NMC’s Cellos Galore reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

September 23, Betty Oliphant Theatre, Toronto.

The opening of the 42nd season of Robert Aitken’s New Music Concerts feels like a family reunion: well-recognized composers and musicians mingle with an audience of all ages to enjoy music that is rarely heard, and to celebrate the première of a new work, in this case, Winter, by James Rolfe.

The program, with a stellar exception, focuses on emotions connected to unpleasant contemporary issues: Rolfe’s 2001 work, entitled Worry, reflects on 9/11, while his Winter, nostalgic about the cold of past Ottawa winters, is also informed by concerns for global warming. Gilles Tremblay’s Cedars and Sails (Threnody for solo Cello) laments the 1989 civil war in Lebanon.

Recent works by Elliot Carter (2011) and Bruce Mather (2009) though not directed to events, are constructed from a pallette of disagreeable sounds, bringing to mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s saying,“Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.” On a positive note, what Dr. Johnson said about hanging also applies to these works—they “focus the mind wonderfully.”

Rolfe’s Worry begins with a rich outpouring of 8 cellos grinding in the deep registers of anxiety.  High above them soars the solo violin of Timothy Ying thinly quivering and beseeching resolution. Towards the middle, the mood warms, the violin’s voice becomes more melodic, Romantic, sad. The cellos pick up  the the mood and give it amplitude: a lovely sense of enrichment blooms as the work dissolves.

Gilles Tremblay’s work is, in his own words, “a lament…associated with…mourning…and hope.” He describes its opening as “quarter-tones…used through a long ascent on double strings…towards almost unbearable limits, with hoarse timbres and gratings.”

David Hetherington’s solo begins as high, thin, siren whine, punctuated by plucks and hits on the cello’s body. It moves to  a deep drone, with whistles and whispers that cut like a rusty knife, creaks and slow, deliberate screeches thin towards the inaudible and are revived under pressure of Hetherington’s infinitely sensitive bow until they soften, become ethereal, and fade away.

Though this was not a pleasant experience for me, I found my mind wonderfully concentrated by the soloist’s virtuosity in executing these exacting pitches on his cello. Bravo, David.

Elliott Carter, still composing at 103, wrote Double Trio (2011) for violin, percussion and trombone; and for trumpet, cello and piano. This is a blend of rare timbres, eccentric rhythms, and witty progressions, executed with great craftsmanship, unpleasant to the ear, nonetheless, concentrating for the mind.

After intermission a quartet of cellos performed Bruce Mather’s Pommard, an homage to great wine that begins in constraints like a window pane squeaking under a drying rag, then starts to pop, slither and suffuse in psychedelic patterns, like a flow of vari-coloured juices that run together, separate, and recombine in a suffusion of rich, hot, sweetly acid  flavours.

Thanks to Michael Colgrass for the stellar exception to the evening’s “gravitas,”  Mystic with a Credit Card (1978). Scott Goode, barefoot in white, introduced himself as a student of Indian Music now adrift in our corporate reality, feeling like he didn’t belong anywhere. He was funny! And his trombone wailed a blues melody with touches of Klez, spitty and gritty, while Steven Clarke rolled out raga riffs on the synth. This was “levitas,” a send-up, the evening’s high point, and the perfect stage for the evening’s main event.

Tenor Lawrence Wiliford, the colours of his shining voice strong in every range, was outstanding singing Winter, James Rolfe’s settings of four cold-weather poems by 19th century Ontario poet Archibald Lampman. The beauty of silence and frost is bleak: Rolfe’s musical lines are accordingly conjunct, the contours flattened, as if by snowfall, the flow constrained, as if by ice, and emotion is contained by loneness in vast spaces. There is a crisp, brilliant wakefulness in the work, an unyielding confidence manifest in Williford’s singing, and a gentle grace.

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