The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 2014 New Music Festival's opening program bolted out of the gate with tornado force before ending on gentle wings of prayer.
The 23rd annual celebration of contemporary music kicked off Saturday night with Hilliard: Zappa to P§rt offering an early taste of the eclectic week to come. The first of seven nightly concerts that run through next Friday, showcased the critically acclaimed Hilliard Ensemble, with the concert led by WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate.
Any opportunity to hear the legendary British male vocal quartet is an event in itself. Having the singers performing not once, but twice during the NMF, subsumed within their current farewell tour, is a remarkable coup for the WSO. Now marking its 40th anniversary, the world-renowned ensemble retires this December after its illustrious 40 years of music-making.
Comprised of David James (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrold (tenor) and Gordon Jones (baritone), the vocal group spun magic during Estonian composer Arvo P§rt's Litany, composed in 1994. Their pure, seamless voices -- and particularly James' otherworldly countertenor -- intoned the ancient prayers of St. John Chrysostum, with the Winnipeg Singers (Yuri Klaz, artistic director) providing an antiphonal effect. The artfully crafted, 23-minute work steadily grows in cumulative power until its climax, underscored by stirring brass and beating timpani. As expected, the crowd of 1,401 leapt to their feet in a rousing standing ovation -- many were expected back Sunday night for the ensemble's concert recital, including New York's Jim Jarmusch and Phil Kline's opera Tesla in New York.
Zappa's G-Spot Tornado got the party going with the driving energy of a hurricane. Mickelthwate held a taut rein on the WSO players seen counting like mad throughout the rhythmically intense piece. A few more rehearsals would have fully cemented this work.
One of this city's up-and-comers is soprano Sarah Kirsch, who always imbues her performances with a sense of discovery. The charismatic singer brought expressive meaning to Boulez's Le Soleil des eaux (The Sun of the Waters), easily handling its treacherous, dissonant vocal line barely supported by sparse orchestration.
WSO associate concertmaster Karl Stobbe tossed off Canadian composer Owen Pallett's Violin Concerto with fierce concentration, including its nail-biting moto perpetuo sections alternating with introspective, pensive reflection.
Radiohead lead guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood's 48 Responses to Polymorphia wound up as the night's sleeper hit. Composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's Polymorphia, the abstract work unfolds as heaving, groaning waves of sound emanating from the orchestra as though from a living organism. Particularly effective were the improvised sections cued by Mickelthwate fluidly waving his arm across the orchestra like a musical sorcerer, as well as the work's ear-popping finale with the players beating and stroking their stringed instruments with curved wooden rattles.
The NMF continues tonight with Ritual Mass at the Pantages Playhouse, 7:30 p.m.