played, Charke focused on his laptop, carefully executing more than 200 recorded sounds.
The piece began with synthesized sounds and a mild pulse. Suddenly, it became chaotic as the audience was assaulted with full force chaos of the orchestra. There was a surprise when a recorded voice reported that a six-pound chunk of ice fell from the sky and that this and other extreme atmospheric events may be associated with climate change. The strings began undulating and the music took on a movie soundtrack quality. By the end of the piece, the orchestra sound had thinned out and the electronics had more prominently returned. It had an open feeling — perhaps the sky’s relief after letting loose its ice chunks.

The night ended with a multi-sensory re-creation of composer Vincent Ho’s journey in the arctic. First there were only recorded arctic sounds: wind, water, ice . . . then heads turned as the Inuit choir on the second balcony began singing and drumming. After those were done, the orchestra entered with shivering strings. The rest of the five-movement piece continued in such a realistic and accessible way that one felt as though they too had gone on an arctic vacation. There was a slide show of arctic scenes throughout and numerous special instrumental effects to ensure perfect impressions. For example, the fourth movement had the string basses sliding up and down, percussionists swinging large tubes, and all the musicians whistling — altogether creating the eerie sounds of wind in the night. The piece ended by unraveling back to how it began — the Inuit choir and a fading drum. No surprise, there was a standing ovation.

The WSO’s New Music Festival continues this week until Feb. 12. Check out the website for detailed information: