Headbanging at the symphony

WSO and American prog-metal band join forces to deliver new flavour at music festival


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Two concerts in the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival’s series of seven nightly shows this week proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, contemporary music not only possesses the power to soothe the savage breast, but is also, well, a savage beast waiting to be unleashed in all its visceral power and might.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/02/2019 (1577 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Two concerts in the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival’s series of seven nightly shows this week proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, contemporary music not only possesses the power to soothe the savage breast, but is also, well, a savage beast waiting to be unleashed in all its visceral power and might.

Wednesday night’s program, led by Daniel Raiskin, ostensibly became a white-knuckle thrill ride on a runaway roller-coaster as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) whipsawed through five works, including the world première of composer-in-residence and WNMF co-curator Harry Stafylakis’s Weighted.

Guised as a concerto, his orchestral “enhancements” of three selections from progressive metal trio Animals as Leaders’ (guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka) discography also marked the group’s symphonic debut in the spirit of Metallica’s S & M 1999 live recording with the San Francisco Symphony.

Javier Reyes (from left), Tosin Abasi and drummer Matt Garstka of Washington D.C. prog outfit Animals as Leaders made their symphonic debut Wednesday with the WSO. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Several technical issues did not mar this fascinating work that fundamentally pitches the centuries-old, kinder, gentler European symphonic genre into one big musical stew pot with North American headbanging metal. While arguably not everyone’s cup of tea, bravo to Stafylakis, a self-professed metalhead with equal footing in the classical world, for writing such an emboldened work jet-fuelled by that all-elusive holy grail of art-making: integrity.

(The pairing has been noticed by some metal-focused websites and some footage from the night has been released online here.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Canadian première of Peteris Vasks’s ethereal Lonely Angel (Meditation) inspired by his vision of “an angel looking over the world” showcased the impeccable artistry of WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig that has not faltered during her 31 years in her position — including all 28 new music fests. The soloist immediately drew the listener into her contemplative sound world with her deeply felt performance, every evocative phrase performed against the string orchestra instilling hushed reverence into her world-weary landscape.

The Canadian première of Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof featured the night’s second soloist, principal timpanist Mike Kemp, who nailed this exhilarating work while showing us the expressive beauty of his noble kettledrums, which also provided the eye-popping sight of the orchestra backbencher positioned in front of his compatriots.

Another work among the most enthralling heard on this stage all year long proved to be Vivian Fung’s A Child’s Dream of Toys, which bolted out of the gate with all the high-flying energy of a three-year-old — in fact, the piece was inspired by the Edmonton-born composer’s own son. Kudos to Raiskin for holding all the explosive pieces together in this wild quilt of complex rhythms and constantly shifting timbres, as well as the fearless players for tackling its nail-biting challenges head-on.

Conductor Daniel Raiskin led the WSO on a white-knuckle thrill ride while playing with prog-metal outfit Animals as Leaders. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Strangely, Vasks’s Dona Nobis Pacem, featuring the Winnipeg Singers, is one of those serene works that should stir the soul. However, this performance felt under-rehearsed, including the tenors and basses who tiptoed rather than diving headfirst into the music’s rising tide that did not fully resonate.

Thursday night’s program featured the Winnipeg debut of Grammy award-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth. The group treated the crowd to six a cappella works, including world premières by Stafylakis and Winnipeg’s Andrew Balfour.

The program opened with Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices. It also provided the first taste of the group’s dazzling artistry, including their compendium of extended vocal techniques that include sounds both guttural and sublime, as they performed its four visceral movements inspired by a Baroque dance suite.

It proved fascinating to hear Stafylakis establish a lingua franca with a cappella choral music — the furthest thing away from heavy metal — with his world première of EIDOS, Book I, displaying the same tightly wound energy and muscular writing as with his bold orchestral works.

A few too many ideas obfuscated the clarity of this piece that nonetheless introduced an even greater sonic palette of monastic drones, trills and belching, bestial effects courtesy of the bass singers.

Timpanist Mike Kemp perfectly nailed the Canadian première of Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Balfour’s Asibikaashi: Spider Women/Healer of Dreams included effective antiphonal effects and more linear writing that left room to breathe before its final bursting, exultant chorus so ideally suited to Roomful of Teeth.

Singers are trained to “sing on the vowels,” and thus Judd Greenstein’s playful A E I O U not only weaves a tapestry of yodels, throat singing and straight-tone singing, but also slyly pays homage to the art of singing itself.

The program also included William Brittelle’s High Done No Why To and Brad Wells’s Render, a simple, soaring pentatonic “palette cleanser” that provided welcomed contrast.


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Daniel Raiskin led his players through WNMF co-curator Harry Stafylakis’s metal-oriented Weighted. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2019 8:45 AM CST: Vivian Fung’s A Child’s Dream of Toys was inspired by her son.

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