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New Creations Festival: ‘new’ classical music is not what it used to be

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s music director Peter Oundjian.

Sian Richards

Toronto Symphony Orchestra New Crations Festival
New Creations Festival
Roy Thomson Hall
Saturday, March 01, 2014

The not quite capacity audience at Roy Thomson Hall was reminded on Saturday night that the days when the new in music meant austere, difficult and dissonant trials-by-ordeal is long over. The inaugural concert of three in this year's 10th annual New Creations Festival at the TSO was full of music that, although challenging and powerful, bore little resemblance to the tight, complex, intricate world of the serialism of the late 1960s. We forget that serialism and all its attendant novelties was well under way when the Beatles came to America. It's that old. Today, new classical music is wider, more capacious, more accessible, more open.

Three expressive works filled the New Creations program on Saturday, works in three quite different styles. John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony was a suite of music, taken from his 2005 opera revolving around nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first Manhattan Project tests of a nuclear device. TSO affiliate composer Kevin Lau's world premiere, and TSO commission, Down The Rivers of the Windfall Light is a tone poem based on Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill. And the concert was filled out with Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by the man for whom it was composed a year and a half ago, Yefim Bronfman.

The Doctor Atomic Symphony was a powerful work, but lost something, I felt, in the transition from stage to concert platform. Deep, dark textures certainly illuminated the sense of impending horror that surrounded the opera's storyline, culminating as it does with the first atomic test blast, and Adams's familiar technique of murmuring repetition of tiny melodic cells, so effective in Nixon in China and so many of his other works, was used more sparingly here. In Peter Oundjian's hands, the various elements of the opera were given effective, but rather unsubtle treatment. Powerful brass, explosive percussion, and macabre winds were all in place, but tied together with pretty loose structural twine. The exception was the orchestral version of the opera's final scene, a setting of Robert Oppenheimer's favourite poem, by John Donne, Batter my heart, three person'd God. With principal trumpet Andrew McCandless taking Oppenheimer's place, the aria was at times warmhearted, at times a ferocious examination of the dilemma of a man torn between the infinite possibilities of science and the moral limitations of the human, beautifully rendered. Lindberg's Concerto was an extremely winning piece. A barnburner of a concerto, stuffed full of octave leaps, glissandi, ferocious runs, tone clusters and the other physical demands commonly demanded of modern pianists, the piece actually had all the Gallic charm of the two Ravel piano concertos, after which it was modelled. In three sections, the work travelled from exposition, to a beautiful, and lyrical second movement, through to an impassioned and scurrying finale. And although Yefim Bronfman was more than up to the physical challenges the concerto presented him, it was actually the lyricism of his playing, its softness and tenderness that remained in the mind after all his Olympian athletic feats had amazed his audience. Bronfman never forgot that this was a piece that put music first, and athleticism second. Lindberg managed to draw out of a concerto format hundreds of years old an amazingly contemporary mood and texture, a piece accessible and challenging at the same time.

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The pleasant surprise of the evening was Kevin Lau's Down The Rivers of the Windfall Light, a piece that more than held its own with the two other major works on the program. This is Lau's second commission from the TSO as part of his RBC affiliate composer duties, and he is a very accomplished orchestral writer for someone just past 30. Time and again, Lau's orchestral imagination produced sonorities and combinations of instruments, rhythms and textures that were original, very compelling, and relatable. His piece, which follows the contours of Thomas's Fern Hill, alternated between joyous youthfulness, idyllic portraits of nature, and summertime thundery menace. Lau's musical language leans heavily on filmic devices – there was more than a hint of John Williams in the piece – but Lau manages this language with real accomplishment and with more than a little originality. His is a voice worth listening to. The TSO did a fine job with the score, as they did in the accompaniment to Bronfman as well. The New Creations Festival is worth presenting, for sure, but it's interesting to note that any of these pieces could have appeared, one would like to believe, in a regular TSO subscription concert. "New" music is not what it used to be – and the sooner the stigma around it disappears, the better.

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