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Branca's daring symphony challenges audience

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WINNIPEG Symphony Orchestra's 2014 New Music Festival Beyond made good on its promise to push music to the limit, with one of its most thought-provoking concerts in recent years.

Wednesday night's program, Unholy Noise, led by Alexander Mickelthwate, featured four works by three composers -- two of whom could not be more different.


NMF: Unholy Noise

  • Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
  • Centennial Concert Hall
  • Wednesday, Jan. 29
  • Attendance: 635
  • Four stars out of five

When the conductor provides what could only be described as a warning while introducing a work, you know you're in for an adventure. Mickelthwate advised the crowd of 635 that absolutely "nothing is going to happen" during the North American première of American composer Glenn Branca's Symphony No. 11 (1998). He was right -- mostly.

The 40-minute work is a meandering, rootless symphonic beast without any clear form, structure, dynamic contrast, harmonic design or forward thrust. By dividing the musicians into three sub-groups, Branca creates "interpenetrating fields," la Charles Ives, where walls of indistinguishable sounds meld and lurch.

This might seem one of those wildly indulgent pieces where you secretly count off the minutes until the final measure -- or simply pack up and leave, as some did that night.

Many audience members appeared dazed, bewildered, numbed or just plain bored.

Others giggled with nerves, while still others leaned forward in utter engagement.

However, by rocking the status quo, Branca pushes his listeners -- hard -- to examine their own expectations and deep response to music and, by extension, art.

Not much happening onstage? Actually, a lot went on during this surprisingly daring, conceptual piece that was awarded a standing ovation. Kudos to Mickelthwate and his musicians for their conviction and stamina in pulling it off.

The program also featured the world première of Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson's Eighteen Hundred and Seventy-Five, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the arrival of Icelandic settlers in Manitoba, and the birth of the province's Icelandic Festival.

New Music Festival fans will remember hearing the Reykjavik-based composer's Dreamland during the 2012 festival. His latest work, co-commissioned by the Icelandic Festival and Winnipeg's consul general of Iceland, Hj°lmar Hannesson, is similarly epic in scale, as a haunting tribute to the settlers from his homeland.

Sigurðsson's atmospheric, textural score creates a sense of place, with muted trumpets evoking foghorns and shimmering, closely woven strings depicting the barren landscape. Horn players blowing air through their instruments effectively suggested windstorms across sea ice.

The one-movement piece's only weakness proved to be its barely audible live electronics, generated by the composer. Still, it's one you'd like to hear again; it rings with organic truth deriving from ancestral bonds between composer and content. It also received a standing ovation.

Frank Zappa's The Perfect Stranger, once conducted by Pierre Boulez on the American maverick's 1984 album of the same name, opened the program.

Another Branca work, the Canadian première of Free Form, recalled the minimalism of trailblazing pioneer composers John Adams and Steve Reich.

The NMF has naturally evolved throughout its 23-year history. This program -- and especially Branca's piece -- recalled the festival's glory days, when greater artistic risks were taken, and audiences were pushed beyond their own expectations of what art is, and can be.

The NMF wraps up tonight with Richter & Silvestrov: Beyond at the Centennial Concert Hall, 8 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2014 D3


Updated on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 8:10 AM CST: Corrects spelling of Sigurðsson

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