New Creations Festival: Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Tanya Tagaq. March 4.
I realize that this review will likely come across as a love letter of sorts. So be it. As a critic, I’m not above a gushing every once in a while.
Last night’s opening of the lucky 13th annual New Creations Festival was a demonstration of the embarrassment of riches Canada has to offer regarding contemporary music. Let me count the ways.
Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq is probably one of the most important artists in Canada right now. Not only does she provide a Millennial link for indigenous artists that have broken through the popularity barrier, but she has also transcended genre — disrupting notions of what contemporary music is and can be.
Her masterpiece last night was found in Qiksaaktuq, a five-movement work composed by Jean Martin, with orchestration by Toronto’s Chris Mayo. Conducted by André de Ridder, the piece pushed forward a powerful message of remembrance for the countless murdered and missing indigenous women across Canada.
Despite the precarious nature of improvisation, the performance was remarkably tight. The TSO acted as a container of sorts, which gave Tagaq the freedom to fully embody the emotional narrative that was composed right there in plain sight. Tagaq’s mighty voice grunted, yelped and cried. But the most powerful moments where when she crooned gentle vocal hymnals that brought the audience directly into her inner world. At one point, Tagaq was seen looking down to the floor with tears, holding her hands over her eye as she waved back and forth on the stage. It was chilling stuff.
But well before Tagaq’s moving sacrament was Andrew Staniland’s brief but compelling orchestral miniature. As part of the Canada Mosaic initiative, 40 composers across Canada will be premiering two-minute works inspired by the idea of Canada. Staniland’s contribution was divided into two sections. The first was a slow multi-layered canon based on the theme from O Canada. Conducted by Peter Oundjian, it was the musical equivalent of a barber’s pole that had melodies spiral down across four sections of the orchestra. The canon offered a nod to Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony and matched its minor key solemnity. The program notes account the composer’s sense of “shame and sadness” towards the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that outlined the tragic consequences of the atrocities committed by the Canadian Government towards indigenous peoples. The unexpected celebratory fanfare statement at the end was curious, but a welcome twist in that it evoked a sense of optimism for the future.
Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarch (Funeral March) for Piano and Orchestra provided the German muscle for the concert. The work was an innovative approach to the Concerto form that has stalled most composers after the achievements by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. Pianist Yefim Bronfman opened with a motif lifted from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The piano was slowly integrated into the emerging sonorities undulating from the orchestra behind him. The piece bridged high modernist, lightly orchestrated motifs, with moments of lush, curling eddies that harkened back to Hollywood scores by Bernard Herman. One minor gripe is that many of the musical ideas seemed underdeveloped. As one idea started, it was usurped by another, making it a little like reading the first three words of every sentence of this review.
RBC Composer in residence Jordan Pal’s Iris — inspired by iridescence — was another standout. The work was a study in structural colour, and mixed sounds like an old LSD inspired ’60s oil projection performance. The hippie “trip” was tempered by a series of climactic moments which gave a sense of narrative to the otherwise static piece.
The TSO played with an earnest devotion. On the whole, it achieved its goal of translating a visual phenomenon into a musical one. While Iris did not have anything to say of real extramusical consequence, sometimes it is okay for music to just be beautiful, and the audience seemed to agree.