Winnipeg's biggest musical happening of the season kicked off Monday
night, much to the delight of new-music junkies who flock downtown each year for their annual fix.
As an eagerly anticipated event, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival celebrates contemporary music with a week's worth of nightly concerts. This year, the 22-year-old festival also welcomes legendary American composer Steve Reich as its "distinguished guest composer," who arrives in the city mid-week. Seven of his iconic works will be performed this Wednesday through Saturday.
The opening gala featured the internationally acclaimed Elmer Iseler Singers, led by Lydia Adams, marking their first appearance at the NMF.
The evening's showpiece was Peter-Anthony Togni's Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah) composed in 2007 specifically for the Toronto-based choral ensemble, as well as bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly.
Described by the composer (in attendance) as "a concerto for bass clarinet and choir," Reilly's masterful performance saw his instrument growling, grunting, wailing and soaring up to the heavens reflecting the anguished prayers of Jeremiah. Not since Canadian clarinettist Lori Freedman burned up the NMF stage a few years back in John Corigliano's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra have we seen such conviction.
The a cappella choral ensemble interpolated their own commentary sung in Latin as a Greek chorus with its wall of sound rising and falling in tandem. The five-part, solemn work proved most effective with its juxtapositions of Reilly's jazzy improvised sections against the 20-voice chorus' intensifying, intoned chant. Another highlight was Reilly's riveting cadenza-like solo passages. Having an English translation available for this work, as with all other works on the program, would have enhanced the listening experience.
The late Canadian composer -- and Winnipeg's own Harry Freedman's Voices is a stunning display of what the human voice is capable of. With the work sung as a combination of vocalized 'ahs' and nonsense syllables, Adams artfully led the singers through impeccably blended phrases of vocal slides, improvised sections and swoops of sound that flowed seamlessly like a river. The evocative piece with all its treacherous tunings and entries proved no match for this flawless choir.
The program also featured Timothy Corlis' (in attendance) Silent Dawn, inspired by the composer's search for "stillness, hope, and solace amidst insanity." Despite some difficulty discerning the text, the one-movement piece nevertheless evoked an atmosphere of contemplation, climaxing on "be still my soul" before subsiding into an unresolved close.
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's Tag Des Jahrs (Day of the Year) composed in four movements for choir and electronics depicts the seasons of the year. Saariaho writes with a sensitive ear for sonic texture, especially effective during the suspenseful droning underscore in Der Winter. However, the more rhythmically active Der Sommer with its repeated phrases showed the greatest integration of voices with the processed whistles and rasps -- and consequently the most satisfying movement overall.
The NMF continues tonight at 7:30 pm, Centennial Concert Hall.