It’s not every day that the Pacific Baroque Orchestra gets to play music by living and breathing composers. But in New Music for Old Instruments, the ensemble will be performing the latest works from B.C. composers with instruments dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
“For us, that’s unusual, because the composers we usually play are dead, and you can’t talk to them,” says the orchestra’s music director Alexander Weimann.
New Music for Old Instruments is one of six concerts being offered online as part of the Sonic Boom Music Festival running March 23 to 28. This year’s event features new compositions written for the period instruments of the baroque orchestra.
While it won’t exactly be the 2Cellos duo wailing AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck" on their instruments, the festival promises an eclectic mix of modern-meets-classic compositions and includes performances of solo piano, small ensembles, solo oboe, English horn, and the trombone and organ duo of Jeremy Berkman and Angelique Po.
Unlike many Early Music organizations, Early Music Vancouver, which supports the baroque orchestra, has already ventured into contemporary music, including a performance of Vancouver composer and music educator Jocelyn Morlock’s "Revenant." To put contemporary into context, in 2018 Morlock won a Juno Award for Classical Composition of the Year for her piece "My Name is Amanda Todd," about the life and suicide of a 15-year-old Port Coquitlam bullying victim.
But for baroque — a catch-all phrase for one of the richest periods in European music stretching from about 1600 to 1750 (think Bach, Handel and Pachelbel) — new music is still largely foreign territory, made even more unfamiliar by modern songwriters’ broad diversity of musical styles.
In New Music for Old Instruments, the musicians must switch gears constantly, playing neo-classical, expressionist and popular styles — just to name a few.
There are the lush harmonies in Kamran Shahrokhi’s "Ocean Rush," creating a cinematic and meditative atmosphere. Henry From’s "Dance at the End of Time," with its rigour and precision, is more reminiscent of the baroque era.
“Usually, if you do a program, you don’t have as many musical languages in one show,” says Weimann. “Even if you have Telemann, Vivaldi, Handel, it’s three people speaking a similar language. But these five composers are really far away from one another.”
Weimann, recently nominated for a Juno Award himself, has worked with celebrated Early Music ensembles across North America and Europe, including Canada’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Les Violons du Roy. While his recordings and performances usually centre around baroque composers, Weimann also has experience performing compositions by living songwriters, and he says he looks forward to the contemporary music programs every year.
Period instruments have in fact been the medium for a great deal of artistic exploration, both past and present, Weimann points out. The challenge in writing new works for period instruments is upending musical conventions.
“New music and old instruments are not an unnatural combination,” he says. “One of the core things of the Early Music movement is actually discovery. It’s not just playing the canon of pieces we know and love, but to discover something that hasn’t been performed yet.”
Although the Pacific Baroque Orchestra’s instruments date back to the baroque era, contemporary versions are quite different in their physical structures and dimensions. These variances create sounds that aren’t achievable by their modern counterparts.
For instance, in stringed instruments such as the violin or cello, the period instruments have more of a curve to their tone than modern instruments, producing a growing and sighing quality that is unique to them.
In addition to physical differences, there are ideological shifts to consider when old meets new.
“How can we make a composition that uses that window [of musical history] but is at the same time relevant today?” asks composer Edward Top. It’s a musical riddle that Top will explore in his festival piece "Clairvoyant."
As the title suggests, "Clairvoyant" is written from the perspective of a baroque composer who tries to predict the music of the future. While typical baroque gestures appear in the piece, Top infuses the composition with dissonant harmonies, a nod to contemporary masters like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Unconventional pairings of instruments and sounds appear in the other concerts at Sonic Boom, most notably in Jennifer Butler’s "Shelter." Performed by the acclaimed pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, "Shelter" blends the open and bare sonorities of the piano with the sounds of broken glass in a jar.
Butler, a Vancouver composer, teacher and flautist, describes the tinkling glass as a metaphor for human vulnerability. Glass is rarely used in music of any genre, but "Shelter" captures its paradoxical aural quality, one that is both rough and graceful, but at the same time “beauty in the brokenness,” she explains.
Although it was written during the fall of 2019 and grew out of a personal experience that Butler had, the piece now, a year into a global pandemic, seems to take on a more universal quality in its expression of challenge and hope.
“It’s about a struggle and coming through it,” Butler says. “The arts season is our community, it’s our friendships and livelihoods. When that was wiped clean, there’s been a lot of grieving and loss of that support and community.”
For many musicians and composers, this past year has been turbulent. The cancellations of live, in-person concerts and music festivals have shaken many of those in the contemporary music space. But artists and programmers tend to be resilient, says Butler, and they are “flexible and can flip their art forms to create new things.”
In the midst of this difficult season, composers and new music organizations have still been creating innovative art and projects. Groups such as Little Chamber Music and Music on Main have been featuring virtual concerts showcasing the latest compositions and performances from a wide range of B.C. composers and musicians.
There has been a great deal of pain over the past year, but Butler hopes that through this difficult time, more people will come to understand the significance of art in our society. “The art that moves us, gives us hope, or helps us get in touch with our vulnerable sides — that shows us why art is so important.”
Read more: Music