Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal

Conducted by Véronique Lacroix

The Music Gallery, St. George the Martyr Church, 197 John Street, Toronto

Sunday, November 14, 2010


•           Simon Martin (Canada 1981) Musique d'art pour orchestre de chambre

•           Christopher Mayo (Canada 1980) Binding the Quiet

•           Cassandra Miller (Canada 1976) Concerto for Violin and Blindfolded Ensemble (a set of extravagant competitions)

•           Gordon Williamson (Canada 1974) anticipation, emancipated

Toronto audiences are unaccustomed to judge composers at music concerts. Sitting in front of a mic on the Music Gallery “stage,” our MC invited the audience to do just that. “Please vote for your favourite composer tonight. Whether your vote is cast for the composer’s hairstyle or musical aesthetic is up to you. Submit your ballot at the end of the show. And let’s all stop the gravy train!” So began his tongue-in-cheek introduction to the ECM+ concert presented by New Music Concerts at The Music Gallery.

While the introductory tone was playful, the Audience Choice Award ballot turned out to be genuine. Also very real was the top notch playing of ECM+ energetically conducted by Véronique Lacroix, a group which evidently takes its challenging programme of band-new Canadian concert music quite seriously. ECM+ took its programme called “Génération 2010” on the road across Canada. The seven-city concert tour presented (at its Toronto stop) works by four Canadian composers, all under the age of 35: Simon Martin, Christopher Mayo, Cassandra Miller, and Gordon Williamson.

Young for established composers they may be, but these artists already possess successful international composition careers. They also each already have a self-possessed, individual aesthetic sense and musical identity. All four have had European as well as Canadian commissions, and three currently live and work overseas. Despite the emerging individual voices on display, taken as a whole, these fresh compositions (all completed this year) gave the impression of a consistency of aesthetic goal. Among the key characteristics shared by the works is their questioning of aspects of standard concert music as practiced in the first decade of the 21st century.

The evening began with Gordon Williamson’s delicate-sounding work anticipation, emancipated. Employing extended instrumental techniques to generate abstract musical textures that appeared to avoid consonant intervallic confluences, Williamson sought to focus our attention on the experience of music as a “steady state” field. The title suggests a musical experience which the audience can enjoy a brief respite from the need to control, to predict. Hearing the complex mesh of sounds performed by the skilled ECM+ ensemble bore out that prediction – audience members could comfortably ride their personal sonic wave.

Christopher Mayo’s Binding the Quiet initially seemed to evoke natural soundscapes such as shifting wind-like sounds, with few pitch references. The rustle of crumpled paper emerged time and time again throughout the piece sounding subtly through the thickening instrumental textures. A constantly varied melody eventually emerged from the sonic mesh, gained rhythmic distinction, and then faded. The surprisingly rich sounds of crumpled paper (used before, most memorably in an early Tan Dun work) echoed in my mind.

Musique d’art pour orchestre de chambre, Simon Martin’s somewhat overly self-consciously titled work, seemed to take the opposite tack of Mayo’s focus on the exploration of non-pitched ensemble textures. Martin went directly to the jugular of one pitch and passed it about the group, culminating in an aggressive virtuoso effect-rich electric guitar solo by Montreal’s Tim Brady.

Perhaps the most unusual and work on the programme was Cassandra Miller’s Concerto for violin and blindfolded ensemble (a set of extravagant competitions), a work jam-packed with layers of possible meanings. On one level it explored the complex ways emotion engages with virtuosity and with concert conventions. The notation system used for her concerto was verbal (apparently, since there was no score or parts to be seen on stage). Miller required the musicians, including the violin soloist, to wear blindfolds to ensure they were not getting visual cues from each other. Eliminating the sense of sight from the work seemed not to be a mere gimmick, however, but an integral aspect of the philosophical underpinning of the work’s performance. Judging from the fluid music-making the score engendered, this blind strategy appeared to enhance musical collaboration between the performers, a process the composer calls “co-operative listening.”

What are the “extravagant competitions” in the title? In each of the six sections a key emotion is highlighted and expressed through purely musical means. The performers then compete with each other to play in the most emotive manner possible. The six colourful and unexpected competitions are

•           Loneliness

•           Smoking – Stillness (time standing still while smoking a cigarette)

•           Lamentation

•           Boastfulness

•           Violin solo (this is a story rather than a competition)

•           Prayerfulness

Overall, I found this to be a collegial concerto. The violin, while acting as leader (there was no conductor in the performance), provided gentle direction, allowing the other musicians ample room for self-expression, proposing a co-operative alternative to the usual competitive role of the concerto soloist. The soloist was however given a few places to shine, and violinist Véronique Mathieu rose to the challenge with a few brief but satisfying passages of bravura fiddling.

Who won the Audience Choice Award for its favourite composer? All I know is that I submitted my anonymous ballot. The winner will be announced at the end of the tour and presented with a cash prize plus a commission from Jeunesses Musicales of Canada.

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