Symphony Orchestra and Generation X: Ten Quebec piecesby Maxime McKinley
/ September 5, 2014
In 20th century music, the radical break with “bourgeois traditions” in the name of new projects opened the way for unprecedented possibilities, but also, as a result, left behind the desires of composers, interpreters and audiences. Much has been written on the topic1. If there is a space where these often multidirectional desires overlap, it is the symphony orchestra. It’s a fact that symphony orchestras do not always welcome contemporary composers, particularly when they are neither post-romantic nor Hollywood-style. Now, however, are things evolving in these “post-breakdown”2 years, with the 20th century being for composers “a past to get past without over-passing” (phrase coined by psychoanalyst Dominique Scarfone3)? Are we on the way to something else? If so, is this for the better? Or, if not, in spite of all the efforts, the outstretched hands, is “classical contemporary” music starting to succumb to a long reactionary slump, devoid of enthusiasm or vision?
Such evolutions or impasses are not noticeable in their real time and need some perspective, after the heat of the action, to be really detected. Yet, both heat and action are needed! Remember that for Mahler, tradition did not mean idolizing ashes, but instead handing on the fire. The light from stars travels for a long time before we perceive it; nothing changes smoothly and in one shot, like a school of fish. No matter the issue, for a few years now, several relatively young composers – in fact, the first generation since the “post-breakdown” period started – are regularly invited to work with symphony orchestras, which are becoming more and more part of the composer’s artistic journey and meet their desire for a greater presence and participation in the city. Symphony orchestras should be recognized for the openness they have shown these young composers.
In testimony to that fact, here is a list of ten critical4 works for symphony orchestra by an equal number of Québécois composers born – whether here or elsewhere – between 1967 (year of Expo) and 1980 (year of first referendum on Quebec independence). These composers of the so-called Generation X, all so different from each other, are connected by that very difference, which is a characteristic of the period and also of place. The list is, of course not complete. These composers have predecessors: Walter Boudreau, Denis Gougeon, Michel Longtin, for example, are excellent “symphonists”; they also already have successors, such as Zosha di Castri and Sammy Moussa who, in their early thirties, already have remarkable international careers.
Concerto pour orchestre (2007) by Ana Sokolović (born 1968)
Of Serbian origin, Ana Sokolović immigrated to Montreal in the early 1990s, where she studied with Jose Evangelista. It is with Evangelista - a composer passionate about ethnomusicology - that she began to integrate Balkan folk elements into her musical language. Lively and colourful, skilfully crafted, her music quickly became part of the Québécois music scene and is now spreading internationally. Her Concerto pour orchestre, premiered by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 2007 under Kent Nagano’s direction, reveals the extent of her expressive palette and her technique. In a very simple A-B-A form (fast-slow-fast), the listener proceeds through a plethora of moods, often complex, always direct. The piece can be heard on Centrestreams (Musiflots) (a live streaming service from the Canadian Music Centre5): http://bit.ly/CMCsokolovic
Hockney People (1998) by Michael Oesterle (born 1968)
Born in Germany, Michael Oesterle immigrated to Canada as a teenager and settled in Montreal after studying and now living in Deux-Montagnes. The 1995 winner of the prestigious Gaudeamus International Composers Award, he has created many pieces for orchestra, particularly thanks to residences with the Orchestre Métropolitain in early 2000 and, since 2011, with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. Hockney People, premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1998, demonstrates the extent to which Oesterle is a sensitive and refined composer, capable of handling repetition and its mechanisms with subtlety, and dealing with complex textures while always keeping a high degree of transparency. Also available on Centrestreams (Musiflots): http://bit.ly/CMCoesterle
Duels (2009) by Simon Bertrand (born 1969)
Montreal composer presently in residence with the Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil, Simon Bertrand is well travelled and has lived for several years in Japan. In 2009, he was chosen by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec to participate, along with seven other Québécois composers, in an international composition contest in Shanghai6. The work that Bertrand composed at that event – a short, dense double concerto (about 7 minutes) for erhu, violin and orchestra from a traditional Chinese melody – is witness to the subtlety of his sense of harmony and timbre, and his taste for a somewhat ritualistic austerity. The Canadian Music Centre has made a recording of this piece, available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/glc3cGIRT7s
Sanctuary (2005) by Paul Frehner (born 1970)
Originally from Montreal, Paul Frehner has lived for several years near Toronto. He was the winner of the Canadian award at the International Composition Contest of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 2007 with his piece Lila. He has created many works for orchestra, often commissioned by Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, as is the case of Sanctuary. In this 25-minute piece, rhythmic cycles and colourful percussive sounds add an Eastern dimension. A distinctive lyricism and melancholy are often heard in Frehner’s works. To hear Sanctuary on Centrestreams (Musiflots): http://bit.ly/CMCfrehner
Stark, utter, forego (2003) by Yannick Plamondon (born 1970)
