Knocking at the Hellgate

new-creations-festivalWhile the Toronto Symphony has been doing New Creations Festival for a dozen years or so, things seem substantially different in 2016.  One of the comments I sometimes hear from my colleagues is a concern that when so many of the supporting patrons for the performing arts are older, what will become of these organizations in a generation? Will anyone carry on the support?

But Roy Thomson Hall is a different experience lately.  Just as the TSO has some new young performers, so too in the audience. I believe half of those in attendance were under 35. There was a brief concert in the lobby before and more music in the lobby afterwards.

Roy Thomson Hall has become a very cool place to be.

For tonight’s concert –titled “Knocking at the Hellgate” from Brett Dean’s big work on the program—we were again confronted with an intriguing mix of styles and influences. Dean hit on a wonderful formula for this festival he’s curated. We heard Australian music alongside Canadian music, vocal, concertos and orchestral, with a big emphasis on popular musical influences for each concert.

We opened with Water, a piece by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, an Australian commission in its Canadian premiere. Greenwood is the lone classically trained member of the band, known for film-scores such as There Will Be Blood. Superficially it’s a minimalist piece, with a kind of pattern music at least at the beginning, as long notes on the tanpura (like a fretless sitar) give us a steady tonality against which other faster patterns work their way through the ensemble. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow was given lots to do, especially on the last pages, when his furious patterns of quick notes seemed to spiral him into orbit, as the ensemble gradually subsided into peace around him. For the moment the TSO were led by Peter Oundjian.

After this meditative beginning, we were ready for the main work on the program, namely Dean’s Knocking at the Hellgate, a six-part suite from his first opera Bliss (2010). Three orchestral interludes surround three arias, sung on this occasion by Canadian baritone Russell Braun, and this time conducted by the composer. Dean offers a surreal amalgam of tiny shards of the detritus of popular culture glued into a nightmare flashback of a life remembered from beyond in all its glitzy banality. It’s an idea I’ve heard attempted before, but without ever getting close to the richness of this remarkable tapestry including electric violin, electric guitar and MIDI.   Braun has a substantial sing, especially considering that the orchestra is sometimes very powerful. In addition to a pair of substantial falsetto passages, Braun was asked to sing all over his range for a good fifteen minutes.

I was reminded of something he sang almost exactly five years ago at the Met in Nixon in China, as Braun was again the voice of hope in the last lines sung:

And when at last I take that final breath
and disappear eternally above;
it will be just a passing breeze, this death
that carries me away from my true love.
If you would seek salvation remember this:
A life in Hell can still aspire to Bliss
[from Amanda Holden’s libretto]

To close the evening & the festival, Dean & Oundjian turned to DJ Skratch Bastid for his Festival Remix, ostensibly sampled from rehearsals of the concerts this week. My hat’s off to the DJ for his work which was well received tonight by the young audience.  I’m again reminded of a question (pardon the pun) bedeviling me for the past few weeks, watching Going Home Star, listening to Christos Hatzis, Stephanie Martin, and Kevin Lau (to name just the first three I can think of), each looking at the question of musical idiom as communication.  Electric Counterpoint from Soundstreams will also employ a DJ as they pick up this question next week.

It was a happy crowd that emerged into the warm night air.

If I may indulge in a tiny comment, I have to notice that both the TSO and Tafelmusik put libretti into programs, and at least are kind enough to leave the house-lights on for us to follow. But when every opera company in the greater Toronto area (name one and I am sure they are included) manages to project subtitles, isn’t it time for the TSO (and Tafelmusik) to consider doing so as well? Yes I followed the text in my program but would have preferred to stare straight at Russell Braun. Had the words been projected behind (as they could be whenever undertaking songs or choral symphonies like Mahler’s 2nd or Beethoven’s 9th) I believe the experience would be even better.  End of rant.

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