It’s no secret that we live in a great city for classical music enthusiasts: the Vancouver Opera, VSO, and many other professional ensembles regularly give top-notch performances of everything from Bach to Stravinsky. Unbeknownst to many, however, this city is also home to some excellent composers and quite a few “classical” ensembles that perform music by living, Canadian composers. So if you like orchestral music but find Beethoven and Mozart a bit remote and (dare I say?) stuffy, there are still plenty of concerts for you in our fair city. I had the pleasure to attend one such concert last month—for which the praise in this post is long overdue.
The concert in question was performed by the Erato Ensemble, a local group whose eclectic instrumentation includes flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, violin, cello, guitar, piano, and two classically-trained singers. They convened last month at the Orpheum Annex to perform their 7th Annual Vancouver Composers Concert. As the name suggests, this program consisted entirely of music by Vancouver-based composers—nearly all of whom are living, and most of whom were in the audience.
That’s about as far as their similarities go, however: their music was extremely diverse, and the program as a whole showcased the wide variety of styles that influence North American composers in the 21st century. The influences of everything from upbeat musical theatre to dark, complex modern classical music and from traditional opera to contemporary video game scores were evident in the program’s repertoire. The pieces I found most intriguing, however, were the ones that don’t readily fit into any existing category.
One such piece was “Reason,” composed by SJC alum Daniel Marshall. Written in collaboration with a local poet, the words to this song explore evolution and humanity’s relationship with (or estrangement from) nature. Daniel’s music did justice to this complex theme without being overly complex in itself: shimmering, cascading piano and woodwind lines created a lush, attractive musical environment, and tenor Will George’s delivery of the vocal part was theatrical and engaging.
Other highlights included the concert’s opening and closing events, a set of “meditations” conceived by soprano Catherine Laub. In a classical music environment too often characterized by a “sit down, shut up, and listen” mindset, these pieces–which involved a high degree of audience participation–were a refreshing change of pace. Particularly effective was the concert’s closing piece, during which the audience was invited to sing a simple tune (conveniently printed in the program) repeatedly while the instrumentalists walked around the hall improvising virtuosically around this tune. This gave the audience a chance to interact more directly with the performers, and still led to a surprisingly unified musical composition. The act of singing also brought the audience to its feet–where it remained for the final ovation–before the concert was even over.
In March, the Erato Ensemble will be performing again at the Sonic Boom Festival, a days-long series of concert featuring music by BC composers. In case you can’t wait that long to hear some locally-sourced classical music, Vancouver composers’ music can be heard nearly every week at various concerts and community events. The Canadian Music Centre puts out the weekly Centrepulse newsletter, which is usually packed with information on upcoming concerts in the area. If you’re in the Christmas spirit, I might recommend Musica Intima‘s “Light for the Child” series–happening in the next week–which may just merit a (more timely) SJC blog post of its own!