Looking at this year’s series, and having attended the first of the concerts, on Saturday evening (Mar. 3), I would be so bold as to describe Oundjian as a man with broad, “middle-of-the-road” tastes in new music. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way; I’m simply saying that he avoids some of the “extreme” regions of the new music world. Also, I suspect he doesn’t care much for the tonality vs. atonality battles of the 20th century. As well, judging from Saturday’s concert, he has a keen eye for scores that are orchestrally well-crafted and effective.
Certainly, orchestral effectiveness is what Vivian Fung’s Dust Devils is all about. This young Canadian composer, who is much fêted in new-musicky venues, clearly has a flare for orchestration, and Dust Devils was a colourful swirl of mysterious, undulating sound, with contrasting moments of repose. Yet in my opinion, however well done, this sort of thing only goes so far: works that are “orchestrations in search of a composition,” so to speak, tend to be ephemeral, unanchored to any concrete musical ideas. Dust Devils is such a work.
Larry Alan Smith is an American composer who was unknown to me before this concert. A little online research revealed that he’s a professor at the University of Hartford, and is also Peter Oundjian’s brother-in-law.
His Symphony No. 4 was a marked departure from Dust Devils, in several ways. Where Fung’s musical ideas were fluid and amorphous, Smith’s were more substantial; however, where Fung created a magical realm of otherworldly poetry, Smith’s sound-world tended to be earthbound and prosaic. Smith’s academic inclinations were much on display in this four-movement work of lean proportions, as he incorporated a 12-tone row into the piece, often in a blunt, “notey” kind of way. This symphony was not atonal – at least, not in the Schoenbergian sense of the word. On the contrary, it wandered all over the map in its tonal inclinations. There was some charm to the second movement, with its jig-like rhythm, and Smith did come up with a gratifyingly brassy finale to the fourth movement. But sadly, swathes of Smith’s Symphony No. 4 were lacklustre and unremarkable.
Fortunately, the best was yet to come. Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason conducted his own Processions piano concerto (in its North American premiere), with fellow Icelander Víkingur Ólaffson as the soloist. This work combined the best qualities of the earlier pieces on the program: subtle colouration plus solid material – plus an intensity and depth of feeling that had not yet been heard on this program. I would describe Bjarnason as a romantic – yet his is not the romanticism of a nostalgic “contemporary” composer whose music sounds like he wishes he lived a century ago. On the contrary, what makes Bjarnason’s style so arresting is the ways he brings freshness and sense or renewal to his romantic tendencies.
In Ólaffson’s skilled and dedicated hands, the first movement dramatically contrasted passages of beautiful delicacy with robust outbursts of pianistic power. But it was the second movement that was most impressive, with its fascinatingly obscure rustlings and murmurations. The tuned gongs in the percussion section were a nice touch, too, giving the movement a Far Eastern, “exotic,” touch. The third and final movement, an extended ostinato with an asymmetrical two-plus-three rhythmic pulse, gradually built up to a dire, ominous, musical force. All considered, Processions struck me as a kind of successor – and an entirely worthy one – to the piano concertos of Sergei Prokofiev.
I note with some disappointment that the TSO won’t be continuing its New Creations programming next year. Like most contemporary music series, it has, over its 14 years, showcased a wide variety of works – ranging from brilliant musical revelations to works that were merely interesting, to compositions that I would gladly “un-hear,” if only I could. But always, the concerts were presented with integrity and full-on professional commitment by Oundjian and the TSO. It is too much to hope that the next music director of the TSO – whoever that turns out to be – might show an equally strong commitment to new music?
© Colin Eatock 2018