Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to work with some wonderful local classical musicians–composers and performers alike–in reading sessions hosted by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Victoria Symphony, our province’s two largest professional orchestras. For up-and-coming Canadian composers, these sessions present a rare chance to hear their work realized by professional orchestras. For audiences, they present an equally-rare opportunity to experience orchestral music that’s a little closer to home than the usual 19th-century German music (e.g. Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn) typical of the medium.
All of the composers selected for these events were both living and local–a rare combination for classical concerts. And all of their music had strong ties to the present time and place. For example, the Victoria Symphony readings featured a piece called “Northwest Passage,” composed by New Westminster native Brian Garbet, that evoked a haunting British Columbia landscape with low, plaintive strings mimicking the sound of fog horns and soft, metallic percussion conjuring up images of the icy coastal waters. On the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s program, Riley Koenig’s piece “Imagine” evoked the spirit of film score composers like John Williams and Danny Elfman — a sound that any of us who were children in the 1990s will find very relatable and be hard-pressed not to associate with magic and adventure (and possibly dinosaurs). My own compositions on these programs were inspired by various pop-fiction genres: steampunk, 1930s pulp sci-fi, and contemporary Neil Gaimanesque fantasy. I’ll leave it to you to imagine how these things translate into instrumental music.
The idea that orchestras should specialize in old music is a relatively recent one, originating in the mid-20th century when contemporary composers tended to gravitate towards an avant-garde aesthetic. While this aesthetic produced some intriguing music, it also alienated many listeners and performers, who sought solace in the works of the 18th- and 19th-century masters. Now that living composers once again seem to be writing music with the potential for wide appeal, only time will tell if more professional orchestras will follow the lead of groups like the VSO and promote “locally-sourced” classical music. If the quality of the other pieces on these programs was any indication, they would be wise to do so.