New Music used to be the Buckley's cough medicine of the classical world – it tasted awful, but it was good for you. There was a hint of the church about it – a celebration of obscure rites for the faithful, desperately clinging to their belief in the importance of the new, scorned and belittled, huddling in church basements and small halls. I'm exaggerating of course, but the whiff of the elect, of the self-chosen elite, came wafting out of many new-music venues.
That was then. Now, I compile my list of the most interesting concerts of the year.
Adrianne Pieczonka searing her way through George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children last fall. Staggering. Presented by Soundstreams Canada, a 33-year-old new-music organization.
Just last month, contemporary composer James MacMillan conducting an overwhelming performance of his Seven Last Words from the Cross. Shattering. Soundstreams again.
Electric Messiah, a fascinating cross-cultural, multimedia take on Handel's classic, presented at the Drake Hotel in December. Part of Soundstreams' Ear Candy series.
The opera Julie, co-presented by Canadian Stage and Soundstreams in November.
Squeezebox, a wonderfully theatrical evening featuring the accordion, bandoneon and Korean saenghwang. Yes, Soundstreams, again.
And, to top it off, maybe the most exciting concert of the year – Soundstreams presenting avant-garde composer Steve Reich in Toronto this week for an 80th birthday celebration featuring some of Reich's longest-serving collaborators – former members of the Nexus percussion ensemble. A concert not booked into a tiny room somewhere, but in one of Toronto's largest concert venues, the 2,700-seat Massey Hall.
"A lot of people told me what I fool I was," Lawrence Cherney, Soundstreams Canada artistic director, tells me about deciding to book Reich into Massey. "But, we'll see. We think we'll do okay." Indeed, they probably will.
Something is happening here. Five years ago, I would have characterized Soundstreams as a group doing important work on the margins. Today they're presenting the best shows in town. At a time when music organizations everywhere are struggling with the new realities of concert and musical life, Soundstreams Canada, at 33, is getting everything right – breaking down barriers, reaching across generational, cultural and musical boundaries, sacrificing none of its artistic integrity. It's a minor miracle.
In addition to being its artistic director, Cherney is Soundstreams' founder. He's flattered by my thesis, but struggles to find anything dramatic to help me understand what he's doing today that's different from what he's done for the past three decades.
"By definition, new music is unfamiliar. So my obsession has always been, 'What is it that attracts people to come to something they don't know?'" he says. "I started this organization back in 1982 when I realized that nothing was happening in Canada to celebrate Igor Stravinsky's 100th birthday. And if Stravinsky was having trouble getting his due, what about Canadian composers? So, in a way, many things have changed since then – but nothing has changed."
Soundstreams has changed the manner in which it presents its concerts, creating more of a thematic glue to tie things together. The Squeezebox show used theatrical elements to keep its audience entertained as the musical focus moved from Murray Schafer's circus to Argentinian tango to the music of Korea.
"We're trying to get beyond the conventions of certain Western traditions of performance," Cherney says. "I just started in the last few years to pay a lot of attention to theatre and dance. What do other disciplines do to create the sense of one big work?"
And it wasn't just Western traditions that Cherney investigated. With an Ontario Arts Council grant, he went around the world investigating performance practices: "I travelled to a lot of places. I looked at shamanism in Korea, at a lot of different places in the world where I just thought I might find something interesting. I realized there are so many ways of creating connections between pieces we haven't thought of. The music itself is not necessarily the main thing – it's the way we're putting them together that's different."
But there's more to Soundstreams' success than merely clever programming. The MacMillan and Pieczonka concerts were both conventionally organized. Nothing especially daring will happen at the Reich concert, except the music itself. And maybe that's the real point – that after four decades of ghettoization, the increasingly tolerant, curious, democratized world that YouTube, Spotify and iTunes have created has rendered all the old categories of musical discourse and categorization irrelevant. The beauty and excitement of "new" music can now be appreciated cleanly and transparently, without confusing and off-putting labels.
Kyle Brenders is the artistic associate at Soundstreams, five years into his position. The Ear Candy series is his baby. Brenders represents a different demographic, musical sensibility and audience than Cherney. A working musician himself, Brenders blends a background in both classical music and improvisatory jazz to bring to his Soundstreams work.
"I have different perceptions of how things are happening, how things are changing," Brenders says. "I'm here to spur Lawrence on, to say, 'Hey, look at this, and what about this, and what do you think of this?' He's always open to new ideas about what he's doing, and I've got new ideas – with a different artistic voice coming from a very different artistic place."
Part of what Brenders provides Cherney are ideas about performance practice, repertoire and the feel of what a concert can be.
"The idea of scale is important to what we're thinking about," Brenders says. "The Ear Candy is scaled down and the Massey concert is scaled up. There's something about the purity of being in a place like Koerner Hall with all those other people that's very satisfying. But I also love being within 20 feet of the performers in a space. You can feel the motion, the breathing – being confronted by a singer as they're moving past you. There's something remarkably intimate about that."
Soundstreams is looking to the future to consolidate its successes. The Ear Candy series is expanding to three concerts next year. The 2016-17 season will include five mainstage concerts, including Magic Flutes, a flute concert similar to the Squeezebox concert – multicultural and multidimensional. Coming projects include an opera based on the last seven days of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, murdered during the 1970 October crisis, and a staging of one of Claude Vivier's early works, Musik für das Ende.
And as Cherney approaches his 35th season at Soundstreams, he's not just the right person in the right place at the right time. He is the beneficiary, it seems, of a significant change in the way we approach musical performance in the 21st century – where the complex, multiconnected world in which we have been living in recent decades is finally having an impact on what we listen to, and how. Cherney and Soundstreams, through dedication, instinct and foresight, have been ready for this world for some time.
Soundstreams presents Steve Reich on April 14 at Massey Hall in Toronto.