Festival opener spans emotions with wild sonic ride

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The version of the annual Winnipeg New Music Festival that kicked off Tuesday night was a shadow of its typically buzzing former self, but you wouldn’t have known it from the reaction of the small but mighty in-person audience.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/01/2022 (199 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The version of the annual Winnipeg New Music Festival that kicked off Tuesday night was a shadow of its typically buzzing former self, but you wouldn’t have known it from the reaction of the small but mighty in-person audience.

Provincial public health orders limit house capacity to a maximum of 250 listeners, with each WNMF concert also being streamed live. Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Raiskin, who co-curates the WNMF with WSO composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis — both appeared onstage Tuesday for the first of the the fest’s three programs, Digital Landscapes — noted this year’s event is “a step closer” to greater normalcy. Last year’s festival was presented wholly via digital technology to an empty Centennial Concert Hall.

Originally billed as a full lineup of six nightly shows plus satellite events slated for Jan. 22-28, the WSO performed its own pandemic pivot mere weeks ago to reimagine and recreate this year’s WNMF, which has now morphed into a compact series of three contemporary concerts that wraps up Friday.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Percussionist Ben Reimer and pianist Naomi Woo rehearse for the Winnipeg New Music Festival Digital Landscapes.

Manitoba-born, Toronto-based composer Eliot Britton’s highly evocative Hyperscale Landscape — performed by guest percussionist/drummer Ben Reimer and WSO assistant conductor Naomi Woo on piano, and juxtaposed with an electronic soundscape — quickly belied its high-tech trappings to reveal a deeply poetic, often mesmerizing beating heart.

The immediately engaging work included a projection on a large upstage screen that featured microscopic images of dandelion fluffs and blades of grass paired, courtesy of artificial information technology, with mirrored close-ups of parts of musical instruments. Britton’s drawing together of these parallels between the naturalistic and private studio worlds of professional musicians offered its own special magic.

The digitally infused program also (wisely) included an “unplugged” offering. WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig — who has performed in virtually every festival since its inception by its co-founders, former WSO maestro Bramwell Tovey and composer-in-residence Glenn Buhr — appeared alongside associate concertmaster Karl Stobbe in German-born composer Michael Oesterle’s Eulerian Dances.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Pianist (and WSO assistant conductor) Naomi Woo plays Eliot Britton’s Hyperscale Landscape.

The four-movement piece from 2013 is based on 18th-century mathematician Leonard Euler’s work in graph theory and it’s a thoughtful, musically complex work in which the two string instruments interweave their polyphonic, linear lines and trade off each other. The sudden rhythmic outbursts, cascading runs and ethereal harmonics were performed admirably by these two pillars of the orchestra.

Canadian composer Nicole Lizee’s Juno-nominated Katana of Choice — once again featuring percussionist Reimer with filmed visuals — is a wonderfully imaginative, quirky and at times downright disturbing work. It includes flashing images of tiny toy skeletons, a smoking gun and the drummer appearing onscreen in a gaping-eyed, white face mask, taking listeners/viewers into a surreal world where anything can happen.

Kudos to Reimer for his virtuosic performance, including woozy tempo changes against Lizee’s highly textural electronic score, punctuated by Morse-code rat-a-tat rhythms that gradually build to a climax. However, there must still be “meaning” to a work, and Katana’s kaleidoscopic, dizzying, fragmented nature — perhaps reflecting a postmodern ideology — countered its own admittedly enthralling visual/aural romp on the wild side.

Finally, the Canadian première of Stafylakis’s Therein Lies the Enemy, which included a language, content, and “noise” warning, bellowed like a cry from the depths. The work was composed in his New York City hometown, which was a pandemic epicentre during those earliest, terrifying days of the first-wave lockdown in 2020.

Billed as a “plea for personal accountability and nuance” in today’s social-media steeped world, Stafylakis’s self-described “angry” work, performed once again by Reimer doing yeoman’s duty, is a timely look at the “indeterminably increasing scale of vitriol,” ranging from anti-vaccine sentiment to personal vendettas.

There’s no denying this piece’s rawness, its strong ethos in keeping with the composer/guitarist’s loud ‘n’ proud prog metal roots. He also wisely builds in necessary moments of respite. However, its accompanying text narration, which helped unify the compositionally dense work, often became buried in the overall mix, diluting its sonic impact.

And the shock of those promised F-bombs would have been heightened by a final, extended explosive outburst by Reimer; instead, it was strangely anti-climatic as the work pulled its punches rather than ending — literally — with a bigger, more powerful bang.

The Winnipeg New Music Festival continues tonight with the local debut of New York City-based pianist Steven Beck in WNMF2, and wraps up Friday with WNMF3: The Last Word, featuring WSO players led by Daniel Raiskin. For tickets, or further information, visit wnmf.ca.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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