The 2021 Winnipeg New Music Festival capped its milestone 30th anniversary year not with a bang but a deeply reflective journey of contemplation, offering an eclectic program titled In Disquieting Times befitting these pandemic-soaked, troubled times.
Friday night’s online concert — led by Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Raiskin, who also serves as WNMF artistic director and co-curates the annual event with WSO composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis — featured six highly intimate chamber works as the streamlined, three-show festival that launched last weekend paid final homage to its past, present and future.
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2021 Winnipeg New Music Festival
“In Disquieting Times”
Friday, January 29th
Centennial Concert Hall via Livestream
Three and a half stars out of five
An early program highlight became Manitoba-born composer Jocelyn Morlock’s Disquiet inspired by one of her musical icons, Shostakovich. The now Vancouver-based Morlock continues to seduce listeners with her unique sound world rife with tension and delicate timbres – in this case, added percussion to the string ensemble including ghostly crotales. Her edgy, tightly wound piece ultimately splinters into shards of dissonance.
We also heard another local hero, Winnipeg’s Andrew Balfour. His Kiwetin-acahkos: Fanfare for the Peoples of the North, co-commissioned in 2017 by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra commemorating Canada 150, celebrates the country’s expansive North while paying special tribute to the Indigenous perspective of the sky. Of Cree heritage, Balfour is best known for his polyphonic choral works with this purely instrumental, gentle work promising even greater things to come from this artist of deep integrity.
Another revelation was the Manitoba première of New York-based Stafylakis’ Ashes to Light the Sky, composed in 2016 for Montreal’s McGill Chamber Orchestra. It explores the wonders and awe of science pitted against its darker underbelly including "imagining looking up at the stars through the haze of nuclear ash fall."
The estimated 16-minute work, which opens with snap pizzicatos exploding like whipcrack through our digital screens, displays the composer’s penchant for creating dramatic swathes of sound highlighted by individual solos. It resonates as a lushly romantic sonic cocoon of comfort and a bristling cautionary tale about "science’s" more ominous, Pandora’s box of perils, performed with conviction by the players.
Edmonton-based composer Emilie LeBel’s Murmur, written in 2009, unfolds as a tapestry of hushed sounds observed from within a "big city apartment" — in this case, downtown Toronto, while a graduate student — that shows her keen ear for idiomatic, textural orchestration, including the startling effect of hearing musicians whispering from behind their masks. However, the relatively lengthy 13-minute string orchestra piece did not always fully project and arguably would have packed greater emotional punch with whittling.
The jewel of the night proved to be Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Tranquillo, with the maestro displaying his deeply felt understanding of his late colleague and friend’s approach both to music — and life. With every note perfectly placed, intentional and eloquent, in turn balanced by silences evoking the profundity of Estonian composer Arvo Part’s soulful music, this masterfully crafted, evocative work transported us to another, greatly welcomed and longed-for time.
The evening closed with another pivotal WNMF "voice" and prominent distinguished guest artist during its 30-year history. Legendary American composer Philip Glass’ three-movement Concerto Grosso, written for distinctive groups of instruments proved an ideal pandemic-friendly choice that showcases the wonderful artistry of the WSO players. However its calling card of "joy" fuelled by propulsive rhythmic motives and repetitive ostinato figures at times suffered a lack of energy and musical "glue" that became an anticlimax for the entire evening; doubtlessly resulting from the widely physically spaced players and a perennial lack of rehearsal time.
Still, bravo to the fearless WSO musicians, maestro Raiskin and Stafylakis for forging ahead during these gripping, disquieting times; with the internationally renowned WNMF's inaugural, all-digital celebration of contemporary music heard all around the globe as it now embarks on its fourth decade with better days ahead.