February 24, 2020

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WSO's New Music Festival starts with a bang

Soloist Alexandre De Costa performs Volcano, the first of three parts of Micheal Daugherty’s 3 part composition, Fire and Blood with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Saturday night as part of the Winnipeg New Music Festival. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Soloist Alexandre De Costa performs Volcano, the first of three parts of Micheal Daugherty’s 3 part composition, Fire and Blood with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Saturday night as part of the Winnipeg New Music Festival. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

The 29th annual Winnipeg New Music Festival served notice Saturday its latest incarnation will be powered by the exhilarating highs and plummeting depths of the human condition.

The first concert of the festival’s seven nightly programs that run until Friday, Fire and Blood, led by festival music director and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra maestro Daniel Raiskin, featured four emotionally intense works. Two of them showcased this year’s distinguished guest composers (in attendance all week, with each appearing onstage to introduce their respective works), Michael Daugherty and Sarah Kirkland Snider, as well as another by festival co-curator and WSO composer-in-residence, Harry Stafylakis.

But first, the evening stormed out of the gate with what is believed to be the oldest "new music" performed on the festival stage in its 29-year history, Russian composer Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry. Composed an astonishing 93 years ago in 1927, it bristles with the same visceral energy of a piece with its ink still wet.

Raiskin drove the players hard throughout the hulking, heaving "machine-music" piece fuelled by motoric, repetitive riffs that paved the way for later "minimalism," with only a short "trio" reprieve sandwiched between its two outer sections. Notably also played by legendary thrash metal band Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony last September, the nearly four-minute piece’s final accelerando ensured this take-no-prisoners WSO premiere enthralled the senses, while equally chilling the soul as a harbinger of things to come.

WSO conductor Daniel Raiskin and solo violinist Alexandre De Costa perform Micheal Daugherty's three-part composition Fire and Blood. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

WSO conductor Daniel Raiskin and solo violinist Alexandre De Costa perform Micheal Daugherty's three-part composition Fire and Blood. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Daugherty’s Fire and Blood will surely become an overall festival highlight – as did last year’s performance of his timpani concerto, Raise the Roof, delivered with all mallets blazing by principal Mike Kemp. And his 2017 violin concerto — inspired by the Detroit Industry Murals by famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, and his wife Frida Kahlo’s paintings created in "Motor City" — could be in no better hands than Juno award-winning, Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa, whose fierce conviction and commitment to the spark-flying work borne of nearly 100 performances became immediately apparent.

The three-movement work teems with passion, further heightened by projected images of Rivera’s murals and Kahlo’s paintings and sketches. Daugherty’s brilliant score becomes a roiling cauldron of competing forces between steely American industrialism and the folkloric beauty of Mexico – best encapsulated during its searing central movement River Rouge, with Da Costa’s opening rhapsodic solo against principal harpist Richard Turner’s glissandi yearning for distant horizons. Evocative touches of a mariachi band, performed by offstage brass, underscore its nostalgic ethos.

Another effective touch became Da Costa’s extended cadenza during the opening movement Volcano, in counterpoint with marimba and shaken maracas that hissed like a rattlesnake. The finale, Assembly Line, further showed off his dazzling bravura, including rapid-fire figuration and multiple stops tossed off like a man possessed. As expected, the crowd of 1,015 leapt to its feet at the end, leading to an encore that included Hallelujah by the immortal Leonard Cohen, accompanied by a string quartet comprised of WSO principal players.

The (mostly) solemn evening was filled with American references — we visited North Carolina, Michigan, Florida and New York throughout the offerings — had a side of the Soviet Union, Mexico was thrown in for good measure and there was a passing nod to la belle province. It featured the Canadian premiere of Kirkland Snider’s Hiraeth, (2015), a Welsh word loosely translated as "homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed…" with the composer originally seeking to reflect memories of her childhood growing up in small-town North Carolina.

However, the 28-minute work morphed into a deeply moving elegy for her beloved father who died tragically during its composition. It was brought to the fore by Mark DeChiazza’s exquisite film in which fleeting images of Snider’s own family members – including her father’s identical twin brother whose exit at the film’s end truly gripped the heart — evoke the wonder of the past, infused with longing for those who have left others behind.

Composer Michael Daugherty introduces Fire and Blood to the audience Saturday. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Composer Michael Daugherty introduces Fire and Blood to the audience Saturday. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

The piece ebbs and flows like a river of memory, with Snider’s expansive writing highly textural at times; while also often punctuated by jagged syncopated rhythms. Many in the audience said later they were touched by the piece.

The bill rounded out with the Manitoba premiere of Stafylakis’s Sun Exhaling Light, based on Richard Blanco’s poem One Pulse – One Poem, written in response to the epidemic of mass shootings in the US, including the Orlando, Fla., Pulse nightclub massacre in June 2016.

The composer is no stranger to gritty subjects, including his earlier Holocene Extinction (2017) and last year’s Into Oblivion, which was given its world premiere by the WSO. In this latest work, he tackles the topic as an eloquent cry for change, with an early highlight becoming Caitlin Broms-Jacobs’s plaintive oboe solo, which floated over lugubrious lower sonic depths that bled into sweeps of strings and later, a compelling brass chorale.

At times, too many musical ideas risked weakening the cohesion of the piece, despite Stafylakis’s masterful orchestration including his calling card of extreme contrasts of range, timbre, and texture. Still, its final crescendo, which climaxes with a staccato spray of three tones like gunshot, further proved his ability to infuse his music with heart-stopping drama. This 2017 orchestral work resonated as an authentic and imaginative response to the unimaginable.

The festival runs nightly until Friday, including Sunday’s performance of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope, and Monday’s emerging composer showcase, Orchestral Voices of the Future.

Holly.harris@shaw.ca

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