Tuesday, March 04, 2003
All the bells and whistles
Weird 1926 piece resonates at festival
The Montréal/Nouvelles Musiques festival opened its activities on Sunday with music that would be better described as evergreen than new. One first caused a sensation in Paris in 1926, while the other was premiered in Toronto in 1984. Both nevertheless proved worthy of revival in Pollack Hall by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec.
George Antheil's Ballet mécanique - originally scored for several percussionists, two pianists, seven electric bells, three airplane propellers, one siren and 16 synchronized player pianos - was the work that both established and typecast its American composer as a bad boy. It still scores high on the loud-o-meter and the nut-o-meter, with its clattering keyboards and savagely pounding bass drums.
The funny thing is that there can be texture and counterpoint amid all the turmoil. Xylophone glissandi were clearly perceived in this performance (presumably a Montreal premiere) and the infamous siren and bells created layers of colour, not just more noise.
Seated in front of an ensemble of 10 players and eight unmanned Yamaha pianos, conductor Walter Boudreau sorted everything out with the efficiency of a seasoned traffic cop, aided by cues through headphones. Antheil's multiple false conclusions - bursts of sound and yawning silences - were nicely timed.
Paul Lehrman, an American technician who specializes in performances of this piece, controlled the pianos and digital special effects from a computer console. Too bad a real hand-cranked siren could not be found, or a virtuoso to play it.
Michel Longtin's Pohjatuuli ("North Wind" in Finnish) has also aged well. By migrating freely from tonality to atonality, this 27-minute chamber symphony for 12 players managed to seem a tribute to Sibelius rather than a ripoff.
Instrumentation was - true to the master - both transparent and atmospheric. Boudreau led an immaculate performance. Allusions were reasonably cryptic, except perhaps to the hardcore Sibelian. I found myself exiting the hall humming - Sibelius.
© Copyright 2003 Montreal Gazette
Tuesday, March 4, 2003
What's old is new again at Montreal new-music fest
By ALAN CONTER
Montréal Nouvelles Musiques International Festival
At Pollack Hall, McGill University
in Montreal on Sunday
Yet another new music festival got under way in Montreal on Sunday night, just in case there weren't enough series and events built around new sounds in the city.
Montréal Nouvelles Musiques is different from the others by sheer size. Nineteen concerts. Fifty composers. Some potentially hot talk in symposiums and conferences. It also spans an eclectic and heady array of styles and sounds from street-savvy techno through acoustic works for symphonic orchestra.
Its very monumentality goes well with the two artistic directors, Walter Boudreau, artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) and Denys Bouliane, who teaches at McGill University and heads that institution's Contemporary Music Ensemble.
The kickoff was a surprising throwback to 1927. Boudreau chose George Antheil's Ballet mécanique as the festival opener. When it was first performed in Paris and in New York, the work provoked near riots in the concert hall.
Of course, to a listener in 2003, it all seems rather quaint. But the young American composer who had fled post-First World War, prohibition America for Europe hooked up with the Futurists and was determined to signal his breach with the romantic as loudly and mechanistically as possible.
Ballet mécanique is scored for six player-pianos, a percussion ensemble, two concert grands, sirens, bells and airplane engines. In 1988 a recreation of the original Carnegie Hall performance was staged in New York enlisting MIDI technology to arm the prepared pianos (the original player rolls being out of service). Digital technology also helped control the recordings of the vintage airplane motors. On Sunday, the SMCQ enlisted some of the same state-of-the-art help.
The performance was brash, energetic and awesome in the truest sense of the word. Boudreau took the ensemble through the piece at almost breakneck speed, which may have accounted for a little percussive disunity at midpoint. Everyone recouped nicely. The point, of course, was to celebrate the bad boy spirit that drives a lot of new creation. You can't make an omelette without . . . .
The second half of the concert was given over to Quebec composer Michel Longtin's Pohjatuuli. This work, too, is not new in that it won the Jules Léger Prize in 1986. It is Longtin's homage to Sibelius and the piece broods and shimmers in an evocation of both winter's darkness and the boreal flashes that light the sky. The clarinet, four brass, four strings and percussion seemed perfectly at ease in this very lovely work. Again, Boudreau was making an important statement in an opening concert of new music by including a work nearing its 20th anniversary. The newness is in the attitude.
The festival continues through next Tuesday, with two concerts every day. At the risk of offending some by omission, here are some top picks:
The fabulous Hilliard Ensemble performs at Pollack Hall twice. Tonight they can be heard in premieres of two Canadian works: Montreal composer José Evangelista's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Torontonian Paul Steenhuisen's Les enfers étérnels des gens désespérés -- or The Eternal Hell of the Despairing. Also on the program are works by Scottish-born Elizabeth Liddle who now resides in Vancouver. There's some Arvo Part and the Hilliard Songbook by British composer Piers Hellawell.
On Wednesday you can catch the Hilliard backed by the McGill Contemporary Ensemble in the North American premiere of Dutch composer Cornelis de Bondt's Bloed. It is the only piece on the program. The composer writes that the work was inspired by his complex relationship with his father -- a relationship shaped in part by his father's haunting memories of an internment in a Nazi concentration camp. A catalyst to the work was a remark by Prince Claus of the Netherlands who opined that no one was left in Holland who actually experienced the war. De Bondt's music has been performed in Montreal before by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. It is intricate, yet delicately so. This promises to be a stunning performance.
Klangforum Wien perform on Thursday at Salle Pierre Mercure. Two Canadian works figure prominently in the concert by this very fine new music ensemble from Austria: Yannick Plamondon's Autoportrait sur Times Square, which won the Jules Léger Prize for chamber music in 2002, and the world premiere of a new work by André Ristic, who won the Jules Léger in 2000.
Sunday features the CBC Young Composers National Competition concert with the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal. Not to be missed is Triptyques Intimistes on March 10, a four-hour extravaganza of new chamber music including two quartets, the Molinari and the Bozzini, framing the Trio Fibonacci. And on March 11, the final day of the festival, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal performs with three Canadian works.
Montréal Nouvelles Musiques International Festival runs to March 11. For information visit http://www.festivalmnm.ca or call 514-843-9305.
And then, in 2004, a tour of the UK