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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 7

The Nouvel Ensemble Moderne - Praise for the Present

by Réjean Beaucage / April 26, 2004

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The NEM celebrates 15 years of great contemporary music

I met Lorraine Vaillancourt just before she left for Europe. She was headed to Lyons to conduct the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain (EOC) on March 11 and 14 during the biennial festival Musiques en scène organized by France's Grame (the Centre national de création musicale). It was yet another European trip for the artistic director of the Nouvel ensemble moderne (NEM), but this time without her musicians. Vaillancourt founded the group in 1989. Since then it has deservedly gained an enviable international reputation. With some fifteen albums to its credit (and what better argument in favour of contemporary music?), the NEM is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. It isn't looking back, however. Instead, with Vaillancourt as its head, it looks forward to continuing to open new musical avenues for us to follow.

LSM: You could have chosen contemporary "classics" from NEM's repertoire for an anniversary concert, yet you preferred to present four new works to your Montreal audience.

L.V.: In the first place, I'm not someone who really likes celebrating anniversaries. Also, the works by Aperghis and Betsy Jolas are repeat performances and the works by these composers could be considered "classics." Luis de Pablo can certainly be considered a leading twentieth-century composer too, even if he's less well known here. That being said--yes, we could have gone through our file boxes, but that's something we do every year for the first concert of the season, which is devoted to works already in our repertoire. The musicians who make up NEM have come and gone over the last five years. More than half have been with the orchestra since the beginning, but not all the musicians presently with the ensemble have in their own repertoire all the works that we've performed over the years. Also, a number of works that represent great moments in the history of music and are part of the larger Repertoire (with a capital R) have instrumentation that is a little beyond the NEM's usual capacities. When we do perform them, it's in a special context for which we bring in extra musicians.

As for the two works we performed last year in France, it goes without saying that we must play them for a Montreal audience. Since we always commission a work by a Canadian composer for our annual major concert, and since the work that we commissioned from Luis de Pablo fits in with our annual theme, our program practically organized itself.

Actually, we'll be celebrating our fifteenth anniversary mostly in June, with an event that's a bit special. It demonstrates the multifaceted nature, the openness of mind and generosity of NEM's musicians. The program is something like the Refus global of a few years ago. By taking on something a little more theatrical, without it being truly musical theatre, the musicians are agreeing to a more precarious role. For musicians at the top of their musical capacity, this takes a large measure of generosity.

We'll combine business with pleasure by asking the public to share in our celebration with a very playful event. For the moment I can't reveal many details about what we're concocting with the composer, Michel Smith, but those who know him are aware that he's always full of surprises! He began by meeting every musician in the group individually, and getting them to fill out a questionnaire, as though trying to find out their "secrets." We can certainly say that he's working for each one of the musicians. He met with them in his studio and made several recordings.

With all this material, he now has too many ideas! We've already begun to work on some parts. The piano, which after all takes up a lot of space on stage, is the focus of much of it. The other musicians can walk about, come and go with their instruments. Actually, in this piece the piano also moves around, and so do the pianists. Still, it's basically a musical work--Michel Smith being someone whose primary preoccupation is sound, music, and yes, he wants the NEM to play: collective interaction, improvisations, solos, and a wink and a nod toward each musician's special character. Right now we're in the middle of discovering what he has in store for us.

Readers take note: Michel Smith's NEM it, staged by Diane Dubeau, takes place on June 10 and 11, 8pm, at Montreal's L'Espace Go.

LSM: Have NEM's fifteen years unfolded as you believed or hoped they would?

L.V.: Oh no--of course not. I could never have imagined it all. That's what's so extraordinary. When you're passionate about something and decide to launch into it, you're often carried far beyond what you envisaged. My real aim in founding the NEM was to give the first concert and demonstrate, in doing so, that if you take the time and work with people who really want to do it, then you get results. They're the ones who created the first audiences. They seem to have been convinced, and some are still with us after fifteen years. I didn't think we'd do so much new work, because one of our aims was precisely to play the "classics" of the genre and to create a repertoire for audiences.

Working with contemporary music is difficult, because the public is always expecting new works. However we keep on building a repertoire with series like MusMix in particular. The idea behind that series is to replay existing works of mixed music that aren't heard for a variety of reasons--technical and otherwise. This enables composers to make a decent income from their work. But even with MusMix we have found a way to premier new works through our collaboration with CCMIX (Centre de création musicale Iannis Xenakis) in Paris.