Québécois composer Yannick Plamondon is a key figure of his generation. Thanks to him and to certain others (for example Denis Dion and Éric Morin), Québécois contemporary music is not just a Montreal thing. Among his productions for orchestra, there is a 30-minute concerto composed with pianist Marc Courroux and Esprit Orchestra in mind, which premiered in 2003. As is often the case with Plamondon, this piece is awash with contemporary social reflection — in this case, with the notion of today’s hero (through a coming together of individual-society/soloist-orchestra). This high-energy piece, with Plamondon’s characteristic ‘à-plats’ (static nuances, as though compressed), can be heard on Centrestreams (Musiflots): http://bit.ly/CMCplamondon
Sublimation (2004) by André Ristic (born 1972)
Quebec-born, long-time resident of Montreal, where he performed as pianist (among others) with Trio Fibonacci and the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal+, André Ristic now resides in Belgium. His musical world comes from an unrestrained “comic strip” spirit, from all manner of cultural references ‘unsheathed’ rapidly, from a willingly incoherent low-fi touch, all, paradoxically, perfectly managed by an extraordinary talent and imagination. He is a regular collaborator with Esprit Orchestra, which premiered Sublimation (2004), a super-charged piece, typical of Ristic. It is also available on Centrestreams (Musiflots): http://bit.ly/CMCristic
Arcadiac (2005, rév. 2007) by Nicole Lizée (born 1973)
Nicole Lizée was born in Saskatchewan and has lived for many years now in Montreal. She is developing a style to her work in which the categories of “popular” and “ savant” intermingle, so as to become almost indistinguishable. In her works, many musical references are found, such as punk, new wave and metal. In a retro-futurist sense, she willingly uses absurd and vintage devices, such as stylophones, karaoke consoles or old video game sets. First written in 2005 for the Association des orchestres de jeunes du Québec, Arcadiac – for orchestra, video and arcade consoles of the 1970s and 1980s - was revised in 2007 for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. On Centrestreams (Musiflots): http://bit.ly/CMClizee
A video extract is also available on the composer’s site: http://www.nicolelizee.com/video-2/#.UxSvqlyyKfg
Concerto du Printemps (2012) by Julien Bilodeau (born 1974)
Originally from Quebec, and after spending some time in Europe, Julien Bilodeau has made Montreal his home since the early 2000s. Eschewing modernist diktats, which don’t suit him, yet finding stimulation for example in Stockhausen or computer-assisted composition, Bilodeau’s works vibrate with a false paradox of tension. Many have come to know Bilodeau through his Qu’un cri élève nos chants!, composed for the inauguration of the Maison symphonique. Somewhat later, in 2012, the Orchestre de la Francophonie premiered, with pianist Matthieu Fortin, the Concerto du Printemps. This ambitious work (25 minutes), surpassingly well orchestrated, with finely sculpted movements, skilfully moving from quite modern styles to very idiomatic ones, can be heard on Sound Cloud: http://bit.ly/SCbilodeau
Choses étonnantes vues en rêve (2009) by Nicolas Gilbert (born 1979)
A native, and still resident, of Montreal, Nicolas Gilbert astounds with his far-from-ordinary abilities, as proven by his already prolific catalogue, four novels published by Leméac and his knowledge of foreign languages, including Russian and Mandarin. He started a residency in 2013 with the Orchestre symphonique de Laval. Is it possible, at the same time, to be a contemporary music composer with remarkably efficient neurons and maintain a special connection with a child-like candour and spirit? In any case, in Nicolas Gilbert’s piece for orchestra, children are accorded a special place, not only educationally, but also musically. A prime example is Choses étonnantes vues en rêve, composed for the Orchestre Métropolitain, with the addition, for the occasion, of a section of Orff instruments (which sound a bit like a Balinese gamelans) played by a group of 9- to 12-year-old children. Available on CentreStreams (Musiflots): http://bit.ly/CMCgilbert
Vers les astres (2011) by Éric Champagne (born 1980)
Éric Champagne, Montreal composer in residence with the Orchestre Métropolitain during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, creates many compositions for orchestra and he, too, devotes a great deal of energy to having youth discover current symphonic music. His work, Vers les astres7, premiered in 2011 by the OM, won the Prix collégien de musique contemporaine [College Award for Contemporary Music] (2012). Contemporary music, whether willingly or not, can be “scary”. However, Éric Champagne’s music has nothing scary about it and doesn’t miss the mark — on the contrary, for ears that are usually resistant to today’s music. Vers les astres7, composed for the 30th anniversary of the OM, aims for immediate orchestral efficiency. It is lyrical, often tonal, and can be placed, in no uncertain terms, on the romantic side of beauty. It can be heard on the Prix collégien site: http://bit.ly/PCMCchampagne
Maxine McKinlsy is a composer, born in 1979, who has collaborated with many symphony orchestras, including the OSM, the Orchestre de la Francophonie and Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra. In residence with the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur. Winner of the Opus prize for “Composer of the Year” for the 2012-2013 artistic season.
Article edited in collaboration with the editorial board of the site Cette ville étrange. Chronique de la création musicale. (www.cettevilleetrange.org)
1 Think of Benoît Duteurtre’s Requiem pour une avant-garde, which appeared in 1995 (Robert Laffont), and its several remakes since.
2 Title of an article by Isabelle Paneton that appeared in Circuit, 1996 (vol. 7, no. 1).
4 One criterion was that the works be accessible free on the Internet so they can be discovered.
5 This link and all links following were verified March 4, 2014. Through the links, the pieces can all be heard free of charge.
6 The winner was Denis Gougeon, a brilliant symphonist of the preceding generation.
7 His Première Symphonie – recently premiered by the OM with great success – was not available on line, and so we chose this piece, which is also very significant in Champagne’s career.
Translation: Karine Poznanski