Last night, we went to the second in a series of three concerts by the Vancouver Symphony at the Roundhouse, a Community Center in Yaletown. It’s an appealing venue, because it’s unpretentious, and clearly busy doing what community centers do; hosting basketball, ping-pong, hockey and other sports, providing classes for arts, crafts and learning an instrument, etc.
For these concerts, they’ve been using one or more of the black-box theatres (with bleachers) for chamber music up to chamber orchestra concerts. If someone was worried that classical music concerts were boring or stuffy, these concerts are an antidote for that perception. While just on the edge of being ‘gimmicky’, both of the concerts so far have had lots of extra-musical attractions. The first one, back in January, included Voices from the Gallery by Stephen Paulus, with dramatic readings by an actress who spoke for various works of art (projected above). We got to hear what perhaps Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Christina from Wyeth’s Christina’s World, the dour looking farmer from Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and even the Mona Lisa might have to say for themselves with some colouristic, if a little overwhelmed music by Paulus.
Last night’s concert was similarly full of non-musical elements. It was actually a Dance presentation as well, with the VSO collaborating with the Kokoro Dance Company. The most interesting part of this combination was perhaps its logistics: the live musicians performed in one room (again, black box with bleachers), while the dancers performed in another (same setup). If you chose to sit in the room with the dancers, the music was piped in. If you chose to be in the room with the orchestra (as we did), the dance was projected on a large screen above, as seen by 3 cameras, sometimes superimposing different views. For one of the works, In Memory by Joan Tower (a poignant and at times restless tribute to a friend who had died as well as a reaction to the attacks of 9/11), the dancers and musicians switched rooms. I found the dance element somewhat interesting, but much of it seemed extra icing on a cake that didn’t need it, at least for me. Pam felt differently, and was more drawn to the extra visual elements. I suspect that her opinion was closer to the other audience members.
For me though, the highlight of the concert was the last piece on the program, a piece called Monday and Tuesday by Michael Torke. I knew Michael as a fellow student back in the 80s at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. It was a time in my life when I was pretty depressed (I later learned that I was probably suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, as Rochester is one of the darkest cities in North America), so I don’t remember much from those years. He was a bright spot amongst the composers back then, and I even went so far as to tell him after I heard his ground-breaking Vanada (a chamber piece based on Nabokov’s Lolita for electronic keyboards, winds and percussion) and that I thought he was ‘the future’. He went on to work as a successful composer with relatively little academic work (something that is almost unheard of in Classical Music circles). He wrote several commissions for ballet music, two oratorios, orchestral and chamber works, and a few operas. He was first Associate Composer with the Royal Scottish Orchestra in 1998 and has since started his own record label, Ecstatic Records, which is carried by the iTunes music store. Monday and Tuesday was written back in 1992, and had its first performance that year in London with the London Sinfonietta. It reminds me somewhat of the music he was writing when we were students together, and if anything, sounds even more strongly influenced by Steve Reich, who we were both fascinated with at the time.
Actually, I do remember Michael handing me the earphones in his dorm room to hear Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint and me grinning like an idiot as I heard it for the first time. I also remember him saying ‘It’s like heaven would sound like, isn’t it?’ I also can recall the two of us trying to explain to his clarinetist girlfriend why a particular harmonic progression in the slow movement of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata thrilled both of us.
I’d like to hear what he’s writing these days, because I found many of his orchestral works of the late 80’s and mid 90’s (Bright Blue Music, Javelin for the 1996 Olympics) bland and disappointing. He’s been busy in the intervening years, and strangely enough, the last time I heard his music played live was back in school; It’s taken over 13 years and a move to a different country for me to hear a concert with a piece by Michael Torke on it again.