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PREVIEW | RCM's 21C Music Festival Is Cooking With Fire

By Michael Vincent on February 7, 2017

Vancouver-born pianist Vicky Chow, pianist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars appearing in Toronto at the 21C Music Festival — Saturday, May 27, 2017. (Photo: Kaitlin Jane)
Vancouver-born pianist Vicky Chow, pianist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars appearing in Toronto at the 21C Music Festival — Saturday, May 27, 2017. (Photo: Kaitlin Jane)

There is an adage I like to say sometimes. If we spend all our time on the music of the past, there will be nothing left for the music of the future. And while tastes in contemporary music are not always unified, it is less about reverence and more about innovation. RCM’s 21C Music Festival is a case in point. It has become an opportunity akin to a tech expo, showcasing all the newest and latest wares in classical music — some of whose composers and performers are poised to become the next big thing.

Announced today, the 2017 21C Music Festival line-up demonstrates how important this festival has become for expanding the classical music pallet.

“Charles Ives, the American composer-iconoclast wrote outrageously courageous music about 100 years ago,” said Arts Patron and Supporter Michael Koerner. “And when asked what he was up to, he would say, I want to stretch your ears.”

Festival Focus

“There are two mains thrusts this year,” Mervon Mehta, Executive Director, Performing Arts said in a telephone interview. “One is the sesquicentennial -everything we do this year is marked with our Canadian pride- and the other is a focus on women.”

RCM has always prided itself on presenting Canadian work without apology. But this year is much more than that. This year’s festival will be 90% Canadian artists, much of them women.

Mehta confessed that the programming of women was not part of any larger statement towards gender balance, but simply a by-product of the number of women composing today. “After putting together 3/4 of it, I said, oh my god look at all the women composers we have. It goes to show that in today’s contemporary music scene, just how many women are out there doing good work — maybe even more than men.”

Mehta asserted that we shouldn’t really need a festival like 21C to recognize women in the field. We should be doing it because it is good work.

He’s right. This “good work” is coming from all directions in Canada, but closest to home is the Cecilia String Quartet, who will be placing a spotlight on female composers, on May 25. Angèle Dubeau will also be bringing her all-female ensemble La Pietà to Ontario for the first time. They have been making waves in Quebec, but are still relatively unknown in Ontario. They will be performing a who’s who program of “hot” composers, featuring Canadians Maxime Goulet, Marjan Mozetich, as well as Philip Glass, Ludovico Einaudi, Jonny Greenwood, Michael Nyman, Max Richter, Arvo Pärt, and Mike Oldfield.

Canadian Art Song Project

Every year the 21C Festival teams up with partner organizations; joining them this year is the Canadian Arts Song Project.

With art song comes the name Emily D’Angelo, who after capturing first place in COC’s 2015 Centre Stage, as well as winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition finals, has become an overnight sensation. On May 25, D’Angelo and members of the COC Ensemble Studio will perform a piece by Ana Sokolović. The program also includes Ontario premieres by Lloyd Burritt and Andrew Staniland performed by baritone Iain MacNeil with pianist Mélisande Sinsoulier.

Canadian Opera Company Orchestra

A centerpiece of the festival will be South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who will be making her Canadian debut with Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, under Johannes Debus on May 24. This will mark the orchestra’s Koerner Hall debut.

Bang on a Can All-Stars

Also high on the list of mentionables is the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who are arguably the most important new music ensemble in the US. They will be performing a new RCM commission by composer John Oswald whose innovative Black Out was a highlight of last year’s festival.

The program (befittingly called “Bang on A Canada”) will include works by composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Christian Marclay, David Lang, Allison Cameron, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, René Lussier, and Steve Reich. The concert starts with Vancouver pianist Vicky Chow, who is a member of the group, performing a piece by Eliot Britton, written just for her.

Morgan-Paige Melbourne

Mehta recalled an interesting story about Guelph pianist Morgan-Paige Melbourne, who performed at “Koerner Hall Free-for-all” — an event where anyone can get up on stage and “give it their best shot”. Mehta said that “while most usually get up on stage to perform simple pieces, all of a sudden this woman [Melbourne] started playing [a piece by] Alexina Louie and it blew everyone away.” On the spot, Mehta promised that he would find a way to fit her into an upcoming program at Koerner Hall. True to his word, she will be performing at the Festival’s Cinq à Sept on May 27 at Temerty Theatre.

While Mehta said it has not yet been determined if RCM will continue the 21C Music Festival past 2018, he did say that its primary benefactor Michael Koerner remains “ecstatic about how it has been unfolding in the last few years,” and expects many more years ahead.

The 21C Music Festival runs May 24 to May 28, 2017. For tickets and concert details, visit here.


Michael Vincent
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