Wizardry of Philip Glass casts hypnotic spell at New Music Festival


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There was only one place to be Saturday night and that was at the Centennial Concert Hall for the electrifying opening of the 2018 Winnipeg New Music Festival.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/01/2018 (1955 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There was only one place to be Saturday night and that was at the Centennial Concert Hall for the electrifying opening of the 2018 Winnipeg New Music Festival.

And 2,076 music fans of all ages seemed to agree, thronging to what felt like the epicentre of the contemporary music world courtesy of real musical royalty, Philip Glass. The legendary composer/pianist headlines this year’s celebration of new music and culture with five of his works being performed throughout the week.

First out of the gate is the Canadian première of his Symphony No. 11, co-commissioned by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, Istanbul Music Festival and Queensland Symphony Orchestra for the New York City-based composer’s 80th birthday celebrated worldwide last Jan. 31. The piece debuted at Carnegie Hall that same day conducted by longtime collaborator, Dennis Russell Davies.

Philip Glass performs Etudes at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Sunday, January 28, 2018.
JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Philip Glass performs Etudes at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Sunday, January 28, 2018.

For its latest incarnation, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra maestro Alexander Mickelthwate — going out with a bang for his 12th and final WNMF before he departs for the Oklahoma Philharmonic Orchestra after this season — ably led the players through the 40-minute work that drives forward with Glass’s trademark “minimalist” arpeggiations, repetitive motives, pulsing cross-rhythms and lyrical melodic phrases cresting like tides in a sea change of sound.

Closely related to his prior symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, Glass, during his introduction from the stage, however, made clear his latest work charts new territory.

“With this, it became a very personal piece. How high can you take the horns, really?” he quipped, regarding his thickly orchestrated score.

The three-movement work unfolds as a kaleidoscope of sound, with stratum of instrumental colours and textures added and then taken away with Mickelthwate keeping a taut rein on its constantly shifting, asymmetrical meters.

Kudos to the WSO percussion section for fearlessly tackling its solo sections — Glass himself played percussion, the flute and piano — with its all hands on deck, tightly cohesive kickoff to the third movement injecting exultant marching-band energy if not militaristic fervour infused with principal percussionist Frederick Liessens’s rat-a-tat snare drum rolls. Hearing the snare later juxtaposed with plucked double basses and muted trumpets at the close of the first movement was pure ear candy.

Glass also unusually gives pride of place to the tuba, with principal tuba Chris Lee pulling up the rear with his highlighted sections, particularly memorable during his growling duets with principal bass trombonist Stephen Clayton that becomes a hallmark of the piece, as well as during its Brucknerian-flavoured ongoing dialogue between strings and low brass.

The central, quasi-slow section is more contemplative, including the winds’ gracefully descending melodic lines that light like birds on a wire. One lyrical phrase bleeds into another, with Glass’s wizardry casting a hypnotic spell over listeners before the work settles into mysterious depths courtesy of the intrepid basses.

It would be remiss not to note the fiddles as well, for their sheer physical stamina in executing repeated figuration that heightened the work’s propulsive energy that finally climaxed with a joyous combustion of sound. As expected, the crowd leapt to its feet with a rousing standing ovation, leading to three curtain calls for the clearly delighted composer.

Fans of revered Canadian visual artist and filmmaker Michael Snow have waited 88 years for his first-ever orchestral composition. The world première of his Prophecy, guided by WNMF curator Matthew Patton, is what this festival does best: by championing bold new works, it introduces fascinating compositional voices to listeners.

The Toronto-based artist introduced his “less is more” conceptually derived piece from the stage, describing it as simply “always going toward the future.” And that, it did, as essentially a supremely controlled, extended glissando that steadily grew in intensity minute by minute.

The one-movement work begins with the basses intoning their first unison note that morphs into the cellos and later violins as one continuous thread of sound. Snow, originally a jazz musician, has built his career on paradoxical ideals of “duality,” and poignantly reunited with his former studio recording chum Glass, whom he met in NYC during the 1960s.

Snow lived up to his reputation by completely stripping away his own visuals with his work beginning in total darkness, thus heightening the aural experience with the lights in the concert hall gradually rising with the musical line.

His first orchestral, the WSO-commissioned piece showed both clear intention (not always a given with world premières), and a willingness to bend preconceptions of what a symphonic work should, or could, be with his first foray seeing the violins ultimately slipping away into the ether-like vestiges of time.

The evening opened with the oldest work on the program — by three years — Icelandic artist Bjork’s Family (2015) featuring guest theramist Keri Latimer. The compelling piece began with low drones in the basses (doing yeoman’s duty that night) that broke into dissonance when joined by the other strings. Violin tremolos created a shimmering backdrop for the otherworldly solo instrument that gracefully swooped above the orchestral fabric. Principal cellist Yuri Hooker dug hard into his solo built on a five-note motif, providing rugged counterpoint for Latimer’s ethereal instrument that beckoned like a siren song.

A second world première, A Parable for End Times, by WSO composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis, is an apocalyptic work for choir and orchestra based on fantasy writer Steven Erikson’s novella The Devil Delivered. Stafylakis has a knack for creating intensely driven dramatic works, as evidenced earlier this month with the WSO world première of his Holocene Extinction.

Likewise, his latest offering bursts with epic power, including thundering timpani rolls that subsided into solemn, elegiac strings. It’s always tricky having a choir positioned on upstage risers with guest choir Horizon’s (Johanna Hildebrand, director) words not always clearly heard over the full orchestral forces. Nevertheless, this piece resonated as a bellowing cautionary tale about the earthly perils of nuclear fall-out, depleted natural resources and an ozone hole the size of the great plains is one for the times, earning another lively standing ovation.

The evening that also included a pre-show chat and post-show Q & A with Glass, Snow, Matthew Patton and Mickelthwate capped off with a birthday cake for the composer who turns 81 on Wednesday. Glass appeared genuinely surprised, as the hundreds that remained behind raised their voices in a round of Happy Birthday — their turn to make music for one who has spent his lifetime giving to us.

The 2018 WNMF continues nightly this week through to Feb. 2. For tickets or further information, see: Glass returns to the Centennial Concert Hall tonight (Sunday, Jan. 28) to perform his celebrated Piano Etudes.

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Updated on Sunday, January 28, 2018 9:18 PM CST: Updates photo

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