This turned out a little differently from what I expected. NEM has become a sophisticated instrument serving young composers and we work a lot with the other generation, whether at the Domaine Forget as ensemble-in-residence during the festival of new music called Journées de musique nouvelle, or at the Fondation Royaumont, with which we're associated, near Paris. Actually it's our international forum of young composers, begun in 1991, that's brought all this about. This event has contributed a great deal to the ensemble's reputation. The teaching aspect of our work, whether with young composers or young performers, has become very important. It's often young performers who are the most resistant to contemporary music because they all attend the same schools, all receive a traditional education. Their minds are in a rut and it's hard to get them out of it!

LSM: Can you avoid getting a traditional musical education when you want to become a performer?

L.V.: I'd like to think so. Some periods in music history can be presented in parallel with each other. It's not so much the technical training that's the problem, but the fact that people believe that learning must systematically be done in a chronological way. These days there's never time for that. The twentieth century is behind us now and is part of history--but not so in the schools! Time is wasted. Students could be working on Bach and serial music simultaneously. It's extremely difficult to change this mentality, especially as our major musical institutions are usually busy perpetuating the same old repertoire. As a result that's what musicians are taught. When they find themselves facing something else, they're often quite unhappy about it. Moreover, on the rare occasion when they are given something new, they don't get much time to practice. It's a kind of vicious circle.

The same is true of the major international competitions. We have a major international competition in Montreal, highly publicized and broadcast on television, etc., etc. Well, just listen to the finalists' concert and you'll hear Tchaikovsky and Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Sibelius. That doesn't seem normal to me. There are so many great twentieth-century works that could be played! Generally there's one mandatory work commissioned from a live composer, but that's not much. There's great music from the twentieth century, but they don't perform it, so the public doesn't hear it. The NEM has gone through just about all that we could perform, given our instrumentation, and in the last few years we've been performing the more recent works and enlarging our repertoire geographically.

It's possible to envisage a "contemporary" training program as opposed to a traditional one. I'm thinking of schools in the U.S. where you begin with John Cage! For students there, clearly Stravinsky is already very classical. Of course, there's another way of approaching this. Last year we tried an experiment with elementary school children who wrote a work for us. It was extraordinary. I think it changes something in their landscape, even if it's only an occasional thing. It awakens something in them, and they'll no longer listen to music in the same way. That's what makes the difference--that people are able to listen to something other than the melody. There are different ways of being moved by music. There's lots of work to be done, but it will take at least as much funding for production as for teaching, because culture without education won't last very long.

NEM'S annual Grand Concert

NEM will officially celebrate its fifteenth anniversary with its annual major concert on April 21, 8 pm, at the Salle Claude-Champagne on the campus of the Université de Montréal. (Its first concert took place on May 3, 1989.) Louise Vaillancourt has prepared a program of two new European works and two new North American works.

Spanish composer Luis de Pablo, inspired by Goya's paintings, has written a work in five movements called Razón Dormida. Says Vaillancourt, "Like other works by him that we performed in December 2003, this is extremely dynamic, enthusiastic music, demonstrating astonishing vitality coming from a composer of seventy-four. It's like a piece of candy! The other work being premiered is by Canadian composer Serge Provost, called Les ruines du paradis. Unlike the first, it's very hesitant, fragile. Where de Pablo makes considerable use of wind instruments, woodwinds particularly, with solos and a lot of movement generally, Serge's piece is more winding, slow from beginning to end, with internal modulations.

"The other two works are very special. They were commissioned by French cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, who had long wanted to do a work by Betsy Jolas [of dual French and American citizenship, who has lived and worked in both countries]--and with the NEM--as in fact happened on May 10, 2003, at Marseilles' Les Musiques festival. She also commissioned a work by Georges Aperghis [Greek born, but working in Paris since 1963] called Le reste du temps. It's written for some ten musicians and two soloists: the cello, of course, and the cymbalom [hammered dulcimer], to be played by Françoise Rivalland, as in Marseilles. It's furious music, very harsh, contrasting with Wanderlied by Betsy Jolas, which is very distilled and subtle, very singing."

In addition to the two European performers, the four composers will be present on the night of the concert. Serge Provost will present his work at a sneak preview during the series Rencontres du NEM, Saturday April 17, at the Historic Bon-Pasteur Chapel.

In the next few weeks the NEM will release a new recording of Canadian music on the ATMA label. It will include works from its repertoire of recent years: Alp et Gat (1998) by José Evangelista, Vanitas (2003) by Jean Lesage, Travaux et jeux de gravité (1999) by Isabelle Panneton, and Lo que vendrá (2000) by Inouk Demers. The ensemble plans to release a CD of works by Luis de Pablo in the future. May they be a long part of our scene!

[translated by Jane Brierley]

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