Thursday, April 26, 2007

Open Ears Festival: April 25

Just some thoughts about yesterday, the first "real" day of this year's Open Ears Festival:

7:30 PM - PSQ: Black and Angelic

The Penderecki String Quartet are legendary, but I've never seen them before. This is partly because I tend to find new orchestral/string performances to be sort of madenning; I find myself wondering why it is necessary to so often break ALL the rules -- forsake tempo, melody, coherence -- in order to make highly-regarded "new" music for orchestra.

Or maybe I'm a Philistine, which is possible.

I arrived early due to problems with my festival pass, and found myself in the midst of Kathy Kennedy's "HMMM," which seemed to involve radio interference and static and humming. These sorts of things are always stressful for me because I arrive alone and feel awkwardly out-of-place, considering how seriously these events tend to be taken. It's always a relief to finally be seated.

The first piece was Midaregami (Tangled Hair) by Veronika Krausas, which summed up everything I don't like about this type of music: pretentious and overblown themes that simply cannot be accomodated by a trite score (or, in this case, by the equally trite video by Robert Drummond). This was made worse by Kimberley Barber, mezzo-soprano, whose picture-perfect delivery of the translated Japanese poem turned beautifully minimalistic words into the cries of a spoiled child.

But then, I don't much like this technically perfect operatic delivery; it seems cold and heartless to me.

The only highlight: Krausas' apparent faux-pas during an interview before the show, when she made a flippant comment about drug use that will probably be edited out of the recording made by the CBC. After her draub comments about scales and spectrums, her astonishing facial blush was the most honest display of "spectrum" I saw or heard that night.

Next: "Waves" by R. Murray Shafer. I thought of it as "jumping, echoing, and holding," and it was absolutely beautiful. The theatrical touch at the end -- three of the PSQ members playing in opposite corners of the stage, with the cellist watching them through a telescope in the center of the stage -- was whimsical.

George Crumb's "Black Angels" felt a bit gimmicky to me -- the performers playing crystal glasses and gongs with their bows -- but it did manage to convey its theme of war and chaos. Piotr Grella-Mozejko's "TrancePaining," however, captured the same theme with a relentless chugging bang; the perfect counterpoint to "Waves."

10:30 PM - Françoise Houle with I Have Eaten the City

I wasn't too excited about this; improvs can be hit or miss, depending on the sort of groove the participants get into, and listening to an experimental clarinet improvisation? Oh, please!

But Toronto's Houle -- with his clarinet, laptop, effects, and treated piano -- stole the show. He was unpretentious and spectacular. Despite his incredible breath control, this was one of those performances where you suddenly realize you no longer know how it's happening. Where are those sounds coming from? And how can they sound so GOOD?

After a sort of lacklustre entry at the beginning of the show, the "I Have Eaten the City" trio joined Houle for an improv jam at the end. The guitarist/sax player and the "bag o' tricks" guy seemed to have trouble getting into it, but their Incredible Hobbit Drummer kicked butt and kept it together. The best moments came when any two performers grabbed the spotlight while the remaining two retreated to change instruments. I could have handled a BIT more calm and structure, but I was impressed and I was never bored (hard to say when you've just watched a 45-minute clarinet solo).

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