Trish and I headed out to hear the opening concert of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra back on Saturday, September 22. It has taken me this long to get to a review because Trish came down with that horrible cold that is making the rounds and working and taking care of two kids keeps one away from these kinds of pursuits. I hope I recall what I want to because I came out of the show with some very strong opinions.
The concert was billed as Ode to Joy, Ode to Kitchener in celebration of the city's centennial, and in honour of the region's German heritage a good dose of classic Beethoven was in order. The Symphony No. 9 was the second half of the bill and the first half was taken up by two recent compositions; Stewart Goodyear's Count Up and John Estacio's Brio. When I choose which concerts to attend throughout the season I always lean towards the ones that programme some new music. This concert was unique in that it had two new pieces. While neither was a premiere, it is a little different to have two on the bill. While John Estacio is no stranger to K-W audiences, Stewart Goodyear as a composer would be. He is a well known concert pianist but has just started a composing career. The rationale for these two pieces being on the programme was their connection to Ontario and John Estacio being a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier's music program. I found it a bit peculiar that with all the talent in the region that no money was found for a centennial commission from a local composer.
I'll begin with the Beethoven since that is what most of the audience was there to hear. It was well done but in a typical manner. The choir was outstanding. It was a joining of forces from the Menno Singers, Da Capo Chamber Choir and the Grand Philharmonic. The diction was superb and sound impeccable. They were the true stars of the night. I'm not sure what the soloists were up to though. The gentlemen were ok but the soprano and alto? I'm not sure what concert they thought they were at. At times the trio sounded like complete mush. A great disappointment. Maestro Outwater's tempo choices at the finale were interesting to say the least. I got the impression he wanted the concert to be over so as to get the soloists off the stage. The finale was so rushed I could hardly catch my breath let alone the choir. Maybe he thinks fast means exciting? It is interesting to compare this finale to the one he conducted of the Seventh Symphony at the end of last year. In that performance he rocketed through the finale at break neck speed. I was wondering if he was trying some one-upmanship with Gustavo Dudamel and his recording with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Now that's fast but invigorating! (here's a youtube clip of them performing the Allegro of the Shostakovich Tenth)
Goodyear's Count Up! opened the concert. It was written for an anniversary of the Cleveland Symphony. The title alludes to the counting ahead of a fireworks display. It was suitably celebratory in that American orchestral fanfare way: brassy, tonal, lots of percussion with a wink to some abstraction. All in all not a bad piece but nothing to make me too interested in his compositional career.
Which brings me to John Estacio's Brio. Estacio is one of Canada's most performed composers. He leads a successful career and has spent much of the past years working on operas that have had some nice success. He writes in a very comfortable and populist style and orchestrates very colourfully. In introducing the piece Maestro Outwater referred to him as "one of Canada's leading composers." If that is so, this piece is a severs let down. Now, I've sat through many bad pieces in my lifetime. As a student you become enured to it. But to hear a piece at this level, by this experienced a composer, be so derivative and cliche ridden it becomes embarrassing. Estacio has always gone for the emotional jugular, but when he tells you in the program notes that the slow section was written after news of the death of a friend and mentor we know we are walking on suspicious ground. I don't want to take anything away from his true sentiments, but when you are told what to feel when you hear something your honest reaction to the music is being subverted. Was it a mournful section? Maybe. I wonder how many people thought to themselves "This must be the section when his friend died." Boy that's deep. The rest of the music telegraphed every phrase turn and section ending so far in advance it became tedious. From the the swirling strings on the diminished chord leading into the slow section, to the big brassy finish with timpani and triangle (the ringing triangle at the end put the nail in the coffin.) My wife agreed with me that the ending sounded like something written for a community concert band. I know, I've played in one. If I sound really spiteful, it is due to the fact that I've never had a reaction like this at a KWS concert before. I like John Estacio. I've met him a couple of times and he's a great guy. I've never been a fan of his music but was not expecting this. I know he can do better than this and that the KWS can program better than this.
It has been a week since the Music that Makes Community workshop wrapped up. I have had time to digest the information and even try out a few techniques. What the leaders from the All Saints Company were sharing with us is the way church services are held at St. Gregory of Nissa in San Francisco, especially how the music is used. We learned all music without and paper or other resources except the leader. Musical phrases are straightforward but interesting due to the use of many different modes. Complexity is achieved from rounds, canon, layering of different parts and rhythm. Most of the songs were learnt within a couple of minutes. It is a very powerful tool. Their philosophy is that ingesting the music fast without having to rely on any technology (paper, overhead screens) we get to the core of singing with our neighbours. This then moves us towards a communal prayer space more easily. Many of the songs have repeated single line texts that act like chants or mantras that do put you into a zone.
The communal singing aspect is one of those ideas that when you hear and discuss it causes you to think "but of course!" It makes so much sense it just seems obvious. The thing is I've been experiencing this in a few different places. The first is the Taize style of worship. In this worship a small piece of music is repeated a number of times directly to put the singer into a meditative place to facilitate prayer. With Taize they have unique songs and style of worship. The next similarity struck me quite suddenly while at the workshop listening to a discussion of the neuroscience of communal singing. While strictly secular, Music Together works really hard on fostering communal singing. As an instructor we try very hard to create a safe place for people to sing at whatever comfort level they have. We also try to foster a sense of fun and guided improvisation. These terms would not sound out of place at all at an All Saints Company workshop. At a Music Together class all songs are taught and sung a capella with a little bit of recorded music for dancing. The neuroscience of music, especially in regards to young children, is very important. Much of the psychology of how music connects people in groups was shared between the All Saints and Music Together. From my understanding this topic is still not well understood. As human beings we know something is going on but to be able to boil it down or pinpoint it to a few theories we have a ways to go. What we do know intuitively and scientifically is that it is good for us as a group and individually. Singing uses the entire mind and body. It brings everything in our core alive. When you get a group of people singing the same song the actual physical vibrations from the sound in the air and in the bodies electrifies the room and the soul.
I experienced this just last night. I was at a gathering of the Good Hearted Women Singers at the University of Waterloo. My group SlanT has partnered with them for a piece of music and we attended their meeting to reconnect before a show. The Good Hearted Women are not a performance group. They are made up mostly of Indigenous women who gather to sing and drum songs from indigenous cultures. This singing is done for healing purposes. What healing is needed varies of course from person to person. At a meeting each person, if they wish, brings a concern or maybe a celebration, to the circle and leads a song. The circle becomes a sacred and spiritual place. There is a palpable sense of something special in that circle. The Good Hearted Women Singers meeting is the epitome of what the All Saints company would espouse.
There is something going on here. I don't think it is just me noticing a few coincidences. Within the last hundred years we have abdicated music making to the technology of recorded sound and professionals. There is a somewhat unconscious desire to reclaim it. That is a good thing. We need to trust our voices and our neighbours. A community that sings together is a happy community.
Next Monday, August 20, I'll be heading off to spend roughly three days in Kitchener to participate in a workshop entitled Music that Makes Community. It is put on by the All Saints Company out of San Francisco. Their schtick is teaching and singing paperless music in a worship setting. From the videos I've seen it reminds me a bit of John Bell's technique. I guess now we'll learn how to do what he does. The event is co-sponsored by St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Anglican Diocese of Niagara. I'll let you know how it goes when it's all done.
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